The below text was written by Stuart Melvin, community, union and digital organiser, campaigner and trainer, formerly of Acorn.
A proposal to enable the rapid expansion of organised labour and the rejuvenation of a politicised, progressive and aggressive workers movement.
- We need to build a mass, cross-sector, locally rooted, multi-issue and fast scaling workers movement, capable of winning on wages, security and climate, while also winning more democracy and developing unionisation
- The US teachers strikes, Fight For $15 and even Extinction Rebellion – as well as historical movements like the CIO – point the way as to how
- We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to do this right now, putting 1000s of Labour and Momentum activists to work as worker organisers.
If you are interested, sign up here then read on.
How to build a workers movement
In 2018, tens of thousands of teachers and school staff waged mass-scale, super-majority and unlawful strikes across the USA, despite weak unions and hostile laws and state Governments.
In doing so they not only won wage rises but defended healthcare and increased school funding.
Nothing comes from nothing and there were longstanding factors that led to these strikes. However a few are worth considering:
- They were stirred up by a militant minority of new union activists, politicised and given organising experience through the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign
- They were stirred up on Facebook via Groups that grew to be 1000’s strong very quickly.
- Those activists achieved more when they tapped into both current worker organising experience (e.g. local union activists and veterans of the 2012 Chicago teachers strike) and a remaining collective memory of labour struggle (e.g. the Battle of Blair Mountain).
- Those activists achieved much more when they used their online energy to generate deep offline organising (e.g. recruiting a mass network of school reps, developing community networks and utilising 1:1 workplace conversations and structure tests)
In other words; a hybrid of “big/distributed organising” and deep “community/union organising”.
They did this, from scratch, in just six months.
We’re in deep trouble.
As I write, Australia is on fire, Jakarta is flooded and scientists are desperately calling on Governments to call a “planetary state of emergency”. They say that a number of “tipping points” that will dramatically and terrifyingly accelerate the climate emergency have now been passed. We are on our way to a level of global warming (and associated sea level rise, forest fires, desertification etc) that will force massive migration, threaten food supplies and endanger the human species.
In other words, we are in very serious trouble.
In the last few months, new and militant mass climate movements have sprung up, seeing school children walk out of school across the world while tens of thousands of mostly new activists block city streets.
A majority of the public are now demanding serious climate action. But workers have yet to seriously mobilise as workers and we are running out of time. Only workers can win the changes needed in the time necessary. But more importantly, only workers can ensure we find the opportunity in the crisis, winning a Green New Deal and “just transition” that creates jobs, improves homes and transport and gives us greener, cleaner streets.
We’re all skint and anxious
It’s been reported that 7 in 10 workers are chronically broke and lacking financial security, in other words: 70% of the workforce are precarious.
A million are on zero-hours contracts, 1.7 million are in temporary work, 4.8 million are “self-employed” and at 1.1 million, the number of “gig economy” workers will equal NHS workers in just 5 years.
While millions of others have more traditional contracts, pay has fallen far behind the rising cost of living and they have little in savings. Millions are anxious, feeling a lack of security, liberty and opportunity.
Meanwhile, the world’s 500 richest billionaires have seen their wealth soar 25% in just the last year, an increase of $1.2 trillion, making a total hoard of $5.9 trillion. In 2017, it was reported that FTSE 100 bosses take home 100 times the average salary, and 386 times the minimum wage. Oxfam have also reported that just 26 people are hoarding as much wealth as half of all humanity, approximately 3.9 billion people.
However, research from the US suggests that reminding workers of their insecurity (by attempting to engage them in campaigning on this issue) actually discourages them from taking that action by reminding them of the risks, while a major mental health crisis is being at least partially driven by this financial precarity.
There is an urgent need to build a mass, generalised (i.e. multi sector) fight for wage rises and job security. But this must be framed as part of a widespread fight for a better world, and be linked with fights for social housing, rent control and other controls on the cost of living.
We’re poles apart
Meanwhile these real and rising dangers, anxieties and perceptions of scarcity are driving polarisation. While millions are critical of capitalism and hopeful of progress, millions more are frightened, angry, closing ranks and embracing jingoistic authoritarianism.
The divisions in the UK at this point are deeply and dangerously emotional. Low expectations and lack of trust ensures that logical argument is wasted breath. Neither pole can begin to comprehend the other, let alone convince them.
