Tag Archives: strikes

Why are these so few strikes? When will there be more?

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There was a time when I, and many of my friends, believed that socialism would come about principally through a continuous process of trade union radicalisation with small, sectional strikes leading to larger, industry-wide ones, and then national strikes. Workplace struggles would become successively more common, and more successful. Ultimately, the workers would finally stream out of the factories to take over the whole world.

For much of the past 30 years, the continuing holding of that belief has involved a certain denial of reality. Every small strike that took place I personally welcomed as the start of a generalised upturn – hoping there would be a direct route from a single strike to the mass strike and then to the revolution. It was not just a matter of reading too much into short, localised disputes. I remember, 25 years ago, being much comforted by a talk given to a set of statistics which appeared to show that the growing tendency for jobs to become more precarious was in certain ways limited. It seemed from the figures that young workers were speeding through a series of temporary or part-time contracts before settling on fixed-term, permanent jobs at around 30, and then sticking to them with no less determination than all the generations that had preceded them. The interpretation of the figures may or may not have been correct, then or now – that is not my point – what I remember rather is the physical sense of relief I felt in my heart and lungs at encountering a serious explanation which reaffirmed my existing beliefs. This was not a healthy state to be in…

The lack of strikes matters not just if class struggle is seen in offensive terms, but also if it you follow its defensive aspect. Every government of the past fifty years has attempted to attack some aspect of the welfare state – when they have been defeated, it has usually been because a group of workers formed an alliance to protect (eg) abortion rights (in 1979). When strikes are low, it makes it harder to organise effective resistance.

When mass strikes did not happen, the challenge became to establish a different sort of optimism – a more guarded sense of hope, a surface caution beneath which there lurked a willingness to discard everything when necessary in the hope of being part of the single moment at which the world would turn. I think Daniel Bensaid had something similar in mind when speaking of revolutionary “impatience”: a fusion of optimism and seeming disdain in which the former was always waiting to subordinate the latter.

There is something of the same spirit in a recent article by Simon Joyce, which explains in compelling detail how mistaken a 30 year perspective of imminent mass strikes has been. He writes: “the current low level of strikes is unprecedented in British history. Official records of strikes in the UK have been kept since 1893 and record numerous ups and downs, periods of calm and sudden upsurges. Seen in this perspective, the last 20 years are exceptional. Never before has a low-strike period lasted so long.”

He goes on to insist that the present system of low strikes is stable: “once in place, institutional arrangements for conducting relations between unions and employers tend to be fairly robust and are only altered in ‘times of great crisis’. It is likely that it will take some type of wider social or political crisis significantly to upset the current institutional arrangements”. In so arguing, Joyce is undoubtedly right. I am sure some readers will disagree with him, even if they do not say so in public. A tendency could not change its 30-year perspective without some disagreement as to the new approach to take. But the people who disagree with him are projecting their wishes onto reality rather than engaging with the world in which they live.

Where I think there is space for further discussion is in Joyce’s explanations for the decline in strike figures since 1991. First, a large part of Joyce’s analysis is given over to the package of employment law changes which came in between the Heath and Thatcher governments (under Heath, the right to take an unfair dismissal claim to the then industrial tribunals, under Thatcher the anti-union laws, especially the balloting requirement for strikes).

These are part of the picture, but the relationship between law and society is subtle, and I would be critical of anyone who argued, for example, simply that “more law” must mean “fewer strikes”. (Or conversely, that the retreat of law from industrial relations, represented by the decline in ET figures since fees were introduced recently, will – by itself – make strikes more likely).

In an old book, I once set out the sociologists’ concept of “juridification”, ie the process where disputes which are seen as fundamentally non-legal and are resolved without litigation become things which are dealt with in the courts. Juridification implies its opposite, “de-juridification”, i.e. when things which were once treated as a legal question stop being so. The point of invoking either concept is that the last 150 years of workplace history in Britain gives examples of both dynamics, and in particular of occasions when a big opening up of legal opportunities for unions or for workers has not resulted in juridification. EG on both sides of the 1914-1918 war the ruling class and the state made serious efforts at legalising industrial relations – by giving unions incentives to fight battles in court. But there was no meaningful take-up of these opportunities and strikes remained ubiquitous.

