[W]e will find stones along the road more precious than the gold in the mines: bearings to orient us in the day-to-day class struggle, crude weapons for the offensive against the domineering boss, without any decorative embellishments or any illustrious values. In so doing, we find a mounting succession of practical criteria for working-class political action; each criterion is consciously adopted, one after another, and each level of action is subjectively raised above the last.

It is in those words that Mario Tronti describes, in the introduction to his “Workers and Capital”, what revolutionaries can find in the works of Marx and Lenin, as well as in the history of the working class movement and its struggles - as long as they study them not out of intellectual curiosity or for academic purposes, but from the standpoint of the proletariat, with the desire to extract tools for the destruction of class society.

Much the same can be said about the present. Work, workplaces, and workers can be studied, written about, or theorised about - without ever participating in laying the foundations for their destruction. At Notes from Below, we aim to avoid these pitfalls and to mine, instead, for the ‘stones more precious than gold’ in the marxist tradition, in the history of the working class, and - crucially - in the present experiences of workers and working class communities. And if it is today a cliche to repeat, after Marx, that the liberation of the working class will be the act of the working class itself, this strategic perspective remains, in our opinion, the key to doing so effectively. This oft-repeated but rarely-heeded mantra has to remain the compass that guides us on the way.

A key element in this process, especially at a time where the organic connection between the revolutionary left and the working class has been, if not entirely severed at least considerably weakened, is to take seriously the experience of workers and to strategically privilege the creation of opportunities for these experiences to be shared, discussed, and learned from - both between workers themselves as well as between the latter and those who continue to aim for and struggle towards the reconstruction of working class power from below. It is out of this perspective that this current issue is born.

Indeed, the eleven pieces that make of this issue of Notes from Below emerged out of a series of workshops (which were sadly cut short by the onset of the Covid-19 crisis) where workers came together to discuss the process of writing about their workplaces, studying their everyday, and sharing their reflections, their experiences, and the potentialities for resistance. This was a highly enriching process for us and we think - or at least we hope - it was so also for the participants - some of which got involved in organising drives through the process, others got the opportunity to reflect on existing campaigns, while others engaged for the first time politically with their workplace and colleagues.

As will have been clear to the reader, the different workers who wrote these pieces come from a varied set of backgrounds, in different industries, and are located within a broad spectrum of political and trade union traditions and levels of experience. However, a number of shared characteristics emerge from these testimonies, which shed a light both on the nature of work today and of the challenges that worker organisers face in turning back the tide of ruling class offensives, which have proceeded unchecked in the last four decades. Whether in call centres, bars, kitchens, supermarkets and courier companies, or in warehouses, classrooms, editorial offices and online platforms, the workers in this issue face a number of similar issues, which will undoubtedly sound very familiar to many of our readers.

Exploited and Insecure

First and foremost, and perhaps least surprisingly, the overwhelmingly dominant characteristic of all these pieces is the powerful - at times overwhelming - economic pressure that all the participants are under. It is not only that the rates of exploitation are considerable, that their work is undervalued and underpaid, and that the very notion of demanding a pay rise is cause for dismissal, disciplinary action, or being iced out of the process of shift distribution. It is also that this reality is maintained through a level of insecurity that pushes down on workers and limits their room for manoeuvre.

Organised through agencies, outsourced companies, or precarious contracts, this insecurity permeates throughout the pieces. In that sense it is striking that in schools, courier companies and in the hospitality sectors workers experience not only similar feelings of insecurity, generated by the constant danger of immediate dismissal or blacklisting, but that this insecurity is constructed through similar tools: short term contracts, the segmentation of the workforce through a myriad of slightly different roles and pay scales, as well as the creation of different contracts and legal definitions through the outsourcing of their labour to agencies and external companies.

While the workplace or the manager might be the same, creating a basis for joint grievances and resistance, the multitude of divisions, the lack of job security, and the uncertainty over how similar or different the conditions of other workers are, all serve as powerful counter tendencies to collective organisation. The anger expressed by bar managers, school officials, or courier companies towards workers simply naming their experiences, discussing their pay and conditions, or expecting equal treatment is a powerful testimony to the centrality of this architecture of insecurity in maintaining contemporary working conditions.

Isolated and Surveilled

The other dominant narrative that emerges across the pieces in this issue is one of isolation and surveillance at work. The feeling of isolation flows from, and is central to, that of insecurity described above. Rapid turnover of workers, short term contracts, lack of shared conditions, as well as geographical dispersion means that workers often experience the pressures of their workplaces alone - and can be led to believe that other workers, in different situations fare better or even constitute a potential danger to their own continued employment. The reports from schools, online platforms, and editorial offices bared this out particularly powerfully.

In addition, to insecurity and isolation, workers also have to deal with an impressive array of tools of surveillance, digitised and all pervasive, which build up greater pressure towards atomisation and also put up important roadblocks to organising as well as to individual acts of passive resistance. Timed toilet breaks and ‘dead time’ between clients in call centres. Step frequencies and lunch breaks measured through the necessary machinery for the job in Amazon’s warehouses. The time taken to complete jobs monitored through the online platform on which they are distributed to Turkers. The array of methods is as staggering as the continued pressure exerted on workers to self-discipline (and increase) their productivity at work, in order to avoid being disciplined by always vigilant supervisors, is overwhelming.

