By Vik Chechi-Ribeiro (@VikCR86)
In October, Vik wrote a piece for GMHA titled ‘Trade Unions, workers and the housing struggle’ where he outlined the need for joint organising between trade unions and renter unions. Here we publish a follow up piece, reflecting on activity that has taken place since that article; and sketching further avenues of activity and inquiry. While the range of his analysis extends beyond the renters movement, the arguments deserve careful consideration by organisers in renter unions, trade unions and beyond.
In this piece I will outline three strategies to advance class struggles: whole worker organising, a militant minority strategy and building an organisation of organisers. I conclude by positing the need for a party form capable of cohering and consolidating power through organised struggle.
These are organisational questions that must be addressed if we’re serious about building class power. The lessons of the last four years are our weaknesses as a movement within our institutions — the lack of socialist presence in the workplace and community or organisation to develop and unite struggles. How do we reflect and respond to these challenges?
Whole worker organising
Whole worker organising, whilst popularised by Jane McAlevey’s ‘Strike school’ training, is a form of explicitly political organising with its roots in socialist and communist movements. This is the concept that organising should develop workers politically through struggle in all its forms. The role of organisers is not inventing struggles out of thin air but cohering and amplifying struggles. The ones at the sharp end of oppression such as in the workplace, housing or policing should be the ones leading it.
For example there is a growing organised movement against policing and state violence in Manchester including Sisters Uncut, Northern Police Monitoring Project, Kids of Colour and Resistance Lab. While it’s not for trade union organisers to supplant grassroots organising but to provide a platform, they should seek to use their unions’ reach and resources to build a coalition.
There is an increasingly confident and politicised housing movement in Manchester with organisations such as GMHA, Acorn Manchester and the Greater Manchester Tenants Union building membership, capacity and political education over the last 12 months. Therefore any whole worker organising engaged by my trade union (Manchester National Education Union) should seek to engage education workers through collective struggle on policing and housing.
Any discussion on organising out of necessity must include the climate crisis and environment. In our city, Trees Not Cars, Climate Emergency Manchester, Extinction Rebellion (though we must be critical of their politics and attitudes to policing) and Labour for the Green New Deal have all led mass actions and campaigns.
But how can trade unions joint organise with social movements? Workers are exploited in multiple ways particularly in the workplace, housing and policing. We can develop stronger trade unionists by understanding liberation from the boss, landlord and police officer only comes through collective and politicised struggle.
The first question our trade union would need to answer is: what are the benefits of whole worker organising when there’s a health & safety crisis in schools with pay and contracts to collectively bargain on?
To answer that question we must reflect on the challenges faced by the trade union movement and ask if we’re satisfied. It’s vital we’re not complacent with increases in membership during the pandemic as too many workplaces are not organised with the relationship between workers and trade unions passive and disconnected.
Significant numbers of workers consider their union a service and insurance policy to protect individuals at times of need. If we’re truly to challenge the injustices in society, our trade unions must be the ‘school of struggle’ for workers, a site of radical political education, a collective organ for the democratic running of workplaces.
Furthermore there is a disconnect between trade unionism and social movements in a period increasingly defined by authoritarianism, racism, exploitative housing and the climate crisis. A trade union cannot collectively bargain on a dying planet or in a society without the freedom of assembly.
To build the trade union movement into what it should be — a rank and file organisation of the working class capable of leveraging and winning power — it must unite with social movements currently stronger and more energetic than itself in order to gain confidence and build its own militancy.
To borrow from Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the greater the understanding of the oppression surrounding you and reimagining of ourselves as part of a collective struggle, the deeper the commitment and confidence to dismantle it.
Organising since October
In the piece I had written in October I had identified the need for joint work between trade and tenants unions. I had spent that period learning from comrades in the housing movements about their demands and organising activities — eviction resistance, student rent strikes and the financialisation of housing. These are clearly also pressing issues for education workers: commuting long distances to work due to gentrification, paying extortionate amounts to parasitic landlords, working with children living in poverty and cramped accommodation due to the housing market
A trade union is an organisation for the workers and led by the workers. For it to ignore the salient issue of housing is poor organising and reflects a movement not serious about winning. A trade union movement in cities and towns with strong renters and social housing organisations is more likely to be composed of more militant and confident members. Therefore a whole worker organising approach uniting trade union and social movements is the serious path to ‘winning in the workplace’ more than vaguely encouraging workers to ‘join a union’.
