Asia Art Tours spoke to the Angry Workers Collective on their multi-year project to organize workers in the UK, the book they published about this project (Class Power on Zero Hours) and their thoughts on the conditions of labor and labor organizing globally.
Please find our conversation below!
Asia Art Tours: As your project is so unique and multifaceted, I wanted to ask at the start if you could introduce your project, what is the Angry Workers Collective? And for those who become interested in our chat today, how can an angry/pissed-off worker become an ‘Angry Worker’ build solidarity with the Angry Workers’ Collective?
Angry Workers: AngryWorkers are a bunch of comrades who want to understand the current conditions of the working class, both in a global political and local sensual sense. We are communists and want to support the self-emancipation of workers, first of all, through the inversion of the alienated cooperation that capital forces us into. We think that our daily cooperation beyond departmental, sectorial and national boundaries are the material starting-point of organising class power. We want to point out the stark contrast between our productive knowledge and creativity as a global class and the actual immiseration of our lives – we emphasise the need to wrest the means of production from the crisis-weakened clasp of capital.
We don’t see ‘identities’ as the main dividing factors within the class, but focus on the main material divisions, which become increasingly blurry: the division between domestic work and the workplace; between manual and intellectual labour; between workplace collectivity and unemployment. We want to tear down these walls as part of a movement. In a practical sense, this means that we have to reconstitute the bare bones of working class political autonomy: solidarity networks, workplace groups and inquiry, discussion circles, newspapers, international coordinations. If you think similarly, just get in touch and we hook you up and discuss next steps.
We want to point out the stark contrast between our productive knowledge and creativity as a global class and the actual immiseration of our lives – we emphasise the need to wrest the means of production from the crisis-weakened clasp of capital.
(The result of several years of organizing, study and reflection, the book written by the Angry Workers Collective: Class Power on Zero Hours is a must read for anyone interested in better understanding modern labor and organizing. Photo Credit: ANGRY WORKERS COLLECTIVE)
Asia Art Tours: I watched the silent fury of workers gritting their teeth and complying — without direct actions or riots — with companies (such as Amazon) who made them work through incredibly dangerous conditions in the Covid-19 pandemic.
I also watched unions and ‘left’ media avoid solidarity with direct actions during the George Floyd Uprising. Both of these events, of anger without action, and action without greater solidarity, shocked me. From your hard-won wisdom, why do you believe we didn’t see more workers engaging in massive labor organizing, direct actions or riots after being forced by companies to work though (and often get sick or die) during Covid-19?
Angry Workers: To make this as blunt as possible: we worked with female migrant workers on assembly lines before the pandamic, who continued working despite machines catching fire and their own desperate urge to go for a piss. If you felt weak and had structural forces poised against you before the pandemic, you don’t just flip once the additional health risk kicks in. But at the same tine, we actually saw many workers questioning why and how they worked! We interviewed dozens of workers on the question of shop-floor control during the pandemic, and this control was questioned, if not sometimes contested.
Today, on the background of this experience, space has opened up to ask these pertinent questions: why are we working bullshit jobs ten hours a day if they are not essential? Why does the boss have control over us when actually they are not able and willing to act in ‘rational’ manners? If we, as so-called ‘key-workers’ and a relative minority in society (only a third of the working population) can pull society through a pandemic, why can’t we enforce a pretty basic transitional program in the face of large-scale job and wage cuts: we all work, we all work where it makes sense, we all work much less?
To make this as blunt as possible: we worked with female migrant workers on assembly lines before the pandamic, who continued working despite machines catching fire and their own desperate urge to go for a piss. If you felt weak and had structural forces poised against you before the pandemic, you don’t just flip once the additional health risk kicks in.
(The Angry Workers Newsletter, in the hands of an Angry Worker! Photo Credit: THE ANGRY WORKERS COLLECTIVE)
Asia Art Tours: And then to discuss the direct actions and riots against policing (by a diverse mass movement … of WORKERS!), why did we not see – from unions or ‘left’ media – more connections or solidarity between labor struggles and struggles against policing? Why have left ‘media’ and unions been so silent on the radical direct actions of abolitionists, when police are what keep us trapped within capitalism?
Angry Workers: We don’t think that it is the police that keeps us trapped in capitalism. It is the dependence on capital in order to reproduce ourselves. The police are a side-show, and only powerful as long as resistance remains individual or minoritarian. We also don’t think that the abolition of the police solves the deeper daily problems of the working class. Take away the cops and you still have poverty, poverty-related crime and gang-violence, self-declared community and religious leaders who exploit you by claiming to provide material protection. In the US, one of the main problems is that, despite the fact that, in absolute terms, it’s white working class people who get killed by cops the most, both historical racism and the way that police violence is framed by the left keeps the protests against the police limited to a ‘race issue’.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: While I deeply admire the Angry Workers organizing, I would respectfully disagree with aspects of the above. For more on the stuctural anti-Blackness of police, and the anti-capitalism of abolition, I would recommend Vicky Osterweil, Joy James, Cheryl Harris, Angela Davis, Jackie Wang, Lorenzo Ervin, George Jackson & Mariame Kaba)
Asia Art Tours: Your work in ‘Class Power on Zero Hours’ (and from groups like Chuang or Trolley Times), exposes how nationalism is incredibly toxic to both workers domestically (such as in Greenford) and internationally (between workers in the US and China).
