Hero to Zero

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Jamie W and Søren G

What we’d like to do with this post is to continue the conversations that have got us thinking about politics and organisation in a positive way. That is, not simply defined by what has dogged us for the last 14 months, but by the material conditions and problems facing us all. We want to look at the way we responded, in Autumn 2013, to the sudden proliferation of awareness about, and anger towards, zero-hour contracts. We say this because, whilst we attempted some good initiatives, we ultimately failed to respond adequately as a collective. Some of that failure can rightly be put down to the sheer chasm of ill will between different factions, an indication at the time of just how broken the SWP was as a tool. However we also think that there was a problem of approach that demands we make a more rigorously honest evaluation. We want to use thoughts that we’ve had about this to inform the way we operate and organise, to further prise open the discussion of who we relate to, how we do so and why.

 

Mike and Liz’s Magical Mystery Employment Practices

When the zero-hours stories exploded in the media, we found ourselves trailing. In late August and early September the media caught on to what some had been banging on for years – that there was an iceberg of precarity underneath the apparent benefits of ‘flexible working’. Initially arising from some shocking statistics about workers at Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct, the stories came flooding in. Catering and Higher Education were the most habitual offenders. Even the Queen was employing people on zero-hour (Øh) contracts at Buckingham Palace. The Office for National Statistics was forced to, embarrassingly, re-configure its statistics about Øh contracts by 25%. Business ‘experts’ at CIPD then estimated figures may have been closer to 1 million workers. Unite’s research suggested it might be closer to 5.5 million people, more than 1 in 5 private sector workers.

Oppositionists in the party set up a Facebook page ‘Zero Tolerance for Zero Hours’ in an attempt to network action against Øh and raise the profile of rank and file politics within that. Through a private message we found some of the members we knew who were actually working these kinds of conditions. The page proliferated in size over the period of a few days,  to around 600 likes, with a reach that appeared to extend beyond the boundaries of the established left. Having worked on building the Justice for Mark Duggan campaign page it is fair to say that we put in a very small amount of work to build that page – it achieved something approaching virality in those few days because it hit a nerve.

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However it was just a Facebook page and was obviously very different from having sustained links to workplaces. In attempting to react to a growing situation we ‘discovered’ that we actually had a good number of comrades (inside and outside the SWP) who were on, or had recently been on, Øh contracts. Like Schrødinger’s worker, it is never entirely clear whether you _are_ working on a Øh contract until you properly scrutinise it. Some of these comrades had been inside the organisation for several years, and yet had rarely or never been part of a collective discussion into their conditions at work and their ability to organise. If they were able to be represented in a union at all at work, discussions in the SWP were largely determined by the power tussles of the union at a national level. The SWP woke up to the issue and, to the industrial office’s credit, did attempt to organise for the demonstrations, and to speak to insecure worker members. The demonstrations ended up being relatively small, and Øh work was largely dropped – another sad victim of the crisis.

 

Shock, shock, horror, horror. 

Of course, this wasn’t the first time that anyone in the party had heard about Øh, or the concept of casualisation. We’re wary of simplifying events for the sake of rhetoric, but there was an irony in the SWP having spent the last few years polemicising against Guy Standing and those who argued that there was a greater level of insecurity of work. Where there is a great level of debate, we presented guilt by association. Guy Standing’s intellectual experiments and rhetorical flourishes are problematic, but that doesn’t deny the material basis for people to say that neoliberal capital has made work more insecure, with a increasingly significant layer of people affected. Guy Standing’s arguments are the easy target that allowed us to stake out a theoretical space on the left. Yet when a major hype landed in our laps we were forced to admit we’d missed a trick.

The net effect of such a denial was obfuscation, to say that insecurity is merely a feature of capitalism that will have to be confronted by organised trade unionists. That there was nothing unusual or specific about it, and that organising insecure workers was backwards thinking, working from your weaknesses rather than your strengths. The problem with this was it accepted a kind of fatalism, and wrote off any potential or actual self-activity of precarious/insecure workers as irrelevant. Yet in the same breath we would declaim the idea that there was a historical novelty to insecure labour by evoking the dock workers and match women of the late 1900s. Who organised them? It wasn’t the TUC or well-established unions. They did it themselves, through techniques that made others gasp.

Indeed the only union that seems to have taken on a serious anti-casualisation campaign, at least where SWP members were a part, was the UCU. A predominant section of those active in the anti-casusalisation campaign were themselves workers who took the precaritisation argument seriously! What this suggested was both a problem of how the SWP constructed itself through theory and a problem in our process of understanding the world.

 

‘Coulda Woulda Shoulda’, but where now?

How could we have dealt better with the explosion that took place? The answer clearly lies in being better prepared. There was a problem of outlook and perspective, that we’ll talk about more in a bit. But think what it could have been like if we’d had been having regular caucuses for Øh and insecure workers to discuss their conditions and share practical experiences of challenging bullshit. We should have been agitating and investigating amongst circles wider than the SWP membership. We could have used the Facebook page as a tool to boost the profile of a network of Øh workers across different workplaces.

Of course, the fact that the media hype around Øh has died down doesn’t mean that the material conditions no longer exist. We feel our lessons are threefold. 1. That we need to be prepared to make inquiries from the perspective of workers, not simply the Office for National Statistics. 2. That we need to foster activists who can organise and network in their workplaces, not just in their national unions. 3. That we need to experiment in order to find out what is working, if at all, and be honest when we are doing so.

Here are things we can still do: not all of them may work, but they are worthy experiments and will provide us with a greater understanding, as well as a greater network.

