EDEditors of Notes From Below

AWAngry Workers Collective

EDWhere in the food industry did members of your collective work in West London? _

AWWe worked at different points along the food supply chain at various times. At one point, three of us worked as zero-hours temp workers at the Sainsbury’s chill warehouse, picking items that were then delivered to smaller stores across London. Over 4 years, five or six of us worked for varying amounts of time at Bakkavor, a food factory that produced ready meals and houmous to all the major supermarket chains. One of us worked at Noons, a factory making fried indian snacks. One of us worked to unload fruit and veg from cargo containers that were then processed and packaged for supermarkets. Another comrade worked in an airline catering factory near Heathrow. One of us worked as a Tesco delivery driver, taking the food that was unloaded, made in the factory and picked in the warehouse into people’s homes.

EDWhy did you think as a collective it was so important to organise in the food sector?

AWIt’s an essential industry - we all need to eat, and will need to do so during and after the revolution too! We saw how important it was during Covid when food factories had to keep running.

The food industry is a great example of the social production process under capitalism - it brings together workers from around the world, as agricultural labourers, pickers, packers, drivers, assembly line workers - even if they’re not necessarily aware of it or in a position yet to utilise this potential power. It drives technological advances in agriculture, food science, cold-chains and logistics. All that social and productive knowledge! While this cannot as yet be used for the collective good rather than the profit incentive, we think it is important to know how the system works and our own roles within it, so that we can take it over when the time comes.
We didn’t set out to work in the food industry specifically - it just so happened that the area we chose to live in (because there were loads of warehouses and logistics companies based there) were involved in food. It opened up a whole new world for us. But we are interested really in any bigger workplace involved in the essential industries.

EDAs a worker in the food industry, how far down the supply chain could you see? How widely and confidently could you predict disruptions that could be caused elsewhere by actions in your workplace, and vice-versa? How did this vary between workplaces and job roles?

AWWe couldn’t see very far. The work is highly divided, which means that each process is quite specific. When I was on the assembly line in the food factory, the view on each side was extremely limited. Pastry appears from somewhere, batches of already cooked sauce appear from somewhere, it is packaged and sent out from a different room and goes god-knows where. You’re stuck to your spot, and unless you move around the factory doing different jobs (which, as a temp worker, was easier to do), your work-view is very small. When I was a picker at the chill warehouse, I hadn’t worked in the food factory yet, so I didn’t know about the process that went into getting this ready meal I was scanning and throwing into a cage. I saw the full cages of picked food being collected, but didn’t see where it went after that - until I landed a job in the transport office. All of our different food-related jobs in that one area over 6-7 years gave us a pretty good picture of how things fit together and the labour process involved in each stage.

We also did our own research. We found out, for example, that some food companies owned land in India or had sub-contracts with thousands of farmers in Africa; that there had been large scale strikes of plantation workers who supply some of the companies we worked for; or that companies like Tesco are actively involved in the production process of their suppliers, rather than just being a supermarket chain. But many workers might not have this bigger picture. This is why we thought it was important for groups like ours to help support this process, in order to show that a) we’re part of something bigger, b) that we rely on each other’s work and cooperate, even if we don’t see it directly, and c) we are all in a similarly shit situation with regards to pay, conditions, work pressure etc. We had workplace reports from the various workplaces we worked in so that other jobs were demystified and workers could see further up and down the supply chain. There is an implicit and/or latent power in this. Whether we are in a position to use it or not brings up the question of struggle and organisation.

Because we had this overview and had different jobs at various points along the local food supply chain, we could be fairly sure what other groups of workers or departments or enterprises would be affected if disruption happened at one point. This was part of the ‘workers’ inquiry’, and is invaluable knowledge because of its utility in making workers plan their strategy during struggle. Ideally, anyway. This is why, for example, we addressed the delivery drivers when we had our slow-down action at the chill warehouse. We knew that deliveries had to be delivered at contractually given times, otherwise the logistics company would be fined. Any slowdown action would impact on the lorry drivers’ schedule, so they had to know what was going on and why, in order to give them an opportunity to find common cause and support the temp workers.

This wider vision is really essential - you have to have a broader class perspective and think about how to generalise a struggle. This is why I wanted to work at Bakkavor - a struggle there would have been a really positive reference point to other groups of workers in the local area. It is pretty rare nowadays for a group of workers to win a strike themselves. Look at the railway or postal workers. Solidarity strikes were made illegal for a reason. But just because they are illegal shouldn’t stop us from thinking about how we can do them. It takes coordination. At the moment, we rely on the big union officials to schedule their strikes at the same time. But we obviously cannot rely on this.

EDIn your book you mention a number of self-organised actions by workers in your workplaces - such as a wildcat strike in the houmous department at Bakkavor, a ‘slowdown’ at Sainsburys, and an overtime strike at Waitrose. In what direction did you try to push these forms of working-class self-organisation to have a longer-lasting impact?

