Libcom's organising toolkit - guides to organising at work, in your local area and more.
A set of tips and advice guides for organising in your workplace. From basic principles and getting started, to making demands, taking action such as strikes, and winning them.
Organising at work: introduction
A basic introduction on why we should organise at work, and a few tips on how to get started.
Almost everyone in this society is underpaid and over-worked. Many temps, contract and casual workers have very few rights, and permanent workers are still always under the threat of redundancy. Many people are massively exploited and ill-treated, and in Britain over 20,000 people are killed at or by their work each year*. Millions more suffer stress, depression, anxiety and are injured.
The indignity of working for a living is well-known to anyone who ever has. Democracy, the great principle on which our society is supposedly founded, is thrown out the window as soon as we punch the time clock at work. With no say over what we produce, or how that production is organised, and with only a small portion of that product's value finding its way into our wages, we have every right to be pissed off at our bosses.
At work in a capitalist society, we are forced to labour in return for a wage. Employers hire workers, and pay us less than the value of work we do. The surplus amount is taken from us and turned into capital - profit for shareholders and corporate expansion. Thus all workers are exploited. Consequently, we all have a shared interest in getting a bigger share of the fruits of our labour, as well as in winning better working conditions and shorter working hours.
We can do this by organising at work. Workplace organising on libcom.org is a resource to assist all workers in improving our jobs in the here and now, and we also believe that by organising to fight, we build the seeds of a new world - not based on capitalist exploitation but on co-operation between workplace collectives where production is democratically decided by worker/consumer councils and working hours are slashed. Harmful or useless industries, such as arms manufacturing, or the banking and insurance industrikes, could be eliminated.
The real essentials, like food, shelter, and clothing, could be produced by everyone working just a few hours each week. Environmentally destructive industries purely concerned with profit, such as fossil fuel power plants could be converted to use clean, renewable energy sources.
Building this better world, and counteracting the day to day drudgery of contemporary wage-slavery we think can best be done using direct action in the workplace. Direct action is any form of action that cripples the boss's ability to make a profit and makes them cave in to the workers' demands. Different ways of taking action are outlined here.
All of the tactics discussed on this site depend for their success on solidarity, on the coordinated actions of a large number of workers. Individual acts of sabotage offer little more than a fleeting sense of revenge, which may admittedly be all that keeps you sane on a bad day at work. But for a real feeling of collective empowerment, there's nothing quite like direct action by a large number of disgruntled workers to make your day.
Article written by libcom.org and combined with an edited article by the Industrial Workers of the World
* Estimated at 21,663 in 2001. Sources: CCA, TUC, Hazards Campaign 2002
Organising your workplace: getting started
You're working, or just started work somewhere where there is no active collective workers' organisation. What can you do to get organised? This guide will help you get started.
Nowadays many workplaces have no active workers' organisation. Depending on whereabouts you are in the world and what sector you work in there may or may not be much of a trade union presence. And even if there is it may just be a skeleton organisation which only represents workers with individual problems, and is unable to win demands of management. Or worse, it could be actively in cahoots with management against the workers.
Hardly, surprisingly, therefore that one of the most frequently asked questions by workers is - "What can be done at my workplace to improve things? It seems impossible, the bosses are too strong."
We would suggest that the following should be considered:
Ask questions and listen to the answers
Where do you begin? Some people when they first feel that they have been treated unfairly fly into a rage or start loudly crusading against the boss. This can be dangerous. Management jealously guards its authority in the workplace, and when you begin to question authority, you become a threat. In most workplaces, from the moment you begin to question authority, you become a troublemaker in management’s eyes. If you have never before made any waves where you work, you may be shocked, hurt or angered by how quickly management turns against you. This is a good reason to be discrete when you begin to talk to others.
Talk to your fellow workers
Ask them what they think about what’s happening at work. What do they think about the problems you’re concerned about? Listen to what others have to say. Get their views and opinions. Most people think of an organiser as an agitator and rabble-rouser (and there are times when an organiser must be those things), but a good organiser is first of all one who asks good questions and listens well to others. Having listened well, you should be able to express not only your own views and feelings, but also those of your colleagues. The main concerns could be pay, but this isn't always the case. Sometimes, their concerns can be reactionary, such as keeping immigrant workers out, so you will need to be aware that not all concerns are necessarily progressive.
Keep a record of workers' concerns, and any significant incidents at your workplace such as an accident, a disciplinary or even threatening behaviour by a manager.
Learn about the past
Try and find out what other attempts, if any, have been made to organise the workers. It may be that there was once a union but it has collapsed.
Do some general reading around organising in the workplace and the lessons people have learned. Our workplace activity tag has dozens of accounts of organising. If any issues come up as part of your organising, you should also feel free to ask for any assistance in our organise forum.
Try to find allies
Almost inevitably there will be some people who are more concerned about the problems we face than others, and a few of those people will want to do something about it. Those few people now form the initial core of your "organisation". You might ask the two most interested people to have coffee or lunch with you, introduce them to each other, and then ask, "What do you think about this?" If they are indeed ready to do something and not just complain, then you are almost ready to begin organising.
Map your workplace
Knowledge is power. Or at least it is the beginning of power. You will want to know everything you can about your workplace and your employer. This will be a long term, on-going process of education.
Try and find out as much as you can about the company you're working for. Does it have more than one factory or shop? Is it a public company, how many people work for it, who owns it? Companies have to do publish the accounts, so getting hold of these from the relevant agency (such as Companies House in the UK) can be extremely useful. Try and build up a picture of the firm and people who work for it - for example, an increasing problem is that workers are 'off the cards' and not working legally. Some workers may have problems with their immigration status.
You should begin your research with your department. Management has long understood the value of identifying informal work groups, their natural organisers, and their weak links. In fact, one of the main thrusts of management training is to develop strategies to alter the psychology of the workplace.
For example, the multi-national United Parcel Service has developed its psychological manipulation techniques into a fine art. The UPS managers’ training manual, entitled Charting Spheres of Influence, shows how to map the workplace to identify the informal work groups, isolate natural organisers or instigators in these groups, exploit the weak links, and in the end, break up the groups if they can’t be used to management’s advantage.
While most companies have not developed their techniques into the fine Orwellian art that UPS has, many do use some of the same methods. Have outspoken workers, instigators or organisers been transferred, promoted into management or singled out for discipline? Are work groups broken up and rearranged periodically? Has the layout of the workplace been arranged to make communication between workers difficult? 1
Do you get to walk around on your job? Who does? Who doesn’t? Are certain people picked on or disciplined by management in public? How does this affect the rest of the workforce? Do you feel you are always under surveillance? You get the point. All of the above can be used to break up unity and communication between workers in your workplace. Incidentally, this training does not make our employers invincible, or make our efforts any less worthwhile (despite all the training their management had received, UPS workers won a mass strike in August 1997).
Let’s say that you have an important message to communicate, but you don’t have the time or resources to reach every one of your fellow workers. If you can reach the natural organisers in the informal work groups and get them on your side, you can bet that the word will get around to everyone. Once organisers have been identified and agree to co-operate, it is possible to develop a network which can exert considerable power and influence.
Informal work groups also have the advantage of creating certain loyalties among their members. You can draw on this loyalty to figure out unified strategies for problems, and take advantage of people’s natural tendency to stick up for those who are close to them.
Besides working with the group organisers, it is important to draw in the loners too. More than likely, their apathy, isolation, or maybe anti-union ideas stem from personal feelings of powerlessness and fear. If collective action can be pulled off successfully and a sense of security established through the group’s action, fear and feelings of impotence can be reduced.
If you have got a particularly tough character in your workplace who seriously threatens unity, don’t be afraid to use the social pressures that work groups can bring to bear to get that person back in line. This applies to supervisory personnel too, especially the supervisor who likes to think he or she is everyone’s pal.
The balance of power
The bottom line for this type of workplace organisation is to tilt the balance of power in the workers’ favour. It can win grievances for example. If grievances remain individual problems or become the responsibility of union officials, the natural organisation and loyalty that exist among work groups is lost. Chances are that the grievance is lost too.
However, if the work groups can be used to make a show of unity, the threat that the work process could be disrupted can be enough to force management into a settlement. Grievances can only be won when management understand that a grievance is no longer the concern of an individual, but instead has become the concern of all, and that problems lie ahead unless it is resolved.
When the time is right hold a meeting of those you have identified as being interested in getting organised. Do not be surprised if some workers do not turn up, don't get disappointed. The meeting should be as open as possible and discuss all issues which concern workers. The most obvious concern will be how to get the mass of workers involved. Every person who attends the meeting should be expected to see if there are other workers who can be got involved. Stress the importance of ensuring that management doesn't get to know about what's happening.
You and colleagues may decide that you want to try to join an official trade union and get recognition with your employer. You should think hard about this form of action, as it may or may not be appropriate depending on your place of work. Workplaces with high staff turnover and lots of agency workers, for example, will be unlikely to be able to maintain a functional union organisation. Similarly, a union will only be able to win from management what you and your colleagues are able to obtain by your actions. So ultimately what counts is what action you are prepared to take collectively, rather than the union. And joining in official union will tie you into official procedures and labour laws which may be highly restrictive in terms of what action they permit you to take.
At some point a leaflet will need to be produced and either distributed secretly at work or by friends when the workers are leaving the workplace. These actions will undoubtedly bring to management's attention that some workers are involved in trying to organise.
When it is felt appropriate (which could be a period of a few weeks to many months) another larger meeting of all interested workers will need to be organised. Use the meeting to draw up a list of grievances and demands. The meeting will need to elect spokespersons to approach management.
If you are going to embark on some form of campaign, you may want to try to get support, especially practical support from outside your workplace. There may be local community groups, church groups, political organisations, anarchist groups etc which may be able to assist with practical initiatives such as leaflet production, a place to meet, people to help picket, etc.
Don't allow negotiations with bosses take place behind closed doors. Keep all meetings transparent.
It won't be easy
Be sure that the workers know that their actions may lead to the threat of dismissal and/or dismissal. Never con workers into believing it will be easy. Discuss what this would mean if all or some workers are dismissed as this will require a decision to either strike and/or occupy the workplace. The situation in countries where unions are outlawed is different and it will be impossible for workers to approach management. In such circumstances, sabotage of production may be appropriate.
Read more about taking different kinds of action at work...
Keep a record of you attempts at organising - workers struggles are so rarely recorded that valuable experience is being lost and workers have to go through the same problems. Many of them could be avoided. Feel free to post your account to our workplace activity tag .
This article was updated significantly by libcom.org in 2012. Originally it was edited by libcom in 2005 from articles by the Industrial Workers of the World and another from an original article in Revolutions Per Minute issue 1, in 1996, as then produced by the members of the Colin Roach Centre, updated in February 2003.
- 1 There is an interesting article in our library here on informal work groups and management’s opposition to them by Swedish group Kampa Tillsammans.
Organising at work: some basic principles
The following is a list of what successful organisers say are the most important principles to remember:
Organising begins when people question authority. Someone asks, "What are they doing to us? Why are they doing it? Is it right?" Encourage people to ask, "Who is making the decisions, who is being forced to live with the decisions, and why should that be so?" People should not accept a rule or an answer simply because it comes from the authorities, whether that authority be the government, the boss, the union - or you. An effective organiser encourages their fellow workers to think for themselves.
Almost every experienced activist agrees that "The most important thing about organising is personal one-to-one discussion." Leaflets are necessary, meetings are important, rallies are wonderful, but none of them will ever take the place of one-on-one discussion. Frequently, when you have simply listened to one of your fellow workers and heard what is on his or her mind, you have won them over because you are the only one who will listen. When you talk to Linda at the next desk and overcome her fears, answer her questions, lift her morale, invite her to the meeting or take her to the rally - that is what organising is all about.
Find the Natural Organisers
Every workplace has its social groupings of colleagues and friends. Each group has its opinion makers, its natural organisers, its instigators. They are not always the loudest or most talkative, but they are the ones the others listen to and respect. You will have gone a long way if you win over these natural organisers.
Get People Involved in Activity
Life is not a school room and people do not learn simply by going to meetings or reading leaflets. Most people learn, change, and grow in the process of action. Will you take this leaflet? Will you pass it on to your friend? Will you sign this petition? If you want to develop new organisers, get your colleagues involved in the organising.
We Are the Union!