Undoubtedly the Coalition has engaged in a systematic campaign of de-juridification. In an early draft of the same book, before the Coalition government had even been elected, I speculated as to how the Tories might implement what were then New Labour’s vaguer proposals for dejuridification and joked in a bitter spirit that what would be needed would be a system of criminal penalties for those who dared to bring tribunal claims – say, a £500 fine for anyone who took one case to a Tribunal, and jail terms for those who brought a second. Of course, politics turned out even worse than my satire, in that the fine for claimants (the “fee”) has been set at nearly three times higher than the level had guessed.

After decades of individual employment rights, it is almost certain that the dejuridification of dismissal rights will not result in a simple process whereby unions simply take up dismissals and strike over them, as if the entire preceding period of 40 years had simply not happened. Instead, what we are actually seeing is a very clear process by which unions are trying to make the best of what is left of the old Tribunal system – so while the headline figures for the decline in Tribunal claims is very high, this is masked by a series of attempts by unions to keep on going as if nothing had happened. These tactics of “making do” including lobbying Labour and the SNP for a reversal of fees; and a judicial review brought by UNISON (so far unsuccessful at 3 court hearings) to declare fees unlawful. Most significantly of all, unions have so far largely paid the fees on their members’ behalf, with the result that despite the very sharp feel in overall Tribunal cases, it seems that the number of cases brought by unions is holding up at more or less the levels they were before. If that process continues, as on my prediction it will (assuming Labour does not simply come back in and abolish fees), it could have all sorts of further unintended consequences. It could for example make union membership significantly more attractive than it has been to non-members in organised workplaces; since the union will subsidise a tribunal hearing which members could never afford themselves. It would also operate a vast cost on unions, who would have to pay thousands of tribunal fees and millions of pounds a year. What we are not seeing – yet – is any process of unions striking over cases that they would a year ago it would have been economically wiser to take to Tribunal. I do not think that will happen without other, larger changes in the relationship between workers and employers in the workplace.

Joyce is right that the anti-union laws have placed an additional pressure on the bureaucracy to police its own members. This is almost the one place where I think it is useful to speak of the memory of the 1980s, which is felt much more keenly within this level than in the typical workplace. Hundreds of senior trade unionists remember the sequestration of the once-massive funds of the miners’ union, and this memory places an enormous pressure on the individual bureaucrat not to mismanage a ballot where, it is assumed, the entire resources of the whole union could be at stake.

But this is not the only problem of the anti-union laws: they are costly, they are slow (amounting to, in effect, a statutory one-month cooling down period between the original decision to strike and any outcome), and they are intended to prevent the very strikes that were most effective in the 1950s, and 1960s, ie localised, rapid strikes by specific sections of workers about smaller issues as well as large ones.

I agree with Joyce that the left needs to give a much larger commitment to campaigns for the repeal of the anti-union laws, but having played a very modest part in one or two of these initiatives, we need to recognise how isolated the interest presently is in repeal – either within the unions themselves or, especially, among committed activists on the left but outside the trade unions. There are good examples on the left in recent years of causes which were isolated to specific groups but have acquired a more general significance – eg Defend the Right to Protest, set up around what once seemed the relatively narrow, immediate issue of the criminalisation of the 2010 students protests – any serious critique of the anti-union laws would rapidly founder if it was just the trade unions with their existing fiefdoms, rivalries and aging activist base.

Joyce makes good points about the link between low inflation and few strikes. Historically, medium-level inflation has been associated with policies of (modest) redistribution from the rich to the working class. We forget on the left just how important low inflation (“monetarism”) was to the early Thatcher governments as a strategy for a more radical kind of class rule. The left in general should be better at exposing this ongoing fixation, which is amongst its other problems also a partial cause of the present stagnation of the European and British economies.

I also think he is right to work into the equation the part played by unemployment. Again, it is a regret that no-one on the left ever seems to sit down and try to calculate or still less publicise how many people in Britain are now unemployed. We have allowed a situation of mass unemployment to be treated as normal which few recent generations would have tolerated.

A further, modest point of disagreement is where Joyce, despite focussing on what he terms “economic factors” resists any idea that the post-1979 economy is in any meaningful extent different from that which preceded it. In particular, he resists the characterisation of the present as a “neoliberal” capitalist economy, as distinct from the post-war state capitalist, welfare state, economy.