AWWe wrote about these actions in our newspaper and made sure that workers at that and other local workplaces got a copy. Even within a workplace it is difficult to know what happened in another department with people on different shifts, rumours, language barriers etc. Some workplaces had a higher turnover of staff, meaning experiences like this were easily lost. We made sure they were written down and could be discussed amongst workers themselves. This is why you need reliable information - which comes from being in a position to know exactly what happened, as well as having a vehicle to disseminate that knowledge in a timely fashion. This is why independent publications that aren’t in the hands of the union bureaucracy are vital.
We also tried to supplement these actions with other things that would build resilience and open up spaces for workers to discuss their situation, for example, social events that brought workers and their families together, meetings for cleaners across all the different factory sites, meetings for women workers, meetings where workers could learn about past local strikes (we invited some Gujurati Grunwick workers to speak to mainly Gujurati Bakkavor workers).

Essentially, it was a focus on process, rather than a just ‘let’s win our demand’ approach that many union organisers on short-term contracts have nowadays. You might win a pay rise, but do workers feel stronger as a result? Do they feel they were driving the struggle? That they were leading it, making the decisions? Do they know more of their fellow workers? Do they feel more collectivity in their daily work? This is a long-haul approach and ‘success’ is more about this feeling of building class power, rather than winning a single dispute necessarily.
After I left the job, someone made a secret film recording of our factory manager threatening workers with redundancy if they didn’t turn up to work during the pandemic. (Many had called in sick because of fear of contracting the virus). This made national news and the new union organiser they had drafted in after they sidelined the more militant one saw this as a ‘win’. But it was soon out of the news, the manager’s leave of absence was short-lived and power relations inside the factory didn’t change.

EDBakkavor food factory was where a major part of your activity was based during your time in West London. You discuss how, at a certain point, one of you decided to become a rep with the recognised union GMB. How did this affect the struggles in which you were trying to push forward? And what difficulties did you face in organising through GMB in the food industry?

AWThe decision was based on various factors: we had already put in various leaflets to try and draw out existing militants or like-minded workers. This hadn’t borne fruit. It was difficult to access information from the other sites and even from within the same factory because there were so many workers and shifts and departments. And a new union official arrived on the scene who was more militant and someone you could actually work with. Being a rep gave you the chance to go to different sites, find out what was happening amongst different groups of workers, you had more access to what was happening within management, and it would be more difficult to sack you. While I never had any illusions about the union’s militant credentials, I underestimated what a snakepit it would be and how exhausting it would be to have to constantly battle inside the union to get anything done. At the same time, I forged out a space of relative autonomy because I went ahead and did things without necessarily asking for permission. Using the union logo and noticeboard and my rep position meant I could be more open and visible in my activities, which was important to gain trust and respect from colleagues. It meant we could do a mass pay campaign and it definitely gave us a reach and legitimacy to push things forward - in a workplace where workers were largely fearful, but were union members. At the same time, you’re always trying to undermine ‘the union’ as something that can ‘fix’ workers’ problems, because you know that, in reality, it won’t. There was a constant awareness and tension between using what the union can give, but trying to encourage workers’ self-organisation outside of this at the same time.

EDAs well as Bakkavor, you’ve said that members of your collective at various points worked at Sainsburys, a Waitrose, a Tesco warehouse and a Charlie Bigham food factory. How did class composition vary (or not) between these workplaces?

AWVery broadly, full-time factory workers tended to be from the Indian subcontinent, zero-hours temp workers were mainly from Eastern Europe, warehouses had a younger and more mixed (both in terms of sex and ethnic background) workforce, drivers were male and usually British or Eastern European. The Tesco warehouse was the anomaly in the sense that, although most workers were not white, a larger proportion were UK born. This is obviously very specific to that area. Over the years we were there, we saw how migration flows and workforce integration was playing out, for example, how more people from Romania started to come, overtaking the number from Poland. How temps became majority Romanian, while the workers who had come from Poland and had become more established were now getting permanent jobs. These things are never static. It was interesting to see how these changes played out on the shopfloor in terms of management strategies to control and undermine the various workforces, but it also highlighted how ‘racism’ can be deployed in more than just the usual sense of white against ‘other.’ All differences can potentially be exploited by capitalists; they can also be reproduced by workers’ own discrimination towards people from other countries or religions. This is also never static or absolute though, as different waves of immigration get integrated (or not), and in what ways. I think this is why we always tried to be more nuanced in our approach to these issues because it’s easy to end up reproducing simplistic ideas of ‘racism’ for your own agenda, rather than focusing on what’s driving these divisions, which is more likely to build common cause amongst working people.

EDDid you try to link struggles at these different workplaces together? And if so, what did you learn and/or achieve?

