This year, Margaret Thatcher’s death reminded us of the economic policies she initiated in Britain and her anti-social and anti-union fights. In the last months, Autre Futur [French syndicalist website and association] wished to go further and to conduct a series of interviews with different British unionists and syndicalists, about these past struggles but also about the present, in order to get a better grasp of issues which have emerged in recent decades. The relevance of these testimonies and thoughts have been shown to go beyond the British context and remind us the importance of a greater international cooperation and solidarity in the face of life and working conditions’ deterioration.
In the first interview, recorded at the Durham Miner’s Gala, former unionist miner David John Douglass returns to the 84-85 strike in which he was very active, looks at what happens to miners’ communities and talks about Left attitude towards these issues that he often considers irrelevant. Then, Keith Millar and John Couzin, from Glasgow in Scotland, speak of the radical working-class past of Clydeside, where women took a leading role, and its development following desindustrialisation. Then, we go to Newcastle, in North-East England, where John Kelly and Simon Galliers explain how the majority trade-union Unite established a Community Sector notably to organize unemployed people and to take action more efficiently on this issue. The next interview gives an overview of the British social situation, current antisocial attacks, and a general presentation of trade-unionism from an IWW point of view, a syndicalist organisation which presents its activities, thanks to John S., Dave Pike and Dek Keenan, from London, Sheffield and Edinburgh. Lastly, Marion Hersch and Benjamin Franks, from Glasgow University, returns to a victorious struggle against the closure of one campus, before the latter talks about his research about "social and class struggle anarchism", distinguished from "anarcho-capitalism" and "lifestyle anarchism".
These interviews and this feature have been made possible thanks to British IWW’s cooperation, contacts and warm welcome and we have therefore to extend a special thank you to them !
"Today, Left is anti-working class" Dave Douglass, former unionist miner
Autre Futur : My first question is a little bit ironic. This year Margaret Thatcher died. Were you sad ? How did you react ?
David John Douglass : (laughs) I wasn’t sober for a whole week. The day it was announced we set off fireworks and we had parties in the street. Then, we went down to Trafalgar Square [London], we took the Durham Area Miner’s Banner down to Trafalgar Square, which was an anarchist arranged thing planned for the first Saturday after she died, there was about 5 000 people at it and when the Miner’s Banner arrived, the crowd went mad, so... I spoke to the crowd and told them what our experience of Thatcher and her policies had been, how she and her government had crippled our communities and what Margaret Thatcher stood for. Then we came back up north and we had a big regional party at Easington, a once massive coal mining community on the North East costs, a big socialist party during the whole day and all the press was there from all of the world. So, it was very good.
AF : Can you present yourself briefly ?
DJD : I’ve been a member of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) since 1963 and an official of the Miner’s Union, a Branch Official and also an executive member for about 24 years. I’ve just retired from the union this year, I’m a retired member now. I’ve been a full member for 49 years or so. In my time, I edited the revolutionary miner’s paper called The Mineworker in the 1970’s and also a local newspaper called Hot Gossips which lampooned the officials of the mine, the managers, the government, etc.
I’ve been in all of the fights. In 1969 was a national unofficial miners strike which our tendency was very active in. In 1972, I was a picket organizer in the Midlands and then in 1974. And, in 1984, I was the picket coordinator for Doncaster. I was coordinating all the pickets in Doncaster area of the Yorkshire coalfield. And we were involved in 1992-93 and quite a few hundred local rag ups, and pit and coalfield walkouts until 1992.
AF : What was the link between Margaret Thatcher and miners strikes ?
DJD : Margaret Thatcher had adopted the monetarist policy of the free-marketeers neo-con’s in America. She was a British representative and followed that extreme vision of the supremacy of the market. She founded a faction fight inside the Tory Party to wrest control of the party away from the people who were conservative ‘one-nation’ Tories, people who believe in... consensus Conservatism, if you like... People like Ted Heath. She fought for the sovereignty of the market and the logic of that was she had to smash the unions, denationalize and des-socialize all of the gains that have been made by the class over centuries. She knew that central to this war was the National Union of Mineworkers. Sooner or later, she was going have to take us on and we knew that too.
