Over the past year there has been an emerging preoccupation among anarchists and socialists with precarity as it’s an expression of a new work discipline imposed by neo-liberalism. Already there have been several precarity forums in European cities aimed at etching out a sense of the identities formed through the shared experience of the demands of job market flexibility.
There have also been five successive years of Euromayday parades across Europe calling for “flexicurity.” None of this escaped the notice of Irish activists. In Ireland, the WSM has so far been involved in two campaigns that can be linked to the issue. Our members were involved in providing solidarity to a group of Polish temp workers in an attempt to highlight the exploitative use of agency staff by Tesco, and also in giving out information on workplace and union rights in the Get Up, Stand Up Campaign.
The Get Up, Stand Up initiative emerged from discussions between members of the Workers Solidarity Movement, Irish Socialist Network, Independent Workers Union and other individuals in order to spread information on unions and workplace rights to the largely unorganised sectors of the main retail streets and malls in Dublin city centre.
Starting off on Mayday 2005, the campaign distributed over 5,000 multilingual leaflets containing information on basic employment rights and union contact details, directly to workers in high street shops and shopping centres. The campaign also played another role, by attempting to revitalise the idea that workers and bosses have nothing in common. We argued that this manifests itself most clearly in the need for distinctly worker based organisations like unions.
The campaign also offered an alternative to the spectacular and short term strategies that characterised much of the recent anti-capitalist era. It was at this level that the precarity discussions were most influential, allowing ourselves to revaluate the class relationship as well as increasing our political work that is more closely related to our own everyday experiences. Speaking of ourselves as part of a class, instead of as an activist community and develop coping mechanisms which can strengthen and broaden the appeal of our politics as a result of this recognition.
Already there is a wealth of statutory bodies who give out information on workplace rights; equally the unions should be taking a much more proactive approach to this work. In a sense the campaign just ended up substituting itself for these bodies, with no real sense of going beyond and developing a coherent and valid criticism of them. Eventually dialogue within the campaign revolved around questions of what shopping centre should be leafleted next. The ability to learn from the activity we were engaged in was sidelined for the safety of a campaign of information dispersion, with the campaign's aesthetics speaking of one thing but the form of the campaign remaining very much short sighted.
Later in the summer and independently of Get Up, Stand Up contact was made with a group of young Polish workers, who were facing into protests with management of a Tesco distribution centre in Greenhills. Coming from a background in militant politics, these workers took the initiative to use their own experiences as temps used to undermine the security of the workforce as a propaganda vehicle to highlight an increasingly common work experience. Tesco never breached a piece of employment legislation; the workers’ direct employer was an agency called Grafton Recruitment. To Tesco they were immediately disposable and the old rights we relied on in the Get Up, Stand Up Campaign were no longer relevant. Members of the WSM provided solidarity, by helping organise a protest outside a Tesco store on Baggot Street and in calling for solidarity elsewhere, which led to several demos across the UK and Poland co-ordinated by activists in the libertarian milieu and organisers in the T and G. The protests garnered a huge degree of media attention within the new Polish media in Ireland and back in Poland.
For a time these two experiences were a healthy breakaway from the sort of activity that is dependent upon mobilizing for the next big event, as well as a start to formulating strategies of how we move towards workplace-geared activity. Equally, here were opportunities to explore a political language of struggle based on how identities are emerging in workplaces rather than having to rely on the baggage of an awkwardly represented archaic class struggle; a rhetoric that in the long run only isolates us from those who class struggle anarchists need to enter into dialogue with.
The application of organizing skills which have developed out of the anti-globalisation period, the use of subvertisements, the aesthetic separation from the corporate branding of mainstream unions, the success of internet based organisation in mobilising for the Tesco pickets can only be a positive addition to an organizational vocabulary that can speak to workers apathetic and distrustful of a politics and unions which to a large extent simply do not challenge the reality facing increasing numbers of people.
During the Irish ferries dispute, Irish unionism had a moment of brief respite. Contrary to the fears of many, huge numbers of workers left their employment and protested in solidarity with the workers of Irish Ferries. Listening to popular chat shows and reading bulletin boards left an impression that there was a considerable popular desire to mobilise in employment sectors where there are weak unions or bullying bosses. There's a lesson here that significant organisational drives are needed.
Had Get Up, Stand Up retained a more self-critical awareness of the work it was entering into, it might have been a forum where issues of workplace solidarity could have been raised and teased out separate to the capital political parties seek to gain from them. With the breakdown in democracy in many unions, and the recent Collen and Delaney cases there's no doubt that there is a need for the permanence of such a network within the movement.
Get Up, Stand Up style initiatives and ventures such as the Polish Temp Workers Defence Committee have a role to play in briefly sketching and experimenting in how this can be done both from within and outside the unions. For the moment though, many of those involved in these campaigns have become active in the IWU, setting up a Polish Workers Section and joining its recruitment drives.
This article is from Red and Black Revolution 11, published October 2006