Some reflections on the recent resurgence of the Wobblies, their current campaigns, and their role in radicaly renewing the labour movement and reviving the working class’ struggle against capitalist exploitation.


 An IWW organiser

The IWW currently has two priority campaign in London. Firstly, there is a major campaign at John Lewis, which has just landed a major victory. Workers have won an immediate and backdated pay rise of 9% following the threat of strikes.

John Lewis makes a lot of ethical capital out of the fact that it is a co-operative, with “partners” all sharing in the profits – and the running – of the business. But the cleaners are subcontracted (John Lewis contract MML, who in turn contract ICM who are now part of Compass Group) and don’t share these rights. They earn minimum wage, even supervisors don’t receive a Living Wage.

Earlier in 2012, IWW organised the first ever strike at John Lewis, with cleaners at Oxford Street walking out to fight for a Living Wage and against job cuts. They won an end to job cuts and a small wage increase to £6.72 p/h though this is nowhere the Living Wage they need and deserve. 100% of cleaners and supervisors at four other John Lewis sites, including their head office in Victoria and the Peter Jones store in Sloane Square, have now organised in the IWW. They really struggle at work because of serious increases in workload, they can’t afford time off when this makes them sick because they don’t get sick pay, and they struggle to survive on the minimum wage.

IWW flag floats at a rally in front of BMA HouseIWW flag floats at a rally in front of BMA House

Secondly, the campaign at BMA House, the headquarters of the British Medical Association. The cleaners here are employed by a subcontractor called Interserve, a major multi-national, and being paid minimum wage which is now £6.19 p/h. Their campaign is to win a Living Wage.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media and political circles, as Boris Johnson recently announced the new “London Living Wage” rate of £8.55 p/h (£7.45 outside of London) at the Living Wage awards hosted by London Citizens and KPMG. In the same week it was announced that around 5 million workers (1 in 5) are not earning the “bare minimum necessary to live on” – i.e. the Living Wage.

BMA House cleaners have met with Interserve management and requested a meeting with BMA management (which was turned down), and have been holding awareness-raising demonstrations outside the BMA every week. There’s been a great reaction to this, including fantastic support from the GMB union who organise BMA employees, as well as from members of the BMA Council.

The BMA Council is meeting in November and we really hope to see these unionised and relatively well-paid professionals support the low-paid cleaners in their building. The cleaners themselves are running out of patience. Life is really hard on such low wages, both practically in terms of living standards, but also emotionally and morally in terms of feeling undervalued, and the workers are determined to take whatever action is necessary to secure a Living Wage.

These are just two of our current campaigns; there are cleaners from across the capital joining IWW, with various more embryonic campaigns at different stages. There has been a real upsurge of cleaners campaigns recently in many different unions, and IWW activists are supporting cleaners’ struggles through unions like Unison, PCS, GMB, RMT, and IWGB as well. IWW is also organising in other sectors including retail, bars, and restaurants.

There are many factors behind the current cleaners’ revolt. The Living Wage campaigns going back to 2005, from civil society organisations like Citizens UK and some unions, have created that kind of media-savvy campaign demand that’s pretty hard for anyone to disagree with. Even that kind of “it’s-good-for-business’”-type argument, whilst definitely not my priority to say the least, makes Living Wage demands so hard to argue against on a social or moral basis. The Living Wage isn’t just a number, it’s more about an idea of dignity at work than a particular wage rate. So, in demanding a wage that allows for a decent life, rather than just scraping by, workers are saying “we have as much right to a decent life as anyone else”.

When it comes to organising, the key is often to find demands that are specific, practical, and winnable enough to campaign around, whilst also mobilising around perhaps vaguer but maybe more deeply-felt ideas of dignity and equality.

There have been a reasonable amount of victories. In the context of a political moment in which the employing class are on the rampage and the working-class movement is in total disarray, these victories are pretty inspiring. Workers don’t often need to be told that life sucks, or that the rich are screwing them; negativity has never been a great motivator. But they do need some hope, and that’s been a bit thin on the ground, so victorious cleaners’ campaigns can be very inspiring.

And it’s not only inspiring to cleaners. I think the romantic “David versus Goliath” idea appeals to a lot of the left and elements of the student movement. There’s been wide support for these cleaners, and that always help you to feel like you’re not alone.

Cleaners’ struggles are about turning capitalist logic on its head. The economy is fucked, we’re in recession, we’re all in it together, figures are down this year – blah blah. But the vast majority know that’s nonsense from a working-class perspective. The directors’ massive pay rises (39% in recent years in some cases!), the increasing gap between rich and poor, the tax avoidance, are all well-known. So for example, at Interserve, the top dog’s pay has increased 11% this year, up to £900,000, and then they’re saying it’s a tough time, we’re all in it together.