In my book Ghost Dancers, you’ll find more details on all of theses things. But basically, Thatcher said she would honor previous agreements which said that coal will still be the central energy supply coal because it was the cheapest form of energy. In 1980, she broke that agreement and launched an assault to close 25 mines. Most of the mines in England were on strike and we defeated that action. We allowed them to get out of a cast iron agreement, we allowed them to get away. So they came back again in 1983. They again came with a closure plan. But this time, they attacked South Wales. The Welsh miners went on strike and start picketing them out in the rest of the country. And they were pushing everything before them closing down pits like dominoes falling over. But for some reason, the executive of their union decided to call a national ballot. And we lost the national ballot. So, they allowed to close. We put an overtime ban on and we started an overtime ban in 1983. So, it was a crucial time, we had to get down the reserves of coal of the country. The more we could reduce the stocks of coal, the quicker we could win the victory. So, with an overtime ban, we wouldn’t produce coal in overtime and we wouldn’t produce coal on Saturday and Sunday. We only work 5 days a week. Sometimes, we only work 4 days a week or 3 days a week. The director of the Electricity Generating Board went to Margaret Thatcher and said "If it’s overtime ban, stays on : to September 1984, the miners will win within a month". So it came central for them to make sure that we came on strike before the strategy works. So, they tried various provocations that we didn’t rise to. Then, they came and took on a pit in the Yorkshire, Cortonwood Colliery. They closed the pit. So the miners went on strike, they picketed out the other pits. We made the decision in the Yorkshire we would strike and spread he action to the rest of the country. And everybody else joined this...except scabs in Nottingham.
And then we fought for 12 months ! We didn’t get the support of the trade-union movement we expected or deserved. And we had severe scabbing in Nott’s’ and Leicester. There were exceptions, people who did support us. The seafarers, the railway workers, some power station workers, but overall, we didn’t get the mass support that we needed. And we had to go back. But we still hadn’t lost in 84, even though they closed about 60 mines and about 70 000 jobs. We were still there. So they had to come back again in 1992 with another plan that would close almost every pit in Britain. So then, we had a series of actions, mass demonstrations, mass publicity, 2 millions people marched in Britain, 12 millions work days were lost in solidarity strike. But we still lost.
The press was totally against us. Night and day, there was a propaganda war. Thatcher set a propaganda committee in place which comprised all the national newspapers and news channels. She set up a propaganda team, she met with the press twice a week and the television, to put forward The line... She organized the joint committee with the police. The police was supposed to be neutral in industrial disputes. She met with police, the Electricity Engineering Board, the National Coal Board and ran an entirely partisan fight using the full weight of the state and its medias against the miners. And you know, a lot of union members kept their heads below their trench because they thought if they put it out they’ll get shot. And they wouldn’t confront them, but of course after smashing us she came from them.
AF : Can you tell us more about the National Union of Mineworkers ?
DJD : It’s an industrial union, founded by industrial unionists, anarcho-syndicalists along with the Railway union. It was founded on the tradition "One Industry, One Union". So if you are an electrician, if you’re a cook, if you’re a canteen woman, you belong to the National Union of Mineworkers. Everybody belongs to the same union. It hasn’t always been a National union as such more but a federation, not a national centralized union. So it’s a strength and a weakness. The strength was we couldn’t have had the 84 strike if we’ve been a centralised union. The only way the strike worked is because the Yorkshire area went on strike, the Scotland area decided to join and then we picketed out others areas...
By 1984, we had about 230 000 members. But, you know, now, we only have 2000 members, so... The union is tiny and the pits are all but entirely gone but Miners and NUM very, very small, wracked by internal problems. (We have an ongoing war with Arthur Scargill the former President since about 1993-94 because he will not give up Power. You know, it’s been terrible. Comrades turned to enemies) .
National Union of Mineworkers hadn’t always been in a revolutionary tradition, It had founded the Labor party. In fact, you had a mixed tradition which is best demonstrated by that banners of ours. It has Kier Hardie (socialist pacifist founder of The Independent Labour Party), it has Lenin, it has AJ Cook, who was a syndicalist, it has George Harvey, who was a founder of the IWW and James Connolly who was a founder of the IWW, first American national organizer and leader of the Irish rebellion in 1916. So a mixed tradition : social-democracy, anarcho-syndicalism and Marxism-Leninism. The ballot box and the bullet.
AF : On a more personal level, what is your political itinerary ?
DJD : People change definitions all the time of things but I have traditionally called myself an anarchist communist, in an anarcho-syndicalist tradition. I started off as an anarcho-syndicalist and an anarchist when I was 15. But I had a brief detour to Trotskyism in the 1970’s. By 1984, I had come back to anarchism. I was also a founding member of Class War, I joined Class War within 6 months when it started.
AF : Are there others things you would like to say about theses strikes to complete ?
DJD : Yes. That fight in 84-85 involved the whole community, it was not only about unions. It was partly about unions but it was about an industry, it was about a way of life. The miners were almost an ethnicity, with father to son for hundreds and hundreds of years in the same miner family. And we had a very strong revolutionary and radical tradition. So, all of the politics of power, fuel power was about political power and not just about energy. It was about more than that. It was about "Who rules ?", where is the balance of political power based on fuel power, if they shift the balance to nuclear industry away from coal, then they’ve got the thing nailed down, since nuclear workers will not challenge governments and cant just walk off the job as we did. British coal is almost dead now, and they will not finish until we are gone completely.
