For those of us involved in the Class Composition Project, this was the first time we had tried to undertake a project like this. Many of us had been involved in smaller inquiries into particular workplaces, both through Notes from Below and more widely. When we look back over this project, it is clear to us now how ambitious an undertaking something like this is. We attempted to map the economy; how and where people work in Britain in order to find organising opportunities. In this publication we have presented the findings so far, including chapters produced by sector working groups that were formed through the project. Now we will draw out the lessons for our movement, as well as conclude where we should be heading.

Class composition, how workers are organised by capitalism and organise against it, has changed significantly in Britain over the last few decades. In many cases, these changes have come about through attacks on workers’ terms and conditions. This has created a crisis of low pay and inadequate conditions. The majority of workers go to work in conditions that are hostile to building unions, let alone power. The pandemic highlighted many of the contradictions in Britain. One being that those that are most ‘essential’ get the least for their work. These contradictions have only been exacerbated by the ‘cost of living crisis’. What is clear is that workers face huge challenges to getting organised to change this. There are large parts of the economy that lack any formal or effective workplace organisation. Most workers are not, or have never been, members of trade unions, or have taken any form of industrial action. There are few forms of political organisation beyond the workplace through which workers can independently build power.

Despite this somewhat bleak account of class composition there are also many opportunities that we can point to. The lack of official trade unionism in most parts of the economy does not mean that workers are content with their work - or even that they are not finding ways to fight and organise themselves. In the survey responses and interviews we heard from workers across the country and in many different sectors. Workers were keen to share details about their work and work with us to make sense of it. All the sector groups identified areas that were ripe for organising. Groups worked together to share creative ideas about what we had done, were doing, or wanted to do.

One of the major challenges for organising that emerged, predominantly from the education working group, is the structure of contemporary trade unionism. At the moment, school and university workforces are often broken up into a range of different unions based on job role. The cleaners might be in one union, whilst the teachers are in another. Even where unions (like the NEU) overtly state that they aspire to be an industrial union that organises everyone on one worksite together, that is rarely the reality on the ground. However, workplace industrial unionism, which brings the whole workforce together, has the power to build power in a way that the existing fractured - and often competing - trade union structures prevent. Given that we cannot simply scrap our existing organisations and start from scratch, we need to work out ways to move towards this model gradually, under the leadership of the rank-and-file. Joint committees between unions on one worksite have found some success in moving in this direction, such as at UCL in December 2019 when UCU and IWGB members across the university struck together. By combining forces, academic, administrative, cleaning, and security workers could actually shut the university down during the strike. Their different sources of power all amplified one another, and the sum was greater than its parts. Currently, Unite is rejuvenating the industrial combines, bringing workers together across industries.

However, this struggle for industrial coordination cannot be led by union bureaucrats from the top down. The experiences of many of our sectors have shown that the leadership of our trade unions cannot be relied upon to take up these calls for industrial organisation. In the few cases where the leadership of multiple trade unions have tried to coordinate sector-wide, it has almost always been half-hearted campaigns that are met with apathy or disregard from rank-and-file workers. The unenthusiastic results of recent attempts to do this in the primary, secondary and higher education sector provide pertinent examples of how this leads to at best weak and disconnected industrial action, and at worst postpones industrial action completely. It is of little use for unions to simply follow the line of the dominant trade union in their sector when coordinating industrial action across unions. Rather we need to build workplaces that feel empowered and motivated to take industry-wide action through workers having built their own networks across union and workplace divides. The legal restrictions on secondary action have made it more difficult to organise on multi-union sites, meaning that often strike ballots need to be called over carefully considered trade disputes, rather than officially going on strike in solidarity with other workers at the same site. This can mean that in workplaces with relatively low structural power, there are barriers to organising effective action. If we cannot stop production in one workplace, then there is a need for bigger and broader coalitions, including the possibility of drawing on social movement power. Rank-and-file combines on worksites and in industries also present a far more viable strategy towards building confidence for ‘illegal’ strike action; and produce organisational forms that are far more likely to call for these sorts of actions than trade unions.

