some reflections from workers’ inquiries in UK, India and South Africa


November 27, 2019

Drawing on the original conceptualisation of workers’ inquiry provided by the early Italian workerists (1960s), as well as on a number of recent attempts to apply this method in three different contexts – UK, India and South Africa -I wrote these notes to share my reflections on the meaning and on the current value of such a method.

In particular, I am here focusing on four main aspects. First, I would question the very idea that such a research practice (or ‘political experience’, as the Italian workerists used to define it) should be confined within methodological boundaries. In turn, this relates to a discussion of aims and tools to adopt for data collection in order to ‘co-produce’ knowledge for action, from below. In this regard, the point is not whether a ‘standardisation’ or a ‘codification’ of practices may be necessary (and I argue that is not), but how to share best tools and experiences in order to repeat and export the inquiry beyond its original definition.

Second, I am reporting some of my reflections on the design of a workers’ inquiry, a preliminary phase that should involve co-research and mutual learning per se. Third, I consider the possible, and desirable, use of a workers’ inquiry. In this case, these notes may contribute to a broader debate on participatory action research, stretched towards radical transformation, and workers’ struggles as inherent objectives of the research itself.

Finally, I am sharing some thoughts on the role of the militant researcher, reflecting on dilemmas and hindrances arising from the connection between research and organising. Overall, the discussion builds on three different experiences: a survey of casual teaching staff conducted in 2014 with the Fractionals For Fair Play (FFFP) campaign at SOAS (University of London); a workers’ inquiry conducted in the Delhi automotive cluster (Indian NCR)1 while the Maruti strikes were ongoing (2011-12); a more recent experiment of co-research launched in Johannesburg (SA), together with a group affiliated to the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO) (2018).

Workers’ inquiries today

First of all, as a militant researcher who has been reflecting on the current value and possible use of a workers’ inquiry for some years, trying to dig into a tradition that Italy itself seemed to have forgotten,2 I feel very indebted towards the Notes from Below project. I believe it must be sincerely acknowledged for exposing practices that were too long confined within a niche, and for reviving the needed connection between research and militant intervention, which is too often missing within labour studies, even those claiming to be grounded in labour movements.

Working and reflecting on the idea and on the tradition of a workers’ inquiry, and referring to the early Italian workerism, I am here embracing Alquati’s (1975)3 view, that slightly differed from Panzieri (1976; 1994)4. I relate to inquiry as a political practice more than a method (emerging from the workerist debate against ‘bourgeois’ academic disciplines), as a tool to build a militant political intervention, possibly developed through co-research. The latter represents the ideal overcoming of the distance between the researcher, the militant, and the worker, within an only process of co-production of revolutionary knowledge.

In this regard, I look at a workers’ inquiry as a practice potentially enriching both academia and activism. Overall, I would not only claim its current validity as a tool for knowledge production and to build struggle itself, but I would strongly advocate for its broader application, beyond the scope it was originally intended for. However, being by its very definition and nature a highly political practice, a workers’ inquiry necessarily generates political and ethical issues. My aim here is to analyse a few, building on three main experiences I had,5 and with the objective to possibly spark collective reflections on how to keep using it and expanding it as an actual tool to build militant action. My notes thus deliberately intend to be political, to go beyond the parameters of academic research, in the spirit of the project launched by NFB and echoing Ed Emery’s call – no politics without inquiry!

Background and experiences of struggle

My interest in workers’ inquiry started around 2010-11, when I decided to study auto workers in India. My project was initially inspired by a co-research experience conducted at FIAT Pomigliano in 2008-10.6 This research group was connected to the CRS7 in Rome, a research centre gathering old and young workerists, and then presided over by Mario Tronti. I had a chance to meet him, at the very early stages of my PhD research, in 2011. I explained what I had in mind, the context I would work in, and he told me ‘go where struggle leads you’. That advice allowed me to grasp the idea of the centrality of conflict, the idea that industrial conflict in particular is a revealing moment where relations of production vividly emerge. At the same time, the connection between research and activism, backing each other, empowering each other, also appeared as crucial.

