The Labour Party and trade union movement used to be the way that working class people gained power to change society. I am from a working class Irish background; my community played a major role in the labour movement. My parents saw trade unions ( and to a lesser extent the Labour Party) as a way of improving their lives, our lives and those of our community. And it worked – we went from living in an insecure, rented property to a council house with a garden, we had a better education than our parents and we were able to get professional and skilled jobs in the public sector.
Joining a union was as important as going to church for my parents. My brother and I took part in our trade union, went on strike and saw union activity as important in defending our jobs and terms and conditions.
After the Miners Strike in 1985 the trade union movement was smashed up by employers, supported by Tory government legislation. When Labour came to power in 1997 this was not reversed and the privatisation of public services was accelerated. Trade union resistance collapsed and they reinvented themselves as service organisations. Trade unionists like myself who tried to defend jobs and public services were attacked by local Labour councils and hung out to dry by their trade unions. Thousands of working class people lost secure jobs and the prospect of a decent pension and that hope for a better life for their children, with more access to higher education, disappeared.
This book is not set in what is left of the public services but in another key area of our life; the food manufacturing and logistics service. The Angry Workers Collective (AWC) went to live and work in west London in 2014 ; an area that has a radical history of working class activity which has included local English, Irish, Asian, African and east European workers.
Their aim was “to break out of the cosmopolitan bubble and root our politics in working class jobs and lives.”. They spent six years working in a dozen different warehouses and factories in Greenford in west London which had some of the biggest employers and is important in terms of its potential to challenge the system ie 60% of food consumed in London is processed, packaged and circulated alongside this “western corridor”. AWC “wanted to support some self-organisation amongst these workers who have largely been ignored and neglected by the left.”
Organising workers in C21st UK is never easy but try to doing it in an area where English is a second language, where workers live insecure lives dominated by issues such as Brexit or visa applications, as well as their reliance on overtime to make ends meet coupled with the use of zero hour contracts by employers. All of these issues make workers feel powerless but, as the AWC point out, there is “the potential structural power of workers who feed Europe’s biggest city and operate the nation’s main gate (Heathrow airport) to the world on the other.”
What makes this a really important book is the day by day reporting of how the AWC went about their political activity – not just in the workplaces, but in getting involved with solidarity networks and local campaigns. It is heartening to read about the cases they took up from supporting an area street sweeper to getting the overtime payment owing to a Polish family who had problems with their landlord. Alongside the text there are some great photos of the AWC taking direct action by protesting outside an employer’s premises who owed outstanding pay.
Throughout the book there is a continuous analysis of their own activity, and particularly the challenges of working in an environment where workers on different contracts are pitted against each other and mutual trust is hard to come by in this harsh work life. Trade unions do organise in the food sector and they should be on the side of the workers – particularly the most vulnerable and poorly paid – but the description of USDAW’s behaviour towards its workers at Tesco and its partnership deal with the management shows how many mainstream unions have contributed to their own decline.
Communication is key to organising people: the AWC produced their own newspaper to share information about what was happening in different workplaces as well as making the links between how life at work affects one’s private life, particularly for the family unit.
The chapter on working class women and the way that double burden they face as workers and parents impacts on their lives is really important. “In the current aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008 working class women have been squeezed between welfare cuts and the increased pressure to work more on one side and the conservative backlash that promotes traditional values on the other.” Three working class women from different ethnic backgrounds, Hannah, Ramona and Gurpreet tell their stories, stories that the AWC believe can inform their politics and help “build a working class grassroots organisation that address working class women’s issues.”
Reading this book reminds me of another local dispute at the Trico factory in Brentford, west London in 1976. Last year two of the people involved in the (largely female) strike for equal pay, Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt brought out an important book, “Trico A Victory to Remember”– about how they won the strike – a strike that took on a multi-national corporation – that was led by local working class women many of whom were from migrant backgrounds including Irish, Afro Caribbean and Indian.
For me Class power on Zero Hours asks big questions about how to change society and make this a fairer society for all people. We live at a time when many working class people – not just those who are workers – but people on benefits, the disabled, seniors, refugees – feel totally excluded and powerless. How can socialists encourage and support them to show that they do have the power to change society? You can join the conversation by reading the book or reading their blog at angryworkersworld.wordpress.com
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