To an extent, his own developed argument makes this a meaningless distinction – after all, as soon as you recognise that there are significant dynamics such as low inflation and high unemployment, you are starting to accept that the industrial economy runs on – subtly – different lines from before.

Moreover, if you understand industrial disputes in social activist terms, as Joyce does, then the key issue when workers consider when deciding for or against striking is whether they will win. The “confidence” approach suggests that winning is simply a matter of will, workers with the greatest confidence will take the most radical steps (unofficial rather than official, continuous rather than discontinuous action) and that these will be the most effective. Now, this idea brings certain insights; clearly, to say from the outset that certain forms of strike are impossible is to reduce the choice of protest actions available to potential strikers, and this reduces their prospects of winning. But, equally clearly, among the reasons why strikes have lost in the last 40 years are some economic factors which are primary to and causative of workers’ lack of confidence. Even if we just limit ourselves to Joyce’s two principal economic factors, unemployment and inflation, they serve to discipline workers, unemployment especially, because it changes the calculation as to how much the workers will lose if the action is wholly ineffective and they are all dismissed.

For that reason, I look forward to the historian of the future who can go a little further in addressing the analytical weight to be placed on certain other features of our present economy. For example, Joyce alludes to size of establishment as a factor in the decline in strike levels. Could this have an importance within manufacturing in particular? The 99% fall in the number of strikes in coal since 50 years ago is down to the destruction of jobs in that industry; the 85% fall in the number of strikes in manufacturing over the same period cannot be down simply to the loss of jobs because there are still millions of people working in manufacturing. What has happened though is that there are very few employers, as there were in almost every medium-sized town in Britain just 30 years ago, with several thousand workers all doing relatively similar tasks. To this extent, the capacity for manufacturing workers to feel that they have a power to take on the employers is surely reduced as the size of the workplace is diminished. Could the demise of the giant plants (and therefore the large single-workplace strike) have had an effect in terms of the capacity of workers in one town to see someone else striking a large workplace, to hear about it and want to copy them? Where workplaces are smaller, it surely follows that strikes have less of a rallying effect as physical expressions of the different interests of capital and labour.

Or, to take another example, structural mass unemployment has not served simply to act as a caution for those worried about losing their jobs (what you might characterise as the “reserve army of labour” effect). Additionally, it has had an impact on the nature of the jobs that are being created. I have seen some estimates of job creation since 2008 which suggest that fewer than 5% of new jobs presently being created are full-time, permanent, direct employment. Even if these estimates are hopelessly wrong, and as many as 20% or 40% of new jobs are secure, the picture still remains that for hundreds of thousands of new workers, their industrial reality is not that of the Fordist economy, with secure jobs with long-term prospects.

Portraying some of labour’s difficulties as structural is not to close off the possibility of defeat, but to encourage people to think towards the dynamics of the present crisis which are superficially most obstructive to strikes and yet at the same time capable of challenge.

The issue which I have focussed on in repeated blog posts over the last 18 months is the precariousness of labour both because of its disciplinary aspect and its demobilising potential but also because it seems to me that it gives an incentive to groups of workers to organise. Joyce points to on one group of workers where strike rates have held up relatively well – those engaged in transport. The most successful strikes in history by this section of workers were precisely by groups of people who were precarious and yet wanted greater control over their working lives (carters, dockers…). And now we find ourselves in that same situation again, where the greatest incentive to protest is among groups that are outside what is presently assumed to be the centre of working class life. It seems to me almost certain that when the industrial sociologist looks back from 2035 in our direction, the disputes they will describe with the greatest affection will have something like the same character of those of 125 years ago, with struggle coming from those presently seen as marginal but eager to have the levels of job security which 40 years ago were universal.

The Polish Explosion (Women’s Voice, 1980)

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 THE RECENT strikes in Poland have shown that workers’ rights no more exist there than they do in the west.  The demand for free trade unions is one which we can echo in our campaigns against Prior’s anti-union law and for democracy in the unions.  But it is commonly believed that the position of women in Poland is better than that of women in most Western countries.  Women go out to work, their equality is written into the constitution and collective childcare is an accepted part of life.

