The Angry Workers of the World has launched a new pamphlet today taking a concerted look at the current crisis and asking: What can working class people do about it? In this extract from the full report, discussion turns to examples of grassroots workplace resistance amid a stifling failure to act by union “leaderships”.
Unions were close to useless during the crisis. Most paid lip service to the attacks faced by workers but failed to organise any action or take measures to prevent it. The CWU even cancelled industrial action in the early days of the pandemic to help with the “national emergency”. Some branches of the UCU banned effective protests against mass redundancies of casualised workers by allowing only protests no larger than six people. Their supposed desire to “respect social distancing” became all the more ridiculous after nurses in their hundreds were able to march safely. More common were small acts of collective action taken independently: in Amazon some workers banded together to ask for more shifts, in Wetherspoons workers decided to self-isolate and demand full pay after a colleague tested positive. In various places, there was a spontaneous rearrangement of working duties to cover for people off sick. These were few and far between, however; the general mood has been of passive acceptance. As one worker put it, “People are angry, but also knackered, they don’t want an extra argument.” There were, however, two noteworthy struggles in the pandemic period for which we were present: Heathrow and Tower Hamlets.
On the 3rd July 2020 Tower Hamlets fired and rehired nearly 4,000 council workers – the opening salvo of the attack it called “Tower Rewards” and its victims knew as “Tower Robbery”. The new contract typified the strategies capital is now using to lower labour costs and reinforce discipline all over Britain and beyond: cutting travel allowances and flexible working, revamping pay grades, and dramatically reducing redundancy payments. The response, on the other hand, was the first large-scale organised pushback by council workers in England. Of the four unions present in the council only UNISON decided to strike, and the nine days of limited strike action spread over two months they enacted was a far cry from the unlimited strike members voted for in February. Still, we learned valuable lessons from how things progressed and the conversations we had on the picket.
Around 1,500 workers across the council received strike calls, and their grievances extended far beyond Tower Rewards. Hot desking arrangements, getting reimbursement for work expenses, management bullying, intensifying workload, and increasing red tape were all motivations, undoubtedly the main ones for many. That these issues are everywhere might be promising if they can spur workers to action. In addition, the reaction to the picket from locals on the street was positive, many lending moral support despite a lack of awareness of the strikes and their purpose. The essential problem at the heart of the strikes was the lack of organisation, maintained and enforced by the union. Because workers were at home, maintaining the integrity of the strike was extraordinarily difficult: many workers simply made up for strike days by working more before and after, or carried out tasks they felt “essential” and leaving paperwork. It wasn’t even always clear if workers would lose pay by striking.
Apart from a section of the social workers who successfully sidestepped the union and achieved more pay, independent organisation was non-existent. UNISON had monopolised the space for organisation to the extent that approaching colleagues without being a shop steward was impossible, and militancy from the shop stewards themselves was actively fought. The apathy and passivity of workers is not a deficiency in attitude as some believe, but the result of a state of affairs maintained and manufactured by the unions themselves. They can only endorse tokenistic action, scared shitless by the law and losing money, and the higher up you go, the worse it gets. They drag their heels, limit strike days, replace strikes with protests, and demoralise their members until they don’t have any energy to fight. They don’t even have any decent mechanisms for allowing workers to communicate; people were forced to use easily-infiltrated WhatsApp groups or even the company email! Basic failures like this will undermine any attempt at workers’ organisation, and we need to be able to develop our own methods to overcome them.
Aviation has been one of the big losers in the pandemic, but it seems to have found solace in attacking pay and conditions. Heathrow and BA (British Airways) have both come out with new contracts and ‘fire-and-rehire’ tactics, and both have faced courageous opposition from workers. Heathrow workers struck for four days in early December, and BA cargo workers for nine over the Christmas period. Both were led by Unite, and the attitudes we found on the ground were encouraging. Workers weren’t fooled by the supposed ‘pay increases’ that hid cuts to their annual increases, and there was a remarkable level of solidarity. They didn’t want higher wages at the expense of their colleagues being laid off, and many older workers wanted to set an example for their younger counterparts and other workers everywhere. The Cargo workers especially had built up massive amounts of sympathy and the desire from various parts to find ways to link up and support fellow workers was brilliant.
Which makes it all the more incredible that these strikes were not coordinated at all – despite both being organised by the same union! Unite balloted the two issues at different times so they didn’t align, which was a massive failure right from the outset. Many people weren’t even aware Heathrow was striking while it was happening. Throughout the struggle Unite seemed more concerned with courting a media inevitably hostile to it and plastering up pictures of the Grinch than organising its members. It had already delayed the Heathrow strikes until the day the new contract went into effect, and then shut down attempts to talk directly with the people picketing. In both strikes it was unclear the extent to which any effect was had on the companies, which is astonishing seeing as Cargo is currently the only part of BA turning a profit these days. It’s certain now that outside companies like Dnata and Menzies were brought in to scab, but there should have been strategies in place for that. The inability of unions to coordinate across workplaces is probably the biggest impediment to real assaults on capital, and the fact they couldn’t manage it with two workforces in the same physical building is damning. Heathrow was even able to pay off Terminals Security from striking without actually increasing their wages.
What’s clear from both of these examples, and the various actions taken elsewhere, is that there is real potential for further struggles. Fermenting them and pushing them to go ahead will be its own fight, but we can only wage it if we know the obstacles. Some obstacles like being stuck at home were unavoidable, but could have been overcome if deeper issues weren’t at play. The first is low confidence: workers know they’re being screwed, but they don’t feel they can do anything. Taking all the examples, and drawing out where they succeeded and the mistakes that can be corrected is vital here, as will be finding common points of motivation. The second is a lack of organisation and unity. Both within and without the unions, we need to work towards ensuring workers can coordinate with each other, and communicate across company lines. We also need to generalise our activities, whenever possible making connections with other workers, other workplaces, even other countries: the only way to stop scabbing and move as a class. And above all else, we can’t always be on the defensive. Sooner or later, we’ll have to go beyond managing our own decline.
Once we look beyond our national borders, we can see that around the globe workers struggled despite or because of the pandemic. This started with a series of unofficial walk-outs of car workers in Italy and the US in March 2020 for the temporary closure of their plants. We saw collective actions of hospital workers in many countries against lack of health and safety and low staffing-levels. In the UK it was the collective involvement of thousands of teachers that forced the government to reconsider the opening of schools in early 2021. There is a path forward.