To see the people at the very bottom taking audacious actions, making big demands for their own 11% pay rise is a light in the tunnel. I also think the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements have contributed to a general climate of anger and a feeling that we can take big, bold, audacious action.

And that’s where the IWW comes in: audacity. I do think that IWW has been the perfect next step in this movement and a big part of this year’s upsurge. To see an even smaller, more radical (read “crazy” in the eyes of many) union, with no money and no paid officials, taking even more audacious action, and winning. I suspect that’s been a big inspiration to a lot of labour activists in much bigger, better resourced unions, even if only subconsciously.

The bravery and creativity of our campaigns are important lessons that can be generalised. Bravery is necessary both on the part of organisers and rank-and-file members (a blurred distinction in the IWW). Organisers need to be much braver in terms of how they approach workers. Proposing direct action isn’t something to be done hesitantly. How do you expect workers to be brave and take what is genuinely risky action if you look scared of it yourself? But it is something to propose. Too often we, organisers, activists, the left, treat workers with kid gloves. We propose all sort of ineffective options mostly on the basis that “the workers aren’t up for it” or “everyone is scared”, or even “we aren’t sure we can win”. But I think half the time, when people don’t seem up for it, it’s because they aren’t stupid and they aren’t up for that ineffective action we’re proposing. Propose the truth. If it’ll take a 6-month strike to win, say so. People won’t do half measures but if they think you’re up front and proposing the action it’ll really take to win, they sometimes go for it.

Workers’ mood right now is interesting. Millions of people are basically terrified of sticking their heads above the parapet in anyway, but then huge numbers of others are throwing caution to the wind and saying let’s have it. Migration maybe has a part to play. There have definitely been certain nationalities where we’ve noticed more militancy, less fear, often those where repression of trade unionists is most severe in their original country. A lot of our early organising was linked with the Latin American Workers Association (and still is). But then recently some African cleaners said to me that they think the bosses now are worried of the Latin Americans, so they’re exploiting the Africans because they think the African’s won’t fight. So these girls and guys are going to show them that Africans will fight just as hard. We’ve also had English, Polish, Portuguese, lots of different nationalities get up and organise. So nationality has an impact, but – as I’ve experienced in my own workplaces before – it also has a lot to do with individuals, those worker-leaders that inspire their colleagues to get on board. All unions now I think try to train their organisers and stewards to find these leaders, it’s vital.

Creativity is important too. Make actions fun, make them communal. Language exchanges, informal education classes, dances… we need to bring back the “union way of life”. And stop sounding like the bosses! It’s a fine balance to be struck I think between inspiring confidence by appearing professional, knowledgeable, and of course genuinely knowing what you’re doing and not getting caught out by regulations, but also really speaking in an accessible way and not mystifying things. Workers need to understand their union and their struggle, or else how can they lead it? Don’t patronise, do educate, but don’t become “like the enemy”.

A “cleaners’ charter”-type set of positive demands to unite struggles would have a lot in common with the obvious demands in other service industry jobs. We’re talking about issues of low pay, job security, sick pay, holidays, flexible working. We’re also definitely talking about issues around management bullying, respect, and dignity in the workplace.

Some of these issues are linked to the “invisibility” of cleaners within the wider working class. Cleaners often have a different employer than the rest of the workers in their workplace or sector, and are often literally “invisible” to their colleagues as they work very early or very late shifts so are not seen or interacted with by other workers. There are plenty of migration issues too, including employers directly colluding with the UK Border Agencies to use deportations, or the threat of them, as a tool against organising.

The Living Wage is a key demand across the sector, but must be won in conjunction with safeguarding jobs and hours, and not seeing a corresponding increase in workload.
Sick pay, holiday entitlements, and flexible working provision need to be at least in line with the terms and conditions of the directly-employed workers in whatever workplace cleaners are employed in. Flexible working policies are particularly important as there are many women workers and young parents in the sector.

With issues of bullying and basic respect, the main thing immediately here is union recognition and education of what workers’ rights are. When there is an issue, you need a well-organised union capable of acting quickly to assert workers’ rights. This needs to result in tightly worded anti-bullying policies and disciplinary and grievance policies, which can then be enforced. But a longer term demand is to look at industry standards for training managers. There are a lot of low-level managers who treat cleaners like second-class citizens and who are consistently rude, aggressive, discriminatory, and demeaning. We need union recognition, union strength, and direct action to challenge this, and then we need industry support to set standards to improve the overall culture.

This is actually a society wide issue. Companies and managers can get away with this because there are a lot of people, including a lot of other working-class people, who see cleaning work and cleaners as inferior and beneath them. I think we should be demanding that cleaners work normal “office” hours (i.e. whatever the standard hours of work at a given workplace are), and socialisation with the “regular” workers in those places should be encouraged. The obvious extension of this is for cleaning work to be brought in house rather than subcontracted to a cleaning company.

