The Angry Workers’ West London Solidarity Network

Ariel view of South-West London

Originally published in chapter 2 of Class Power on Zero-Hours from PM Press, CC BY-NC 4.0

In this area of town, where English is a second language and people are getting to grips with the bureaucracy of a new country, navigating life and work can be tricky. We should find ways to support each other in this kind of dog-eat-dog environment without having to become a ‘service user’. Solidarity networks propose mutual aid and direct action when it comes to day-to-day problems with bosses, landlords, state machinery (like job centres, immigration) or racist and sexist violence. The basic principles are rooted in the idea that we don’t need experts or ‘community’ middlemen to sort out our problems for us. To say that it is up to us to deal with our problems – with the education, medical or police system – is a political end in itself. In this way, the class character of these common situations can be brought to the fore, as an alternative to an individualising advice service.

Normally, the only recourse that poorer sections of the working class have to resolve their issues is to enlist middle class leaders, such as the media or lawyers, or other kinds of professionals like paid union officials, religious, ‘community’ or political leaders. Southall and Wembley are full of them. “Solnets’, (as solidarity networks are often known), try to break these relationships because these leaders will always try and exploit that material and ideological dependency. For example, they’ll help you just to get your vote; or they will ask for stupid amounts of money; or they will use your story to push a certain agenda. One work colleague was asked to pay £75 for a short letter she wanted written in English for a grievance she was submitting by a high street solicitor. If that wasn’t bad enough, when we read it, the English had loads of mistakes. These kinds of parasitic relationships needs to be called out for what they are, and alternative practices set up. Historically, this dependency of the lower sections of the working class on middle class populism is the material basis for fascism. In this sense, SolNets are the most effective form of ‘anti-fascism’.

SolNets aren’t new, and we know that they come with problems. Even though you consciously want to enable people to fight for themselves, it can be difficult to break that ‘service provider’ expectation. The daily grind makes it difficult for individuals who have been supported to keep being involved and to support others. The network often depends on a handful of activists to keep itself going. The various experiments with SolNets from the US to Western Europe tend to confirm this.

However, we think that the key to breaking this dynamic is the link that SolNets have to the organic collective power of people within their workplaces. Without this link, things can easily just become individual pieces of case work. Or individual campaigns and protests that peter out, with nothing left that holds people together more longer-term.

Therefore, the biggest challenge for solnets is to create a synergy between themselves and workplace-based groups. This is about building power and politicisation. Power in the sense that under the current conditions we often need an ‘external support army’ to encourage workers to break through the blanket of fear within factories, warehouses and other workplaces and take collective action. This also acknowledges the fact that normally, at the beginning, only a minority of workers decide to fight. One way of supporting these workers is to provide a group of external supporters, which SolNets could provide in order to, for example blockade a workplace, spread the word to other workers in the area, or organise social events to build more support amongst the workers inside that workplace. And politicisation in the sense that the SolNet in relation to the workplace can help bring to the fore all the aspects of working class experience that trade unions tend to ignore, for example the conditions in the domestic sphere and repression from state agencies.

The SolNet helped us get to know more about the general conditions in the area, as well as establishing contacts with local people outside of the immediate workplace. In the following we want to reflect on our concrete experiences and illustrate some of the difficulties.

Our first SolNet ‘cases’ evolved organically out of contacts at work workmates had trouble with visa agents and getting holiday pay from temp agencies. We responded collectively and successfully. At the same time we tried to invite people to a monthly workers’ assembly in a community centre to “watch documentaries and support each other with problems at work or with landlords”. We put up loads of leaflets in the area, but we hardly got anyone we didn’t already know to come along. In a cultural desert like Greenford, people didn’t seem to be too interested in short films and discussion evenings!

We had to change tack. We decided we would have to be more explicit about what we can offer, namely, “if you have an issue with unpaid wages, housing conditions or injustice at the job centre, contact us.? We said that we are a network without leaders or money involved and that ‘nobody will fight for us – it is up to us and our fellow workers. Instead of a monthly meeting we invitedpeople to weekly one hour drop ins and provided a solidarity network phone number. Instead of the community centre, the drop ins were in more accessible places: an Indian cafe in Southhall, a McDonalds in a retail park in Greenford and the 24-hour Asda cafe supermarket in Park Royal.

