A review of the recently published book by the Angry Workers of the World "Class Power on Zero-Hours" published by PM Press.
On the back cover of Class Power on Zero-Hours, the Angry Workers of the World (AWW), a group based in West London, and heavily influenced by operaismo and syndicalism, make the bold claim that “it is essential reading for anyone who is grappling with the question: what next for working class politics and revolutionary strategy?”. This review examines how far the book’s fifteen chapters answer this important question.
The book documents the experiences of the AWW members who, as they say themselves, got fed up with central London, and parachuted themselves into the working class area of Greenford. Here there are factories where thousands of workers are employed, mainly immigrants or children of immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa and Eastern Europe. The AWW moved into the area and worked in the various factories for a period of six years putting great energy into trying to foment solidarity, struggles for wages and conditions and strikes, as well as assisting with social problems. Their efforts included leafleting, joining the official unions, assisting recruitment for rank and file (or base) unions and producing a newspaper. The book is a fairly honest account of all this and shows how they failed to achieve their objectives.
At the end of one of their most sustained efforts to achieve grass roots solidarity and a struggle for pay and conditions, namely the struggle at the Bakkavor ready meal factory, they conclude: “Things didn’t work out this time, but that’s the class struggle folks! Better luck next time.” This is a summation of their efforts. They now have decided to leave Greenford for reasons which are not absolutely clear but between the lines it looks like individual militants have drifted away burnt out with their efforts. What is ironic is that the book ends with a call to build a grass roots organisation urging others to follow precisely the strategy which the book documents as having failed.
But let’s begin at the beginning. In the introduction they say, “This book documents our experiences. It is material for getting rooted. It is a call for an independent working class organisation.” They suggest “a different kind of class politics, one that is embedded in the daily lives of working class people.” For the AWW, a major problem is that the “left” have “no concrete relationship with working class people.” The AWW felt “an urgent need to break out of our cosmopolitan bubble and root our politics in working class jobs and lives.” And now they hope to persuade others to adopt their model of organisation. To embed themselves in the workplace and “fight the bosses” using what they would term a “class union” as a “vehicle” for organising the workers. We will go on to examine what they mean by “class unionism.”
In their introduction, the AWW identify “four layers” of an organisation. These are: workplaces, a solidarity network, a newspaper and an organisation. Together these comprise their “organisational framework”.
They correctly see workplaces as central because “our ability as producers is crucial in our aim to create another society.” While a solidarity network is important to them because, “we have to drive a wedge between the middle class and lower ranks of the working class, through direct mutual aid, action and solidarity.” The solidarity network will assist in building the “class union.” Their newspaper, Workers’ Wild West, is important to “share experiences from the solidarity network and from workplaces and to reflect on them.” And the final layer, organisation, is needed “to hold together the solidarity network, the activities in workplaces and the newspaper and to give it all a direction … Our organisation has to be of practical use for the class and at the same time provide a compass: these are the conditions for our class to act independently from the parliamentary and state system, and these are steps the movement can take to capture and defend the means of production.”
In a book of almost 400 pages, we will largely concentrate on the chapters concerning the workplace, organisation and revolutionary strategy because these are necessarily linked; the organisation being the embodiment of the distilled lessons of experience derived from the history of working class struggles. Any organisation aspiring to be a revolutionary force in society must have a praxis, that is a body of tried and tested theory which informs their intervention in the class. We will first examine the AWW’s ideas on organising the working class and then go on to see how this fits in with their “revolutionary strategy.”
The Workplace & Organising the Working Class: Mainstream, Base or Class Unionism?
The book’s introduction tells us that the AWW were formed in 2014. In chapter 3 we read about two separate actions, early in their history, where members of the AWW, as agency workers on temporary contracts, organised a refusal to work overtime at a Waitrose warehouse complex and then a slowdown at a similar Sainsbury site. At the Waitrose site they were able to persuade most temp workers to refuse to work overtime in opposition to the change of contract and this lasted for a short period. But there was a marked difference in solidarity between temporary and permanent workers and management were able to use the permanent workers and union reps to cover the overtime not being worked. At the Sainsbury site they managed to get three quarters of temps to follow their example and significantly reduce their productivity rates to below 70% of the norm, which earned the attention and anger of management. The three AWW members involved were identified as the ring-leaders of the slowdown and sacked after a disciplinary process.
