Author Dan La Botz

A Syndicalist Organizing Project: Frustration and Failure

I know of few left organizations that seriously evaluate and criticize their own experiences, and certainly not in public, so this book is a rarity. The authors, members of the Angry Workers collective, frankly evaluate and discuss their attempt beginning in 2014 and continuing until 2020, based on syndicalist concepts, to organize factory and warehouse workers in and around Greenford in the suburbs west of London. Judging by the photos and their own accounts this seems to have been a group, perhaps thirty young activists in their twenties or perhaps early thirties. No one mentions having a family of their own. As a person who was himself involved in labor organizing at that age here in the United States, I could appreciate and admire the commitment of these organizers and I could clearly see the challenges they faced and empathize with their experiences.

They describe themselves as being “on the communist left,” and seeking jobs in order to “intervene in the class struggle” in order to build “independent working class organization.” After the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn, they want to show that there is an alternative to electoral politics (pp. 7–20). The collective was inspired by the Italian syndicalists of S.I. Cobas, Workers Initiative in Poland, and to a lesser extent by Labor Notes in the United States (p. 101). The Angry Worker collective also attempted joint work with the Industrial Workers of the World (iww) of the United Kingdom (pp. 101–118).

Class Power discusses briefly and critically the labor bureaucracy (pp. 107–109) and “democratic socialism” (pp. 323–344), at points takes potshots at the anarchists, elaborates on the collective’s view of their syndicalist theory (pp. 335–348), and puts forward a program for a revolutionary transition (pp. 349–372). There is also a chapter about their newspaper, Workers Wild West (pp. 76–82), one about working class families and women (pp. 85–100), and one about farming and food (pp. 231–250). Finally, there is an appendix giving a labor history of the West London workers’ movement (pp. 373–387). (Unfortunately the book does not have an index.) We will return to discuss these more theoretical chapters below.

Most of the book is made up of chapters that discuss the experiences of various members of the collective in different workplaces. The authors are good organizer-sociologists who provide clear analyses of the workplaces, jobs, and organizing experiences. Each of these chapters has a similar structure:

  1. a history of the industry and the company, sometimes within the context of global production chains,
  2. a description of the work process,
  3. a description of the workforce,
  4. an account of organizing activities,
  5. an analysis of the experience and the lessons to be drawn.

Some of the workplaces were factories, such as a large one that produced prepared foods and a small one that produced 3-D printers, while others were warehouses in different logistics networks.

The authors note that Greenford’s industrial district was far from London with its students and its leftist activists both geographically and culturally. Most of the jobs discussed were classified as unskilled, the conditions often poor, and the wages low. The Greenford workplaces, where these activists found jobs, employed an ethnically diverse workforce of immigrants that was largely made up of Poles and South Asians of a variety of ethnicities and different religions. Management had created hierarchies that further divided workers, supervision could be intense, and discipline severe. Many of the workers appear to live in nearby communities. The chapter on women and the family provides a candid picture of women’s subordinate role in the community, though they make up about half of the workforce in the factories and warehouses we are told.

The Angry Worker activists used all of the traditional tools of worker organizers. The met with workers individually, sometimes held small meetings of workers, they handed out leaflets, they published a workers’ newspaper, they encouraged workers to take small actions and to walk out on strike. They attempted to organize unions where there were none, and if there were unions, they tried to build rank-and-file groups within them, in a few cases they were elected to be union stewards. They also engaged in all the common auxiliary work one associates with the organization of immigrant workers, such as providing legal help or interpreters. And they attempted to organize in the community as well. While they describe themselves as left communists or syndicalists their practice as they describe it does not differ much from that of the Maoists, Trotskyists, and other socialists of the 1960s and 1970s, or for that matter from that of some of the more lively business unions today.

In their accounts, each of the organizers describes these efforts—mostly fights over questions like wages, hours, job assignments, and so on—that sometimes failed utterly, sometimes led to making more contacts, or occasionally led to actions that won a small victory. The collective frankly admits that their attempts to organize strikes or new unions failed. They attribute these failures to some combination of the employers’ machinations, the maneuverings of the bureaucratic business unions that represent the workers, to the deep divisions among the workers, and to the workers’ own backward consciousness, as well as recognizing some of their own errors.

A Critique of the Angry Workers Collective’s Approach

Toward the end of the book, reflecting on the collective’s work, the argument is made that while they had no tangible organizing successes, they did succeed in building up a network of friends, supporters, and contacts. “While we didn’t have major organizing successes, we managed to root ourselves” (p. 369). As a person who has in different moments organized among immigrant workers, I found this claim very dubious. Their own accounts suggest that the collective was made up almost entirely of British people, and the reader gathers that probably there were few if any immigrants among them. The group had one Polish-speaking woman and contacts with the Polish Initiative, but it appears that other members did not speak Polish or Gujarati or Tamil, and they do not seem to have ever been deeply involved in the communities and culture of those groups. They report no recruitment of workers to their collective. None of the young organizers mentions having a family themselves, one of the things that often roots one in a community through the public schools. (British readers should understand that in the United States “public schools” refers to state-run schools.)

From my own experience and that of others I have observed, I would argue that it is virtually impossible to root one’s self in an immigrant community of which one is not a part. Even bilingual people who can speak the immigrants’ language often find it hard to form deep and strong ties with immigrant workers because they do not share the culture. Language creates enormous barriers, as do religion, biases about ethnicity and gender roles among the immigrants as well as among the native-born organizers. Immigrant organizing is usually most successful when immigrants can build their own organizations where they speak in their own language to people who share their culture. Such organizations allow immigrants to then relate to the broader workers’ movement.