AF : And so, now... Unfortunately, they have won that battle. What becomes the region, the communities ?
DJD : The communities are very, very much on their knees and in desperate social conditions. This, today, (the Gala with half a million people) is an act of defiance. We are nearly half million people in this field today for the Durham Miners Gala. Most of the people here are from communities from all of the country. It’s an act of defiance. This gala is a traditional parade that has been going on for 167 years of Miners banners with all of the slogans and principles of trade-unionism and class struggle, in all of its different forms, led by brass bands and by the women and children and people of the community. It should have died. The last pit died here in 1992. And today is the biggest demonstration since, I think, 1945. It’s an act of class defiance.
They wanted us to shuffle off our mortal coil and die quietly but we will not. The only industry that we have today is the bank industry and speculation. They destroyed manufacturing in Britain, they destroyed our ability as workers to take control back off them and run society ourselves. Because we made the means of production. And they’ve taken it away from us. So now we actually don’t produce anything. People are unemployed, people are desperately poor, we have a lot of drug addiction, anti social crimes, we have ill health, high infantile mortality, low life expectancy, low education achievement, all of these things. My book is called Ghost dancers because it’s the same that what they tried to do to Native Americans. They not only defeated American Indians. They wanted to take away their identity, who they were and wipe out even the memory of who they were. You know, my father was in 1926 strike, my grand-father was in 1926 strike, my grand-father was in the 1890 strike ! (laughs) And when we went on the picket line in Doncaster in 1983, we had a man who’s been in 1921 strike and 1926 strike. Retired, but still on the picket line ! That’s why this is very, very important for us. We are not prepared to forget the past, we are not prepared to give up hope in the future. We have to fight to retake control of our communities, reconnect our real history, not the captains and the kings, not the Union Jack, that bollocks... But our real traditions, people who fought for our own class interests. This is not just about nostalgia, this is about tomorrow, not about yesterday.
AF : In this situation, it seems there is much to do. But what do you think about militant movements today concerning this issue ?
DJD : I think the Left, in general, is totally irrelevant, in brief. I think it’s anti-working class, they hate the working class. It’s an anti-working class Left. They think we’re homophobic, they think we’re racists, they think we’re sexists, everything’s wrong, we’re it. There’s no dialogue with us at all. They don’t understand working class aspirations. The Left is strongly dominated by petit-bourgeois liberalism, they don’t understand class struggle. They’re interested in liberal posturing. There’s an huge gulf between us. Do you see, here, the Left ...? They’re not talking to working people here, they’re just talking to each other. They don’t want anybody from the outside in, because they might ask them some good questions. You know... I’m not talking about Labor Party, I’m specifically talking about the so-called Far Left, the Marxist-Leninist Left and even most of the Anarchist Left. You have our tendency here : the IWW and the North-East AnarchistFederation are here... But you won’t find anybody else.
AF : And concerning the British unions, what is the situation now ?
DJD : It’s very, very small. We still have a very strong militant tradition in the railway union, the Railway Maritime Transport Union (RMT). There’s a strong militant leadership in many of the big unions. The Firefighter’s, their union, is still an extremely militant union, UNITE is dominated by Left currents, although the organization of Unite is terrible. I worked for 3 years as an organizer and the culture is deadly. But there’s a million members. And UNISON, which is a public service union, has a million of members. So we still have large chunk of organized labour But the strength of the unions was in manufacturing, because we produce something they want it. Now we don’t. Because when you make something they want, you can take it back off them, withhold it, or take it over completely, we could do that with MacDonald’s but what would be the point .
Scotland : Glasgow and "Red Clydeside"’s memory
Autre Futur : I know that Glasgow urban district is one of the most populated of UK (and the biggest one in Scotland). It was called "Red Clydeside" in the past. What can you tell about the history of working class and radical struggles here ?
Keith Millar : We can first talk about the Calton weavers... There’s a radical tradition with artisans, weavers, people like that, already in 18th century.
John Couzin : They held the first organised strike in Scotland in 1787. And you have 1820 insurrection and the battle of Bonnybridge. 3 executions : John Baird, Andrew Hardie and James Wilson.
KM : Some of the other people were thrown in jail. It was a time they used outside militias...