The new poster and the change in the meeting format had positive results. Initially we put up dozens of posters and the response was overwhelming. We were receiving phone calls daily. This was an indicator that times were getting harder and that all authorities and exploiters – from language schools to landlords to bosses – thought that migrant workers were free loot to be taken advantage of, in particular after the anti-migrant propaganda-fest around Brexit.

Most people phoned up before they came to a meeting, although some just turned up. Nearly all people were migrant workers, some women but  mostly men. They came mainly with individual problems, most of which related to issues at a job they had just left. Initially more people came to the weekly drop-ins, which was good, as people could see that other people had similar issues. Here is one report from a meeting in the Indian café in Southall:

“The Polish family came with their baby – Indian sweets helped to keep it happy. The kitchen worker came, as well, and the cleaning worker. It was a big round in the end and we had to keep on ordering more tea and sweets to keep the café owner happy. We talked about problems with landlords and with management. The kitchen worker told stories about how the area has changed over the last thirty years, the cleaning worker talked about how things are back home in Goa. The baby was passed around and we agreed to take some action the following week.”

We were aware of the type of working class people in our area. English not being the first language often creates extra problems when dealing with authorities. The usual NGO or state-funded advice or community centres have suffered from years of austerity and cannot cope or are inaccessible for the mass of recent migrants. Many people who approach the solidarity network individually do so from a weak position, often not knowing the legal situation or being tied up in more personal forms of exploitation within their ‘communities.’ In the first instance we didn’t expect to overcome a certain “service’ position – we were there to inform and help up to a certain point. We gave legal advice when necessary and used our position as members of the IWW rank and file union to write scary but effective official letters to bosses.

In order to undermine the inevitable service relationship that solnets elicit, we made sure to tell people that we are workers in this area ourselves and that we did this voluntarily in order to create a support network. We talked about how we see the local situation, the mixture of anti-migrant propaganda and low wages, and always tried to emphasize that these were common rather than individual problems. We always asked them about the current jobs they were in, even if their problem’ related to a previous job. We usually passed on our local newspaper, which puts forward a revolutionary position. In the newspaper we also started reflecting on the most recent SolNet cases. We emphasised that more often than not, the issue will need direct action, with little chance of a quick legal fix.

The solidarity network took up three hours per week on average, including the one hour sitting at the drop-in. Over the last three, four years we’ve had over two dozen cases with a dozen or so people who would support actions. After a while we had to limit the number of posters we put up, as we had only two or three people who actually took on cases. Each of us couldn’t deal with more than one case at a time. This was a shame, as having lots of ongoing cases would mean more lively meetings where we could all come together, see and talk to each other, bringing home the fact that we are not alone with our individual problems. But as we will see when we look at the cases in detail, the main problem was not that we couldn’t take on more of them. Rather we didn’t have the capacity to follow up on the strategic potentials that most of the contacts brought with them.

We had many smaller cases of supporting self-employed builders and drivers or cash-in-hand undocumented workers. These cases had only limited capacity to go beyond the immediate issue and the individual struggle for survival. The following cases had a bit more potential.

Sainsbury’s warehouse worker from Punjab, visa agent scam

We met the friend while working in a warehouse together. She told us that she gave £10,000 to a ‘visa advisor’ in Southall. His company offered to give her IT training at his (apparently Home Office registered) company that would sponsor her visa application. She only got two weeks training, and was then given fake documents to apply for a visa. She didn’t want to play this game and demanded her money back, to no avail. This is one of many cases where “community middlemen’ take advantage of recently arrived migrants. We went to the office in a bigger group, (we even had a local Catholic priest amongst us!) with placards and leaflets to try and get her money back. The visa agent tried various tricks. He tried to intimidate our friend, then appealed to her not to get ‘outsiders’ involved – but in the end, after we kept hassling him, he coughed up all the money. This action cemented the friendship and we managed to understand more about what it means to live and work ‘undocumented’ and to depend on the middle class segment of the ‘community.’ For example, the friend now cooks and cleans for richer Indians and her husband works night shifts in a huge, but pretty informal vegetable warehouse, both obviously paid cash-in-hand. We went to local temples together and learnt about connections between various local landlords who are profiting from their need to keep a low profile.