The point of organising is not only to get individuals involved, but to join them together in a solidarity conscious group. We want to create a group which sees itself as a whole: Will you come to the meeting? Can we get the whole department to visit the boss together? Can we count on all of you on the picket line?
Activities Should Escalate Over Time
Ask people to become involved in activities of increasing commitment and difficulty. Are you willing to wear a union badge? Will you vote for a strike? Are you prepared to stand on a picket line? Are you willing to be arrested? Some union campaigns have included hundreds of people willing to go to jail for something they believed in. For many of them it started with that first question, "Will you take this leaflet?"
Read more about taking direct action at work...
Organising is about changing power relationships, the balance of forces between management and workers. Confrontation with the employer has to be built into the escalating activities. If people are not willing to risk upsetting the boss, they won’t win.
Win Small Victories
Most movements, from a small group in one workplace to massive social protests grow on the basis of small victories. The victories give us confidence that we can do more. They win us new supporters who now realise that "you can beat the boss". With each victory the group becomes more confident and therefore, more capable of winner larger victories.
Be Prepared For Setbacks
Nothing runs smoothly in life, and organising is no exception. If it doesn’t succeed at first, be patient. Circumstances always change with time, new people come and go. Perhaps in a few months time your fellow workers will be more interested than they are at present. Sooner or later your employer will do something which will help that process.
Don’t Forget The Outside World
Conflicts between workers and their employers have a large influence on the confidence of other workers to stand up for themselves. It is in our interests to build links and networks of support with workers employed in other companies and industries, for through standing together we will greatly increase our ability to win more control over our lives.
Produce Your Own Publicity
This is the best way of getting your message across, but don’t forget to let your fellow workers get involved in its production.
Read some tips on publicity and media...
Have A Sense of Humour
Don’t be deadly serious in everything that you do: organising can and should be fun. Use cartoons, songs, jokes and stories. Try and relate your publicity not just to the harshness of reality but also to your aspirations and desires.
Organising is Everything
Organisation need not be overly formal or structurally top heavy, but it must be there. A telephone tree and a mailing list may be all the organisation that you need, but if those are what you need then you must have them. Make sure your organisation is directly democratic, and any specialised positions you have, such as secretary, are instantly recallable. The last twenty years have supplied many examples of reform movements which fought hard, made some gains and then disappeared, simply because they didn’t stay organised. As one union organiser, Bill Slater, says, "Only the organised survive."
Read more general organising tips...
Don’t Organise Alone
Contact the Industrial Workers of the World, or other radical workers and join up with other working people who will be more than willing to help you. The IWW, or other libertarian groups can also provide resources which will be of vital importance in any organising drive, no matter how small. Together we can do the things that we cannot do alone.
Edited by libcom from an article by the Industrial Workers of the World.
Dealing with bullying at work guide
Advice and tips on how to survive bullying and intimidation in the workplace, and ways of dealing with individually, legally, or collectively.
Cuts in staffing and resources, increasing workloads, performance related pay: all have made work more pressurised. The University of Manchester says bullying accounts for up to half of all employment stress. The few studies done show the majority of incidents are by bosses, but it's still important to support people being bullied by work 'mates'. Call it what you will: harassment, aggression, coercive management, intimidation, or things seen as 'just a joke' - all are common labels for what is really bullying. Racial or sexual harassment, or that based on sexuality or disability, may also take the form of bullying. Bullying is any long-standing aggression, physical or psychological, by an individual or group directed against someone who is unable to defend themselves. It is rarely confined to insulting remarks or open aggression, but can be subtle, devious, often taking place when there are no witnesses, and be difficult to confront for those whose confidence and self esteem have been worn down. It is a myth that only quiet or 'weak' people will be victimised since a bully will also pick on the popular or successful if they're perceived as a threat. Widespread bullying by bosses is hardly surprising in world which is structured hierarchically - the rich living off the working class, men dominating women, adults abusing children... Work is similarly organised, to control the behaviour of workers with management positions providing the perfect situation for bullying.
Bullies tend to surround themselves with supporters, spies and 'court jesters' while cultivating allies in senior management. The bully will create rivalries in the workforce, as people anxiously fight to stay in their favour, creating a divisive culture which brings out the worst in people. To be 'in' with a bully can seem the best way to survive, and cover any feelings of inadequacy by displacing these on to others, through siding with the bully's aggression. But as long as a bully feels that they can get away with it they will continue.
A living nightmare
Being bullied makes people feel vulnerable, isolated and frustrated, and may lead to stress related illnesses like constant headaches, loss of weight, ulcers or kidney problems. It affects relationships with family and friends:
"Bill gradually became quiet and withdrawn. I knew that it had something to do with work, but whenever I tried to make him talk about it, he became very irritable. He lost weight, too, and lost interest in everything. He would sleep for hours on end... for three years there was no laughter in our house."
Those being bullied often feel ashamed and that they must have done something to deserve it, which opens them to more bullying.
Spotting what's going on early puts you in a much stronger position. Problems often arise when a person is new or recently promoted. The earliest sign is that a relationship at work doesn't feel right: is your boss responding to you in a different way; do you feel put down by belittling remarks or continual criticisms of your work, even though the standard hasn't changed; are you beginning to feel that supposed mistakes are all your fault? Other signs are constant assessment, useless errands, false complaints, persistent humiliation in front of others, and a boss's inability to admit they could be wrong.
A bully will try to get rid of someone they perceive as a threat; not promoting able people, taking credit for others' ideas or work, or alternatively not giving enough work or responsibility and then claiming laziness or lack of initiative.
In dealing with bullying it is important not to be undermined and try to remain positive, though this is easier said than done. Try to take responsibility for your feelings and behaviour, keep things in perspective and don't let it dominate your life. However deflated you feel, make time to do stuff you enjoy. Talk things over with friends, many of them will have had a similar experience. You could try self-defence or assertiveness training, as this may help you cope better.
Initial tactics: stand firm against verbal attacks - tell the bully you won't tolerate personal remarks. Keep calm and say what has to be said quietly and coherently, and if they try to shout you down, just repeat yourself and keep doing so until they listen (or more likely walk off). If instructions are unclear, ask for written clarification, suggesting this will improve your performance; this can be useful as evidence. Remain confident in your own judgement and ability. Avoid being alone with the bully if you can.
There's no specific legislation dealing with bullying at work. Employers have a legal duty to protect employees' health and consult safety reps about health and safety matters, which includes bullying as it's a workplace stress. Safety reps have legal rights: to inspect the workplace and to take up health and safety complaints, with paid time off for their functions. Bullying involving a sexual racial or disability aspect may be challenged under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Race Relations Act 1976, or Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Unions should have policies to deal with bullying, making clear that it will not be tolerated. The complaints procedure should set out on what basis the bully may be suspended pending the results of an investigation. Independent counselling should also be available. Bullying is not just some deviant behaviour which can be eliminated by having the correct policies, but such procedures can form the basis around which to organise (see the excellent Solidarity Federation pamphlet: `Health and Safety at Work' on overcoming the pitfalls and problems of relying on legislation and the unions – email solfed (at)solfed.org.uk for more information).
Check your job description isn't being abused. Keep a detailed diary, including dates, times and locations, of every verbal attack, contrary or arbitrary instruction, or where your competence was questioned. Write to the bully after incidents, challenging them, and keep copies of relevant correspondence and memos. When making a complaint stick to the facts and avoid character assassination. It's probably a good idea to send copies of your complaint to senior management. Wherever possible, insist on a witness, either a friend or union rep, being present at meetings. Tell your doctor what's happening as they will usually give you a sick note giving you time to recover and plan your next move. It's important to state the cause, and name the bully on the sick note as it can be a very important piece of evidence.
Making a complaint may make things worse and lead to increased vindictiveness and being labelled a trouble-maker. Confrontation can be unsafe when it's done alone. Bullying usually affects several members of staff, and the more people experiencing it the stronger your case and potential allies. The staff of one school responded to problems with their headmaster by avoiding further argument, keeping silent, and not reacting. The head's self-satisfied smirk was replaced with a puzzled 'what are they up to now?' expression:
"Although this did nothing to alter the practical problems, we felt better because it was no longer the headmaster calling the tune."
Quietly build solidarity with your colleagues, being careful who you talk to, and when you have enough information use it. Be creative: paste a caricature of them on noticeboards, PCs etc. If desperate deface their notes, property, car etc. with suitably, poignant life questions, but be careful, remember CCTV and don't get caught. If you need assistance you can contact SolFed: using an outside group can be very effective, assuring anonymity, but it's no replacement for solidarity at work.
As a last resort you can always resign and try to prove to an industrial tribunal that you were forced to leave due to intolerable conditions. You must be employed for two years and will need a detailed log of the abuse to be able to claim 'constructive dismissal'. Tribunals will examine particular recorded incidents of abuse but their main interest is in whether the correct procedures were followed. A request for an acceptable reference can be built into a winning claim. Compensation varies. In an out-of-court settlement won by Unison, a social worker in Scotland in 1996 received £66,000 after being forced to retire through ill health, caused by bullying by her superior. A health visitor was awarded £5,000 damages in 1997 from North East Thames Community Care NHS Trust, after persistent undermining by a nursing manager.
Organising against bullying can have a knock-on effect and help build wider confidence and solidarity in the workplace as Bob, a postal worker, explains:
"Management are constantly trying to get information out of us so they can make cuts and increase profits but we do everything we can to sabotage their efficiency drives. It's our knowledge and experience which one day will be used to transform our working lives for the benefit of all. In the meantime, we have an ongoing guerrilla campaign on our hands... and that includes against union bureaucrats along with the bosses. Sure, we are not as solid as we would all like, but the basic uncooperative attitude is always there."
Written by the Red & Black Club, Part of the Solidarity Federation.
Organising 101 - Dave Smith
01. Using flower power at work
On a TUC training course I was running, a union rep told a story about one of her members who had reached the final stage of the company sickness monitoring procedure. There was no denying that the woman had a poor sick record but her absences were due to ongoing hospital treatment following a workplace injury two years earlier. Despite the rep quoting employment law, the managers were not impressed. The worker had gone over the trigger levels and it looked certain that she would be dismissed under the capability procedure.
The final stage hearing was to take place on Friday. The rep spent Wednesday and Thursday going round to all the co-workers, explaining what was happening and asking if they would put in a pound to buy a card. The rep bought a bunch of flowers and an oversized ‘Get Well Soon’ card, the kind of the thing that your lovestruck teenage son buys his first girlfriend on Valentine’s Day.
On Friday, five minutes before the hearing was to take place, all of the workers turned up outside the HR office. There were hugs all round as the sick woman was presented with the giant card and flowers, with the managers who were hearing the case forced to wait in the corridor until the impromptu ceremony was over. The meeting finally started five minutes late, the manager’s opening remarks were: “OK, we get your point.” The appeal was granted and the member was referred to occupational health, with reasonable adjustments to her job implemented a few weeks later.
You know all the co-workers who had signed the card or put in their pound told the story to whoever would listen about how they had saved the worker’s job. Not the rep but them - the workers. Now that is what union organising is all about.
02. A walk in the park
Some time ago, I was training safety reps on how to carry out workplace inspections. It was a sunny day, so we took a short walk to a local park to put the theory into practice. In a five minute inspection the 12 new reps identified some low hanging branches and a pile of dog's mess on a section of uneven paving slabs.
I was sceptical and asked if anyone had talked to any of the ground maintenance workers. The answer was "no". So we wandered over to the Tudor Lodge where the park keepers were based. When we asked if there were any safety issues worth reporting the response from the keeper was, “no, not really.”
After we persuaded him that we were not from management, he reconsidered. “Well, except that I get assaulted about twice a day, usually when we have to get people to leave the park late at night.” He then pointed to an axe mark in the Tudor door frame where he had been attacked the week before.
We looked inside the medieval building crammed full of gardening tools and a rep asked: "It's much smaller than I imagined, where is your toilet?” The answer was: “There isn't one. I have to use McDonald’s across the road.”
By now he was opening up. “My first job every morning is to walk round the park benches picking up the syringes which appear overnight.” After a few minutes we found out that he was employed via an agency, worked a 14-hour shift during the summer and had no way of communicating with his office because the walkie-talkie had been broken for months.
A short conversation with a park worker, uncovered issues around potential needlestick injuries, training needs, excessive hours, welfare facilities and assaults. Without any input from the workforce, the safety report was useless. What is the most important thing to remember when becoming a union safety rep? Make sure you spend most of your time talking to people!
