The New Working Class Movement: Workplace Organisation

Strikers during the IWW-led ‘Bread and Roses’ textile strike of 1912

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.” Preamble to the Industrial Workers of the World constitution

This is the second post in a series setting out my perspective on the development of a new working class movement in the UK and worldwide. The first part focused on community organisation, while future blogs will look at how we can beat the cuts locally and nationally, the importance of intersectionality to class struggle, the place of the UK working class in the world struggle, creating a new world, full socialism, and full communism.

In general, union organising in the UK is at a dire low ebb. In the face of a ruling class onslaught unprecedented within living memory, workers are offering little to no organised resistance. Despite cuts across the public sector, and ever increasing pressure in the private sector, the number of strike days ‘lost’ to employers in 2012 (the last year for which records are available) was 248,000 – the lowest level since 2005, during the pre-credit crunch ‘golden years’. Over the five years of the ‘great recession’, they have been kept down to a historically low 600,000 per annum. Strike days aren’t a complete measure of resistance levels, but they do show that the prevailing trend is downward. Government, corporate bosses and trade union leaders must be quietly congratulating themselves that they appear to have managed mass ‘great recession’ anger so well.

248,800
248,800

It’s vital that a strong criticism of the union bureaucracies is made. As I wrote in a 2012 article:

“For me, the trade unions – and different groups’ relationships with them – are central to the entire question. The union bureaucracies have separate and distinct material interests to their rank and file, and whenever a dispute occurs, they act in accordance with those interests. Understanding that their privileges depend on effectively policing their membership, they set about this task with vigour, systematically managing the grassroots anger in such a way as it causes the least possible inconvenience to the bosses, while still ‘talking a good game’ right up to the point of the final sellout.”

But that isn’t the full story. Due to Thatcher’s anti-trade union attacks, the suppression of class struggle during the Blair/Brown years, and the wholesale restructuring of the UK economy, an entire generation – or perhaps even two – has come to maturity with no example of workplace organising at all to follow. Union membership is down from half the working population in 1979 to 26% today. Within union membership, there has been an increase in the percentage of people in ‘professional’ or associated occupations, and these are often highly qualified. The economic crisis has played a large part in this trend. In 2007, there were 982,000 trade unionists in manufacturing and construction; now it is down to 586,000. Many of those jobs don’t exist any more, while others have simply stopped paying their union dues because it doesn’t get them anywhere. Trade unionists are also now relatively old. In 1991, 22% of workers under 24 were in a union. In 2012, this was down to just 4.1%.

So there are vast swathes of the working class for whom trade unions simply don’t exist, who have maybe never even heard that they exist. These people are predominantly younger and in precarious (at best) employment. These are the people who are private sector or outsourced public sector, performing ‘unskilled’ labour, doing internships or ‘apprenticeships’ at a ridiculous wage, moving job to job, working two or more zero hour jobs, on workfare, and/or suffering long periods of unemployment. They are currently the least likely to organise at work – even though they have the least to lose. And they are the people who most need to, who can set an example to the rest of the class.

Though much smaller these days, the IWW are still organising in a similar way

The layer of society I have described may seem like a very 2014 phenomenon. But in many ways, they share similarities with the type of people who made up the bulk of the Industrial Workers of the World when it was in its heyday pre-World War One. This was particularly true in the western areas of the US, where the IWW had much success in building ‘against the odds’. People without strong roots went from job to job, town to town and even country to country, but wherever they went and whatever they did, they could build the ‘One Big Union’, and take action to support those in struggle everywhere. One brief history described how:

“The workers were largely migrant and so had no permanent workplace through which they could be physically organised. As an alternative, western workers made the “mixed local” the basis of their organisation. Centred on the union hall, the mixed local was a geographically based organisation, which included both the employed and unemployed.”

I therefore believe an organisation in the tradition of the IWW is the best way of organising workers in this hyper-globalised, hyper-competitive world. It may not be the IWW itself. Two and a half years on from Occupy, a movement could spring up any day and spread memetically via Twitter and Facebook in hours. But it should be organised along the same lines as the IWW.

That is to say, the new union must be:

  • run democratically, by its own grassroots membership
  • be open to every working class person (wage earner, domestic worker, student or welfare recipient)
  • organise across every industry
  • organise across the planet
  • embrace a diversity of tactics – strikes, sick-outs, work to rule, revenue strikes, go slow, overtime ban, occupations, sabotage, social media campaigns – whatever is needed and whatever works

The recent and ongoing success of the IWGB (an IWW breakaway)’s ‘3 Cosas‘ campaign shows what can be achieved when workers are in control of their own struggles. One of the best things about 3 Cosas has been its success in uniting London radicals of all historical ideologies and none behind real, horizontally-organised working class fightback. Unlike its anarcho-syndicalist counterpart SolFed, the IWW model (and indeed the IWGB’s) is a space where working class people can organise themselves regardless of political affiliation, without worrying too much for now – when we’re at such a low level – about which past failed revolution we want to emulate most.

Due to the rank and file control, plus the aim of creating ‘one big union’ regardless of profession, the IWW model has the potential to reach out beyond the walls of whatever workplace, and out into communities. This can win the vital support of customers in the private sector, and service users in the public sector. This second combination will be necessary to stop future national and local government cuts, and that will be the topic of part three in this series.

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