In the United States, immigrant workers centers have played a tremendously important role in workers organizing to fight employers and to create or join labor unions. While Angry Workers did have some of their literature translated into Polish, I had no sense that they could communicate and organize within the Polish-speaking workforce. Nor is that surprising. They would have to have helped to create a Polish workers organization to which they would relate. Communicating well in order to organize among the South Asian immigrants seems even more unlikely. In fact, several of the authors refer to these issues.

Another weakness of the Angry Workers, it seems to me, is their intensely local focus, sometimes on tiny workplaces. Of course any good organizer must be acutely aware of the workplace, the workforce, management policies, and the union’s role. And all workers even in the smallest workplace should have the opportunity to create a union. But what should a small leftist group with a couple of dozen members do with its limited resources? Might it not have made more sense for workers to keep applying for jobs until there were two, three, or four in the same industry, workplace, or union? Or would it have been better to adopt a national strategy? One worker, who worked at the Tesco Customer Fulfillment Center with some 1,400 workers who pick orders for shipping, wrote in the conclusion about that experience:

At Tesco more than 300,000 workers are pissed off with the union. If we had the capacity and comrades all over the country it would be possible to build an alternative network of Tesco militant workers. We could produce alternative leaflets and newsletters and propose small coordinated actions in response to Tesco management strategies. The informal Tesco workers website ‘Verylittlehelps’ has several thousand users, but no practical results. It might take a couple of years and only attract two, three hundred workers at first, but this would be a start.

Why couldn’t the Angry Workers Collective have sent groups of two or three workers to organize with Tesco in different cities? In fact, that was the strategy pursued by my comrades in the International Socialists, as I have described in my essay “The Tumultuous Teamsters of the 1970s.” At most and only briefly, we had 50 is members spread across the United States in the Teamsters in the 1970s, but they were able to connect up with local activists. Such a strategy might require being part of a larger network or socialist organization, which it seems like Angry Workers is now engaged in creating.

Let me return to the theoretical discussions raised in the book. Angry Workers describe the labor officialdom this way:

They have to negotiate with the bosses. Their role as mediators and representatives of the workers, separate from the workers, is created. This develops into bureaucratic structures and methods, which are more easily coopted by the management…. [And because of their dependence on labor law] This in turn results in unions manipulating workers in favor of this or that party or government.

An excellent description of the union leaders to which I would only add that at the higher levels they become not just separate, but a social caste with privileges and their own interests.

Angry Workers characterize the “democratic socialism,” by which they mean groups like Jeremy Corbyn’s forces in the Labour Party, Podemos, and the Democratic Socialists of America, as also being alien to the labor movement, an alliance of experts and labor bureaucrats who wish to govern the capitalist state. It is a revolutionary critique of the social democracy that by and large I share. (Though it is unfair to characterize dsa as a whole as having such social democratic politics.)

The collective, looking toward a revolutionary horizon, offers the working class both a political program of revolutionary transition and a framework for a social transition. There is, however, a huge gap between Angry Workers’ modest organizing experience, and the program, which clearly come not from the group’s experience, but rather from readings in revolutionary working class literature. The ideas in these sections are clearly derived from working class revolutionary experiences from the period of the 1910s to the 1930s, and while we can still draw important lessons from the enormous struggles in Europe in that period, we must also recognize that the economy has changed, as has the control of work through technologies such as satellites and computers, new forms of work organization, the growth of the service sector and the increased diversity of the workforce.

Having just read a lengthy account of the difficulties of organizing workers and the failure to achieve any significant success, the reader is surprised to find the more theoretical conclusions of the book open with this: “We…want to outline some basic steps a regional working class uprising would have to undertake in order to defend itself and expand to other regions.” Some of the program outlined is quite traditional, “drastic reduction in working hours” and “collectivizing the control over agricultural production.” Workers will take over essential industries through what is called a “productive insurrection.” Be aware, “This takeover will not be a democratic act of the majority. It will be led by an active ‘minority/vanguard’ of 30 to 40 percent of the working class formed in previous struggles.” Other elements of the program, harkening back to Peter Kropotkin or some anarchist of the opening of the last century, sound like a utopia from another time. The collective proposes reorganizing the entire society into groups of about 250 who will live in communal spaces like “former hotels, schools, office blocks, etc.” “to manage distribution of food, childcare and so on.” There will also be a “communist internet and productive database.” These give you an idea of the program. Unrelated to the organizing work in Greenford, it is part twentieth century syndicalism and part contemporary fantasy.

While Angry Workers collective offers us these theoretical sections, we do not have a clear understanding of their political views. I think that this springs from the workerist character of this group that sees everything through the lens of labor. It is not a wide enough lens. One would like to know, for example, what they think about world politics. They discuss global chains of production but we don’t know what they think about the world’s political power arrangements and things like the rivalry between the United States and China or the struggles of the peoples of the Arab world, questions that form the broader framework for thinking about organizing workers. They don’t even have more than a few words to say about uk politics and Brexit was hardly mentioned.

While this is a book about revolutionary socialists and labor organizing strategies, one would also have liked to learn, for example, if they have any position on environmental issues like climate change and global warming. Though they have two chapters on agriculture and food distribution, there is no mention that I saw about agriculture and the environment, which seems a significant omission. One would also have the impression that lgbtq issues don’t exist in Britain or that in six years they did not come up in Greenford. One can, of course, write a book that is just about labor (as I have myself), but since this is a book from a revolutionary syndicalist perspective, we would like to know what revolutionary syndicalism is and what left communism means for them. And finishing this book, that question—unless the answer is simply worker organizing while thinking about revolution—remains unanswered.

Dan La Botz is a retired professor of History, Latin American Studies, and most recently Labor Studies at the School of Labor and Urban Studies of the City University of New York (cuny). He is the author of a dozen books on labor and politics and most recently of a novel titled Trotsky in Tijuana.