Jack Wills warehouse workers from Hungary, outstanding holiday pay from agency

Four of us who were employed through the ASAP agency in Greenford and who used to work at the same Jack Wills warehouse, took action together to get the holiday pay we were owed. Everyone had lost their job when they relocated to Sheffield but we had all exchanged phone numbers so were able to contact each other and find out we were all in a similar situation. We were owed money ranging from £70-f150. Our individual attempts to get our money back over a couple of months ended up going nowhere. So we went to the office together – three of us agency workers plus five of our friends. We had made a leaflet to give to people who were registering with the agency, telling them how the agency had treated us, and gave them out in the reception area. The managers quickly sussed out that he should pay up before things escalated and we got our money within fifteen minutes. We didn’t manage to stay in touch with the female agency workers from Hungary, but met one of them two years later when working as delivery drivers at Tesco together.

Amey street sweeper, outstanding overtime payment

One of us worked as a road sweeper for Hays, the temp agency supplying workers for Amy – the company subcontracted to do street cleansing and refuse collection for Ealing council. After he left, Hays refused to pay him for three days. He tried his luck writing to ACAS – a government institution that tries to solve issues before you go to labour tribunal. They asked him: “What kind of proof do you have?” He said: “They don’t give no proof for temps, no clock-in card, no signed time-sheets.” ACAS said: “No proof, bad luck.” We did an action at the depot, distributing leaflets about the situation to the workmates. Finally Hays coughed up the dosh. We published this ‘victory’ in the next issue of the newspaper, which we handed out to Amey workers. This had particular relevance as Amey workers were undergoing a wave of redundancies and bouts of work intensifications – and the union, GMB, was doing little about it. We hoped that the news about a small success through direct action might encourage some workers to step things up.

Language teachers and students from Romania, unpaid wages and false certificates

A student-worker from Romania who lived in the area contacted us. He and his co-student hadn’t received their certificate after finishing a language and adult education course. In addition the company owed him several weeks wages for teaching entry-level English classes. The students had taken government loans to attend the course and had started paying back the money. There have been various ‘scandals’ of such private education companies which fuck over migrant students, cashing in on their loans. The good thing was that he kept in touch with many former students, mainly through Facebook sites of Romanian migrants. We and IWW union comrades met with four former students and drafted a letter to management. Management seemed happy to sort out the issue of the certificates, but said a sub-agent, himself from Romania, was responsible for the English classes (using rooms in their college). We would have insisted that if the work was performed in their building and with their students, that they had the obligation to pay. Unfortunately the teaching worker from Romania chose not to pursue the issue, partly because he was working long hours, which would make taking part in activities to recover the wages difficult. We had said we couldn’t do it all for him, that he would need to take an active role. The school is located in central London, which made it difficult for us, as well. Still, this was a good potential to get a foot in the door of the considerable ‘English teaching’ sector in London – a sector which became a focus of activity of the IWW some years later.

Family from Poland, conditions of flat, trouble with landlord

A family from Poland contacted us after their private landlord had threatened them with eviction. They had got into rent arrears after their housing benefit payments were stopped due to ‘overpayment’ – which later turned out to be a minor sum. They had appealed against the housing benefit office decision, but this process took several months while they were left without payment – she works as a retail worker, he is recovering from serious illness, they have a baby. The landlord has various properties in the area, most of them in bad shape, for example fire alarm equipment is missing and electrical wiring is unsafe. He also threatened neighbours of the family with eviction, they are also from Poland. We suggested that all neighbours should get together and make the case more public, which seemed difficult to achieve after some of them decided to hand things over to the lawyer. The landlord took advantage of the general post-Brexit atmosphere and told them that if they don’t move out, “they will be deported”. We suggested writing a letter to the council to ask for an inspection of the property, which would at least delay the eviction. The landlord wrote to us:

“The reason why I am responding to your letters is that I have a special relationship with the above tenants as they were suffering in bed and breakfast with a small child, however as they have got you involved this has now changed everything and eviction will take place.” 

In the letter he also mentions his good relations with the local Labour council. The eviction didn’t actually happen, but it showed that we had a certain responsibility and we had to be able to back up our counter-actions. We could see how the changes in the benefit regime and the discrimination of EU workers played out concretely. We visited the woman at her job in a local retail park, but after a while the contact fizzled out.

