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The Work Project: Organising in the Fifth Revolution

Barrow Workshop 3: participants start to design a 21s century work organisation. Image: Hilary Cottam

By Hilary Cottam

This is the fifth blog in a new series about the future of work. The series reflects on workshops that were held in five locations across Britain over the past two years. The project has been generously funded by Laudes Foundation, Open Society Foundation and James Anderson.

In the first blog, I set out the context for this project: a shifting socio-economic paradigm driven by technology change, looming environmental catastrophe and the unaddressed legacies of injustice that mean we must think again about work. In the second I wrote about working time, in the third about care, in the fourth about transition. Here I look at the new forms of organisation designed in the workshops and consider the designs in the context of a wider history of organising.

Good transitions cannot be navigated alone, they require shared dreams and new forms of organising.

In the third part of the workshops, I place a white paper tablecloth over the tables where participants are seated. I offer pens, glue, scissors and — for inspiration — piles of magazines and I ask each group to design the organisation they feel could support a good working life.

For most participants such an open, creative experience is something new. It feels slightly terrifying. But everyone gets stuck in, and in very different places with very different workers I watched as a set of common themes emerged: the design code for a new form of organisation.

Trade Unions: an exceedingly brief history

It is hard to imagine the gains of the 20th century — fair pay, regulated hours and conditions, the birth of the welfare state — without the rise of the Trade Union movement. Unions were legalised in the later part of the nineteenth century and they played a critical role in easing a profound period of technological transformation — the transition from predominantly craft-based work to mass industrial employment. They ensured that sections of the workforce at least had a decent deal.

The 20th century Trade Union movement had strong connections to local and global communities and a rich association with white, male industrial working-class identities. In the acclaimed TV series Seven Up, which has followed a group of 14 young people from very different backgrounds at intervals since 1964, it was the dream of a small boy to become a Union Leader, a leadership position of national importance and influence.

Today this story has changed. Unions are struggling to build and maintain membership. The labour historian Nelson Lichtenstein estimates it costs Unions in the US $1,000 to acquire a new member and in the US and the UK Unions have to fight to get a seat at government negotiations or a hearing from investors or business leaders. Frances O’Grady’s pivotal role during the pandemic negotiating furlough pay, despite initial strong reluctance from the Treasury, was a ray of hope for many and as the leader of the TUC, O’Grady has continued to insist that the pandemic must be a turning point leading to the re-introduction of fair pay.

Sticking it to the Man

About one third of workshop participants were union members (higher than the 23% UK average) and as the design work progressed, many chatted to their peers about their experience. Some tried to explain the importance of collective bargaining whilst others shared their sense of disillusion; that unions had become marketing organisations––‘buy this, buy that’––and that Union leaders are ‘friends of the bosses, not really on your side’. Analytical about power, most participants feel that inherited adversarial cultures make a lot of noise but little impact; ‘if anyone wants to stick it to the man, it would be me but I just don’t think there is ‘a man’ anymore’.

History suggests that with each technology revolution the shape of organising must change. Workers who came to the cities and worked on fourth revolution mass industrial production lines no longer found the tactics or organisational form of a previous era (the guilds) to be useful. Today in the fifth revolution many workers are again reaching for new tactics, new relationships and new forms of organisation that could meet current challenges and shape a shifting economic paradigm.

There are many from the Union movement who are also innovating, challenging their peers to radically adapt, borrowing lessons from the Global South, developing new digital organising tools (for example at co-worker.org) and through reaching out to those who have been left out of existing unions. The experiments of Soni Saket and Resilience Force organising the Storm Chasers (see blog #3) or closer to home the work of Unite Community in Shirebrook is illustrative. So is the work of Sara Horovitz, founder of the Freelancers Union in the US, and Hind ElIdrissi, the founder of WeMind in France, both of whom have experimented with new structures to organise the self-employed and freelancers.

These new organisers and organisations are at once recovering and re-interpreting older forms of organising and challenging the cultures and exclusions of inherited models. They are grappling with the tensions between the local and the global and creating new tactics. There are parallels — and some gaps — between these experiments and the design code produced in the workshops.