As a result of the actions described in chapter 3 it seems the AWW concluded that the main unions and their representatives cannot be appealed to or relied upon to help in any actions being organised by them in support of workers’ immediate interests. For example, “when agency workers jointly stopped working overtime, Wincanton were able to use the permanent staff as scabs, which saved the company from serious trouble. With the union reps more than willing to help management out, temps were a bit screwed.” And in the Sainsbury slowdown, after two members of the AWW had joined Unite in order to garner support from the union for their action, they say, “the union never approached us. You would think that if temp workers start joining your union you would make an extra effort to welcome them, hoping that you would be able to organise the other temps too. But this obviously wasn’t going to happen. This meant that there was no practical use in asking our workmates to sign up to the union as there was little chance for a short-term plan of action that could improve things.”
The union did not bother with recruiting temp workers when there is such a high turnover of them, and when they can be paid lower rates than permanent workers. And despite the AWW’s appeals to the regional Unite office to get the site reps to defend them against management in their disciplinary meeting, they were told it was a matter for the site reps and were referred back to them, who in turn said they “didn’t want to be involved in unofficial action.” Nothing ventured, nothing gained we suppose; but regional management were not going to overrule their site representatives.
So what conclusions did the AWW draw? You would expect that from this experience, if not from the many lessons of struggles past, the AWW would have rejected mainstream union representation as a way for workers to struggle in the workplace. Yet referring to the union at the Waitrose site, the writer seems surprised that, “Five years on, what’s happening? The union is still crap.” As if the union was going to change character after five years or indeed any amount of time! The established unions have been fully integrated into the state apparatus for more than a century, and it is because the mainstream unions everywhere are uninterested in representing low paid temporary and gig workers that this gap in the market is being filled by the new base unions, which in 2015 the AWW apparently discovered.
The passage on page 272 entitled, “To Rep or not to Rep” discusses whether or not a revolutionary should become a union representative. “As a rep you have to obey the rules laid out in the recognition agreement. You are also seen as a representative of the union apparatus, so even if you do ‘good work’, you end up putting a gloss on a union institution that essentially cannot be turned into a weapon for workers. Here we would have to look at the deeper historical and material reasons why unions in modern capitalism have become what they are, machines of co-management of exploitation.” Despite this “apparent understanding”, in chapter 10, part of the second of three “workers’ inquiries” in the book, we see the writer with other comrades experiment again with becoming union reps in a Tesco CFC in Greenford. As they say, they “wanted to see if the union structure would allow us to meet more workers both within the company but also beyond the company” and “to widen the scope of workers’ involvement with each other.” In fact, the decision, they say, can be seen as part of their workers’ inquiry.
Inevitably, the writer experiences difficulties in trying to be at one and the same time workplace organiser and union rep. Prevented from starting a union newsletter by senior union officials and unsupported by the other reps, the writer found it hard to start an unofficial newsletter. Attempts to distribute the AWW paper gained the attention of management and the writer became “marked” by management and therefore decided that, “the best form of defence is calculated attack.” He informed the Health & Safety Authorities about management’s practice of penalising workers after accidents; put in a grievance against “some high-ranking managers for not letting me conduct union surveys”; and finally called for a break time protest against redundancies. For this he was called into a meeting with the main CFC manager and the area USDAW organiser and heard them say to each other, “we can’t physically stop him but I have seen cases where union reps not only lost their role as reps but also their job.”
After becoming involved in some minor disputes with management over the picking of 6 x 2 litre water packs and seeing the union fail again to oppose redundancies and support workers over the consequent increase in workload the writer concludes, “in the end you feel like a caricature of a union rep – you hand in one grievance after the other but management just isolates the issues. You cannot threaten to use the usual union tools (newsletters, meetings, etc.) against them, because the union itself doesn’t back you up. So in many ways it was a strategic mistake to become a union rep under these conditions.”
We are wondering why this “strategic mistake” was made in the first place when the AWW had already dismissed mainstream unions in favour of “class unions.” Why was there no attempt to use base unionism or create a “class union” here? “Lack of capacity” hardly seems an adequate answer when the alternative seems to have been “bang[ing] our heads against brick walls as shop stewards in the bigger unions.” They might as well instead have banged their heads against brick walls trying to build a “class union.” There are many contradictions in the AWW’s approach to organising workers, one of the chief of which is that they want to try to urge workers to take militant action before they are ready for it. The only way to do this is to resort to the union organising model and this not only pre-empts class-consciousness but ends up stifling it.
