GMLC interviewed Ian Allinson, author of upcoming book Workers Can Win: A Guide to Organising At Work. The book intends to offer practical support for workers to get involved with trade unions effectively, organise their workplaces, and win positive change. On 21 September 2022, GMLC will be co-hosting a book launch with Ian – you can see more details here.
We’re in the midst of a growing cost of living crisis. How much of a role do you think low wages and other issues at work play in this crisis?
Wages play a huge role, because most people are dependent on earning a living through work to survive. A huge proportion of people that don’t are reliant on pensions that they earned when they were working. I would also argue that the bar of what living standard you should expect is set by people in work. So even if people are unable to work for health or other reasons, we have a standard of living that’s considered socially acceptable that’s primarily determined by struggles over wages.
The government have been asking for wage restraint from workers. What is the rationale behind this, in your view? Do you think preventing wage rises would work to hold down inflation and stop the cost-of-living crisis?
I think the rationale behind it is clear. The government want to put the brakes on inflation, to break the cycle. The way they prefer to break the cycle is to have workers accept a cut to our living standard by accepting that our pay goes down in real terms. I’m sceptical about whether that would even work, because we know rising wages is not what has been driving inflation. There was some sign of inflation rising before the pandemic, exacerbated by a supply shock as the worst of the pandemic passed. A lot of companies cut back on production during the pandemic and struggled to ramp it back up again as demand returned. That was particularly true in the energy sector.
However, there is also rampant profiteering. Unite has done a piece of research on the profits of the 350 top companies and shown that their profits have gone up dramatically since before the pandemic. They have also gone up dramatically in the last 6 months or so. That accounts for a huge proportion of price rises. Everybody has seen the huge profits of BP and Shell: that’s what’s been driving up prices, not wages. So, I’m sceptical that holding down wages will have the effect they want, but fundamentally, as working-class people, we should object to it anyway. Why should it be workers who pay the price of an economic convulsion by seeing our standard of living plummet? Why are they not calling for profit restraint? Why are they not calling for rent restraint? There are plenty of other areas prices could be curtailed.
Greater Manchester Law Centre campaigns for workers’ rights but we also offer employment advice. We find there is huge need in our communities for employment advice, but also nowhere near enough services to go around. Also, there’s often nothing satisfactory that we can advise due to a lack of basic rights. Firstly, why do you think the situation has got this bad, and secondly, what do you think is the role of employment law in improving workers’ situation?
I think the primary driver of things having got worse has been the decline in workplace organisation since the 1970s. We have seen a rough halving of union members since the high point in 1979. But, more than that, we have seen that where there is organisation, often that has been hollowed out. So, we have fewer shop stewards and reps, less collectivity and, above all, a decline in people’s propensity to take collective action (strikes and action short of a strike). That has shifted the power balance massively in favour of employers and left huge swathes of the economy with little or no union presence at all. Where employers can get away with almost anything, people become reliant on rights they get from legislation and case law. But rights are very hard to enforce and they are very limited as well. Where people have got strong collective organisation, they can go way beyond that minimum of rights and the rights become less relevant, as people aren’t so tied up with legalistic attempts to resolve things.
That is a perfect segue into discussing your new book, Workers Can Win. What would you say is the aim of your book?
Trying to organise at work for many years, I got very frustrated at the lack of advice on how to do it effectively. So, I picked up lots of ideas from different activists I knew, from training courses, from going to meetings and reading books. There is lots of good material out there, but you can spend a lifetime trying to magpie your way around, trying to pick out the good bits and work out what the problems are with the bad bits. I just felt frustrated that there wasn’t anything that even attempted to bring it together.
There have been some books that have been very popular with people in Britain trying to organise, particularly Jane McAlevey’s, which I think are incredibly useful. But they are obviously based on US context, which is different in some important ways, and, like most of the books that attempt to tackle these questions, they kind of separate out the technique of organising from the politics and the understanding of power relationships at work. Jane McAlevey’s books consider power relationships at work to some extent, but don’t cover some of the power dynamics within unions very much. I think, whenever people start to organise, that’s something that they tend to come up against fairly soon. Perhaps the union as an institution behaves in ways they didn’t expect and they try to work out why they’re not getting the help and support they expected. So, I was trying to bring that together, in one place. I’m not suggesting this is going to give people everything they need to know, but at least it should provide some foundation for people trying to organise effectively at work.