03. If you want to win, you better listen
I was working with a union branch where the council housing stock - and 300 of its members - were being outsourced to a private housing association. The union had been in consultation to protect the terms and conditions of affected workers, as required by the TUPE regulations. But everyone knew examples of privatisations where, down the line, contracts and safety conditions had got much worse.
Contractors could get away with it because unions and reps were unwilling to take a stand or were ineffective. Here, a union ‘Know Your Legal Rights’ meeting addressed by a renowned lawyer attracted just a handful. The branch committee had all but given up any hope of fighting the privatisation or having any reps in place post-transfer.
At the next the branch committee meeting we set every rep one simple task - go back to where they worked and sound out what workers were moaning about. The clear winner… car parking.
Everyone got free car parking. It was safe and cheap. Would they have to pay a fiver a day to park? Or would it mean parking in the street about a mile away and walking to work through a poorly lit, less salubrious part of town? This was a genuine safety issue – safer access and egress is the legal responsibility of the employer. It was also an issue of their contractual rights.
Did we then rely on the negotiators to quote the law and sort it out? Like hell! The reps organised another meeting: ‘Defend your car parking from attack’. One hundred and twenty people turned up. Before the next consultation meeting, management was falling over themselves to reassure the union that the car parking was safe. It was what the union did outside the negotiations that was critical.
The 120 people angry about their car parking elected a group of new reps prepared to act as ‘temporary TUPE reps’ in the run up to the transfer. We didn’t just win the issue, we found out what workers were angry about, mobilised the membership and built the union. Quoting the law was secondary.
04. Blocking roads and turning a corner
Junior doctors closed the road outside Downing Street. Firefighters brought traffic to a standstill in Parliament Square. Construction workers with a giant inflatable rat shut down Park Lane. Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, explains why blocking roads has become a great way to make bad employers change direction.
On a cold wintry day in 2015, a young electrician was sacked on the Crossrail project after he had raised complaints about unsafe access routes on the building site. His union, Unite, attempted to negotiate his reinstatement but the Bond Street station contract was run by two of construction's notorious blacklisting companies and they didn't want to know.
At short notice the Blacklist Support Group called a protest outside the site entrance. When around 30 people had turned up, one of these concerned members of the public pressed the button on the pedestrian crossing and we waited for the lights to change. Once the traffic was safely stopped, we walked into the road, taking our banners with us. And stayed there. This was Oxford Street. During evening rush hour.
In less than a minute, one of the most famous shopping roads in the world was in total gridlock. Suddenly everyone wanted to know us. Shoppers cheered our speeches about taxpayers’ money being paid to firms that mistreat their workforce. Bus drivers stuck in the jam took our flyers apologising for the delay but explaining about the major safety issue on a London transport project. Importantly, people were instantly posting photos of our banners and placards to Twitter and Facebook. We were trending within minutes.
The Met's finest finally arrived half an hour later - the police vans couldn't get through the traffic. Were we nicked? No. We have a democratic right to protest in this country and blocking a road does not result in instant arrest. Instead police officers are required to ask everyone present a series of questions, known as the 'five steps'. “Can we assist your protest? Do you realise that there are consequences if you continue?”
During the few minutes it takes to talk through the series of warnings, we continued to entertain the ever increasing crowd of shoppers who were now watching the spectacle unfold. We were peaceful and polite throughout and just before the 5th and final warning, we took a democratic vote whether to finish our protest. It was unanimous. Partly because we had achieved our aims of raising publicity and partly because it was absolutely freezing cold. Not a single person was arrested.
The whole thing was caught on video from start to finish and uploaded to YouTube, appearing on media websites almost immediately. Civil disobedience is all about publicity, it is pointless if no one knows about it.
The outcome of our mischief? The employer rang the Unite union official even before we took the vote tosuspend the protest and the electrician was immediately reinstated on full pay pending further negotiations. We went to the pub to celebrate our 30 minute victory.
Somewhere in that episode there is probably a few lessons to be learnt. Be bold but act collectively. We're not looking for martyrs. We don't want anyone arrested or to lose their job. But done properly, low level civil disobedience can have a huge impact on a dispute and give a big morale boost to union members.
One person standing in the middle of the road risks getting run over. When an organised group takes to the tarmac, it can quickly set a campaign on the right road.
05. Getting bugged by hot-desking
Hot-desking – where do I start? The latest money saving idea that means office workers are not allowed their own desk anymore but everyone has to fight over the communal computer monitors in a big open plan workspace. Goodbye family photos and postcards that make work a little bit more bearable. Hello soulless corporate mono-culture. As for having a place to store all your paperwork (or even your favourite tea bags), forget it.
Of course, workers hate it. As well as dehumanising the work environment, there are health and safety issues. If no one is guaranteed the same computer every day, is a brand new DSE risk assessment supposed to take place every single day? If workers now have to carry all their documents with them wherever they go, is this a new manual handling hazard? And as anyone who has had to share a public computer with hundreds of other people will testify, what about communicable diseases? That keyboard you are tapping away at isn’t just used by you, it’s been sneezed over and had food crumbs spilled on it by god knows how many people. Oh and by the way, the cleaners are under strict instructions not to clear rubbish from the desks.
As is often the case, lots of people are moaning but what is the union going to do about it? One of my favourite tactics was from a group of safety reps in a north London council who decided to get their members involved by using an idea from off the telly. Who remembers that reality TV programme, ‘How clean is your house?’, where Kim and Aggie used to do a deep clean of someone’s home. Most weeks seemed to involve taking swabs of the built up grime from a manky cooker in student digs. The swabs would then be sent to a lab and the cultures grown in a petri dish. In the last scene of the programme a list of harmful germs and spores would be revealed – all of which would be potentially lethal. We did ‘How clean is your hot-desk?’.
Every rep got trained up in how to correctly use the swabs and the week before the quarterly safety inspection, an email was sent telling members that the union would be conducting a safety sampling exercise. All on the same day, the safety reps went out and people were queuing up to get their desks swabbed. Everyone was talking about it. One of the safety reps was a lab technician in a 6th form and the swabs were taken back for the A-level chemistry students to practice with. This is all perfectly legal under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations, and if your workplace does not have access to a chemistry lab, then the regulations require the employer to provide facilities and assistance in this kind of thing.
It takes a while for the cultures to grow but as you can imagine, the union was being contacted by their members almost on a daily basis to find out what the results were. It’d been a long time since publication of a report by safety reps had generated quite so much interest amongst the workforce. Full colour photographs of bacteria are not a pretty picture. Alongside a list of long Latin names and their possible health effects, the next union safety newsletter caused uproar. At the next meeting of the safety committee, hot desking was the first item on the agenda.
06. Something for the weekend
On building sites, long hours and weekend working are the norm. I've lost count of the times I fell out with a site manager, arguing that if they only paid me single time on a Saturday morning, I’d barely be making any money after paying for train fares, breakfast and tax. But in a casualised industry where most of the workers are employed via agencies, the response was often, “if you don't want to work Saturday, don't bother coming in on Monday.” Even if I did cut a deal, the foreman would say keep if to myself - he was doing me a favour. This never sat well with me.
On one site, the foreman came into the canteen on Thursday morning and announced a big concrete pour was scheduled for Sunday and everyone was expected to work all weekend. I'm halfway out of my seat ready to have a row when this old carpenter next to me grabs my arm and whispers “sit down young 'un.” Nothing is said and the foreman leaves the hut. Over the next 20 minutes, I watch this fella go round and quietly chat to the 20 other workers on the job.
When the foreman came back into the hut at lunchtime, the old hand casually says “sorry, but me and most of the others are on a stag do and won't be able to make it.” The foreman looks straight at him and then asks everyone else, “is that right?” Most nod. One or two say, “yes, it's been planned for a while.” The foreman knew it was all bollocks but after he couldn’t bully anyone into agreeing to work all weekend, he left the hut.
By Friday morning, we’ve all been offered double time for Saturday and Sunday, with a guarantee that we'll be given more notice in the future. No need for shouting and hollering, no need for one person to be a martyr. Lesson learned: Being prepared to challenge the manager is important - but getting all the workers to support you is often decisive.
07. Find a friend
A workplace may be seriously unhealthy, but it’s frequently only budgets, deadlines and margins in the must-do column for senior management. A solitary union rep quoting Hazards magazine is unlikely to change that. A lone voice is easy to ignore, particularly when the company board is more fixated on a healthy profit than a healthy workforce.
When it comes to organising around workplace health and safety, the key to success is recognising that unions are collective organisations. That means individual reps can’t do it all on their own, we need support. But where to start?
My suggestion for new reps is to get a big piece of paper and draw a plan of the workplace divided into different departments.
Take retail workers. I have done a lot of work with the shopworkers’ union Usdaw, organising in the major supermarket chains. The very large superstores employ up to 1,000 people, with a 24/7 shift pattern. A rep has to consider the aisles, warehouse, deli counter, bakery and tills but not forgetting the canteen, office, car park or security. Don’t worry if it’s not to scale – identifying the different sections, locations or shifts is the important bit.
Next, ask yourself two simple questions. What are the issues? And do I have any friends?
What are the safety issues people working in each department complain about? If the rep works on checkout for example, common issues are lack of breaks, broken seats, RSI and abuse from customers.
We tend to know everything about areas we work in ourselves but much less about other parts of the business. Are there different issues affecting night shift workers in the warehouse? Blocked fire exits? Faulty roll-cages? Cold temperatures? What about the admin workers based in the office?
Then, work out who your friends are. Is there anyone in each department who is particularly sympathetic towards the union? Not just a union member, but someone who is always prepared to chat with the rep or who has raised concerns in the past.
If you don’t immediately know the answer, don’t make it up, just leave it blank. Whenever safety reps try this for the first time, there are inevitably gaps in knowledge. Don’t worry, that is the point of the exercise, to highlight where we need to do more work.
Over the next few weeks, wherever a gap exists, make a point of visiting that particular department or shift. Introduce yourself and get a few pointers about the ongoing health or safety concerns that only workers on that section would know about.
By patiently chatting with people over a period of time, the rep raises the profile of the union and its likely that that will lead to them recruiting a few new members in the process. But it will also uncover workers’ concerns. This means when reps talk to management in the future, they are talking about issues their members are really interested in.
Just as importantly, the process will identify a few people who are real allies. An informal network of union members a rep can discuss ideas with, who might be prepared to help out at a big staff meeting if the rep needs someone to back them up. Remember, it’s easy for management to ignore one person, it’s more difficult to ignore lots of people all making the same point.
In union organising, we call this process ‘mapping’. If you were training to be an army officer at Sandhurst, they would call it reconnaissance. It’s simple, it’s non-confrontational but it really pays dividends in the long run. Give it a go.
08. Just ask what workers want
I was working with a union branch that had completed a detailed online safety survey. It started with about 10 standard personal information questions. Followed by 30 questions that asked members to grade from 1-10 how they felt about every possible safety issue. Followed by another 30 questions about options for solving the problems. The survey was certainly thorough. But barely anyone filled it in.
It needed a rethink. Firstly, anything that takes up more than one page of A4 is usually too long. Secondly, only ask questions that are going to be of some use in your negotiations with management. I asked the branch committee: ‘What safety issues do your members regularly come to you complaining about?’ Once we had identified 15 issues, that was effectively the survey form finished.
At the top of the form was the union logo and a short introduction: ‘In the next 12 months, the union will be negotiating with management on the following safety issues: please tick the three that are most important to you’. Below this we listed the 15 issues that the reps had identified. It is important to limit the choices or workers may tick every box and the survey becomes pointless.
At the bottom we asked people to tell us the department they worked in. A small number of complaints about a hazard becomes more significant if they all come from one part of the workplace.
Finally, workers wanting more information had the option to add their name. This is a great way of spotting workers who might be prepared to help out in the future.
I asked reps to personally hand out the survey forms. The forms took no more than 20 to 30 seconds to complete. One week later, we had over 300 responses. Because the reps had done this face-to-face, the union profile had been raised. Collating the information was simple and the union was able to identify concerns members were really angry about and that required action. Union organising needn’t be complicated.
09. You gotta fight for your right to safety
The 40th anniversary of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations (SRSC) is a time to look back at what has been achieved. We should take pride that fatalities and accident rates have reduced significantly over the past four decades. Back in the 1970s, one building worker was killed in an industrial accident every working day. Thankfully that figure has now been cut by around 75 per cent.
