Class Power on Zero-Hours: Lessons for Fighting

The level of active struggle is more important than the degree of formal organization.

—Rosa Luxemburg in 19051

The modern workers’ struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight.

—Rosa Luxemburg, “The Politics of Mass Strikes and Unions”2

We learn to fight by fighting. And as workers, we need effective weapons in our arsenal. Class Power on Zero-Hours offers us many lessons on how to acquire these organizing tools. Angry Workers of the World (aww), unlike most left communists trapped in theoretical abstractions, began their project by “getting rooted” as workers on the shopfloor of the logistics sector in west London. Their reason was simple: workers they were surrounded by had “no experience of collective struggle,” so they needed to self-organize and fight to discover their power. Their book offers an abundance of lessons on how we might do so too.

They “got rooted” in the industrial suburb of Greenford, a massive logistics hub directly adjacent to Heathrow Airport, which is “probably London’s biggest workplace,” and this “western corridor” is where “60 percent of the food consumed in London is processed, packaged and circulated.” While analyzing the “logistics revolution” of dispersed manufacturing—tied together by supply chains stretching across the planet—is nothing new,3 what makes aww’s approach relevant and original is they centered their analysis on themselves as workers struggling within this sector. Unlike journalists going undercover at Amazon to write exposés of the “Dickensian conditions” and casting workers as passive “victims” and unions as “saviors,” aww fully immersed themselves as shopfloor militants in food processing plants, grocery delivery fulfillment centers, and assembly workshops over a period of six years.

As their book was released on the cusp of the covid-19 pandemic, their focus on “essential workers” is prescient—especially regarding food production. The worldwide crisis showed how vulnerable this just-in-time inventory-less production system truly is, as well as how effective workplace actions at chokepoints can be. For radicals to contemplate a world beyond capitalism, simply knowing where our food comes from is indispensable. We cannot transition to another communistic system of feeding the 7.8 billion on the planet without reengineering an alternative to industrial agriculture and highly centralized food processing.

A thorough reading of the book helps one see the vulnerabilities of this ever-changing system from an anti-capitalist perspective. For anyone concerned with class struggle, especially among workers arrayed along commodity chains (which includes all essential workers) and believing that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves,” I cannot recommend the pedagogical lessons that can be drawn from this book highly enough.

LESSON ONE: Terrain of Struggle

As they admit in their introduction, the book is “rough and raw” because they wrote it over six months while working low-paid manual jobs, as well as participating in other projects. Yet the text has a monumental heft, coming in at 387 pages. I read the book and tried to digest this enormous amount of information in a couple weeks, so I apologize in advance for my own review being “rough and raw” and narrowly subjective.

While the book should be read in its entirety, my emphasis will be on what I consider the analyses that are the most worthy of passing on as lessons. Every worker should analyze their own terrain of struggle in a similar way. With the production process spread to all corners of the earth, capitalism has created a global “factory without walls.”4 To struggle in this context, we need to know the geography of the flows of commodity inputs and outputs the world over in order to situate where we, as the working class, exist and where vulnerabilities can be found.

The book begins with an empirical interpretation of the contemporary conditions of working-class west London, à la Engels explorations of various industrializing English cities 175 years before.5 The region’s history and changes over time are described in detail. The book ends with an appendix that documents prior struggles in west London, like the post-’68 groups Big Flame and Solidarity. The latter participated in strikes in 1969–1970, “which is usually seen as the first struggle where ‘migrants’ and the ‘local working class’ came together.” The continuity had been broken, yet aww attempted in a similar way to forge unity across ethnic divides. Although the first chapter and appendix might have been merged, this historical survey of class conflict and aww’s own attempts at class unity across “ethnic” and all sorts of other divisions are the strengths of the book.

The first four chapters variously describe the rise of the logistics industry along the western corridor in Greenford and Southall, residential living conditions, and prevailing wages. The demographic patterns of immigration are detailed, showing how some of the more settled South Asian immigrants are integrated into the political establishment, while they are pitted against more recent arrivals from Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Mention is made of recent class struggle in the area, as well as aww’s involvement in overtime strikes and work slowdown as temps.

