From despair to where? #McStrike shows us where Labour’s rebuilding must start

The 2019 general election has already led to much soul-searching on the left. In particular, the loss of many seats in the, so-called, ‘red wall’ of historically safe seats in Wales, the Midlands and the North appears to demonstrate the social distance between the Party’s left-wing cosmopolitan London activists and its traditional working-class base. Why would so many workers, choose a Tory Brexit over a radical Labour manifesto which would have markedly improved their lives? Much focus is placed on the perceived failures of Jeremy Corbyn or at least the media’s portal of the leader. But despite the appeal of such parsimonious arguments, simply blaming the leadership or the media risks missing the deeper problems facing the left in contemporary capitalism. Likewise, it’s clear that Brexit presented the Party with a colossal challenge, yet to simply blame Brexit fails to account for why Labour was ill-equipped to overcome it. It is essential that our analysis does not simply float meaninglessly on the surface of despair, clutching at the obvious; instead it must penetrate the surface and examine the underlying structural challenges that contemporary capitalism presents the socialist project.  

There is nothing new about a hostile media. The left has always had to contend with the ability of the powerful to utilise the media to defend their interests.

Image result for daily express front page 1945 general election
Daily Express from the 1945 election

However, what is unique to our current epoch (at least in the UK) and of greater structural significance is the dramatic decline of trade unions over the last 35 years. Not only do trade unions defend workers economic interests but historically they acted as a countervailing force to the symbolic power of capital. Up until the late 20th-century trade unions played a crucial role in civil society, for they represented one of the few independent institutions controlled by workers. It was trade union meetings, publications and actions which provided working people with alternative understandings to those found in the pages of the capitalist press. In fact, The Sun newspaper originated in 1911 as a strike bulletin which went on to became the labour movement’s daily newspaper. Trade unions provided people with a space in which to discuss the realities of surviving in a capitalist economy, and in which they could develop, what Antonio Gramsci referred to as ‘good sense’, an intuitive collective understanding of the need to eliminate the injustice and insecurity of capitalism. Gramsci believed it was the kernel of good sense which workers carried with them that could challenge the ‘common sense’ reinforced by capital.   

Likewise, the Labour Party was founded in 1900 by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to further the parliamentary representation of workers’ interests. The Labour Party was directly born out of the recognition that a successful struggle in individual workplaces needed to be tied to a united class struggle in the political sphere.  

However, in contemporary capitalism, the trade unions that gave birth to the Labour Party are increasingly little more than a fading memory in a majority of workplaces. For instance, in 1979 more than 1 in every 2 workers was a member of a trade union, today that figure has declined to less than 1 in 4 and in the private sector this figure is just 14%. This has left the Labour Party orphaned and disconnected from the majority of people’s lived experiences of capitalism. Likewise, there is now little institutional support by which good sense can crystallise and challenge the siren calls of nationalism, racism and individualism.

This is a serious barrier to any socialist political project. A Labour Party not embedded in a vibrant labour movement has little hope of success. Trade unions provide a communicative space in which workers’ interaction can develop into the alternative frames of understanding necessary for challenging the status quo. Through communication with others facing the same struggles our individual problems, concerns and issues – which may initially appear as inevitable or the result of personal failings – can be reinterpreted as constituting a shared injustice resulting from the actions of others with opposing interests. Trade unions, therefore, play a central role in providing a day-to-day communication space for the political education and framing which is a necessary precondition for the success of any socialist political project.

Moreover, trade unions historically played an important organisational role by providing the resources and training for organic leaders to emerge from workplace struggle and take prominent positions in civil society. In the 1920s 70% of the Labour Party’s MPs were drawn from working-class backgrounds but this declined alongside trade unions from the 1980s and by 2018 just 8% of MPs were from a working-class background. Of course, even if it were possible to go back to the past, it would not be desirable to do so. Likewise, any attempt to rebuild the Party’s support through appeals to nationalism will simply reinforce the common sense of Boris Johnson’s populism. Therefore, it is crucial that worker organisation be rebuilt in contemporary capitalism, especially in the private sector and that it reflects the contemporary diversity of workers. This necessities the explicit recognition that the idea of a white working-class is an oxymoron. Class is a shared experience of injustice rooted in the capitalist labour process and, therefore, by definition has no racial or gender component. Of course class exploitation intersects with other forms of oppression based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, etc. and workers often draw non-class boundaries on the basis of these intersections but class itself cannot be boiled down to some kind of simplistic identity politics. There are white workers and white members of the working class but there is no such thing as a white working class. The Labour Party must be an institution for the working class as a whole or it ceases to be a labour party. Likewise, the idea that only way that the Labour Party can reconnect with working class voters in the former ‘red wall’ is with a social conservative as leader is completely ludicrous. For many of these same voters have just voted for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson an old Etonian, born in New York and raised in the South of England and Brussels, whose private life hardly smacks of social conservatism.

