A few thoughts on the fake strike of Polish immigrants.
One of the first texts I read when I became an anarchist was a brochure called „We Called a Strike and No One Came”, published by Black and Red. (Sadly one of the works of Perlman not usually found on the Internet.) I can't remember all the details of it since I read it nearly 40 years ago, but as I recall I found it very clever – the story of hopeless vanguards who called a strike... and no one came.
It was one of those texts that made my think and exposed how crazy vanguardists are, trying to come from the outside and lead people into action, without people's own self-motivation. The story and characters were of course exaggerated but I immediately recognized the types of buffons and silly ideas that the brochure was poking fun at.
Of course, it rarely does come down to such situations where nobody comes to a strike, because few people would attempt a strike which nobody supports. (Although I do know of some situations where too few people supported a strike and they were not effective.)
Sadly, or perhaps more accurately, annoyingly, we have just seen an ultra-hyped „strike” of Polish workers in the UK attract less participation than the average picket. A few days ago I announced to people that after the strike flops, I will write an article explaining why. Not before hand because it was already being criticized for not-so-great reasons and honestly, if anybody was inclined to participate, I wouldn't want to discourage them.
However, even from here in Poland, it was clear to us that this „strike” was what we call a „media action”. Very unfortunately, this type of shit happens in the Polish media from time to time, with the media trying, by its influence to create something from nothing. And this „strike” „organization” was literally nothing.
Some people somehow believe that huge actions can be called through FB by people who don't know even other. I won't say that it cannot be done, because I participated in at least 2 decent sized actions called on the Internet. But these were based on already-existing communities of a sort and were in reaction to things that really pissed people off. There have been a lot of other attempts to organize this way – which usually consist of 20,000 people clicking they are going and 20 appearing.
The role of the media in making idiots out of readers cannot be stressed enough. Even though it should have been perfectly clear to many journalists that there was no real preparation behind the strike, they were publishing stories about thousands of Poles going to strike. Even more embarrasingly, a couple of papers today actually printed that thousands of Poles WENT on strike.
For me, the whole story shows a lack a real understanding of what it is to actually organize a REAL strike.
Our union, modest as it is, actually has experience of this and can say that this idea that thousands of people, isolated, unorganized and spread throughout the country, would down their tools because some strike is organized by people who are never named …. this is a complete fantasy.
I have seen and participated in different strikes in Poland. Not all of them had a union, not all of them had a legal union. But at the very least it required that a group of workers have enough contact and coordination between them that they could sit and agree to walk out of work. The reasons were usually very concrete problems and, more often than not, the strike only took place after something quite bad happened.
I have also seen some times how workers discuss whether or not to go on strike. If you are on a real strike, where you stop work collectively as a group and especially if you want to call an indefinite strike, then you risk getting fired, locked out or repressed. Workers than really go on strike are often taking a risk.
Organizing a strike then is different than organizing a protest. What was organized today was that: a protest, with the participants probably not downing any tools, but probably taking a few hours off work. More than half the participants were from the SWP – the organization which appears at everything. And who knows who the Polish „workers” were. It turned out that the person speaking as if he were a spokesman for this action the other day in the Guardian, is a Prince, was not born in Polish and is a businessman. But he was all for „downing tools” to show that Polish people should be proud and not insulted.
The reality of the typical Polish worker in the UK – or anywhere else for that matter – is that it takes a lot of bad shit to get them to act. And despite the horrible anti-Polish crap you can hear on the media and perhaps on the streets from time to time – this is not enough to motivate them.
Instead, the average Pole in UK probably wants to show themselves off as a „good immigrant” and sometimes (but far from univerally) this includes some not very nice behaviour towards others. You might hear sentiments that Poles should be „more desirable” - because they work hard, they are usually not Muslim, they are usually white.
Polish antifascists wrote something about the strike. I agree with many parts but have a slightly different view of their idea that the strike should be of everyone, not divided into ethnic groups. In general, I am not a big fan of the idea of workers being divided, by ethnic group or profession, but in reality, sometimes only a certain group of workers feel affected enough to take action. Among immigrant workers, there have been actions spearheaded by workers of one nationality --- usually when there are a large concentration in one industry and where they find it easier to communicate and organize within their own immigrant community. So, I think if there was a group of Poles who would want to organize together, it could be done in an OK way. However, obviously, if there were to be attempts at making a political strike of immigrants (as opposed to a workplace or industry striike), it would make sense to join immigrants from different places.
The most important thing however is that the strike lacked real organization. Real organization is not getting together with one friend over beer and putting up an event on FB, claiming there will be thousands of participants. Real organization is making workers' groups, unions, associations, etc. Real organization can also take place less formally, by holding open meetings, assemblies etc. - but it is still organization.
There remains some problems with concepts of organization among many in Poland and we can see this in the experience of the strike. Some simply cannot see themselves dedicating their time to activist work and think that such work can be reduced to appearing at events that magically get organized, without any effort.
As somebody who has spent many years organizing protests and pickets of different sizes, I can say without any doubt that getting together an action of the size claimed by the press takes some level of coordination. (No doubt this sounds painfully obvious for any activist reading this, but I am also writing this for other people, who might not have thought too much about this and are wondering why nobody was there.) Having lived in several places and having observed how things go, I can also say unfortunately that Poles are not very easy to mobilize. (I will not even attempt to explain this.) So getting people out of the street is some accomplishment that requires a group of people acting in a coordinated fashion.
What I am saying to people out there is that if you want to be able to mobilize around any issue, it is usually best if you have a real movement and organization of some sort to have the human resources to go forward.
All the while here, I am mainly talking about organizing a protest, not a strike. Because this exercise was never a real strike, but only a protest.
Finally, my assessment. I am really the last person in the world to criticize a small protest. I've been on many protests of a similar size. But I think it is very counterproductive to try to create a protest artificially by announcing it will be huge. I know some people who have done it, who have said hundreds of people are going to appear in the street, just to get the issue in the paper, but then turn out to be 5 people.
Well, people who are poseurs and need attention for one time only might think these sorts of tactics are very clever, but they won't work if you want to do something the next time or over the long term. In fact, these ridiculous actions can even hurt other people who do more serious work. And, for example, if any group of immigrant workers might have wanted to organize more seriously, or even strike for better working conditions, they might find they need a few years before they are able to get over the bad publicity of this fake strike fiasco.
This said, I would like to contrast this „strike”, which was a fake media action, with the real direct action of immigrant (and other) workers taken by the comrades at Solidarity Federation. They are no joke and if any Poles reading this have problems are work and want to get organized to make a real difference, you can check out want they are doing as an example and organize with them.