Flash mobs as a form of struggle

The obedient shopper subverts their role to disrupt the circulation of commodities... flash mobs enter the terrain of class conflict.

Submitted by Red Marriott on October 9, 2009

"A flash mob ... is a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief time, then quickly disperse." (Wikipedia.)

Beginning in 2003, flash mobs were a form of activity organised via mobile phones and internet; bringing contacts together in public spaces to act out various bizarre acts of collective non-conformity such as pillow fights, water pistol battles, silent discos (where earphoned individuals dance to their personal stereos/mp3 players) etc. Like short pieces of performance art, briefly changing the normal usage of public space and providing a safe thrill of 'non-corformity' expressed as a crowd all doing the same pre-defined activity. But now a trade union - not organisations normally noted for their innovation or imagination - has begun to use flash mobbing as an effective tactic during strikes.

The German trade union Verdi, with a membership of nearly two and a half million employees in the retail and public sectors, organized around 150 men and women to visit a shopping center in Aschersleben in the state of Saxony-Anhalt last week;

The flash mob entered the shopping center and proceeded to load up shopping carts with an assortment of goods before simply leaving them standing in store aisles. Instead of paying for the goods, the flash mob passed over cards with slogans like "Fair Wages" and "Fair Means More." Business came to a stand still for about an hour and staff told reporters that it would take them all day to put the goods back on the shelves.

The protest had been organized as a result of disagreements over pay and conditions between Verdi and retail sector bosses in the states of Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia and Saxony. "With this new form of strike we wanted to draw attention to our problems. But we also wanted to let our colleagues in other sales areas know about our problems," union secretary Doris Finke told local newspaper Mitteldeutsche Zeitung.
http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,652867,00.html

Video here; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCJ6ZTSh19Y&feature=player_embedded

A largely peaceful event, one person was arrested in a scuffle with a security guard and a few others due to "damage to frozen goods" (presumably as they melted in shopping trolleys).

This flash mob occurred two days after a ruling by Germany's Federal Labor Court decided that flash mobs were a legitimate form of industrial action. The subject of this case was an earlier flash mob organised by Verdi in 2007;

During the 2007 event, that lasted around an hour, approximately 40 protestors filled their shopping trolleys to the brim with the cheapest items they could find and caused huge queues in a supermarket in Berlin's Ostbahnhof station. The flash mobbers also left their shopping carts standing there. One woman, for instance, went through the checkout with about €300 worth of goods costing an euro or less but once the cashier had totaled up her purchases, the shopper said she had left her purse at home.

The idea for the 2007 flash mob came about after protacted pay negotiations ended in a deadlock, Erika Ritter of Verdi who is responsible for the retail sector in Berlin-Brandenburg told the newspaper Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. Work stoppages had not helped -- which was why they had come up with the idea for a flash mob-style action. It had had an immediate effect on negotiations, Ritter said, and Verdi would consider similar actions again in the future. "But only when conventional strikes have not had any effect," she noted. (Op. cit.)

Nils Busch-Petersen, the head of Berlin-Brandenburg Trade Association - who brought the case against the union - responded to their legal defeat with "This form of industrial action is intolerable". He plans to appeal the labor court's judgment on flash mobs. "We are still waiting for the court's grounds for making this judgment," Busch-Peterson said. "But the trend is clear: And we want to file a suit against flash mobs with the constitutional court."

Flash mobs have also recently been used by climate change activists. It will be interesting to see if this spreads more widely - it's a tactic that could easily be applied to struggles and workers' disputes in various retail outlets; such as self-service food restaurants, 'Homebase'-type DIY supplies warehouses, electrical goods etc.

Comments

Caiman del Barrio

14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Caiman del Barrio on October 9, 2009

Interesting...don't think the above example of a supermarket would work in Britain. Security guards are always very happy to call the cops and not adverse to getting stuck in themselves. Surely once you've been instructed to leave the shop, you're trespassing if you stay?

Steven.

14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on October 9, 2009

I think the problem for the owners Alan is that they can't tell the difference between a "protester" and a shopper. So either they put up with the disruption or they close the store.

Red Marriott

14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Red Marriott on October 9, 2009

As I understand it, a bunch of people go in as apparent individual shoppers and fill up their trolleys, preferably with multiple cheap items, then clog up the checkouts by either claiming to have forgotten their purse after everything's been scanned thru the till or by just abandoning the full trolleys en masse. As seen at the end of the video linked to.

Joseph Kay

14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Joseph Kay on October 9, 2009

Ret that's right; i did this once for 'Boycott Israeli Goods' in my activist days. interesting to see it applied to class struggles; could be a useful way to support industrial disputes in certain sectors when we don't have significant membership there (i.e. all of them), only a few contacts.

miles

14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by miles on October 9, 2009

This flash mob occurred two days after a ruling by Germany's Federal Labor Court decided that flash mobs were a legitimate form of industrial action.

Isn't this rather the most significant thing about these? The highest industrial court says "it's ok" to do it...

It's not for nothing flying pickets are almost universally illegal.

Red Marriott

14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Red Marriott on October 9, 2009

miles behind

Isn't this rather the most significant thing about these? The highest industrial court says "it's ok" to do it...

How predictable that the ICC clone should denounce/dismiss whatever is not the most traditional form of struggle. So because it's not illegal (yet?) it's irrelevant and/or not effective for class struggle? So why is the bosses' Trade Association trying to make it illegal? Grow up and move on from the 19th century.

Anarchia

14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Anarchia on October 10, 2009

Ret Marut

As I understand it, a bunch of people go in as apparent individual shoppers and fill up their trolleys, preferably with multiple cheap items, then clog up the checkouts by either claiming to have forgotten their purse after everything's been scanned thru the till or by just abandoning the full trolleys en masse. As seen at the end of the video linked to.

Some people did this in various parts of NZ in 2006 in support of locked out workers at the distribution centres for one of the biggest supermarket chains. Mostly people felt that it was unnecessarily annoying for the checkout workers though (who had to reshelve everything), especially as they were going through negotiations at the same time and were also considering industrial action. Mostly it was replaced with people mass leafletting staff, shoppers and the empty shelves, which the checkout staff almost always turned a blind eye to.

Red Marriott

14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Red Marriott on October 10, 2009

Yes, certainly it wouldn't always be an appropriate tactic, Asher, and there would be better and worse ways of planning it and executing it. Though reshelving might not always be any worse than what workers would otherwise be doing.

Caiman del Barrio

14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Caiman del Barrio on October 10, 2009

When I worked in a supermarket, I personally much preferred reshelving over working on the till. Accept that that's purely anecdotal though...

RE the example video Ret gives, the fact that the shoppers were being filmed by news cameras kinda led me to believe that it was a coordinated, publicised move. Security and management would clearly be suspicious of hundreds of shoppers being followed by news cameras no?

Red Marriott

14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Red Marriott on October 10, 2009

I thought it was just one of the flash mob filming with their own camera. Some of the camera angles suggest the camera may have been in a bag for part of the time. And 150 people can disperse themselves easily in a large supermarket.