‘Let’s get rooted’ invites you to take part in a series of interviews about the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the situation at work and how the current movements against police violence reverberate where we work.
Interviews are at the centre of getting organised to struggle for better conditions. We think we have a lot to learn from other workers and we think being interviewed and taking part in detailed conversations can also help us to look at our own workplace from new perspectives.
Like in any crisis, the normal power relations between workers and bosses is shaken up. With the interviews we want to understand what conflicts have emerged since the lockdown; to what extent workers have had to take over more control in order to make work safe or possible at all; how the economic crisis has changed things at work; if the bosses can use the crisis to squeeze us more or pay us less; and of course, if new possibilities for collective organising have emerged.
We think that in the coming months there will be a massive build up of tension around wages. The lockdown has revealed to many low paid workers in the ‘essential sectors’ that they have social power. They may come out of the lockdown more confident. At the same time, unemployment is increasing and the bosses will try to use this to put pressure on wages from above. We don’t want campaigns and quick answers, rather we want to understand the actual balance of power at work.
We therefore plan to interview workers from various sectors: from delivery drivers, factory and office workers to teachers, tube drivers, social workers, NHS staff, charity volunteers and school students. We will highlight differences and commonalities within our class.
We hope to gather and edit the interviews and publish them on our blog and perhaps publish them as a pamphlet. The interviews will be anonymous and we’ll take care not to publish information that could put people at risk. Feel free to use the questionaire below to write up a report yourself or to ask us to interview you, which can be easier and more fruitful. Feel free to circulate this proposal to other co-workers and friends.
———— Where do you work? What does your work and workplace look like?
What happened when the Covid-19 pandemic started becoming public knowledge? How did your co-workers talk about it? What did management do, health and safety or otherwise? Where people happy with that?
What happened after the official lockdown?
What happened with the amount of work and the number of workers during the lockdown? Did you have more work to do? Did you have new tasks to do? Did management have a plan for this or did you have to improvise?
What happened to the general conditions during the lockdown: wages, working times, shifts etc.?
Did relations between co-workers change during that time? The relationship with management? The relationship with customers, patients, other members of ‘the public’? If so, how?
Did many people went off sick? If so, how did management react? How was work done with less staff?
What were the main conflicts during the lockdown? How were they solved or not?
Did the union play a role?
What was better at work during the lockdown? What worse?
Has the source of income of your household changed? Benefits? Other jobs? Other ways to make money?
How did your household cope with childcare during the school closure? Did family relations change?
Did you take part in or used mutual aid groups or other charities during lockdown? What about your workmates?
Has management announced that certain changes will stay in place? What are they? How do workers think about this?
Have there been job cuts or have new people been hired?
What do people discuss about the Covid-19 crisis? How do they see the government and the lockdown? What do they think about the future?
Was there any discussion about ‘what is essential work’ and its position in society?
Do you think workers at your workplace come out of this stronger or weaker? As a group?
Have you heard about strikes in the UK or in other countries against the lack of health and safety or other crisis related reasons?
Have you discussed the uprising in the US against police violence at work? What do people think?
Do you think the uprising has relevance for the situation in the UK? At your workplace?
Let’s Get Rooted (LGR) have been chatting about this strike for a while now. We became aware of it before the corona crisis, just after workers had been balloted. We weren’t too surprised to hear that the union had agreed to postpone the strike with the onset of the lockdown, keen as unions usually are to prove themselves as ‘reliable co-managers’ of the workforce in a time of ‘national crisis’ for a seat around the negotiating table. Then we learned that the strike was going ahead, despite many workers still working from home. We think it’s important to try and be in contact with workers on the ground in order to get a better feel of how things were playing out on the ground, especially as it’s usually difficult analyse what’s really happening from a workers’ perspective, aside from union press releases.
We consider this strike to be particularly important due to the majority of the workers involved being what are commonly now known as “key Workers”. Whilst some workers from different sectors such as the food industry have organised some unofficial actions against the lack of safety measures by employers, this strike represents the first of the formal and legal cases of a larger, collective, public sector fightback after the confusion in the capitalist work regime that came with the pandemic. We have therefore made it a priority to be in touch with workers on the ground and attend the pickets ourselves to get some first-hand impressions and insights. We do this in order to build a clearer picture of the state of the class and balance of forces in this pivotal moment, also because it may become a key reference point to other public sector workers in the UK.
We are interested in how our fellow workers have responded to the crisis. We want to know the extent to which these workers are conscious of their important role in the continuation of capitalist normalcy. We want to understand the tactics of both the union and the bosses in this dispute, as well as the sentiment of the class more broadly in the area.
With that in mind, comrades who were in the area committed to making it to the pickets in the early morning of the first day of the strike. LGR comrades were aware of the possibility of outsourced refuse workers refusing to cross a picket line if the strikers decided to form one outside their depot. Knowing this, (and that UNISON would not be organising a picket there because of the legal implications), we headed to the refuse centre for 5am on Friday. We ran into workers at the rear entrance to the depot and started having a few conversations with pickets and passers-by.
The most striking chat we had was with someone who’d just dropped by to show her support. A teacher and member of the National Education Union (NEU) was there standing with around ten striking workers. We asked her how she felt about the strikes, to which she responded, “I’m massively in support of the strikes. To be honest, everyone everywhere should be on strike!”
In the meantime, workers were piling up in the refuse centre looking to start their day. One LGR comrade noticed, “Nothing was moving in or out, the refuse trucks and school buses were penned in by cars.” By the time the depot manager arrived at 8am (2 hours later than the majority of the workers) it was clear that there was a happy standstill at the depot. Refuse workers, although many of them live quite a distance away, were more than happy to stand in solidarity with strikers. The thing that pissed them off most was that their shift officially started at 7am, but it was common knowledge that if you were to have any chance of getting a parking spot you had to turn up two hours early, so after some brief conversations it was pretty clear whose side they were on! The comrades holding a picket at the rear of the refuse centre were called over to the front side when the depot manager decided to make a 999 call to try and disperse the picket rather than, you know, talking to people and understanding the situation. Two cops arrived on the scene within 15 minutes, at around half 8. There was a pretty heated verbal exchange and the picket held its own. The two coppers, feeling a bit outnumbered, retreated to their car and presumably called for backup because 20 minutes later another 4 cops appeared. The picket at this point was a bit less animated and workers clearly felt threatened by the cops’ provocations that anyone who refused to move off the picket was liable to arrest. (Solidarity pickets are still illegal). The picket was broken, and the refuse workers slowly started to leave the depot, shouting apologies to striking workers as they left. One threw an amusing shout to the depot manager, claiming that they couldn’t leave because they were “waiting for their driver!”
It’s clear that there is real solidarity among workers here. Some of the workers did try to throw up objections to staying behind the picket to be met with firm assertations by their co-workers that, “We never cross picket lines!” The Unite shop steward said that he had come in that morning and seen that “they cut trucks over the weekend, i.e. cutting overtime”. He said he was going to call a meeting later about this. There is also a recent history of struggle amongst the Unite workers, as one comrade told us that, “the drivers went on strike several months ago over holiday pay. Sounded quite militant, police showed up. Electricity was cut off by someone. A director tried to drive one of the trucks but hit a tree.” This shows that there is a material basis for solidarity amongst workers in the area, who face similar grievances. Comrades on the picket line were talking to the refuse workers and it was pretty plain to see that they understood the need for class solidarity, regardless of the personal gains presented. These ideas are not abstract, elitist, or exclusionary. There is militancy in the working class, and it continues to be the task of revolutionaries to seek it out and support it, practically and analytically. One striking worker made it clear that, “If we had the numbers, we could have held it the refuse picket all day.”
It is clear that there is some need for strategic work amongst the workers, as some of them remarked in conversation on how the Town Hall picket was well attended, but ultimately symbolic, as there were no scabs attempting to enter through the picket. One worker said: “There was around 20-30 people outside. I had a chat with one of the Children Looked After social workers about rumours I’d heard regarding scabs in his service. He seemed confused by this, and we agreed we would look into it together.” From there, LGR comrades moved to the Housing Building, which was also well attended with around 20-30 people on the picket. Around 7 social workers had also staffed a picket down at a Pupil Referral Unit. They said, “We had heard cleaners who are in UNISON were going in to do the weekly deep clean.” Apparently no cleaners showed in the end, but this was a picket independently organised outside of the union and there was rumours, “that they Unison were reluctant to picket here due to something or other with the NEU.”
In the run-up to the strike, the union has made a lot of noise about its majority non-white workforce. One worker said “Tower Hamlets has a very black/brown female workforce, with loads of white blokes at the top.” This is worth mentioning, because as the same worker explains. “I’m not sure if I have the stats right but about 30-40% of tower hamlets workers are agency and many lost their jobs because of lockdown. Like most of the major unions Unison doesn’t have much to say about/to them… In general though imho Unison are really banging on about the BME female workforce, but notably silent on casualised staff who are also likely to be nonwhite women.” It’s important to recognise here the sinister nature and limits of union politics, where workers most requiring solidarity and support are marginalised, whilst other workers are used in a PR bid to bring support to the union, not necessarily the class itself. Going forwards workers need to be able to discuss these inequalities if they are at all able to challenge both, scabs in this dispute and broader disciplining tactics of the division of labour in their workplace.
The main strike actions were rounded off by a Zoom rally at 11:30am, attended by around 400 people.
There was also a fair presence of leftists on the pickets, from London Renters Union to Green Anti-Capitalist Front and IWW, making it clear that revolutionaries recognise the importance of this strike and what it represents. We hope to see those comrades again on Monday 8th and hopefully many more.
Thoughts and observations:
There is a buzz about this strike. Whether it is the scale of it and the variety of workers involved, or because it is the first high-profile dispute following lockdown or any other reason, we can’t be sure. It was an impressive display of workers from different branches of public sector work. The task now is to create stronger communication and solidarity between the workers – something that is usually lacking in bigger strikes like this, and which was noticeable from our walk-arounds. The organisers within Unison have done a good job in mobilising so far, but that can’t be the stopping point. Now is the time to encourage and allow the self-direction of workers through open discussion of tactics and convictions.
One of the reasons we say this is that otherwise, we will see the usual thing of ‘decisions being made behind closed doors.’ Many workers are only too aware of this tendency. One striking worker said that she thought that, “the new contracts would eventually get imposed after a bit of to-and-fro between Unison and the Council.” This lack of faith in unions to ultimately represent workers’ interests clearly demonstrates the need for more worker autonomy, particularly in moments of intensified struggle. We have said this before: whilst we don’t reject the unions wholesale in the UK, we question their place in a class strategy and believe that without the self-actualisation of workers’ collective power, the struggle inevitably stagnates or leads to a ‘sell out’.
This dispute is important beyond those who are directly involved, which is clear from the recent announcement that Croydon Council are axing 500 workers and many more (we can imagine) will soon follow suit. In the aftermath of the corona crisis, which has only exacerbated, rather than caused the problems in the economy, we are undoubtedly facing a period of reordering of the forces of production. We can expect similar cases of assaults on workers from capital in the form of redundancies, sack-and-rehire and cuts. A strong victory in this dispute will stand as an important lesson and example for the working class going forwards.
One final observation is that the union have opted for the 1-day strike structure of industrial action. Usually this is a tactic employed to minimise disruption, so it would be good for workers to discuss this strategy in more detail, as well as possible alternatives to ramp things up. Perhaps we can’t expect miracles, and we certainly can’t expect a revolutionary consciousness from any individual dispute, but we can start to ask questions around how we move towards it. It is clear that for this dispute to be successful it will need wider engagement of the working class to withstand the onslaught of the hegemonic reality that calls for cuts in the face of an intense economic downturn and 40 years of intense attack from (neoliberal) capitalism.
Of course, this was only the first day of the strike, and there is talk of more strike days being added to the current plan of three 1-day strikes. What we want to do is encourage the workers to build their own network of communication between different sites, pickets and classifications of worker. We would like to see discussions and debates between the workers around the tactics of the union. Should they focus on the Town Hall and other low impact pickets, or where “essential” work is still being carried out? Density of certain pickets vs. a more tactical distribution of workers? How does the union try to address working class residents of Tower Hamlets? Would there be an opportunity to call for joint assemblies of strikers and local residents? Through such discussion and debate, the workers would have the means to recognise the limits of certain tactics and recognise their own collective autonomy through the possibilities of others.
