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Bravery And Creativity In The Crisis: A Wobbly Organizer’s Thoughts On The Struggle


The IWW currently has two priority campaigns in London. First, 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 percent following the threat of strikes.

Bravery And Creativity In The Crisis: A Wobbly Organizer’s Thoughts On The Struggle

By an IWW organizer
Industrial Worker - January / February 2013

Some reflections on the recent resurgence of the Wobblies, our current campaigns, and our role in radically renewing the labor movement and reviving the working-class struggle against capitalist exploitation.

The IWW currently has two priority campaigns in London. First, 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 percent following the threat of strikes.

John Lewis makes a lot of ethical capital out of the fact that it is a cooperative, with “partners” all sharing in the profits, and the running, of the business. But the cleaners are subcontracted and don’t share these rights. They earn the minimum wage, and even supervisors don’t receive a living wage.

Early in 2012, the IWW organized 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 per hour, though this is nowhere the living wage they need and deserve. One hundred percent 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 organized 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.

The second priority campaign is at the headquarters of the British Medical Association, the BMA House. The cleaners here are employed by a subcontractor called Interserve, a major multinational company, and are being paid the minimum wage of £6.19 per hour. Their campaign is to win a living wage.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media and political circles, as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recently announced the new London living wage rate of £8.55 per hour (£7.45 outside of London). In the same week it was announced that around 5 million workers (one in five) 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 Britain’s General Union (GMB) who organize BMA employees, as well as from members of the BMA Council.

However, the cleaners 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 the 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, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and GMB as well. The IWW is also organizing 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 organizations 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” argument, while definitely not my priority, 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 organizing, the key is often to find demands that are specific, practical and winnable enough to campaign around, while also mobilizing around perhaps even more vague but 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 is 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.

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 helps you to feel like you’re not alone.

Cleaners’ struggles are about turning capitalist logic on its head, the logic which says, “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 knows that’s nonsense from a working-class perspective. The directors’ massive pay rises (39 percent in recent years in some cases!), the increasing gap between rich and poor and the tax avoidance are all well-known. So for example, at Interserve, the top dog’s pay increased 11 percent in 2012, up to £900,000, and yet the company is saying that it’s a tough time and we’re all in it together.

To see the people at the very bottom taking audacious actions, making big demands for their own 11 percent 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. It’s inspiring to see an even smaller, more radical 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 labor activists in much bigger, better resourced unions, even if only subconsciously.

The bravery and creativity of our campaigns are important lessons that can be generalized. Bravery is necessary both on the part of organizers and rank- and-file members (a blurred distinction in the IWW). Organizers 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—organizers, activists, the left—treat workers with kid gloves. We propose all sorts 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 six-month strike to win, say so. People won’t do half measures but if they think you’re upfront and proposing the action it’ll really take to win, they sometimes go for it.

The workers’ general mood right now is interesting. Millions of people are basically terrified of sticking their heads above the parapet in any way, but then huge numbers of others are throwing caution to the wind and saying “let’s have it.” Immigration 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 organizing 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 organize. So nationality has an impact, but, as I’ve experienced in my own workplaces before, it also has a lot to do with individual worker-leaders that inspire their colleagues to get on board. All unions now try to train their organizers 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! There’s a fine balance to be struck 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 patronize, 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 and flexible scheduling. 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 invisible to their colleagues as they work very early or very late shifts, so they’re not seen or interacted with by other workers. There are plenty of immigration issues too, including employers directly colluding with the U.K. Border Agency to use deportations, or the threat of them, as a tool against organizing.

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 provisions 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-organized 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 socialization 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 organize 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 organized 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.

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 leftist groups.

The analogy with the New Unionism struggles of the 1880s and 1890s (the original British syndicalist movement and birth of industrial unionism as opposed to craft unionism) has real merits, maybe more than most folks are realizing. 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, less skills, low union density (not to mention organization), 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 struggles and later industrial syndicalist movements of that time.

Then there are some lessons (obvious to any Wob) that teach us why building industrial and international organization, as opposed to sectional and national organization, is so important. Though, without the revolutionary aims, some big mainstream unions are attempting this in their own way.

But I think there’s another side to the New Unionism and the Great Unrest (the period of massive industrial unrest in Britain, associated with the rise of syndicalism between 1880 and 1920) 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. Organizations like the IWW, the IWGB, 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 is 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 organization is very different than 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 labor movement—and whether it’s a catalyst for a transformation of the existing labor or the embryo of an alternative to it—I honestly don’t know. Over the last five to ten years, I’ve regularly shifted my perspective between these viewpoints. I’ve been a shop steward, a lay activist, and a paid organizer with three different Trades Union Congress (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, organizing, 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 organizing 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 organizers, could shift the position and culture of the rank and file, and they could change things. Maybe. I’m not sure.

In the meantime, the 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, and we’ve got to shake things up. Whatever the future holds, right now, the Wobblies are back.

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