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Organising Strategy after Lockdown

by Kate Flood / August 25, 2020

Image: the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strikes, via Libcom

Bad New Times | Columns  }
In her first organising column, Kate Flood takes us through the bread and butter of working class unity: building the union! 1880 words / 8 min read

Introduction

As lockdown restrictions lift, the ways in which coronavirus has altered how we live, work and organise are becoming evident. Though uncertain and unfamiliar, there will be a world after Covid-19 and what the left does now will determine what this new world looks like. Over the coming months we can anticipate a wave of unsafe returns to work, mass redundancies, evictions and deportations, and an emboldened and frustrated right-wing. If the socialist left is to challenge any of this we must look at how we fare in crisis by reflecting on current organising strategies, considering their viability for future action, and engaging in militant grassroots organising and direct action.

Mutual Aid and the Grassroots Principle

The first lesson of Covid-19 is that mutual aid strategy has been a masterclass in coordinated community organising, with at least 4000 active UK groups established since February. This success has not been despite distance from any political organisation but because of it - in principle, mutual aid embeds itself within communities themselves and epitomises grassroots organising; cause-based collective action attuned to local needs, situated in wider crisis and done not in the name of a party or group but on a solidarity basis. Mutual aid meets social need with practical solutions, local knowledge and direct action. For socialism to gain traction in a post-covid world we must do the same, taking the cause of the worker to the grassroots and away from bureaucratic unionism and party politics.

Labour Party versus labour movement

Although leftist organising factions tend to show unity in times of hope, rupture appears in times of crisis. In 2019, much of the left campaigned for a Labour government not as an end in itself but as a step towards class emancipation. Since Labour’s defeat we have seen a return to milquetoast leadership, a Momentum split, BAME Labour sidelined by careerists, business unionists turning on radical trade unionists, and an exodus of leftist support.

Beyond itself, the socialist left tends to de-contextualise lived experiences of class and its intersections by stitching ideologically useful components of individual narratives into a generalised, imagined working class, then using that to tell people what they need or what they should want. Time and again, former Labour voters told of disconnect from the party, or that socialism was irrelevant to them. Labour learnt nothing. Telling working class people who feel detached from socialism that actually, all our material interests are the same, is futile and condescending not least if our everyday experiences of class – things that guide our perspective and serve as a metric for how ‘well’ we are doing - are starkly different. For socialism to appeal, we as socialists must stop relying on abstract notions of a ‘better world’ and demonstrate how socialism can deliver practical, relevant, material change.

For socialism to appeal, we as socialists must stop relying on abstract notions of a ‘better world’ and demonstrate how socialism can deliver practical, relevant, material change.

Here the success of mutual aid can tell us two things - first, that the most effective strategy is often the simplest. Second, we cannot embed socialist organising within a Labour party that takes our vote for granted. By its own admission the Labour party cannot achieve change without electoral success so demands socialist organisers redirect energy away from focused work on the ground, and towards a centralised Labour campaign that delivers… nothing. Now we must resituate work on the ground, within our communities - people themselves are experts on their own lives, experiences and conditions and it’s on us to work harder to involve them in our organising, and reject ivory tower socialism.

The cause of socialism is class struggle and the small ‘l’ labour movement. There are practical ways to rejuvenate our organising and rebuild our movement, starting with the bread and butter of working class unity: building the union.

Building the Union

Grassroots unionism is necessarily militant, action-oriented on a solidarity basis, and inherently radical. Lacking the familiar iconography and profile of larger organisations, all grassroots organising is solely contingent on relationship building, cooperation and trust. Similar in principle to mutual aid, grassroots unions are distinct from any political party or organisation and involve workers themselves responding to their own context with practical and direct action, employing a range of tactics to advance their own interests in the name of class struggle.

Conversely, Labour-affiliated unions are bureaucratic or business unions - hierarchical by nature with union members calling upon (often paid) officials to negotiate on their behalf, in line with existing laws and policy, and in the interests of the union as an institution rather than a collective. The bulk of negotiation happens outside the workplace, seeking to make work ‘fair’ while maintaining current labour structures.

By contrast, solidarity and grassroots unionism takes action at the site of oppression itself, with worker’s themselves stating their demands and putting pressure on employers directly through militant and radical action. For solidarity unions the workplace itself is a site of conflict and struggle, and here members use direct action – generally withholding labour in some form - in order to win better conditions, and ultimately bring power and ownership back into the hands of the worker.

For workers and renters alike, the demands of grassroots unionisation can be exhausting. For under 40s in particular, the nature of working and renting in 2020 means we see our house and work mates intermittently as we cycle through short-term contracts and irregular shift patterns, changing jobs and houses (and therefore housemates and workmates) frequently. So where do we begin?