Tower Hamlets Council workers will strike on Friday, 3 July, resisting the imposition of sweeping new ‘sack-and-rehire’ contracts. Let’s Get Rooted will be joining picket lines and keeping up to speed with comrades involved in the strike. We want to find out more about what’s led up to workers acting, what they hope and expect to achieve, what they feel it might cost them if the strikes don’t work – and most of all, what possibilities they see to strengthen their hand and overcome divisions. We’ll also see what might be done to link this dispute and future fights to the working class in the local area. It’s organised by UNISON, and is the first of three one day actions, with the possibility of further strikes. You can read more about the details of the council’s demands here:
We think this is a particularly important and significant strike for a few reasons – in no particular order:
• Timing. It’s perhaps the first large-scale strike since the COVID regime came down in March, and will therefore be a test of workers’ appetite for close collaboration and collective action. In fact, it’s the end of a phase of ‘phoney war’. The original strike ballot was in January – UNISON suspended the threat of strike action for the duration of the COVID crisis, to which the council responded by delaying imposition of the new contracts. This dance of peace was broken when the council announced the new contracts would be enforced on 6th July. So is the crisis over? Well no, apparently – the council has accused the workers of irresponsibility for going out in the middle of a pandemic!
• Who’s involved. The 4,000 or so staff affected by the new (and mainly worse) contracts range from school kitchen staff to childrens’ services and social workers, benefits office staff and environmental officers – those ‘essential’ and ‘key’ workers who were apparently going to be properly appreciated and valued in future, when the epidemic in London was at its height and everyone loved them. And in the midst of the outbreak of public ‘wokeness’ among the political class and bureaucracy provoked by the Black Lives Matter campaign, it’s noted that the majority of workers who will be worst affected by the new contracts are exactly the lowest paid, mainly ethnic minority, and female.
• Divide and rule. The new contracts are comprehensive, but they don’t affect all workers equally, and in some cases may lead to higher pay – usually for the already better paid. The council argues is that it needs to cut employment and pensions costs for most groups so that they can improve conditions for hard-to-recruit people like social workers. This will test the level of solidarity between different worker groups across the council and mean that the most highly engaged and motivated workers may need to find new ways of breaking down the silos of communication and narrow group self-interest. We hear that kitchen workers, for example, have been repeatedly phoned by managers checking that they won’t go on strike, and threatening them with the sack if they do.
• The strategy. The council has taken a ‘big bang’, fire-and-rehire approach from a playbook more familiar to workers for private sector companies – which suggests either great confidence, or desperation. For instance, small annual increments in pay, determined by a public sector pay scale called ‘the spine’, have up till now been automatic – but under the new contracts would be tied to a favourable performance review by a line manager. Lumped in with this are things like sharp reductions to pension benefits, an 80% cut in redundancy terms. So it’s an immediate cost-cutting exercise that also includes measures to individualise and remould the management-worker relationship for the long term.
• Labour councils implementing central government cuts and policy. This is nothing new: local authorities in the UK have been enforcing centrally-hatched measures on their local populations for at least 100 years, irrespective of their political colour. Sometimes it’s over rent levels, sometimes housing policy itself, sometimes – as in the last 10 years – councils hacking away at library provision, sports halls or local parks. Labour councillors have from time to time mounted heroic, and usually doomed, shows of resistance; Liverpool and Clay Cross in the 1970s, when councillors went to jail, and Tower Hamlets itself in the 1930s. The biggest element of councils’ income is still from central government, and this money has been cut so much since 2010 that many UK councils are now on the verge of bankruptcy. Tower Hamlets financial statements for 2018-19 blandly report that in the next 3 years, “a number of external challenges, including the government welfare reforms, local government funding levels and Brexit, will pose additional risks to the council” – which had a mere £2m of spendable reserves at the end of the year, although it did report an additional £287m of mysterious ‘unusable reserves’. Tower Hamlets is by no means alone in looking for cuts at the expense of its workers: for instance Croydon council has just announced 500 job cuts – around 15% of the workforce. In the long run, councillors and council officers will always be mindful of their legal duties, and the penalties they might bring on their own heads for not running a tight financial ship. We know that the few occasions when blatantly exploitative or unfair measures got overturned, at least temporarily, were when there was a powerful and unified grass roots working class response, – such as the domestic rates strikes in the 1920s and the Poll Tax Rebellions in the 90s.
• The place. Tower Hamlets features regularly in league tables of inequality: for instance, it’s been second only to Westminster for average wages, despite being an overwhelmingly working class district. That’s explained by the huge salaries earned in the financial hub of Canary Wharf – their luxury boat lifts us all up! So how can we be second only to Knowsley for multiple indications of deprivation like overcrowding, malnutrition, poor general health, short lifespans and low levels of literacy? Dunno guv, must be something to do with the class system. At any rate, Tower Hamlets was and still is the landing place and home to migrant and refugee workers from all over the world – Huguenots from France, Jews from Eastern Europe, Bangladesh, Somalia; and since the 2009 crisis, an assortment of young migrants from the hollowed-out economies of Spanish, Italian, Greek and French towns and cities. This means the area has a history of working class and ‘communitarian’ politics, reflected in power struggles at the municipal level. The council is now run by a mainstream Labour administration. UNISON, the local government union coordinating the strikes, is affiliated to Labour, which means some of the striking workers’ dues go to the ruling party in the council.
In the not-so-distant past, Tower Hamlets been run by a racist Liberal Democrat local party and the social-communitarian mayor Lutfur Rahman, before collapsing into direct government control amid predictable allegations of cronyism and fraud. While this is all entertainment for the voting masses, we will be looking at how the area’s political legacy, divisions and possibilities play out in the strike.
• What to do?
We need an independent network of communication that can link workers in different job groups and locations, allowing them to respond quickly with measures to enforce the strike, such as ‘flying’ or rotating pickets at different council-run locations and facilities.
We need to find out together where the council is vulnerable to pressure, and what are our own weak links: for instance, some school cleaners and kitchen staff may be reluctant to join because of management threats – but if they can be persuaded to back the strike, schools will have to close. Social workers, although favoured under the terms of the new contracts, might be persuaded to stick together with colleagues from other professions and jobs.
It will be important, too, to connect the dispute in Tower Hamlets with looming battles in other places. We’ll be talking about the developing situation in Tower Hamlets with council workers in Croydon over the next week. Watch this space!
If you want to get involved with the Let’s Get Rooted comrades in East London, or want to know more about our plans for getting organised more widely, get in touch: email@example.com
Next up in our series where we ask groups about their organising experiences, is Parkdale Organize in Toronto, Canada. They have been very successful in their ‘territorial organising’ approach, basing themselves in an area and responding to whatever issues working class residents of Parkdale have. This has led to links being made organically to some workplace struggles, as well as solidarity building between different groups e.g. tenants and teachers.
When AngryWorkers moved to west London, we too had the idea of rooting ourselves in a specific area. However, the scale in terms of geography was pretty vast, so we focused on solnets and workplaces instead. We’ve seen a lot of tenants’ organising in London, at its most effective when there is a discrete estate or blocks to focus on. Even here though, there is often a mix of council tenants plus leaseholders (people who own their flats), so finding common cause is not so easy. In our neck of the woods, most people live in privately rented accommodation, which makes collective action very difficult. Recently, in light of the high numbers of rent deferrals during the lockdown, groups like London Renter’s Union have tried to organise nationwide rent strikes. We’re not sure how effective this is when you are so dispersed, have little community support, and can be evicted further down the line, but we hope to hear some reflections of how this went in future.
While tenants’ organising is important, we think that ‘the workplace’ and the question of work in general is the most significant area of struggle when it comes to collective power and social transformation.
We appreciate Parkdale’s efforts so far and their attempts to ‘scale up’ their organising when corona came to town. We look forward to continuing our conversation with them, as well as finding out more about the objective and subjective conditions that have aided them.
We recommend you click on the link mentioned in the article below, which is a great short film about Parkdale and their efforts.
*** Answers from comrades from Parkdale Organize
Based on your recent local experiences of ‘being part of a group’ (organising around a specific issue, reading circle etc.) what were your good and bad experiences? Where did you hit a brick wall in expanding both the practical activity and its roots as well as the political horizon of the group? And where did things work really well and push things forward? In case you are in a group: What is your group’s capacity for practical involvement? Can it commit to run a monthly/fortnightly solnet? Can it maintain a regular (at least monthly) presence at a strategic workplace for a prolonged period?
1.(i) Parkdale Organize’s origin was within a now disbanded anarchist communist organization called Common Cause. We began examining our shared failures over the years with decades of combined experience in multiple left initiatives and the barriers that the left imposes on the development of proletarian struggle. We settled on a course of action for ourselves that can be characterized as “territorial organizing”. This provided us a framework of working class engagement that we hoped would substantially diminish the negative impacts that the radical left has on working class struggle in our region. For the last several years we have focused on a neighbourhood level (territorial) engagement with working class politics as opposed to a focus on discrete sectoral (tenants, workers, immigrants, unemployed, etc…) initiatives. Sectoral struggles still emerge with planning and decision making that represent the nature of those struggles, but the overall framework is understood as being that of the overall working class as it exists and is reproduced within our neighbourhood, and that this overall class interest should be what informs the independent working class organizing taken up in that interest. This was the work we were putting forward to our neighbours and co-workers. As time went on (and successes attributable to this framework and approach increased) this form of organizing became common in Parkdale.
1.(ii) Two examples of this framework working well:
Multiple people from Parkdale that had organized and participated in rent strikes were also part of two separate worker-initiated labour strikes at the Ontario Food Terminal.
Teachers at a neighbourhood elementary school organized support actions for tenants on two separate rent strikes. In turn, tenants organized support actions for teachers while on labour strike. Both groups also took up joint actions opposing funding and service cuts targeting schools.
1.(iib)Negatives or difficulties in both of those examples also existed. Generally in situations in which our neighbourhood organizing encroaches on areas in which left or organized labour forces have a presence, there is a political and tactical inertia those forces impose. Organizing in such spaces is extremely difficult for working class organizations to maintain independence.
(iii) Parkdale Organize’s practical capacity is not really directed at programs like solnets or sustained presence outside of strategic workplaces. Though there are definitely similarities with their overall functions and activity in Parkdale. The networks within the neighbourhood are often between organized buildings, and the solidarity emerges from that organizing. More substantially organized buildings often support individuals or smaller groups in their organizing. When a direct action based intervention of those not directly affected (supporting an employee or tenant etc…) is needed, it is generally accomplished by accessing the pre-existing networks of people in the neighbourhood, both members and non-members of Parkdale Organize.
If ‘getting rooted’ means to act within ‘working class areas’ and around ‘interesting workplaces’ and ‘common issues’, what could that mean in your area?
Living in higher density blocks and employment in critical workplaces (either because of the workforce or content of labour). By and large our members all live in apartment buildings in Parkdale. Parkdale Organize has members or contacts employed locally in both of the neighbourhood elementary schools as well as the Ontario Food Terminal.
Are there people you know who are also interested in engaging in a practical / theoretical process like this? If not, why do you think that is?
Very few genuinely want to engage in similar work. This is likely for many reasons. Not least of which is that many leftists and self-avowed revolutionaries are remarkably lazy.
Have there been any interesting struggles within the local class recently? What could a fruitful organised support have looked like?