JC : The Clydeside [Glasgow and towns along the banks of the River Clyde] area, in my opinion, because of the mass of people who were living in dreadful conditions in this dense area, you got a lot of radical movements. An interesting one involved women. You’ve got the 1915 rent-strike, which was totally spontaneous, grassroots, non party political. Mainly the women organised the rent strike, the women took the action. It was the women who brought people onto the street. And that was in 1915 ! That was during the First World War. The biggest demonstration in the rent strike was when all the districts around Glasgow and Clydebank, marched to Glasgow city centre. The women organised the march to surround the Glasgow Sheriff Court, because there were court cases for eviction for people who refused to pay rent increases. But as they passed the factories, a delegation of women went in to ask the men to join them. So 250 000 people marched to the court. The Sheriff phoned the Prime Minister and told him the situation, and Parliament immediatly introduced the Rent Restriction Act which froze the rents in UK ? until 6 months after First World War. So that was a radical, grassroots movement, mainly women but with men backing theml. It was not mainly because it was Clydeside, it was because of dense population and conditions.
KM : You have also a class revolt before the First World War in the factory of Singer.
JC : In 1911, Singer Sewing Machine factory strike was one of the biggest strikes (11 000 workers), about the way they were treated, the way the management organised the factory. Again it was women who sparked the strike.
And then you have the Labour Withholding Committee which was during the First World War, when strikes were banned. It was again grassroots, it did not take advice from unions, the workers organised what has to be done and they approached the unions and informed them what to do. From that was developed the Clyde Workers’ Committe, which was more or less IWW, syndicalist. That lasted until authorities banished most of the spokemen of the group to Edinburgh. That prevented them from being active on the Clyde. In fact, there were more strikes during the war than before and after. It was seen by militants as an opportunity !
AF : What were the main industries in Glasgow Region ? What is the situation now and how unions deal with it ?
JC : The main industry was obviously shipbuilding. Now that’s gone. I don’t think you can refer to Clydeside anymore as an entity. You could say it was an entity.
KM : In terms of employment, the public sector, cloth centres, supermarkets chains are now the biggest employers. It’s easy to get casual employment in service industry. For unions, there’s potential but it’s very early days. The trouble is that often people get sacked or move on voluntarily. Concerning important social issues and protests in more recent history, we could also mention the large opposition to Poll Tax (1990) due to Thatcher’s government and the support to miner’s strikes. But I think also that, here in Scotland, there’s a big distraction in the Left with the Independance thing.
Unionism, unemployment and job insecurity : the example of Newcastle
Autre Futur : First, can you present yourself ?
John Kelly : I am currently the acting secretary of the Tyne and Wear Unite Community, one of the many regional or area groups of union members that comprise Britain’s largest union, Unite’s Community Sector, a recent devlopment that brings embraces the unemployed, retired people and others who are not in a workplace. Nationwide, it is estimated that Unite Community Sector has a membership of around 4,000 presently and is expanding. Since we launched Tyne & Wear Unite Community in December 2012, we have gained a membership of over 70 so far, and we are expanding too.
Simon Galliers : I’m also an active member of Unite Community but I’m also a member of Industrial Workers of the World as well.
JK : Unite is the largest union in Britain. It covers all sectors of employment and has members in the transport, in the extractive industries, gas and oil, it’s got members in the public sector such as the National Health Service and construction etc. We have one and a half million members at the moment.
AF : I know you have an activity concerning unemployed people. Can you tell us more about that ?
JK : Recently, Unite established a new initiative to open our membership to unemployed people. In Newcastle, we have a good solid branch. We are really concerned about the welfare benefits issue and the benefit changes imposed on the unemployed. For example, in order for anyone, to obtain benefits in the near future, he or she willm be obliged to use computers to access benefits online. We’re concerned about a lot of people who don’t have access to computers or the ability to use computers sufficiently. The work we’re doing at a ground level, if you like, is to identify people in Newcastle area who need access to computers and facilitate that access for them. It is a concrete activity concerning immediate problems.
The category of Community membership is to bring people from outside of the workplace into the union family. Subsequently we believe we can promote trade-union values and regain some of the influence in a community that unions once had when those communities were built around industry. These people are not normally organised, normally associated with trade-unionism. So the union gives them a structure, to give them a voice to campaign for the change they want. And they don’t feel abandonned or left alone. Recently, we held protests against a 1% increase in out of work benefits, such as Jobseekers Allowance. We put forward slogans like "1% won’t pay the rent", "the banks caused the crisis, the unemployed will pay". We protested outside Newcastle city Jobcentreplus office and the BBC came along to film. \more importantly, we gained a lot of interest from unemployed people having to go into the Jobcentreplus office.
We manage to organise unemployed people. We work in conjunction with the staff of an Unemployed Workers Centre in Newcastle. We have a coordinated activity with the staff there as well. We’ve about 6 members of their staff who are also Tyne & Wear Unite Community members.