AWBecause we were so few, with people coming and going, people getting jobs at different times, we were never in a situation where we could ‘link up struggles’. This was a time of very low struggle activity in the UK, this was before the pandemic remember, so apart from a few local RMT tube strikes and smaller struggles of outsourced hospital workers, not much was happening. Nevertheless, I spoke as a ‘Bakkavor worker’ to cleaners and porters involved in a union wage campaign, which was made possible through being a GMB union rep. As I already mentioned, we made an effort to address lorry drivers in a distribution centre when the zero-hours temp workers inside were taking action. We also tried to make visible the struggle of migrant agricultural labourers in Almeria in Spain, whose vegetables ended up at my factory, and which was happening at the same time as our wage campaign at Bakkavor. When Amazon strikes started in Poland we distributed strike news at Amazon near Heathrow and Hemel Hemstead - we did the same when Tesco workers in Ireland went on strike. This was possible through rank-and-file contacts, which need to be nurtured as another important task of any revolutionary group.

We tried to operate so as to be in a situation where the linking up of struggles could be an actual possibility. This is why we had the solidarity network - to be in touch with people from different workplaces, and to have a network of ‘outside supporters’ if workers did take (usually minoritarian) action in a workplace. This is why we had the newspaper, so that local workers would know what was happening in other workplaces and see that people were struggling in their own ways, which might not be immediately visible. This is why we invited workers who had won their demands in a struggle through the United Voices of The World (UVW) union to a meeting of Adelie sandwich factory workers.

But while simple solidarity messages might provide some short-term motivation and encouragement, it will never replace a real ‘workers’ inquiry’ in the sense of workers coming together, across different jobs, unions, sectors, to analyse and discuss their own strategies and coordinated actions. For this, you need workers who have a certain level of confidence and organisation within a workplace. You need forums where they can speak independently, without the agenda of individual unions getting in the way. This was always our aim, to try and create spaces and opportunities for this to develop, but it was always a tightrope to navigate: how much do you steer from the front to encourage confidence where there is none, at the same time as not fostering any illusions or fetish of the external organisation that can fix something for you in the longer-term. We’d really welcome thoughts on this debate.

EDHow do you believe struggles in the food industry could have developed into a revolutionary situation? What role could your former workplaces play in such a situation?

AWIn the last chapter of our book, we do a thought experiment to flesh out some ideas about revolutionary strategy in the transition period. While someone on GoodReads (!) saw this as having “illusions of grandeur” (!), we think it’s important to do this in order to connect our daily political work to a future potential purpose. Many groups get stuck in trying to foster short-term gains, which then become stumbling blocks to get where you want to get to, in other words, a real communist society.

In this context, we wanted to sketch out the important role of the food industry in any (hopefully) revolutionary transition period, because we know from history that once people start to go hungry, odds are that things will take a turn for the worst. We mapped out where our food comes from in the UK, how much we import and export, where we grow our food, how concentrated some of the industries are e.g. the small number of flour mills that we rely on for most of our bread. ‘Taking over the means of production’ becomes more tangible when we look at where our food producers are and what their methods are. Workers’ knowledge is vital in keeping these operations running, giving us time to transform them into sustainable processes for the benefit of people, not profit. This is why we’re interested in how the machines work, and how the production process is organised. Such a global system is amazing and we need to understand it to see what we want to keep, change or destroy when capitalist logic isn’t the driving force of life anymore.

This process cannot be carried by a single sector of workers, at the same time we think that workers in the essential industries - from food, transport, engineering to energy and health - have a specific role to play. The immediate challenge of an inquiry is to understand the internal division between manual and intellectual labour and the international interdependency and separation of the essential industries. These will be the faultlines of any revolutionary process that have to be overcome. Class struggle is the school in which the working class learns how to take control of the essential industries and to use it as a social base for a proletarian transition and power vis-a-vis the class enemy: immediate socialisation of essential labour to allow a radical shortening of the working day in order to free time for further social transformation. These are not far-away questions, as the learning process towards that moment is continuous. For example, it was apparent during the pandemic that critical health scientists, doctors, nurses, workers in the pharma-industries and community organisations had the social responsibility to develop an alternative health plan in opposition to the self-interested and chaotic ‘plan’ of the degenerated political class, which had hardly any coordinating capability over a dispersed and segmented health sector. The role of communists is not to lament the mean Tories or the nasty capitalists, but to emphasise the wider social responsibility of the working class to develop a systematic plan, combining productive intelligence with insurgent capacity.

You can read an extended extract on working and organising at Bakkavor food factory from Angry Workers’ book, ‘Class Power on Zero Hours’, in this issue here.

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Angry Workers (@workersangry)

Angry Workers are a political collective involved in encouraging working-class self-organisation. They were formed in and around the Park Royal industrial estate in West London, and now are based between various cities.