Welcome to Stay Classy – a regular column about the class war.
Since the highpoint of the 1970s, strikes in the UK have been becoming more and more boring. For some of the more risk-averse big unions, a strike is more like a day of action than a pitched battle between classes. On the chosen day, they will pick a spot near, but not too near, the entrance of the workplace to hold a “non-disruptive picket” – basically a glorified leafleting session – and watch as everything goes on as normal. For the workers involved, this can be a disheartening experience. But that might not be the case for much longer.
On the 22nd of January, outsourced support staff were on strike at two government departments: the Ministry of Justice, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Cleaners, receptionists, and security guards at both departments are employed by outsourcing companies that don’t pay the London living wage, meaning that many of them struggle to get by.
Purma Bahador is one of those workers. After 17 years in the British army as a Ghurka, he started working for the Ministry of Justice in 2009 as a security guard. He says that the wages have hardly changed since he started the job. “Management say they can’t afford to pay us any more, but the price of everything is going up.” Purma uses his wages to support his two sons through college, and at the moment he’s having to work six days a week just to make ends meet. Purma is technically employed by outsourcing giant OCS, who turned £40 million net profit in 2017-18.
He joined the union, the United Voices of the World (UVW), after he saw cleaners at the department striking in 2018 and decided he needed to do the same thing. “This is the first time in my life I’ve gone on strike. Ghurkas always do the right thing,” he says.
The 23rd of January was meant to be another strike day at the Ministry of Justice. Just like the day before, an anti-strike workforce of cleaners, receptionists and security guards had been brought in to keep the building running. Early in the morning, Purma and the other strikers turned up to form a picket line. But then, all at once, they walked inside to do their jobs like normal. Rather than continuing the protest, the workers had secretly coordinated to go back to work a day early.
The unexpected non-strike meant that all the outsourced staff turned up for work and needed to get paid, and so did the anti-strike scab workforce. Someone was going to have to pay a double wage bill.
But who? The Ministry of Justice? Or the outsourcing company?
Outsourcing usually protects the client. A client can claim that they don’t employ anyone on poverty wages – they don’t employ anyone at all! ‘Our cleaners? Sure they work here, but they don’t exactly work here if you know what I mean. They’re actually the employees of Unscrupulous Inc. who we just happen to have a contact with to ensure our offices are clean.’ goes the line. That way, they can shrug off any responsibility to the people who keep their offices clean and safe. In this instance, the union was trying to turn that relationship on its head and into a point of leverage.
The UVW was using a variation on an old tactic from the 1970s, called the chessboard strike, in which rapid changes in strike plans among alternating sections of the workforce lead to chaos in the workplace.
Writing in 1971, researchers identified how an upsurge in workplace militancy in Europe was coinciding with a diversification of tactics:
European unions have discovered that the slowdown, the “work to rule” – an unusually meticulous observance of the work rules – and the wildcat strike are all more effective than the traditional strike. Italian unions, which have no strike funds, have developed a whole range of disruptive activities. Among these are the “chessboard” strike, involving only selected departments; the “paybook” strike, in which every worker whose paycard carries an odd number engages in disputes on odd days of the week, while workers with even numbers fight out their claims on the even days; and strikes in which blue-collar workers lay down their tools in the morning but return to work after lunch, only to find that the white-collar clerks are out – thus stopping work for an entire day with the loss of only half a day's pay.
These exact kinds of unconventional tactics have been making a comeback in the the last few months. When workers at a Merseyside shipyard struck late last year to defend their jobs, they varied the strike by job role. Rather than the whole workforce walking out, the exact workforce on strike varied day by day. One group of workers at a time walked out in a pattern of rolling strike action that caused £1.5 million of chaos.
They stood outside the yard and maintained a constant picket, which successfully turned away most deliveries. Inside the yard, work was grinding to a halt. Union officials suggested that productivity was down to 20 percent, whilst 80 percent of the workforce was still “at work” and getting paid. The bosses were paying out a normal wage bill but getting none of the work. Eventually, they buckled, and conceded enough to to the union for the strike to be halted.
Workers at Royal Mail distribution centres mindfucked their bosses when they responded to a slow cranking up of work intensity and authoritarian management by just walking off the job. A wave of unofficial action over this winter paralysed parts of the national logistics network the recently-privatised Mail relies on. That huge leverage meant that in almost every case, workers won the reinstatement of victimised colleagues almost immediately.
The last few years have seen unsuccessful attempts to use unconventional tactics too. In a 2014 pay dispute the Universities and Colleges Union called a series of hour-long strikes, meant to disrupt the flow of the academic day. The result, however, was a demoralising disaster. Because academic work isn’t done as part of a large complex system under intense time pressure, these short interruptions didn’t cause any backlogs or shut anything down. As Jamie Woodcock, an academic specialising in worker resistance put it: “I take part in an hour-long strike every day. I call it my lunch break.” So, unconventional tactics aren’t always guaranteed to work.
Deliveroo and UberEats riders, however, are masters of the mindfuck. Because they’re technically self-employed, the laws on strike action and trade unions don’t apply to them. That means that the slow bureaucracy of postal ballots and turnout thresholds designed to prevent workers from taking collective action goes out the window. Instead, these workers can just do what makes sense to them. The result has been an explosion in militancy, as the platforms try to cut their workers’ already-low wages. Strikes are now breaking out every couple of weeks with little or no prior notice. They’re organised through complex networks of encrypted messenger chats which are completely invisible to platform bosses, meaning that all their standard management techniques need to be rewritten.
Things have gotten so intense that last month saw more unofficial strikes in London, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Bournemouth and even the sleepy West Sussex market town of Horsham. These strikes aren’t calm, non-disruptive demonstrations. The London strike got attacked by a van driver, who tried to drive over a group of striking moped riders before whipping out a hammer and attempting to become the Islington version of Rambo. Now, another national strike has been declared for Valentine's Day.
If workers’ want to pull the trade union movement out of its ongoing nosedive, tactical developments like this will be vital. By going back to some of the techniques of the past, workers are beginning to find weapons for the class war of today.