These are not, it is worth emphasising, stories of automation or flexibility generated by technological innovation and new contracts. On the contrary, these are stories of increased surveillance, discipline, and exploitation. Machines, tools, and at times even coworkers are integrated in a web of control that confront workers daily and integrate them into the collective work environment as individuals, kept apart from one another through the absence of spare time, lack of collective meeting places, or internal competition. This double pressure of isolation and surveillance also gives rise to a series of demands on the part of workers, not only for better pay and conditions, but also for greater control and autonomy in the workplace. It raises the political question of who should control the process of production and for whose benefit. This sentiment is captured powerfully by John Holland, when reflecting on the possibility of organising at the Amazon warehouse, when he writes:

Higher pay really should be an obvious thing to organise for, although I don’t hear many workers actually complaining about that, we’re still all paid slightly above the living wage and many people’s expectations are low enough to consider that acceptable. The biggest thing people are unhappy with is the complete lack of control they have to decide anything in their workplace - the excessive surveillance, arbitrary rules, aggressive management methods, and so on. Aiming to get management off our backs and just make this a more pleasant place to work would probably be more galvanising.

Fighting Back

That said, however, these pieces are certainly not accounts of passive acceptance or defeated workers cowed by bosses and managers. On the contrary, each contribution shows, on the one hand, how many workers understand the power relations in the workplace and identify the root of their problems with great clarity - even if they do not always have the confidence or the necessary level of organisation in the workplace to take action. On the other hand, actual acts of resistance permeate all the narratives in this issue, even where collective organising has not yet been possible. Fooling machines to extend bathroom breaks, idling and going slow, or even resigning halfway through a shift with the knowledge that another insecure job is waiting around the corner, are all continuous features of the pieces that point to the levels of frustration and dissatisfaction that organisers can - and will need to - tap into in order to collectivise this simmering anger.

Passive and individual resistance is not the only fight back in these pages. There are also numerous experiences of organising, unionising, striking, and developing networks of mutual aid and resistance which are as inspiring as they are important to learn from and replicate across the board. Walkouts in restaurants, pickets of bars and courier companies, worker forums for teaching assistants and Turkers, and unionisation campaigns for food delivery workers and call centres. Examples of collective organising and labour militancy, while uneven in their reach and success, are present throughout this issue. They are a testimony to the desire of workers to collectivise their grievances, break through their imposed isolation, and reverse the balance of power in their workplace. They are also important repositories of bosses’ responses and tactics - ranging from ignoring workers, belittling their concerns, and decreasing their work allocation to bullying, kicking them off the platform, or sacking them.

As well as the experiences of workers, these narratives also raise the question of unions and their ability to respond to the current realities for many workers in these industries. The dominant thread across the board, regardless of which union workers end up in, is the need they experience of existing both within and without its official structures. Mobilising where possible, pressuring it where necessary, but also acting beyond it to build up trust, networks, and collective confidence. Even in a well organised sector, such as schools, it is clear that the place of casualised agency workers is at best unclear, at worst unwanted, within the existing structures of the local NEU, despite the important pressure the existence of these contracts exert on the existing pay and conditions of other teachers. The emphasis of our contributors on the importance of self activity, and the sometimes necessary confrontation with existing union structures - within and against, as the South London Barworkers Network put it - without however rejecting the importance of their potential collective power, is an important tradition to reclaim and ampliphy for workers everywhere in the process of rebuilding organisation at the point of production.

And Now?

The Covid-19 crisis interrupted the process of collective discussion that had guided the process until then. It also, and much more seriously, interrupted the lives of the workers and threw many of their work arrangements into disarray. Bosses refusing to follow health and safety advice, loss of work, or drastic changes in the organisation of the workload - these are some of the experiences the writers went through since March this year.

The inclusion of some of these stories in the pieces also reinforces what other contributors to Notes from Below, as well as our previous collective international issue, have argued: corona did not fundamentally draw new separation lines within the labour market but drastically increased existing divisions and inequalities. Many white collar workers were moved to work from home - accompanied by a simultaneous increase in workload - while others, mainly blue collar and highly precarious workers, found themselves either out of work or expected to continue to come in and risk their health and that of their families in order to continue being able to put food on the table. The behaviour of bosses and managers also reinforces the absolute disregard they have for their workers and their welfare, which the pieces in this issue document both before and after the lockdown.

Our hope at Notes from Below is that this issue does not end up as a stand alone series of articles but serves as a starting point for further debate, discussion, writing, and - crucially - organising. The workers themselves will receive hard copies to distribute amongst and discuss with their coworkers, those they interviewed and those they organise with. In addition, if other (groups of) workers would like to host a discussion about the issue or launch a similar project, Notes from Below would be very willing to participate and/or to link them up with the authors of these pieces.

In the weeks to come, we will also announce the launch of our next project and the launch of a new round of workers’ writing grants. Building on this experience, we hope to extend the scope of our focus and integrate worker writings within a broader project studying Britain’s class composition. In doing so, we aim to target our grants towards key industries and strategic locations in the economy, link the experiences of workers to wider analyses of Britain’s political economy, and to hold collective discussions between ourselves, contributors to Notes from Below, and these workers.

As always, the struggle continues.


Notes from Below (@NotesFrom_Below)

The Editorial collective of Notes from Below.