Kitchen worker from Senegal, outstanding sick pay

This worker contacted us after he had been sacked by his company, where he had worked for over a year. His brother had died and it had hit him hard. He asked for one month unpaid holiday to cope with the bereavement. The company refused and ended up sacking him, which aggravated the worker’s semental health. He lived in bed and breakfast accommodation in Southall with his wife and daughter, who suffers from sickle-cell disease and needs a lot of care. The company didn’t provide sick pay, so he only received the statutory sick pay of £17 a day. The worker appealed against the dismissal and we accompanied him to the appeal hearing. Despite the fact that he was able to provide sick notes for the entire period of absence, the company upheld their decision to sack him. At this point the worker didn’t want his job back, given the stress that they had caused him. Instead he demanded full payment for the entire period of sickness up to the appeal hearing date – which legally speaking, the company had no obligation to pay. We organised an action at his former workplace, a swanky start-up office space in Hayes. We came with a megaphone and some leaflets, informing the office workers about the shoddy practices of the catering company that served them their lunch. They called the cops but, unusually for the snouty snouts, they said we could stay. Then the boss of the catering company who had sacked the worker zoomed up in his sports car and promised to pay if we ended our demonstration. They paid £1,500 in the end to avoid further embarrassment with the company they were catering for. The worker moved onto jobs in other major catering companies like Compass and facilitated contacts to other workers, mainly of African background. These would have been good entry points to organise within the massive ‘outsourced’ sector, but the workers he put us in touch with ended up backing out when we explained the methods necessary to get results.

Greencore factory worker from Morocco, sick pay

We had been distributing Workers Wild West at this major sandwich factory for years, but had never managed to establish deeper contacts. Independently, a worker contacted the solidarity network about outstanding sick pay unfortunately after he had left the job. We initially tried to use the union law to have a meeting with management as his IWW union reps, which failed. We sent various letters and planned to organise a leaflet action at the factory. If we’d have been able to show our success in getting the money for the worker, this might have created further contacts inside Greencore. Unfortunately the worker had to go back to Morocco for a longer period of time and the case fizzled out. When he came back he started a job at a nearby McDonald’s, which could have been a valuable contact during the IWW campaign of Deliveroo fast-food delivery workers.

Building worker from Punjab, unpaid wages

We were approached by a building worker, originally from Punjab, who had worked on a shop conversion of a beauty parlour for a female boss from the same background. His English was pretty weak, he had arrived some years back, whereas she and her family were well established and own various properties in the area. They didn’t sign any contractual agreements before he started working. He worked on the site for two weeks, after which he was paid £420 in cash. He was promised further payments, of which he had proof in the form of text messages, but the payments were never made. After a few letters we visited the store with two comrades from the RMT, the builder and a friend who the solidarity network had helped during a previous case. We spoke to the people inside the shop, but the boss was not on site. The people inside were beauticians who hire their seats from the boss. We said that we will unfortunately have to tell people to boycott the shop as long as the outstanding wages were not paid – and that we understand that this will also impact on the beauticians’ income. We asked them to put pressure on their landlady to cough up the money. The boss reacted by phoning the builder and threatening him with the police, accusing him of harassment. She also mentioned during a phone conversation that the builder and his family, ” actually live in my aunt’s house and I could have them kicked out.”

A week later we organised a second picket, this time the boss was present and filming us. People on the High Street were generally supportive when they found out the reason for the protest. After an hour, two police vans and a police car arrived. A group of (female) cops said that the boss felt harassed by our presence. We told them that any boss would feel harassed about a picket and that we did not call her private phone number or stand in front of her private house, but a business address. The cops insisted that, “if a person feels harassed, then it is harassment” and told us that if we didn’t end the picket we could be attested and/or issued with a harassment warning. We decided to stop the picket at this point and get permission from the council to organise a peaceful protest. After this picket the boss called the builder and told him to, “drop the case and leave the outsiders out of this”, offering him €500. The builder decided not to accept the offer. We organised a third picket, this time a male family member of the boss arrived, ready to distribute his own counter-leaflet to local people! One of the self employed beauticians helped him. In the leaflet he tried to smear the reputation of the builder. The cops didn’t turn up this time. After this action the builder said he wanted to go through the courts. We told him that this would take a long time and cost money. We also told him that we would need another witness for the fact that he worked on site for that period of time. He said this might be difficult, as most of the beauticians are part of the ‘boss’s community.’ After two weeks we got back in touch, but the witness was not willing to speak out. This was a pretty unsatisfying result, but not uncommon, given the type of work (cash in hand), the community pressure’ and the legal system (harassment charges and court fees).