The most recent example is likely the most substantial. Due to Covid-19 related job losses and expense increases exacerbating an already existing housing crisis, recent estimates of April rent delinquency is at about a third of tenants across Canada. With the most expensive rental markets (when compared to average wages) likely to have larger concentrations of people that did not pay April rent. In mid-March members of Parkdale Organize chose to temporarily suspend our exclusively neighbourhood based focus and attempt to use lessons and resources we had gathered over the years to coalesce a political and practical response to what was likely to be a situation confronting the working class generally, come April 1st. Organizing resources, analysis, and assistance in linking individual tenants in specific districts with one another under conditions of social distancing was taken up initially by Parkdale Organize. This quickly grew in the days leading up to April 1st. Roughly 1,000 new organizer contacts have been shared with neighbours across the city. Those organizers have been postering, establishing whatsapp and text trees in their neighbourhoods and buildings, as well as making phone calls and having personal conversations. All in order to gather active support and contact among people that could not afford April rent to do so with the understanding that if organized, we can defeat landlords’ attempts at repayment and eviction. Success is far from guaranteed, and this organizing is frankly harrowing, but in that non-payment of rent was baked-into this crisis we concluded our experiences could potentially be an asset to other working class people across the city in dealing with the situation collectively. Going into specifics on this would make this long winded shit even more unbearable but an internet link to the bare bones of what we started is here: https://keepyourrent.com/
For an overview of fruitful support by Parkdale Organize in 2017 you can refer to this video about a 3 month long rent strike involving 300+ unit in our neighbourhood:
This report on the situation in the UK is primarily for the debate with comrades abroad and for our own understanding about where things are heading.
We think that a social situation needs at least two characteristics in order to become revolutionary: the rulers must have lost the resources and ability to rule and the ruled must be fed up, organised and politically clued up enough to question the status quo. When we look at the bigger picture this way we have to break things down further.
We can analyse the crisis of the ruling class as the inability to enforce certain changes politically, either because the political class itself is not united enough or because they expect that the changes won’t go down well. The changes themselves are motivated by and limited by the amount of (financial) resources the state has in order to rule. This in turn depends on the general underlying profitability of the system, on productive investments in profitable businesses.
The ruled themselves are not a monolithic block. The working class is stratified by, amongst other things, uneven regional development, property ownership, citizenship status. There are various institutions, first of all the official trade unions, which claim to represent the working class, but more often than not reproduce sectorial, professional and national divisions. The self-proclaimed political representation of workers in the UK, the Labour Party, forms another buffer. We have to analyse the actual struggles which question the stratification of the class. We don’t think unification happens through well meaning demands or through individual memberships of this or that organisation – but through struggles that break through the daily imposed divisions.
In the following we go through some empirical material from the last two months, trying to detect tendencies regarding the structural constraints of the state and capital and the potentials for working class unification. This material largely stems from the mainstream media, which in itself limits this report. We therefore plan a series of interviews with co-workers and friends about their experiences during the Covid-19 regime at work, to get a sense of what’s really happening on the ground.
Please send us comments and criticism: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. The Covid-19 situation
So far the UK government has gotten away with murder when it comes to the handling of the public health aspect of the Covid-19 crisis. The main facts are pretty well known, we therefore limit ourselves to a brief summary.
With over 43,000 official deaths, the UK has one of the highest death rates in the world. A major factor was the initial government strategy of ‘herd immunity’, which delayed the lockdown. On the 2nd of March the government was warned that the virus was highly contagious, on the 13th of March the government announced their strategy of ‘herd immunity’, deciding not to implement a large scale lockdown like most EU countries. National lockdown was only declared on the 23rd of March after public pressure. Inability or stupidity are not the primary reason for this delay, but a political dispute within the political class about whether they could get away with risking the lives of thousands of ‘unproductive’ older people. According to a senior Conservative, the initial strategy was summarised by Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings as “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” This isn’t just the opinion of ‘wicked’ Cummings. Johnson wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph in 2007 titled, ‘Global over-population is the real issue.’ In it, Johnson laments how, “it is a tragic measure of how far the world has changed” that “the fertility of the human race” can no longer be publicly discussed as a government policy. This is not an attempt to fabricate a conspiracy theory, but to demonstrate the general political perspective of the leading governmental figures. These politicians don’t have a wider social vision a la Thatcher, but primarly think in terms of how to manipulate and manage various social groups in order to maintain the status quo.
The second reason for the high death rate are the holes in the productive fabric of the health and industrial sector in the UK, created by austerity and lack of investment during the last decade. The lack of protective equipment and Covid-19 tests and the inability to produce sufficient resources aggravated the situation. In June 2020 UK ranked as number 20 out of the 31 European countries with available data for coronavirus testing per capita, screening only 31.59 people for every thousand of the population. Significantly poorer Eastern European countries such as Lithuania (99.14 per thousand), Estonia (57.74), Latvia (52.9) and Belarus (49) have tested far more people relative to their population sizes. It also became public that the government fudged the official figures of how many people were being tested per day, reporting over one million more tests than the numbers genuinely tested. The fragmentation of the health sector into various NHS trusts, private clinics and care homes created further problems and fatal levels of disorganisation. Between the 17th and 15th of April, around 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes. Only small numbers of these people were tested. In mid-June the media announced that 30% of all deaths occurred in care homes, over 14,000 people in total.
A further reason for the high death rate is the high level of social inequality and impoverishment in the UK. Figures of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) covering March to May show that people living in the poorest 10% of England died at a rate of 128.3 per 100,000, compared with a rate of 58.8 per 100,000 among those living in the wealthiest 10% of the country. Brent in west London had the highest overall age-standardised rate, with 210.9 deaths per 100,000 population. Many of our former workmates in the food factories and warehouses live in Brent, where the combination of overcrowding at home and on the production lines  and the fact that government advice was rarely translated for migrant workers, has proved fatal.
In order to compensate for the lack of productive and care capacity the government had to continue outsourcing essential work, which contributed to the problem in the first place. After suspending commissioning rules, Tory ministers have awarded exclusive coronavirus-related state contracts worth £1.7 billion to private companies. Corruption is not the reason, but a byproduct of this. Here are just a few examples. Randox, a private healthcare firm that happens to employ Owen Patterson, one of the richest Tory MPs, has been awarded a £133m contract without any competition. PestFix, which has 16 staff and net assets of £19,000 was given a government contact worth £108m in early April to provide items such as gowns and face masks to the NHS. The US company Palantir was given a contract to use AI technology to track the coronavirus outbreak. The company has been funded by the CIA and has ties the Vote Leave-linked technology firm Faculty, which received seven government contracts within the last 18 months period. Journalists who have asked about the handling of NHS data by Palantir have been stone-walled.
Up to now there have been some critical questions by ‘experts’ regarding the handling of the Covid-19 crisis by the state, but no collective response as yet by those who have suffered most. There have been collective actions of workers against the lack of health and safety – see below – but the initiatives of family members of deceased Covid-19 victims who try to hold the state to account are still small in number. Unsurprisingly, an attempt to declare the initial government strategy as ‘illegal’ has been squashed.
2. The economic slump
In June 2020 the OECD reported that Britain’s economy is likely to suffer the worst damage from the Covid-19 crisis of any country in the developed world. A slump in the UK’s national income of 11.5% during 2020 will outstrip the falls in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the US. The Bank of England suggest UK unemployment will double to 10 to 12% this year. When lockdown measures were first introduced in March, voluntary liquidations by small businesses rose to twice last year’s levels. The particular severity of the UK’s recession is partly due to the double-whammy of Covid-19 and Brexit, but as we will see, the economic decline has a longer running tendency.
Like in most countries, the lockdown impacted hardest on the hospitality sector, where 85% of workers have been affected. One in four workers in this sector have lost hours, one in ten have lost their job altogether, and half are furloughed. Other highly affected sectors are: education, with 60% of employees affected and nearly half having lost hours; manufacturing and construction (55% affected); and wholesale, retail and motor trades (54% affected). During the first two months of lockdown the number of hours worked fell by a record 94.2 million in April – a drop of almost 9% – but not as high as the percentage of people who were furloughed or lost their job. This might be due to the fact that the decrease in workers was compensated by an increase in overtime.
The automobile sector had been in trouble before the Covid-19 pandemic, e.g. Honda in Swindon announced the plant’s closure in February 2020. Since the lockdown, industry representatives have said that up to a quarter of workers in car dealerships, 150,000 people in total, are likely to lose their jobs in the coming months. Bentley said they will dismiss 1,000 out of 4,200 workers. Jaguar Land Rover, Britain’s biggest car manufacturer, plan to sack up to 1,100 agency staff from a total UK workforce of 32,000. In mid-June industry representatives said that 25,000 jobs, that’s one sixth of total car industry employment, are at risk. One in three of the 150,000 people employed in automobile manufacturing are still on the government’s furlough scheme.
The situation is similar in the aerospace industry. Airbus management in the UK complained that the governments in France and Germany mobilised more money to support their local Airbus plants. 13,500 jobs in UK aerospace are now at risk. Smaller aerospace part manufacturers are already dismissing people, e.g. SPS in the Midlands plan 420 redundancies and Thompson Aero Seating in North Ireland threatened to sack 500 out of 1,300 workers. In the UK, 725 out of 820 aerospace suppliers have fewer than 50 employees, while those with under 250 employees account for just over a third of the industry’s 118,000 jobs. The UK has already lost a good share of the global aerospace market in recent years, falling from second place after the US to third, behind France and roughly equal to Germany. In May, British Airlines announced it was cutting up to 12,000 out of 42,000 workers, using the fact that most workers are furloughed and less able to react collectively to this threat. Ryanair is also planning to axe up to 15% of its staff, while Virgin Atlantic is cutting about a third of its 10,000-strong workforce.
In construction more than 470 infrastructure projects in the UK worth £6 billion remain on hold and the number of new contracts and tenders in the sector has plunged due to Covid-19. Overall, work stopped on 4,800 projects across the wider construction industry, or about half of all sites – site closures often had to be enforced by workers themselves. The Covid-19 blow will accelerate the concentration process in the industry with more smaller companies going bust. In 2019, 368 companies in the sector filed for insolvency, that compares with 207 in 2016. Developers building up to 100 homes a year account for roughly 10% of new supply, according to the National House-Building Council, against 40 per cent in 1988. Over the same period the number of small house builders has dropped from more than 12,000 to about 2,000.
There are only a few sectors that have boomed during the lockdown and are likely to grow in the future. For example e-commerce volumes in April represented 31% of retail sales, 16% higher than the previous month. Online grocery sales almost doubled to 13% of the market. Ocado, an online grocery logistics company wants to raise £1 billion for investments into warehouses and vehicles. Segro, a warehouse developer, plans to invest £650 million.
3. The impact on workers
The state launched the coronavirus jobs retention scheme (CJRS) in March 2020, allowing companies to send workers home, with the state paying 80% of their usual wage and employers paying the other 20%. According to government figures published in early June, around 9.1 million workers in the UK were put on the scheme (the private sector employs 27.3 million), plus there are 2.6 million people who receive a similar benefit as self-employed workers. So far the scheme has cost the state around £29 billion. While there are less people furloughed in university towns like Oxford or Cambridge, industrial areas like Slough or Birmingham saw the highest level of over a third of local workers furloughed. Economically the Covid-19 crisis has hit women workers harder than men. While the 2008 crisis saw more men losing jobs, this time more women have lost their job, partly due to the types of jobs affected, as well as the issue of childcare, as schools and two thirds of nurseries were closed. Many working class families collapse under the additional pressure of the Covid-19 lockdown and children are the first victims of this – the number of children who need foster care due to abuse or neglect increased by 44%.
It became clear fairly quickly that given the large amounts of flexible, temporary, freelance or informal work relations in the UK many working class people would fall through the cracks. A report from the Treasury select committee alleged that 1 million people who lost their job due to Covid-19 were not receiving the designated state benefit, other sources spoke about 3 million. An additional £6 billion of household debts will aggravate an existing crisis.
There were material differences within the working class in terms of who could work from home and who couldn’t or who was furloughed and who lost their job without receiving state benefits. Another fault line runs, as usual, between renting and home-owning segments of the class. As during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the state made sure to signal to the home-owning segment of the class that they would get a ‘mortgage-holiday’ if required, whereas tenants were not given such protection. 1.8 million people have taken advantage of a three month mortgage holiday scheme (one in six mortgages) and repayments on 1.5 million credit card accounts have been paused. Even the Labour Party recently watered down their ‘opposition’ for their demand for renters’ protection. Their policy has now changed from rent suspension to rent deferment. In April somewhere between a quarter and half of all residential rents went unpaid and the protection against evictions that the government put in place will end in late August. An increase in evictions is to be expected, also because of a backlog of previous orders that couldn’t been processed during the lockdown.
