John Clarke welcomes an inspiring and fascinating collection of studies of global workers’ struggles but argues that the ‘workers’ inquiry’ approach is not a substitute for wider political work

Workers’ Inquiry and Global Class Struggle: Strategies, Tactics, Objectives, ed. Robert Ovetz (Pluto Press 2020), 288pp.

Whether you’re entirely supportive or highly critical of the perspective it offers, Workers’ Inquiry and Global Class Struggle contains much that is fascinating and thought provoking. Sixteen authors, including Robert Ovetz, who edited the work, have compiled studies of capitalist exploitation and the capacity for working-class resistance in some nine countries across the globe.

Since Ovetz’s introduction sets out the case for the approach the book will take, it needs to be considered in some detail. He begins by acknowledging that: ‘There is little doubt that the global working class is on the retreat and has been for a very long time’ (p.1). Yet, even as the neoliberal assault continues, he argues, ‘the threat of global class struggle is clearly apparent to capital even if it has been overlooked by union leaders, labor scholars, and working-class militants’ (p.1). To Ovetz, an understanding of that struggle requires that detailed attention be paid to much more than clearly defined forms of working-class organisation. As another contributor to the book, Jamie Woodcock, has put it, ‘between the placid workplace and the all-out strike there are a range of practices – some collective, others individual – that are worthy of sustained attention’ (p.1). This book, then, sets out:

‘to identify, investigate and analyze new forms of worker cooperation, self-organization and struggle but also to examine the strategies, tactics, objectives and organizational forms undertaken by these workers and the possibilities for circulating their struggles across borders and unleashing a new cycle of global class struggle’ (p.1).

Ovetz tells us that: ‘To achieve this it is critical that we conduct workers’ inquiries into the current class composition in as many strategic countries and sectors as possible’ (p.2). In this regard, the nine case studies in the book are presented as ‘a step towards carrying out a global workers’ inquiry’ (p.2). He sets out something of the history and key objectives of this approach.

In 1880, too late in life to take the initiative further, Karl Marx drew up a survey that might enable ‘a serious inquiry into the position of the French working class’ to obtain ‘an exact and positive knowledge of the conditions in which the working class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves’ (p.2). Marx’s survey was revisited and acted upon at various times in later years, in the US, France, Italy and Germany. However, this book is very much inspired by a call, issued in 1995, by ‘independent working-class scholar’, Ed Emery, to ‘carry out workers’ inquiries around the world’ (p.2).

No politics without inquiry’

Ovetz draws attention to Emery’s assertion that ‘there should be no politics without inquiry’ (p.2) and adds that ‘there should be no struggle before we know who we are, the conditions under which we work, how capital is organized, its weaknesses and choke points, as well as our sources of strength, power and leverage’ (p.2). Clearly, as an advocate of this approach, Ovetz sees the workers’ inquiry as an indispensable guide to strategy and effective action. He tells us that: ‘This book, however, takes a relatively unique path in that it focuses on an analysis of the class composition …’ (p.5). Based on this,

‘What emerges from these workers’ inquiries is not only that class struggle has never ceased or gone underground during the decades of defeat, but also that workers have been experimenting with new forms of organization, strategies, and tactics that can be found inside, outside, or in conflict with unions’ (p.5).

Ovetz quotes the assertion of the Italian workerist, Raniero Panzieri, that ‘the sole limit to the development of capital is not capital itself, but the resistance of the working class’ (p.6) and adds that ‘a workers’ inquiry into class composition provides us with confirmation that if there is no worker struggle then there is no need for capital to innovate’ (p.6). It might be said that this rather overstates things and that competition with other capitalists and the process of extracting surplus value would drive innovation, even in the mercifully impossible situation of an entirely passive working class. However, as Ovetz has it: ‘We call this understanding of the dialectical push and pull of class struggle the theory of class composition’ (p.8). He tells us that: ‘A workers’ inquiry into class composition is not an academic exercise but what Tronti called ‘class science’ (p.8).

Ovetz explains that workers’ inquiries also ‘have the greater objective of rupturing capital and transitioning out of and beyond capitalism’ (p.9). He believes they are so decisive that: ‘Before (the working class) can make the politics of revolution, a workers’ inquiry into the global working class and its adversary is needed’ (p.9).