I then went to India and my objective became understanding a conflict that was then ongoing, a dispute around Maruti Suzuki in the Delhi region. This was not only the longest strike that occurred in the Delhi industrial belt, involving two factory occupations, a long lock-out and several tool-down protests. It was also an unprecedented strike in terms of the composition of the workers who took action (young, often at their first political experience, educated, mostly working on short-term/precarious appointments) and in terms of the level of repression that followed (ended with a fire in the factory, a dead HR manager, mass dismissals and hundreds of arrests). Overall, the Maruti strike turned out to be one of the most significant industrial conflicts that India has witnessed in the past 10-15 years. Without digging into the facts associated with that struggle, it is important to mention its main features. It was a prolonged strike, in a highly informalised area, involving a large number of contract / precarious workers, initially organising outside of traditional unions and demanding an independent union. I was lucky enough to be there during the highest peak of the conflict. This came with tensions and personal risk but also more direct involvement in the dynamics of the struggle.

In practice, in order to investigate the Maruti struggle, and trying to retrieve the original workerist understanding of workers’ inquiry, I did two things: a map of labour composition, working and living conditions in the area, through questionnaires,8 and a more intensive research aimed at grasping motivations, demands and dynamics of the ongoing strikes. This involved interviews and focus groups with workers, activists and local unions.

In a different context, a few years later (2014), I was part of a collective campaign (Fractionals for Fair Play, FFFP) to demand better pay and working conditions for casual teaching staff at SOAS, London Facing a common perception of exploitation but highly individualised contractual terms, we decided that in order to formulate collective demands we first needed a measure and evidence of the working conditions, which we experienced as unjust. We tried to reach as many casual teachers as we could, and to survey their working experience. This meant understanding all the different employment contracts, as well as comparing contracted hours and actual hours worked. Eventually, the survey not only allowed to calculate our rate of exploitation, but also revealed inconsistencies and irregularities in our contracts. On the basis of this evidence, we built demands, negotiated, took strike action, and eventually won some improved conditions (2017). Indeed, the survey was a tool to build consensus, to prove the validity of our perceived exploitation, to formulate demands and negotiate.

More recently (2018), being based in Johannesburg (SA), I was involved in the launch of a research group associated to the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO).9 We were responding to the need of the office to map the social composition of precarious workers in order to enlarge an existing campaign for the regularisation of labour broker workers. We started a survey to broadly understand the background of the casual workers that rotate around the office, their organising experience (if they have any), and their relationship towards trade unions. The project was a collective task, involving a small group composed by researchers, organisers and those we came to call ‘workers-researchers’. It involved collective discussion on the value of research for organising, collective design of the survey, and a process that also became a sort of political training on research and organising. We did a first internal survey (of workers that attend the Simunye Workers Forum, see below), we discussed preliminary findings, then the workers-researchers presented them to the whole Workers’ Forum , and planned a possible, broader follow-up.

Some political reflections

Without digging into the details of each experience, I would rather like to raise some points for reflection, building on the three cases and on another, recent interview I had with Tronti in September 2018. This, in the belief that NFB has launched an extremely important project, that I do hope will expand and will be used in other contexts. My thoughts touch upon: (1) area focus (places and sectors), (2) role of the researcher, (3) design and methods of an inquiry, (4) use of the inquiry.

1) Area focus: places and sectors and 2) Role of the researcher

These first two points are somehow connected, but also linked to the potential impact a workers inquiry might have. In his essay “Lenin in England”, Tronti (1964)10 expressly claimed that capitalist exploitation had to be attacked where chains are stronger, where capitalism is more advanced and thus creates the material conditions for the working class to emerge as a subject of antagonism. Today, within a context of progressive de-industrialisation and shift to the service sector in the West/North, together with hyper-exploitation of manufacturing workers in the new global production nodes, the question arising is: where does a workers’ inquiry make more sense? Here, I also questioned myself and my own work.

My stance here is that, especially when looking at manufacturing workers in the traditional sense, a workers’ inquiry in the Global South is of uttermost importance. In particular, given the global dimension of industrial capitalism (and here I include global service related to manufacturing, as part of global value chains), I emphasise the need for a workers’ inquiry with an equally global perspective, where comparative analysis can ultimately contribute to the formulation of international political strategies. In this sense, building a global workers’ inquiry means adopting a global perspective and privileging the formation of global solidarity networks when working either on manufacturing sectors in the global South or on the new gig economy in the global North (or vice versa). If we look at global supply chains and at the changing world of work today, a workers’ inquiry today may involve the need to overcome rigid factorism and include an analysis of social composition, which may go beyond the workplace.

