There are fundamentally two reasons to organise at work: to change things related to your job, and to change everything else. Organising is about building workers’ capacity to take effective collective action and win change. It is the only realistic way for most of us to have any real influence over our work – a huge aspect of our lives. It’s not just that work (or the lack of it) occupies much of our time and energy. The rest of our lives are shaped by its pay, hours, conditions, locations and stresses.
As individuals, we are relatively powerless, so power is often seen in a negative light – as something bad people have over us. But there are other types of power. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it:
Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice.
(King, 2010 , p. 37)
Collective action at work is a major source of potential power to tackle wider issues, such as poverty, inequality, discrimination, housing, public services, war and the climate crisis. Action at work over such issues seems implausible to most workers in Britain at the moment, but historically and globally collective action at work has been a big part of almost every significant movement for social change. There is a yawning gap between workers’ needs and the feelings of powerlessness that currently dominate the lives of working people. Bridging that gap requires organising, and while organising in other settings is important too, everyone concerned with social or environmental justice should see organising at work as a priority.
This book is aimed at workers who want to organise at work, and secondarily at individuals and organisations trying to help workers organise. There are many workers already organising who want to be more effective. Many more recognise the need to organise at work and want to learn how to do it. This includes people inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader of the Labour Party, many involved in social movements, and those just fed up with bad treatment at work. I won’t address the many important questions of strategy, such as where organisations should prioritise resources geographically or between industries and occupations. Whatever else we do, workers need to organise where we are. The book focuses on building organisation capable of winning change where you work. It won’t tell you how to rebuild the whole working-class movement, but it does argue for building links and solidarity beyond your job.
Certain ideas are a prerequisite for effective organising: commitment to advancing workers’ interests through their own collective activity, and a belief that workers generally make wise choices when confronted with important decisions and good information. This isn’t about having a rose-tinted view of workers, but a belief in our potential – that the right situation can bring out the best in us. Though these ideas are paramount, the technique, skills and craft of organising are also essential. It’s when the going is tough and workers’ anger doesn’t just carry us past difficulties that such skills are most important.
Organising isn’t a matter of obediently following instructions – there is no ‘one best way’ to do it. Circumstances vary and there’s also an element of luck. However, there are definitely some bad ways to organise. I explain some principles, ideas and techniques that generally work, and help you avoid some of the pitfalls as you learn and develop your skills. I have set up a website associated with this book (workers-can-win.info) and will post updates there. I’d love to hear about your experiences as you organise and your suggestions for additions or improvements to what I’ve written. While the book touches on many of the issues workers face, no book could cover them all. Instead, I will signpost where to find information and resources, and encourage you to build a network of people you can turn to for advice and support.
I was driven to write this book out of frustration. I spent years organising at work, picking up ideas wherever I could. I found many good books, but none that combined the nuts and bolts of organising with its political context or that were based on organising in Britain. While there is lots we can learn from organising in other countries (just as much of this book should be useful to those outside Britain), the legal, organisational, cultural, ideological and political framework makes a difference. The history of colonial occupation means that industrial relations in Ireland (north and south) shares many features with Britain, but also contributes to differences, including legislation, policing, politics, organisations, religious segregation and discrimination. The differences between the nations of Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) are much smaller by comparison. For this reason, the book does not cover either part of Ireland. I have sometimes, however, referred to the United Kingdom (UK) – Britain and the north of Ireland – where relevant to legislation or statistics.
Even within Britain, people in different industries and unions use different jargon for the same things or the same word for different things. I try to explain jargon when we first meet it, but you may find the glossary useful, particularly if you are dipping into the book rather than reading it cover to cover. A few points are worth explaining here. I will use the term ‘rep’ to signify a worker elected by their workmates to play a role in the union in relation to their own employer. You may also hear a rep referred to by names such as shop steward, branch officer, branch official, Mother or Father of the Chapel, lay rep, senior rep or convenor. The term ‘lay member’ is widely used to mean any member not employed by the union. There are also people who are employed by unions to deal with workers and employers. In this book, I refer to them as ‘paid officers’. The most common term used in the movement is ‘full-time officer’ (FTO), but this isn’t really appropriate given they may work part-time. You may also hear them referred to by terms such as officers, officials or organisers. Most unions appoint paid officers, but members elect them in a few. I’m not including in ‘paid officers’ the many others employed by unions who don’t bargain with employers, for example, in organising, administration, research and other functions within the union apparatus. You’ll need to learn the jargon for your bit of the movement, but when I say ‘rep’ I mean a worker and when I say ‘paid officer’ I mean someone employed by the union.
Many workers don’t have a conventional workplace – you may travel, work at many locations or at home. I’ve sometimes used the word ‘workplace’ when it is legally relevant or as a shorthand when talking about a group of workers, whether or not they are physically together. Similarly, I’ve sometimes used the word ‘employer’ to denote the organisation you work for irrespective of whether you have employee status.