From your experiences in Greenford, publishing WorkersWildWest, and creating multi-lingual agitprop for the diverse workforce at companies like Bakkavor, how is translation essential to creating radical workers both ‘domestically’ (where we struggle in our day to day lives) and globally (along both the supply chains of multi-national companies)?
Angry Workers: Language is a barrier, but perhaps less so than we think. In the early years of the IWW, they organised strikes of textile workers from dozens of different language backgrounds. Language divisions are often used as an explanation for why we cannot organise a collective strike – but then we currently also don’t see many strikes in food factories where the majority of workers speak the same language either.
Let’s use an important example of a missed chance of international solidarity from the 2010s. Some of us are in touch with comrades in Delhi, India, who live and struggle in the main automobile manufacturing cluster of the subcontinent. Workers at Rico Auto went on an unofficial strike and were locked out. After two weeks, parts from India were missing at GM and Ford plants in the US. At these plants, the UAW had just signed an agreement that newly hired workers would be on half the wages than the older workers. The union uses the ‘race to the bottom’ argument an as excuse to agree to such a wage cut: if we don’t sign, production moves abroad.
Ironically it was the workers in India, who are supposed to work for a bowl of rice and are the alleged reason for the ‘race to the bottom’, who were fighting the hard battle for higher wages. Instead of highlighting this fact, the local UAW officials instead lamented about missing parts from the supplier and blamed ‘technical difficulties’, rather than saying that it was a workers’ action that caused assembly lines on the other half of the globe to stutter. We had no local contacts to inform workers in the US about the action in India. It was not a language problem, the problem was that our revolutionary comrades in the US were too far removed from car workers!
(The Trolley Times is a fascinating multi-lingual publication, published to cover & build solidarity with the Farmer’s Movement of India. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in our conversation today. Photo Credit: THE TROLLEY TIMES)
Asia Art Tours: And from your organizing experience, how do you believe we can overcome the all- encompassing obstacle of ‘nationalism’ and create international radical and global solidarity between workers?
Angry Workers: Working class nationalism is not entirely irrational! If you feel in a weak position, you don’t want more competition on the labour or housing market. You don’t want to compete with the workers from the global south, who might still have one foot on their little patch of land in the village and will work for lower wages. The first issue is to re-build working class power, as a basis for wider solidarity. We have to show that, in the long run, ‘protectionism’ will only further undermine our power as a class. The left starts from moral appeals: welcome the migrant, down with borders. This is why the the right-wing fuckers have an easy game. Instead we have to rediscover together with our co-workers how ‘international solidarity’ is a necessary part of winning day-to-day battles and absolutely essential if we want to get rid of this system of exploitation and coercion.
Asia Art Tours: You said the following in a recent blog post: We should ask ourselves in whose interests it is that all the media and lefty focus is on this one (failed) union drive in Bessemer, rather than on other Amazon workers’ engaged in actual struggle.
Could you discuss what other organizing is happening against Amazon that you find more revolutionary or threatening to Amazon structurally than what occurred in Bessemer? And if Bessemer did not correctly identify Amazon’s weak points, what are those weak points in your eyes?
Angry Workers: The largest nationwide strike of Amazon workers happened in Italy in March this year. This was a historical first – not only because it involved warehouses across the entire country, but that three unions worked together to coordinate the strike, and most importantly, the drivers – who are employed by third party companies, and so not technically Amazon employees, joined too. Divisions amongst workers along the lines of who employs who and which contract you’re on, has been a major stumbling block in efforts to organise within bigger workplaces. Behemoths like Amazon will need more joined up workers’ struggles to even have a chance of being successful in pushing through significant demands. While there were problematic issues with this struggle – which you can read more about here – the fact remains that a big leap forward was made – not just in relation to Amazon, but workers struggles in general facing the common problems of legal limitations, state repression, outsourcing, and a divided and fragmented workforce.
The largest nationwide strike of Amazon workers happened in Italy in March this year. This was a historical first – not only because it involved warehouses across the entire country, but that three unions worked together to coordinate the strike, and most importantly, the drivers – who are employed by third party companies, and so not technically Amazon employees, joined too.