But just as anti-discrimination laws did not eradicate racism or sexism, workplace health and safety did not automatically improve because of a change in legislation. Amending the statute book is one thing, making progress in the real world is quite another. We had to fight for everything that has been achieved. It took hard work by an army of volunteer safety reps who have worked tirelessly to improve the working conditions on behalf of their fellow workers.
The sight of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and employers patting themselves on the back for the improvement in workplace safety is therefore more than a bit galling. Some employers recognise the value of a reality check and have been willing to collaborate with unions: We thank them for it and hope that others will follow their lead.
But after 40 years, far too many employers still haven’t seen the light and the result for working people can be devastating. As well as the memorable disasters that have stuck in the public consciousness such as Grenfell, Kings Cross and Piper Alpha, there have been countless smaller tragedies that shattered families. When things go wrong, time and again, coroners’ courts or official reports flagged up where employers deliberately cut corners to save money or completely ignored repeated complaints by the workforce.
Safety reps were not just ignored; we were ridiculed by politicians and the mainstream media and in some cases vindictively targeted by big business. The blacklisting of safety reps in construction is so well documented that it has become part of union mythology, but victimisation was not restricted to the building industry. Teachers, carers, train drivers, dinner ladies, engineers and factory workers have all been unfairly dismissed after complaining on behalf of their fellow workers.
Fighting the fear
Attacking safety reps creates a climate of fear in which other workers are less likely to raise legitimate concerns. The result has been the continued plague of hidden, long-term occupational diseases from cancer, respiratory problems and musculoskeletal disorders to stress and other mental health conditions. Workers’ Memorial Day acts as an annual reminder of the devastation caused when profit is considered more important than the safety of workers.
We should remember that nothing in the world ever changes for the better just because it should. Progress happens because human beings make a fuss. Over 100 years ago, Victorian factory inspectors identified that asbestos was killing people; scientists confirmed this time and again throughout the twentieth century. But it took construction workers on the Barbican refusing to install the deadly fibre, libel cases and staff in schools across the country to collectively decide to refuse to work with asbestos, before the politicians took notice.
It was only in 1999, after a high profile campaign by trade unions and safety campaigners, that the UK finally banned the importation of asbestos. During the intervening decades, hundreds of thousands of workers suffered slow painful deaths.
Despite 40 years of the SRSC regulations, in some ways we are now going backwards. The complete lack of legal rights for the ever-increasing precarious workforce is a regression to the conditions of early industrial capitalism, turning those forced to work via employment agencies, on zero hours contracts, false self-employment or in the gig economy into second class citizens when it comes to employment rights and workplace safety.
On my desk at work I have a purple sticker that reads ‘casualisation kills’. It was produced by the Simon Jones Memorial Campaign in 1998 after a young student was killed on his first day at work in Shoreham docks. Nearly 20 years later, the deregulation of many of the functions previously carried out by the HSE, means that the docks are now considered a low risk sector where the employers effectively police themselves.
We need to remind ourselves that we are not just safety reps: we are union safety reps. Our strength comes from working collectively with our co-workers, not from our ability to quote the law. The more we see ourselves as an integral part of the trade union movement and concentrate our energies on consciously involving workers in safety initiatives, the more likely we are to achieve fundamental change.
At our best, unions are part of a wider movement to improve the living conditions for working people by bringing about fundamental change in issues such as fairness, equality and the environment. Every trade union safety rep, the Construction Safety Campaign, Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK), the asbestos victims’ networks, all those who participated in the Hazards movement; every single one of you have played a part in improving the society we live in.
On the 40th anniversary of safety reps, take pride in what we have achieved together but never forget in boardrooms profit counts and gets counted, not bodies. You don’t get given health and safety, you fight for and win it.
10. 'Imagine you're a tree'
I recently attended a workshop on tackling stress in the workplace. Half way through, the trainer asked everyone to stand up and close our eyes. “I want you to imagine you’re a mighty oak tree. Hold your arms in the air as if they are branches and slowly sway them from side to side. Can you feel the wind rustling the leaves?”
After a couple of minutes of listening to a CD playing birdsong, the punchline of the session was that whenever we felt stressed at work, we should take some time out and practice this relaxation technique. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a quirky one off, only worth mentioning when cracking a joke, it’s part of a developing pattern.
For the past few years there has been a growing trend amongst health and safety professionals to promote ‘well-being’. This movement claims to improve workers’ health by encouraging a series of lifestyle changes, often with the explicit support of employers who provide financial incentives. Well-being and mindfulness have almost become a crusade with advocates zealously claiming that illnesses such as cancers and especially mental health conditions, can be significantly reduced by workers making a few relatively minor alterations to how they live their lives.
Just to be clear, every union I know is in favour of more fruit in the staff canteen, keep fit sessions at lunchtime or programmes that encourage quitting smoking or cycling to work. However, to claim that these well-being programmes can eradicate the death toll caused by occupational diseases or are the silver bullet that will defeat the huge increase in stress and associated mental health conditions in the workplace is a dangerous fantasy.
Workers develop occupational diseases because of the work they carry out. Musculoskeletal disorders and cancers do not occur in a random distribution across the entire population, they tend to appear in clusters. And in the vast majority of cases they are based upon what individuals have been exposed to either in their working lives or local communities.
Those who are forced to work in dusty environments have a greater incidence of respiratory problems; the same is true for working class children who live close to busy pollution filled roads. Workers who carry out heavy lifting or bend over all day as part of their job are much more likely to have a bad back. Ask any teacher how a proposed OFSTED inspection affects the mental health of the staff in a school.
The way to reduce long term ill-health in the workplace is by correctly identifying the hazards that are causing the problems and then systematically tackling them at source. That is the essence of the risk assessment process.
Unfortunately, rather than tackling the underlying causes of ill-health, the current fad for well-being leaves all the workplace hazards exactly as they are. On their own, however well meaning, these programmes appear to shift the responsibility for a worker’s ill-health from the employer to the worker. In many cases these initiatives are part of a concerted campaign by employers to blame the workers rather than spend money by tackling the health and safety issues at source.
If austerity means that staffing levels have been cut and workload has increased, that has an entirely predictable negative effect upon workers’ health. By all means promote healthy eating - but if the supervisor is constantly chasing you to get something finished by a completely unachievable deadline, thinking you’re an oak tree isn’t going to make an acorn’s worth of difference.
11. How to stress-test your workplace
A management preoccupation with budgets, deadlines, targets and profit margins means every safety rep will sometimes come into conflict with their managers. Highlighting safety issues that bosses would prefer to overlook is what being a conscientious safety rep is all about.
Our ability to improve conditions in the workplace is not reliant on the support of a benevolent employer but the backing of our co-workers. So, it is vital that safety reps continually spend time talking to the members. It is too easy to over estimate how much support we really have. It is one thing for workers to agree with their safety rep, it is quite another for them to stand up to management when it counts. It is worth periodically checking our level of support.
Following the financial crash of 2008, the big banks that have operated for decades and remain profitable are now required to undergo periodic ‘stress tests’ to check the viability of what they were doing. Union safety reps wishing to find out to what extent their fellow workers are prepared to stick together should carry out stress tests of their own, especially when you think that management are refusing to deal with a serious safety issue.
One of the most basic tests is an open letter. First, set yourself a target to test how much backing you can muster: 75 per cent of the workers in a particular department within a two-week period is a useful benchmark. Then come up with a simple, easily understood demand. I’ve seen safety reps call for the reinstatement of a kettle and microwave in the staff restroom. Keep it simple.
Once you hit your target number of signatures, the next step is to publicly deliver the message. My preferred option is to ask all the workers to join the safety rep in handing the open letter to a senior manager. The mere act of walking together as a group to the manager’s office and standing alongside the safety rep when presenting the letter helps to cement that sense of collective cohesion. It also sends a big message to the management about the strength of feeling on the issue.
12. Unreasonable behaviour
As trade unionists, we don’t want any workers to finish their shift any less healthy than when they started it. Regrettably when employers think about health and safety, they’re largely concerned with what they need to do to comply with legal minimums and how much it will cost.
We are clearly coming at it from different angles. We want to save lives; they want to save money. It’s hardly surprising that safety reps and managers regularly disagree. It’s at this point that reps often resort to quoting the law. Unfortunately, much of health and safety law is riddled with the words ‘suitable’, ‘sufficient’ and ‘reasonable’. What workers consider reasonable is often completely at odds with what their manager thinks.
The Health and Safety at Work Act doesn’t require an employer to make the workplace as safe as possible. Instead employers only have to make it as safe as ‘reasonably practicable’. They weigh up how much a safety measure will cost them against how much they consider it will improve the safety of their staff. Workplace safety is effectively a cost/benefit analysis for employers. It always comes down to money.
A few years ago, workers toiled on the new Wembley Stadium through a really hot summer. Without any shade down at pitch level, temperatures rocketed and the construction workers on site were suffering in the heat. The union asked for additional breaks and clean drinking water points to be set up around the site, even calling in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) at one point.
But as some water taps already existed on the site and there is no legal maximum working temperature, there was nothing in the law that explicitly required the contractors to put any new measures in place, so they didn’t. The workers’ response was to down tools and refuse to leave the site canteen until the safety issue was resolved.
The cost/benefit analysis calculations had suddenly changed. Compared to the loss in production, the cost of clean drinking water was now considered to be extremely reasonable by the employers. Workers acting together got results that relying on the law couldn’t. It’s something we should all remember.
13. Check your make-up
I recently worked with a group of union safety reps at a large distribution depot who ran a campaign for cheaper tampons in the women’s toilets. Night shift workers were not allowed to leave the premises and even if they could, there were no shops open for miles, leaving women needing to shell out £1 for a single tampon from a workplace vending machine. Workers had moaned about it for ages but nothing was done until the election of a female safety rep.
Different groups of workers have different health and safety priorities, that’s pretty obvious. So for unions to genuinely articulate staff’s safety concerns, we need to ensure that we represent the full diversity of the workforce. Yet the 2018 TUC survey of safety reps found that they were overwhelmingly white men over the age of 35 who have worked for the same employer for a number of years.
There are a number of issues that specifically affect women such as the menopause or lactation breaks for breastfeeding mothers. Last minute changes to shift patterns can be a nightmare for anyone with caring responsibilities. Sexual harassment of young female staff was one of the key complaints of the McStrikers (Hazards 143). All of these are safety issues that unions should be raising with employers.
Safety is improved by working together collectively, which means recognising that union safety structures need input from the full range of workers voices. We can all identify certain groups of workers who are underrepresented.
Be honest, does your safety committee reflect the make up of the workforce? Not just in terms of gender or racial balance – are young people, shiftworkers, migrants workers or temps represented? What about workers who have English as a second language?
Ideally unions would like a safety rep for different groups of under-represented staff in a workplace, or at least a network of ‘contacts’ that could feed into our safety procedures. But nothing happens spontaneously, safety reps need to make a deliberate effort to talk to our co-workers, especially those whose voices are not often heard. The process starts by being conscious that equality and diversity have safety implications for trade unions.
14. Pilot study
When the airline pilots’ union BALPA carried out bodymapping exercises with flight crew members, neck and shoulder pain was highlighted repeatedly in bright marker pen splodges on the body maps. What was striking was the direct correlation between rank and the side of neck that was painful. Captains suffered pain on one side of the neck and First Officers in the other. What was the cause?
Aviation rules changed after 9/11 and flight deck doors are now locked during flights, only opened once the pilot has looked at a video screen to check who is asking to enter the cockpit. The video screens are placed by the door, which is behind the pilots, forcing them to twist in their seats whenever they check the video screen. As Captains always sit in the left-hand seat and the First Officer in the right seat, they twist in different directions, resulting in the pain occurring in different sides of the body.
The evidence is compelling and obvious – and importantly doesn’t require the safety reps to have any kind of specialist medical expertise. In some airlines, BALPA has already negotiated successfully for the screens to be moved to a position in front of the pilots, removing the hazard causing the health problem altogether.
Safety reps are legally entitled to paid time off to carry out regular inspections of the workplace, to proactively identify health and safety issues. There is absolutely no reason why bodymapping cannot be carried out as a form of inspection. If you’ve never done a bodymapping exercise with the workers you represent, give it a try.