The Next Best Thing to a Class Union: The Industrial Workers of the World
Chapter 11, the 3rd workers’ inquiry, set in a 3D printer manufacturing plant, focusses on an attempt to set up a branch of the IWW. It seems that the AWW had decided in this case that the established unions and their representatives could not be used, since the plant was largely un-unionised, but the workers lacked sufficient consciousness to form a class union. The writer’s remarks about the GMB union from chapter 8 which is about an attempt to organise a strike in a Bakkavor plant sum up the AWW’s contradictory approach: “The culture of working class struggle (as well as the infrastructure), is not there any more and needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up. If my experience is anything to go by, the mainstream unions are not up to the job in any substantive sense.”
So it seems five members of the AWW worked in the 3D plant in 2016 and returned to the factory gates a year later in 2017 having signed up to the IWW and together with IWW people tried to get workers to set up their own branch of the union. It is reported that these workers are low waged and are put on reduced hours when it suits the company. They leafleted workers and, they say, “addressed the fact that some workers had had bad experiences with mainstream unions and emphasised that with the IWW decisions are made by workers themselves, supported by other workers,” and pointed out the hypocrisy of management. They tried to get workers to meet them outside of work but this failed because in reaction to the AWW’s efforts to organise them management bought off the workers by offering a £100 bonus and promising improvements in working conditions. Instead of regarding this a minor victory in that even the fear of collective action had forced the bosses to make concessions the chapter concludes, “So workers received an extra bonus but still have no union.”
The workers still had no union and the AWW still had no success in creating a branch of the IWW let alone creating a “class union.” This kind of voluntarist activism especially in periods of low class struggle inevitably leads nowhere. The AWW were chasing unicorns.
Confusion and Inconsistency
Chapter 6 entitled “Syndicalism 2.0 and the IWW organising drive” attempts to explain the genesis of their positions regarding unionism and appears to show that the AWW have understood the role that mainstream unions play in the decadent period of capitalism and even has a critique of syndicalism. The chapter describes their embrace in 2015, and subsequent rejection, of syndicalism including a rejection of the IWW in favour of what they call “class unionism”. Yet we see various attempts to use the mainstream union framework to organise workers as described in chapters 3, 8, 10 and 11 during the six years of their existence, which suggests that the AWW still think that in certain circumstances the unions can be used as a tool in the interests of the working class. They even continue to try to use mainstream unions instead of base unions after saying that the Italian SiCobas1 union was a revelation to them when they discovered it because “they were able to get migrant workers struggling” and so were the way forward. Then after apparently rejecting base unionism later in the chapter, including the IWW, in favour of “class unionism”, we see the AWW nevertheless try to set up a branch of the IWW. If all this appears to be contradictory and confusing, that is because it is.
While acknowledging “the pitfalls of syndicalism”, the AWW give as one reason for using the IWW during an “IWW Organising Drive” described on page 114 as, “the fact that the IWW could act as a legal vehicle to organise a strike for higher wages within a short period of time”. It is this need to act within the bourgeoisie’s legal framework that constrains and delimits organising. It is inevitable that you will be trapped in this legal framework as you attempt to negotiate the minimum wage (an arbitrary sum determined by the bourgeoisie) on behalf of workers.
The phrase ”workers’ autonomy” is mentioned a lot in the book but if the objective really is to raise the consciousness of workers this is not the way to go about it. The AWW’s whole approach leads them to run a major risk of burnout. Their method of adopting any “vehicle” available (be it a mainstream union, a base union, a class union, or a solidarity network) to help “organise” workers betrays a complete inconsistency in approach and a contradiction of stated political positions.
So if “class unionism” really is an aspiration of the AWW, what is it? On page 111 we learn that “a class union shares many traits of rank and file unionism.” It is not a service union and it is not overly bureaucratic. It is for all workers not just certain professions or sectors. What makes it different from the IWW is that it “would be an explicit organisation to fight the bosses, not a vehicle for this or that political cause.” As an example they tell us that “the IWW support regional and national liberation movements”.2 A class union “would be totally self-organised, meaning no professional organisers. And most importantly, it would have a firmer class line.” This means apparently that a class union would not support pay differentials, for example, which would be divisive.
