A look at the exchange between Stan Weir and Sam Friedman on workplace organisation. The following article, which has been slightly edited for publication, was written in 1997 as a comment on an exchange in the US publication Against the Current dating to 1981/82. This article has been archived on libcom.org from the Red and Black Notes website.
The exchange between Stan Weir and Sam Friedman in the pages of Against the Current poses several important questions:
The organization of workplace groups and culture
The relationship of workplace activists to workplace groups
The role of organizations in class struggle
Weir's use of the notion of workplace groups to designate the social networks that arise in the workplace is a particularly useful one. Class consciousness, if we choose to use such an awkward term, develops out of a social consensus around a commonality of interests between people, as against other people arising from social conditions. It is easy to suppose that class is a "thing." Class is not. Class is a social relationship.
But class is a social relationship that is hampered and obscured by walls built by different departments, employments and cultures. Anyone who has been involved in a strike can testify to the liberating effects of class struggle. The secondary characteristics that often obscure our relationships become irrelevant.
Yet even in situations where there is no direct social conflict, group networks exist. Weir correctly notes that in the majority of cases we spend more actual time with our co-workers than we do with our friends and families. Is it any wonder that over time complex workplace networks develop?
But what of Friedman's contention that activist groups are a vital "component of informal work groups and workplace culture" ? No one can deny the positive contribution that activists can make to a struggle. A quick check on the background of the leadership of many social movements and trade unions will reveal an apprenticeship in a radical organization or two. On the other hand, the professional committee person also has the ability, and usually the will, to stifle an organization. In preexisting structures new and enthusiastic volunteers are quickly channeled into routine assignments where they will pose no threat to the stability of the group. The survival of the organization is co-important with the ostensible goal.
The problem with Friedman's notion of activists that "change the work culture and mobilize the work groups" as against Weir's conception of leaders emerging by "natural selection" is that it leads to the replication of existing social divisions. No matter what the subjective desires of the activists. The radical union organization is more likely the result of local exceptionalities than a successful activist leadership. Moreover, when the membership chooses not to follow its ‘radical' leadership, the leaders become angry and denounce the membership for its backwardness, its passivity, its lack of class consciousness etc.
As Michael Seidman pointed out in his study of the popular front in France and Spain Workers Against Work, those workers who followed their "radical" leaders' demands for higher productivity were "disciplined" by their workplace comrades. Regarding this kind of thinking, Paul Mattick once noted, it is the propaganda of events that changes the ideas in people's heads.
Weir's comments that automation and the changing nature of work have tended to undermine workplace groups (along with traditional union structures) only serves to underline his conclusions about the need for alternative organization. What form that development will take is uncertain.; however, given the history of workers' struggles, both for and against work, it is likely that those new forms will emerge from workplace groups.