The recent decision by Starbucks to attack its workers’ conditions (cutting paid lunch breaks, sick pay and other work benefits) in response to public pressure to pay its tax bill – public pressure partly generated by direct action organisations like UK Uncut – has highlighted ongoing concerns over the effectiveness of “Tax justice” campaigns and their relationship to class struggle organisation.
The recent decision by Starbucks to attack its workers’ conditions (cutting paid lunch breaks, sick pay and other work benefits) in response to public pressure to pay its tax bill – public pressure partly generated by direct action organisations like UK Uncut – has highlighted ongoing concerns over the effectiveness of “Tax justice” campaigns and their relationship to class struggle organisation. Undoubtedly UK Uncut will continue to incorporate workers’ rights issues into its public actions against the Starbucks chain. What the move highlights, however, is the complete incapacity of these tactics to manifest as useful tools of social struggle (even of basic self-defence) for the workers affected, or indeed the absence of any foresight that differentiates between the actions of the “brand” and the largely powerless and unorganised workers who are employed by it. There is a good analysis concerning this by a member of the Solidarity Federation – “Tax justice, austerity and class struggle” – what is, however, slightly less satisfactory is the way this analysis reflects on another, well respected campaign currently being organised and supported within the UK anarchist movement – the Boycott Workfare Network.
The objectives of the Boycott Workfare Network are simple. The website gives them as the following:
“Boycott Workfare is a UK-wide campaign to end forced unpaid work for people who receive welfare ... We are a grassroots campaign, formed in 2010 by people with experience of workfare and those concerned about its impact. We expose and take action against companies and organisations profiting from workfare; encourage organisations to pledge to boycott it; and actively inform people of their rights.”
This is a network that has been most strongly supported by the IWA affiliated Solidarity Federation, but also has had local anarchist groups and Anarchist Federation groups participate. As well as organising ongoing public boycotts of workfare employers (usually in the form of a public protest or “picket” discouraging costumers to frequent the store), the campaign provides information for those on workfare schemes via the website and usually provides information to the workforce during its actions. These two sides of the campaign are not entirely harmonious and throw up certain contradictions that Phil (Libcom blogger “Phil”), at least partly, acknowledges in his article:
“pickets against workfare have often explicitly approached staff and promoted the need to organise. The aim is still to disrupt business and threaten profits, but with the rights of workers an explicit part of the agenda it becomes a lot harder to take this out on them.”
Likewise the Boycott Workfare Network secured its own Pyrrhic victory earlier this year when one of the early targets, the health food chain Holland and Barrett, announced it would be pulling out of the workfare scheme only to replace these posts with a salaried apprenticeship scheme. Undoubtedly a victory for the workfare campaign against unpaid work but one which did not secure a standard minimum wage for all employees (National Minimum Wage for apprentices is £2.65 per hour) nor was it a move that the existing campaign was in any real position to fight further on.
It is not our intention here to try and downplay the clear positive affects that the UK Uncut actions and Boycott Workfare campaign have had in terms of both changing employer policy and showing the power of public pressure via direct action over institutional channels (lobbying MPs, collecting petitions etc). Instead, our intention with this article is to clearly point out why, in both cases, these tactics have reached the limits that they have, why it is necessary to consider an alternative framework for judging the success of organisational work and why an organising culture premised principally on the initiation of “actions” and “campaigns” (what we would identify as “activism”) is ill-suited for the patient, complex and hard work of class organising.
What is classtivism?
The economic crisis has, in the last decade, created an entirely new context for social justice struggles. The attacks on the living standards of the working class, the environment and the continued military intervention of imperialist states across the globe are set at a brutal pace. This is while the official trade union movement has sought only greater accommodation and acquiescence within the new austerity regime. The Left has shown itself to be similarly lacking in imagination, adopting the tired and ever failing tactics of electoralism and work within the same shrinking trade unions as the scope of their limited ambition. This is within the larger context of a much deeper collapse of working class culture and identity, which leaves no obvious space for the growth for an alternative, anti-austerity project. In the service sector in particular (the UK’s largest sector of employment), in shops such as Starbucks, Holland and Barrett, Poundland, Tesco, Pizza Hut etc., the idea of an employee culture – let alone an organised working class culture – is laughable.