The government money papered over the cracks temporarily, as the furlough scheme closed to new applications on the 10th of June and employers will have to pay progressively more for furloughed workers from 1st of August until the scheme runs out in November 2020. This means that the number of job cuts is likely to rise from now on, as bosses don’t want to pay the bill. The number of people claiming Universal Credit (basic benefit for unemployed) rose by 856,000 to 2.1 million in April and to 2.8 million in May. The state administration is not prepared to deal with such a large increase as government cuts during recent years has meant that spending on employment programmes is just £200m, a quarter of its 2016 level, and a sixth of its level before the 2008 crisis. In this scenario, Labour’s new Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds said that Britain’s welfare system needs a stronger link between “what you put in and what you get out”. Those who have made “greater contributions to the system” should receive more out of it. At least they are honest: in a situation where the state cannot keep everyone happy they have to apply divide-and-rule.
4. The re-emergence of the state and leftist illusions
Confusing to many on the Labour left, the Tory government exercised the function of a capitalist state in times of economic crisis by intervening strongly in the national economy and labour market. In mid-March the government announced state-backed loans of at least £330 billion to support UK businesses, which would total 15% of GDP. This has been made possible by the UK central bank cutting interest rates from 0.75 to 0.1% in March and and quantitative easing (QE: buying of debts, primarily government bonds) of £645 billion. A further £100 billion was announced in June. We can see that the amount of QE money thrown on the fire increased steadily without much impact in terms of economic growth: 2009 £200 billion, 2012 £375 billion, 2016 £435 billion, 2020 £745 billion. Most of the free money ended up fuelling the ‘hunt for returns’ and increased share prices. In May the Office for Budget Responsibility was forced to raise its estimate of the cost to the state of the pandemic to £123.2 billion, from its previous calculation of £103.7 billion. Public sector debt is at its highest since 1963: it exceeded £2 trillion for the first time (25% of this debt is held abroad). A public sector debt ratio of 100% of GDP is not exceptional. France, Italy, the US and Japan have crossed that mark, too. In June the Tory government promised to bail out Tata Steel with several hundred millions of pounds – the first time since the privatisation of the British steel industry 30 years ago the state will hold significant shares in the industry again.
A left that thought that the main defining feature of left politics was state intervention in contrast to market liberalism was stunned. Unsurprisingly, the main criticism was that the state was still not spending enough and that the loans for businesses were not reaching them in time. The fact that the Health Secretary Matt Hancock was able to announce in April that £13.4 billion of ‘NHS debt’ – an internal balance sheet between state departments – would be written off, was taken as proof that debt doesn’t matter at all and has become purely political. One reason for this misjudgement is the illusion on the left that the national economy is somehow self-contained (“for a country like the UK, with its own currency, those fears are meaningless” – Mason). There is enough historical evidence that, in the long term, debt inflation that is not covered by an increase in profitability leads to crashes or brutal adjustment programs in order to avoid them, e.g. during the Sterling crisis in the mid-1970s. If we look at the trade balance – the amount of goods that have to be imported and paid for depending on international exchange rates – the idea of ‘sovereignty’ due to having ‘your own currency’ smacks of Empire delusions. Financial sector commentators have a more realistic view on this:
‘”In the four years since the UK voted to leave the EU, trading conditions in the pound and the big swings in exchange rates make it a better match with the Mexican peso than the US dollar, said Kamal Sharma, a currency analyst at BofA.” The pound has not recovered to levels before the UK voted to leave the bloc, losing about one-fifth of its value. And since the start of the pandemic, sterling has moved violently. At the height of the crisis, investors were bracing for such great swings in the pound that only the Brazilian Real experienced a larger increase in implied volatility.’
(Financial Times, 24th of June 2020)
In the long run, printing money or writing off debt will lead to a devaluation of the pound and rising import commodity prices, first of all food and manufactured goods. While this might not hit the UK as soon and hard as other countries, we can see the impact of the ‘free money’ illusion in countries like Lebanon, where increasing debts have translated into massive price hikes and impoverishment for the working class more immediately. It seems that an internationalist view isn’t social democracy’s strong point!
There is of course a political struggle and of course the government will try to ‘make the working class pay for the crisis’. We can see that already when the Tory government announced in mid-June that it might break the ‘triple lock’ on pensions – the breaking of a real taboo – given the likelihood that state debt will increase from its current level of 80% to 100% as a result of the current crisis. The ‘triple lock’ means that pensions have to grow with either wages, inflation or a minimum of 2.5% a year and it was the Tory’s main ‘grey’ vote winner since it was introduced in 2010. In London the Mayor agreed to cut free travel for children and increase the congestion charge by 30% in return for a £1.6 billion government bail out. There is a political struggle, but the left slogan of ‘who will pay for the crisis’ is misleading. The working class hasn’t got the money to pay for and counteract the lack in profitability. Neither would it be enough to ‘tax the rich’. The crisis cannot be solved through redistribution, neither from top to bottom, nor the other way around. Much more fundamental changes in the actual social production process – the process of exploitation – would be needed.
The statist left has to make state measures seem omnipotent and thereby under-estimates the magnitude of the crisis of global capital. The Tory government seems to be more realistic, knowing that they will have to touch the holy cow of pensions. They are also now advising local government to step back from the main money-making machine of the recent decades – the real estate bubble. In June the Treasury announced it was banning local authorities from buying up investment property, after a near £7 billion spending spree in the past three years – a 14-fold increase on the three years prior to that. Dozens of local councils are being investigated after using low-cost loans from the central government to buy investment properties for rental income as a way to shield themselves from deep cuts to their budgets. The central government fears that councils are too exposed as a severe downturn in the real estate sector is likely. Liverpool was one of the first cities that asked the government to come to its rescue and back a £1.4 billion coronavirus economic recovery plan, to prevent a repeat of the hardship experienced during the 1980s.
In the coming months the question will be whether the state can find financial and political tools to enforce a return to ‘social discipline’ (‘the rule of the law of value’) and to make sure that credit is again more closely linked to the expectation of (shorter-term) future profits, rather than turning into an eternal life line. So far government and state money is helping to drag undisciplined tenants, poor mortgage payers, badly run corner shops, unprofitable businesses, bosses who refuse to invest and unviable banks through the crisis. The challenge for the state is to select the good from the bad apples and to re-enforce that ‘hard work and investments are worth something’ and the trust in the value of money as an equivalent to actual economic performance is reinstated. Otherwise they run the risk of a chain reaction caused by defaulting private or commercial units.
The political class sees that ‘redistribution’ won’t cut it and that the productive fabric – the process of exploitation – has to be changed. Here, again, we can see that the global form of capital imposes itself on nation state politics.
5. The Huawei dilemma
Like in most ‘western’ developed economies, the low rate of profitability in the UK means that productive investments are at a historical low, companies are banking their cash and rely on low wages and speculative investments instead, while productivity declines. In the UK the annual growth in output for every hour worked fell from 2.2% between 2000 and 2007 to 0.5% between 2010 and 2017. At the same time, British companies hold nearly £700 billion unused in their bank accounts, and paying out record amounts to shareholders.
In the current phase, the material restructuring of the production process is a global issue. Decades of ‘de-industrialisation’ – as an attack on working class militancy and low profit-rates – has resulted in a depletion of productive knowledge and infrastructure in the UK. The disastrous delays of projects like the high-speed train HS2 or the planned nuclear power-plants demonstrate this. UK manufacturing has increasingly become dependent on global exchange, in particular with EU countries, the US and China. The global crisis of 2008 has aggravated the tensions between these three economic power blocks and the UK is trapped in a tough spot. With Brexit making trade relations with the EU more difficult, the dependency on China has deepened. After Germany, China is the main source of imports – and former UK prime minister Cameron is still trying to set up a £1 billion China investment fund, using his former political connections. The current dispute with the US government over Huawei 5G investments in the UK and the dependency on imported medical goods during the Covid-19 crisis are good examples of the dilemma.
In order to expand the 5G network, which is essential for being able to compete on the global market, the UK relied on the Chinese company Huawei to deliver technology. This is opposed by the US government. In early 2020 Trump threatened to restrict the UK’s access to the Five Eyes intelligence system – a project of the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand to develop independent 5G technology. The problem is that the UK does not only depend on China when it comes to communication technology. The Chinese state reacted to the possible banning of Huawei by questioning their support to build nuclear power plants in the UK. The UK government opted to restrict Huawei to 35% of total 5G investment, instead of going for a full ban. British Telecom has already said it would cost the company £500 million to comply with the government’s 35% cap, and Vodafone said it would cost them billions if a total ban would be imposed. The announcement that Huawei will invest £1 billion in a semi-conductor plant near Cambridge triggered further discontent amongst US officials – but beggars can’t be choosers, so the UK administration gave Huawei the green light. The problems with investments into infrastructure extends into space. In June the government announced they would be scrapping a £5 billion investment project into a sovereign satellite navigation system. The system was meant to be an alternative to the EU’s Galileo system, which the UK will lose access to after Brexit. The government is considering bailing out the tech company OneWeb with £500 million, which owns 74 satellites, in order to develop a cheaper version of the initial project. This will also please the US state, as OneWeb satellites are manufactured in Florida. On a smaller scale, the limited capacity of UK tech industry revealed itself when the government had to scrap a domestically developed ‘NHS’ Covid-19 tracing app in June and rely on Google and Apple technology.
The Covid-19 crisis has compounded the problem of domestic productive infrastructure and made it more visible as there was an apparent lack of supply of protective equipment, vaccines and certain chemicals, e.g. between 80 to 90% of the UK’s supply of generic medicines are imported. The UK government set up ‘Project Defend’ – an internal exercise to reorganise manufacturing and international supply-chains. In Spring 2020 the media reported that the international trade secretary is exploring the possibility of a free trade agreement with India. The Labour leader Starmer equally cosied up to the Modi government in May by speaking out against the independence of Kashmir – rather than some ‘anti-Muslim’ stance this has to be seen in the context of international trade politics: in June, Kashmir and the wider border region turned into a potential proxy war region between the China/Pakistan and US/India blocks. In the UK the proclamation of ‘protectionist measures’ will be formalised later this summer with a National Security and Investment (NSI) bill, which gives the government the right to curb foreign takeovers in certain ‘essential’ Covid-19 related sectors.
The whole ‘Project Defend’ is a bit of a joke if we see that thanks to Brexit the UK has major logistical problems to even organise food imports through the ports and to organise the domestic harvests due to lack of labour. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, reiterated In February that that a full customs, VAT and regulatory border will be enforced. This means that in Dover alone, which handles 10,000 trucks a day at peak time, 200 million additional administrative acts a year will have to be performed. There is physically no space for additional checks in Dover and Folkestone (Eurotunnel). New checkpoints will have to be built 20 miles away from Dover. The same will be true for traffic checks from Northern Ireland. The industry complains that the government still has no official plan of how they they are ging to to reorganise this infrastructure.
In the meantime, local agricultural businesses suffer from labour shortages due to Covid-19, which can be seen as a precursor of problems that will aggravate with Brexit. UK agriculture depends on 70,000 to 80,000 migrant seasonal workers. This year the share of ‘domestic workers’ went up from 1 1% to 20 – 30%, but many farmers were not too happy: the turnover of workers doubled and the productivity of local workers was 30% lower. Wages had to be increased – which is significant given that labour can account for as much as 70% of a farm’s costs, according to the National Farmers Union. The government is aware of the problem and despite all talk of ‘national sovereignty’, implemented a migration scheme that gave 10,000 temporary non-EU farm workers the permission to work in the UK. Similar to the situation with Huawei, the agricultural sector is squeezed between the big global economic blocks: Brexit means less cheap labour and more expensive access to the EU market, which might force the UK to agree to a trade deal with the US, which has agricultural exports from the US to the UK at its heart. This would kill off a few more UK farms, what with US pork production costs being about half those of the UK.
These are some of the issues when it comes to the restructuring of the productive system, circulation and the labour market. Brexit and the fact that the post-Covid-19 recession will undermine the Eurozone’s stability will push the UK government further into the squeeze between economic dependence on China and wider political dependence on the US. The dependency on the US will be displayed and rephrased by the right-wing of the UK government as a voluntary alliance of political forces, which value ‘sovereignty’ and are on the same side of the ‘culture war’ against the ‘liberal elite’.
