Trade Unions

Workers’ collective strength

James Bowen reviews Workers Can Win: A Guide to Organising at Work by Ian Allinson,

Pluto Press, 2022, £14.99.

Workers Can Win aims to equip readers with the tools they need to organise collectively in their workplace. Synthesizing the techniques developed and theorised by labour organisers such as Jane McAlevey with the author’s experiences of several decades as an activist in Unite the Union and its precursors, the book’s publication is very timely.

While we’ve entered a period of upturn in industrial struggle, necessitated by the cost of living crisis, many workers have little in the way of traditions of solidarity and practical experience on which to draw.

According to Allinson the key to successful organising is power, defined as “[t]he ability to achieve the outcomes you want, irrespective of opposition from your employer or others” (p. xv). An organiser is someone who tries to build this power. This concept, and the way it is extended through successive struggles, underpins the narrative of Workers Can Win. Understanding what potential power different groups of workers have is therefore vital (p.144), but so is understanding the power of opponents – or possible allies – be they other groups of workers, the state, politicians or bodies in civil society. As such the book situates the very specific process of building up organisation within the broader relations which form society.

Successive chapters of Workers Can Win take the reader through the whys and hows of organising to the process of taking industrial action. Each section contains examples (importantly of both successes and mistakes which can be learned from), checklists, summaries and follow-up questions suited to reading groups. It aims to set a rhythm for organisers to follow, formed by the repeating cycle of issue, organisation, education, action.

In chapter 9, ‘Industrial and direct action’, Allinson aims to demystify the process of striking and ASOS (action short of a strike). The barriers to action put up by successive governments, the jargon, acronyms and murky distinctions between ‘illegal’, ‘unlawful’ and ‘lawful’ are discussed with a view to making lay activists confident in how the system operates.

The role of unions in the organising process is a distinctive aspect of Allinson’s book. The fact is that collective action happens in workplaces every day without unions being involved. There are unionised workplaces where people do not act collectively, and un-unionised ones where they do. A union provides resources, a democratic structure and vital protections to members, and union recognition is a crucial milestone on the path to building power, but Allinson stresses that it’s important that members see themselves as ‘the union’ and that organisers do not ‘other’ it by referring to it in the third person (p. 66). In this way he seeks to both encourage workers to participate in their union beyond their workplace through a sense of ownership, and understand “the implications of the fact that a union is an institution with its own dynamics” (p. 208).

Workers Can Win augments the resources produced by the Labour Research Department and trade unions and would be of great use to both seasoned workplace reps and people trying to organise for the first time.

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