15. 'All together now'
One of the main strengths of union safety reps is that in the workplace we are the genuine voice of the workers we represent. Whether through regular inspections, investigations after accidents or raising concerns at safety committees, union safety reps are a reality check, bringing issues that affect workers directly to the attention of the employers.
The system works because we are part of the workforce and responsibility for the problems with health and safety at work lies with the employer. If a company boss reduces staffing to dangerous levels or refuses to provide adequate welfare facilities, organising workers to collectively apply pressure on their boss can result in immediate tangible improvements.
But in many situations, the underlying reason for the safety problem does not only lie with a particular employer. If laws need to change, we need to influence Westminster, not a manager in our own firm. That means union safety reps need to link together with others across an entire industry, exerting pressure and organising meetings to build a network of activists able to mobilise both inside their own workplace but also collectively across multiple employers.
This is nothing new. In 1988 following the Piper Alpha tragedy in which 167 offshore workers were killed due to Occidental Petroleum cutting corners to boost profits, safety reps across the North Sea organised the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) to demand proper safety on oil rigs. In the same year, rank and file building workers set up the Construction Safety Campaign (CSC) as a response to the three deaths a week taking place in the industry.
There are many other examples in the docks, railways, amongst postal workers and in the campaign to get asbestos banned. All these campaigns started with a small group of safety reps talking to each other about organising some kind of joint protest, which developed into bigger collective mobilisations.
So, whether at conferences or training courses, on the phone or via social media, I’m challenging safety reps to start talking to each other again and set up new initiatives for this generation. I’m looking forward to seeing direct action over safety back in the news.
16. Bright Sparks
Health and safety wasn’t handed to us on a plate by benevolent employers or far-sighted politicians, says Hazards organising expert Dave Smith. For centuries, workers fought for safer workplaces. ‘Builder’s Crack’, a newly rediscovered film, reveals how sharing our organising successes and strategies is safety critical.
In 2020, everyone has a video camera on their phone and unions use film routinely as an integral part of their campaigning. But only 20 years ago, long before anyone had heard of ‘social media’, it was virtually unheard of.
Countless acts of individual heroism against hostile employers and collective action by workers in offices, factories and hospitals are mostly hidden from history. So, the rediscovery of a long lost film about union organising on building sites in the 1990s is a rare treat from the archive.
‘Builders Crack: The Movie’ tells the story of the London Joint Sites Committee (JSC), a rank and file network of bricklayers, electricians, carpenters and painters who took a stand over deaths on building sites and attacks on workers’ rights - and won. The digitally remastered film along with a Q&A with the film makers and safety activists who appear in the documentary is now available to watch on YouTube.
The film shows Tony O’Brien of the Construction Safety Campaign interviewed on BBC News after a tower crane at Canary Wharf crashed 25 storeys killing three workers. Another scene shows hundreds of building workers in hard hats and hi-viz on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, having walked off nearby building sites to attend a vigil for a worker killed in a fall down an unguarded lift shaft.
But instead of being sombre, the film is uplifting, documenting how building workers came together to save lives by fighting back against attempts by bosses to cut corners. One electrician, Steve, describes a safety dispute after workers were told to change and store their clothes in an old shipping container that had previously stored barrels of oil. The dispute was the spark that led to the unionisation of the Jubilee Line – possibly the best organised project in UK construction for the past 40 years.
Another electrician, Jim, recalls how a coordinated walk out by thousands of electricians across the country stopped the major employers’ attempt to allow untrained non-qualified workers to carry out electrical work. In another memorable scene, a bricklayer puts his skills to good use by bricking up the entrance to the construction employers’ headquarters, while senior executives of firms who blacklisted union safety reps met inside.
Yet these large scale mobilisations of construction workers did not happen overnight or spontaneously. They took conscious organisation. Throughout the film, the JSC activists explain the need to do the “nitty gritty work” of patiently talking to workers, finding out their concerns and giving them confidence to “believe in themselves”.
And it worked. Even with the UK’s anti-union laws, JSC activists armed with their notorious fanzine ‘Builder’s Crack’ were still able to lead a succession of successful actions from 1991 until 2005. This was an organic rank and file model of union organising, in which workers’ safety was a central plank.
Whether it be non-existent welfare facilities, asbestos, workers sacked for raising concerns about safety on site or unpaid wages, the JSC strove to unite workers irrespective of their employer, union, trade or race. As another former JSC activist, Steve Hedley – currently the RMT acting general secretary – makes clear, while bosses may use racism as a means to divide and rule the workforce: “We must never fall into that trap. A victory for one is a victory for all.”
While ‘Builders Crack: The Movie’ documents the activities of the JSC, there is a long tradition of grassroots union organising led by adhoc networks of construction workers rather than the official union structures, that are constrained by the most restrictive legislation in Western Europe.
A bricklayer, Paul, commented, that the JSC was “not there to replace the unions, it’s more like an auxiliary”, able to carry out actions that the unions couldn’t. This could equally apply to the Building Workers Charter in the 1960 and '70s, Building Worker Group in the 1980s, the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee that organised occupations of oil rigs in the North Sea after the Piper Alpha disaster, the Construction Safety Campaign, right up to the Construction Rank and File today.
As the film maker Darren O’Grady says in the introduction to the YouTube video, “these stories of working class struggle need to be told”. But its not just construction or in the past. Appearing in the Q&A after the film, Unite safety rep and bus driver, Moe Manir explained how despite being divided into different companies due to privatisation, rank and file workers in London were using Facebook as an organising tool to improve safety for drivers during Covid. “The Facebook groups became our canteen”, he said. A single consolidated “group for London buses now has over 4,500 members.”
Professor Jane Holgate, a Leeds University employment relations expert, highlighted that as far back as New Unionism in the 1880s it was rank and file union activity amongst precarious workers that often led "the real fights that take place.”
Yes, the re-release of Builders Crack reminds us of our heritage, but two decades after the Canary Wharf Tower crane crash, another tower crane collapsed just a mile away in Bow. With the increase in workplace fatalities and neoliberal attacks on workers’ rights, the union movement does not need nostalgia: it needs to debate how best to respond to the massive attacks that are heading our way.
Rediscovering the tradition of rank and file militancy should be part of the debate about how to defend jobs, wages and safety standards. Yet as a Scottish labourer Chris Clarke reflects at the film’s conclusion: “Sure it’s about being safe on site and having a few extra quid in your pocket, but its also about human dignity.”
17. Corporate capture
Every country and pan-national organisation has almost sacred texts that grant fundamental rights. These documents are supposed to guarantee the right to life, to protect workers from discrimination, and the planet from climate catastrophe. Yet in every country in the world, workers are dying, discrimination is rife and the environment is being destroyed.
What is written on paper and what happens in real life are too often two completely different things. Flowery words in a legislative chamber don’t help much when the boss is more interested in making a profit than complying with legal minimum standards. What is needed isn’t just rights, but their enforcement.
Unfortunately, when it comes to health and safety, the public enforcing authorities have become completely neutered by the conscious involvement of big business in statutory decision making structures. This is corporate capture: major corporations are literally writing the laws that apply to them and advising the enforcing authorities about what should and shouldn’t result in prosecution.
Arconic, the multinational that makes the flammable cladding responsible for the Grenfell tragedy, advised the UK government on the relaxation of Building Regulations for its own products, even bragging about it on the company website. The Office of Rail and Road regulator is literally paid for by the major rail companies. Just as the airline industry finances the Civil Aviation Authority, a body that publicly acknowledges its intention not to be a proactive regulator.
Whole swathes of the British economy are now allowed to self-regulate when it comes to safety, including patently dangerous sectors such as the docks. Tesco and other major supermarkets sit on a panel that decides whether prosecutions of safety violations in the sector are in the public interest. Unsurprisingly, this has seen legal action against retail giants dropped.
Rather than defending workers’ fundamental right to life, the HSE repeatedly sides with business against tougher regulation, whether that be over silica dust or organic spores in industrial scale composting facilities. Any pretence of acting as a champion for working people has been jettisoned by the HSE, which is now firmly in the pocket of powerful vested interests.
Never has this been more apparent than during coronavirus. Since the start of the pandemic, the HSE has not prosecuted a single employer for endangering their workforce, this is despite workplaces being repeatedly identified as the centres of outbreaks. Official government guidelines for safe working in industry have been outsourced to the major employers in each sector.
The Construction Leadership Council, a body comprising representatives of the major construction firms that fund the Conservative Party and blacklist union safety reps, has been made responsible for drawing up the ‘Site Operating Procedures’. Now on Version 7, successive revisions of these official guidelines have watered down social distancing and other control measures to ensure construction projects remain open for business.
The enforcing authorities have all but abdicated responsibility for defending workers’ safety, but this is nothing new. Many legal rights in the UK are civil law, which means that rather than the state, it falls to individual workers to enforce their rights by standing up to employers. Yet despite the legal system reinforcing the laughable notion that an employment contract is ‘an agreement between two free and equal parties’, in the real world there is a huge power imbalance between individual workers and employers. Managers who victimise workers who raise concerns about their health and welfare, do it because in most cases they can get away with it.
So even where workers are granted individual rights, it is by acting in unison that workers are more likely to protect themselves and others. The historic action by the National Education Union in encouraging teachers to talk to their colleagues and quote Section 44 of the Employments Rights Act to their managers forced the government to close schools. The lives of thousands of education workers and pupils have been saved, not by the emasculated HSE or even by the letter of the law, but by proactive union organising. That’s a lesson we should all remember from school.
Workplace Organising Basics - IWW
A short series of basic organising tips from the IWW Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England region.
1. Mapping – The Basics
Learn about the workplace, talk to colleagues, and form an organising team to build workers’ power. This is a first in a mini-series of articles where we try to demystify workplace organising by presenting a clear, methodical approach. It begins with workplace mapping! So, what is it?
Knowledge is power! Workplace mapping is a process to learn about the workplace and to visualise it. It helps you understand the geography, the social networks, and the work process itself. This knowledge will be invaluable as it will inform any strategy for a workplace campaign.
Mapping means several different things:
1. Gathering contact information.
Collect contact information for as many workmates as possible. There may be a webpage with a long list of colleagues’ email addresses and phone numbers. If there isn’t, instead of asking each and every worker, try to be creative. Maybe you could distribute a petition about a local cause and ask your colleagues to sign it? Beyond this, is a good idea to get copies of different workers’ contracts and the company’s policies and procedures. Remember to be discreet!
2. Charting the workplace.
Survey the physical layout of the workplace. Draw it out on a big piece of paper, starting with your own office or area of the building. Mark out the entrances, fire exits, and windows (very important, a snitch could eavesdrop from an open window!). Include details such as desks, walkways, cubicles, machines, conveyor belts.
Where is the boss’ office and the canteen? Where are the changing rooms, storage rooms, cleaning cupboards, stairwells? Where do deliveries take place?
Now it is time to add motion! Mark out the flow of movement, the route that workers commonly take. You can draw them in different colours for different groups of staff; which few rooms does your supervisor flitter between? Are there particular areas that get crowded or bottlenecked, such as a ‘junction’ between a couple of main corridors? Do people often hangout on the main stairwell? Are there specific places that certain workers congregate? Ask tactical questions as you are charting your workplace; would it be safe to have a confidential chat in the smoking area?
3. Economic mapping.
Learn about the production process itself, the things that have to get done in order for a product to be made or a service to be delivered. To put it another way, work is already organised, by and for the bosses! You need to learn how.
Though not as many of us work in traditional factory settings anymore, it can be useful to think of your own job in a similar way, as a thought exercise to get your brain on the right track. Which specific tasks need to get done, and how is the overall workforce divided up to do them? Are there different ‘departments,’ what do they do? Which tasks require lots of workers to be concentrated together? What are the raw materials, where do they get delivered, and who delivers them? Think creatively and strategically; what would happen if this or that group of workers suddenly stopped working? If the porters did a slow-down at the delivery gates, who would it affect?
You will quickly realise that the production process goes far beyond your own workplace. This is why industrial unions and the IWW method is so vital! Which other workers and workplaces do you think you should link up with? If you are a cleaner, have a look at the brands on the side of the products that your supervisor orders in bulk. Where do they come from, does the chemical factory have a workplace union? You could reach out and form a relationship with them. If you work at a pub, do any local breweries supply you? Which company delivers the barrels every week? You should ask your IWW branch for insights; a fellow worker might ‘know someone,’ or you might even be able to convince a wobbly to salt that workplace!