Sainsbury’s and hotel worker from Sudan, fine for littering, tax debt

This worker was employed on night shift at a Sainsbury’s supermarket and had a part-time job as a cleaner in a new hotel in Park Royal. Ealing council gave him hefty fine for littering, after a plastic bag with rubbish and a letter with his address was found by an outsourced worker – they get bonus payments for dishing out littering charges. He also had tax debt, due to letters from the tax office which he hadn’t responded to, as the letters got lost in the multi-occupancy house. This was basically a case of dealing with authorities which nowadays don’t have local offices and operate mainly with recorded voice computers. At the same time the authorities survive by dishing out fines to people who have less knowledge about how to appeal and deal with the system. This struggle is very difficult to collectivise. Still, we managed to get him off some of the fines.

He had been working at the Sainsbury’s supermarket for a long time and when they tried to shorten the paid breaks for night shift there was an opportunity to organise something with his co-workers – unfortunately at the time we and the IWW didn’t have the capacity to follow this up. He also gave us some good insights into the working conditions at the new bigger hotel in the area.

Bus depot cleaner from Somalia, unfair suspension

A night shift cleaner at a local bus garage contacted us. He had worked there eleven years. In 2011, the contract for cleaning public buses at this depot was taken over by Leadac. Recently Leadac lost the contract to another company. In preparation, management had been targeting and bullying workers over the last year. The worker was shifted from his depot to a different bus garage without notice and received three disciplinary letters in one year to try and intimidate him. He was finally suspended without reason. He called UNITE, they said they would call back, but didn’t. The other colleagues, mainly Goan, were scared and needed the overtime. Apparently, “they bribe managers with gifts”. The worker told us that the depot manager was racist and that he had announced that he wanted to get rid of everyone, replacing the black workers for Polish ones. We sent some letters but didn’t get anywhere. Then we went with the worker to the bus garage and spoke to the manager directly. Our friend accused the manager of pushing out twelve people and he replied: “I know, but now I have a good team”. There was an argument but after one week he was taken back to wort without any investigation – he received full wages for the time off. We were going to look into issuing a collective grievance against the depot manager But shortly after being reinstated, the worker unfortunately decided to leave the job. The depot and the outsourced nature of the cleaning work would have been a prime target for the IWW to organise. Shortly after, we had a similar case with a worker from Goa who had worked through the AGS agency as a track and platform cleaner on London Underground. We helped him get his outstanding holiday pay. In return he came to a protest against work accidents at the Noon/Kerry Food factory that we organised.

House of Fraser warehouse workers from Bulgaria, unpaid wages and unsafe working conditions

House of Fraser is a major department store chain with around 60 stores in the UK. Their warehouse in Milton Keynes is run by the logistics company XPO. XPO hires temp workers through an agency called StaffLine. During peak season, between October and December, StaffLine hires a large number of workers directly from Bulgaria. House of Fraser, XPO and StaffLine hope that they can squeeze the workers from Bulgaria to the max. They do this by making the workers more dependent on the company. For example, they say in the contract (between StaffLine and House of Fraser) that only a quarter of the 500 workers from Bulgaria have to be able to speak English. Without proper language skills they think you are less likely to speak up or change your job. StaffLine also organises accommodation for the workers. The side entrance of the hostel in Luton town centre even has a sign above it saying ‘StaffLine’. They hope that the fear of not only losing your job, but also your room keeps workers quiet. Although they don’t expect workers to speak English they don’t issue them contracts in Bulgarian and they don’t explain their banked hours’ system to them. They say that workers are guaranteed 30 hours pay every week, even if they initially work less hours. It is difficult for workers to get proof of how many hours they’ve actually worked. When the peak season starts, the company says that workers ‘owe the company hours’ and ask them to work overtime. Workers said that they worked up to 72 hours per week. StaffLine also kicked people out without notice or disciplinary procedures.