For the AWW there are three material foundations for a class union:
• “It can act as a formal and legal vehicle to take strike action.”
• “It can act as a unifying force amongst workers who are in need of associational power.”
• “It is an organisation for times when the class movement is too weak to create more offensive forms of organisation.”
But these three “material foundations” for a “class union” bespeak a kind of substitutionism for class-consciousness. It is unsurprising that the AWW find this necessary when on page 113 we read, “workers in our neck of the woods weren’t approaching us with the idea they wanted to fight. It was more like trying to convince them they should. This cold approach was immediately at a greater disadvantage than operating from a position where workers approach you, ready and willing to engage.” Workers ready for a fight don’t need a union to organise it for them. And the most class-conscious workers will give a lead to less class-conscious workers but this will only happen in the right conditions. It cannot be forced.
Class Autonomy and the Capitalist Crisis
In many ways chapter 6 is the most interesting chapter in the book. It is a pity then that the AWW ignore their own analysis of mainstream unionism and their understanding of syndicalism and base unionism. However, it is significant that the analysis of “class unionism” takes up only one page of the whole chapter and is mostly quoted above. On page 110, the writer says that class unions should be doing everything in their power to make leaders unnecessary but this is impossible within a union framework. The negotiators of the price of wage labour will always emerge as the leaders. A permanent organisation such as a union will inevitably become bureaucratic. The AWW tie themselves in knots trying “to dissolve the boundaries between organisers and organised”, but this is an insoluble problem. The whole concept of “organising” workers is one which leads to the control of the struggle being taken out of workers’ hands. But the AWW know full well the dangers of organising workers in this fashion, and if their aim really is to develop a revolutionary strategy, they are going the wrong way about it.
Attempts to create such a class union would result in failure or at best in simply establishing a traditional base union which would eventually end up behaving exactly like a mainstream one. A bureaucracy would necessarily arise which would put the union organisation before the struggle, as the experience of the various Cobas organisations in Italy shows. Even in the UK we have seen that the first thing rank and file unions do is to sign up members and get them paying dues. Their priority is to build their union.
And unions remain on the terrain of negotiating working conditions. In periods of militancy, an attempt to create a “class union” would either be superfluous or counter-productive, and a barrier to the growth of an anti-capitalist class-consciousness. Revolutionaries in the workplace in such a situation should be the first to call for a workers’ assembly to discuss next steps. Workers have shown countless times that they know how to organise themselves when they are ready. Workers assemblies and strike committees appear in times of militancy. In workplaces where there are already militants of the revolutionary organisation they will likely have a part to play in this. Our primary role as revolutionaries is to provide a political perspective and push for the extension of struggles in and outside of the workplace whenever they arise. To “get involved in struggles in [our] workplace and community – but without ever becoming paid organisers, union representatives, or struggle consultants (we don’t want to reproduce the division of labour between revolutionaries as “service-providers” and workers as “service-users”).” (leftcom.org) We support those demands that extend the struggle and criticise those that don’t – but we are not just trying to win higher wages for workers, we are trying to abolish the wages system!3
We said above that the AWW “appear” to have understood the role that unions play in the decadent period of capitalism but the AWW only pay lip service to the idea that capitalism is in structural crisis. A structural crisis means that due to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall the capitalists are forced to attack the living standards of the working class in order to extract more profits, both directly through wage cuts and indirectly through reductions in the social wage. In such conditions, as we wrote in the context of a SiCobas led strike in Rome a few months ago:
"An internationalist communist intervention must, necessarily, try to do what SiCobas, and other movements like it, do not and cannot do because of their nature as trade unions, that is movements which operate entirely within the system. This means we have to link immediate demands directly with the perspective of class struggle against capitalism. In short, it must be said that the dispute [...] is an immediate struggle that must be supported by the whole class, beyond the boundaries of sector or this or that trade union acronym — up to this point some of the speeches we heard would agree — but since the cause of workers’ exploitation is capitalism itself, and since the crisis of capital — the crisis, a great theme totally absent from any of the interventions we witnessed — is a structural crisis, then it is necessary, while fighting for the immediate demand, to emphasise that we cannot stop there at any struggle. Never." (leftcom.org)
A Note on “Capturing and Defending the Means of Production”
In chapters 12-15 on revolutionary strategy the writer sets great store by analysing how production is organised, the location of key installations, etc. in order that workers can better plan how to take over control of the means of production. Strikes are praised as a way “we can organise work differently, potentially without the mediation and control of capital” but the writer never says anything about the political struggle, and talks about the state only in terms of defending the means of production. There is no talk of going on the offensive. If we passively ignore the state in a revolutionary situation while we are on the front foot, we will sooner or later be forced to face an offensive from the state once the bourgeoisie have rallied their forces and revolutionary momentum has waned. The priority must be, as soon as proletarian forces are powerful enough, to completely dismantle the capitalist state wherever the revolution occurs first and then concentrate efforts on extending the revolution to every other country.
