Notes From Below: Workers’ Inquiries #HM2018

There is a revival of “workers’ inquiries”, where researchers cooperate with workers to investigate work in the process of organising resistance. At the heart of this today is the Notes from Below (NfB) project which began at the 2017 Historical Materialism conference and is already producing valuable insights. At this year’s conference, NfB organised the meetings on workplace organising, a subject too often neglected by academic Marxists. Ian Allinson reports.

Notes From Below

Jamie Woodcock, one of the editors of NfB[i], explained the project. Workers’ inquiries have a long but patchy lineage, starting with a 101 question survey created by Marx and taken up by groups including the Johnson-Forest tendency in the USA, Socialisme ou Barbarie in France and the Workerists (Operaismo) in Italy.

Workers’ inquiries are an approach combining knowledge generation and organising, looking at how work and the way it is organised are changing and what that might mean for effective resistance. Classical workers’ inquiries look at the “technical composition” and “political composition” of the class. Technical composition is the material organisation of labour power, including the technology used, how the work is organised, how people are managed, and how value is extracted. Political composition is about how the working class becomes a force for struggle, considering the individual and collective forms of resistance, tactics, and forms of organisation including unions and political groups. NfB have added a third element to the approach – the “social composition”, looking at factors originating outside the workplace which may influence political composition. These include the influences of the state and social services, housing and rent, migration and borders.

Organising in the service sector

The value of this approach is best seen from some examples. Callum Cant’s research on a major pub chain uncovered some fascinating dynamics. Front of house bar staff are constantly visible while working and their work is very individualised – mainly interacting by getting in each other’s way. In contrast, kitchen staff work collaboratively in an enclosed space subject only to the supervision of kitchen supervisors paid only marginally more. The supervisors have often been promoted out of the workforce and are then expected to supervise their friends. Before any organising, the forms of resistance differed radically. Bar staff’s resistance was very individualised, and often had negative impacts on their colleagues, such as work avoidance leading to colleagues having to work late. Kitchen staff tended to be more collective, such as enjoying “stock shrinkage” together at someone’s flat.

The result of these differences is that the kitchen becomes the organising centre. Once kitchen workers could flip their supervisor to side with them, their kitchen quickly reached 100% union density. Bar workers have to visit the kitchen to collect food orders, and can then be recruited. In one of the best organised pubs new bar staff were typically recruited to the union within a day of their first visit to the kitchen. Staff turnover is high, and not just from people leaving to get better jobs. Sackings are frequent, often as a result of individualised resistance – workers had been sacked for not paying for drinks which cost the pub less than 1p. Workers also transfer to other pubs in the same chain. Though frustrating for an organised pub to lose members, this became a mechanism for spreading unionisation.

Though Callum Cant is critical of aspects of Jane McAlevey’s work, he felt that her concept of “organic worker leaders” fitted their experience closely. However, where Jane McAlevey puts huge focus on winning over hostile leaders, pub workers trying to organise sometimes resorted to waiting for them to leave, given the high turnover. In one pub there had been a group of hyper-aggressive laddish male workers who were close to the manager and allowed to get away with anything, increasing their dependence on the patronage of the manager. In general, women had been more ready to join the union and more likely to play leadership roles in the union. Before organising, workers rationalised their situation by blaming themselves – they were bad people who had made bad decisions and so deserved the bad outcomes they were living with. This changed as the workers organised – standing up to managers and workers they labelled as “bootlickers” who said they weren’t worth £10 an hour for the work they did. Workers gradually created a collective identity for themselves as “not bootlickers”. The joint action by fast food, hospitality and platform workers on 4 October had inspired workers who took part, feeling like they were part of a rising movement. Some workers had got involved in renters action, applying the skills they had learned organising at work. The inquiry gave some clues about how power might be built within hospitality, and how that might spread horizontally between branches, vertically along the supply chain, and outwards to the community.

Hackney Picturehouse workers at an action demanding the living wage

Joe Kearsey talked about how employers exploit and take advantage of people’s interests in many jobs. These might be pre-existing interests that lead them into particular jobs, like film fans taking cinema jobs, or interests that develop in the job. He gave the example of baristas whose jobs are very boring so who doodle on lattes as both work-avoidance and a small outlet for creativity – but who are then praised for their efforts, entered for competitions etc. Many workers enjoy aspects of their job, from camaraderie with colleagues to caring for patients. Many have to rely on each other to provide flexibility (e.g. swapping shifts) that their employer doesn’t provide. Employers take advantage of all this to get people to do unpaid work, undertake training in their own time etc. Workers also provide mutual support for dealing with abusive behaviour from managers or customers – which is functional for capital as it keeps workers productive. Joe recommended a couple of articles exploring the gendered aspects of all this[ii].

