Precarious workers and popular forces

The essential question for a socialist government is: are you willing to defend yourself? By Callum Cant

September 5, 2018
10 min read

Precarious Workers Strike Back’ Protest, May 1st 2018. Photo by War on Want (Flickr)

Since 2008, the UK has rarely been stable. As the sun beat down on a warming planet and the ‘no deal’ Brexit klaxons begins to sound, that instability is becoming more and more palpable. One of the potential outcomes of this crisis is a socialist Labour party in power. If that happens, this hot summer might look tepid by comparison.

During political crises, the antagonisms that crisscross everyday life get harder to ignore. Small issues turn into big fights when the pressure is on, and strikes are one example of how this escalation happens. The ongoing implosion of business as usual (and its associated ‘realism’) means that workers taking strike action at flashpoints see their actions escape the strict boundaries of ‘economic disruption’. Strikes are thus a form of political and social conflict between classes. With a possible socialist government around the corner this conflict is becoming unavoidable. At the same time, the ideological claim that capitalism is good for ‘everyone’ is becoming unsustainable. Between cleaners, security guards, university staff, fast food workers, teachers, builders, couriers, and recycling workers – every time a new group of workers walk off the job, another front opens up.

The self-organisation of workers in conflict with their bosses has always been an integral part of the socialist movement. Marx argued that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. For him, the only social force in capitalist society capable of overturning the ruling class and installing a new form of free society is the working class. Karl Kautsky, the guiding theorist of the European Social Democratic movement in the period before the First World War, often expressed an idea called the ‘merger formula’ which attempted to capture the relationship between the struggle of the working class and socialist politics. This formula was: “social democracy is the result of the merger of socialism and the workers’ movement”. In other words, our movement relies on two parts. The first is workers fighting for their own freedom and the second is a critique of capitalism and an idea for a new society. Only when these two parts merge can the everyday struggle of the working class develop into a social revolution.

The Popular Unity government of Chile is an example of what can happen when workers attempt that kind of social revolution. Popular Unity was a leftist coalition party which won the general election of 1970, making Salvador Allende president. A rapid process of social reform followed, leading to huge improvements for the Chilean working class – factory workers saw their real wages rise by 30% in just one year. Just like a Corbyn government would, Popular Unity changed the economy so that it began to function for the many, not the few. But the ruling class fought back. When other forms of disruption didn’t work, they resorted to extreme violence and in 1973, a military coup toppled the socialist government, installed the neoliberal Pinochet dictatorship, and led to a period of ‘politicide’ during which tens of thousands of socialists were tortured and killed.

Immediately following the coup, British Marxist Ralph Milliband reflected on what lessons could be learnt from the defeat. He came to two conclusions. The first was that if the ruling class in the UK were threatened they would react in the same way, they won’t stand idly by as we begin a programme that aims to overturn their whole system of control; the bosses, investors, judges and generals of the world are used to getting their way and they’ll try every trick in the book to co-opt, sabotage or undermine the success of a socialist government. The second conclusion Milliband reached was that this opposition by the ruling class meant that the essential question for a socialist government is: are you willing to defend yourself? Because if not – if you remain stubbornly moderate – you’re going to lose. You need a strategy that is both in and against the state. He argued that the major failure of Allende’s government was not mobilising the ‘popular forces’ of the organised working class sooner, when the military and the ruling class began rattling their sabres.

For us, the question is not only if a Labour government would mobilise those popular forces when the time came, but if those sufficient popular forces exist at all? In the UK today, the political articulation of socialism has moved far faster than its organised class basis. The politics of parties is now ahead of the conditions of struggle. Levels of strike action are still historically low, with only 33,000 workers going on strike in 2017 – making it the quietest year since records began. This isn’t only our problem – across the 15 core countries of the EU, levels of days not-worked due to strikes fell by 40% from the 1990s to the 2000s. Likewise, social movements are quiet after the surge of 2011-15. This is, in my mind, the most significant barrier facing the successful implementation of a socialist programme in the UK.

The rank and file of the Labour party, the trade unions, and the social movements include millions of people ready to take collective action to defend economic and political democracy. But nonetheless, the scale of the potential challenge ahead can’t be underestimated. Whatever level of working class self-organisation is achieved now will determine what can be mobilised later, so the challenge ahead is to continue creating and developing the popular forces that we may have to rely on in the future. If we accept that a rapid growth in the popular forces is necessary, certain flashpoint struggles can show us how to begin to build them in workplaces and the community.

2.8 million people worked in the ‘gig economy’ (or more accurately, platform capitalism) at some point in 2017. 700,000 of them earned below the living wage whilst they did so, and 21% worked for food delivery platforms (like Deliveroo and UberEats) specifically. By conventional logic, these workers are impossible to unify into a movement. They’re meant to be too precarious, too atomised, too exploited. But in reality, the opposite is true. These workers are far from powerless – in fact, they’ve been involved in an international wave of worker resistance which has involved strikes and protests in London, Bristol, Brighton, Southampton, Plymouth, Leeds, Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh and across Europe. The same thing applies to the migrant workers who’ve led struggles across London – be it with UNITE at St Barts, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) at the University of London, or the United Voices of the World (UVW) at Orion recycling. For our movement, there is no such thing as ‘unorganisable’, only ‘not organised yet’.

Research shows that workers join unions when three conditions are met: when they see their situation is unfair; when they know that the union is up for a fight; and when they know the union can win. As a result, strikes are often the best way to create the conditions for a massive recruitment boost, ask any trade unionist in a striking workplace – the weeks before action begins are like playing the game on easy.

Together, we need to adopt a counter-attacking strategy. That means launching fights wherever possible, enabling militant action led by workplace leaders, and organising ‘green field’ workplaces with no history of trade union activity. We’ve heard a lot from trade union officials about how willing they are to break our authoritarian trade union laws in defence of the right to organise and fight. Well, now is the time to put up or shut up. Secondary action, flying pickets, and rank-and-file leadership – these have to be the bread and butter of a renewed workers’ movement.

This counter-attack isn’t Kautsky’s ‘merger formula’ from above. It’s not a case of getting all the officials from all the institutions in one room to sign a piece of paper. Inert bureaucracies are a large part of the reason why our movement isn’t thriving. Instead, we need a merger from below. That means socialists connecting with the workers’ movement at the level of the workplace, building connections, supporting struggles and developing strategies. It’s the kind of work that many of the newest influx of Labour members haven’t got huge experience in. Training initiatives and mass political education will be the only way to create a membership that has the ability to organise. Only a Labour party with connections to workers in distribution centres, power stations, supermarkets, call centres, universities, hospitals and building sites can win.

Conversations I’ve had with organisers at unions from UNITE, BFAWU and the GMB to the IWGB and UVW lead me to the conclusion that there is a latent desire for a fight in many workplaces across the country. Workers aren’t passive, but we haven’t found a form of action that suits the political composition of the working class. We need to build popular forces from the bottom up. The crises are only just beginning.