Union Organising & Direct Action in the workplace
With the global countdown towards climate disaster imminently looming, it is essential to the success of the Solarpunk movement that we strive to build the infrastructure of our new society within the shell of the old. This in mind, we can look to the organisation of workers’ unions as both a means of dismantling capitalist societal structures, and a means of structuring a new society with economic democracy from the bottom up.
The basic principle of the union is that an injury to any one member of the working class is an injury to all, and that the power of workers can become strong enough to challenge the ruling classes if there is unity and organisation among them. At the end of the day, the corporate elite depend upon the workers for their profit - as “Big Bill” Haywood said: If the workers are organised, all they have to do is put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped.
The power of Trade Unions has been increasingly diminished in recent years, the anti-union laws of neoliberal western states vastly restricting any legal means of organisation and promoting new relations between union officials and corporate executives. Global companies have more influence over our lives and the natural world than nation states, and still there is no democracy within this private power structure.The results are evident: stagnating wages while executive salaries soar to record highs, and a world on the brink. How then, are we to organise for change against a background so limiting?
The limitations imposed upon the Trade Unions of the last century must be ignored, and the tactics found by those in the early labour movements who won working men and women any recognition in the first place remembered. The ultimate weapon of the workers’ unions is direct action - action taken to directly cripple the bosses - and is in many forms an act of civil disobedience. Whilst many of the largely weakened trade unions have abandoned most means of direct action other than the well-known strike, independent and industrial workers unions are finding these methods increasingly effective in the fight against neoliberal union-busting. The principle of the Industrial Union comes from anarcho-syndicalism, and is the idea that workers should be divided into unions by industry so as to have maximum impact on production in the event of a strike. Industrial unions would be federalised into One Big Union so as to provide democracy over the economy and manufacturing. Solidarity is key, remember that the first step to organising your workplace is getting to know your coworkers! Find out what difficulties they face, any common gripes about management - everyone has ideas & experience on how their workplace should run, make sure to listen to their needs and encourage conversation before suggesting any potential courses of action.
List of Independent or Industrial Unions (please feel free to add to it as appropriate)
Industrial Workers of the World (UK Site **here**) Independent Workers of Great Britain IWW Couriers Network (for deliveroo & uber eats riders) Solidarity Federation United Voices of the World Confederación Nacional del Trabajo
Whilst the strike is by far the most well-known form of direct action, there are many ways you can directly attack the capitalist system and cripple your boss:
This is when a group of workers perform their labour as slowly or ineffectively as they can reasonably get away with. One historical example was seen in Glasgow in 1899 when dockworkers went on strike for a 10% wage rise. Farm workers were brought in to defeat the strike, but when the dockworkers reluctantly returned, they heeded the words of their Union secretary:
“You are going back to work at the old wage. The employers have repeated time and again that they were delighted with the work of the agricultural labourers who have taken our place for several weeks during the strike. But we have seen them at work. We have seen that they could not even walk a vessel and that they dropped half the merchandise they carried; in short, that two of them could hardly do the work of one of us. Nevertheless, the employers have declared themselves enchanted with the work of these fellows. Well, then, there is nothing for us to do but the same. Work as the agricultural labourers worked.”
After a few days of poor and slow work, the men at the dockyard were given their 10% pay rise with a plea from their management to work as they had before.
Work to Rule
A fairly straightforward method, although the solidarity of your coworkers is key. This is when a group of workers slow down or otherwise disrupt profits by working exactly to the word of any workplace regulations.
Good Work Strike
This is one of the most rewarding forms of direct action, and can be particularly effective in service industries. The idea is that workers provide extra good service to the customer, at the cost of management and the bosses. Not only can this gain concessions quickly, it also helps build public support for the strike. IWW restaurant workers in New York managed to achieve concessions from management by organising to “pile up the plates, give ’em double helpings, and figure the checks on the low side.”
These can be extremely effective, but require almost universal organisation in the targeted workplace. The workers go in to work, and “sit-down” or occupy the space so as to render production impossible. This is particularly effective at preventing scab replacement workers. In Detroit in 1932, in the midst of the depression, IWW workers at the Hudson Motor Car Company followed the motto: “Sit down, and watch your pay go up!” Over the next two years they would indeed see their pay go up by 100%.
The General Strike
Considered by many to be the ultimate weapon of the workers, the General Strike is when all (or enough to render them ineffective) the workers in every industry refuse to work. At its strongest this method has brought companies and states alike to their knees, but it is notoriously difficult to organise or predict. Perhaps the most renowned example led to the February Insurrection in Petrograd in 1917.
The name given to the IWW organisers who would leave stickers around their towns and workplaces calling on workers to unite. It was said in the months before the Petrograd uprising that the living quarters of the workers were a sea of propaganda and flags, and in this age of mass media it is vital to remember that any social revolution must fight a culture war - our movement needs to be visible, bleeding through every alley in society including the streets.