6. The end of the Labour mania
The Labour left which carried the so-called Corbyn project has received a double blow during the Covid-19 crisis through the election of the centre-left candidate Keir Starmer and the state-interventionist crisis-management of the Tories. Many have commented that Starmer mainly won because he looks like someone who can win (male, a Sir, legal profession, talking without saying much). Another factor might have been that many on the left were dissatisfied with the Stalinist clique around the left candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey and hoped that Starmer would allow ‘more democracy’ inside the party, which includes keeping the party open for the liberal Remain wing. The final blow for the Labour left came when Starmer sacked Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet end of June – end of story.
It’s clear that with Starmer, ‘democratic socialist’ politics as envisaged by the Corbyn project, are finished for the time being. It is therefore not surprising that the future hold over Momentum, the electoral campaign machine of the Labour Party, has now turned into the main field of struggle of the socialist parliamentarian left. Various factions have formed (Forward Momentum, Momentum Renewal, Labour Transformed, Momentum Internationalists etc.), fighting over the official leadership. While all factions pay lip service to ‘working class organising’, most of the energy is still spent on struggling over the leadership of an organisation whose purpose – the election of a socialist party – has been lost. The membership of the Labour Party has fallen significantly in recent months. For us the question is if the more radical and working class elements will get demoralised further, or if a collective debate for reorientation will emerge.
7. The workers’ struggle and their representation
The media reports on a certain union ‘comeback’, but they base their claim not on an increase of union activity, but on a slight increase in union membership. The number of trade union members rose by 91,000 from 2018 to 6.44 million in 2019, the third consecutive year of increases following the fall to a low of 6.23 million in 2016. The proportion of employees who are union members also rose slightly to 23.5% in 2019, up from 23.4% a year earlier, and from the low of 23.3% in 2017.
More importantly for the proclaimed ‘comeback’ was the influence that certain unions had over the Labour Party candidate election. This is a general and more significant factor. The unions were addressed as partners when it came to managing the Covid-19 lockdown. The TUC advised the government about the furlough system and the back-to-work process. In return for co-management, various unions called off planned collective actions or ballots during Covid-19, for example the CWU at Royal Mail, the RMT at London Underground and UNISON in Tower Hamlets. In the case of the CWU, management thanked the union for its considered approach by announcing 2,000 job cuts a month later.
The unions also re-enter the public spotlight when it comes to the coming wave of job cuts. Unfortunately, and systemically determined by the national character of trade unions, there have been little efforts of international coordination. For example, while Unite the Union cried about the plant closure at Honda in Swindon, they haven’t announced any solidarity actions at Nissan Sunderland for the Nissan workers in Barcelona who fight against the closure there. We have written about the union meetings regarding redundancies at Heathrow already. 
Apart from a bunch of smaller trade union initiatives (UVW, IWGB) the main activity we have seen recently was within the education sector and fringes of Royal Mail. During the lockdown, over 10,000 teachers met in a Zoom meeting to debate the return to work and friends reported that 2,000 people came forward to take over delegate roles. The actual process of re-opening schools was not actively opposed by the union, apart from a few initiatives to petition local authorities. Casual teachers at Goldsmiths university took unofficial ‘work-to-rule’ steps in response to managements’ refusal to extend their contracts in order to make use of the furloughing scheme. Due to the significant share of foreign students, universities in the UK are hard hit by the global pandemic.
In the transport sector, some workers took independent action against a premature lowering of social distancing rules in the London Underground, but this remained an unofficial and minoritarian effort. London bus drivers’ put pressure on management to enforce that the front entry door remained shut during lockdown. In early June, Royal Mail postal workers at Bridgewater depot went on wildcat strike against repressive management tactics against the union. Another more significant rank-and-file initiative was led by a group of construction workers and activists to ‘shut down the sites’ – the high number of Corona casualties in the construction sector are sad evidence of the importance of that campaign.
All in all there were only a few open wildcat strikes during the lockdown, in particular amongst more skilled meat processing workers, but not to the extent as we have seen it in the USA – though we don’t want to rely on the mainstream media when it comes to assessing workers’ response to the crisis. We plan a series of interviews with workers about the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on conditions and potentials for collective struggle. As a network, we were in touch with and supported around 40 Pizza Hut workers who lost their job and wages after six branches closed down. The workers put (physical) pressure on their former boss and after some pickets Pizza Hut UK paid most of the workers some of their missing wages and some were later furloughed. Local mutual aid groups, normally more of a charity effort, offered to support the struggling workers. We were also in touch with two groups of Amazon drivers at different sites, who both reported an increase in the workload and said that a significant portion of the 200 drivers on their sites would be up for taking steps. Things are definitely brewing.
In the coming months we will see two conflicting tendencies creating an increasing tension around the question of the wage. On one hand, the low waged workers in the ‘essential industries’ will come out of the Covid-19 lockdown with perhaps more confidence, as they have experienced how dependent society is on their labour. On the other hand, the increase in unemployment will generally help the bosses to put further pressure on wages. As working class communists we have to understand the actual experiences and shifts of power in the workplaces during the lockdown and during the process of it being lifted.
8. The movement against racist police violence
There were several large protests in the UK from which the official left was largely absent. The marches at least in London and Bristol were dominated by young working class people with self-made placards who were also up for more than the usual marching. The tearing down of a statue of a slave trader became the centre of the culture war, Keir Starmer showed his statesman-like flexibility by both condemning the criminal nature of the protestors and kneeling down performatively for ‘racial equality’.
Both the political elite, the economic representatives (Financial Times, The Economist, Amazon management) and some self-proclaimed representatives of the movement want to reduce it to the question of ‘racial equality’, isolating it from its underlying class content. In Leeds there have been rivalries between different ‘leaders’ of the movement and when a fascist organisation called for protests in London to defend the statue of Churchill the ‘BLM leadership’ managed to call off the planned march against racist police violence in order to avoid clashes. Several ten thousand people had attended the previous marches, so it would have been relatively easy to outnumber the far right. In the end a small group of a few hundred largely working class black and white youth confronted the far right.
It seems difficult to avoid both the trap of ‘black exceptionalism’ within which the leaders want to contain or represent the movement and the trap of empty sloganeering a la ‘working class unite’. Our view on working class issues is largely dominated by sectors and regions where the working class is very mixed and the far right and organised racist politics have little influence. We need the debate with comrades in the UK to get a clearer picture of the situation, as we realise this may not be the case everywhere.
9. Our plans
The current moment needs a deeper immersion of revolutionary politics into the local day-to-day struggles of the working class and at the same time a central debate of the wider global picture. Many forces – from the day-to-day grind to false role-models on the left – tend to rip these two sides apart. We have to tie them together by politics of workers’ inquiry: we need the common UK wide and international debate to grasp the main tendencies of class struggle and verify and further develop these ideas by confronting them with the local conditions of struggle through practical engagement.
We think that in the coming months there will be an increased pressure on wages, both from below and above. Essential and low waged workers will come out of the lock-down embolded, as they have seen how dependent wider society and business are on their otherwise invisible labour. This pressure from below is countered by pressure from above through rising unemployment and bosses attempts to use the crisis in their favour – see, for example, the British Airways job cut plans. We want to understand in detail how the power relations at work have changed during the lock-down. For that purpose we will start an interview series with workers from various sectors – we will try to share the outcome of these interviews with workers in our localities.
During the lockdown we have tried to widen the debate about a UK wide network of local working class initiatives and revolutionary strategy. Some of our discussions and plans for a conference in November are documented here:
British Airways announced that it would be sacking it’s entire workforce of 42,000 people and re-hiring three quarters of them on worse pay and contracts – up to a 12,000 would be made permanently redundant, and for those that get the new contracts, some of the longest serving cabin crew would see their pay slashed by up to 75%! The deadline for a union agreement has passed, leaving BA employees in limbo as to their employment status and what happens next. A good write up has been done about the current situation here , so we won’t repeat it in this article. Instead we will focus on: the general tendencies within airline/airport work; the role of the unions and their strategy going forward in this particular dispute; and what’s happening on the ground at Heathrow from a workers’ perspective.
As the pressure to choose between ‘jobs’ and a greener future increases, and companies use the corona crisis to savage workers’ contracts, how can a workers’ control agenda be useful? We will base this article on: discussions we’ve had with comrades who work at Madrid and Frankfurt airports; our reflections from a meeting organised by Unite Community about the situation at BA last week; and a report back from a current Heathrow worker.
Tendencies in aviation
Before corona at least, passenger numbers were increasing year on year. At one point in 2019 in Frankfurt Airport, the conveyor belts broke down under the weight of all the extra baggage! Soaring demand was used to justify airport expansion projects, like the third runway at Heathrow, which would add another 250,000 flights annually to the existing 470,000, worsen the already disastrous levels of local air pollution in the largely (migrant) working class western fringe around the airport, and destroy at least 800 homes. Despite this, mainstream unions backed the plan, citing the £18 billion plus investment will create between 50,000 and 110,000 jobs by 2030.
Unfortunately the promise of ‘more jobs’ doesn’t seem likely to translate into ‘good jobs’ if we look at the general trend in terms of pay and conditions across not just Heathrow, but most major airports across Europe. A comrade who works at Frankfurt airport told us about the large amount of new workers employed through temp agencies especially in 2019 to cope with the increasing passenger numbers and overwork. New subsidiaries and two-tier workforces are established, initially without union recognition and on worse contracts, such as the British Airways Mixed Fleet in 2010, made up of mostly younger cabin crew and customer service managers who are on much worse contracts than older BA employees. 
This most recent attempt to slash pay and conditions is just the latest in a series of disputes at BA, where the CEO, Willy Walsh, has made his long-term intentions clear about what kind of workforce he wants – basically a lower paid and more ‘flexible’ one. Mixed fleet workers staged walkouts in in summer 2017 to improve their paltry earnings. In summer 2019, 4000 BA security staff, airside operations staff and passenger services personnel across the airport’s five terminals went on strike over pay. Pilots also went on to strike after they rejected their final pay offer in September. And in the first three months of 2020, Heathrow baggage handlers employed by Global Baggage Solutions (GBS) went on strike five times, after not receiving a pay increase in 2019 and then a measly 32p pay offer. 
But it’s not just about one rogue airline. All airport workers across Europe were, before corona virus, facing a similar mix of increasing workloads, more ‘flexible’ contracts and stagnating pay. We have seen defensive actions to protect pay and conditions replicated across Europe over the last few years, including strikes by air traffic controllers in Spain in April 2019 and in France in May 2019. Since the cataclysmic drop in passenger flights after the corona virus lockdown, the majority of airline staff have been furloughed, meaning the government is subsiding their wages. We spoke to a comrade furloughed at Madrid airport who is only earning 700-99 euro a month, having to rely solely on the state to pay his wages during the epidemic, which is only at 70% of usual. Despite their legal entitlement to wages, many hundreds of thousands have not received them since they’ve been off work (from mid-March, beginning of April.)
Rather than being seen as a temporary situation, the aviation industry is using the lockdown to their advantage, in order to push through redundancies and then re-hire workers workers on worse contracts afterwards. This is seen as even more galling when they are getting such financial assistance from the government – either through the payment of employees’ wages, tax relief or favourable financial deals and securities.
In terms of workers’ responses to the recent sackings post corona virus, we have only heard of protests at Naples airport and Poland. But with the sledge-hammer tactics being used by employers, there is an increasingly strong sense of discontent, despair and anger amongst workers.
All of this is a telling picture of the changes to airport employment over the last 20 years. Previously a ‘job for life’, airports around the world have increasingly become employers to a more precarious and low-paid workforce. Their strategic and economic importance undoubtedly gives them high potential power, which ironically is why airports from the 80s onwards have sought to break up their collective strength through sub-contracting, using agencies and zero-hours contracts, and pushing pay to the bare minimum. Unions have been unable or unwilling to counter these offensives, usually making an agreement that isn’t as bad as the original offer on the table, meaning that both sides can claim victory. A third of managerial roles have already been axed by BA, and they just announced another 500 airport ambassadors were in for the chop .