Furthermore whole worker organising brings in wider and younger layers of the trade union into workplace meetings. This strengthens the capacity to collectively bargain on more traditional issues.
To launch this stream of work, we organised a ‘Housing and education’ political education event bringing together comrades from our trade union, Acorn and Greater Manchester Tenants Union. This aimed to: educate workers about housing organising activities, gain confidence and belief in militant action, encourage workers to join housing organisations and finally setting up a NEU housing committee.
Since then our newly formed housing committee is planning a further political education event on the GMHA pamphlet, ‘The Myth of a Good Landlord’.
Organisation of organisers
During the same period as meeting with housing organisers to develop a sense of shared struggle, it was clear the need for organisers across the movement in Manchester to do likewise. The last four years has seen a layer of organisers developed politically as socialists that understood the need to build class power that spanned across workplace and community.
There are several questions on building what can be described as ‘organisation of organisers’ that is centred on whole worker organising. What potential was there for collaboration between trade unions and community organisations? What training and resources are needed to upscale joint organising across the city? Could an organisation eventually have the capacity to act independently to intervene and lead struggles?
Our first step was mapping and having conversations with rank & file and staff organisers in trade unions and community groups across Manchester. This was followed by setting up an ‘organisers summit’. The aim of the summit was to develop a network that could:
- Highlight the need for grassroots and rank and file co-ordination across our movement
- Develop a socialist organisers network across Greater Manchester
- Explore commonality in struggles in order to unite workplace and community organising
- Develop the organising capacity of individual organisations through sharing and developing organising methods and grassroots coalition building
- Encourage affiliation and developing the capacity of Trades Councils
The event brought together comrades from across the movement including trade unions, housing and anti-racist organisations to identify joint organising opportunities and training.
There was a clear sense to focus on organising outside electoral politics. This resulted in the formation of the ‘Greater Manchester Socialist Organisers Network’.
Strike school training
Myself and other comrades in Manchester had attended Jane McAlevy’s international strike school in October. This had a significant impact on merging socialist politics with a strong worker led organising philosophy. To build socialism as organisers we must focus on developing cadre and the democratic capacities of workers particularly trusting, empowering and developing the rank and file through politicised struggle. As CLR James once said, ‘every cook can govern’.
In order to do so, our union branch decided to follow NEU Bristol and run a local‘ strike school’ - we had the resources, platform and institutional reputation across the city. However we invited organisers across other trade unions and community groups. This explicit ‘whole worker organising’ training benefited our trade union members being in proximity with workers in community struggles. Furthermore a strong working class movement benefits every organisation and their organisers.
The training was publicised across the ‘Greater Manchester Socialist Organisers Network’, and labour movement. Our cohort of thirty organisers participated in three sessions covering structured organising conversations, use of empowering language, organic leader identification, mapping, charting, big bargaining and whole worker organising.
Critical pedagogical techniques were used with training delivered by fellow organisers, plenty of opportunities for dialogue and materials adapted to reflect the organising backgrounds of the participants. The outcome were organisers across Manchester with an increased capacity to shape struggles in workplaces, communities, housing and transport.
The strategies I’ve outlined provide a model for organisers outside our city to follow. The trade union movement should use its resources, training capacity and reach across workplaces to support cohering a movement united in struggle. There is particular space for coalition building in housing, policing and the climate crisis.
However, what is to be done now? What are the next steps?
After success in developing an ‘organisation of organisers’ and delivering deep organising training across Manchester, the next logical step is strategising and cohering struggles in order to build political power.
To answer this question I spent the Christmas holidays engaging in a lot of political education on organisation and leadership. Two books particularly inspired me.