More generally, the welfare system is really attacked now and we’re concerned about that. Unemployment is a issue but we have also a low-paid economy, low wage economy, specially in Newcastle and in the North-East. This social situation is a big problem to us and, in the case of benefit changes, it already has led to suicides... We think, as Unite Community, that if we get things right, we can actually help people to transform the situation in favour of an alternative, and also bring back the values of the once well known community spirit.
AF : Simon, you were an unionist in education but have joined more recently Unite Community. Can you tell us why ?
SG : I was an union representative in Unison, which is the second biggest union in the country, for quite a few years. Recently, I was protesting against the school academies program that this current government is putting in place. ...It makes schools independant without local government control and this has consequences on salaries (for teachers and support staff), conditions, employment, special educational needs. I vigorously campaigned against that. I lost my job..... I worked in a secondary school for a number of years... But I’m engaged with anything in relation with education program that Unite Community does now.
From London to Edinburgh : trade-unions, IWW and current social situation in UK
Autre Futur : For people who don’t know your country very well, can you help to understand the current social situation in UK ? Can you give us, as british wobblies, an overview of main social issues, specially for unionism and syndicalism ?
John S : Like most places, we can trace our situation today back to the 1970’s and the birth of neo-liberalism. In the 70’s union density and militancy was high. 12.9 million work days (average per year) were lost to strikes in the 70’s ; in 2012 it was just 250,000 days. 60% of workers in the UK were in a union in 1979 ; today its 25% (and only 13% private sector, 9% young workers). During Thatcher’s years, unions were smashed or co-opted. Unions moved towards ‘servicing’ (providing professional services to members) and ‘partnership’ with employers (obviously, no such thing considering the power difference). The Major (Conservative) and then Blair/Brown (Labour) Governments all continued a neo-liberal agenda of privatisation of public services/assets, subsidies to big private interests at public expense, casualization of labour etc. And now the coalition government (Conservative/Liberal Democrat) are seeing a massive opportunity in the ‘financial crisis’ to really remodel society once and for all (it’s pretty classic Milton Friedman “shock doctrine” type stuff).
So, we’re told this is a time of austerity and to accept cuts to public spending. Actually, that’s bullshit. There is nothing ‘austere’ about casually giving away £billions in services, assets, subsidies and contracts to private capital. And that’s what is happening. In education, welfare, health, we’re just seeing the welfare state dismantled. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers have been transferred to private employers or laid off. Official unemployment is up around 2.5million (the real figure, taking into account different welfare payments that aren’t measured as unemployment and also ‘underemployment’ due to casualization, is much higher). Meanwhile, across the board, prices have risen around 15-20%, while wages have stayed the same or been cut (except at the top where top directors pay has risen 39% !). There is a massive increase in casualization, things like part time work, agency working (you get much less rights) and zero-hours contracts. These are arguably worse than agency work, because whilst you are tied to an employer and must be available when they want you (unlike agencies where you can say no, or go to several different jobs), you have no guaranteed hours. So one week you might have to do 70 hours, and the next week you get none. No security, no consistency. They say over 1 million workers are on zero-hours contracts and over 5 million do not earn a ‘Living Wage’.
Hundreds of thousands are relying on food-banks (charities, giving food away) and energy prices are currently rising around 10%, to the point where families are now giving food back to food-banks because they can’t afford the energy to cook it. The majority of people now considered to be living in poverty are working, not unemployed. The ‘bedroom tax’ (where councils are being forced to collect council tax from families in social/council housing previously exempt because they have a ‘spare’ bedroom) is hitting people really hard. Often the room is not ‘spare’ (headline cases have included the room being used for a dialysis machine, and a room kept for a son who is away with the army) but also its not their choice to have that house, there is very little alternative. This has led to suicides already. Disabled people are also badly hit, being ruled ‘fit for work’ and having benefits taken away. This has included people with severe mental illness and physical handicaps including terminally ill people, some of whom have died just days later ! Again, this has led to suicides. There has been shockingly little resistance to all this.