For Ovetz, the application of class composition theory is very much focused on an effort to understand elemental forms of working-class self-organisation that others may miss or fail to appreciate properly. He advances notions of ‘unknown committees’ and ‘counter-planning on the shopfloor’ (p.21). He stresses that these forms extend beyond the workplace into working-class communities or ‘the social factory’ (p.24). He sees this self-organised form as one that is significantly at odds with existing trade unions. The actions that it can produce ‘provide a check on the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) of contract unionism, which trade concessions on wages and benefits, and prohibit collective action, in exchange for addressing control issues and the ability to strike.’ He asserts that, ‘… the future role for contract unionism in managing class struggle, despite attempts to relabel it as social movement unionism or bargaining for the common good, will continue to decline’ (p.25). This perspective needs to be considered further but, before doing so, it might be good to take a look at the nine workers’ inquiries that are presented in this book.

Militant co-research’

The first three of the studies deal with transport and logistics and these begin with a ‘workers inquiry from above’ (p.31) by Dario Bursztyn, dealing with the Camioneros truckers’ union in Argentina. It first considers the ‘integration of the Argentinian economy into world capitalism as a supplier of raw materials to the world’s largest economies,’ and does so because this is ‘critical for understanding the emergence of the Camioneros’ struggle for social justice’ (p.43). A situation exists, Bursztyn very plausibly argues, where ‘the central role of trucking in moving cargo to global markets has provided the Argentinian working class with strategic leverage’ (p.43).

Bursztyn provides a very interesting look at the truckers’ union, its forms of organising, political orientation and major successes. We see how the Camioneros union has been able to use to its advantage the fact that it ‘occupies the central place in this moment of the development of capitalism in Argentina’ (p.61). Though it shares some of Ovetz’s ideas on the objectives of a workers’ inquiry, it is hard to see how such a study ‘from above’, with no participation by workers, relates to the ‘militant co-research’ (p.9) approach previously advanced.

The next study, by Alpkan Birelma, ‘concerns a case of class composition led by a Turkish trade union representing road transport workers called Tum Tasima Iselieri Sendikasi (TUMTIS)’ (p.64). Birelma examines major gains made by the union in organising workers in the freight transportation industry. He poses the question: ‘How could such a small union win such consistent victories against global corporations and turn into a respected and inspirational member of the international labor movement?’ (p.64).

Using what he calls the ‘power resources approach in a critical way’, Birelma examines both the objective and subjective factors at work (p.65). A picture emerges of a union well placed to apply pressure on employers, with a ‘leadership that embraces a comparatively higher level of class unionism’ (p.77). The study shows that TUMTIS has ‘relatively high levels of member participation and internal cohesion’ (p.81). The union’s effective use of the threat of a strike (p.80) and the international support it has generated are explored (p.83). While the findings are fascinating, it’s easy to conclude that they might have been produced by a researcher who wasn’t invested in the concept of the workers’ inquiry.

The third chapter, written by Anna Curcio, provides an inspiring account of how Italian logistics workers, in the Po Valley, challenged the conditions they faced, as highly exploited workers within the global supply chain. ‘The use of race and gender can be vividly seen in the Italian logistics warehouses where 90 percent of workers are foreign’ (p.91), Curcio explains. She outlines the appalling treatment faced by these mainly female workers.

The main focus is on a 2014 struggle at the Mr. Job warehouses. Reprisals against an initial group of workers who went on strike escalated the struggle ‘when workers engaged in autonomous self-organized activity in solidarity with others who … had been put on forced leave or moved to other branches’ (p.97). The strikers’ demands were accepted and a manager guilty of ‘… harassment and sexual violence’ was charged and sentenced to eighteen months in prison (p.98). The chapter shows how some highly exploited workers fought back and won, developing their methods of struggle as they proceeded, but the claim that this constitutes an ‘experience of militant co-research’ (p.90) is questionable.

Strike threats

We then move on to a section of studies of ‘Education, Call Centers, Cleaners, Platform Workers, and Gamers’, and the first of these is by Robert Ovetz. He considers the use of the strike threat by US workers between 2012 and 2016. He poses the possibility that, despite historically low strike rates: ‘Credible strike threats may offer a strategic innovation that is stimulating a revival of class struggle in the US’ (p.106). He frames the chapter around a study of his own. ‘I conducted a workers’ inquiry into a strike threat made by my own union, the California Faculty Association … in 2016’ (p.106). Ovetz concludes, no doubt correctly, that this particular threat was a bluff by a weak union that brought no gains for the workers involved.