It is not surprising then that come corona in Spring 2020, the opportunity was going to be used to further put pressure on employees’ terms and conditions. In Austria the Ryanair subsidiary Laudamotion threatened to sack 300 permanent and 200 temporary workers if the union would not agree to massive wage cuts. [5 ] At the end of May, EasyJet announced it was making 30% of its entire workforce redundant, while Emirates has announced the same. BA made its announcement. Construction workers at Manchester Airport were laid off without pay and some were sacked for raising safety concerns. In Germany Lufthansa is threatening to sell its catering subsidiary LSG. The LSG plant in Frankfurt is supposed to be relocated to the Czech Republic, where workers from the Philippines would produce the airline meals for 3 euros an hour. (The produced meals would then be sent in a 360km truck journey back to Frankfurt – more unnecessary environmental damage to undermine wages!) We spoke to friends who drive cargo-trucks at Heathrow airport. During the Covid-19 lockdown they were extremely busy, as they had to unload the PPE shipments coming from China. Cargo flights have been less affected by the lockdown, but still, BA threatens to sack many drivers. They basic aim is to get rid of drivers on old contracts, who earn nearly double as much as newly hired ones. IAG, the owner of BA singled out their UK arm for the cuts, which ironically makes up 66% of the group’s profits. If more evidence was needed that this was simply a cynical attempt at cost-cutting, it comes at the same time that IAG is trying to buy another airline for a billion euros.
Union responses to the BA announcement
With such a savage agenda of redundancies and cuts in the pipeline, now is the time for the unions to show their mettle! However, the response has been predictably underwhelming. Unite are the main union contenders at Heathrow, having the most members and seemingly good level of organisation in terms of slick brochures on their aviation ‘strategy’, concrete demands and some templates for action and ‘leverage’. All the unions make sure they say that they understand that the airline industry is having a tough time of it (only 3% of flights are running compared to this time last year), and that less workers are currently needed. They want to seem reasonable after all. But they are unanimous in their verdict that the redundancies were a pretext to re-hire workers later on worse terms and conditions, as well as the fact that BA has used taxpayers’ money and the government’s furlough scheme to keep cash in the company, whilst planning this onslaught on workers’ jobs at the same time.
The campaign of ‘resistance’ (Unite Community meeting)
I attended a meeting recently about the current situation at Heathrow organised by Unite Community branch. In attendance were the regional officer from GMB, officers and reps from Unite and GMB at Heathrow, as well as Unite Community members (largely ex- unionists), and the usual MP contingent, Ruth Cadbury and John McDonnell. My main intention was to find out what exactly the plan of action was. Unfortunately, 70% of the airtime was given over to the ‘political strategy’, 25% of how appalling and badly behaved BA are and what a terrible human being Willy Walsh is, and only 5% (if that!) on ‘industrial strategy’. I thought it was a pretty good snapshot of where the mainstream trade unions are at the moment. Heathrow workers were conspicuous in their absence during the discussion. I didn’t get a sense of what the workers were willing to do to challenge BA’s plan, nor if the unions had even attempted to organise mass meetings with their members to discuss their options. I did raise the questions of that the union’s industrial strategy would consist of, but the only things that I heard were:
One gung-ho GMB regional officer saying ‘We just need to all go on strike’ and for workers to stick together. A welcome sentiment, and at least someone mentioned the ‘s’ word! However, there with no mention of how actually you do this when most workers are furloughed!
GMB officers emphasising ‘unions have to work together’ – primarily because Unite is way bigger than them and without them, they’re small fry. Funnily enough, Unite didn’t make similar proclamations of cross-union working.
One Unite rep said that workers are in a weak position because of being furloughed, thus side-stepping the issue of workers’ collective action on the job altogether.
Another Unite rep who looks after airline caterers was also at the meeting. She informed us that the airline caterers, Alpha LSG and Gate Gourmet, with some of the worst track records on bad behaviour, are using corona as a pretext to cut 50% and 35% of the workforce/hours – but again, no word on what the union strategy was going to be in light of these announcements. Instead, the main focus from most speakers seems to be on community campaigns, reaching temples and mosques, ‘getting the message out’, and pressuring MPs and the government to act to save jobs. My impression was that they were putting all their eggs in one basket: a PR/media strategy that bad-mouthed BA and designed to put pressure on government to act on behalf of workers. The BA Betrayal campaign website  features the usual banner drops with a small handful of union activists, media clips, and workers’ testimonials that portray them simply as victims. It’s difficult not to read this all cynically as a theatre for the negotiations which will happen behind closed doors.
On the BA Betrayal website, the only ‘rebellion’ is stated as coming from the MP’s! As far as this PR strategy goes though, it isn’t doing too badly as stories are being drip-fed to the media pretty successfully: on June 13th, headlines were about BA being labelled a ‘national disgrace’ by MPs of the Transport Select Committee’s inquiry. As if nationalism really means much to the bastions of global capital! Len McCluskey called the plans “unlawful and immoral” – as if morality has any currency in the hearts of business owners! Making the moral argument especially didn’t seem to be the most effective strategy when people at the Unite meeting pointed out more than once what a terrible human being Willy Walsh was. Doesn’t seem like he’ll lose much sleep over the plight of his workers. Labour leader Starmer is now urging the Government to bring forward a rescue deal to save thousands of aviation jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic. The question is, can this battle -which relies on moral and nationalistic pressure – be won simply through a top-down media campaign, and with a government and ruling class who clearly don’t give a shit about taking the moral high ground?
Having looked a bit deeper into Unite’s position, they have a few other demands up their sleeve. They have released a so-called ‘radical blueprint’ for the aviation industry  which, amongst other things, wants a “bespoke government financial package for the airline industry” in order to save airports (especially the smaller ones), jobs, routes and airlines. They write: “Other governments have already intervened to protect their aviation industries, most notably in the US with a $55 billion cash injection but also across Europe and Asia. As an island nation, it is imperative that the UK government does the same.” The fact that they want a government bailout of an industry that actually needs to shrink seems short-termist, and reflects their weakness when it comes to: a) their commitment to climate change policies and b) actually following through with their argument that these airlines have made billions in profit over the years, and can well afford to weather this story – at least during corona.
What are the alternatives?
What would really be ‘radical’ is surely to get workers together to discuss how they think it best to deal with the fact that in the future, they should be out of a job. How do they want to use their skills for socially beneficial or ‘greener’ futures? This is an opportunity to open the door for some level of workers’ control – something that is totally bypassed by the unions in their endeavour to remain ‘relevant’ around the negotiating table – a table which, according to the speakers in the Unite Community meeting I attended, was totally unwilling to listen to ‘reason’ from the union’s side anyway.
The Unite Aviation strategy also includes details like: government loans to the industry being fully repayable; companies that use the loan scheme being prohibited from paying dividends to shareholders or buying back shares until 12 months after the loan has been repaid; executive pay being capped; nationalisation or public private partnerships to keep regional airports running – even though they have been running at a loss for some years now. While these seem reasonable demands, we would point out that these recommendations point to a massive failed opportunity to really engage with the jobs versus health/climate catastrophe trap that many workers are facing, even more acutely during the corona pandemic. Many simply dismiss the jobs argument, saying that the planet is worth more. But surely we cannot sell the many low-paid airport workers down the river in order to secure a greener future? People still have to eat. As working class revolutionaries we have to go back to basics – we have to put the question of workers’ power in the foreground. Only workers who are able to defend themselves against the current attacks together will be able to discuss about a greener future. Without struggle, no collectivity. Without collectivity, no workers’ voices. Without workers’ voices, no ideas about how to get out of the mess.
It might seem difficult to imagine thousands of workers getting together to discuss what they want for a greener, more sustainable and healthier (work) life. But crises like corona (and even the third runway before it) open up spaces in which they not only can happen, but should. If unions cannot be at the forefront of this – then what are they for? If it is just to stave off the absolute worst excesses of capitalism’s endless drive for profits, then the bar is set dangerously low. It is more difficult to imagine that workers play a central role in how society is organised when they have so little say in the daily work life as it currently stands. At Heathrow at least there have been some strikes in recent years. However, this does not really tell us whether workers feel like they have a say over what the union does, whether they feel they are in the driving seat, whether they feel confident and informed enough to go on the offensive, whether their own actions build a sense of unity amongst themselves to change day to day things like timetables, work targets, break times etc.
So what would we like to see happen with regards to the current situation at Heathrow? Firstly, a proper industrial strategy that puts workers in the driving seat. This means mass meetings with an agenda that is offensive rather than merely defensive, led by workers rather than politicians. We’d like to see the knowledge and structure of the workforce put to good use: even through mass strikes amongst all the workforce is unlikely to have much impact if workers are furloughed, what about cargo? Heathrow transports 1.4 million tonnes of air freight. London airports account for 77% of UK’s air freight traffic and air freight accounts for about 40% of the value of UK imports and exports. Are workers currently engaged in cargo operations being consulted about possible strike action to defend the entire workforce?
Having spoken to a current Heathrow worker, the current indications are not very hopeful about a worker-led offensive fightback, although this could change if workers decided to take matters into their own hands! When I shared my thoughts with them about the Unite Community zoom meeting on the subject, he wrote back the following thoughts.
Reality on the ground – report from Heathrow worker
“The snapshot you got from that zoom meeting is pretty much the reality on the ground at Heathrow. Although 5% industrial strategy might be an over estimate. It’s mainly advocacy. A little mobilising. No organising. There has been no mass or even smaller departmental meetings to my knowledge, even though this is perfectly possible in most areas. We work in large office spaces, aircraft hangars and massive warehouses. All of the shop floor staff I’ve spoken to are loosely aware of the union’s strategy. But they complain of not really knowing what’s going on. Of feeling in limbo and not in control of the dispute. It speaks volumes about the union’s strategy, which has not prioritised a worker directed campaign, but instead placed full emphasis on a political and media strategy, that has diminished the workforce’s role to that of spectators. Staff usually speak about the union as something separate from themselves. “The “union” is talking to the company.” Never “we.” There is a sense of fatalism in the air. Lots of talk about what the company might do, little or no discussion about what staff are willIng to accept. The union’s strategy seems overly defensive. The workers bargaining position has doubtless in some ways been weakened, but I’m sure that if all the workforce’s incontestable knowledge and expertise was drawn upon, they would be able to decide which tactics would be best placed to apply the pressure required to meet their objectives. There appears to be avenues for disruption. There are some passenger flights going, the maintenance still needs doing, the training is ongoing and BA are probably relying on cargo a fair bit at the moment. The company are being unashamedly ruthless and the union need not waste too much time pointing this obvious fact out, but should be offensively making the case for a winding down of the airports operations in a way the benefits the workforce and the environment.
From what I’ve heard about the reps, some sound complacent. They’ve said things like “yeah….we’ll all probably end up doing our own thing. Crew, pilots, engineering…….etc.” And another remarked: “I don’t know what the other union’s doing really.” I know of a case where a sub-contractor has offered to help out in any way needed and has not been contacted by the union. In a dispute like this surely unity is key? The union’s are only mobilising a handful of staff to hold a banner for the odd photo op. They keep projecting the BA Betrayal hologram on to famous buildings and photographing it in front of empty lockdown streets, then brief the media about the mental health of the workforce. The workforce are mainly absent from all this activity. The PR campaign is a strange contrast to the somewhat subdued atmosphere at Heathrow.
The union’s approach not only fails to organise, educate and utilise the workers, it also appears risky. If it ‘succeeds,’ BA won’t put all their staff on zero hours contracts and cut their pay by 70%, but that clearly isn’t their intention. Workers I’ve spoken to agree. BA are just setting the bar incredibly low, so they can take some of their benefits and permanently cut some of their pay and can then sell it as being reasonable. Unless the union win massively and shames the company into oblivion, it’s possible that BA can just weather the storm. The strategy relies too heavily on the public spontaneously boycotting the airline or parliament legislating the problem away?
We need unions capable of seizing the opportunities moments such as these throw up. With billions of pounds of tax payers money being spent globally to prop up the aviation industry and with the mounting evidence that the destruction of our environment has played a significant role in the creation of the pandemic, the argument for investment in greener jobs against airport expansion seems clear.”
 Most mixed fleet workers earn between £23,000 and £28,000 a year, the new plans will mean all cabin crew will be put onto contracts worth £24,000, meaning a pay cut for even the most badly paid workers!