A New Design Code

‘Nobody is going to ride over the hill to rescue us, we’ve got to do this ourselves’. The new designs share a sense of ‘Common Fate’ and a desire to shape that fate in such a way that people and place might flourish. This vision in turn shaped the core principles which emerged.

Place Based: every table cloth shows a place-based design, an organisation that will be open to everyone locally and facilitate relationships between those in and out of work and those in different occupations at different levels. This design is an inversion of the dominant 20th century model characterised by a hierarchical (vertical) structure in which membership is based on skill or industry in national bodies that frequently leave local places as work declines. Here the ties are horizontal within and between communities.

More Life: there are the practical things to organise; good pay which includes the possibility of saving for a rainy day and predictable working hours free from surveillance. These are seen by everyone, everywhere as the baseline as discussed in the second blog. And then there are the bigger imaginings. All designs had a version of care at the centre: ideas of well-being, belonging, ideas that were often drawn on the table within the casing of a heart.

Care is a practical need: an answer to the ‘juggle juggle’ I wrote about in the third blog, and there were careful and considered conversations about how to re-connect the need for housing, child care and elder care to everyday lives. There were conversations about new roles: the organisation’s connectors who would be from the community, part of the organisation and could meaningfully help you navigate new forms of trouble from a housing crisis to your teenager’s anguish.

Connections to the ‘good’ jobs: national data shows workshop locations are places of ‘good’ jobs — Grimsby for example is home to a ‘green revolution’, and Barrow is home to BAE Systems. Both provide good work. But who has the jobs? Barrow is not unusual in that the well-paid jobs are taken by those who live far from the town. In 2019 a new Holiday Inn opened to house higher paid workers from Monday to Thursday. Their salaries fuel the billion-dollar revenues of the multi-national IHG hotel group and the already prosperous places these workers call home.

Connecting to the good jobs requires an institution which actively facilitates new connections and the deepening of local bonds. This in turn entails new forms of dialogue with owners and employers and it underlines the importance of education (as discussed in the fourth blog). From the perspective of BAE, the challenge is finding workers with the right qualifications: encouraging IHG to invest in the town was their way of addressing this conundrum. But now we need to find new ways that generate local economies and support local people in the ways the workshop designs enabled.

A Cultural Home: the new organisation offers a sense of belonging, it is part of the invisible wiring that makes a place worth living in and a life there a thing of beauty and flourishing. The designs specified a place that feels like a club, a place to feel welcome, respected, a place that reflects back to you your value and the wider bonds you are part of. The organisation is a home, a place to make, play, or spend time doing very little at all.

In her book Radical Space, Margaret Kohn looks at the history of working people’s clubs in Italy and considers their role in sustaining co-operative movements, alternative forms of local politics and community making. The House of the People which she describes has important parallels with the designs which emerged in the workshops. These are complex spaces in which people who are not necessarily alike, find each other, can reflect, link to broader concerns and build solidarities. She talks of ‘centers of contagion’ reflecting on the way that ‘the House’ can link people whose ideas previously existed uneasily together. These are places that can hold cherished memories of what was and places where new stories are created that shape the future. Through creating overlapping social bonds and places where people can explore in confidence, new things grow.

Kohn specifically addresses the issue of learning and how the creation of such a ‘house’ creates a microcosm of a world where it is meaningful to study and to learn. As Kohn describes: ‘it is not just about books and teachers and studying, it is about motivation and a culture in which these activities are meaningful’. Kohn’s words would resonate with workshop participants who want access to learning in order to widen their lives, as opposed to simply improving their value as ‘hands’.

I read Radical Space after facilitating the workshops, and I reflected on the intensity with which the political leadership of one local authority talked about their residents’ ‘low aspirations’; the perceived reluctance of adults to re-train or young people to travel to a new sixth form centre. The historical lessons and wider system view offered by Margaret Kohn explain why residents simply aren’t prepared to invest their time in education which does not seem meaningful. The wider cultural context is missing and needs to be found in new forms of local institution making and good work.