In making the case for organising at work, Chapter 2 talks about why work generates conflict and gives workers potential power. It discusses what is needed to turn that potential power into the ability to win change, to overcome the current weakness of the workers’ movement. The final section addresses some of the real and perceived barriers to organising in the modern world of work.
The bulk of the book is structured to follow the journey of an activist from starting to organise in a new job in Chapter 3 to industrial and direct action in Chapter 9. Your own organising journey may mean you tackle issues in a different order or skip some altogether. The final chapters (Chapters 10–12) deal with challenges you may meet at any stage.
In Chapter 3, I cover some of the essentials if you are in a new job or starting to organise for the first time, including finding allies, staying safe, gathering information, choosing a union, getting trained, accessing resources and building your network. Parts of this chapter will be of use to established activists too.
Chapter 4 discusses different models of how unions work, and how they often operate in ways that leave workers passive and disengaged rather than helping us build power. Union weakness and legislative changes have encouraged an emphasis on dealing with issues in an individual and legalistic way. You need to think hard about how you deal with ‘casework’ such as grievance and disciplinary procedures so that it supports rather than undermines your organising. Throughout the book, I explain relevant aspects of the legal framework in Britain, but of course this can’t substitute for professional legal advice when appropriate. The chapter discusses workers’ rights around some issues that often generate casework and that are common in unorganised workplaces – non-payment of wages and dismissal. It covers the pitfalls of casework and ends with some common ‘non-work’ casework issues.
Effective organising is around issues. In Chapter 5, I discuss how to choose issues to organise around and how to communicate about them. This includes the first of four ‘techniques in detail’ sections, about one-to-one organising conversations.
Chapter 6 introduces many more organising concepts and techniques, including identifying and winning over the most influential workers, being systematic about including everyone and knowing how supportive they are, and using trees and networks for communication. It also covers meetings, socialising and democracy, before introducing collective action.
We are told by governments, employers and the media that we have certain ‘rights’, but these are limited, infringed all the time and under attack. This was well illustrated when P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite told MPs that he knowingly broke the law by sacking 800 staff without consultation. He made clear that he would do it again because paying the compensation was cheaper than obeying the law. Laws and policies are useful, but reliance on them limits what we can aim for. In Chapter 7, I discuss how to organise using rights connected with contracts of employment, employer policies, health and safety, discrimination, redundancy, ‘TUPE’ transfers of workers between employers, whistleblowing, union recognition, facility time, and employee forums and works councils. While organising around ‘rights’ is no substitute for collective action, many activists will find themselves using rights before they are in a position to go on strike. This book is intended to be read through, but you may want to skip parts of this chapter and come back to them when you need them. However, I’d strongly encourage you to read the sections on contracts of employment and discrimination, which include fundamentals every workplace organiser needs to know.
Workers can win change when we know who has the power to concede what we want and when we can credibly threaten to take collective action that would cost these decision-makers more than the concession. Chapter 8 discusses the different types of potential power available to workers and those in authority, how to make a credible plan to win your campaign and how to plan particular actions.
Chapter 9 continues the focus on collective action by delving into industrial and direct action in detail. It covers the industrial action process, types of action, and the practicalities of going on strike, building solidarity, using the media and settling a dispute.
Management won’t just sit idly by while you organise. Chapter 10 looks at management mischief. It starts by exploring the techniques management use to intensify work and keep control, as well as how to counter them. It then discusses how to respond to management attempts to derail, divide or attack union organisation.
Chapter 11 starts by looking at how to make use of the union structures and resources beyond your own work. Dealing with a union can be pretty perplexing. It’s not just that unions are complicated organisations with lots of jargon, or that some individuals aren’t always as helpful as you’d hope. A union is an institution in its own right, and parts of it pursue agendas that aren’t always the same as those of its members. I advocate a ‘rank-and-file’ approach and offer tips on how workers can assert themselves, pressure paid officers to do the right thing, or take action independently.
The final chapter, Chapter 12, covers identifying and addressing common pitfalls in campaigns, including those caused by participants. It discusses creating a supportive organisational culture that avoids activist burnout. The book ends by returning to the limitations of unions and discusses the need for both rank-and-file and socialist organisation in overcoming them.
At the end of each chapter, I have included some key bullet points of what it has covered, and usually some questions you could discuss if you are reading the book with a group, maybe one from your workplace. I look forward to hearing how your organising is going, and your own ideas and tips that could be shared with other workers via the website (workers-can-win.info). Organising and developing our skills are, after all, collective endeavours. I will also use the website to post new material as the world of work evolves, so please check it and subscribe to updates.
- Collective action at work is a major source of potential power to address issues at work and beyond.
- There’s often a big gap between our needs as workers and our sense of our own power to address them.
- Effective organising requires a commitment to advancing workers’ interests through their own collective activity, and a belief that workers generally make wise choices when confronted with important decisions and good information.
- I will use the term ‘rep’ to signify a worker elected by their workmates to play a role in the union in relation to their own employer.
- I refer to people employed by unions to deal with employers as ‘paid officers’.
- Register for updates to the book and send in your own experiences and ideas.