4. Social mapping.
This is a vital part of mapping; learn about the people you work with. Who is friends with who, who is the boss’ relative, who is sympathetic to a union, who might be a snitch? Are there social groups? What are the common languages and who speaks them?
There will be a lot of crossover with the economic mapping; workers in close proximity will likely form their own friend groups. The cleaners will probably all be friends, and some of them will be pals with the forklift drivers. The forklift drivers go all over the worksite, and this driver is good friends with this person, that driver absolutely hates that manager etc.
This information will help you decide who to talk to first when you start forming your organising team. It will also reveal who you should avoid!
5. Identify social leaders.
Figure out who is well respected and influential. Who is the person that everyone goes to when they have a problem? Does anyone have a history of standing up to the boss? Are there some workers who are very popular and get on well with lots of colleagues?
However, whether or not a worker is influential goes beyond their sociability. It can relate closely with their role in the production process. As hinted above, the forklift drivers go all over the place, they probably know loads of people in lots of different circles. They might be able to pass information between workers who otherwise never get a chance to talk to one another. A popular worker in such a role would be an incredibly powerful person to have onboard! Remember, if you don’t get the social leaders on side, the boss will!
Your Job Your Union!
Mapping is an evolving process. As your organising team increases, your map and understanding of the workplace will become more nuanced. But these basics are more than enough for you to get started!
2. One-To-One Conversations – The Basics
Forming relationships with workmates is the backbone of organising. This next piece in our mini-series about workplace organising is all about one-to-one conversations. Listening to your workmates, learning about the issues, and guiding them into taking action!
Why are one-to-one conversations the best way to talk to workers?
1) Everyone has their own ideas and their own specific issues. You will only find out by asking them directly. If you only discuss these things in a group setting, some people will dominate and others will not be heard.
2) One-to-one chats are secure. You have control over the conversation, you can give out sensitive information at your discretion. It is better to find out that someone is the boss’ cousin in a one-to-one conversation than at a mass organising meeting later!
3) If you start with a mass meeting or a flyer, you will alert the boss right away. They will start their union-busting activity before you have had a chance to lay the groundwork. The one-to-one approach means that things progress at your pace.
Who should you have one-to-one conversations with?
This can be different in each context, but you could start with the influential workers and/or those who you think are most keen. If you have started mapping your workplace and you have a grasp on the main social networks, the information that you have gathered so far should help a lot when deciding who to talk to.
However, you might find it a lot easier to start with colleagues who you get along well with. This is certainly best if you are a bit nervous about the prospect of talking to other colleagues, it will help to boost your confidence and give you practice.
When and where should you have one-to-one conversations?
We recommend that you try to have a predetermined meet-up after work, or make the most of an unexpected opportunity you get out of work hours. For instance, maybe your child goes to football practice one a week and you sometimes bump into a colleague with their child there? You may be able to squeeze in a ten minute chat in the car-park while you both wait for the kids to finish up.
It is also very common, however, for these one-to-one conversations to happen at work, in small chunks over a couple of weeks. Ultimately, it comes down to what is easiest and most convenient for you both. If you do have these conversations at work though, BE DISCREET! You do not want to have anyone overhear you. If you have been ‘charting’ the workplace, your map will reveal some useful spots to have conversations, as well as some bad spots (not near open windows or on stairwells!)
What should you say?
This is where Agitate, Educate, Inoculate, Organise, Unionise comes in! This is NOT proselytising about the “historical righteousness of labour’s cause,” or converting someone to a specific political ideology. Quite the opposite; you want to know exactly where your co-worker is at. You want to know what they are angry about and guide them towards the positive idea that we have the power collectively to solve any problem.
A vital skill to develop is active listening. Remember the 80/20 rule: 80% listening, 20% responding.
AGITATE: Find out what the worker’s grievances and issues are. What makes them angry? Ask further questions; how do these problems impact them personally? Collectivise the issues; “you’re not alone, a few of us are annoyed at that too.” They might mention a problem that you have not heard of before. Ask if they know of other workers who are suffering as a result of it?
EDUCATE: Ask your colleague how they think things could be different. What do they think needs to change? Suggest that there are always solutions and if you all stick together you can take collective action to make it better. You should read up on the struggles going on in your industry across country and around the world. Give your co-workers examples of victories.
INOCULATE: All workers are fearful of organising. Be realistic, aware of difficulties and risks. Bosses will lie and try many tactics to stop you, even illegal ones. But if you stick together, if you are disciplined and organised, you will be safer than you would be alone.
ORGANISE: We need doers, give them a task. Have a list of easy, risk-free jobs and ask them to do one; “you’re mates with John, right? Can you ask him about the recent changes to the cleaners’ breaks?” If they do it, they’re a keeper!
And finally, UNIONISE: All workers are stronger and safer in a union. IWW can give advice, education, training, and resources to support workers to take action together. This is a long-term movement and this is how we grow. Bring ’em in!
These are the absolute basics of having one-to-one conversations with workmates. At first they will be awkward and you will make mistakes, but don’t worry, you will get really good at them with practice! Good luck and get chatting!
3. Build a Workplace Organising Team – The Basics
The third in our workplace organising basics mini-series. So far you have learned how to map your workplace and how to have one-to-one conversations with your workmates. Now you need to make a team capable of fighting the boss!
Making the team.
With your social map and from the conversations you have had with co-workers, you should be able to identify colleagues who are trustworthy, influential in the workplace, and want to do something to resolve problems. These colleagues will be the basis of your workplace organising team.
The first step is to bring them together; have a meeting to introduce yourselves, and plan a set of ongoing tasks. You should try to include these workers in the mapping that you have already started, and help them have their own one-to-one conversations with other colleagues. Invite them to the IWW so you can all have training and receive ongoing support! Get them clued up so you can begin to act as a unit!
Now that you have a small team you should be able to spread across the workplace. Make use of all your skills, contacts, relationships, and clout! Talk to colleagues in different departments, zones, language and social groups, and learn about the main issues across the workplace.
You should meet regularly to discuss progress and to support and encourage one another. After each meeting everyone should have a task to complete that week. These tasks do not need to be daunting; they could be as simple as getting a phone number for one of the kitchen staff who seems pretty sound. Try to find a balance that keeps everyone involved and valued, while not being burned out. There is no need to rush, go at your own pace and be sustainable. But never be a talking shop!
Continue to invite trustworthy workers into the team. You will begin to gather a list of common grievances and you will get a feeling as to which groups and individual workers are angry and want to do something. Now it is time to think about your first campaign!
Your first campaign.
Look through your list of grievances. Which issues impact which workers? You might decide that you need more experience and confidence before going after a big problem, so you could practice by tackling a small and simple problem first. On the other hand, there may be one overriding problem that a lot of workers have, and for which the members of the organising team came together in the first place.
There is no perfect blueprint as to how you do this, but you need information about the issue itself. What is it specifically? Who does it impact primarily? Are there additional problems that are caused or made worse by it?
Think POWER: who has the ability to resolve the problem? Is there a reason for why they might they not want it to be changed? Think about the alternative, what you would like to happen instead.
The IWW advocates an escalating strategy. Start with the simplest, easiest, least risky tactic. Try a collective letter signed by all of the workers impacted, clearly stating the problem and what should be done to resolve it. Include a date for when you expect a resolution.
If this doesn’t work, you should progress with tactics that move into the terrain of direct action, starting with the least risky. Here are some direct-action tactics you could use. Remember that you can do so much more than strike!
Expect union-busting. Your employer will try to stop you from organising and campaigning, legally or illegally. This can take many forms: from hiring an “independent” consultant to kick issues into the long grass; getting workers and supervisors to organise against you; holding “captive audience” meetings; pressuring workers individually with sob-stories to guilt them out of taking action; and sometimes illegally dismissing you. Your workplace organising team needs to read up and be aware of the various tactics a boss will use and “inoculate” your colleagues so they are less effective. The Union-Busting Playbook is a fantastic resource that organisers should become well-versed with.
If you have manoeuvred around the union-busting and your campaign is successful, tell colleagues about it! These little victories not only make our work life easier, they give us confidence and show that we are not powerless! You can inform workers about wins in a subtle way, so that you do not bait the boss into retaliating against you. Though, of course, it is vital to continue to inoculate workers that the boss could start union-busting at any time. It is not worth telling the boss that “we are a union” until you cannot achieve anything else without needing to do so.
In this mini-series you have learned how to map your workplace, talk to colleagues about issues, and make a team to fight back! You now have the basic tools to build the power of the working class!
Get organising, fellow worker!
4. Bonus Tips for Organisers
The final article in our miniseries about the basics of workplace organising. Below is a list of additional hints and tips from experienced organisers. They should nicely compliment the organising method that you have learned from the previous pieces.
First, DO NO HARM!
This is the Hippocratic Oath for organisers. You are dealing with your own and your colleagues’ livelihoods. Be patient, do not take unnecessary risks.
Keep a DIARY!
Be consistent, be on time, and do exactly what you say you will do. Do not take on too much work for yourself, and do not make promises you cannot keep. It is better to work a little bit slower than to rush around and leave things unfinished.
Get people active.
Workers develop and grow confidence through activity. Is someone interested? Have a small task ready they can do (see our previous pieces about mapping and one-to-ones for ideas.) Do not patronise, but do not always presume they know exactly what to do either. Start with small, easy tasks and scale up.
Take co-workers where they are at.
Listen to workers and see where they are coming from. Do not presume to know their opinions and do not presume to know the reasons for them. Try not to totally write people off if they’re bad on something; chances are they can be moved…
However, you do not have to put up with bigotry or other abusive behaviour. If a colleague is being disrespectful, you could ask if a colleague who gets along with them can talk to them about it. Otherwise, it really is not worth the stress, move on and concentrate on better workers.
There is “recognition,” and there is RECOGNITION!
Being the official bargaining unit with “formal recognition” means literally nothing if workers cannot enforce it. However, if you are trading problems in exchange for better conditions and you have got your boss sweating, you are being recognised!
An Injury to One is an Injury to All.
The aim is to shift the balance of power from the boss to the workers. Helping someone with an individual case such as a disciplinary is important, but it will not change conditions overall. The boss needs to know an individual problem relates to everyone and that all of you will all cause trouble until it is resolved.
Be prepared for setbacks.
It will not always go to plan, but that’s okay. Be patient; workers, bosses, and opportunities come and go. Something out of the blue might tip the balance in your favour. Remember to keep inoculating so that setbacks are less harmful.
Have a sense of humour! Try to make organising a pleasant alternative to work itself. All workers know a lot about how grim the situation is, but there is no point dwelling on it. Try to be positive; your vision, humour, and conviction can convince workers that you all can win.
Organise the working class, not the Left.
When you are drawing up your social map, you can note whether someone has left-wing politics but there is not much to be gained from it. Certainly do not recruit a worker to the workplace organising team or the IWW merely on the basis of their leftist identity. The ‘apolitical’ or conservative-minded person you least expect might end up being a superb organiser, while the person who talks a big game might be bloody useless!
Quit the ideological bickering!
Similarly, do not get caught up in political / ideological / historical tiffs. Demonstrate your methodology through your activity. This is a general point for all organisers and activists; what Lenin or Kropotkin said on this or that means nothing if there is no organising going on!
Work towards clear, attainable goals with benchmarks and paths to success. Vague goals like “raising awareness” are pretty immeasurable. Organise around things that make people’s lives better. In addition, when you have clear goals it is easier to know what you have and have not achieved; take stock and enjoy the victory when it comes!
Build up and respect the collective process.
Work through disagreements together, even if it takes time and reflection. Plan things collectively. Organising teams are strong when they have a plethora of knowledge, experiences, and perspectives. Likewise, do not be afraid to disagree, just try not to be a dick about it!
Protests are naff.
At worst, they are depressing and disempowering acts of mass-begging. At best, they tend to preach to the converted and rarely engage a different audience. Do not fall into the trap of endless ‘protest hopping.’ There are plenty of possible direct actions you can do instead!
Remember to log-off!
Do not rely on social media to organise; your communications end up relying on algorithms and you might not know who has seen which message. Set up phone-trees, email lists, knock on doors (maybe not in a pandemic). Try the IWW’s own Wobchat or the Interwob Forum. Ultimately, nothing beats speaking to people directly, face to face!
Organizing.work have published a really useful guide of common mistakes organisers make, and what you should do instead. Check it out!