Within this context the tactics and strategies of activism and activists present a viable alternative to the automatic position of defence and isolation that many of us would be forced to adopt within our workplaces, neighbourhoods and our communities. The notion of going “on the attack” against extremely exploitative schemes like workfare seem an appropriate level of response to the severity of the attacks we are currently coming under. We would likewise hazard that this is the social and political context of other similar “movements” such as Occupy.
What, then, do we mean by “activism”? In simple terms, the idea of bringing together individuals on the basis of their shared ideological goals and beliefs who adopt specific disruptive strategies to pile public pressure (or otherwise “consciousness raise” – we will analyse this particular aspect in greater detail below) around a certain issue. The intention is that this activism will bring about some form of social or political change. Undoubtedly certain aspects of “activism” will be part of and naturally arise within the alternative perspective we later identify – that of movement-building – and it is not our purpose to write off these as tactics completely. Rather we identify activism as problematic, in itself, because it is principally the basis in which social change is seen to be effected. It is the activist and their practice of activism – whether it is a public protest outside a store, chaining oneself to the gates or a sit-down in the manager’s office – that are seen as having the transformative role. There is a theoretical line of cause and effect, in short, between the action (a public picket) and the intended result (the employer’s withdrawal from workfare) irrespective of the internal composition of the action itself.
In the current context – one in which economic issues are very much on the popular agenda –, and especially given the clear ineffectiveness of the labour movement, we have seen a closer merging of the existing strategies, tactics and organisational cultures of activists and disputes around the workplace and social welfare. “Class”, in other words, has been represented as an “issue” in a similar way that fair trade, development, environmental justice or gender and sexuality have been represented within the social justice movements in previous years. Our contention is, of course, that class is not an issue that can be “won”, no less than the environment or gender or sexuality can be – it is the structural basis of capitalist society. It is not the responsibility of ethical and socially responsible individuals to “take up class” should it concern them. A class position is thrust upon us as a result of our role within a capitalist society. The question then is not, initially at least, of the applicability of certain tactics or strategies, but of the role of class, class consciousness and how this informs the forms of action we pursue.
Class consciousness and Organisation
It is not necessary to re-visit here classic communist arguments concerning the socially transformative role of the working class within capitalism or the ultimate need for the re-appropriation of the means of production. It is suffice to say that it is the confidence and capacity of workers to act on their own interests – in our workplaces, our neighbourhoods and communities – against those of the capitalists – our bosses, landlords and the state – that concern us in terms of our need to promote social solidarity and class organisation. Consciousness raising – making workers aware of those interests and their ability to act on them – is, as a result, a central part of this process.
The public pickets, protest and actions conducted as part of the Boycott Workfare and UK Uncut actions, as well as playing a more direct disruptive role, are likewise aimed at a broader project of “raising consciousness”. In the case of UK Uncut this has largely been in the form of the “Tax Justice” narrative, something which has unfortunately often been reduced to useless chants of “pay your taxes!” but at a more sophisticated level aims to highlight bourgeois double-standards between a government that seeks to ostracise claimants and benefit cheats for their drain on the public purse, while simultaneously allowing multi-nationals to dodge millions in corporation tax. There is likewise a much more radical under-current that runs through the actions which seeks to challenge the barriers between public and private space, with banks being turned into “direct action libraries” or shop floors into social spaces for music and games. Similarly in the case of Boycott Workfare it was found that many on the placement schemes were completely unaware of their rights or their colleagues failed to understand the implications of the unpaid work. Leaflets, such as this one produced by the Solidarity Federation, intend to inform employees about the nature of the action as a well as encouraging them to get organised.
In all the above cases these are indeed consciousness-raising practices. However for us the issue of consciousness-raising is not just about providing information to workers or even making them aware of their ability to act (e.g. their freedom to join a union or use their legal rights). It is about creating a context of confidence in class action. This is a complex process layered with social, cultural and psychological barriers. There is a qualitative difference between the type of power that the bourgeois class utilises and the forms of attitudes and perspectives that emerge in the course of movement-building. Workers’ power is direct, social and inter-personal. It is based on establishing relationships of trust, solidarity and friendship. Most importantly proletarian consciousness needs to be perpetually re-affirming. As our Fellow Workers at the Recomposition blog have pointed out, people have a tendency to “hot up” and “cool down” when it comes to organising, even long-term and dedicated organisers. Within this context networks of support and solidarity are absolutely essential in ensuring that those who have been worn down or burnt out during the ebbs are able to take back up the mantle during the flows. On a practical level all of the above is incredibly difficult in the context of one-off or sensational actions conducted against employers. Even employees, or workfare claimants, who are sympathetic to the cause, are likely to be scared off of engaging by the fear of repercussions from management or their job centres. From the outside, agitators simply don’t know what conversations will be had between workers for the rest of the day, or during a cigarette break in the afternoon or even the special briefing the manager gives at the end of the day. From the inside, why should workers trust the advice of someone that they had a five minute conversation with and gave them a piece of paper?