At least that is the accepted myth.  Experienced observers of Eastern Europe have even claimed that women cannot be unemployed because their right to work is guaranteed by the constitution.  Unfortunately the reality is miles away and touches much more closely on our own experiences.

As in the west, in periods of economic stagnation women carry the burden of the crisis.  After the ‘spring in October’ of 1956, there followed a period of female unemployment.  Women were sacked on the pretext of curbing the bureaucracy.  The government even discussed giving allowances to men whose wives didn’t work.

At the same time, the benefits of the family as a stabilising factor were stressed and women were encouraged to see themselves as mothers.

‘Women’s jobs’ where women are ghettoised into low paid and badly organised work are as common as in the west.  Poland has seen a ‘feminisation’ of certain sectors – 80% of health workers and 67% of teachers are women.  Traditional masculine preserves like technical and skilled manual work remain precisely that. Seventy percent of married women work, but an unrecorded number are working on small-scale farms owned by peasant families.

The burden of housework and childcare rests almost entirely on women.  Only 15 per cent of children find a place in state run crèches.  The majority are looked after by relatives or informal childminders.  Polish women spend an incredible two hours a day in queues for food and other essentials.  Shortages are a way of life and things which help women’s work in the home, such as washing machines and detergents are often impossible to obtain.

Housing conditions in a country where a family will have to wait several years for a single bedroom flat, and where little single person housing is available, place a further strain on women’s lives.

Neither do women have control over their bodies.  Abortions are only available by law if the woman is pregnant as a result of a criminal act or there are ‘difficult living conditions’ and many older women still rely on the rhythm and withdrawal methods of contraception.  This is hardly surprising when the pill is not freely available and the influence of the church is still widespread.  An estimated 40 per cent of Polish women still use abortion as their major form of contraception.

Polish society has women’s oppression built into it.  Some people believe that is because socialism can’t bring women’s liberation.  But workers self-government is a myth.  The regime is no more socialist than nationalised industry here.  There is nationalisation and goods are supposed to be produced according to a plan.  But the system has nothing to do with socialism.

The Polish government has to produce in competition with the west in order to survive.  Therefore it exports as much as possible to pay its debts to the west.  That explains why in a major agricultural country like Poland meat is so scarce and  why there is more Polish sausage in your local Sainsburys than in most shops in Warsaw.

Not everyone in Poland suffers.  If you are in possession of western ‘hard’ currency many goods in short supply become magically available.  Special shops sell western fashions, cosmetics, American cigarettes and plentiful quantities of meat and fruit.

They are for the benefit of the small group of bureaucrats who control society.  But for workers, life is as grim as it is for most workers in Britain  Food shortages, long working hours and the oppression of the family are all features of Polish life.  Control of the factories does not lie with the workers but with that selfsame group of bureaucrats.

No wonder that the demands of the Gdansk workers went much further than the call for free trade unions.  Demands included the equalisation of family allowances with the military police and the army, an end to special shops, improvements in nurseries, more housing and better maternity leave.  They show that the issues concerning women are at the heart of the Polish working class, just as women themselves are.

The strikes have shown yet again that workers are willing to take action to change their lives.  Women have one reason to be grateful to the existing Polish government.  Their entry into the workforce has meant they are totally involved in the strike action.  Now they have to begin to liberate themselves.  The struggle for that liberation will mean having  to overthrow the existing society in Poland and creating a new one, just as it will in the west.

When that happens, Polish women will find they can change the course of history and their own destinies as well.

Lindsay German

Anna Paczuska

From Women’s Voice October ’80 Issue 45

What carries on working without eating or drinking? (Women’s Voice, 1982)

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Women textile workers have always been an important part of the Polish workforce.  This month in Zyrardow they were involved in a long sit-in strike in protest at food shortages.

Inside the factory they sat, clinging to each other, crying about their children, scared but stubborn, refusing to give up their strike.

The centre of the Polish textile industry is the city of Lodz, where 135,000 women are employed.  Ten years ago it was the women of Lodz whose strike finally forced the government of the day to revoke the price increases which had caused the biggest upheavals since 1956.  This summer Janina Ratynska investigated the life in a Lodz textile mill for the Polish women’s magazine ‘Girl Friend’.  Translated by Kara Weber.