Towards networked solidarity

Rebuilding the labour movement might seem like daunting task, however, unionisation has tended to advance through upsurges rather than incremental gains and as the recent #McStrike highlights new communication technology might support 21st century upsurge. In 2017 Momentum played an important role in supporting the BFAWU’s #McStrike mobilization, this support helped to rouse large demonstrations in support of striking fast food workers and forced McDonalds to improve pay and conditions. It is exactly these unorganised workers that the left needs to put their energies into supporting over the next five years. However, #McStrike has yet to go beyond what Jane McAlevey terms ‘shallow mobilizing’, that is a media campaign that relies on professional organisers with little grassroots accountability while workers are confined to play only a symbolic role as ‘authentic messengers’ managed by PR professionals. The danger is that such mobilizations end up relying on the same activists who can always be counted on to turn up at every protest and meeting while the workers themselves are disempowered.

McAlevey argues instead for ‘deep organising’, this focuses on activating those who would not normally consider themselves to be activists. This is achieved by identifying and growing the skills of organic leaders. These are workers who are key influencers in their workplace and thus able to draw on their social networks at work and in their community to expand participation until mass action, such as majority strikes, are possible. However, in contemporary capitalism, many working-class jobs lack the structural economic power necessary for traditional deep organising to be viable. For instance, jobs in hospitality and retail are not strategically located in the social division of labour and nor do they require scarce skills and tend to be drawn from loose labour markets making them easy to replace. Moreover, workers in many service sector jobs are spread across numerous small scale workplaces and fragmented across different shifts. This new post-industrial context requires new forms of union organising and new ways of developing solidarity.

In 2013, I spent six weeks participating in the OUR Walmart mobilization in California. This mobilization demonstrates how the post-industrial working class can use social media to effectively undertake a networked form of organising while simultaneously using mobilising activities to improve their conditions. Social media provided Walmart workers with a means to connect with each other and union organisers beyond the boundaries of their workplaces. By participating in Facebook groups workers learnt of their similarities and common work experiences. This social media facilitated interaction was central to the development of a sense of solidarity and shared identity which coalesced into a class-based notion of exploited low-wage workers. Social media also enabled organic leaders to emerge and access their workplace social networks despite employer repression and bring other workers and members of the community into the mobilization. While the union played a vital role in guiding decision-making it also emphasised worker engagement and empowerment. For example, in meetings union organisers acted as facilitators, who encouraged workers to participate and as a result, it was clear that workers found the experience empowering and felt ownership of the mobilization. I observed how the meetings contrasted with the process-heavy format synonymous with conventional union meetings. The use of social media enabled these workers to overcome barriers to workplace organising by adopting a more network-like form in which the union played the role of ‘orchestrator’ by providing strategic oversight. Following a number of high profile networked strikes, direct actions and protests Walmart responded by improving the pay of 500,000 workers. We see similar processes currently taking place in the UK gig economy.

Unions, such as BFAWU, IWGB and UVW, which have been at the forefront of attempts to renew private sector worker organisation in the UK are relatively small and lack resources. Over the next five years left activists and organisations must put all their efforts into supporting initiatives such as these in order to build a networked labour movement which is able to develop and support socialist frames of understanding, that can provide a route for workers themselves to become organic leaders in the political sphere and reconnect the Labour Party to workers’ lived experience of capitalism. Not only are many workers in desperate need of unions but so is the Labour Party.

The election result must not lead to prolonged navel navel gazing and the picking apart of the Labour Party’s policies, which are individually popular. Instead our efforts should go into developing and building working class institutions which can sustain the good sense necessary to sustain support for them as a whole in the face of a prevailing hegemony built upon the common sense of nationalism, racism and individualism.

Like never before do the final words of Joe Hill,  ‘don’t mourn organise’, resonate with our times . That organising must start in the fissured and fragmented post-industrial workplaces of 21st-century capitalism.

Remembering Willy Brown: a great researcher and teacher of labour relations

Willy Brown sadly passed away on Thursday 1st August 2019. I was lucky enough to have gotten to know him over the past seven years. Although he wasn’t my supervisor the kindness and support he offered me, when there was no obligation for him to do so, will be familiar to many.