At the same time, it may imply an analytical exercise to relate the conditions of service workers in the North with manufacturing workers in the South, or of workers employed by the same multinational company across the globe. To conclude on this point, I believe inquiries on emerging economic sectors (service, financial etc.) in advanced economies or inquiries on traditional productive sectors in developing economies, within a global capitalist system, must be seen as complementary tools to build international solidarity and global anti-capitalist struggles.

However, this relates to number two, the role of the researcher, and ultimately to the impact we want our inquiries to have. Seen as a tool of militant research, with an ultimate objective to build a militant intervention,I believe each of us, militant researchers, should contribute to inquiries in a place where we also have organising opportunities, where we have a chance to participate in both inquiry and struggle. This should not necessarily mean being embedded in the employment relation we are fighting against (like in my case, being a casual teacher at SOAS), but having a chance to properly contribute to a struggle. However, an overarching question here is: what if in the uprooted condition of a “global” researcher we tend to move from a terrain of struggle to another?

Here, my conclusion would be – after having personally contributed to/built inquiries in the UK, in India, and in SA, that what ultimately counts is the political positionality of the militant researcher and the solidarity bonds that they build with workers in struggle. Overall, one might sometimes feel as an outsider, but building a relationship of comradeship and solidarity with the activists and the workers involved in an inquiry and in the related struggle, will also mean taking a side, and contributing to the political use of the inquiry itself. Ultimately, I believe that the insider / outsider categories, within global labour migrations have become blurred, but this should not discourage militant action-research.

3) Design and methods for a workers inquiry

Within a workerist understanding of a workers inquiry, there should be no distance between the interviewer and the interviewee, the militant researcher and the worker should share both the process leading to the co-production of knowledge, and the struggle objectives that should move the inquiry itself. In practical terms, the design of the inquiry should rest upon a collective discussion, and the most appropriate methods should be collectively selected. However, this might occur under different guises, or give rise to what Jamie Woodcock (2017)11 in his book, and the NFB comrades, refer to as inquiry from above and from below, where the first is driven by a direction started by the militant researcher, the second involves actual co-research and builds on research needs expressed by the workers themselves. I approached this tension in my own work in different forms.

In the Indian case, I followed Tronti’s advice to go where struggle could lead me, and chose as a research site a struggle that was ongoing, a conflict in the making. The research direction was thus determined by the conflict itself. I then selected my own research methods, depending on research constraints (time and risks) and feasibility. I decided that a questionnaire could help me map labour composition, and interviews/ focus groups could help me grasp strike dynamics and struggle demands. However, the contents of my inquiry were determined by the workers themselves, within a process involving a sort of bouncing back and forth: I met them, interviewed them, asked them to explain their struggle and their demands, I then formulated questionnaires, I let workers read and check them, discussing the translation and the questions. They also helped me distribute and collect the questionnaires as I had no direct access to the factory floor. Then I returned to my research site,12 discussed following developments with some of the comrades involved, and I will share with them the final outcome of my research.

In London and in SA, I had the privilege of taking part in proper co-research experiments. In Johannesburg, the need for a survey was raised by the organisers of the centre I collaborated with. The centre was already involved in a campaign to stabilise agency workers (section 198 of the SA LRA), but - under pressure from a recent attack to labour rights, which particularly affects the right to strike and to political representation of precarious workers - intended to scale up. It thus launched a second phase of the campaign, which aimed at going wider and deeper. For such reason, it expressed the need to know more about social composition and unionisation levels of contract workers. Having already started a research group meant to support the CWAO, we therefore established a ‘survey group’, made of three researchers, two organisers, and 5-6 workers (dismissed from previous jobs, and thus having more time available). With such a group, we went through a proper survey training (a series of workshops): discussion of individual conditions and previous struggles, identification and discussion of survey questions, distribution of the survey, data entry and coding, data analysis, presentations (workers presented preliminary findings of the survey to their Forum).

In both the SA and the UK cases, the inquiries were a proper co-research experience. They were a collective process throughout the design, the administration and the analysis of the data collected. In theory, this is the ideal practice of a workers inquiry. However, this does not always imply a neutral and balanced terrain, within which power balances, mutual trust and shared objectives are often difficult to build.13 Such a practice works of course only where the researcher has the time and the opportunity to build a proper, long-lasting relationship with the workers, and if both take action within the same struggle.

