Organising Young and Precariat Workers

Below is an edited transcript of my contribution to the discussion on young and precariat workers at the 2018 Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) Summer School.

With the spread of neo-liberal policies and privatisations we have seen the replacement of well-paid, secure public sector jobs with low paid, insecure jobs in the private sector. With the collapse of Stalinism as an alternative, albeit bureaucratic and deformed economic model when compared with genuine socialism, we have seen social democratic parties move to the right as an alternative.

Similarly, trade union leaders have moved in a similar direction with many trade union leaders taking a class conciliation strategy when bosses are clearly not interested in granting concessions in this period. In Britain this has been reflected in trade union membership which is currently at a historic low. 2017 saw the lowest number of days lost to strike action in TUC (Trade Union Congress) history.

Until recently strikes were largely defensive one day strikes of a national character. We are now beginning to see more offensive strikes. These are mainly small, local or regional strikes but are often strikes to the finish; ongoing until workers score a victory or are forced back to work if the employer is able to hold out. We are seeing more wildcat strikes, often in spite of trade union leadership and sometimes outside established trade unions with the formation of new ‘pop-up’ unions.

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Photo by Scott Jones

On the whole, many workers and particularly young workers are in unorganised workplaces. They face harsh conditions and management that are hostile trade union organisation. It can be difficult to organise in these conditions especially when the union bureaucracy are largely unhelpful in assisting trade union activists or supporting them when faced with a backlash by the bosses for organising.

We need to therefore build trade union consciousness and organisation from the ground up. With the political situation in many countries becoming more volatile, we cannot lose focus on the importance of industrial organisation. Often we have to start small to build confidence of workers but things can take sharp turns.

It can often take a matter of months or even years of patient explanation and recruitment to build workers’ confidence in a trade union as an effective means of engaging in struggle for the betterment of their conditions. However, there can also be flash-points in the erosion of conditions that can push workers to quickly take to trade unions.

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We can be an important catalyst in helping workers draw these conclusions and can assist and often, by necessity, we will need to lead recruitment into and organisation of trade unions in the workplaces. With this it must be made clear to comrades, young and precariat workers that the bosses will not simply allow organising to take place. Bosses are likely to strike back by victimising those leading the push for workplace organisation to intimidate and deter workers from organising in trade unions.

With small numbers we can make a big impact. One comrade in a workplace can transform an unorganised workplace into one in which trade union organisation and thus the pushing forward of workers’ demands and collective action grows. Likewise, we can have a similar impact in turning trade unions decisively to the left.

In Usdaw, the shop workers’ union and Britain’s 5th largest union with over 430,000 members, we have little more than 10 active members. We recently won one of our members, Amy Murphy, to the presidency of the union. Part of the reason for this was because we were the only ones putting forward a programme of struggle. However, it is important to recognise that a big factor was a lack of union engagement with a low turnout of voters in the election.

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Photo by Usdaw Activist

As Marxists, the goal for us is to bridge the gap between those who are already taking to struggle or are prepared to struggle and linking it with the wider trade union movement which will help turn the union movement to the left. This can start with humble beginnings such as individual workplaces but is a necessary part of the process.

By preparing young and precariat workers for organising in the workplace we can gain authority among workers. With victories and a programme our forces can be propelled into the leadership of trade union movements as workers are increasingly forced by conditions to take the road of struggle.

The trade union bureaucracies have proven themselves completely ineffective against the advances of the bosses as they have no confidence in the working class to struggle. We are often alone in our confidence of the working class to struggle. However, we are going to have to lead by example if we are to win wider layers of the class to us.

If we can gain authority among workers and youth by organising the unorganised and striking blows against the bosses, we can raise the sights of workers not just to win better conditions under capitalism but to go further and overcome capitalism itself.

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Building Among Young Workers

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Above: CWI Summer School

My contribution to the Youth discussion at the CWI summer school in Barcelona:

In England and Wales, one of the areas of youth work we’ve focussed on is our orientation to and development of young workers. One of the challenges of this work is getting access to young workers.

Unlike students who can be found in large numbers on campuses, there is no one place where young workers come together. This is particularly true as trade union consciousness among youth is generally low. This means that we have to go directly into workplaces to engage with and attract new layers of young workers.

One of the ways we have done this is by organising campaigns around fast food rights, £10Now and days of action exposing retail outlets that use exploitative zero hours contracts. To try and engage young workers in workplaces known to be hostile to workplace organising we have organised actions where we go into a workplace and leaflet as many workers as we can before management ask us to leave.

As well as attracting new layers we have taken steps to develop our young worker comrades. Alongside student bureaus we have had a number of meetings for young workers to discuss how we can intervene in the workplace. This has been important as young workers face more insecure and unstable conditions which can be very different to conditions experienced by older comrades.

More often than not, young workers are in workplaces that have no trade union recognition. Management can get away with more bullying and intimidation and attempts to even discuss organising can be met with extreme hostility. In drawing out these perspectives this has guided our work and allowed us to better equip our young comrades in the workplace.

