Last week I cried a lot. Nope, not from despair at the loss of genuine journalism or bad dancing, but at the face of a young Wetherspoons worker walking out of work to join the Fast Food Strike along with the new generation of organisers from McDonalds, Deliveroo and UberEats. The pure undiluted relief on her face walking out of work into a vibrant gang of people who recognised her bravery at fighting for £10 an hour, a secure contract and the right to join a union. That’s the stuff of ordinary magic.
One reason to be cheerful is that this moment is part of a sustained campaign to organise precarious workers in the UK. Its made up of traditional and new unions, networks and social media campaigning and just groups of workers not getting enough of what they need sufficient to galvanise what can only be described as self-organised solidarity.
A second reason for crying last week was the launch of a new network Action for Care-worker Wellbeing – looking at the working conditions and experiences of workers right across the caring professions. Organising a high level meeting with Royal Colleges and professional bodies in health and social care may for some of us be reason enough to have a little sob. That’s not a dig, but an acknowledgement of the realities of organisational organising, the necessary counterpart to workplace organising. How much work it takes to get our representative organisations into a room to talk openly about what they can and cannot do. The problem with organising a work campaign of any kind is that it forces you to face up to splits and failures within all of our systems. How to look at the decline in working conditions and the systemic factors that actually grind us down. From racism to professional tribalism organising is not for the faint hearted.
Whatever we think about our particular work playground, when you join a group you’re confronted with the realities of learning how to play with the other children.
Although the rapid decline in working conditions has forced campaigning to get creative, the basis of organising is not new. A hundred years of workplace organising methods provide a way of organising that has sustained working people over decades of industrial conflict. To do the organising required to survive work rests entirely on our capacities to build relationships with the people who we actually work with. It is this important and ordinary organising work that often gets missed in the political party debates – how to make real changes in our working conditions and pay while at the same time sustaining ourselves in the current climate.
Something that stood out in our surviving work survey about mental health workers responses was the low number of people who went to a trade union or directly to colleagues with their workplace problems. Outside of the NHS, only 4% of mental health workers spoke to a colleague about problems at work. The most consistent question I have been asked throughout my working life is whether I know of a group in the local area that workers can join to get support.
Traditionally workplace organising is practiced using some powerful educational methods based on the work of Paulo Freire and the workers’ education traditions founded in Western Europe. These methods provide a consistent framework made up of essentially three connected stages of learning; problem identification, getting information particularly identifying what resources are available and planning concrete next steps. In the TUC education system this became known as the PIP framework; problems, information and planning. Emancipatory education is underpinned by a number of principles, including confidentiality and solidarity, and activities aim to provide a safe space for expressing and processing diverse and often difficult workplace experiences. Because the methods open up debate they can if used well support inherently political processes of consciousness raising and collective planning, which serve to identify and mobilise collective interests, the basis of in putting solidarity into action.
These methods have been exported internationally through solidaristic programmes and offer us a methodology that offers important ways to build relationality at work. These methods can be understood as psychosocial, looking at both internal and external realities, and requiring raising consciousness, collectivisation and praxis, understood as understanding reality and taking action to transform it. These methods aim to promote a dialogue between participants, looking at their experiences of the real world, reflecting on them and making material changes particularly in relation to wages and working conditions.
One of the privileges of coming from a trade union background is that we are part of the practical solutions that emerge when working people have reached a point where they cannot accept their working conditions. What we know is that people can and do organise successfully in the most precarious environments – often self-organising as their institutions fail to represent their interests. This is not principally an ideological response, rather one of necessity.
Worth shedding a few tears over.
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