Mutual Structure: the table cloths showed organisations that would be locally owned, nested in wider networks, close to a mutual structure or perhaps a co-operative. These horizontal structures are again the inverse of vertical labour organising, characterised by hierarchical management structures. In the schema developed by Frederic Laloux to think about organisational structure and purpose, existing unions would be amber: stable, scaleable, top down command and control with an emphasis on formal roles and processes. By contrast workshop designs mirror Laloux’s colour teal: participative, high trust, focused on organic every-day change. Thought was given to a sustainable business model (which I plan to write about in the future) based on membership, government and business dues and new forms of community ownership: of energy for example or of digital provision.

The Great Awakening?*

Throughout this work and prominent in the designs of new organisations has been an implicit re-positioning of work — away from a narrowly defined economic category, the worker as a cog, the purpose simply a wage — towards a wider valuing of work and its place in a rich and good life.

In the first quarter of the 20th century union struggles were about pay and time. Gradually the emphasis on time was dropped.

Lise Butler, in a fascinating recent study of the work of Michael Young, excavates an alternative tradition on the British Left, always concerned about a narrow policy emphasis on work and wages. Young believed the post war emphasis on full employment would at best crowd out the things that are most important to a good life, and at worst create epidemics of alienation and mental burn out. Reflecting on the industrial transition, Michael Young wrote that ‘Workers found themselves at the base of not one but two administrative pyramids, the union and the state, and felt poorly represented by both’. For Young the answer was to embrace the identity of the consumer (an equally problematic identity to workshop participants) and a citizen’s income (an idea that found greater favour).

Young’s depiction of workers finding themselves at the base of two industrial and hierarchical pyramids––the union and the state––is one that Union organisers at Vickers (now BAE) wrote about in the 1970s. They wrote about the ‘bitter experience’ of exchanging one boss for another when the logic of capitalism does not change. And in response they started to question what is useful production: what else could Vickers make and how? The work at Vickers and at Lucas Engineering is a rich worker driven history which moves beyond a simple agitation for wages into questioning the purpose of the economy and the workers’ role within it. Those attending the workshops did not know this history but many were asking similar questions.

More recently in the US Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta have argued that the concept of collective bargaining needs to be expanded in this century: ‘organising people as workers is not enough. As the strategies deployed by capital change, the specific mechanisms working people access must also change’, they write in The Future We Need, a book I highly recommend, which centres worker voice and argues for new forms of organising that integrate concerns of work with wider community concerns such as housing and care; ‘big issues that go beyond immediate wants and needs’.

Hunnicutt, the historian of the Kelloggs’ experiment, (see blog #2) would concur. His argument is that the organisers who disrupted Kellogg’s shorter working day unwittingly sowed the seeds of the labour movement’s demise. Time is needed to organise and mobilise, but just as importantly time and leisure have proven to be more inclusive campaigning issues: encompassing concerns of health, education and culture mean more people want to join the movement.

Today we can see something that too many organisers in the last century could not: time to be is at the core of a good life and generates community flourishing. New forms of organising must start here with this wider agenda.

Most of those who write about work are economists caught up in what Pat Kane has described as ‘the cult of production’. But the concerns and imaginings of workshop participants are reflected in writings from other disciplines: history and sociology for example. Cornel West has talked about ‘existential democracy’, doing things ‘just because’. This is the good life and the foundation stone of 21st century organising: a material floor and a recovery of connecting and doing things for the sheer love.

*I first heard Erica Smiley using this phrase, challenging the doom narrative of the Great Resignation

Hilary Cottam is a social activist, the author of Radical Help and an Honorary Professor at UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose @hilarycottam

The Work Project is made possible by a grant from Laudes Foundation. I’m grateful to the Open Society Foundation and to James Anderson for financial support which funded the workshops in 5 UK locations between 2020 and 2021 and I would like to thank the workshop participants and my local hosts in Barking, Barnsley, Barrow, East Ayrshire, Grimsby and Peckham.

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