A chapter is dedicated to the solidarity network that was created for mutual aid and direct action to confront “day-to-day problems” in fighting bosses, landlords, agents of the state, as well as challenging racial and sexual violence. Another chapter tells the story of their paper, Workers Wild West, and its use a tool to critique how management and unions exploited division between agency temps and permanent workers. The solidarity network and face-to-face distribution of literature (the paper, newsletters and leaflets), while seemingly outdated in the age of impersonal Facebook “activism,” actually encouraged communication. This led to public meetings and forums where workplace and community concerns were openly discussed.

The fifth chapter, “Working class families and women’s realities—in and beyond work,” was among the most powerful. It showed the paradox of the state imposing austerity measures to eliminate the social wage, while undermining the family unit at the same time that families were becoming the primary social safety net. The chapter ends with gut-wrenching accounts by three west London women of their abandonment by social service agencies; they seem straight out of cinema, much like Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake. Hanna, originally from Hungary, puts this frightening atomization in context when she says, “you have to be strong when you are alone.”

The sixth chapter offers a cautionary tale. When two aww comrades got positions as union representatives it allowed access to many more of their coworkers, but both examples of accommodation with “actually existing trade unionism” ended in failure. The lesson from their empirical experience is that unions offer more impediments than solutions to workers’ problems. In critiquing the limitations of the British section of the Industrial Workers of the World, aww proposes “class unions” instead, which can exercise “associational” power à la Beverley Silver’s Forces of Labor.6 This form of organization is useful in times when the class movement itself is too weak to create more offensive forms, being a vehicle for self-defense, reminding workers that power comes from collective action, not the “formal organisation.” A confirmation Rosa Luxemburg’s emphasis on active struggle.

LESSON TWO: Stories of Working, Organizing & Struggle

The next section has three workers’ inquiries, but I will only comment on the first two. Everyone who is agitating against their bosses needs to not only read these inquiries carefully, but also keep a diary of their own daily workplace experience and observations. Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, “historical experience” is our “only teacher,” where in the process we make “countless mistakes,” but more importantly we learn from them.7 Writing them down helps us remember, interpret and overcome these failures.

aww borrows from Italian Operaismo8 class composition analysis and workers’ inquiries. The former to identify “specific cycles of history and stages of capitalist development,” in their case looking at “the dispersal of production” away from the sites of power built by workers in the 1960s and 1970s. These were large-scale sites of production or workers in mass proximity to one another, which were broken up. But as supply chains were reconfigured to accommodate production that spread throughout the world, it led to the creation of new, increasingly large hubs of warehouses and distribution centers, which in turn bring increasing numbers of workers together in a “concentration process.” This allows “daily co-operation between workers,” which is “the actual bases for the revolutionary potential of the working class.” Amazon’s global network, bridging production and distribution in order to fulfill consumption, is the quintessential embodiment of this more recent, global development.

The analysis began by looking at industrial sectors along the food supply chain, first food production generally and then the distribution of food products specifically. Large food retailers, like Walmart and Tesco, were places within the “productive sphere,” because they have “industrialised the distribution and administrative system” as they link the whole food chain, from agriculture, through food processing, all the way to the supermarket and consumer. Capitalist agriculture is caught in vicious cycles of debt, linked to global circuits of finance, highly dependent on oil, and is a force driving global migration.

The inquiries began with an account of working three and a half years at a food processing factory owned by Bakkavor, a global corporation supplying supermarkets in the United Kingdom with ready-meals and fresh produce. It explored how workers integrated into the global system of food production have “structural power” (again, à la Silver’s analysis of workplace power), even if passively, as evidenced by the “houmous [hummus] crisis” in 2017, when a metallic taste caused massive shortages from Bakkavor—a major supplier for all of Europe—and demonstrated the vulnerabilities of supply chains. This weakness is driven home by the fact that 47 percent of the food consumed in the United Kingdom is imported—either raw, partially-or fully-processed—from China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Kenya, Hungary, India the Netherlands, Peru Spain, and others. Distance “massively increases the chances of breaches in the supply-chain.”

