For too many of us, it has taken being stuck in our homes 23 hours a day to get to know our neighbours. Mutual aid groups sprung up as soon as the lockdown was announced, providing virtual spaces where we could offer and ask for help from people who live in our neighbourhoods. People on my street have had food and medical supplies dropped off, bikes have been loaned to key workers, and cats have taken to the vet for life-saving surgeries. It’s a shame that it took a pandemic, but better late than never.
After a Zoom union branch meeting a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in my mutual aid group that I was a trained union rep, and would be happy to support people who were having trouble at work. I was contacted immediately by a supermarket worker who was experiencing bullying and discrimination. He now has ongoing representation through the IWW, and has joined the union. Elsewhere in south London, Pizza Hut workers who are owed many hours of wages are now out of work because their negligent franchise owner shut their stores when the pandemic hit. Several of them were unable to pay their rent last month. They’ve been organising with Croydon Solidarity Network, who put the call out to their local mutual aid groups for support when the workers decided to organise a socially-distanced exercise session (with placards) outside some of the affected stores. It’s examples of workers fighting back which have given a sense of hope during this harrowing time. We need a militant labour movement to resist what’s coming next, and I think mutual aid groups are the perfect spaces for generating and fostering that.
Our current situation should remind those of us engaged in labour organising that there is a world outside the workplace – our struggles at work and in our communities are tangled together. Jane McAlevey, American organiser and writer, calls this ‘whole-worker organising’. In her book, ‘Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell)’ she writes, “Whole-worker organising seeks to engage ”whole workers” in the betterment of their lives. To keep them consistently acting in their self interest, while constantly expanding their vision of who that self interest includes, from their immediate peers in their unit, to their shift, their workplace, their street, their kids’ school, their community, their watershed, their nation, their world. (pg. 14)” These connections are easier to make and understand when we meet workers in the community, before we meet them in the workplace. Our current circumstances mean that we’re meeting workers through WhatsApp and Facebook groups (instead of community centres and places of worship), but many of us have never known our neighbours better. We’ve never had a better understanding of what they’re going through at home and at work.
The term ‘mutual aid’ itself should guide us as to how to approach this type of organising. Mutual aid is activity which is cooperative, reciprocal, democratic and transformational. We shouldn’t be swooping in as ‘helpers’, but speaking to our neighbours as fellow workers who have needed help ourselves in the past. Those of us with some experience or training should be clear that we are willing to put the time in to help, but that it’s a process we’re engaged with together, that we’ll both learn something. We should be encouraging our neighbours to take training offered by our unions, so that they can support the next person who’s in trouble.
Approaching our mutual aid groups with offers of support for workplace issues will inevitably lead to casework first. But this is a crisis which is generating issues best handled collectively rather than individually. If your neighbour has been forced back to work with inadequate PPE, chances are their colleagues have too. It should never be our goal to become a voluntary advice service, simply telling workers what their individual rights are, or acting on their behalf. Offering solidarity with our neighbours in a way which encourages them to use those rights collectively, and empowers them to organise with their colleagues, is the best way of ensuring that casework leads to an increase of power in the workplace.
An experience of workplace struggle makes power imbalances clearer, even to those of us who have thought about it a lot in the abstract. It also opens up possibilities to see yourself as somebody who, together with others, can change the balance of power. That isn’t something that goes back into the box once it’s over – when it’s collective it becomes class struggle and class power. If you can stand up to your boss with your colleagues, why can’t you stand up to your landlord with your fellow tenants? When austerity is imposed to ‘balance the books’ after this period of massive government intervention, councils will be cutting many of the services we rely on. If that happens once people have fought back and won at work, resistance to cuts is much more likely to be successful. According to Jane McAlevey’s “whole worker’ model, our neighbour’s vision of “self interest” has been expanded to include their workplace, their block of flats or estate, and their wider neighbourhood.
This crisis will be over at some point, although we will be living with the consequences at work and in our communities for many years to come. As we enter a recession that seems likely to be at least twice as bad as the 2008/9 banking crisis, workers need to be on the front foot at work and at home. We must make the most of our new relationships with our neighbours now, and refuse to go back to walking by when help is less immediately necessary. We have an opportunity to break the false distinction between work and the rest of our lives, and it could be the key to powerful, transformative organising.