Elsewhere in the labour movement, the problem of bureaucratic leadership means that some unions are actively obstructing workers’ struggle. For example, major trade unions like USDAW and GMB that have focused on a strategy of partnership deals rather than taking action. This means that while union coverage may technically exist, there are limited opportunities for workers to organise within these structures. Improvements in pay and conditions, when they do happen, are decided behind closed doors and rarely build power on the ground. This is often through laziness or lack of ambition from the union. But sometimes this happens through strategy. There have been rumours of some unions signing no strike deals in return for employers offering minor concessions.

Workers employed in sectors covered by partnership agreements are often already facing degraded conditions, which are further being undermined as unions are not prepared nor willing to fight. However, as conditions worsen, union leaderships may be forced to fight (or at least attempt to). Otherwise, they may face a crisis of reproduction, both for their members and for their own leadership elections. However, sectors organised in this way present a challenge for workers. They are neither new “greenfield” sectors or already being organised by the labour movement, but are something in the middle. Often, the negative experiences with existing unions can act as a barrier to starting something new - or those unions can actively try to undermine new forms of organising that can be seen as a threat. Nevertheless, the majority of workers in Britain are not part of the existing trade union movement, militant or otherwise.

If we want to understand the likely trajectory of these trends, then we will have to speculate about how the class struggle will develop in the near-future. It seems to us that the ongoing process of climate collapse will determine the coordinates of politics across the globe for decades to come. From the neoliberal turn in the mid-1970s onwards, crisis after crisis has seen the working class recomposed into systematically less and less powerful forms. While we have attempted and experimented with new methods of struggle, no answers have yet been found which have allowed us to turn the tables on our class enemies.

It is in this context that the largest crisis of the last fifty years is beginning to unfold. From California to Ukraine, Pakistan and China, we see a combination of extreme weather events, ecological degradation, and conflict provoked by an era of multipolar imperialism. This is fundamentally increasing the cost of basic commodities such as food and energy, thereby increasing the bare necessity reproduction costs of our labour-power. To use a term popularised by Jason Moore,1 ‘cheap nature’ is no longer quite so cheap. External massive price shocks are coming back to bite the capitalist class.

In this context, already-tenuous global economic growth appears increasingly insecure. At the time of writing, European economies are about to plunge into another prolonged recession. Just as in the last recession, bosses will seek to protect profits by cutting real wages. In the absence of growth, workers and bosses will become engaged in a zero-sum distributional battle. Wages and profits will both be threatened with relative decline, and the balance of class forces will determine the final outcome. Given the state of play as we enter the crisis, we are not optimistic about which side will prevail - at least in the first instance. However, this situation will eliminate much of the room for class compromise which has characterised the social management of class antagonisms in the global north post-1917.

The workers movement will likely be faced with quite a blunt reality: either accept further prolonged real wage falls, as well as a likely new round of redundancies, which push more and more fractions of the working class into a crisis of reproduction; or fight. Those unions which have disavowed militancy until this point may be forced to engage in some strategic innovation if they want to secure their number one objective: stable organisational continuity in the short to medium term. Even the worst servile bureaucrats are likely to strike with the threat of dissolution, should they fail to secure gains for the workers they ‘represent’, hanging over their heads. In this sense, rank-and-file militants in some of the large general unions may find themselves pushing at an open door.

However, we should not underestimate the role the state will play in this conjuncture. Having already divested itself of most of the pastoral functions associated with social democracy, it seems almost inevitable that the neoliberal state will approach a new era of crisis with its fists clenched. The new Conservative prime minister Truss has threatened aggressive new trade union legislation. The 2016 Trade Union Act was already declared an authoritarian shift towards a new form of state by mild-mannered academics - further restrictions would take the British legislature into the kind of territory usually occupied by dictatorial regimes. The trade unions will mobilise to resist any such changes, but given the lack of widespread political support for the workers’ movement post-Corbyn it is hard to know if they will be able to do more than water down the worst proposals.

The shift in specific regulation goes alongside a wider shift in both the public and political spheres: since 2017, large parts of the ruling class have been involved in a relentless McCarthyite attack on anyone who represents the interests of the working-class. Socialists have been driven from public debate - let alone any proximity to political power - despite mass support. Even outspoken liberals now find themselves relentlessly attacked by a servile press and a hard right government. The complete defanging of the parliamentary opposition combined with the overt willingness of the Conservative party to gerrymander leaves us feeling that whatever the result of any elections, this repression against anyone fighting for working class interests will continue.