The working-class is in a chronic state of disorganisation and low-confidence. The biggest movement has been the student protests in 2010. A joint demonstration in London by University & Colleges Union (UCU) and National Union of Students (NUS) attracted 500,000 people, and several thousand occupied and damaged the Conservative Party headquarters. This led to a wave of quite militant, sometimes riotous, student occupations and protests. Sadly the politicians voted to increase tuition fees. The protests were notable though for the fact that most protesters would not be affected by the increase but were rather fighting ‘for’ younger siblings/friends, the ‘kids of the future’ and ideological defence of education. In 2011 working-class youth rioted and looted shops after police shot a black man in Tottenham. Typically the political context and vocal – though confused - social content of the riots was marginalised and ignored by the media and the middle-class, but it was present. There have also been big local protest movements against hospital closures, ‘bedroom tax’ and other ‘cuts’, some successful (Lewisham Hospital the most notable). Strikes have been few and far between. There was a public sector strike about pension’s reform in 2011. Around 1.5million, of a possible 3million people took action and concessions were won. One union saw 2000 people join the day before the strike, so the appetite is out there. Bakery workers have recently struck against zero hours contracts. A direct-action campaign by ‘blacklisted’ construction worker Frank Morris has just won his reinstatement. Fire Brigades Union struck last week, and several hundred marched on Downing Street, postal workers will strike against privatisation on 5th November and all three university unions (UCU, UNISON and Unite) are striking this month over pay. There has been little else though.
AF : Can you present the Industrial Workers of the World(IWW) in UK, and, more generally, the trade-unionism in British context ?
Dek Keenan : The Industrial Workers of the World are, in Great-Britain, a small revolutionnary industrial union, based in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. It was re-established in 1990, registered as a trade-union in the mid-2000s and it started very, very small ! It’s essentially a union with a revolutionnary class struggle approach to unionism which breaks with partnership which is the dominant trade-union approach. It’s also against the idea of trade unions rather than all workers in one big union. A classic trade-union organises just a single trade. For example, theRoyal College of Nursing just organise nurses. A general union may organise nurses and others health workers and also, other, workers as well.
So all we have in the UK is a small number of craft unions, another group of larger trade-unions and then monster unions, enormous unions of hundred of thousands of members. There’s over a million in UNISON and UNITE. They’re all basically social-democrats in the sense they generally support the Labour Party, because historically the Labour Party was established by trade-unions in the first part of twentieth century. But obviously, the Labour Party now is a neo-liberal party. Those unions who aren’t affiliated to the Labour Party ; usually they’re in favour of building a new Labour Party. The IWW don’t take a position on that in the sense we’re an entirely independent union.
The IWW in the UK first existed in the 1910’s. Basically, there was a development and an emergence of syndicalism on an international level in the early 1900’s and the British Isles were part of that. It was really a quite large organisation, the broader in term of syndicalism in the UK. They were concentrated mainly engineering workers in the North and the Midlands and, to some extent, amongst workers in Scotland as well. There was generally an agreement that the idea was to reform the existing trade-unions, to syndicalise them. And the first step to that would be to amalgamate the little trade unions, craft unions, into larger industrial unions. But the IWW never grew into a large union in the UK in that period. There was also the Building Workers industrial union which was a very syndicalist, wobbly type union that existed just before the First World War. That was the only pure syndicalist union. But all of that didn’t survive very far into the 1920’s.The IWW then re-emerged in 1946 with a national docker’s strike and continued for some time in the 1950’s, particularly with Railway workers. Subsequently, it re-emerged briefly in late 1970’s, early 1980’s and then disappeared again ! (laughs) It comes and it goes...
But in 1990, a comrade from North America came to live here and started to promote the IWW and it very slowly took off. There were groups particulary in London and the South, and also the longest established general membership branch was in Edinburgh. It was a very large branch, it developed in the mid-90’s and had a job branch in Stevenson College which was quite successful. In Scotland today, we have 3 general membership branches, in Edinburgh, Clydeside and Dumfries (and potentially a new one in Aberdeen). The largest branches in the UK are now probably London, West Midlands, Sheffield, Bristol and probably Clydeside. There’s also big branches in Tyne and Wear and new branches in Leeds and Bradford as well.
Basically, in the UK, there are two different approaches. People established in mainstream unions work at a rank-and-file level, create networks in those unions of wobblies and other people who want to fight back, basically. At the same time, we have another approach where we are establishing IWW unions of people who are unorganised, the « abandoned and betrayed », people who are let down by the mainstream unions, which are uninterested in them. So sometimes marginal workers or people who work in small places. IWW has developed very rapidly in a very short space of time, in a period of defeat for the working class. It’s an alternative way of organising which can be attractive to workers who feel that trade-unions aren’t capable really to fight back against austerity. But it’s still small.
AF : Dave, you’re one of the founders of the Pizza Hut Workers’ Union of the IWW, which has been formed in Sheffield [North England] quite recently, in 2011. Can you tell us more about the circumstances of its creation and your activities until now ? Can you relate us some difficulties or maybe encouraging prospects you can have as an IWW organizer in this sector ?