If you’re new to union organising, start with your renters’ union. In theory (and by my experience, in practice) it is easier to organise a household than a workplace: there are fewer people to convince, your house is already a private space to speak about unionisation freely, and your housemates will share (or have an identical version of) your tenancy agreement. A joint agreement demands collective bargaining, particularly as people living in the same household often share material interests. Lockdown has provided prime conditions for renter unionisation and the wave of anti-landlord sentiment is leverage; a means to posit your grievance in the context of your household, and then among renters more widely. Evictions were suspended in March, but court handling of evictions will resume (barring another extension) from September 20th. We are approaching peak conditions for a nationwide rent strike and we must lay the groundwork for that.

A general worker’s strike is more unlikely. Recent calls for a general strike pin hope on bureaucratic unionism and the idea that simply joining a union is enough. Strike action is a sustained, risky and deliberate action for the purpose of making demands.

Calls for a general strike without clear demands or prior attempts to meaningfully change working conditions read as an attempt to use the aesthetics of radical politics to assuage a bored and disenchanted left. A general strike is the tactic, not the goal, and requires active trade unionists organising at the site of exploitation: the workplace.

Rank and File

Organising within your own workplace, the site where any direct action will have the greatest impact, is also referred to as rank and file strategy. Rank and file is the axis for all grassroots work, encouraging direct action where it has the most impact, and situated in a context organisers and activists know best: their own.

Rank and file posits that all actions must be deliberate – grassroots work depends upon organising to a specific context, planning actions for the purpose of specific demands, based on specific worker needs. Vague demands waste resources and fail to deliver, so we must target what we want, decide how far we are willing to go to achieve that, and then build our strategy. We must be clear on our remit, keep abreast of our resources and decide as a collective how to allocate them. As individuals we must give ourselves fully to the socialist cause, decide how best to utilise our strengths whilst maintaining parity for all members. Without clear organising aims and defined roles, accountability vanishes, voices get lost, and nothing changes.

For the non-socialist worker

Radical changes only result from radical action, but this carries risk. For the precarious working class, risk can be a deterrent, particularly when the risk is to livelihood. To be lawful, strike action must follow a set process including employer negotiations and balloting the membership to gain support for the strike. Meanwhile, bosses lure workers away from industrial action through threat of job loss, empty promises made in informal discussions, or by weakening worker solidarity by giving preferential treatment to certain workers. These are obstacles to exhaust and pacify us and make us doubt our own power. Even wildcat (or ‘illegal’) strikes are backed by days or weeks of preparatory labour, and the power of a surprise action provides little reassurance to workers who face dismissal with no right to appeal or tribunal.

Expecting workers to essentially surrender their jobs for the glory of ‘doing industrial action’ is an example of why the socialist left repeatedly fails to chime with the wider public. No strike should be illegal, but these conditions came about because opposition to them was not strong enough. The disintegration of worker’s rights is not coincidental - worker’s rights reflect worker power, which diminished with a fall in militant unionism. Unless leftists become active trade unionists prepared to take radical action at the site of struggle, we cannot anticipate any change in working conditions soon, not least any meaningful surge in worker power. The general strike is a tactic, not a goal, and to be effective demands grassroots unionism delivered through direct action to the principle of rank and file strategy.

Conclusion

The cause of socialism depends on organising by a coordinated pool of militant and radical organisers, building strong networks that reach beyond our existing cohort and beyond party lines. Effective organising is neither chaotic nor accidental - it entails meticulous planning and research; a willingness to take on frustrating or repetitive organising work; to learn from failure; to never waste time basking in glory or wallowing in defeat. When you need time off you take it, and when you can be doing more, you do it. Above all, begin with what you know. Organise people around you. Without building a strong and focused organising base we have no foundation upon which to forge national or international networks. Building a powerful union presence then allows us to focus on developing defence committees; an alliance of groups that can be leveraged in times of crisis, emergency or scarcity without losing sight of their own aims, nor splintering from the collective.

As lockdown is eased, we have begun moving back to high-risk street work such as antifascist or anti-raid actions that require large numbers of people willing to put their bodies on the line, not to mention the huge amount of precursory labour such as research and scouting. To see permanent, radical change we must be poised for radical and direct action, and the networks and committees that facilitate this can only come from strong grassroots organising. We have had enough opportunity to ‘read the theory’ - it’s time to do the work.


Author:

Kate Flood (@KateFlood)

Kate Flood is Regional Organiser for IWW, Comms Officer for Brighton IWW, and an Employment Advisor within the NHS.