 There has been a long-standing dispute between baggage handlers and GBS over wages, as in November 2018, Heathrow Airport announced that all its employees, even those that were sub-contracted, should be paid the London Living Wage (LLW). The promise was not uniformly adhered to.
Last week, we visited the CFC to speak to Tesco workers about coronavirus in the warehouse and management failing to inform staff of recent positive cases. Not long after we started speaking with people, one of the managers came out and lost it, screaming, shouting and threatening us, even though what we were doing was perfectly legal. This manager accused us of ‘ruining society’ and asked if we worked for Asda or Morrisons! Obviously it didn’t occur to him that maybe some of our mates work in the warehouse. Guess we don’t see enough examples of people in hard jobs supporting each other these days! The fact is, we were there because we know that there have been Covid19 cases in the warehouse and that management have failed to inform staff about this. We wanted to speak with workers to find out more about their experiences during the pandemic and to talk about other issues, like drivers having to carry heavy deliveries up multiple flights of stairs, health and safety problems with turnaround, problems with racism and discrimnation, or worries about hitting the pick-rate.
This was far too much for management, who ended up calling the cops on us (who came, decided there was no problem with us, and left again). It begs the question, if everything is so rosy at Tesco, then why are the managers so scared of workers talking to each other and getting advice and support on improving their work conditions? Maybe it’s because if workers did talk more and if they had each other’s back, then it would be hard for Tesco to get away with all the bullshit. Like flexi-shifts, the new 12-hour shifts for van drivers, the recent loss of the annual bonus and the poverty-level wages. If we had a united workforce, where people trusted each other and shared their problems, then we could force concessions from management. After all, it’s the workers who make Tesco Online tick, from picking the items, to doing the turnaround, to loading the vans, to delivering to customers.
Every day, hundreds of people in the CFC have to communicate with each other to get the job done. At the moment, management has a tight grip, and the work all goes towards making Tesco a profit instead of serving the basic needs of its workforce. But we live in uncertain times where things could shift. The powerful protests against racist police violence are making people of all colours question issues around race and class, not just with police brutality, but in the workplace, and our neighbourhoods. The crisis from the pandemic is only just starting to hit, and already we’ve seen a mass wave of strikes around the world, including some in the UK. Workers have taken action to ensure their own safety and livelihoods, as businesses and their management teams only care about profit. Who knows what will happen when Tesco cancel the 10% pandemic ‘bonus’, or if they come for the Sunday rate at the next sham USDAW contract negotiations?
Obviously, these are big things and it can be hard to know where to begin. In a huge warehouse like the CFC, the pace of work makes people stressed, tired and defensive. There are loads of different shift times, drivers are on the road alone, different departments don’t mix much, there are barriers with languages and some people are way too cosy with management. But things start from small steps. Like people talking together about their common problems and common solutions. Sticking up for one another when management tries to have a go. Resisting the increase in work rate, etc.
Whatever management might say, we are a group of Tesco workers, and others from the area. We work in warehouses, logistics, as street cleaners and carers. We have links across various Tesco stores and warehouses. We exchange experiences about organising at work and learn from each other, including about rights at work and how to fight against management crap. No one is paying us to be here. We are doing this because the only way we can solve our work problems is by helping each other. If you are interested in finding out more, then get in touch with us safely, and privately.
Below is a report from two recent trips to speak with Amazon drivers and warehouse workers. In Croydon Solidarity Network, we regularly visit important workplaces to learn about conditions, grievances, composition and levels of militancy, and to build contacts and provide organising and legal advice. We feel that as revolutionaries we need to be establishing ourselves in the area in this way. We hope this will allow us to lay the foundations for larger organising experiments down the line and to be prepared for upturns in class struggle.
We had conversations with about 20 drivers and flyered a load more. The fact they’re waiting for the app to tell them to load up makes it much easier than when we’re flyering shift changes at warehouses. There were many Romanian and Bulgarian workers, but also some black, white and Asian British workers, some Latin Americans etc. There were no women drivers, and the age range was 20ish to 40s. In total, we saw perhaps 100 vans load up and leave the depot. We also managed to have brief conversations with 4 workers leaving the night shift. The woman was afraid to talk to us because of the non disclosure agreement that Amazon make workers sign. These particular workers hadn’t been there more than a few weeks and didn’t raise any real grievances in the short conversations we had.
The main problems workers spoke about were:
Increasing workloads and decreasing pay.
Drivers are now having to do 250-300 items per shift, with up to 150 stops. This is a significant increase on pre-pandemic levels and is as high as Christmas time. But as of June, Amazon has cut it’s global pandemic bonus to workers. This adds up to a huge increase in workload per worker. Drivers are now paid around £126 per shift for a typical medium-size van. This used to be £146 and many jobs are still advertising the increased pay, despite it having been scrapped. Shifts are in theory for 9 hours, with a theoretical 30 minute break. But no drivers are able to take their break because they risk not finishing their deliveries. If this happens they have to keep going till all items are complete at no additional pay. Worse still, another driver may be sent to help them, and depending on the reasons for the delay, the cost of the second driver may be taken out of the original driver’s pay! We asked drivers what would happen if they refused to carry on delivering and they replied, “You won’t get further shifts.”
It’s worth noting that not all drivers complained about the workloads. Most drivers had only been on the job for a few months, but those who had been on for longer seemed to be better able to deliver on time, or even faster than their expected 9 hours. One guy spoke about how experience teaches you how to massively cut corners on the job.
Lack of work, and overwork.
Many drivers complained of not getting enough shifts from Amazon. Most wanted to be doing 5 days, and some wanted to be doing 6. They pointed out that the cost of the van rent is per week, not per day. So if you’re not doing many days then you’re not making much money. Some drivers are only doing 3 or 4 days. A smaller number of drivers complained of working too much, e.g. being asked to come on Sundays, having to do 7 days etc. The obvious point here is that Amazon is squeezing more and more work into fewer and fewer shifts. Productivity per driver must be increasing significantly as clearly there’s no reason for drivers to continue doing 300 drops per shift if others are getting 3 shifts per week. Some drivers spoke of how if they finish their deliveries early, Amazon will send them for more, and they have directly justified the increased workloads to them by saying the drivers were finishing too early and had nothing to do.
Vans are rented directly from agencies at a cost of £220-250 per week. The agencies hold the first 5 weeks of pay as a deposit for the cost of the van and any damage to the vans during the driving. Drivers who have their own vans save a lot of money here and seemed to be less pissed off than other drivers. Drivers are able to claim back part of the fuel costs, we believe around 50%, but the rest has to come out of their pay. If drivers are getting 5 shifts a week, then after van rental, they will receive £380 per week. This is before any fuel costs, van damage costs, penalties for late running or tax. It also implies around 45 hours of work with no break. So we are looking at below minimum wage pay for many drivers.
Front seat parcels
If you stand by the warehouse and watch the vans coming out, you’ll notice that most have a huge pile of parcels on the passenger seat. This is because the vans are so overloaded that the managers force the workers to take some at the front. This is dangerous because it can both cause an accident if a parcel falls and distracts the driver or falls into their pedal-space and it makes the vans clear targets for robbery, with the driver constantly having to leave the van in plain sight while delivering. One of the drivers was certain that this practice is also illegal. We asked them if they had challenged the managers, they said yes and management had just said, “It’s your job, you have to do it.”
We spoke to about 15-20 and the response was quite positive. One person said there were about 30 workers working at a time, but most were on temporary contracts or working through agencies (his point was that organising would be difficult). This person had been on strike three times in his past workplace and said we needed to get into the colleges and radicalise the youth!
Most of the workers responded positively, with one saying “we need this” and that he’d get in touch. Most people were kind of rushing in to start their shifts so we didn’t get to have many detailed conversations. The workers seemed to be from a range of backgrounds/ages, and all knew about the £2 bonus being dropped.
Thoughts so far:
It’s almost impressive how ruthless Amazon is in using the pandemic and its acceleration of logistical growth to maximise their profits with the drivers working under extremely exploitative conditions. However, sooner or later this is likely to bite the company in the ass.
The huge levels of investment that continue to go into logistics both demand continuing returns (ie. further exploitation), and bring large groups of workers together. The conditions above certainly sound explosive. Workloads have dramatically increased while the amount of work on offer is falling and the temporary raise has been cut. Drivers are stressed out and pissed off, whether in Croydon, Dartford, Wembley or on the South Coast. In some areas, workers are certainly speaking about strikes.
However, talking to the Croydon drivers, it’s clear that things aren’t yet at breaking point. For one thing, there was a divide between the largely Eastern European migrant workers and those who had grown up in the UK, whether white, black or Asian. The first group were clearly fearful of losing this job, and were worried about having a lack of alternative options. The second group were far more vocal about not taking shit, and quitting if it got too much for them. Some said ‘this is a free country’ and they can go elsewhere.
Workers also felt that Amazon is too huge for them to be able to do anything. We asked if they had tried to do things collectively, but didn’t come across anything. Some had argued individually, but in general there was a lot of cynicism.
Still, it’s early days and clearly there are pockets of anger in each of the Amazons that we’ve had some contact with. If a strike does pop off in one warehouse, it could well spill over to others, as drivers often know people working at other Amazons.
END OF JUNE
“Today was my first time flyering with Croydon Solidarity. I was part of a small team that visited the Tesco Online warehouse. Overall people seemed very receptive. I handed out around 30 newsletters and had perhaps 10 conversations. Even though I was mostly assigned to talk to pedestrians, a couple of people rolled down the windows of the car to talk to me when they saw me with newspapers and other people receive them. There was one woman who really opened up to me about her experiences of the work place – she said management were racist and workers were sometimes asked to do tasks outside of their job description. She said that if they didn’t do them they feared being fired. She said she felt unsafe at work before COVID 19. She received a newspaper and hopefully I will speak to her again next week.
A member of the management team came outside to threaten us: ‘you don’t know what its like in the warehouse’, ‘we are feeding the nation’. He roped in a few employees to say that they felt safe in the workplace. An employee told me that she had access to hand sanitiser. The manager filmed us and called the police. The police told us to stay on the pavement behind the bollards and then the manager left us alone. The manager was shouting at employees telling them not to trust us, that we were ‘destroying society’, but some employees took newspapers during this situation anyway.”
“Two of us went to flyer the Amazon drivers with the flyer we typed up the other day. This was our third visit and we’re still figuring out the right timings, but now we have quite clear shift times both for inside the warehouse and the drivers. So next time we’ll go for those times.
We had three proper conversations, two with British born drivers working only since lockdown and one with a Romanian who had been there since November. All three were happy to chat and spoke about very high drop rates. The Romanian guy had meticulous records for each shift that he showed us and it’s a similar number to what drivers have reported at other warehouses, close to 300 items per 9 hour shift. If you don’t finish in that time, you have to keep going or you get in trouble. He said the workload had massively increased since lockdown and was the same or worse than Christmas time.
Pay depends on the vehicle but its around £130 for a large van and you can apply for some of your fuel back (possibly 50%, but we need to check further). Drivers often rent their vans from agencies. These include SBL, Fast-track UK, TMF, FDL. Amazon was paying an extra £2 per hour or so via the agencies, but this was cut from 1st of June.
The main language groups are Romanians, Bulgarians. We flyered several more vans as they were coming out of loading, including an Albanian and a Moldovan. But quite a number didn’t want to stop, so will be better to go for the proper load time (8am). We got the Romanian guy’s number and he asked us if we were a union. We asked him if translations would be useful and he said yes so we’ll go back with Romanian translations for next time.
We also accidentally spoke to an agency manager, Portugueses guy working there for 4 months. He gave it the big propaganda push, but otherwise no trouble. He told us that the new Amazon warehouse in Croydon will be open in time for Christmas. We also accidentally started speaking to a warehouse supervisor for one of the agencies, but made a swift escape.
Coincidentally, a Tesco guy mentioned doing 1 day at the warehouse and leaving because it was so shit. He said you’re searched through metal detectors and security every time you go in and out, including breaks, and you just spend all day on the line scanning items.”
“A few of us went to the local event and one of us was helping to organise it. There were several hundred people in the park, all socially distancing and an open mic set up. So the speakers were quite varied, from charity types talking about working closely with the police, or people talking about supporting black businesses etc. to a local anti-gang activist who made the point that looting has taken place against black people for hundreds of years, so looting now is just taking what’s theirs. There was also a South African trade unionist who spoke well about taking things into the workplace and fighting against racism there.