So that leads me on to the question: at one point in the book you say that you’re arguing for an organising model of trade unionism. What do you mean by this?
I think there are very different views about how unions should operate and what their purpose is. You often hear, in Britain, people talking about a ‘servicing’ or ‘organising’ model; by ‘servicing’ they mean helping people with individual problems – people talk about a union as an insurance policy or providing individual services to members, rather than focusing on building collective power. An ‘organising’ model is about systematically trying to build collective power so that workers have the capacity between ourselves to resolve our issues without having to rely on third parties. Those are very different in terms of the approaches you’d take, and it changes what you can potentially win. The servicing model tends to become less effective over time if you don’t organise, because you are reliant on rights that can come under attack by the government or employers. If you don’t organise, you can’t shape the terrain which those individual battles are fought out. So, it is vital that we organise.
You mentioned the difference between rights as a ceiling and rights as a floor in your book. What do you mean by this and how do we change our approach from one to the other?
You can think of rights as things the state or employer generally acknowledge that you should have. One of the problems is they’re breached all day every day for millions of people. A lot of people find themselves trying to make their employer conform to the standard the law has defined as the minimum. So, to use a metaphor, they are effectively trapped in the basement trying to get up to the floor. Whereas, when people have powerful collective organisation, they are in a position to assert those rights and enforce those rights in a way that’s just not possible for most people otherwise – they can get things which are much better than that legal minimum. They can stand on the floor and reach for the ceiling instead.
When enough people win something that it becomes fairly standard, then suddenly you find that big employers are quite keen to have that enshrined in law, because it stops other employers undercutting them. So if we can win gains across large swathes of the economy, we can raise that standard for everybody, even those who maybe don’t have a huge level of collective power.
Several times in your book you describe what you call the ‘iron law of organising’, that you should never do for others what they can do for themselves. As legal representatives, we often find ourselves doing things for others because there is often complexity that requires legal knowledge. What makes your approach different and why do you think it works when pushing for better conditions?
Fundamentally, what creates power for workers collectively isn’t someone having filled in a Direct Debit form, it’s about participation in a collective effort. With participation has to come knowledge, experience and skills. Then they can share that knowledge with their workmates, and be in a better place to stand up to an employer in future if they face similar problems again. I have come across that more helping people with individual cases at work, where you often rely on a lot of knowledge most workers won’t have. Just as an example, whenever we faced big redundancy programmes where I used to work, it would be very easy for the reps to focus on providing individual representation for those at risk. As an alternative, even looking at the rights-based system, we provided meetings where we trained up as many members as we possibly could about their rights at work and the processes involved in redundancies. We got many of those members involved in accompanying each other at some of the less formal meetings in the redundancy processes. That’s an empowering experience for people.
I appreciate that if you’re doing more formal legal processes, it’s harder to do that and there are limits to how far you can do it. That will vary from person to person. But I think we should be aspiring to involve workers as much as possible in their own battles, rather than being the knight in shining armour coming to their rescue.
This year we have seen a real upsurge in strikes. We had the RMT strike; recently we have also had the criminal barristers on strike for the first time in a long time. What can we learn from the strikes we have seen this year?
I think the first thing to learn is that it’s worth having a go. Most of the people who take collective action and get a settlement end up with a deal better than they would have got if they had not taken a stand. So, that’s the first and most important thing: it is worth organising, it is worth attempting to resist what your employer is doing.
I think there are more specific lessons as well. If you look at the RMT’s strike, it’s taken this upturn in action to a different level. Why is that? Well, partly because it’s national. We have had some pretty major strikes in Greater Manchester – the Go North West strike and the CHEP pallet factory strike in Trafford – but neither of those impinged on the popular consciousness in the way the rail strikes have. The rail strikes have led to a massive increase in number of people Googling “join a union”. All the unions are reporting an increase in people applying to join. It’s inspiring people – it’s giving people hope that, with that collective organisation, there is a potential to change things and get a better life.