‘Our Flag Stays Red’ written by Communist MP and organiser Phil Piratin was written during a period of huge working class mobilisation and organisation. Here was a political figure that emerged from social movements and through his local Communist Party branch engaged in whole worker organising on housing and anti-fascism. The result was an organisation strong and co-ordinated enough to deliver mass mobilisation at the Battle of Cable Street. What lessons can be drawn today? That political leverage will develop through uniting struggles in policing, housing and the climate crisis. And developing movements will result in class confidence and militancy capable of its own independent political expression.
Whole worker organising and building commonality through struggle will organically present the opportunities for building working class organisations (‘putting a name’ to those in struggle coming together) and in turn political power. However it cannot be nebulous or diffuse — structure must exist to track development, co-learn, discuss and reflect on strategy across various sites of struggle.
But how to build class power and strategise organising during a period of neoliberalism defined by hollowed out working class institutions? The second book I read was ‘Red State Revolt’ detailing the teacher strikes in the US. The book through worker inquiry detailed the huge potential and significance of a militant minority strategy in our movements.
The militant minority strategy is where highly politicised socialist organisers are capable through tightly controlled planning to lead struggles and build organisations.
Red State Revolt describes comrades first politicised through the Bernie Sanders campaigns entering the DSA and the same teaching union. The formation of militant minority led caucuses had a huge impact moving US teaching unions towards rank and file organising methods characterised by huge strike turnouts and bargaining for the common good demands. This is where collectively bargaining is strong enough to expand beyond traditional issues into community ones including housing and policing.
In the wake of the Corbyn years with a similar demographic of politicised workers who recognise the need for workplace and community organising there is a clear space for a similar militant minority strategy in unions and organisations at a local and national level. Such joint working and thinking between organisers to pull together different struggles in a co-ordinated and strategic manner. However a militant minority strategy reaches its limitations when faced with spontaneous movements of the unorganised, i.e. mass protests.
Conclusion: Crowds and Party
The last month in Manchester has seen an upsurge in sustained political protests not seen in years — thousands of people marching against gendered and state violence, in opposition to increased police powers and in support of striking bus drivers. How do we consolidate and politicise those taking to the streets into our movements? Developing short term anger into organised long term political struggle? How do we connect organisers to the workers? This poses the question of ‘the party’. The political theorist Jodi Dean describes in ‘Crowds and Party’: ‘The party is the bearer of the lessons of the uprising.' It is both the perspective from which the uprising is assessed and is itself, as an organisation capable of responding, an effect of the uprising. The party is the only form capable of responding and consolidating to energetic but politically unformed movements.
The party is the logical conclusion of the strategies I’ve outlined in this essay. A form that develops ‘an organisation of organisers’ by engaging a deeper and more unorganised layer of workers and community through united political struggle (also known as ‘whole worker organising’) and education. A party form that builds on the militant minority strategy by ‘concentrating disruption in a process in order to produce political power’ through coalition building on housing, policing and the climate crisis. As Huey P. Newton (one of the founding members of the Black Panthers Party) once said, ‘the main thing is to organise people, so that the people will have a clear view of what road to take in order to transform society’.
At a local level and in times of low political consciousness we should be organisationally creative and not afraid to view existing structures as finite party instruments to build class power through organised struggle: a party could be an ‘organisation of organisers’ amplifying mass struggles, a trade union branch uniting workplace and community organising, a trades council with strong links to rank and file workers across a city or a local Momentum group unencumbered by the millstone of Labourism using its reach and platform to cohere movements.
These are organisational questions we should be attempting to answer through praxis. The necessity for ‘a party’ far outweighs obsessing over hypothetical internal structures. Where there are people, there is power. And we should aim to build working class power wherever it is, unite struggles wherever we find them and fight our enemies wherever they are.
Whole worker organising our strategy, a party the instrument, class power the goal, socialism the horizon.
Vik Chechi-Ribeiro is the Vice-President of the Manchester National Education Union, and sits on the union's national executive as Black Members representative.
Cover image: Kazimir Malevich, 'House Under Construction'.
8 April 2021