The guy from our group helping to organise said he saw lots of old school mates ‘from the ends’ who he would never had expected to see at a rally, so that’s good. My overall impression was that there’s loads of people with anger and frustration, but no real sense of what to do with it, hence why it often gets steered towards things that sound good to a mass audience, but are basically just about making capitalism more ‘diverse.’ Lots of the things yesterday were about equal opportunities for promotion, more platforms for black intellectuals etc.”
The second in our organisational mini-interview series reflects on the development of the Teesside Solidarity Movement (TSM). The summary in interesting in that it highlights the difficulties that many of us involved in such local groups reach, when there is no political glue or plan as such that holds people together in the longer-term. Such groups often develop out of local campaigns, in this case, anti-cuts, with a varied bunch of people getting involved, all from different political backgrounds and persuasions. People favour different approaches. Questions arise of how to juggle this without loads of in-fighting and people dropping out. How do we maintain a commitment and work programme when the specific campaign ends? In this case, TSM became the outfit from which many other initiatives sprang, albeit the lack of ‘practical anchoring’ and an exodus towards the Corbyn campaign meant it ran out of steam.
In the Let’s Get Rooted Initiative, we have to take these barriers seriously if we want to overcome them. What does it mean to have a ‘practical anchoring’? Our proposal is that community campaigns are short-lived by their very nature, and to give them maximum power at crucial times (often when the council plan to cut some funding or tear something down), there needs to be an existing local force that can materially back it up. This means engaging the local workforce, who are not separate from the local area. This is why we propose to target bigger local workplaces – to share information that might be useful to them; to build contacts; to start building some counter-power territorially. We shouldn’t accept the divisions that are placed on us – that we can only organise through the union at work; that workplace stuff is different from a campaign to save a local library. A local working class response needs to bring different groups of people together. We will never solve peoples’ political differences and approaches simply through ‘discussion’. Only in struggle will a practical solidarity be forged. The most important things are: will we be effective in our actions? will we remain inclusive whilst not bowing to the usual state structures? are we stronger together, or not? The job of a local group is to make sure we push for all these things, link things up, and keep the door open to more radical routes.
Reflections from Teesside Solidarity Teesside Solidarity Movement (TSM), established in 2013, came to life at a point where the political left, locally was in a poor state, where a local SWP existed, but little beyond this. Occasional mobilisations of several thousands, primarily when relating to anti-war or Palestine Solidarity had occurred. However the feel of decline was, and remains, palpable. Further back a Teesside Socialist Alliance group had stood electoral candidates and produced a news-sheet, ‘Teesside Worker’, which ran to about seven editions and was produced and distributed in the 100s, possibly 1,000s per issue. Until recently, the Labour Party had little visual presence and barely functioning structures concentrated on dishing out positions. Local Trade Union resources, such as the Trade Union Centre acted as a sop, rather than as a workers movement hub.
Marginalised as a poor relation within regional bureaucratic strangulation that privileges Newcastle as a regional capital, Teesside has perhaps suffered disproportionately. Neoliberalism has had a particular impact locally, with Middlesbrough generally featuring as a regular in the bottom 5 when considering various social indices. In general, Redcar and Cleveland and Stockton-on Tees, are little different. Large swathes of industry disappeared and the experience of Teesside building workers constructing the London skyline, rather than their own, and getting the train home from Kings Cross on Friday’s symbolises this.
TSM emerged from a local ‘May Day Initiative’, and established itself as a local anti-austerity group, but one seeking to go beyond the particular cycle of protest at that time. Quite possibly, one of the first organisations to exploit Facebook and social media, initial fortnightly meetings with regular attendances of 20-30 people was relatively dynamic and brought lots of different groups of people together, both political refugees, young people and local bands scene type people. In terms of political composition, there was an uneasy alliance of Trotskyists, anarchists and radical Green types, deciding upon anti-capitalism as an agreed upon definition.
Gigs, Bedroom Tax protests and an energetic and noisy intervention on a local Trade Union May Day march organised a couple hundred people onto a block around our segment of a typical A-B march. TSM becoming an organisation in its own right was uncomfortable for some and especially perhaps those already active in other established (generally Leninist) groups. This tension persisted over whether TSM exists as a distinct (albeit network based) organisation or as something that is more of a flag of convenience or an internet bulletin board. Some activists arguably preferring the latter eventually found activism around People’s Assembly more to their liking. Although not explicitly stated, TSM progressively developed a feel of libertarian socialism and its experimental approach has resulted in a series of further interesting events and actions, although sometimes many things have gone wrong or were not long-lasting. The initial stages of TSM’s development involved participation on a number of council lobbies and other anti-cuts activity and although more noisy, was not really able to do anything much beyond the type of protests organised by established left groups. A choir contrasted to a focus on antifa mobilisations and link up with activists linked to the North East Antifascists/North East Anarchists group, based essentially around Sunderland/Wearside and to a lesser extent the more established anarchist scene in Newcastle.
Coordination with the latter group was effective for a considerable amount of time and Teesside took significant numbers of comrades to national anti-fascist mobilisations. It was equally central in organising counter demonstrations with individuals from the Labour Party (pre-Corbyn) gravitating towards what we were doing. Link ups with various local projects and musicians, such as the Dub Reggae Soundsystem are worth noting and still exist as something to develop further in the future. Developing projects and attempting to expand our capacity and reach was an enduring thread of the story. Some efforts such as the choir, arts collective and local satellite groups failed to make the distance, however a second hand bookshop (Fahrenheit Books), a local anti-fracking group and a project leading to the establishment of a local branch of Unite Community were more longstanding.
The establishment of Teesside Socialist Clothing Bank in 2014 has gone through various incarnations and still exists distributing food and toiletries once a week from the Hub Container in central Middlesbrough, dealing with roughly 50 people weekly. A spin off Teesside Baby Bank has provided for vulnerable young families in particular and a ‘Period of Change’ project has addressed Period Poverty. A joint anti-deportation/no borders work with campaign group Movement For Justice was also established and through developing independent funding from both within our own ranks alongside other sources (radical Christians and others) we were able to fund such projects to the tune of several hundred pounds. Linked to our demo organising and #Art4Action events, we ended up with a large stack of homemade materials (banners, placards) some of which remain at the Clothing Bank hub.
The establishment of Fahrenheit, provided us with a meeting space and potentially a space to develop. However, this became the fiefdom of a particular individual and sadly only lasted for a couple of years. Not developing the project politically and a rather laissez-faire attitude put pay to this. In reality it became a hang out for desperate people and issues such as heroin use in the shop were not treated seriously. Very much a lost possibility. However, we have talked for many years on/off about establishing a social centre. An occupation of the local Trade Union Centre tried to push this issue. Centrally, there is an impulse to create radical working class movements rather than solely intervene in them to gain kudos or recruits. Crudely put, we seek to avoid any parasitic relationship with the cash cow of the official movement.
As already mentioned, TSM’s development owed much to a ruthless exploitation of social media, enabling us to connect with new layers of people. While this had been useful in many respects, ultimately, TSM became synonymous with lots of painful left wing type disagreements, some of which in retrospect were quite informative, others probably more indulgent and reflected incompatible tensions within our network. Not having an established political and practical anchoring was ultimately damaging and led to too much time being spent in esoteric drama and less to practical organising. And here, I think was a major problem. While TSM mushroomed and provided, for a period of time at least, a political presence that had not existed before, it was too often an exhausting distraction.
Touching base with the Palestine Solidarity movement and the Pakistani community was variously successful, but essentially just reproduced social democratic practice with more noise and we did not always make our core politics clear. Other one-off events, such as pickets of Santander with the Solidarity Federation, Rojava Solidarity work, beach parties, outdoors street store work linked to the Clothing Bank, Anarchist Conferences, film nights, gigs all took place and a lot of it was innovative and trying to do the right thing. Fortnightly meetings provided a degree of political education. Over the initial period of TSM’s initial history, several hundred different people attended events.
Attempts to link up with other groups in the country, essentially came to nothing and since 2016, the Corbyn wave, essentially put an end to much of the operation. Too much relied on too few people and although sprinkled with good intentions, it was too ad-hoc and not strategic enough. The desire to be embracing to a wide spectrum blunted the development of a core working class politics/practice. There was a lot of time spent on ideas of the people who would attend meetings, but not so much to the hard graft and mistakes were made, usually involving our trying to do too much. We learned a lot but clearly we needed to go a lot further: be more focused on the future and seek to build social power in working class communities more than indulge in the exhausting merry-go- round of more normative left-wing politics.
Most of the comrades still around will be able to add to this and hopefully thinking back, this reflection might act as a prompt when we consider WTF we do next.
We invited comrades involved in university struggle in New York (mobilisation at CUNY and by GSOC-UAW 2110, New York University), Delhi (Citynotes), Edinburgh (Staff Solidarity Network at Edinburgh University) and London (Goldsmith Workers’ Action) to talk about their experiences and views on university struggles as class struggle.
We introduced the debate with some ideas about six different channels through which university struggles tend to or might spread into the wider working class. These channels interact with each other and due to wider social changes become less or more significant.
1) Struggle in the university as part of the public sector
Many universities end employment contracts are still formally subsumed to the public sector. Here the connection between university and the wider class is given through this formal commonality and the fact that public sector trade unions also organise university workers. With the privatisation the significance of this link is diminishing and the dependence on mainstream unions make it a potentially weak link.
2) Struggle against the university as capitalist enterprise inspiring other workers
This becomes increasingly important, but although there are similar problems (wages, casualisation etc.) the specific work process and social separation of universities will make it more difficult for other workers to identify with and practically relate to the struggles there.
3) As collaborators/struggling workers in the social production process
Many university departments cooperate practically with private businesses or the wider science, military and tech sector. While well documented and criticised/scandalised as the subsumtion of ‘learning’ to profits, the actual cooperation is rarely analysed in detail and potentials for the expansion of university struggles beyond its boundaries are under-explored.
4) Students as student workers
Although we can say that we have probably seen a ‘peak student’ when it comes to working class participation in higher education we can see that many students work normal jobs during the time they study. While these jobs are often confined to classic ‘student jobs’ (libraries, hospitality etc.), we also find that many of our work-mates in warehouses and delivery companies are part-time students. Subversive feedback loops are possible.
5) Campus struggles form students who end up as skilled workers
We see an increasing discontent amongst so-called ‘tech workers’ (Google, Amazon), many of whom have had higher education and might have been politicised during their time on campus. We have to understand better why most university struggles are led by ‘social science students’, is it because they see the university as a potential employer, is it because ‘organising struggles’ is seen as educational itself? The connection between technical students and struggles of technical workers is important in order to understand how we can break down the wider division of intellectual and manual labour.
6) Campus struggles produce ‘political subjects’ who relate to the class as such
Life on campus and the space to debate fosters a politicisation of students. Historically they have related to workers primarily as ‘political subjects’, often as allies in a limited sense. In recent decades we have seen two contradicting tendencies: a) the growing influence of post-modern politics on campus which creates a wider gap between university and working class and b) an increaing ‘proletarianisation’ of students on the other hand, which materially narrows this gap.
Issues raised in the discussion:
– role of the larger unions within higher university struggles, opportunities and limitations, how to work within, outside and around them.
– different strategies to struggle in light of changes within and to the university (radical caucuses, campaigns against outsourcing, (wildcat) marking boycotts, bulletins/forums of exchange)
– divisions amongst the university workforce and different groups of students (STEM students and liberal arts) and how to overcome them
– politicisations paths within the university and who is involved, scope for questioning wider changes to privatisation of education rather than merely defensive campaigns against certain cuts
– university’s changing position in relation to their role as landowners, finance, private business partnerships
– a critical reflection of UCU strikes in the UK; campaigns in Baltimore against the use of private police; role of students in wider social movements in Greece
– the role of the university within the social production process (breeding ground for new disciplining techniques, use of production techniques like ‘speed up’ in ‘intellectual’ sphere, role in knowledge production, reproduction of divide between manual and intellectual labour, are workers students, or students workers?)