The chapter reflects the book’s concept of a process of ‘working-class recomposition’ that ‘… has been overlooked by union leaders, labor scholars, and working-class militants’ (p.1). However, it seems unlikely that, in a situation of historically low strike activity, the threat to strike, even if it sometimes produces some gains, can be taken as evidence of a counteroffensive.

In the context of the ‘class recomposition of the Mexican multitude’ (p.148), the fifth chapter, by Patrick Cuninghame, focuses on the ‘dissident teachers’ struggle against the 2013 education counter-reform’ (p.149). It provides an enormously interesting look at how teachers, rooted in and part of some of the poorest communities in Mexico, took up a pivotal struggle against a brutal neoliberal assault on public education. They did this in the face of state repression and despite the efforts to contain them by a union structure that answered to the governing powers. Their campaign of action was militant and massively inspiring, and the chapter brings this out clearly. It assesses the gains of the struggle and the dangers that lie ahead. Again, however, as fascinating as this account is, I question whether it offers a way forward in the struggle that could only be provided by the workers’ inquiry approach.

Seven editors of the UK based ‘workers’ inquiry project’, Notes from Below, collaborated on the sixth chapter and provide a survey of class composition in the UK. They seek to ‘update and rearticulate workers’ inquiry as a method,’ as people who ‘write about and with groups of workers that we have already been in contact with’ (p.174). They place particular emphasis on ‘the self-organisation of the working class into a force for class struggle’ (p.175).

A wide range of working-class experience is considered in a fairly concise chapter. It looks at struggles in education and focuses on the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) as ‘an important example of precarious migrant workers successfully organizing’ (p.178). Notes from Below pays considerable attention to ‘platform workers’ and, referencing Deliveroo riders and others, they suggest that ‘resistance is already happening’ and ‘… working-class recomposition is rapidly underway’ (p.181). They consider the ‘social factory’ and look at struggles by renters’ unions. The key conclusion of the chapter is that: ‘The working class is clearly in an advanced stage of decomposition’ but that ‘… counter-dynamics are still emerging’ (p.190).

Working-class recomposition

The last three chapters deal with manufacturing and mining and the first of these, by Jenny Chan, is ‘… a workers’ inquiry from above into the evolving technical composition of capital and workers’ self-organized efforts to recompose their power in China’ (p.197). It considers the impact on the working class of the incorporation of that country into the neoliberal supply chain, with the huge growth of privatisation this has involved.

Chan looks at how workers are controlled by the state and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (p.205), and wide ranging efforts at independent organising in the face of this are assessed. The conclusion is drawn that: ‘Despite rising levels of workers’ struggles and social activism in China, there are reasons to be pessimistic about the outlook for worker organising …’ (p.212). ‘If Chinese labor protest is to transcend local actions … it will be necessary to build a broad-based social movement that wins support both at home and abroad’ (p.213). It is another very interesting chapter but, clearly, there is much about the recomposition process that is yet to be determined.

The next chapter, by Shawn Hattingh and Dr. Dale T. McKinley, examines the impact on South African workers of the ANC’s embrace of neoliberalism, along with the retreat of its trade-union allies. It suggests that ‘… this decomposed working class, now consisting of a greater number of precarious, contract, casual and labor broker workers, has begun to self-organize to address the challenges it faces and rebuild its power’ (p.219). The authors present their concept of self-organisation as they consider struggles by platinum miners engaged in: ‘At least six underground sit-ins, occupations and wildcat strikes’ between 2009 and 2011 (p.227). This involved the formation of workers’ committees in conflict with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The chapter also examines the confrontation between rank-and-file workers and the leadership of that union that underlay the infamous Marikana massacre in 2014 (p.230). It deals with efforts to organise precarious workers that have followed the formation of the Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO), formed in 2011, because ‘the traditional labour movement appears incapable or unwilling to organize the new kinds of workers created by neoliberalism’ (p.232). It draws the conclusion that the ‘task now is to spread alternative, new and directly democratic ways of organizing in South Africa’ (p.237).

The final chapter, by Lorenza Monaco, drives home the objective of ‘retrieving the workers’ inquiry as a practice of militant research while extending it beyond its original conceptualisation in order to embrace the global nature of today’s working class.’ It also ‘aims to highlight the necessary synergy between research and organizing by reconsidering the role of the militant researcher, or activist scholar, today’ (p.240).