At the same time the process of removing the control of the law of value over our lives has to be begun though it cannot be completed until the capitalist state has been destroyed everywhere. Yet we read in chapter 13 that, “the two main strategies of the ‘radical’ left – the violent attack on the state and its armed forces, and the peaceful electoral taking over of government, which seem to be the two extreme ends of the political spectrum – are both misjudging where the power of the system lies.” We would suggest that it is the writer who has completely misjudged where the power of the system lies. Incredibly, they go on to write, “violent insurrection or electoral politics don’t help to undo the power of capital, as they don’t actually question its power to determine how we produce and therefore how we live our lives.” Obviously, a change of government will not undo the power of capital. This is the goal of the capitalist left who think state capitalism is socialism. But does the writer really think the capitalist state will stand idly by while the workers are busy in the workplace reorganising production along socialist lines?
Again, we can learn from history. The events in Spain (1936-9) or Italy (1919-20), which saw the working class take over the means of production while leaving the state untouched and free to make its plans for counter-revolution, led to a resounding defeat once the momentum had been lost and the capitalist class had rallied. The tragedy here is that in both cases there was no political organisation at the time capable of leading the class towards the overthrow of the state. In fact, the whole approach of the AWW to fomenting working class struggle with its emphasis on building a “solidarity network” is more like Gramsci’s gradualist perspective which focussed only on the factory and ignored the power of the capitalist state. As Bordiga put it at the time, revolution is not simply a process of building up workplace democracy and proving that the working class could “responsibly and efficiently manage production”. Rather it is a conscious political movement to overthrow the existing state that has to be centralised and coordinated by an organisation with a clear revolutionary programme. The AWW seems to shun taking responsibility for political leadership, preferring to let the working class re-learn lessons that are already part of its historic experience and which revolutionaries carry down through time.
A real world example of the AWW’s confusion on this question can be found on libcom.org with the AWW’s post entitled, “Factory occupation! Temporary and permanent Honda workers in Manesar India”. In introducing the factory occupation they say, “What we lack is a collective reflection of the inner-dynamics and global dimension of the current protests. We lack a vision of how to go beyond the clash with state forces and to imagine a collective take-over of the means to produce a better life. This is why struggles such as the current factory occupation of Honda workers are of essential importance. They are literally occupying the means to produce, and in doing so, finding new ways to develop collective knowledge.”
What does this really mean? The debate around this question on libcom is quite revealing. It shows that where the AWW are in a position to give a political lead to the working class by agitating for an extension to the strike and moving the struggle beyond the limits of the occupation, they prefer to prevaricate and wait for the workers to achieve that perspective spontaneously. This kind of workerism, as well as failing to provide political leadership, can also lead to workers’ confusion. To quote Fredo Corvo from the dialogue with the AWW, “In the present situation in Manesar this implies agitation by these minority organisations for extension to other workers. I’m sorry to say that I have no indication that you are doing this now, and that you seem to wait until workers will do this ‘spontaneously’. This is a point to clarify because this doesn’t only concern Manesar or India but workers all over the world, a tiny minority is trying to follow what you are doing.” They then ask the AWW the question, “Is it possible that your efforts in creating a permanent organisation for larger numbers of workers, have made you reluctant to bring forward what you as a smaller minority see as necessary in struggle?” This is a very pertinent question. We think the AWW’s obsession with their industrial “strategy” is blinding them to the need for revolutionaries to give political leadership.
