Striking Back: How We Win meeting Photos: Unjum Mirza and Shabbir Lakha

Cici Washburn reports from an inspiring London meeting where Chris Smalls, from the US Amazon Labor Union, urged rank-and-file organisation

The room was packed – standing room only, as Chris Smalls joined a platform of strikers and organisers. There was a real mood for a fight back from the base of the unions and the audience welcomed the news of a conference in June for rank-and-file trade unionists to organise.

Ellen Grogan, a striking nurse from the RCN, opened the meeting with a very warm welcome for Chris Smalls and thanked him for being an inspiration to workers everywhere. Ellen spoke about the crucial fight for the NHS and called on all to join and help build the national NHS SOS demonstration on Saturday 11 March. She said,

“We must resist. Where is our resistance? It has to be with the unions and collaboration, and we’ve had huge support from so many different unions on our pickets and helping with prep and stuff like that. It has really been invaluable and given us a sense of camaraderie. The fact that we’re in this together. We’re all fighting for our lives…. The NHS does not belong to the government. The NHS does not belong to any private entity. It’s the people’s NHS and we want it back.”

Photo: Chris Nineham

Jeremy Corbyn spoke of the need for unity and building union membership particularly among precarious workers. Jeremy talked about warehouses like Sports Direct which are built on former mining pits which were strongly unionised before they were deliberately destroyed,

“Mines replaced by a warehouse where workers were timed when they went to the toilet, not allowed breaks of any sort, treated abominably, were on short-term contracts or even zero-hours contracts”.

Jeremy quoted Tony Benn in saying we have the same battles to be fought over and over again, and said of the attacks on workers’ rights today that we must keep fighting and winning.

Photo: Grace Cowan

James Farrar, General Secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union, started by saying,

“Thank you Ellen for all your solidarity and support for mini cab drivers. Ellen has been out on the picket lines with us, it’s wonderful to have nurses and mini cab drivers standing in solidarity together. Because we meet – we meet when mini cab drivers are driving service workers home late at night and we talk”.

He highlighted the importance of the ADCU victory at the Supreme Court but insisted that the fight for workers’ rights cannot be won through the courts, or through parliament, but “we will win through organising”.

“Look Amazon and Uber: they are two big global platforms. They are organised against us with obscene power and wealth… Last week I heard the Uber CEO telling investors that inflation was a tailwind for Uber. Because all of the people who cannot make enough money to support themselves in their day job are forced to go out in the evening and work for Uber. That’s what ‘success’ looks like.”

James also spoke about the hostile environment facing Uber and App drivers and how technology means that app workers often from migrant backgrounds are discriminated against with facial recognition, other horrific racist measures. James alerted the meeting of the dangers of the Tories’ Data Protection and Digital Information Bill allowing employers to track, control and violate the rights of their workforce with impunity.

Photo: Cici Washburn

Cathy, an Amazon Flex driver and ADCU member drove down from Manchester with her children to attend the meeting. Speaking from the floor, she told the meeting how workers are organising in the workplace even in conditions of hyper scrutiny and control.

Photo: Cici Washburn

Nadia Giscir who attended the meeting described it as vital and said it ‘showed how crucial organising is and how organisation is key to how we win. Bosses are counting on us being isolated and unable to communicate within our own workplaces between workers let alone between unions.’

Lewis Baker, one of the McDonalds strikers in 2017 said he was “moved to tears” when Darren Westwood, a Coventry Amazon striker, spoke of how workers who suffered heart attacks and a burst appendix while working were now facing disciplinaries and warnings for absence.

“Listening to the stories of striking Amazon workers really hit home and reminded me of when I worked in McDonald’s. Precarious workers are often treated so badly by their employers and face some of the worst working conditions imaginable. Maximising profits and meeting targets is put before people’s health and wellbeing. Companies such as Amazon and McDonald’s should have a duty of care to their staff but they don’t. It’s important that we spread the message that workers across different companies, industries and sectors are all facing similar situations and we can change this by coming together and fighting back”

In his inspiring address to the meeting, Darren, who was accompanied by fellow Amazon striker Conor Geraghty, talked about the Amazon wildcat strikes last August and described how workers took the brave decision to walk off the job, having to exit the building past management offices, key card points and security. Despite the huge obstacles, they successfully unionised and have grown union membership in the warehouse:

“Originally 50 people signed up to the union inside Coventry and although Amazon will tell you it’s just a small number of people it used to be one in fifty inside that warehouse, its now one in five. We’ve grown”. 

Nadia commented,

“Can you imagine that feeling of anxious dread? Would people be able to follow through on something that seemed like a really insurmountable journey? That’s daunting for anybody but they did it! They downed tools and made the journey to the picket. I found that really moving. It hit me in that solar plexus. These actions being so simple but so effective and so potent”

Chris Smalls received huge applause and described honestly the hard graft and necessity of organising:

“Organising is hard, it’s hard, it’s stressful, you’ll have days that are hard… but being there when the workers are ready, that’s the best part of organising… We’re out front, we’re outspoken. I spent 300 days at a bus stop outside the building, because I had to meet the workers.”

Glancing over to Ellen who’d explained that she had retired but has now returned to striking with fellow nurses, he continued, “You can’t have one foot in, she understands even though she’s retired”.

Chris asked the Amazon Coventry Strikers Darren and Conor how much they were paid, and was shocked when they replied “£10.50”. He explained that by unionising and taking industrial action, they are paid much better at his former warehouse in the US, “but we’ve got your back”, he said. “We are way behind and way behind what we deserve… Understand that we want a lot more, we want to fight for it.” He spoke of the importance of international solidarity and pledged that they will work together. “Bringing people together is how we’re going to defeat not just Jeff Bezos but all these billionaires and corporations”, he said to a huge applause and a standing ovation.

Health workers, train drivers, lecturers, couriers and other workers and activists contributed to the discussion. Many spoke about the need for coordination and escalation of the strikes for us to win. While the union bureaucracies seem to simply want the Tories talk to them, rank-and-file trade unionists are are fighting to get the Tories out.

Photo: Yaseen Aslam

Feyzi Ismail from Goldsmiths UCU called for everyone in a union or trades council to bring a motion to their branch, calling for all unions with a live strike mandate to join the 300,000 NEU and 100,000 PCS workers on strike on 15 March. The meeting was also the launch of the ‘How We Fight, How We Win: A Rank-and-File Organising Conference’ on 10 June which will be a forum for workers to debate how we organise as rank-and-file members at the base of the unions and work together to win.

The atmosphere in the room was electric. One attendee, Grace Cowan said,

“The meeting was absolutely on fire! It was the most inspiring meeting I’ve been to for a very long time, every speaker was brilliant and brought a new perspective about how we can and how we will win this class struggle. The contributions from the floor were all brilliant as well and showed how engaged everybody is in this fight; from Amazon and Uber workers to healthcare workers and train drivers. It’s exciting to feel like everyone’s finally realising we will win together”.

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