There are pros and cons with this though. In theory, if cleaners are a regular part of the workforce, covered by whatever union has recognition, this allows a union to organise and take action across the workplace to support specific group demands. In practice though this rarely happens. More to the point, being brought back in house in many areas of the economy doesn’t mean much for union strength because chances are there isn’t already an organised union present anyway.

Building industrial strength in an industry based on contracting and subcontracting has been about targeting clients rather than the contractors. Often, the cleaning companies care more about working for that client than the client cares about subcontracting to a particular cleaning company. So putting pressure on the client can put the cleaning company’s contract in jeopardy. We’ve seen some of that client-focused pressure work at John Lewis.

It’s also a moral issue – we’re saying that the clients are responsible for the workers in their buildings whether or not they directly employ them. The media-friendly “moral” aspect of cleaners’ campaigns does generate more support and this helps, particularly when you’re dealing with clients like John Lewis who rely on their brand reputation.

Solidarity is seriously vital. This means other unions, other types of workers but it also means cleaners from different sectors and places supporting each other.

IWW Pizza Hut workers' picketIWW Pizza Hut workers’ picket

But above all, it’s back to good old creative direct action. Retailers are obviously very susceptible to demonstrations and blockades – any action that impacts sales. But others, like offices and banks, maybe need different actions, like phone/email blockades or other kinds of economic sabotage. Or maybe it’s their own clients and subsidiaries and investors that are the weak points. Whatever it is, find it. Occupations are a big step up, but very effective if you have the strength.

The idea of a cross-union, rank-and-file cleaners’ caucus, that could help coordinate struggles and give them a political focus, is a good one. I’d support such an initiative, so long as it is controlled by cleaner activists, not union officials or left groups.

The analogy with the “New Unionism” struggles of the 1880s and 90s has real merits, maybe more than most folks are realising. Sure, everything looks different, we lead different lives, with technologies and fancy clothes and all kinds of stuff like that. But substantively I think we’re in a very similar position.
Global corporate power and expansion, massive inequality, global migration, a rapidly shifting and changing economy, low pay and insecurity, low skills, low union density (not to mention organisation), especially in the low/semi-skilled sectors – all of those things are parallels.

The obvious practical lesson is that we need a straightforward, direct-action-focused industrial unionism, which speaks to the experience, levels of education, and languages of our people. Also it’s important that this be based in the normal daily lives and cultures of our people, rebuilding a union way of life. Maybe that’s the overriding lesson of the “New Unionism” and later industrial syndicalist movements of that time.
Then there some big lessons are building industrial and international organisation as opposed to sectional and national organisation. Some big mainstream unions are attempting this in their own way – initiatives like the 3 Companies project, IndustriALL, and USi are interesting.

But I think there’s another side to the New Unionism and the Great Unrest which is often overlooked. Looking back at it, that movement often appears to us as being quite rough-and-ready, and based on a raw militancy and direct-action spirit. But the movement was also intensely modern, futuristic even. Organisations like the IWW, the original Industrial Workers of Great Britain, the Independent Syndicalist Education League, and others, were really breaking with lots of what the left and union movement held to be obvious, and it was controversial. Right now, I think even – maybe even especially – the radical left are far too conservative, stuck in ideas and traditions that we take for granted without questioning. I’m not going to go into specifics, I’ve got ideas, but they might all be wrong and I’m sure others have ideas too, but the working class movement is in crisis, the unions are stuck, and it’s time for a radical, futuristic view. The basic social relationship of capitalism remains the same, but society and lots of corporate organisation is very different even to what it was even 20 years ago. Fuck catching up, we should be setting the new agenda.

When it comes to the exact question of how the contemporary IWW fits into the wider labour movement – and whether it’s a catalyst for a transformation of the existing labour or the embryo of an alternative to it – I honestly don’t know. Over the last 5-10 years, I’ve regularly shifted my view between and these viewpoints. I’ve been a shop steward, a lay activist, and paid organiser with three different TUC unions, as well as active in the National Shop Stewards Network, in anti-cuts campaigns, and more. All I know is that at the moment, organising, fighting and even winning is much easier in the IWW.

I feel the mainstream unions are in crisis. Maybe not in terms of numbers, but in structure, direction, culture, and efficiency. This is true even if you don’t share a radical or revolutionary mentality. The service-provision, “insurance”-based model is in direct conflict with an organising and collective model, but unions are still trying to do both.

Maybe some really radical and brave new union leaders could sort them out a bit. Maybe some very efficient and effective propaganda groups, working alongside quality organisers, could shift the position and culture of the rank-and-file, and they could change things. Maybe. I’m not sure.

In the meantime, IWW’s growth and success, and its role as a space to experiment, is exiting. We’re getting slaughtered, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to shake things up. Whatever the future holds, right now, the Wobblies are back.