In the spinning hall there are cans of ht green liquid.  White scum floats over its murky depths.  It tastes vile.  It’s mint tea – a reviving drink.  Nobody will let this revolting stuff past their lips.  Not a trickle will flow, even down the most parched and thirsty throats.  The spinners quench their thirst at a rusty tap in the toilets.
Conditions in the spinning hall are tropical.  Anything up to 104 degrees and 75 per cent humidity.  It’s the yarn which needs these temperatures and this level of humidity.  Nobody even mentions the needs of the people here.  Water drips from the faulty air conditioning units.  The cold splashes feel like icicles on your sweltering back.

It’s three in the morning.  A young woman by one of the spinning machines suddenly starts jumping up and down.  First on one leg, then the other, swinging her arms.  She’s thin, her blonde hair tumbles about her face.  From a distance she looks like a little girl playing hopscotch.  As you approach the illusion vanishes.  Her looks exhausted, running with sweat, her lips parched, in her eyes an expression of intense effort.  Seeing me she stops in mid hop like a mechanical doll.

‘Don’t look at me like that.  I haven’t gone crazy.  It’s just that I haven’t slept for three days.  I’ve got small children and my husband is away on a delegation.  If I had a cup of coffee, I could clear my head, but as it is I just fall asleep standing up.’

It’s the third shift at Harnam Cotton Industries in Lodz.  Every night over 400 women work in its spinning and weaving halls.  They leave home at half past eight in the evening, crowd into their packed buses and trams and ride to work.  Once there, they change into their overalls, stiff and sticky from accumulated dirt, sweat and dust.  Once upon a time these overalls were washed every day, now it’s once every two or three weeks.  There’s no detergent.

They bind their legs with elasticated bandage.  They all do it, even the young ones.  Varicose veins appear after only a few years’ work at the looms.  Whether spinning or weaving, five years is enough to make a fine network of purple lines cover every pair of legs, even the most young and slender ones.  ‘Do you know what I sometimes call myself?’ says the Spinning Manager, Kazimierz Biesaga.  ‘A mule driver.  I respect these women, their work, their patience, their endurance.  But when I see them working at night the image of labouring mules persistently returns to me.  Underfed, short of sleep, running on their last legs.  They bring sandwiches of dry bread and pickled cucumber.  Butter would melt, and anyway there’s little of it and they have to save it for the children.  Their husbands need any cold meat that’s going.’

They patrol their looms and spinning frames incessantly, first 200 metres one way, then 200 metres back again.  ‘We have our own version of the old kids’ riddle,’ says Mr Biesaga, ‘What carries on working without eating or drinking? You know the answer? A Lodz yarn worker.  Or perhaps you know the song about the spinning girls sitting like a row of angels?  None of these are angels any more.  All the creams and face masks in the world won’t help.  To look at them you wouldn’t think some of them are thirty years old.  No, you wouldn’t.  What you see are bags under the eyes, wrinkles and bent shoulders.  Halina Kaczmarek has worked the three shifts at Harnam’s for 30 years.  ‘I’ve had enough of this struggle to survive.  When I’m working nights I never catch up on my sleep.  I come off the shift and instead of going to bed I go to stand in a queue.  Since June there’s a special system for the sale of milk in Lodz.  From 6 to 8 in the morning only mothers with special children’s health cards can buy.  Ordinary people don’t get a look in, they have to stand and wait.  If there’s any left at eight o’clock then there’s a chance of getting a bottle, but sometimes there’s none left.  Then I go to another queue for meat.

‘Yesterday I stood there from eight in the morning till two.  I got 500 grams of shoulder.  After standing in line I return home, snatch a bit to eat, do my cleaning, washing.  I have to fetch water because I have a home without conveniences.  I go to lie down for an hour after dinner.  The racket in the house is dreadful; everything’s switched on at once, the radio, the telly … I sleep, it doesn’t bother me.  Then I cook supper and leave home for work.

I know nothing about politics, but those people in the government, you know the ones who are having to explain themselves now because of us, I wouldn’t put them in prison, what for?  They should come and work here, at Harnam’s.  I’d give them top pay, let them make their seven thousand, we don’t want any discrimination.  But then I’d give them ration cards and chase them round to do their share of queuing.  That would be their greatest punishment.’