4) Objectives and use of the inquiry

Here, my thoughts go not only to remaining faithful to what I – agreeing with one the most revolutionary theorists of the workers’ inquiry, Romano Alquati – believe should be the ultimate use of the inquiry: being a tool to build militant intervention - ‘uno strumento di lotta’ as Tronti used to say. My thoughts here also connect to the role of the researchers, and the pressure they are exposed to, within neoliberal academia. An academic researcher today is fully exposed to the ‘publish or perish’ mantra. This implies a tendency towards extreme competition and to the perpetual search for individual authorship. In a sense, this literally kills the original idea of inquiry and co-research, and creates situations where it feels much easier to convince workers of the use of research for organising purposes, than to get researchers to abandon their individual interests.

I believe we should fight against this. It also affects the way we, as researchers, publish our inquiries, and dissemination times. Indeed, compared to the 1960s, the condition of the militant researcher, of the scholar activist, has changed, and this creates tensions we need to confront. The neoliberal context in which the researcher, if an academic, is embedded in is one where there is a tendency not to share, fraught with suspicions, where building collaborative relations is not easy. The solution is resisting all this, and defending collective spaces for collaboration and struggle.

Conclusion

How do we confront these issues? How do we apply and expand the use of a workers’ inquiry? Overall, I think the response lies in Alquati’s original conceptualisation of inquiry as a tool for struggle, not as an academic tool. It lies in its use as an instrument to build militant intervention, to be protected from the pressure and the power games imposed by the neoliberal academia. Ultimately, the most meaningful way to adopt and apply a workers’ inquiry corresponds to what the comrades from NFB are currently doing in the UK.

A political use of inquiry, open access, to be shared and enlarged, aimed to ultimately build a platform for international anti-capitalist struggles. Here, I attempted to highlight only some of the controversies that might emerge when shifting from a simple theorisation of a workers inquiry to its practical application. These are indeed both political and ethical, and of no simple solution. However, bearing in mind an idea of inquiry as a tool to understand class composition and class formation, to be used as a platform for the formulation of a political intervention, should work as a guiding principle.

In this sense, the political aims of an inquiry should be placed before the academic ones, properly resisting the pressure of the neoliberal university through principles of solidarity and collaboration. Going back to the idea of co-research aimed at co-producing revolutionary knowledge to advance working class struggle. Where ultimately, the researcher is first a militant, and then an academic scholar.



  1. National Capital Region, industrial area surrounding Delhi. 

  2. At least until some recent, impressive experiences, like that of the Clash City Workers (CCW, http://clashcityworkers.org/chi-siamo.html), that also opened up to interesting militant research, especially focused on logistics and the gig economy. See for example Cini and Tassinari (2018) “On Struggles in Logistics: Notes for militant labor activism from the Italian experience”, here on NFB. 

  3. Alquati, R. (1975), Sulla FIAT e altri scritti, Milano: Feltrinelli Editore. 

  4. Panzieri, R. (1976), Lotte operaie nello sviluppo capitalistico, Turin: Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi; (1994), ‘Socialist Uses of Workers Inquiry’, in Merli, S. (ed) (1994), Spontaneità e Organizzazione. Gli anni dei Quaderni Rossi 1959-1964, translation by Bove, A. Pisa: BSF Edizioni, available online

  5. I am not going into the details of each political experience, as this would require a much longer discussion. 

  6. For a review of that work, see Monaco, L. (2015) “Nuova Panda schiavi in mano: Workers’ Inquiry as a Tool to Unveil FIAT’s Strategy of Labour Control”, in Historical Materialism, Leiden: Brill, vol.23 n.1. 

  7. Centro per la Riforma dello Stato. 

  8. Aimed at understanding the social composition of the workers, their possibilities of social reproduction, their background, economic conditions, level of unionisation etc. 

  9. Centre that started by providing legal advice to casual workers, but that is now also involved in organising labour broker workers and conducting research, and hosts the Simunye Workers Forum (SWF). 

  10. First Published in Classe Operaia Issue No.1, January 1964, republished in Operai e Capitale (“Workers and Capital”), Einaudi, Turin, 1966, p.89-95. Available online

  11. Working the phones, London: Pluto Press. 

  12. With some gaps, after a few months, and then after a few years (2011, 2012, 2017, 2019). 

  13. Easier in the SOAS case, where all the members of the campaign were both researchers and casual teachers, mostly on the same grade. 


author

Lorenza Monaco

is a researcher working on casual labour and unions in India for about 10 years. While in South Africa, she has collaborated as an activist and researcher with the Casual Workers Advice Office, Johannesburg