Dave Pike : We formed around a collective grievance over pay, mainly the lack of extra pay for working national holidays and the low rate given to delivery drivers using their own cars. Since its creation we have grown steadily in membership and continue to organise in Pizza Huts around the world and have won pay increases for deliver drivers, as well driving up Health and Safety standards.
Fast food has become a breading ground for IWW organisers. Many of our most succesful campaigns [in USA] are in that area, including Starbucks and Jimmy Johns. Our average age of members has helped us appear more relevant, with mid 20sbeing the usual age for our activists.
It is hard to organise young workers, as many either have never engaged with unions, and don’t even know what they are, or think they are old fashioned and irrelevant. The reality has been in my experience that what really makes unions relevant is by them fighting for changes that matter to young people like working conditions in THEIR workplaces, and talking in a way that doesn’t try to live on the history of your union, but on its relevance today.
AF : John, as a IWW Regional Organiser for the Southeast Of England and London, can you tell us more about the Wobblies’ activities there in recent years ?
JS : IWW activities for several years have included supporting individual members in retail, fast food, education, healthcare and other industries, and some small, limited organising campaigns. However, in 2011, a large group of cleaners in London (mostly Latin American immigrants but also Polish, African, Asian and English workers) left their union for various reasons and formed an IWW branch. Cleaners are often sub-contracted, working for either small companies with little concern for the law, or huge multi-nationals like Compass and Sodexo. They are often immigrants, struggling in a foreign language and badly exploited. They also typically earn minimum-wage and do not get sick pay or pensions. Throughout 2011 and 2012, the Cleaners Branch held wildcat strikes, noisy and militant protests and occupations and finally official strike actions, fighting for the Living Wage, sick pay, more hours and an end to bullying and intimidation etc. This all started with a wildcat strike at the Guildhall in late 2011. IWW did win the Living Wage at some sites and IWW bravery and creativity has definitely been an inspiration to lots of low-waged workers and union activists. There have been problems including three rogue organisers who misled IWW members in order to create their own new union (IWGB) – an unnecessary mistake in my view but life goes on. IWW members – subcontracted cleaners on minimum wage - took strike action at middle-class-favourite department store John Lewis and won a 9% pay rise. Cleaners at four other John Lewis sites then joined the union and also won 9% pay rise with the threat of further strike action. Others are now joining, and there are on-going organising drives at several sites in London including major tourist attractions. A full first-hand account of the IWW Cleaners Branch will appear ina new book being published in January 2014.
Syndicalists in Bristol are about to launch a controversial but exciting ‘community organising’ project, knocking on doors in working-class areas and trying to build mass campaigns around work issues like low-wages and insecurity.
AF : Are there others unions wobblies can feel closed in the British context today ? Are there others organised militant tendancies in mainstream unions ?
DK : I suppose the only union that perhaps the IWW can have some identification with is possibly the Rail Maritime and Transport(RMT) union. It’s an union independent of the Labour Party, which is militant, with syndicalists active in it. They are not a revolutionnary industrial union but an industrial union with a militant approach. But, contrary maybe to Spain or France, for example, the idea of having a independent revolutionary union is not a popular approach on the Left here. A lot of people would be extremely critical of working outside of the existing unions.
There have been very large rank and file movements over the years in this country. There was the National Shop-Steward Network which was established some years ago and a lot of wobblies and syndicalists were involved in that. But it quickly became dominated by the Trotskyists of the Socialist Party. It became very difficult to work in it. And also it started to push the idea of a new Labour Party, a Workers Party. There are Left networks within many of the main trade unions, UNISON, UNITE which tend to be dominated by Trotskyist groups, left-wing groups who really don’t want to transform the trade-unions from below but want to capture the leadership of the trade-unions. That’s an essential difference, I think. So IWW isn’t really involved in those networks particulary. We’ve been involved in .Civil Service Rank and File Network, an alternative, purely rank and file, autonomous tendency into the PCS union, for example.
University : the stuggle against Dumfries Campus’s closure and "social and class struggle anarchism"
Autre Futur : You’re IWW members and were involved a few years ago in a (victorious) struggle against the closure of Dumfries Campus. Can you talk to us about that ?
Marion Hersh : Glasgow University has a main campus in Glasgow and another campus at Dumfries and Galloway, which is about two hours away by train. It used to be called the Crichton Campus, but management keeps changing the name. It is very important to the local community, which is rural, and many of the students would find it difficult to attend the much larger main campus in a big city. It also had a lot of working class and disabled students. Unfortunately, Glasgow is an old traditional and rather snobbish University and probably considered Crichton too down-market. There was also an issue of devaluing teaching to focus on particular types of research in the context of research assessment exercises (a very unfair way of dividing up totally inadequate research funding).