Guide to taking strike action
Tips and advice on how to effectively organise and carry out strike action at your workplace.
Our labour is the ultimate weapon that workers possess. Without workers bosses cannot make a profit. Strike action can be very powerful, but at the same time it, at the very least, reduces take home pay. More worryingly it may also lead to dismissal. Hardly, surprising therefore, that strike action is usually last resort taken of workers.
Now, in the much of the west nowadays, the vast majority of workers have very little experience of organising or being on strike. Here are some tips if you are forced to take such action and/or you are locked out by management.
It is vital that all those on strike are directly involved in activities either in the form of picket duty, collecting cash, speaking or touring around, making contacts, speaking at meetings etc. These activities should not be confined to strike committees or more experienced members - by involving everyone this can help prevent boredom and stop isolation and demoralisation. Every striker should be encouraged to take part as it gives a purpose to the strike and helps make strikers class conscious. The most effective and inspirational way to involve all strikers is to regularly hold mass pickets.
All strikers should be involved in the democratic running of the dispute through being on a daily basis. If tasks are rotated this should ensure that each striker builds up his/her organising experiences. As many decisions as possible should be made (and be seen to be made) when all strikers are present. If a list of peoples' specific skills are drawn up at the beginning of the dispute it can give strikers a start to organise from.
Here are some suggestions of skills and tasks to get things working for you - they may not all apply to your situation but all the issues in this list need to be considered:
- Visiting workplaces, community centres and trade union meetings to speak and raise money
- Preparing resolutions for other union branch meetings
- Organising petitions and financial collection groups for outside supermarkets, workplaces etc
- Treasurer/s to oversee all monies coming in and being spent
- Producing posters and leaflets and other publicity
- A research team to investigate the company's finances, draw up a list of political contacts in other union branches, other unions, workplaces etc
- A press co-ordinator to issue statements to the press (including left-wing press)
- A welfare officer to attend to any striker's personal difficulties and to suggest forms of assistance - financial particularly but also legal assistance when someone is arrested and/or charged
- Entertainments group - to organise fund-raising social nights. These can help draw in other workers, and demonstrate to strikers' families and friends they are also seen as part of the struggle.
- Newsletter editors - a regular strike bulletin (daily if possible) is needed to let people know what is happening. This helps prevent rumours and can hold the strike together. The bulletin should encourage contributions from as many strikers as possible. This can be written and produced very quickly using Desk Top Publishing equipment if it is available.
- Legal officer - especially when people have been arrested and are awaiting trial, such a person can assist solicitors in getting statements. S/he may also wish to try and get legal observers at the pickets - these can help put some pressure on the police to behave properly.
- The most effective way to ensure direct democratic control of any dispute/strike action by those workers directly involved in it is to hold weekly (or more often) mass meetings. These should be used to discuss and democratically decide the conduct of the dispute and to elect people to run it on the striker's behalf between strike/dispute meetings.
- A strike committee (or action group, or whatever name is decided) should be elected by a mass meeting and thereafter accountable to, and anyone replaceable by, another mass meeting, if the strikers decide this is necessary. This group will co-ordinate the day to day work created by the decisions at the mass meetings. Any posts or committees should also be democratically elected in this way - there should be no appointments. The strike committee should include a secretary (takes minutes and co-ordinates on going work), treasurer and a chair (for meetings).
If a strike is to last then finance should be sorted out as quickly as possible - those on strike are going to run out of money very quickly without any wages coming in. Official unions often set up fighting funds but if controlled by union officials, the money obviously can't be controlled by the strikers.
In 'official' disputes small amounts of strike pay can usually be arranged by the union but not in 'unofficial' disputes.
Part of the strike committee should be given the responsibility for raising funds. All monies must be controlled by the strikers themselves - if it is controlled by the union bureaucracy then disagreements over the strike or tactics can lead union officials to threaten the strike by withdrawing the funds.
Factory/workplace collections are the usual source of money. Appeals should also be made to unions and community organisations. The biggest collections are usually made when a striker has had the opportunity to speak to other workers. There is nothing as inspiring to other groups of workers as hearing from people on strike.
Every penny should be accounted for. Any distribution of the funds should be made in a way agreed at a mass meeting. This will often cause problems but it must be done and be seen to be done. A treasurer should be accountable to the strike committee in between mass meetings.
This usually involves strikers' bulletins, leaflets for the general public, translation of materials and articles in newspapers. This should include the left-wing press, anarchist and socialist, which will be supportive. The most important communication, however, is direct - from worker to worker. Public meetings, including street meetings, can also be used to gather support. Leaflets need to be printed in all relevant languages.
Official or unofficial
Even today most strikes are unofficial, and it is almost certain that any strike for union recognition will be 'unofficial.' In brief the terms are used to define strikes which are covered by trade union legislation (which will differ in different countries) and those that are not. Trade unions can have their assets sequestrated if they support a strike not covered by trade union legislation.
We would argue that it is not that important whether a strike is official or not, if a group of workers are forced to take strike action then they should be supported, full stop. If the union officials don't support this then tell them to get lost.
There is a very long history of trade union officials initially giving support to a strike, offering help and assistance and then leaving the strikers to their own devices. It is essential that every strike committee should prepare their fellow members and strikers for this eventuality, financially, physically and psychologically.
This means that the strikers should organise independently of the union bureaucrats from the start and must seek to be self-supporting. Strikers need to be able to rely for aid and solidarity outside of the officials and bureaucracy.
The full-time official (usually appointed by other bureaucrats rather than elected by the workers) is supposed to represent and be under the control of the strikers. In reality, this rarely happens. The official's decisions will often (usually?) be what the union solicitor says is the best strategy, which in practice means anything is possible as long as it is within the anti-strike laws, or their interpretation of it.
Union officials will wish to avoid, at all costs any threat to the funds of the union. If union officials do attend strike meetings it should be made clear that s/he is a paid official and should therefore be expected to do as the members want - not the other way round. Beware: union officials sell out.
These are not well supported at the moment. If they come and offer support demands should be placed on them and their members. They should be expected to respect strikers' wishes. Those that do respect strikers’ wishes usually find a better hearing for their ideas in times of discussions, particularly during difficult periods in the strike.
A strike must not be subordinated to boost the potential of a revolutionary group over the needs of the people on strike. Collection sheets and materials should be headed with the strikers' logo/slogan and not that of the revolutionary organisation. This makes good sense anyway - many people are reluctant to give to such groups, and are more willing to give to a group of strikers.
Direct action/solidarity/flying pickets and anti-union laws
It is essential to put a daily picket on the workplace(s) which is the source of the strike.
However, unless it is a very large workplace (involving hundreds of workers) then very few strikes are ever won by keeping the action confined to the workplace(s) at the core of the dispute - strikers will quickly become isolated and eventually defeated.
If it is obvious that the bosses are not budging within a couple of weeks, then this may mean having to dig in and prepare for a lengthy battle. Solidarity action is the key to winning such a struggle. This means involving workers in other workplaces, usually with the same employers and sometimes unions. But not always, as other workers in and out of unions, often with different employers, are used to produce goods or do work to offset the loss of production at the source of the strike.
By far the best and most effective way to win solidarity action is to picket the workplaces of the workers you want (and need) to involve. These are called flying pickets by militant trade unionists but secondary pickets by the bosses, who are shit-scared of them and wish to outlaw such solidarity action by the use of anti-union laws.
All full-time, repeat all full-time union officials, fall into line with the bosses and the State's laws when they are used or even threatened. In most cases the threat of action will usually result in the full-time official distancing him/herself from any strikers organising flying pickets.
If these laws are threatened or used then a strike can only be won if the striking workers and their supporters are prepared to defy the law, the bosses who use it and the trade union officials who will not break it.
'Break the law, not the strike, not the workers' movement - no state interference in the democratic running of a trade union or workers struggles.'
As picketing is so vital, then so is the control of workers on a picket line. Stewards should be elected by a mass meeting to control the conduct of all workers and their supporters on the picket line. If other workers are brought in to assist in picketing, then these people should be clearly identified by the strike committee on this basis and subject to the control of the same committee.
The strike committee must always retain the right to remove anyone from the picket line who they decide is acting contrary to the interests of the workers on strike and placing a dispute in jeopardy by their conduct. Drinking of alcohol should be banned on picket lines.
Contact should be established with sympathetic lawyers when a strike and picketing takes place, as action in the course of a strike could lead to harassment and arrest. Legal support is very important in such circumstances.
The building of permanent links between workers is vital during a strike - this is especially the case with workers in the same firm and/or industry - this will help in defeating future attacks on all workers.
Regular direct contact between workers, before, during and after a strike, can go a long way to breaking isolation and encouraging rank and file resistance.
Unemployed people and scabbing
To guard against scabs it is essential to work amongst unemployed people - alongside Claimants' Unions or groups - and, if possible, to organise them, so that unity of action can be established to fight threats to end their meagre benefits if they do not accept scab jobs.
Leafleting or picketing of dole or employment agency offices, especially when strikers’ jobs are being advertised, is vital. Unemployed people should be encouraged to get involved in the strike. In the SITA bin workers strike of 2001, supporters leafleted employment agencies and blockaded coaches filled with replacement staff.
Discussion meetings between workers on issues relevant to a strike should be organised during and after the strike. This will encourage discussion and aid in the development of new ideas and tactics to use during the strike.
At the end of the strike the experiences of the workers should be written down. Successes and failures should be analysed and then they can be used in future strikes. Strikers may not win their particular struggle, but they can help others to learn from their experiences and win the next time.
The most effective means of preventing the employer/company from resuming production during a strike, or of disposing of the premises and assets, is by occupying the plant or office. Unless the numbers on strike are very large then it is likely that 'outside' support will be needed, including from amongst the unemployed. Details, methods and planning can only be decided on the site and according to the circumstances prevailing. Occupations and work-ins were a major part of the struggles by trade unionists in Britain during the 60s and 70s.
Strike support groups
It is important that as soon as possible that an independent Strike Support Group is set up. The purpose of this is for strikers and supporters to decide how best to co-ordinate support for the strike. This Group must be accountable to the strikers and no actions which are not supported by the strikers should be initiated.
These are just some (very brief) suggestions and basic guidelines for the conduct (and hopefully success) of an industrial dispute or strike.
The essence of taking and winning strike action is to keep this completely under the direct control of the strikers themselves and independent of the trade union and political bureaucracies - large or small.
The real message is: to win a strike strikers have to be prepared to fight the full time union officials as well as all the other forces ranged against them. All full time officials will settle for something which is infinitely more in line with what the bosses want than what the workers have been or are struggling for.
Updated from Revolutions Per Minute issue 2 (published in1996) February 24th 2003
Edited by libcom
Wildcat or official strike action?
A discussion of the relative merits of official strike action or unsanctioned wildcat action. Wildcat action has the benefits of being outside the pro-employer union laws.
The best-known form of direct action is the strike, in which workers simply walk off their jobs and refuse to produce profits for the boss until they get what they want. This is the preferred tactic of bureaucratic unions but is one of the least effective ways of confronting the boss.
The bosses, with their large financial reserves, are better able to withstand a long drawn-out strike than the workers. In many cases, court orders will freeze or confiscate the union's strike funds. And worst of all, a long walk-out only gives the boss a chance to replace striking workers with a replacement, or "scab", workforce.
Workers are far more effective when they take direct action while still on the job. By deliberately reducing the boss's profits while continuing to collect wages, you can cripple the boss without giving some scab the opportunity to take your job.
Unofficial, or wildcat, action - that is, organised with other workers independent of union officials bypasses anti-union laws meaning there are no union funds to sequester and there is no obligation to provide the bosses with advance warning - giving them the opportunity to arrange scabs.
Direct action, by definition, means those tactics workers can undertake themselves, without the help of government agencies, union bureaucrats, or high-priced lawyers. Running to an Industrial Tribunal (or outside the UK the relevant arbitration board in your country) for help may be appropriate in some cases, but it is not a form of direct action, and they too are generally weighted in the bosses’ favour, taking up a great deal of time and money.
Listed here are some of the most popular forms of direct action that workers have used to get what they wanted. Yet nearly every one of these tactics is, technically speaking, illegal. Every major victory won by labour over the years was achieved with militant direct actions that were, in their time, illegal and subject to police repression. After all, for much of history the laws surrounding trade unions were simple - there were none. Strikers were routinely beaten and killed by police and soldiers and imprisoned with extremely harsh sentences.