(A direct action organized by the Angry Workers Collective. Photo Credit: ANGRY WORKERS COLLECTIVE)
We also have to give a shout out to the international, rank and file Amazon workers network, that sees workers coming together across Europe and the US to discuss their common situations, analyse strategy, and coordinate actions across borders. The Workers’ Initiative union in Poland have recognition at Amazon warehouses across Poland (which the UK still does not have), and as a base union, are led by workers themselves. They refused to scab when work was rerouted to Polish fulfilment centres when Amazon workers went on strike in Germany. Work stoppages and shop-floor protests were organised to demand a £400 bonus during the pandemic. They’ve used the labour laws and their union roles to spread news amongst the different warehouses and reach out to other workers. It has been a massive, sustained and long-term effort that depends of self-organisation rather than officials, representatives and boardroom negotiations.
In America, you’ve had walkouts at the Chicago warehouse and in New York to protest against megacycle shifts and unsafe working practices during the pandemic. This hasn’t happned in a vaccum. These are concerted, longer-term efforts as workers corrdinate through networks like Amazonians United. Conscious efforts like these are a slog. They might be small-scale, but they’re real. They involve actual workers, who put themselves out there and aren’t waiting around for union recognition to sort out their problems.
They’re less sexy because there isn’t a media circus or big union money behind them. But the idea that workers take matters into their own hands, and use whatever power and tools necessary and at their disposal to hit the company and disrupt their daily operations, is the scariest thing for companies like Amazon because the discipline and surveillance of these kinds of workplaces is the glue that keeps things running. When workers break from this coercion and control that the capitalist class so much invests in, then all bets are off.
Top-down union campaigns (where shop-floor power is neglected) won’t be keeping Jeff Bezos up at night. Another important development, however minoritarian, was the solidarity action of Amazon tech workers in the US with their colleagues in warehouses. Any revolutionary class movement will have to break down the barriers between intellectual and manual labour – the debate about the exact form of the division of labour in modern capitalism has stopped somewhere in the late 1970s, we will have to revive it.
They’re less sexy because there isn’t a media circus or big union money behind them. But the idea that workers take matters into their own hands, and use whatever power and tools necessary and at their disposal to hit the company and disrupt their daily operations, is the scariest thing for companies like Amazon because the discipline and surveillance of these kinds of workplaces is the glue that keeps things running.
(LEFT: Workers in Bessemer showing support for workers striking against the military coup in Myanmar. RIGHT: Striking workers in Myanmar showing support for Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama. Photo Credit: YASEMIN ZAHRA)
Asia Art Tours: Why was Bessemer so heavily covered? And what institutions (and the ideologies they push) benefited from the constant coverage of Bessemer at the expense of ignoring more radical (and perhaps effective) struggles against Amazon?
Angry Workers: Amazon is the company everyone loves to hate. The struggle to ‘crack Amazon’ – which invariably means getting mainstream union recogntion agreements – is the holy grail for unions looking to up their profile and gain a much-needed shot in the arm in terms of their relevance to working class people and credibility as co-managers of capitalist misery. Because trade unions and the left is so weak, cracking Amazon would be seen as a major ‘win’, when they’re generally few and far between. It’s a collective delusion, a mirage in the alienated wastelands of capital, a panacea to the unfolding crises we seem helpless to do anything about. It’s a bit like people’s belief that voting for the Democrats or the Labour Party will bring us closer to getting us out of this mess.
It’s understandable that in desperate times, we want to remain optimimistic and pragmatic, but the institutions that have historically been fully co-opted and integrated into capital won’t do that. The winners of the focus on big union drives are the unions themselves, as well as the capitalist class in general whose main strategy is to keep us tied to these well-defined and legally restricted forms. The queen of organizing, Jane McAlevey, wrote about what went wrong in Bessemer only afterwards. She wrote about wrong tactics, such as not enough door-knocking and cooperation with local priests, but not a single word about the workers, their point-of-view and experiences. As if ‘organizing’ is just a better managerial form of getting workers where you want them to be.
It’s understandable that in desperate times, we want to remain optimimistic and pragmatic, but the institutions that have historically been fully co-opted and integrated into capital won’t do that. The winners of the focus on big union drives are the unions themselves, as well as the capitalist class in general whose main strategy is to keep us tied to these well-defined and legally restricted forms.
(Direct action organized by the Angry Workers Collective. Photo Credit: ANGRY WORKERS COLLECTIVE)
Asia Art Tours: Here is one of my favorite quotes from Class Power on Zero Hours:
“We would just say that you don’t need a lot of resources to get going. You don’t need external funding, or fancy publications and logos. You can do a lot more than you think when your “political life” and “normal life” isn’t so divided.”
Increasingly as anything outside of electoralism is becoming ‘illegal’ in our political lives, will we have to put our ‘real’ lives at risk for what we believe politically? Will workers (to paraphrase labor reporter Edward Ongweso Jr.) have to use both legal and ‘illegal’ methods to organize?