Cleaning and capital

Achille Marotta has researched the cleaning sector. Commercial cleaning took off as an industry in response to workers’ struggle for health and safety. Prior to the Health & Safety At Work Act 1974 workers were usually expected to clean their own workplaces, often resulting in hazardously dirty environments. The Act forced many companies to employ cleaners. A large proportion are now outsourced, which enables cutting costs through worse terms and conditions which are easier to achieve once cleaners are separated from the rest of the workforce. The early cleaning workforce was largely female, but in the neoliberal era white women have largely been replaced by migrant workers, with a roughly equal gender balance, though roles within cleaning are still gendered (e.g. men taking out bins). With the reduction in feminisation came increased professionalisation, with uniforms, industry awards etc. However, women have played a disproportionate role in cleaners’ struggles, possibly because of the additional abuse women cleaners face. Employers use division to maintain discipline in the workforce. It is common to employ managers or supervisors from the same language group as their staff, who hire migrant workers without paperwork in return for a cut of their wages. The vulnerability to immigration enforcement increases the risks of speaking up, on top of supervisors control of shift allocation for workers typically on zero- or low-hour contracts.

Cleaning provides clean space – a “basic commodity” required for all other production. It is particularly critical in some industries such as health, food production and retail. In these industries, where cleaners have a lot of potential power, outsourcing has the additional advantage for capital of enabling other workers from the same cleaning company to be brought in to cover strikes.

The cleaning industry works with very low capital investment and wages making up about 80% of costs. This makes it much easier for new businesses to enter the market than industries with higher capital costs. Though there are about 12,000 companies employing less than ten cleaners, the concentration and centralisation of capital through mergers and takeovers means that 56% of UK cleaners are now employed by companies with over 250 workers – a higher proportion than for UK workers overall. This includes multinational giants such as ISS, Sodexo and Mitie. The big companies have the advantage of economy of scale, while small ones are better able to use illegal undercutting tactics such as not paying correct wages and phoenixing, which is going bust without paying wages or bills, then reappearing as a new company. Commercial cleaning contracts typically last about three years, and on each rebid suppliers are put under pressure on both cost and quality (frequency of cleaning etc.). Like most industries with low technical composition (capital:labour ratios), cleaning operates with low profit margins and is highly competitive, with employers complaining they are “forced” to pay low wages. Cleaners find themselves caught in the crossfire between employers pushing for a greater workload and client complaints about cleaning quality. Companies keep workers shifts short to avoid entitlement to breaks. Many workers have multiple part-time cleaning jobs with different companies.

We normally think of capitalists as competing by improving productivity by investing capital to reduce labour requirements. Achille argued that the dynamic has been the reverse in the cleaning industry, with employers trying to increase profits by cutting capital and then intensifying work to overcome the decreased efficiency that results. Companies don’t provide enough fluids for floor cleaning, so cleaners have to use water, making cleaning less effective and forcing cleaners to take longer to get them clean or to re-clean floors. Mops are not replaced until long after they have ceased to be clean and effective. Protective equipment such as gloves are not replaced often enough, leaving workers exposed to hazardous chemicals. I initially found this argument surprising; while cutting capital costs slowed the work, if the employer was able to respond to that by making workers work longer or harder, couldn’t another employer undercut them by making the same work intensification while maintaining the speed and quality of work by not cutting capital expenditure? On reflection, this could be an extension of the well-known situation where low wages stop capital investment being worthwhile, as using more labour is cheaper than buying machinery.

Though the fixed capital of the cleaning companies is very low and wages make up a large proportion of costs, the client organisations have vast capital tied up in their buildings, and cleaners’ low wages make up a tiny part of their costs. This has led many cleaners’ campaigns to target client organisations just as much as their own employer.

Workers outside the workplace

Bjarke Skaerlund Risager applied a similar approach to look at a rent strike in Hamilton, Ontario[iii] opposing rent increases and demanding repairs. Ontario used to be a centre of the steel industry, but is now experiencing rapid rent increases and gentrification as it is within commuting distance of Toronto which has a housing price bubble. Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), which are publicly traded and aim at a steady return on investment to investors, have been buying up housing in Hamilton. Hamilton has rent controls, but rents are not controlled when properties are empty, and landlords can make above guideline rent increases if they have made significant renovations. REITs have been exploiting both loopholes to rapidly increase rents through a strategy they call repositioning. They locate gaps between rents and market rents, buy buildings, renovate them, offer tenants cash to move out, push up the rents, drive out working class tenants and attract richer ones. InterRent, the landlord in this campaign, has 9000 homes and a turnover of two billion Canadian dollars.

In trying to apply the workers’ inquiry approach outside the workplace, the campaigners knocked on all the doors, asking questions, building up detailed spreadsheets to understand the situation and organise the campaign. They produced bulletins presenting information, ideas and arguments back to the tenants – this is another key part of the NfB strategy. Bjarke treated technical composition as factors such as the rent gap, lack of rent control during vacancies, direct and indirect displacement, and the lack of alternative affordable housing; while social composition included the working class tenants, immigrant and racialised tenants, elderly tenants, declining real income and precarity. This is a poor area with lots of immigrants and language barriers. At the start of the campaign people expressed a lot of alienation, being treated as worthless commodities by the landlord, not people. Fear of being priced out of housing was greatest for tenants who had been there a long time, who had most roots so were most reluctant to move, and whose rents were lowest. This proved an advantage for organising. The threat of losing housing was extremely stressful for tenants, many of whom felt guilty about the idea of not paying their rent. Rent strikes are essentially passive forms of struggle, so the campaign included collective actions such as taking a bus to present demands at the company HQ and the CEO’s mansion. Once people had spoken out and seen a positive response and support for their actions, their guilt and attachment to legal compliance was undermined. The campaign is a process of coming together as a community, with people learning about each other and educating themselves.