And yet… in almost every workplace, multiple poles work alongside each other, often in a quiet conspiracy not to mention it, in order to just get along. Amazingly, successful trade union organisers manage to unite sometimes 70, 80 or even 90% of these people around (usually) progressive economic causes and into a single organisation.
In other words, it can be done.
Bargaining for the Common Good.
So, how can we mobilise, organise and harness the progressive power of the 70%? A recent report by legal services and risk analyst consultants Herbert Smith Freehills points the way. Interviewing 300+ senior management/board members of large companies around the world, they go on to warn businesses of an “unprecedented rise in workplace activism”.
The report is clear that pay and conditions are still major factors in worker action. But they also draw special attention to what they consider the “new” triggers of workplace activism: AI, casualisation and social and environmental concerns.
Union organiser and academic Jane McAlevey has written previously on the concept of “whole-worker organising”, arguing that organisers should remember that workers aren’t only workers 9–5, and should organise around “all the issues in workers lives”.
In recent years we have seen workers walkout of companies like Google, Amazon, Riot Games and Wayfair over concerns around climate change, war, border control regimes, sexual harrasment and more. The US school strikes (referenced above) fought not only for pay rises and health insurance but for school funding. Recently, “Bargaining for the Common Good” have supported the Chicago Teachers Union to include demands for affordable housing in their bargaining agenda while NGO “Iron & Earth” is mobilising Canadian tar sands workers to fight for a just transition.
The Bernie and Corbyn movements have also shown that hundreds of thousands of (largely but not exclusively young) workers can be mobilised politically behind a patchwork social democratic (if not socialist) vision and a sense of shared hope and progressive values. Could they also be mobilised industrially? And if so, could they organise their co-workers?
Syndicalism 2.0? It’s workers that win.
The original syndicalist movement of the early 20th century is often associated with a rejection of “political” action in favour of “industrial/direct action”. The theory was that through its role in the production and distribution of goods and services, the workforce was powerful enough to halt the economy, seize the means of production and re-organise society to benefit the many not the few, without the involvement of politics or the state.
While it’s clear that – in this moment at least – winning state and political power is vital, it’s true that our labour is the force that makes the world turn. It is the force that the rich and powerful rely on and this makes us immensely powerful. Recent research into 150 years of social movement history shows that when social movements do mobilise the workforce, those movements win. And when they win, those workers movements progress equality and democracy.
Making this case to workers – that our position as a workforce gives us political, social and economic power – is key to rebuilding pride, dignity and hope, raising expectations and rebuilding a mass/majority progressive workers movement. We aren’t called the workforce for nothing.
What even is a trade union?
The trade union movement has always been – and should be – a broad church. Organising workers on the basis of their occupation, employer and/or sector/industry means uniting diverse people. While the trade union has long been associated with a socialist and progressive political cause, the reality is that today at least, if you ask any number of trade union members what the purpose of a union is, you’ll get multiple answers. The association with a wider cause does not translate into a shared and definable goal and strategy and, as RMT activist Eddie Dempsey puts it, the trade union movement is “deeply, maybe terminally, divided” over Brexit and other issues.
Meanwhile, the mass-movements that are building influence (if not quite “power”) in the 21st century are explicitly built by defining their shared story, structure and strategy (i.e. their “DNA”) in advance many trained or inspired via the Momentum/Ayni Institute folks in the US. This is what enables them to grow to scale fast, giving supporters both responsibility and autonomy within that foundational DNA framework. Big goals, disruptive action, media attention and absorption strategies have driven movements like the Fight for $15, Fossil Free and Extinction Rebellion in recent times.
Behind this lack of a shared purpose is an existential crisis affecting unions. On the one hand, despite the best efforts of Teen Vogue, the vast majority of young workers – the same people driving mass social movements and school walkouts – are not in unions and mostly don’t really know what they are. On the other, unions (in the UK at least) find themselves shackled by compliance with increasingly draconian anti-union laws, preventing the mass-scale action that could expand their ranks and see them win big. The Millennial and Gen Z workforce – the majority workforce at this point – lists poverty and inequality as top global concerns alongside war and climate change. Yet despite tackling the former being the historic mission of the trade union movement, our unions are not currently in a position to tackle any of these issues.
We need a movement that moves.