After years of relentless struggle, the legal right of workers to organise is now officially recognised, yet so many restrictions exist that effective action is as difficult as ever. For this reason, any worker contemplating direct action on the job - bypassing the legal system and hitting the boss where they are weakest - should be fully aware of labour law, how it is applied, and how it may be used against labour activists. At the same time, workers must realise that the struggle between the bosses and the workers is not a badminton match - it is war. Under these circumstances, workers must use what works, whether the bosses (and their courts) like it or not. Listed in this section, then, are the most useful forms of direct action.
It is worth bearing in mind that the best weapon is, of course, organisation. If one worker stands up and protests, the bosses will squash him or her like a bug. Squashed bugs are obviously of little use to their families, friends, and social movements in general. But if all the workers stand up together, the boss will have no choice but to take you seriously. They can fire any individual worker who makes a fuss, but they might find it difficult to fire their entire workforce.
Solidarity is strength!
Edited by libcom from an article by the Industrial Workers of the World
Dual power at work
The best way to get something done is simply organise and do it ourselves. At work this can take the form of dual power strategies - workers making changes to their work environment without seeking management approval.
Rather than wait for the boss to give in to our demands and institute long-sought change, workers often have the power to institute those changes on our own, without the boss's say-so.
Some practical examples:
The owner of a San Francisco coffeehouse was a poor money manager, and one week the wage packets didn't arrive. The manager kept assuring the workers that the cheques would be coming soon, but eventually the workers took things into their own hands. They began to pay themselves on a day-to-day basis straight out of the cash register, leaving receipts for the amounts advanced so that everything was on the up-and-up. An uproar ensued, but the cheques always arrived on time after that.
In a small printing shop in San Francisco's financial district, an old decrepit offset press was finally removed from service and pushed to the side of the press room. It was replaced with a brand new machine, and the manager stated his intention to use the old press "for envelopes only." It began to be cannibalised for spare parts by the press operators, though, just to keep some of the other presses running. Soon enough, it was obvious to everyone but the manager that this press would never see service again.
The printers asked the manager to move it upstairs to the storage room, since by now it merely took up valuable space in an already crowded press room. He hummed and hawed and never seemed to get around to it. Finally, one afternoon after the printers had punched out for the day, they got a moving dolly and wrestled the press onto the elevator to take it upstairs. The manager found them just as they got it into the elevator, and though he turned livid at this blatant usurpation of his authority, he never mentioned the incident to them. The space where the press had been was converted to an "employee lounge," with several chairs and a magazine rack.
Workers in one London office thought it unfair that only smokers were allowed to take 5-10-minute breaks whenever they pleased, so decided that all workers should be entitled to these breaks. Without asking management or HR, staff decided to just start taking them, and inform new members of staff of this "rule".
There are thousands of similar examples - why not think about what changed you can make in your workplace? Often systems and rules de facto implemented by workers can be difficult for managers to challenge afterwards for fear of rocking the boat or damaging a "co-operative" atmosphere.
Edited and added to by libcom from an article by the Industrial Workers of the World
Instead of striking, workers with demands that the bosses are unwilling to meet can collectively decide to start a go-slow. This article contains tips and advice.
By deliberately slowing the rate of work, all together, the bosses' profits are hit, without workers losing wages. If everyone sticks together in solidarity victimisation of individuals can also be prevented.
The go-slow, or slowdown, has a long and honorable history. In 1899, the organised dock workers of Glasgow, Scotland, demanded a 10% increase in wages, but met with refusal by the bosses and went on strike. Strike-breakers were brought in from among the agricultural workers, and the dockers had to acknowledge defeat and return to work under the old wages. But before they went back to work, they heard this from the secretary of their union:
"You are going back to work at the old wage. The employers have repeated time and again that they were delighted with the work of the agricultural labourers who have taken our place for several weeks during the strike. But we have seen them at work. We have seen that they could not even walk a vessel and that they dropped half the merchandise they carried; in short, that two of them could hardly do the work of one of us. Nevertheless, the employers have declared themselves enchanted with the work of these fellows. Well, then, there is nothing for us to do but the same. Work as the agricultural labourers worked."
This suggestion was obeyed to the letter. After a few days the contractors sent for the union secretary and begged him to tell the dockworkers to work as before, and that they were willing to grant the 10% pay increase.
At the turn of the century, a gang of section men working on a railroad in Indiana were notified of a cut in their wages. The workers immediately took their shovels to the blacksmith shop and cut two inches from the scoops. Returning to work they told the boss "short pay, short shovels."
Edited by libcom from an article by the Industrial Workers of the World
Good work strike
Advice and tips on taking good work strikes. Good work strikes involve doing your job to help customers, not bosses and can involve distributing goods or services without demanding payment, and more.
Instead of a conventional strike, workers with demands that the bosses are unwilling to meet can collectively decide to have a good work strike.
One of the biggest problems for service industry workers is that many forms of direct action, such as go-slows, end up hurting the consumer (mostly fellow workers) more than the boss. One way around this is to provide better or cheaper service - at the boss's expense, of course.
Workers at Mercy Hospital in France, who were afraid that patients would go untreated if they went on strike, instead refused to file the billing slips for drugs, lab tests, treatments, and therapy. As a result, the patients got better care (since time was being spent caring for them instead of doing paperwork), for free. The hospital's income was cut in half, and panic-stricken administrators gave in to all of the workers' demands after three days.
In 1968, Lisbon bus and train workers gave free rides to all passengers to protest a denial of wage increases. Conductors and drivers arrived for work as usual, but the conductors did not pick up their money satchels. Needless to say, public support was solidly behind these take-no-fare strikers. Tram workers in Australia did likewise in 1990.
In New York City, USA, Industrial Workers of the World restaurant workers, after losing a strike, won some of their demands by heeding the advice of IWW organisers to "pile up the plates, give 'em double helpings, and figure the checks (bills) on the low side."
Edited by libcom from an article by the Industrial Workers of the World
Guide to sick-outs
Rather than call a conventional strike, the sick-in is a good way to strike without striking. Sick-ins involve organising workers to call in sick simultaneously.
The idea is to cripple your workplace by having all or most of the workers call in sick on the same day or days. Unlike the formal walkout, it can be used effectively by single departments and work areas, and can often be successfully used even without a formal union organisation.
It is the traditional method of direct action for public employee unions in the United States, which are legally prevented from striking.
At a New England mental hospital, just the thought of a sick-in got results. A shop steward, talking to a supervisor about a fired union member, casually mentioned that there was a lot of flu going around, and wouldn't it be too bad if there weren't enough healthy people to staff the wards.
At the same time - completely by coincidence, of course - dozens of people were calling the personnel office to see how much sick time they had left. The supervisor got the message, and the union member was rehired.
In Denmark in 2006, 100 pilots went on sick-in in solidarity with striking pilots, and in 1969, thousands of American air traffic controllers went on sick-out for better conditions and wages.
Edited by libcom from an article by the Industrial Workers of the World
Rather than an all-out strike, rapid random stoppages can be highly effective. Here is some information about organising such selective, or lightning, strikes.
Unpredictability is a great weapon in the hands of the workers. In the US, Pennsylvania teachers used the Selective Strike to great effect in 1991, when they walked a picket line on Monday and Tuesday, reported for work on Wednesday, struck again on Thursday, and reported for work on Friday and Monday.
This on-again, off-again tactic not only prevented the administrators from hiring scabs to replace the teachers, but also forced administrators who hadn't been in a classroom for years to staff the schools while the teachers were out. The tactic was so effective that the Pennsylvania legislature promptly introduced bills that would outlaw selective strikes.
Firefighters have also struck just at certain times, just a couple of hours a day, losing the minimum pay but causing maximum disruption to management and potential strike-breakers.
Edited by libcom from an article by the Industrial Workers of the World
Sitdown strike or occupation guide
A guide to taking sit-down strike action or occupations, in which by suddenly refusing to work gains can be won rapidly.
A strike doesn't have to be long to be effective. Timed and executed right, a strike can be won in minutes. Such strikes are "sitdowns" or "occupations" when everyone just stops work and sits tight, or "mass grievances" when everybody leaves work to go to the boss's office to discuss some matter of importance. This can have many advantages over a conventional strike.
The Detroit Industrial Workers of the World employed the Sitdown to good effect at the Hudson Motor Car Company between 1932 and 1934. "Sit down and watch your pay go up" was the message that rolled down the assembly line on strikers that had been fastened to pieces of work. The steady practice of the sitdown raised wages 100% (from $.75 an hour to $1.50) in the middle of a depression.
IWW theatre extras, facing a 50% pay cut, waited for the right time to strike. The play had 150 extras dressed as Roman soldiers to carry the Queen on and off the stage. When the cue for the Queen's entrance came, the extras surrounded the Queen and refused to budge until the pay was not only restored, but tripled.
Sitdown occupations are still powerful weapons. In 1980, the KKR Corporation announced that it was going to close its Houdaille plant in Ontario and move it to South Carolina. The workers responded by occupying the plant for two weeks. KKR was forced to negotiate fair terms for the plant closing, including full pensions, severance pay, and payment towards health insurance premiums.
Edited by libcom from an article by the Industrial Workers of the World
Sometimes simply telling people the truth about what goes on at work can put a lot of pressure on the boss. This page contains information on using information to winning improvements at work.
Consumer industries like restaurants and packing plants are the most vulnerable. And again, as in the case of the good work strike, you'll be gaining the support of the public, whose patronage can make or break a business.
Whistle blowing can be as simple as a face-to-face conversation with a customer, or it can be as dramatic as the P.G.&E. engineer who revealed that the blueprints to the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor had been reversed. Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle blew the lid off the scandalous health standards and working conditions of the meatpacking industry when it was published earlier this century.
Waiters can tell their restaurant clients about the various shortcuts and substitutions that go into creating the faux-haute cuisine being served to them. When their complaints about poor hygiene were ignored, IWW Starbucks union members in New York took photographs of rats and cockroaches in the coffee shop outlets and showed them to customers on picket lines.
On a related line - almost all businesses are very scared of a tax audit...
Just as working to rule puts an end to the usual relaxation of standards, whistle-blowing reveals it for all to know.
Whistle-blowers should be warned, however, that this carries a high risk of getting the sack - particularly in a small organisation - so be careful!
Edited by libcom from an article by the Industrial Workers of the World
Work-to-rule: a guide
A short guide to working to rule - taking industrial action without losing pay by following your work's rules so strictly that nothing gets done.
Instead of striking, workers with demands that the bosses are unwilling to meet can collectively decide to start a "work-to-rule".
Almost every job is covered by a maze of rules, regulations, standing orders, and so on, many of them completely unworkable and generally ignored. Workers often violate orders, resort to their own techniques of doing things, and disregard lines of authority simply to meet the goals of the company. There is often a tacit understanding, even by the managers whose job it is to enforce the rules, that these shortcuts must be taken in order to meet targets on time.
But what would happen if each of these rules and regulations were followed to the letter? Confusion would result - productivity and morale would plummet. And best of all, the workers can't get in trouble with the tactic because they are, after all, "just following the rules."
Under nationalisation, French railway strikes were forbidden. Nonetheless, rail workers found other ways of expressing their grievances. One French law requires the engineer to assure the safety of any bridge over which the train must pass. If after a personal examination they are still doubtful, then they must consult other members of the train crew. Of course, every bridge was so inspected, every crew was so consulted, and none of the trains ran on time.
In order to gain certain demands without losing their jobs, the Austrian postal workers strictly observed the rule that all mail must be weighed to see if the proper postage was affixed. Formerly they had passed without weighing all those letters and parcels which were clearly underweight, thus living up to the spirit of the regulation but not to its exact wording. By taking each separate piece of mail to the scales, carefully weighing it, and then returning it to its proper place, the postal workers had the office congested with unweighed mail on the second day.
Or imagine this: In the United States, BART train operators are allowed to ask for "10-501s" (toilet breaks) anywhere along the mainline, and Central Control cannot deny them. In reality, this rarely happens. But what would management do if suddenly every train operator began taking extended 10-501s on each trip they made across the Bay? Working to rule offers many possibilities for action, and if workers stick together they can win without losing any pay.
Edited by libcom from an article by the Industrial Workers of the World
Making the most of spontaneous rebellions at work
Advice on how to react when a big issue immediately angers a large number of people at your workplace, in order to try to organise effective action and build collective confidence for further disputes.