Choke points?

Jonny Jones reported on dockworker organising, focusing on the London Gateway port which opened in 2013. Docks have seen dramatic falls in the numbers of workers, but are connected with large numbers of workers in warehousing, distribution and delivery – there are over 1.5m workers in logistics in the UK, and the industry relies on people in various other occupations. Logistics is vulnerable to the “bullwhip effect”[iv] where a small disturbance at one part of the supply chain can cause much greater disruptions further up or down the supply chain. Understanding the geography of logistics is key to identifying the choke points. Dockworkers have rebuilt union organisation in the UK since the destruction of the National Dock Labour Scheme, but London Gateway was set up by DP World to be a union-free port which could undercut Tilbury, Felixstowe and Southampton. Dockworkers had been demanding that their union tackle the port as early as 2007, but had little support. After the port opened and Unite was refused access to recruit, the union initially responded with a “corporate campaign” targeting DP World’s reputation with demonstrations and stunts. This had little impact, as the company does not deal with consumers and was comfortable with its port being known as non-union. Things changed when rank and file dockworkers met with European counterparts, leading to Spanish dockers blockading a ship. DP World immediately returned to negotiations and signed a Memorandum Of Understanding giving Unite access to the port from February 2014.

Initial attempts only recruited around 10% of the dockers. This wasn’t only because of an anti-union campaign by the employer, but also because the port hadn’t taken off. Workers felt they were being paid to do little or nothing – an experience which can make workers feel demands for better terms and conditions aren’t justified, that they lack power, and are vulnerable to dismissal.

DP World had vast capital embedded in the port, and couldn’t afford to leave it idle. They responded by cutting costs to attract business from other ports, creating intense competition and cost-cutting. At the same time they had to expand their workforce by bringing in dockers from other (unionised) ports. In 2015 Unite gained a second period of access, this time recruiting a majority of dockers and winning union recognition. Because of the level of mechanisation, there are only a few hundred dockers, but union membership density is now up to 95%. This base is being used to unionise other sections of the workforce, including workers employed through agencies – which is the entry route to direct employment.

Dockers recently unofficially restricted throughput by only using one crane at a time on safety grounds. This quickly caused chaos and won significant concessions. However, Jonny argued that two aspects of the new terms and conditions could store up problems for the future. Workers have pushed back the “frontier of control” by taking control of work rotas, but this is already causing tension as it co-opts the union into taking over a management function. The deal also creates a divisive two-tier workforce, with new hires on worse terms.

The role of workers’ inquiries

The role of Notes From Below in the UCU pensions strike was also part of the discussion. NfB produced a series of bulletins for distribution in workplaces and on picket lines, created a Facebook group which helped communication between strikers, and launched an open letter which attracted over 10,000 signatories pressuring the union not to accept a proposed deal. One of the challenges, which also arose from some of the inquiries, is how to sustain political activity and organisation after the peak of a fight, particularly given the limited resources of NfB.

Demonstration outside UCU headquarters in March 2018

The inquiries featured on the NfB website so far have disproportionately related to the work of militant micro-unions such as UVW and IWGB, but the editors explained that this was due to proximity and limited resources rather than a strategic choice – they recognise that the same dynamics are at work within some parts of bigger unions, albeit with the added challenge of dealing with a more entrenched bureaucracy that often tries to socialise new activists into the old ways of doing things rather than supporting their initiative.

The workers’ inquiry approach is producing interesting insights into work and resistance. At the same time, it is making a real but small-scale contribution to organising. The approach involves a big commitment from researchers spending many hours with the workers – just as an organiser would. A strength of the approach is the emphasis it puts on helping workers learn and expose the power relationships in which they are enmeshed. It would be interesting to see a comparison between this and Jane McAlevey’s model of highly participatory Power Structure Analysis.

Most of the inquiries reported so far have begun “from above” with researchers from the outside, and developing a greater “from below” element as the researcher develops relationships with the workers. However, there are already a few examples of workers getting in touch with NfB wanting support to use the approach to organise their own workplaces.


[i] Jamie Woodcock was arguing for Workers’ Inquiries back in 2013

[ii] The Shame Of Servers, Jennifer M. Murray

Gender, Sexuality, and Risk in the Practice of Affective Labour for Young Women in Bar Work


[iv] Bringing social relations back in: (re) conceptualising the ‘Bullwhip Effect’ in global commodity chains


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