I first met Willy in 2012, I was interested in how job insecurity impacted on workplace control but I was struggling to get access for my fieldwork. My PhD supervisor, Brendan Burchell, suggested I meet with Willy to ask if he could help via his trade union contacts.

I remember nervously walking up the stairs to the Master’s Office at Darwin College, playing on my mind was an acute awareness of my limited knowledge of industrial relations. My trepidation that he might quiz me on industrial relations scholarship or, even worse, his own work, turned out to be greatly misplaced. When I entered his office, I found a softly spoken man with a warm simile and kindly glint in his eye.

I remember his excitement when I explained that I hoped to undertake qualitative workplace research on trade unions. It was obvious that what mattered to Willy was a passion for researching trade unions, rather than what books someone had or hadn’t read. In fact, in typical humbleness, when I asked which of his own books I should read, he replied not to bother with his own and instead to read John Kelly’s Rethinking Industrial Relations, which he, thought would be more useful.

Through Willy, I was able to get excellent access for my fieldwork. But it was once I’d analysed my data that Willy’s generosity really went beyond all expectations. In an age where many academics try to limit their teaching responsibilities, Willy’s attitude was the opposite and he voluntarily gave up huge amounts of time to help anyone with an interest in unions.

Without Willy’s detailed feedback and encouragement on the drafts for my first three journal articles, the peer review process might have ended my hopes of publishing my research. Willy’s generosity was particularly evident on one occasion where he greatly assisted me in making major revisions to an article, and in return, I suggested that he should be a co-author. He refused straight away saying that it was my work and I should get the full credit. Instead he continued to encourage and support me to publish it on my own.

Willy helped me prepare for my viva and over the years since continued to offer his help, guidance and support. Willy’s generosity and kindness will be familiar to many, but he was obviously not only a great teacher and mentor but also a masterful researcher with unparalleled knowledge of UK industrial relations.

Of particular influence on my own work is Willy’s classic investigation of piecework at ten factories. This book provides a lucid illustration that workplaces are sites of  ‘political activity, not in the sense of party or state politics, but as an activity in which conflicting pressure groups come to temporary accommodation through the agreement of rules’ (Brown, 1973: 24).

This study is of particular of interest now that piecework is back with a vengeance with the rise of the gig economy. Reading this seminal work from the early 1970s today highlights that similar payment systems can result in very different outcomes depending on the relative bargaining power of labour and capital.

Unlike today’s gig economy, in the 1970s managers lacked ‘effective disciplinary powers’ due to the strength of organised labour and therefore piece rates were set according to ‘custom and practice’. This, in turn, gave rise to a compromise equilibrium between labour and management. Not being able to discipline or sack workers, meant that foremen had to make concessions to individual workers in order to gain their cooperation but in doing so they set a precedent by which other workers expected to be treated. However, to ensure that piece rates did not quickly spiral out of control and the company become unprofitable the shop stewards’ committees themselves sanctioned workers who broke or fixed the rate over-zealously and thus risked causing the entire system to breakdown.

Also of great importance was Willy’s work highlighting how almost de facto union derecognition was taking place in the 1990s through the ‘procedural individualisation of employment’ (Brown et al., 1999; 2000; 2009) as well as the use of reputational damage to improve labour standards (Wright and Brown, 2013). In the last decade of his life, Willy was increasingly fascinated by the research of his students and others in China, where he was hopeful for the emergence of a progressive industrial relations system and the potential this had for the rejuvenation of organised labour as a global actor (Brown and Kai, 2017).

I will greatly miss having the opportunity to hear Willy’s insights into the world and the world will sorely miss his kindness and intellect. But a comfort is knowing that his legacy will continue to live on among the many people he influenced.

Willy Brown Key Readings:

Brown W (1973) Piecework Bargaining. London: Heinemann.

Brown W, Bryson A, Forth J and Whitfield K (Eds.) (2009) The Evolution of the Modern Workplace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown W, Deakin S, Hudson M, Pratten C and Ryan P (1998) The Individualisation of the Employment Contract in Britain. London: Department of Trade and Industry Research Series

Brown W, Deakin S, Nash D and Oxenbridge S (2000) The Employment Contract: From Collective Procedures to Individual Rights. British Journal of Industrial Relations 38(4): 611–629.