Kazimiera Chodorowska has worked at Harnam’s for 30 years.  ‘The worst is finishing a week of night shifts and going back to work on Monday.  Your body has to adjust yet again.  You sleep over your machine, your mates wake you up.  If they put the afternoon shift to follow on from nights it would mean a two o’clock start.  You wouldn’t get so tired and your nerves wouldn’t get so frayed.  But when we raise the matter it’s like banging your head against a brick wall.  Anyone would think they wanted to run us into the ground.  The best solution would be to abolish the night shift altogether.’

For many years the workers of every light industrial enterprise have tried to get rid of the third shift.  It was the most important demand made at the lowest level, at meetings, works council conferences and production committees.  At the higher levels it was never mentioned.

At the last meeting the unionists presented the government side with a report dealing with the third shift, compiled by experts from the Lodz Polytechnic, the Medical Academy and Lodz University.

It’s a shocking document.  On the basis of carefully detailed experiments it shows the effects of night shift work on the women workers.  It links such work with pregnancy abnormalities; level of miscarriage much higher than normal; greater percentages of children born with congenital abnormalities.

It is said that the body’s constant adjustment to work patterns during the morning, afternoon and night exploits, even plunders, the nervous system of women.  It leads to loss of control and equilibrium and to physical exhaustion.

According to surveys, a considerable proportion of women working the three shift system have broken families.

What has the department of light industry to say about this?  The Assistant Director of the Work, Wages and Social Services Department of the Ministry of Light Industry, Edmund Wojcicki says: ‘We received the report with mixed feelings.  You must admit its tone is a little alarmist.  In any case, you cannot view these matters solely from the standpoint of the workers.  The interests of society as a whole must count for something.

‘Goods totalling a value of 70 billion zloty are produced during the third shift.  The market, already very scantily supplied, would be greatly impoverished if this production were eliminated.  There will be no third shift, but you won’t be able to buy a single towel, shirt or sheet in the shops.

‘This does not mean that we see no openings for limiting three shift working.  Such possibilities exist and our department has already worked out introductory measures.’

Five years is a long time.  The workers themselves say – we can hang on.  And they will endure it all, the sleepless nights, the queues, the nightmare conditions. But they must know for sure that the fruit of their work, in the murderous, destructive conditions, will not be another crisis in ten years time but a peaceful, dignified life, free of deprivation.

Women’s Voice, April 1982, Issue 62

Author Janina Ratynska (originally written for Polish women’s magazine ‘Girl Friend’)

Translated by Kara Weber

The new layers

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Between 1900 and 1979 the worst year for strikes in Britain was 1927, with just 1.17 million strike days. It was the year after the General Strike, after which the miners (in whose support the 1926 Strike had been called) had gone down to a crushing defeat. Many of the previous year’s activists had been victimised and the leaders of the movement were desperate to promote compromise.

In three of the last four years, strike levels have been lower even than they were in 1927 (2008: 759,000 days; 2009: 455,000 days and 2010: 365,000 days). “The biggest wave of industrial action since 1926”, as some enthusiastic voices reported the public sector strikes of 2011, represented more struggle admittedly more than the seventy-year nadir of 1927, but only marginally more. The total number of strikes days “lost” during the 2011 strikes (1.39 million strike days) was less than 1 percent of the strikes in 1926 (160 million days).

Those of us who are committed to an idea of working-class struggle, along the lines once envisaged by Marx (“the proletariat is revolutionary relative to the bourgeoisie because, having itself grown up on the basis of large-scale industry, it strives to strip off from production the capitalist character that the bourgeoisie seeks to perpetuate”) should be honest with ourselves. Strikes are at historically low levels; trade union membership is half what it was, and union density in the private sector in particular has fallen sharper still.

If there is hope it lies in the new layers: workers unburdened by 40 years of defeats.

Looking at where jobs have been growing the UK economy, compared to four years ago, there have been modest rises in the number of workers employed in two sectors in particular: health (by around 10%) and transport (around 5%). These sectors have survived the recession because they are on a trend of long-term jobs growth. With more people living into their 90s, there are inevitably going to be more people in future involved in nursing and in all forms of adult, social care.