The ultimate objective of our organising efforts should be to cultivate organisations that promote workers’ self-organisation. This is a standard by which we ourselves should not be exempt. It is also a responsibility that we should not expect to place on others without carrying through the same risks ourselves. And there are indeed risks.
Tactics – “Organising is about creating a series of friendships”
The actions taken against workfare have 3 key failings: Firstly, they depict the left and activists as outsiders with only power as consumers. Secondly, it enforces a reliance on outside forces for workers. Lastly, it risks driving company and staff closer together.
Activists are part of the working class just as much as factory workers and miners. We all form active parts of capitalism, as consumers and workers, but as workers we create surplus value. Just because we don’t wear overalls doesn’t mean we are excluded from this process. However, protest actions play into the idea that activists are an exterior force. If activists want to get involved in class struggle, they need to develop their own class consciousness as well. It is easy to talk about this as if it is a theoretical concept that the working class needs to develop on a general basis. What developing class consciousness actually means is each of us realising our own position in capitalism – your own, real position as an actor within the process of production, not of the mythical, abstract concept of “the workers.” Until individual activists start to grasp this fundamental role they’re not in much of a position to ask others to.
The working class for far too long has been reliant on exterior forces, political parties, do-gooders, union bureaucrats: We need to do things for ourselves. It is our historic mission to overthrow capitalism and this cannot be achieved by relying on the intervention of charitable types. We have been serviced by unions for decades, succededing only in seeing hard fought reforms vanish and safety nets disappear. At the heart of these errors is the failure to build and sustain a culture of class confidence that has a willingness to defend workers’ interests (and fight for more). Taking steps towards this means abandoning our reliance on outside forces (in whatever form this may come) and looking to the immediate relationships around us as our source of solidarity and support.
Finally, there is the danger that activism will strengthen the reverse relationships – the capitalistic ones between workers and managers and workers and the company. The sentiment that “we are all mates with our manager, why shouldn’t we just talk to them he takes us out for a drink all the time”, for example, forms a continuous barrier to workplace organising. Starbucks Workers’ Union organiser Liberté Locke has described it well as being akin to an abusive relationship – “My body, my rules: a case for rape and domestic violence survivors becoming workplace organisers”. At Pizza Hut, mangers receive bonuses based on the amount of money the store spends. If the manager doesn’t repair broken mopeds, they receive a higher bonus, if they don’t replace safety equipment, such as oven gloves, they receive a higher bonus. These things help the manager as an individual, but make the rest of our working lives more difficult. At the same time, this is hidden by the manager who then acts as a social leader, as everyone’s mate, offering people lifts home, organising the Xmas do etc. As Liberté Locke argues, these abuses are hidden by a friendly exterior and layers of manipulative behaviour. Breaking through that is one of the most difficult things to achieve as an organiser. “Shop pickets” may well do real favours to managers, giving workers in store a false sense of the limitations of their own capacities, reinforcing existing worker-brand identity and the idea of the company as “one big family”.
Friendship must be at the core of solidarity. For our Fellow Workers to take the organising we push seriously they have to trust that we are saying it as a friend and not as a political campaigner. As organisers we must be there when the important conversations happen, and those aren’t the conversations that happen with the activist outside, they are the ones that happen on smoking breaks, while taking a pizza out to the moped, as you mop the floor at the end of the shift or in the pub after work. That is where people express their true feelings, whether that is about the protest outside, or the dick-head manager. Working under capitalism is stressful, isolating and hard, and we need the support of our Fellow Workers as much as everyone else. Class organising is about creating our own spaces of resistance. It is a process of creating a series of friendships.
In short, what we need is a far richer (perhaps a micro-level) understanding of class consciousness to accompany our organising perspectives. We take inspiration from the idea of the “Wobbly Shop” or to “Wobbly the Job”. To “Wobbly the Job” is not just to get people signed up to the union or provoke actions, it’s to foster specific attitudes in that workplace. This can range from anything to the jokes that are made behind the bosses back at break time, to the walk-out you hold during peak operating hours. The point is that this is something that emerges within the culture that organisers create as a result of the real bonds of solidarity and support they have built with their Fellow Workers.