A group of four workers were kicked out for allegedly ‘giggling’ during the one minute silence on Remembrance Day, when workers were gathered on the warehouse shop-floor. With all this pressure on people you would expect that workers do whatever management tells them. But at some point a group of eight workers had enough. They spoke to their co-workers and at the end of November they told management that the majority of workers – 60 to 70 of them – would stop working crazy overtime. They also asked to see their banked hours’. Management reacted by easing the pressure on workers and making promises. We visited some of the workers in Luton and tried to support them with the outstanding wages. Unfortunately they called us during their last week at work so there was little chance to put pressure on the company. Still, as it turned out, these workers shared our solidarity network number with other workers from Bulgaria who were working all over the UK.

Amazon delivery drivers from Bulgaria, unpaid wages

We were contacted by two courier drivers who work for MPH England Ltd. in Kent, as self-employed courier drivers at a local Amazon parcel distribution centre. The workers hire the vans from the agency and only work for Amazon. They often work seven days a week – the agency puts them under different names in order to circumvent driving regulations. The agency tried to withhold three weeks wages in one case and €560 for alleged damages in the other case. We sent letters from the IWW pointing out the illegal nature of such wage cuts and threatened to complain directly to Amazon about the agency and their practices. They paid up immediately.

Apple farm workers from Bulgaria, piece-rate protest

A worker from Bulgaria who was involved in an overtime boycott at XPO warehouse in Milton Keynes contacted us after he was sacked from an apple farm in Kent run by AC Goathams. In September 2018 workers there had disputes with the supervisors, who imposed arbitrary penalties. These penalties resulted in a drop of hourly earnings below €5. A group of twenty workers stopped working in protest. Our contact translated for this group of Bulgarian workers and was subsequently sacked. We contacted management as the IWW union, but the worker had already found a different job and didn’t want to return to the farm. Shortly after we received a call from another farm, where workers complained about the bad living conditions in trailers. The main issue is that these workers from Bulgaria are well connected and mobile, but we aren’t. These cases would be a great potential for unions like the IWW to expand their field of activity, but as usual it is a question of being able to be fast, responsive, mobile, and having a critical mass to start with.

Truck drivers from Punjab, outstanding wages

The problems with the contacts of workers from Bulgaria was that their workplaces were several hours drive away from where we lived. A similar series’ of cases developed with truck drivers from Punjab, who worked and lived locally. These cases came closest to the potential that we see in solidarity network activity.

The first worker who got in touch is originally from Punjab, he came to the UK in the mid-2000s. At first he worked without documents in local food factories. By the time we met him he worked as a truck driver for a small logistics company, run by bosses from the same community. He contacted US because he had £630 in outstanding wages. We also found out that many of the drivers are on fake selt-employment contracts. We sent a few letters from the IWW union and managed to get the worker the whole £630 he was owed. We then asked for his payslips. When the boss could not give them to us, he agreed to pay another £330 ‘tax return’ instead. We pushed for more and finally got another £90 for a disputed overtime payment. This worker got us in touch with a friend who worked for a similar company, a medium-sized builders merchant. We sent some IWW union letters and the company finally paid £600 for failing to give him a week’s notice – something they didn’t legally have to do. A few other cases followed. In one instance the company reacted to our initial demand letter by going to the driver’s house and threatening him and his family. We supported the driver and in the end managed to get a court order of back payments totaling over £7,000.

We went to the bleakest of industrial estate near Heathrow, criss-crossed by flyovers and overshadowed by the chimneys of the tarmac factory. The truck driver and his two friends were already waiting, talking with their former workmates who were still working in the builders merchants yard. We went straight to the office. The little boss said he wouldn’t pay. We began to wave our placards and distributed leaflets to a few of the customers who arrived in their vans. The little boss came running after us, speaking on the phone to the big boss. Discussion with a builder from Afghanistan. He supported our action, but he said that workers without papers also need bosses like that, to give them a job when nobody else will. That is true. But then when workers were poor enough they also needed bosses who employed their children. The conversation is interrupted by the little boss: “The money will be there on Monday, please just go”. We all go to a nearby caff for a full-English. A good way to start your day.