In the book’s introduction, the AWW say, “we put ourselves on the communist left”. This is a welcome announcement but a lot of disparate individuals, groups and tendencies are starting to adopt this label without really understanding its significance and it is beginning to lose its meaning.
The Communist Left spent the years following the defeat of the revolutionary wave that brought the First World War to an end analysing and drawing the lessons of that defeat. Many of the ICT’s positions today derive from that analysis and form a significant part of our programme. We know the AWW are dismissive of the lessons of the communist programme; “the programme doesn’t exist on paper.”4 It is ancient history they say and is no longer relevant to the modern world. But the content of Class Power on Zero-Hours only confirms that what we now maintain in theory is based on actual experience. By ignoring what the Communist Left critique of the unions is, the AWW have been forced to relearn it in practice. Rejecting or failing to understand the hard won lessons of the programme means that you are condemned to repeating the mistakes of the past.
No group which is really part of the Communist Left would work within the IWW, or share a platform with the leftist AWL. In fact, the AWW share similar confusions with the defunct British group, Solidarity (a group they very much admire) which came out of Trotskyism and never completely broke with leftism or resolved their confusions on the union question.5
At the end of the book, the AWW reflect on the successes and failures during the 6 years of their existence: “we … try to encourage others by being a practical example and having a clear political line.” We couldn’t agree more that a clear political line is necessary but so far we have seen no evidence that the AWW have one.
The AWW haven’t made much progress, they say, by operating on an informal level and hoping that people will simply join them. They now reluctantly concede that constituting a more formal organisation may be necessary and that this will, although “traditional and tedious”, involve building an “organisation with a political platform.” Thus they want “others to join and build chapters in their area. To lay down that this is not about ‘joining’ but about establishing roots within the class on similar lines (solidarity network, strategic workplace groups, newspapers). To develop a clear structure of ‘self-education’ with worker comrades who are interested in joining.”
In some ways this is to be welcomed by those of us who have been attempting the “traditional and tedious” for decades. Our aim has always been to establish nuclei of workplace groups but we have only succeeded in doing this in Italy. Even here these groups have risen and fallen with the rise and fall of local struggles. Our Italian comrades have been able to maintain a factory group in the FIAT factories of Turin and Asti for most, if not all, that time (the 1950s were as hard as today for organising in the workplace) but it has not been easy. Our experience of the victimisation of militants by both unions and bosses (often in cahoots, as AWW found out) means they do all they can to prevent us from functioning. And remember what we have been trying to do is establish political and not merely defensive or demand organisations in the workplace. This is a tougher task and like AWW we have more failures than successes to report. These include the best comrades being amongst the first to be laid off but also some being enticed by the siren calls of the unions (or pressure from their workmates) to enter the bottom rung of the union structure only for them to become demoralised. In reality none of us can transcend the actual level of consciousness of the struggle. And voluntarism is no substitute for the long and patient work of constant contact that is needed to build a revolutionary political organisation that is rooted in the working class. Until the class in general revives we have little water to swim in. Today the signs are that amongst younger workers there is a growing recognition that the working class has paid the price for 40 years of capitalist crisis but apart from the most deprived migrant workers (this is a global phenomenon) few sectors have as yet become openly combative.
This might be something we could fruitfully discuss with the AWW but since the publication of the book, they have announced on the web a “founding conference” to be held in Autumn this year in order to discuss “working class strategy and organisation” along the lines described above. There is a link to the AWW’s platform, around which the new organisation will presumably develop. However, the platform contains many of the confusions criticised above. We doubt that this initiative to create a more formal organisation will be any more successful than their earlier efforts. But if it does get off the ground they can take this as our first contribution on the important questions of revolutionary strategy they have raised but not solved.
- 1For details on SiCobas see leftcom.org
- 2Presumably they mean IWW support for the Kurds in Rojava. They don’t seem to know that SiCobas (what some Bordigist groups call a “class union”) is also a supporter of national liberation for oppressed peoples. It helps to sell their message to the migrant workers they organise.
- 3For more on our strategy in relation to workplaces see leftcom.org
- 4Class Power on Zero-Hours, p.10
- 5And which the bulk of the Communist Left in Britain emerged from, including the founders of Revolutionary Perspectives, the forerunner of the CWO.