As you’ve mentioned, union membership has shrunk since its height in the 20th century. How do you hope that your book will help people to get organising in workplaces that don’t currently have an existing union?
Aside from in existing organised workplaces, I think there are several groups of people that get that there’s a need to organise. I think firstly, there are people who are just incredibly angry about the problems they face at work, and that’s obviously a very important group. But I think secondly, there’s a layer of people who were inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the Labour Party, who saw, with his defeat, and what’s happened to the Labour Party since, that unless we build power in workplaces and communities, we’re not going to achieve change. They can see a need to organise the workplace but they don’t necessarily know how to go about it. Thirdly, I think, there’s a range of people involved in other social movements – the climate movement is a prime example – who are seeing the need to connect with the potential power that comes with collective action at work in order to achieve their own goals. So, I think there’s a lot of people who see the need to organise at work, but that doesn’t mean people know how to go about it. I’m really hoping the book can be helpful to all those people and accelerate that process, which I think is starting to happen anyway. So much of the pattern of occupations and industries and workplaces has changed since the last big wave of unionisation in the 1970s. The economy is unrecognisable compared to then. If the book can help a little bit in that process I will be very, very pleased.
Your book is full of tips and tricks, handy acronyms, things to remember: how you go about having conversations at work, how you go about building actions, how you deal with unions including sluggish ones that you might be finding difficult. What in your book is your favourite tip or trick for workplace organising?
Oh, that’s a difficult one! I guess one of the things that I’ve always found important is that in many cases, workers are already angry. The people who want to organise often feel frustrated that anger doesn’t necessarily translate into people doing something. I think that question of how you bridge between people’s anger and action is incredibly important. You mentioned how to have an organising conversation: my book tries to take people through those steps, but you could think of a shorter version of as being: anger, hope, action. Without hope that things can be different, and without seeing there’s an action people can do that has a realistic chance of making a difference, most people aren’t going to act. So when we organise, we have to encourage people’s anger, to get people to think about how angry they are. Then, we have to get them to connect that to a vision of how things can be different, to some hope, and a plan as to how they can win.
What is the best way to find a union?
I would always say start by trying to find out if there’s a union where you work already. You may well find that there are other people in a union in your workplace. If you can find out without getting yourself in trouble, that’s a really good starting point. Otherwise, there’s a TUC Union Finder Tool that will narrow down which one might organise in your industry or employer if you don’t know. There are a number of non-TUC affiliated unions as well, such as United Voices of the World (UVW) and Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) that do work particularly around the gig economy and migrant workers. So it’s worth looking at the different options.
If you’re faced with a choice, it doesn’t hurt to contact each you think are possible prospects. Explain that you would like organise and ask them what support they can offer. If you look at some of the bigger unions, the help you can get varies enormously. So, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to how cool and radical some unions seem from what you see on social media, or even what their policies are, because that’s not that important. It’s what they are going to do where you work that matters.
What would be the best thing a trade unionist or someone who cares about this issue but isn’t in a trade union could do tomorrow or this week? What’s the call to action?
I think solidarity is incredibly important, and the more people that are engaged in solidarity with different struggles that are going on, such as the rail strike, the better. It’s important to recognise solidarity doesn’t just strengthen the receiver, it helps you as well. If you’re talking to people at work about what’s happening with the rail strike, you’re spreading the idea that it’s possible to have collective resistance; you’re spreading the idea that the workers, by standing together, have power. You can sometimes open up those discussions without having to be that threatening to your boss. If you’re making those first tentative steps towards organising, doing something that isn’t directly related to your own employer can be quite a good way to test the water.
You haven’t said “buy my book”. Buy Ian’s book! When is your book out?
The publication date is October but I anticipate people will be able to start buying it earlier than that. People can already do pre-orders through the Pluto website if they want an e-book, a paperback or a hardback I think as well actually. If they want it at a discount, they can do that through the rs21 website for the paperback.