These cases have similar patterns: the bosses use recently migrated workers of their community’ and exploit their dependency. The problem is that workers also collude with their bosses, for example the bosses show on payslips that the workers only work part-time, which means that the worker can claim housing and other social benefits at the same time. The boss then pays the rest in cash, which is obviously illegal. The wage itself might be below the legal minimum, but thanks to the extra benefits it seems like an okay deal for the workers. Here we insist that it is not about charity, but that our pickets and actions are meant to encourage workers to break this deadly mixture of dependency and collusion – as it undermines wages and working conditions for the wider working class.

Some of these workers became friends and stuck around. They helped translate the solidarity leaflet into Punjabi and distributed it in local temples. They came to organising actions at other food factories and spoke to workers from Punjab there. They finally got us in touch with truck drivers employed by one of the world’s largest airline catering companies Alpha LSG near Heathrow airport. Comrades of ours had worked at LG and we had been distributing our newspaper there ever since. However, the contacts created through the newspaper distribution had so far been pretty flimsy. The new contacts, established through the solidarity network, told us that all LSG drivers hired after August 2017 receive 40p less per hour than the more senior drivers although they do the same work, for example driving food to the big A380 aeroplanes. Unite the union had agreed to this pay gap on a national level. The two workers hoped that the Equal Pay Act would allow them to claim equal pay. We had to disappoint them. We told them about the IWW and the possibility to act as an independent union. We were now in a situation where the IWW could actually play a role in a major multinational corporation. This was a qualitative leap. The problem is that our capacity is limited in terms of actual (wo)men-hours that we can put into this. Nevertheless, these are the type of connections – between small backyard enterprises and potential industrial power – that any working class organisation would have to create, or rather, unearth.

Conclusions

The solidarity network was a good way to get to know conditions and people in the area. Once located strategically it can help open the door to workers employed in bigger workplaces in the area. Nearly all cases where we took some action were successful in the sense that our opponents paid up. This in itself is a good thing and a political act: we help each other, without financial interests and without experts.

But we had difficulties expanding the active core of the solidarity network. Most workers somehow kept in touch, but only a few continued to support us actively. We organised monthly social events’ in a local community centre, hoping that once all the workers who we had helped would meet each other a new dynamic could develop. We had two, three meetings where around twenty people attended and it was a good mixture of sharing news from workplaces and life and having a good time with each other. More often though, only five, six people came along. Most people are struggling, and making an extra journey on a Friday night might seem too much of an effort.

We never really ‘formalised’ the solidarity network. We had the posters, but otherwise our leaflets and placards were makeshift. We didn’t have fancy logos or banners, we didn’t propagate the network as ‘an organisation’. Perhaps it would have helped to create some kind of formal identity’, which is visible and where people can say: I belong to this organisation, something along the lines of groups like Acorn. At the same time we know about the emptiness of many of these types of organisations. You run the danger of creating yet another fetish: it appears that it is ‘the organisation’ which creates material power, while only the organised practice of working class people can actually change things.

In the end it is about reaching a critical mass or dynamic. What would be needed to cause a qualitative shift in what the solidarity network and the wider collective could be? We came up with a medium-term scenario:

  • to expand the solidarity network to 70-80 workers who are willing to support other workers ready to take action at their workplace. This support could be anything from blockading the company, to informing workers in the immediate surrounding about what was happening, or trying to expand the conflict by other means;
  • to be able to enforce demands not only to local employers, but also to the local authorities, This could be achieved by the sheer force of numbers in the SolNet as well as the economic pressure of cores of organised workers in local workplaces. This is a stepping stone towards a local counter-power that can actually shape how local resources’ are used;
  • to increase the number of workers active in writing and distributing the newspaper to twenty, workers who are willing to organise a process of self-education and who actively participate in building a network of similar collectives in the UK and beyond.

This scenario is still a long way off. We accept that this process won’t be gradual and is influenced by objective conditions’. For example, any change in the state’s migration policy might force workers to go beyond their state of “fear and acceptance’ and to actively defend themselves and others. A sudden increase in inflation post-Brexit combined with the inability of the government to compensate through minimum wage increases might push people over the edge. The solidarity network, workplace groups and newspaper distributions are our ears on the ground – dormant contacts created over the last few years will come back to life.

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