Transport includes all the drivers who deliver the books, cds, furniture, second hand goods and even food shopping that are increasingly purchased online. The Unite website reports recent strikes by bus drivers, protests by National Express drivers showing their solidarity for strikers in the US, and above inflation pay rises for Unite members working for UPS. There is clearly a lot going on; more, relatively speaking, than 30 years ago when drivers where seen as a conservative layer compared to steel and power workers, miners, etc.

One group of workers who it is difficult to track through the statistics are call centre workers, who by general estimate now stand at around 1 million people, or 4% of the total UK workforce. Of course, “call centre worker”, like “factory worker”, describes the content of how people work, and how they are managed, rather than the sector of the economy they work for. Call centre workers in the civil service tend to be in PCS, in banking they might be in Unifi or Unite. Many ex-BT, at Virgin and elsewhere are in CWU.

Call centres are worth watching because theirs is a type of working which people can go into relatively young, and because of the intense disciplinary conditions which are common in the industry, the intense scrutiny there can be of the time workers to take to answer calls or their average duration, the bans on toilet breaks, the electronic monitoring of the content of the phone calls, the dismissal of union reps. These are the sorts of conditions which time and again throughout the past 150 years have caused groups of workers to strike.

If the focus is on the unions, then right now I would encourage readers to look at two groups in particular:

Unions organising at the intersection between secure and insecure work. Under the past 30 years of neoliberalism, there have been dramatic changes to the nature of the employment contract. The proportion of workers who are engaged directly (ie non-agency), as employees (ie not self-employed), on full-time permanent contracts, is shrinking year on year, and is now down to around 55% of all workers. It is hard to organise the most precarious workers, but if they are going to be organised (as once the unions managed to organise the dockers, the most precarious of all workers in late Victorian Britain), it is most likely to come about through strikes by intermediate groups, neither as secure as classroom teachers, nor as insecure as agency workers on zero-hours contracts in a canning factory.

Just to give an example of how this might work: there have been a number of strikes by groups of London cleaners in the past couple of years including London underground cleaners and cleaners at SOAS. In both cases, the proximity of unorganised to organised groups of workers has made it easier to bring about solidarity from other groups of workers, and easier for the cleaners themselves to organise.  If you are going to try to organise the unorganised, mere activist good sense suggests that this is far easier done near an existing union base than in areas where unions are in all other respects very weak.

Workers organising inside and against their own unions. Workers at One Housing Group, on strike this week, give an example of how it can be done. Historically, the housing association, like most others, has been organised by Unison. But when the employer awarded at the same time, its chief executive a £31,000 pay rise, and many of its workers an £8,000 pay cut, the initiative was taken by Unite, a union which then represented just a tiny proportion of the workers. Unite was able to take a lead because of the organising style of Unison, which has long involved a very small number of national officials representing whole branches of the economy (education, health, housing, etc). It is not an organising approach. There is relatively little emphasis on holding meetings, supporting reps, etc. In a year, Unite’s membership has risen ten fold. Workers are now on a three day strike, with more strikes threatened.

Another example is the Pop Up union at Sussex University. There has been a similar dynamic on site, with clerical grades and security guards historically represented by Unison, a union which organises in the higher education sector in the same way that it organises in social housing. Reps have set about addressing the disparity between Unison and the other unions on campus, not by poaching Unison’s members, but by setting up an all-grades workplace union, which workers are invite to join on a “dual” basis. The Popup union has been registered as an independent union with the Certification Officer, has had meeting many times larger than any of the individual unions have been able to call by themselves, and has begun balloting for stikes. It is not always onwards. The union has had to retreat, a little, in this past week after the employer threatened it with an injunction. The Popup form is not a magic cure to the general weaknesses of the trade union movement, but neither, as a comrade has represented it, “the desperate gamble of a mini-union to bypass the dead hand of the union bureaucracy.” It is instead an attempt to build up the confidence of people, within their existing unions, to strike.

Anyone who who thinks that the trade union movement in 2013 already represents the final organisational form that the British working class has adopted, to last from here to the other side of a revolutionary struggle, reveals only the poverty of their ambitions.