The second inquiry is about work at a distribution center for Tesco, also for three and a half years, which is the United Kingdom’s largest supermarket chain and largest private employer. The driving job entailed delivering groceries to homes, businesses and other institutions. Again, this brought to mind Ken Loach’s 2019 film Sorry We Missed You, especially when the protagonist Ricky is robbed and beaten up, much like aww’s co-worker who was robbed and had his phone damaged, but in reaction Tesco workers attempted a collective response to put more responsibility on their boss—although futilely. The inquiry details arduous toil of heavy lifting and hazards like accidents, where management’s response—regardless if it is the drivers’ fault—is blame-the-worker; in the ideological jargon of management (in the United States), this is called “behavior-based safety.”

Conclusion: Pedagogy of Practice

I must confess that my path has crossed several times—on two continents—with the aww comrades, whether meetings in London or Berlin to discuss the internationalist implications of class struggle, or exploring the massive logistics hub around the rail yards and warehouses southwest of Chicago. And since I find myself in the same left communist (for lack of a more precise term) milieu, we share a similar theoretical perspective and praxis. Therefore, I will largely leave the final four chapters on “Revolutionary strategy” aside, as I mostly agree and find them to be great fodder for future discussion.

While I do not work in logistics, I share aww’s passion for investigating global production, exploring how it is connected through commodity chains, and trying to exploit those vulnerabilities in fighting for a post-capitalist future. I admire their honesty when they say, “While we didn’t have major ‘organising successes,’ we managed to root ourselves.” I also agree when they write, “consciousness about their situation as a class” does not “develop gradually. It develops in leaps and bounds—in struggle.” E.P. Thompson agreed, saying you do not get “class” until struggle brings workers together with an awareness of their common material interests, the result being “class consciousness.”9 Angry Workers of the World’s rootedness in the terrain of west London allowed their battles to be fought from entrenched positions. We can draw lessons from their experience to strengthen our own struggles, so I recommend that every working-class militant read Class Power on Zero-Hours.

  1. David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Oakland, PM Press, 2017), p. 174.↩︎
  2. Rosa Luxemburg, Collected Works, Vol. 2 (London, Verso, 2015), p. 465.↩︎
  3. There are many excellent analyses of the “logistics revolution,” written by academics and activists, even from a perspective sympathetic to the working class, but none written by the workers themselves. Here is a partial list of the better scholarly works: Nelson Lichtenstein (edit.), Walmart: The Face of Twenty-First Century Capitalism (New York, The New Press, 2006); Edan Bonacich and Jake B. Wilson, Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008); JoAnn Wypijewski, “The Cargo Chain,” CounterPunch 17, no. 5, (2010); Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2017); Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Immanuel Ness, Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain (London, Pluto Press, 2018). Some texts by business writers offer useful insights: Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2006); Yossi Sheffi, Logistics Clusters: Delivering Value and Driving Growth (Cambridge MA, The MIT Press, 2012). There are also extremely good films: Noël Burch and Allan Sekula (directors), The Forgotten Space (Icarus Films, 2010); Graeme McAulay (director), The Box that Changed Britain (BBC Four, 2013).↩︎
  4. Brian Ashton, “Logistics and the Factory without Walls,” Mute Magazine (September 14, 2006).↩︎
  5. Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (London, Penguin Classics, 1987).↩︎
  6. Beverly J. Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003); Silver borrows Erik Olin Wright’s definitions of “Source of Workers’ Power,” which are the following: Associational Power, which comes from the formation of collective organizations of workers (groups united by oaths of solidarity like, “An injury to one is an injury to all”); Structural Power, based on 1. Marketplace Bargaining Power, from tight labor markets, 2. Workplace Bargaining Power, from strategic location of an industrial sector (like ilwu longshore workers united in a single contract at all 29 ports on the us west coast).↩︎
  7. Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis of German Social-Democracy; The “Junius” Pamphlet (1916).↩︎
  8. Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomous Marxism (London, Pluto Press, 2002).↩︎
  9. E. P. Thompson, “Eighteenth-century English society: class struggle without class?,” Social History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (May 1978), p. 149.↩︎

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