A few years ago, the management of Glasgow University proposed closing the Crichton campus. There was a campaign of opposition, involving various groups including IWW. I joined the IWW at this point, as it seemed that IWW, which had several members at Crichton, was taking more action than the local branch of UCU, the University and College Union, which I had been a member of and activist in many years. Activities included leafletting high prestige events organised by Glasgow University, demos at Crichton which IWW and questions and a staged walk-out of a lecture by the University principal. I was also involved in a march by students from Crichton to Glasgow.
Eventually, management backed down. This was an important victory. However, management has continued to target Crichton, now called the Dumfries Campus and I think the liberal arts degree has gone.
Benjamin Franks : The IWW’s role was important in the 2007 campaign. It was not the only relevant factor, nor the most important in a largely successful campaign, but the IWW’s campaigning efforts, utilising original and direct initiatives up in Glasgow – where the decisions were made – in support of colleagues and students based in Dumfries was invaluable. It was an inspiring example of solidarity. Regrettably, it was only ‘partly successful’ as management structures which made the initial closure decision, although reversed, were still in place. Latterly some good colleagues did not have their contracts renewed or felt forced out and some important education provision was later closed down, with corresponding threats of redundancy.
AF : Ben, you teach political and social philosophy in this University. I know you work about anarchism. You feel the necessity to talk about social, class struggle anarchism. Why ? Are there kinds of anarchism which are not ? What do you mean ?
BF : I think one of the problems is that, historically, people have talked about a lot of differentclusters of ideological principles with a single title : anarchism. Simply because they share a common characteristic of being against the state. Even though they mean radically different things by being against the state. So traditionally you get so called ‘anarcho-capitalists’ and anarchist- communists, both being called ‘anarchists’, being treated as part of the same anarchist family. But actually they have nothing in common because there are surrounding principles which informs how they understand the state. For anarcho-capitalists, the state is supposed to be rejected because it is redistributive. It interferes with property rights. They have nothing against hierarchies like police forces, prisons, specialist judiciary, security operations... so long as they are in private hands.
For social anarchists, you have often a quite complex attitude toward property rights, distinguising between possession and property, different forms of property and property ownership and how property can be administed. But they are concerned by hierarchy, the inequalities in economic power, and their social structures which anarcho-capitalists are perfectly happy with. So, for them [social anarchists], the state is a type of social relationship, a form of oppression. Anarcho-capitalism is basically a form of classical liberalism, a type of thing social anarchism has been opposed to. One of the problems, speaking in term of academia, is that anarcho-capitalism is regarded as the most consistant, and thus the most legitimate form of anarchism.
There’re different constellations of anarchism, some of which are more individualist, some of which tend towards socialism. Some of the constellations of what we might think as individualist anarchism can have some relationship, affinities with social anarchism. Some of those which have been dismissed as “lifestyle anarchism”. This term is made famous by Murray Bookchin, who makes a distinction between “lifestyle anarchism” and “social anarchism”.
His formulation is problematic but I think he identifies something which is genuinely about the type of “anarchism” which is just concerned with a kind of possessive individual freedom of action and is not concerned in relationships to others and another which is concerned with our relationships to others. And, of course, one of the principles of social anarchism is that individual is in part socially constructed. This is seen in the slogans or positions of the radical anti-leninist Left :”no one is truly free if another is oppressed” or “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Social anarchism recognises that our identities are intimately connected. I get my identity from the way you treat me, you get your identity by how I treat you and this is reflected back in the construction of our mutually shared identities. There are no wholly isolated beings. So, to be only concerned with our own liberation, our own happiness, our own living a pure lifestyle is insufficient for social anarchists. It’s missing our necessary, dependant connectedness to others. And it’s kind of based on a liberal view of the self, therefore constructed as a largely liberal form of organisations and tactics, methods, effects. But, on occasion, lifestyle anarchism can be in a conflict with the laws of capitalism, the logic of capitalism. Certain lifestyle anarchists live in commune, trying not to live the straight life and this can conflict with laws of capital, hierarchical social structures and in some circumstances are in affinity with social anarchism. Of course, social anarchism also tries to embody principles in daily action but they also see this as being connected to others.
The laws of capital is a form of exploitation and oppression. It’s a form of power over in which people are treated as mere resources (hence the growth of ‘human resourses’ in large organisations). If we want to live a more fullfilled, satisfiyng life, we have to contest these forms of oppression, in mutual solidarity, reflecting the type of values we hope to see in the future in our struggles here and now. And that is class struggle.
No one is in a position to see every facet, or every element of class struggle but under capitalism, there is the potential for class struggle in the workplace, even if it’s not the only place of struggle.
Interviews by Fabien Delmotte