Block a road in protest and you’re criticised for stopping people getting to work. Boycott a business and you’re doing people out of a job. Prevent a harmful development – an airport, a coal mine – from going ahead and you’re denying “access to much-needed jobs.”
Meanwhile, progressive movement organisers are tearing their hair out trying to connect their campaigns with “the workers”, a wish that rarely becomes a reality.
If this is a familiar frustration, and if you want to do more to bridge the divide between activism and workers’ struggle, you should make sure to attend the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft on March 5 for a day school hosted by political collective Angry Workers.
Since 2014 Angry Workers (AW), a collective of roughly 20 people, have dedicated themselves to workers’ autonomy. Central to their method is the attempt to empower themselves and their colleagues to fight for better conditions and higher pay, not as outsiders but by fully embedding themselves in the workplace to organise from the ground up.
Theirs is a holistic approach, unconcerned with making people fit into pre-defined boxes of what organisation should look like. First in West London and later in other towns and cities they position themselves on the frontlines of working class life in 21st Century Britain, from supermarket distribution centres to 3D printer factories to making ready-meals for companies whose names you don’t know but whose food you probably eat, and agitate for change.
Alongside efforts towards militant organising, AW use a newspaper, WorkersWildWest, to share stories of resistance from around the world, and a solidarity network helps fight landlords, visa agents, the benefits system and everything else designed to make life on low pay more disempowering.
Their collective experiences are documented in the book Class Power on Zero Hours, published in 2020. The book lays out AW’s ideas of what class and organisation mean today, busts many myths about the nature of work and class today and provides a candid look into the realities of producing the stuff we take for granted (you’ll never look at pre-packaged hummus the same way again).
Last summer, members of the collective left London and moved to Bristol where they are currently working in the NHS.
The stated purpose of the March 5 meeting at the PRSC is to launch a “local group”, the definition of which is relatively open. AW extend an invitation to anyone with an interest in questioning the fundamentals of the systems in which we live without falling into the trap of expecting the world to conform to 100-year-old theory.
Exactly what AW mean by this is illustrated throughout our conversation as we land on some of the major issues in Bristol, and the UK, at the moment. On each AW give a take that is anything but textbook as it weaves a path between activism and workers organisation.
On Bristol Airport, AW are equivocal. Whilst they opposed the expansion of Heathrow and the “blackmail” whereby airport workers get their job at the expense of their being directly exposed to air pollution from the planes, the solution is not to simply try and take those jobs away.
For them the fight is between flights that bring, for instance, food or PPE during the pandemic, and ghost flights that fly simply to prop up the profits of airlines; between flights in the interest of everyone and flights in the interests of the few. The solution is workers with power to choose between them.
On the NHS, AW caution against the leftist staple tagline “save the NHS”.
In reality, ‘hospitals are awful places to be,’ they said. ‘On the one hand they save lives but they’re awful. Everyone who’s been there and worked there or died there, it’s just misery as well.’ They cite hierarchical decision-making, long hours of stressful work and a lack of holistic care.
‘Obviously it’s better than having a completely privatised system but at the same time from a patient and workers point of view, it needs to be so much better too.’
Throughout every example, AW are driven not by what went before or what the theory tells them should be the case, but by the question: ‘How can we on one hand fight for our conditions but at the same time question the way that it’s organised?’
Anyone worried that this will just be another socialist talking shop – as AW put it in Class Power, “five men and a dog talking about Durruti” – should think again. Although firmly on the political left, AW are most definitely unorthodox, describing themselves at one point as simply ‘a Marxist or whatever’.
For this they have been heavily criticised by others on the left. Class Power was the subject of a sledgehammer review by Marianne Garneau in Organising.Work. Garneau wrote that the book is “of no use to anyone interested in organising”, and accused the Angry Workers of “delusion of grandeur”.
Students of leftist organisational theory can fight this one out for themselves (you can read the AW response here). In the meantime, AW have developed a strategy of challenging the powers that be and the system that empowers them built on the actions of those most directly exposed to that power and that system.
Their method is an opportunity not only for left political organisers but for activists as well. An opportunity to overcome the perennial questions of “what about jobs” and “what about the workers” that blight so many attempts at progressive change.
The day school is of course not the answer to everything. But it could be the beginning of solutions to long-held questions of how to merge social activism with workers’ rights and empowerment.
AW’s work is slow and painstaking, and it does not always work, as AW themselves readily admit. However, they say that if their experiences in London have taught them anything it’s that even though you can’t always tell if what you are doing is making a big difference, if good relationships come out of the work then you’re heading in the right direction.
Angry Workers will be at the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft on Saturday, March 5, from 11am to 5pm. More details can be found here.