The Alternative: building class confidence through a movement of organisers
There are natural limits to our political demands in the form of our capacity as consumers, citizens, activists. We only have a finite amount of political capital, special interest, money in our pocket, disruptive capacity, can only be arrested so many times etc. As workers, as proletarians, our demands are limitless. They are only conditioned by the balance of class forces - the power applied on the one hand, by the depth of our class organisation as workers, and on the other, by the power and organisation of the capitalists. It may be possible to transfer cultures of class confidence via activist activity – for example, the international support given to Pizza Hut workers by IWW members and others, or the victory at Office Angels co-ordinated by the Solidarity Federation – but our source of power is still ultimately proletarian subjectivity applied at the point of production and reproduction of capitalism. Support and solidarity actions may be useful, they may even be successful (in terms of winning gains) but they cannot function in isolation and still contain the same limits.
Class struggle is long, boring and hard work. Organising your own community, workplace or neighbourhood is difficult, emotionally taxing work and potentially fraught with all manner of economic and social repercussions. It also means pushing out of your comfort zone, conversing and socialising with people you perhaps wouldn’t normally do on the basis of shared interests, countering all manner of challenging and conservative ideas and behaviour. As we have said above, it also often puts you in a position of isolation and defence – but this is also the reality of the current social and political context. They wouldn’t call it class struggle if it didn’t involve struggling.
Understanding these risks and formulating strategies to overcome them enriches our collective praxis. It forms the basis of a contemporary approach to movement-building. It also means taking your time and building on small victories that are not necessarily glamorous ones. This could be as (seemingly) minor as creating a culture where you are able to discuss problems at work openly. This can easily evolve into supporting one another to take breaks, challenging the decisions of the boss. An organising committee building union density develops through all of these experiences. The important thing is that all these steps map onto a coherent and long-term strategy employed by workplace organisers. It’s not about every penny of pay you win but about the confidence workers feel to fight and keep fighting until we win it all.
Returning specifically to the Boycott Workfare campaign, we do acknowledge certain characteristics that make this issue appear distinct from other forms of class struggle. The government workfare schemes are principally an issue that affects claimants. Although the extent to which it weakens the position of workers in those companies, and also the standards of the labour force generally, does make it an issue of collective interest. In this respect the degree to which targeted and sustained organisation in workfare employers, of all workers, is an alternative route of opposition to the schemes needs to be explored more – whether in the form of salting or finding means of establishing sustainable contact between workers and organisers.
It is true that the unemployed are at a structural disadvantage to the employed workforce - this is the nature of the “industrial reserve army”, keeping a section of the workforce powerless and at a disadvantage so they are ready for the needs of capital as well as acting as a disciplining mechanism on the employed. The unemployed acting as a threat in the case of troublesome workers as well as depressing wages and conditions in the case of high levels of unemployment. Workers are increasingly out of work in the context of the current crisis (particularly young workers and across Europe) so this is a serious issue for class organisations. But we should look to examples such as the South African Shack Dwellers’ Movement, the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Argentina, and historic (and ongoing) claimants unions and centres. We feel these have been successful at building dual power organisations from the most powerless sections of the class, because they’ve not taken an approach of disempowerment but also because they have employed the basic methods of movement-building discussed above. They represent genuine communities of class confidence developed through weeks, months and even years of patient agitation and organising.
Public pickets are argued to be a way of bringing people on the workfare scheme together (who are otherwise stratified) and politicising the schemes. This is while acknowledging that the conversations in this context were limited and relied heavily on generating a certain degree of public and press interest. But conversations alone are not enough. They raise awareness not consciousness. For this we need to be training and developing a movement of organisers, militants and movement-builders. You still need to walk before you can run, and activism is simply not a means for initiating movements (and can actually be a means of cutting yourself off from those around you). The basics of movement-building – whether these are your work mates, fellow claimants, care-givers, service-users etc. – provide the basis for meaningful opposition to austerity, in immediate terms, and a movement against capitalism for the future.
DP is Northern regional organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (ERA) and a member of the General Executive Board. He works at Pizza Hut.
CW is a militant in Collective Action and a member of Sheffield (UK) Industrial Workers of the World General Membership Branch. He works in social care.