Jacobin have argued that “During the 1930s, the CIO rolled through the industrial heartland of the United States like a juggernaut, inspiring millions of workers to wage thousands of strikes and organize themselves into permanent local unions.”. While this glosses over some of the failures of that movement, the overwhelming story is that this growing movement was able to organise fast, helping to win the New Deal and driving public investment that created the US middle class. Similarly, in the UK, quickly rising union density and action (as well as related public investment) between 1950 and 1979, drove real terms income up by an estimated 500%.
More recently the Fight For $15 has spread rapidly across the USA, raising wages by $68 billion for some 22 million workers. This rapid and militant social movement style organising is vital. The big trade unions still offer the best hope and there are some good signs and fantastic work happening. But they present 6 big barriers to the kind of mass worker organising and action that’s needed:
- Lack of shared purpose and strategy
- Sluggish decision making
- Staff (and activist) skills gap (and heavy staff liabilities)
- Tactical dogmatism (and adherence to an inappropriate legal framework)
- Union silos
- Barriers to entry (e.g. formal membership requirements)
Meanwhile new unions like the IWGB and UVW are punching well above their weight. More responsive, more participatory and less beholden – they offer a lot of hope. But they are currently very small, with limited scope and capacity to scale up.
In addition, workers are communicating in other ways and techies are building digital tools which could help, but which also risk undermining union organisation. There are Whatsapp groups for Deliveroo, Uber and Lyft workers in every city and platforms like Co-Worker (USA) and The Organise Platform (UK) are the new “38 Degrees for workers”. After only a couple of years, the latter has had some big victories and boasts 80000+ “members”.
So, how can we not just hold our corner, but take over the city? We need a massive expansion of union membership and worker action. Literally millions more workers need to be organised and it needs to happen fast. That’s not easy – but it is possible. In fact it might be the case that the only way it can happen is fast, with momentum being key. The answer is to return to our roots, building not a union, but a workers movement that is locally rooted and which scales at pace, while acting as a “union incubator” for unionisation to develop out of.
From Labour to labour
As I write, we have an opportunity. A really big opportunity.
In the wake of the election, the Corbyn movement is now turning en masse toward community and worker organising. In writing about the CIO, Jacobin note how that movement was built as a result of CIO leader John L. Lewis hiring big numbers of young communists as organisers. Today, between Momentum, Labour, new union organising projects and movements like XR and the school strikers, the country is full of young organisers who have cut their teeth in these world changing movements. The US teachers strikes were sparked by just an ad-hoc handful of ex Bernie volunteers. Imagine the potential if we launch an intentional plan to put the thousands of radical young organisers in these movements to work rebuilding the workers movement.
From big mobilising to deep organising
Building a movement like this will require a digital-to-field (online-to-offline) distributed organising approach, seeing fast growing online networks organising dynamic, disruptive action offline. They will need to treat these as structure tests, and utilise a rapid cycle of action →. attention → induction to inspire and absorb new activists, growing the action each time.
The problem is that while this can scale quickly, this approach typically only activates self-starters i.e. those already “on board” with the cause, but often lacking the leadership skills to bring their co-workers with them. This is a problem when – as Jane McAlevey points out – to rebuild workers power we need to build super-majority density and action by activating organic leaders.
And yet… The US teachers strikes in West Virginia and Carolina show that it is possible to utilise these self-starters as organisers, building out real workplace organising teams that can win over organic leaders (and community allies) and use structure tests to build powerful networks of solidarity that are capable of mobilising super-majority action.
Here in the UK, tens of thousands of self-starting volunteers have just had a crash course as organisers – some of them full-time – in some of the hardest circumstances, running “persuasive” canvasses and phone-banks in marginal seats. If we can recruit, train, support and unleash them as worker organisers, we can do this.
So where now?
In the 36hrs before the election, with no paid promotion and only a small amount of influencer support, 200 diverse workers joined Labour @ Work. From retail assistants to nuclear engineers through hairdressers and teachers, these pro-Labour workers made themselves known and agreed to speak to their co-workers about voting Labour. In other words, about socialism.
In the wake of the election I believe Labour @ Work can be a vehicle through which – working with Momentum, TWT and local Labour Party and trade union structures – we can engage 1000’s of pro-Labour workers in a plan to establish a new, multi-issue and social/political mass-movement of workers: “Workforce”.
I am serious. But I need your help. If you are interested in having a conversation about taking this forward, sign up here.
Happy New Year comrade… let’s organise!