  • Set up a website, in the style of the adjunct.edu site, where users can report their successes and frustrations in current and former workplaces. Begin with an blog that is more reporting in style, London workplaces where we have members – not every story needs to be a success. Use it as a means of helping people co-ordinate to apply for union membership for example. Then we would be in a stronger position to develop a member discussion system. You want it to get a reputation of notoriety on the level of Silk Road – somewhere where workers with little power or recourse go, not just to slate their bosses, but to organise against them.
  • Begin some workers’ inquiries into various workplaces. How is zero work, decreased hours, precaristisation, used as a means of discipline and what can you do about it, what politics can bring people around you? What are people doing when they are bullied out of their hours?
  • We need to think of a way to flesh out the various processes behind casualisation and precaritisation in a way that allows us to memify the idea and start bringing together people who face different types of shit. For example, a catch-all term like ‘shadow work’ or ‘phantom work’ would be more useful than zero-hours contracts, given that the problem of those contracts isn’t that you don’t have to work but that it is a stick to threaten you with. The threat of absent work, which binds you whilst it starves you and takes away your benefit.
  • Start co-ordinating the workers we do know for skill shares and socials. Encourage them in groups to be part of their own inquiries, share skills and experiences.
  • The reality is that this is already taking place in a sporadic way. Our political experience has taught us how to do this in a systematic and political way that strings together propaganda and agitation, makes those who are active and frustrated by zero-hours the theorists of their own positions.

Furthermore, an investigation in to the state of the working class would inevitably extend beyond the workplace, if it wanted to be serious. How is the reproduction of capitalist social relations felt by those with slum landlords, those forced out by rent rises and gentrification? What is the effect of removing all right to being disabled, both on those who have lost DLA and the class in a wider sense? What about the way that workers see their children in relation to child care? These struggles do have material effects on the ability for capital to accumulate – how could they not when they are about the government acting on behalf of capital to impede the declining rate of profitability? We simply don’t know enough about the vicious way in which landlords are operating, the ways in which the state is victimising and raiding immigrant communities. One of the most vital questions thrown up by some of our young members has been the inability to understand or relate to the whole generation of urban youth that rose up in revolt against the state for an entire week in 2011. Where are they now and how do they see work?

 

Nature of the period and what it demands.

The SWP has made a virtue in the last decades of on one hand, rightly emphasising the dialectic aspect of Lenin’s thought – that it isn’t all elitist vanguardism – and then using arguments based on a party at an advanced period of revolutionary struggle to avoid political and organisational contradictions. A myth has developed that the SWP was somehow the party that would lead the revolution, when in reality the asserted aim., when it was set up out of the IS, was to be the organisation that could foster the basis for a revolutionary party. So we are a ‘interventionist combat organisation’, when we have don’t have the weight or social basis to be anything of the sort. When Cliff talked about the ‘smallest mass party in the world’, you would hope that he was being ironic, not boasting. What we end up being is a big fish in a small pond, using our relative size to steamroll our way out of difficult arguments.

We think that we set our sights too low, however, by a perspective based on ‘being smaller than the SWP’. We are less concerned now with an honest accounting of what took place during the crisis – we have done that already, it is for them to do if they wish – but instead about reckoning with the tsunami of neoliberal bullshit that has managed to wash over our heads. There is a real need to do detailed work, not in order to ‘defend’ the idea that capitalism is a bad system, but to understand why that incredibly dynamic system has changed and what concrete problems it provides. We have to start from a position of honesty and say that we have not been able to develop the kind of organic links with the class which, whilst defined by its wage labour and/or dependence on wage labourers it may remain, is variegated, is contradictory and is still unknown for those reasons, as it has been in all eras of capitalist development! Far from an abandonment of activism, we want the reverse, we want an organisation where inquiry, reporting and theorisation flow through activism and are written directly in to it.

 

We would argue that:

  • Any organisation needs to flow from political necessity – what we choose to invest our energies in should dictate the way that we organise, and we shouldn’t assume that we can simply organise in the old way having gone through this year-long process
  • Our political activity needs to be driven by the spirit of inquiry – what is material reality, how are we going to investigate it honestly, building contacts with people as co-learners, no simply studied subjects.
  • That means not coming up with an industrial strategy based around national unions, but about building consistent links organising through different workplaces – public and private, secure, precarious, places with a lot of immigrant labour, across different workplaces that are in the same supply chain. The goal is having a finger on the pulse. At the moment our finger is so far from the pulse as to make you think that the body was dead. We keep asserting that class struggle is at an all-time low, that we remain in a downturn, yet really our only basis for asserting that is national union battles with the ONS’ days lost to strike action figure as a measure. We think that there is worth in attempting to determine how many small fights are going on that are simply undetected.
  • We don’t think that ‘the precariat is the new vanguard’. It is difficult to point to any group of workers in this period and see a leadership. However casualised, precarious and insecure work is a group neglected by unions which, in its overwhelming youth, is not particularly enamoured with the labour left and social democracy. Who have a lot of grievances and reasons to be angry, yet little organising capacity as a means of recourse.
  • Our inquiries shouldn’t be limited to the workplace, especially if we have members who can’t have jobs or are precarious in the work they have. There are many questions that relate to the state of the working class today that are beyond the workplace but fundamental. Why is it that a generation of urban youth rose in revolt against the state. More importantly, why is it that we have among our ranks less than a dozen of them – we don’t understand them and we don’t know them. If any activity is likely to attract them it is going to be gangs.

http://www.theguardian.com/money/2013/aug/01/zero-hour-contracts-ons-figures-underestimated
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23570345
http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/sep/08/zero-hours-contracts-unite-survey
https://www.facebook.com/zerotolerancezerohours?ref=hl

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