In sum, we believe that Britain is entering a period of potentially intense conflict. However, the prospects for the future are not entirely bleak. Within our workplaces, we have repeatedly come across a layer of young people with radical political ideas. Often, these workers are powerless. Their vision of politics has largely been moulded by the individualised self-expression of social media, or in some cases ‘colour within the lines’ electoralism, rather than by collective action. However, should what Kier Millburn has called ‘generation left’2 manage to locate the levers of industrial power and begin to learn the art of the strike, all the above could change rapidly. There is no political education as effective as fighting your boss. For all of our sakes, we hope that education begins soon.

Challenges for the project

The main obstacle for the project was the Covid-19 pandemic. This changed the project’s initial plans, limiting the collective activities we had planned. We would have wanted to meet regularly in person, spending time collectively working through the issues of understanding class composition.

While we were able to meet a few times in person, most of the project meetings we held were organised on Zoom. This, as anyone else who has experienced the shift into online meetings, has strengths and weaknesses. We were able to meet regularly despite the pandemic, but it was much harder to write collectively or involve new people in the project. The survey process was a joint effort, with many people contributing questions and ideas. The resulting survey ended up being quite long with a wide range of questions. On reflection, we would probably reduce the number of questions and focus on a smaller number of issues. These could then be expanded in the interviews and follow up research.

At the start of the project we launched an online forum to try and continue discussions between meetings. While there was some initial interest in the forum, the use tapered off quite quickly. It did provide a way to share bits of writing or interview questions. Due to the declining interest, we closed the forum about half way through. For something like this to work effectively, it needs regular use to keep the discussion going. The forum provided a starting point for working groups on particular industries. In particular, we were able to quickly form working groups on education, healthcare, and technology. At various points we had working groups on arts and culture, charities, local government, and retail. In part, this reflects the existing connections for the project, as well as people already connected to the left or the labour movement. The working groups were an effective starting point for doing interviews, engaging more people in the project, and collectively writing. We reflect further on this in the Appendix.

The main learning from the project is that we clearly set a very ambitious target, particularly in a difficult set of conditions with the pandemic. We still think it was an important target to set: to try and understand how class composition had changed in Britain. Clearly, this was not something we were going to be able to achieve in a year during a pandemic. However, we think that this project remains an important starting point for orienting our organising. One of the problems with understanding class composition is that by the time you have reached a detailed understanding, it will most likely have changed again. Indeed, the outburst of struggles in relation to the recent cost-of-living crisis, including a wave of wildcat strikes in manufacturing and logistics,3 has already significantly altered class composition in this country. Struggles continue and work keeps changing. Projects like this will continue to be necessary, not to produce a book that sits on a dusty shelf, but as a tool to be shared that can help us figure out a way forward.

Next steps

The key question that remains from the class composition project is what to do about these findings. In part, the project was always about trying to ask the questions that could move our understanding of class composition forward, rather than answering all of those questions. We are not going to claim that we now understand class composition in Britain, but we do have many more insights to share than we did before. The next steps for the project are to think collectively about how we can move forward some of these insights, particularly by following up with workers in some sectors (particularly in healthcare, transportation, retail, and tech) to undertake inquiries that can go into more detail.

We remain surprised that much of the established left and labour movement are not interested in trying to ask questions about how work and class is changing. This is like trying to argue for a way forward without looking at the map. In this project we have started the first draft of a map of class composition. It is lighter on details in some parts than others, with only some of the main features sketched out. However, a map on its own is useless, unless we use it to start trying to organise.

We therefore invite feedback from readers on the project so far. If there are parts we missed that you can fill in some of the details, please get in touch. Developing a useful and critical understanding of class composition is necessarily a collective project. As always, we invite submissions to Notes from Below and can support an inquiry at any stage or from a worker with any experience. It is through inquiries that we can build an understanding of class composition that not only tells us what has changed, but identifies how we can fight collectively and win.

  1. Moore, J.W. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (London: Verso, 2015). 

  2. Milburn, K. Generation Left (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019) 

  3. Cant, C. (22 August 2022) ‘Mapping the Amazon Strikes’, Notes from Below. 


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