Angry Workers: The first question is if we’re actually confronting an extreme political turn where any political articulation apart from voting has been made ‘illegal’. Maybe it’s more a case that the existing vehicles that were supposed to channel working class anger and discontent have become so hollowed out that they’ve lost what was left of their power and meaning. Any meaningful actions like solidarity strikes and big pickets (in the UK at least) have been outlawed though, and the trade unions stick to the rules to maintain their survival. There is a lot of skepticism about trade unions amongst working class people, and rightly so given their track record. But at the same time, there are still plenty on the left, the majority really, that see unions as capable vehicles for working class resistance, and therefore invest a lot in them. For these people, they can happily maintain their private lives while cheerleading unions from the sidelines, or even from within them.
Union legitimacy on a political level is mutually beneficial. During the pandemic in many countries the state was keen to incorporate the unions into the management of the furlough system. While the state might tighten some legal screws when it comes to policing and the right to protest, they also expand the realm of so-called ‘community organisations’ and the world of NGOs, knowing that they are important pressure valves and sensors of civil class society. Still, you are right, once class struggle picks up the question of legality and illegality, of resistance and organised violence becomes more significant again.
We recently reviewed a book about the political committees at Magneti Marelli and other major factories in Italy in the late 1970s. Workers had to break the law frequently in order to advance the struggle. Every morning for a year or more hundreds of workers escorted a handful of workmates who had been sacked for political activity back into the factory, defying the bosses right to fire. They occupied the courts, organised collective ‘proletarian shopping’, ransacked the archives of the company security guards. It’s no coincidence that the past decade has seen as upswing in street uprisings, riots, actions like the ones we witnessed recently of the brilliant crowd of people in Glasgow blocking immigration vans and the civil disobediance tactics of groups like Extinction rebellion. Have these methods of struggle gained more appeal because of a failure of liberal insititutions? Or do they just seem more prominent because there is nothing comparable happening on the ‘labour’ side of things?
For us it is important to understand where the organised proletarian violence turned into the dead-end of ‘armed struggle’. This is not a question of the past. If we look at the collective violence in response to the George Floyd murder, we have to raise the same question: where does collective violence turn into detached expertism of individuals or self-proclaimed vanguards?
It’s no coincidence that the past decade has seen as upswing in street uprisings, riots, actions like the ones we witnessed recently of the brilliant crowd of people in Glasgow blocking immigration vans and the civil disobediance tactics of groups like Extinction rebellion. Have these methods of struggle gained more appeal because of a failure of liberal insititutions? Or do they just seem more prominent because there is nothing comparable happening on the ‘labour’ side of things?
(Photo taken by Angry Workers Collective while working in a food distribution center. Photo Credit: ANGRY WORKERS COLLECTIVE)
(The Angry Workers) are appreciative but more critical of the en vogue approach championed by labor expert Jane McAlevey, author of No Shortcuts (Oxford University Press, 2016), who they argue correctly points for a need to break with top-down “service unionism,” but does not sufficiently break from the binary—and often hierarchy—of “organizer” and “worker” inherent to professional labor organizing. By contrast, the Angry Workers call quite rightly for the abolition of waged union jobs and professional organizing altogether.. . Above all, their calculus of workplace strategy is guided by an aversion to allowing unions, or any organization, to become a fetish object standing above the power that working people wield when they take action in concert.
Who do we become as ‘workers’ if we succeed in abolishing (or capturing) these capitalist institutions? How does Class Unionism ‘work’ (pardon the pun!) after a successful worker’s revolution?
Angry Workers: We don’t think that ‘class unions’ are a revolutionary vehicle. They are a small spanner of defensive struggle in the majestic tool box of the working class. A ‘class union’ takes into account that the balance of power is not always tilted towards the working class being able to go on unofficial action. It also takes into account that in the absence of a larger class movement more atomised workers might need external forms of association, beyond their small workplaces. In ‘Class Power’ we try to anticipate some minimal steps that a class movement would have to take in order to ‘abolish itself as a class’. This ‘abolition’ is not an act of ‘refusal of work’ and mere distribution of surplus products. It’s the socialisation of labour beyond the boundaries of workplaces and households, the global evening out of productive knowledge and technical wealth. Certain segments within the class will have a primary role in this, not in order to confirm their role as ‘productive workers’, but in order to create the material conditions for the free association of producers.
A communist organisation has to relate to the advanced points within a class movement where the capitalist division of labour is breaking down: questioning the boundaries that separate the essential industrial sector from the world of intellectual labour, from the marginalised sections of unemployment and criminalisation and from the isolation of domestic work. At the points of contacts the class will have to create new organisations that socialise the experience of a previously contained and segmented existence
For more on the Angry Workers:
Please follow them on Twitter: @WorkersAngry
Or visit their website: angryworkers.org