Brown W and Kai C (Eds) (2017) The Emerging Industrial Relations of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Wright C and Brown W (2013) The effectiveness of socially sustainable sourcing mechanisms: Assessing the prospects of a new form of joint regulation. Industrial Relations Journal 44, 1, 20–37.

Goodbye to the OII

After three years and nine months, I’m leaving the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at the end of the month to take up a Lectureship in the Sociology Work at Birmingham University. I’ll be joining a highly regarded group of researchers in the ‘Organisation, Work and Employment Group’ at the Department of Management.

I joined the OII as a Researcher in November 2015 to work on the Microwork and Virtual Production Networks (MVPN) project. This project was one of the first major attempts to investigate the impact of the growing gig economy on workers in lower- and middle-income countries. My time working with Professors Mark Graham and Vili Lehdonvirta and Dr Isis Hjorth proved highly productive, with us publishing three articles in leading journals such as Sociology and Work, Employment and SocietyDuring this time at the OII I also published three articles from my PhD research, including in leading journals Human Relations and Work, Employment and Society. Additionally, ‘Despotism on Demand: How Power Operates in the Flexible Workplace’ – a book based on my thesis – was accepted for publication by Cornell University Press earlier this year.

Following the completion of the MVPN project in 2016, I joined the OII’s iLabour project led by Vili Lehdonvirta, with my research investigating the existence of online labour movements in the gig economy. This research involved fieldwork in Manila, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and London as I conducted 70 semi-structured interviews with remote gig economy workers engaged in collective organisation and action and observed worker community events and meet ups. You can read our first working paper from the project, ‘Platform Labour and Structured Antagonism: Understanding the Origin of Protest in the Gig Economy’, here.

At Birmingham, I will continue collaborating with the members of the iLabour project (Professor Vili Lehdonvirta, Dr Gretta Corporal and Dr Otto Kässi) as we seek to publish our cutting edge research on platform work in the remote gig economy. Beyond this, I intend to undertake future research into how the gig economy is impacting on class identity and whether platform workers feel that their interests are being represented by existing institutions such as political parties and unions.

The OII provided me with a uniquely stimulating environment at a crucial juncture in my career, making it the perfect platform from which to influence how the ‘future of work’ is understood both among academics and the wider public and I look forward to continuing a close relationship with the OII.

Post-work fallacies and the social reproduction of capitalism

“In the U.K., one in five jobs is going to be automated… technology… has a contradictory element because on the one hand it makes you more precarious as a worker. On the other hand, it shows what you can be when liberated from work because you’ve got all this extra time. You can imagine different ways of living. You can pursue your passions. You can live a happy life.” Ash Sarkar, Teen Vogue, July 15th 2018

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Variable geographies of protest among online gig workers

Millions of people across the planet use online labour platforms to make their living as part of the global gig or platform economy. One part of the iLabour project is to understand how worker voice and collective action shape institutions in this setting.

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Taylor Review: The government must stop delaying protection for gig economy workers

The fragmentation of work over the last decade has given birth to the on-demand economy. In this new world of work, we can no longer expect to work a standard nine to five week; instead, self-employed and traditionally employed workers alike scramble to make a living from online labour platforms and zero hour contracts, where stable work hours and income are not guaranteed. The most recent data suggests that 4.6 million people in the UK experience precarious scheduling, meaning that their working times are regularly altered by their employer, often with little notice. Precarious scheduling, and the instability and unpredictability it entails, is unsurprisingly associated with lower well-being and feelings of insecurity.

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Government response to the Taylor Review: Good news on zero hour contracts but delay on gig economy

Today the government released their response to the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. The government’s recognition that good quality work is important is very welcome. Unfortunately, much of the substance of the government’s response focuses on the need for further consultation and additional consideration. Six months after the publications of the Review’s recommendations, we mainly have a call for further consultation and consideration on many of the most important policy areas rather than concrete policy decisions. For example, altering labour law to ensure that self-employed workers who are dependent on labour platforms have access to legal protections – such as the minimum wage – could significantly improve job quality in the gig economy. Yet the government states only that they will hold consultations on the enforcement of employment rights and employment status recommendations. A wage premium for zero hour contracts, if set at the right level, could discourage the unnecessary and callous use of this practice. But the government will only commit to asking the Low Pay Commission to consider the impact of a higher minimum wage rate for workers on zero-hour contracts. While ending the ability of agencies to employ workers on cheaper pay rates would clearly benefit the 1.2 million UK agencies workers, yet we are told they are only considering repealing these damaging laws.

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