In line with the upsurge in trade union activity, there has been an increased number of books published on UK trade unionism in recent years. Troublemaking is a timely addition to this literature. It is not only a set of guiding principles for rank-and-file organising but also provides a roadmap between everyday workplace disputes and struggles for a world beyond capitalist exploitation.
In just over 200 pages, Troublemaking combines an ambitious range of case studies with an accessible overview of Marxist theory of exploitation. For people who don’t have much organising experience, this is a useful introduction to key tactics and concepts, while more seasoned trade unionists can still learn from the author’s insights into various successful disputes across sectors, countries and time periods. The book positions theory as a means to an end – a way of demystifying social relations in order to change them. The authors advocate for workers’ inquiries, and put forward the idea that we as workers understand the class composition of our industries and are best able to identify points of leverage in our own workplaces.
Troublemaking is premised on the idea that every workplace can get organised. The authors, Lydia Hughes and Jamie Woodcock, detail a series of workplace disputes in typically un-unionised sectors that begin with the odds heavily stacked against the workers but end in dramatic victories.
In 2019, ‘independent contractors’ at The Doctor’s Laboratory, who, like many gig economy workers, are classified as self-employed and lack access to basic workers’ rights, won trade union recognition, a pay increase and an end to zero hours contracts after joining the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and going on strike. Comparisons are drawn between this struggle and that of Dalit waste collectors in Mumbai, who won a protracted campaign against subcontracting through a combination of legal and direct action. The lesson is simple – militant trade union action not only delivers wins in the workplace but sends a wider signal about what is possible to those in similar conditions. For example, after joining the United Voices of the World (UVW), cleaners at the London School of Economics won a fight against outsourcing that inspired successful campaigns at six other London universities.
These examples provide tips for unofficial or wildcat strike action that are particularly prescient in light of the government’s current anti-strike legislation (where workers in six designated sectors will be forced to cross picket lines in order to maintain ‘minimum service levels’ mandated by the government). Hughes and Woodcock make clear that rank-and-file strategy cannot be condensed into a one-size fits all model, because different workplaces and political contexts necessitate different organising approaches.
Troublemaking is premised on the idea that every workplace can get organised and details a series of disputes in typically un-unionised sector
Yet despite this admission, the book does tend to focus on smaller unions such as the UVW and IWGB, presumably because this is where most of the authors’ own organising experiences lie. Given that the book is being released at this moment of union revival, it would have been useful if the authors had situated their argument in the context of unions that represent a larger percentage of the UK’s union members. There is some discussion of building a rank-and-file network in the University and College Union (UCU) but even the UCU is still relatively small in comparison to union giants like Unison, Unite or the GMB. I was left wanting a more detailed discussion of the different tactics needed to build rank-and-file networks in unions with more developed internal power struggles and ossified bureaucracies, or of the differences between organising in the private or public sectors. This being said, the book does not fetishise smaller unions and the authors explicitly don’t promote breakaways.
Their chosen case studies also demonstrate that union activity is about more than winning improvements in terms and conditions. It’s about fundamentally shifting the balance of power away from an employer and into the hands of workers. Particular attention is paid to the tech sector, highlighting Kickstarter’s successful unionisation campaign in 2020, where regardless of whether your boss is a tech-bro who wants to play table tennis in the office, the underlying relationship of worker exploitation for private profit remains.
Troublemaking is insistent that theory be used as a means to an end. The authors explain concepts such as surplus value and class antagonism and promote their use in our current context. These discussions are more than mere political abstraction and make the book a useful and somewhat unique tool in the context of other trade union literature. It provides an explanation of class struggle that is often instinctive in union struggles. As anyone who has tried to organise a workplace knows, many people already have a sense that they are being exploited and are more likely to be moved to action when this latent sense of being pitted against their bosses is drawn out.
The book provides a detailed discussion of the antagonistic dynamics in trade unions themselves. Union bureaucrats’ frequent aversion to militant action is explained as an inevitable ‘product of social relations under capitalism’, because (given that they are paid by the union) they have a vested interest in advising caution and avoiding fines. This demystifies the rank-and-file versus bureaucrats split and shows that the solution is not to find the ‘perfect’, ideologically-pure bureaucrat or to do away with union bureaucracy altogether. Rather, a rank-and-file movement should develop separate from union staff to champion the interests of lay members and hold bureaucrats to account.
The authors make the point that trade unions are not revolutionary organisations, preoccupied as they are with essentially reformist aims. But they have the potential to equip us with the tools to fight for a world beyond capitalist exploitation through raising class consciousness, providing training and experience, and building durable mass working-class organisations. Crucially, though, this can only happen in unions that aren’t monopolised by the actions of officials. It requires a culture of rank-and-file organising that encourages militancy in any and every workplace. This is the essence of the authors’ use of the term ‘troublemaking’.
Hughes and Woodcock are realistic about the difficulties of building power in your workplace or a rank-and-file network in your union. They make no false promises about quick wins, and the examples show how long and arduous most successful campaigns are. However, the book is undeniably hopeful. Through spotlighting historical examples of political struggles where workers’ organisations have played a key role, it demonstrates the potential for our current period of renewed trade union militancy to turn into something greater.
In this sense, the defence of ‘troublemaking’ offers a way forward for the UK left in the wake of 2019 and the defeat of democratic socialism. The book ends with a call to action, and the reader is encouraged to join Organise Now – a new collective that connects people wanting to organise with experienced organisers in their sector – and build collective power in their workplace.