Job cuts are hard enough to tackle with a strong union. How did workers resist and build organisation starting with just three union members? They didn’t save jobs, but winning higher redundancy payments boosted organisation and confidence.
After one week of redundancy consultation, faced with 50% job losses, we won double statutory redundancy pay for everyone, including those with less than two years’ service who wouldn’t have got anything at all. This might be an absolutely minuscule step for the international proletarian struggle, but for my tiny, unorganised, private sector workplace, this was a big achievement.
It is always worth a fight! Initially pretty much everyone was resigned to job cuts and shitty terms, me included. Class struggle is for the public sector, no? My office is like the definition of ‘tiny, no hope, private sector, young workforce, who gives a shit’. Then I thought I might as well give it a stab, even if we fail miserably. As it turned out we didn’t. Less than a week into the redundancy consultation we doubled our redundancy offer and we went on to challenge many of the redundancies.
We did it through collective action. A majority of staff signed a letter to management demanding a proper, extended, consultation process, and better financial compensation for those who would eventually leave. Signatories included many whose jobs were already safe, a real show of solidarity. The letter had no legal leverage at all, but in a workplace which has previously seen no collective action, it was enough to terrify our owner into a pretty big financial concession.
Getting the letter together wasn’t easy. It required days of arguing, explaining, and redrafting to get people on board. I wanted to give up by day two, when I had booked a day off. I spent the first 3 hours writing it, then on Skype, asking colleagues who were in the office to put their names down and start circulating. Showing colleagues political principle and conviction to my workmates is what got them on board. If you’re a socialist in a workplace, your confidence and clarity will carry people a long way so it’s always worth trying.
You have to know and be nice to EVERYONE you work with if you want to organise effectively. Particularly in a young workplace where these kind of things carry lots of weight and there is no established culture/memory of collectivity or class struggle. I used to be really good at this when I worked full-time. I would organise office socials, find subtle ways to stir things up. I would go to the pub every Friday and make sure I knew everyone. When I went part-time I got lazy and stopped doing any of this, and it made my life harder when the redundancies hit, attempting to win people on side who I’ve barely exchanged a word with for the past 18 months. All the funny stunts I pulled at work before might seem ridiculous but they genuinely worked and laid the ground work for some people to trust me enough to discuss the way forward.
This is not the same thing as relying on personal relationships in a dispute. Some of the people I get along with most have been the flakiest and quickest to crumble. Two of the colleagues fighting the hardest, and happiest to join the union, were privately educated.
All struggles are hard and all workplaces are different, but in small offices it can be really really tough to find the will to fight your boss. Long standing personal relationships with management obscure power relations and present one of the biggest obstacles. Our immediate boss was being chopped himself but felt forced to oversee the restructure by the owner. But tough shit, that’s what happens when you become a manager. Convincing everyone else that, as a buffer between us and the owner, we have no choice but to put pressure on him was hard. People felt the manager is a ‘#NiceGuy’ and they feel guilty about making his life hell. Because people are essentially good and decent, no amount of economic reasoning will change this. Convincing them that they should fight him for their own financial gain, or even to save their jobs, will be fruitless when they see how tired and demoralised he is from the process, and they feel sorry for him. This says lovely things about human nature but depressing things about class consciousness.
The same goes for unionising and legal advice. It’s really important to try to get people to unionise and to make sure they know their rights, and you should obviously demonstrate these at every opportunity as it scares the shit out of management and their fear helps us win. But, no amount of legal protection/guidance is going to give people the confidence to fight if they aren’t convinced of the wider reasons for doing so. Therefore you have no choice but to win people politically. The great thing about unorganised, small workplaces, is that you can cut through the crap and get straight to the meat of the argument. If they want us to propose an alternative restructure, how about a workers co-operative with the owner sacked, and his salary redistributed through the company? Why should he keep his job when it’s his mismanagement that’s got us here? Isn’t it our work that’s been making him rich all these years? These arguments are obviously far harder, but far more rewarding long-term and actually help build political ideas that people will carry into their next jobs/life in general. Introducing and winning these arguments is the biggest achievement so far.
This shit is hard, and harder in an office where everything is small and personal. If you work closely with the manager it will be particularly nasty. It doesn’t matter that he’s always been nice to you, that he let people change their hours or turned a blind eye to some stuff. You have to constantly remind yourself that all of this is meaningless when half of your colleagues are about to lose their livelihoods, and he’s the one implementing it. He WILL try to undermine you once he identifies you as the ring leader, and you will feel like shit. You will need the support of your friends and comrades outside of work to remind you you’re doing the right thing, and to keep you going, emotionally regenerating you every single night so that you can get up and face it in the morning.