In this context, a workers’ inquiry is explored that was conducted among contract workers in the auto cluster in India’s National Capital Region (NCR), selected in large measure because of ‘the presence of intense industrial conflict’ (p.248). Monaco explains that the ‘research methods were chosen in relation to the actual dynamics of the conflict and in collaboration with the actors involved’ (p.249). The chapter certainly does show a very serious effort to put into effect the ‘militant co-research’ that has been referred to throughout the book. ‘Overall, the inquiry revealed the contradictions and the brutality of a labor regime characterized by high levels of casualization and aggressive anti-union repression.’ Monaco feels that: ‘In practice, it allowed the workers to grasp the material reality that led to their strike demands, affecting the dynamics of their struggle over the following years through the subsequent rounds of research’ (p.254).

In her conclusion to the chapter, Monaco suggests that: ‘A workers’ inquiry intentionally designed as a political tool can connect research and organizing to allow for a deeper understanding of class composition and the dynamics of struggle,’ and she considers how this might be pursued at the global level (p.254).

Limits of inquiry

This book is the work of dedicated and diligent socialists and the studies it contains explore a wide range of working-class struggles across a large part of the earth. There is much that is valuable in it and, without doubt, there is a real need for studies of class conflict that can help develop winning strategies. However, the book must be assessed according to the test it sets for itself. This is to be found in Emery’s assertion that ‘there should be no politics without inquiry’ (p.2), which suggests that this approach is nothing less than essential. By that standard, the book falls short of its objective in my view.

The chapters vary considerably in how closely they adhere to the ‘militant co-research’ approach, with the study of ‘class composition in the UK’ and that of ‘Indian precarious auto workers’ coming closest to a ‘necessary synergy between research and organizing’ (p.240). However, I felt the biggest problem lay in some of the assumptions with regard to working-class recomposition. This concept is very much related to ideas of self-organisation that emerge throughout the chapters. In Ovetz’s introduction, as I have mentioned, he suggests that workers today are experimenting with forms of organisation and struggle that even ‘working-class militants’ may miss but of which capitalists take full note. As he presents it, these experimental forms, though they seldom lead to strikes, ‘… are disruptive threats to the accumulation of capital nonetheless’ (p.5).

There is no question that the most elemental form of the conflict between capital and labour takes place at the point where surplus value is extracted. Individually and collectively, workers contest the pace and intensity of their exploitation every minute of the working day. However, the capacity to resist in this way is limited and, in order to ‘disrupt key nodes in the global capital accumulation process’ (p.4), highly organised forms of action, with the strike weapon a very major component, will be needed.

We must face the harsh reality that the defeats of the neoliberal decades have very seriously reduced the capacity to take such action. I’m far from suggesting that the working class has been crushed and many of the examples of efforts to regroup and resist that are presented in this book are important. However, the subterranean process of recomposition that is suggested is, at best, an overstatement.

While a number of the struggles that are considered were conducted under the banner of established trade unions, there is certainly a strong sense in many of the chapters that a self-organised alternative to ‘contract unionism’ is in the works. It’s certainly true that some of them explore contexts in which bogus unions are acting as agents of employers and governments. Others, particularly the South African study, look at major upsurges by rank-and-file workers ready to confront collaborationist union leaders.

Without doubt, even in countries with well established union movements, the neoliberal decades have seen these organisations greatly weakened. That there is every need for workers to confront and even defy bureaucratic trade-union leaders, who block effective working-class resistance, should not be in dispute. Nor should anyone deny that there are considerable limitations and contradictions in systems of state regulated ‘collective bargaining’. However, as the working class looks for the means to regroup and fight back, rank-and-file efforts to democratise and rejuvenate existing unions are to be expected and, indeed, can be seen in various countries. The notion of a highly developed and parallel self-organised movement that will shift its focus from winning collective agreements with employers and take the struggle outside of the trade unions is questionable and little evidence for it is to be found in the chapters of this book.

Whatever might be said about the Italian workerists in the 60s, they were intervening in a situation where wildcat strikes and occupations were unfolding and they sought to draw lessons from workers in struggle. The greatest difficulty of this book is that it looks for something that isn’t yet there and even thinks it’s found it. Unquestionably, in the context of the neoliberal onslaught, workers and communities under attack seek the means to resist. Globally, a deep seated sense of grievance produces social upsurges that show that winning forms of struggle are as possible as they are necessary. However, in my view, a developed form of ‘working-class recomposition’ has not yet occurred. The changed consciousness, the methods of struggle and the organisational forms that will end the retreat and enable a sustained counteroffensive are yet to emerge. The role of studies and inquiries are considerable, but they will not reveal what has yet to be created, nor replace the political tasks involved in bringing it into existence.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.