By having discussions on a day in the life of a care worker, a shop worker, a waiter etc. older workers are exposed to the conditions faced by the younger counterparts and can better advise younger comrades how to recruit other workers to trade unions and get organised.

It’s also important that time is made in branch meetings to discuss the conditions of the trade unions. As trade unions will often be held in the grip of bureaucratic officials and young comrades will need guidance to give them the confidence to transform unions into militant fighting trade unions.

One of our successful areas of work in this area is in relation to Usdaw (the shopworkers’ union) which is Britain’s 4th largest trade union with over 430,000 members. We have been developing a caucus and had our biggest intervention so far at this year’s national conference. Our young comrades have been at the forefront of regenerating the broad left within the union.

Likewise, our young members put forward and spoke on a number of important motions which resonated and got some of the best responses from delegates. In time this will no doubt lead to contacts and new recruits.

The steps we are taking are currently small and the tasks ahead great but comrades, by investing time and energy into preparing young workers today, we will be developing the cadre who will have the confidence and understanding to inspire and lead the workers’ struggles of tomorrow.

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On Young and Precariat Workers

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Above photo taken by Mary Finch

Below is an editted version of my contribution to the discussion on British Perspectives at the Socialist Party’s March 2017 National Congress:

Ryan Aldred, Plymouth and South West

Comrade chair, comrades.

For many youths growing up in the 90’s, those putting forward a so called “alternative” to the Tories would have been Tony Blair, promising a university education for everybody and a life of prosperity thereafter. And how prosperous we are now! This was followed by Nick Clegg, promising to end tuition fees and put a brake on Tory austerity; well done there Cleggy!

It should therefore come as no surprise that in some of the most deprived areas, that young and precariat workers take a very jaded approach to Corbyn. There is some mileage in more boldly putting forward our programme among these layers. It is mainly a layer of older workers returning to the Labour Party and more politically engaged students who identify with Corbyn and recognise that he is qualitatively different from his neo-liberal predecessors.

There is a backwardness in class consciousness and particularly combativity compared to previous periods. This, coupled with the atomisation of young and precariat workers especially along with their abhorrent living conditions which can explain the increasing prevalence of mental health issues working class people are struggling to overcome. With poverty contributing to isolation and social exclusion leading to depression and the constant worry of living hand to mouth resulting in greater levels of anxiety.

It is these same material conditions which give rise to an often inchoate and elemental anger which can quickly rise to the surface and potentially spill over. Thus in this volatile period there is a danger that we could see a return of the riots which took place in 2011 as the conditions are still there which caused the riots to erupt.

Likewise, we could see a new occupy style movement albeit one on a higher political level due to the increased pace at which processes and events are taking place compared to the original occupy movement. Moreover, we’re likely to see the explosive injection of youth on demonstrations such as we have seen with the anti-Trump protests for instance.

With the lack of generalised industrial struggle in this period compared to some of the heroic struggles that took place in the Thatcher years, combined with the lack of organised opposition from Corbyn and general lack of momentum in Momentum, we could see the frustrations of youth finding expression in a resurgance of ultra-left and anarchist ideas. We have already seen this in embryo in the anti-party mood in the indignados and occupy movements and this will no doubt increase if we see further betrayals by left populist parties such as Syriza in Greece.

With all this unpredictability and volatility, one thing remains glaringly obvious, we will continue to see the accumulation of capitalist contradictions, agitating and radicalising the working class and especially the youth and more precariat layers. Improving technology is exacerbating this, self-service machines replacing shop workers and, as reported in the Financial Times this week, electronic lecturing displacing even this once secure profession.

We’ve seen the opportunities for super exploitation with apps such as deliveroo and uber eats, this has been compounded by Phillip Hammond’s budget, targetting the self-employed which will hit those in the rising gig economy hardest.

There is a desperate need for a bold and audacious alternative and in the absence of a serious fightback from the Corbynistas, TUSC is well placed to build towards that, even with the disappointing withdrawal of the SWP from TUSC. By showing confidence in our ideas and our programme, as evidenced by our strong intervention in the March 4th NHS demo, we can win new layers to our ranks and capture and hopefully harness some of that anger.

By being patient, flexible and resilient when building amongst casualised and particularly young workers, accommodating for comrades’ daily struggles, we can build confidence in these layers to take their first steps organising in the harsh conditions of zero-hours living.

This can help us to sink deeper roots into the class to ensure workers don’t internalise feelings of failure for not being productive members of a capitalist society which sees fit to discard them. By agitating among these workers to express their rightful indignation at a system that is failing them, whilst linking their struggles into the wider struggles of the working class by helping to organise these layers, we can prepare the ground for the revolutionary idea that we can instead discard this capitalist system and build with our class towards a socialist alternative.

Don’t forget to like, follow and share to help expand the readership of this blog.

If you agree with the content of this blog and you would like to join the Socialist Party you can do so here:

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