Workers can win – a handbook for all trade union activists

Dave Kellaway reviews Ian Allinson’s new book, Workers Can Win, A Guide to Organising at Work, published by Pluto Press.


People fighting for an eco-socialist future generally agree that you cannot achieve this without winning the majority of working people to radical anti-capitalist and ecological action. You will not get there just with students, intellectuals, the enlightened middle class or with any sort of minority vanguard party. Over six million workers are still in trade unions today. They are the biggest and most important mass organisations of working people. Consequently, it is the major priority for eco-socialists to build trade unions and organise to win more and more workers to support a radical break with fossil fuel capitalism. Ian Allinson has written an indispensable handbook to help us organise more effectively in the workplace – both to win gains and to build support for a radical political perspective. This is how he puts it in the introduction:

Organising at work is about changing the conditions of your work itself and is linked to changing everything else.

Collective action at work is a major source of potential power to tackle wider issues such as poverty, inequality, discrimination, housing, public services, war and the climate crisis.

It was always a bit of a myth peddled by the bureaucrats and many Communist Party or moderate Labour Party ‘broad left’ activists that the revolutionary left or Trotskyists working in unions were somehow ‘foreign’ to the ‘great traditions of our movement’. They were not really workers but students spouting revolutionary dreams that failed to deal with the nitty-gritty of real trade union organising and who spent all their time denouncing the treacherous leadership.

While there may be a tiny grain of truth in this description of revolutionaries at times making clumsy interventions, there is a long and proud history of revolutionary currents succeeding in winning influence inside the trade unions. Defending workers’ interests on a day-to-day level but also winning some to an anti-capitalist line. Alan Thornett and his team in the Oxford car plants back in the 1970s is a good example. He has written a blow-by-blow account here. Despite their later degeneration, groups like the Healy SLL/WRP built up a number of strong bases in certain factories, as did the old IS/SWP in the 70s and 80s. The latter produced a great pamphlet on shop steward organising that sold tens of thousands of copies.

If you look outside Britain, the core cadre of the US Trotskyists, which developed in the 1930s, came out of the trade union organising of James P. Cannon and Farrell Dobbs in the Minneapolis truckers’ strikes. All of these comrades were able to win influence and organise day-to-day struggles, but they also managed to bring some workers towards more radical political views. Ian Allinson’s book, and the way he is organising an ongoing political discussion through the website and launch meetings, sits firmly within this healthy tradition.

The fact that there has been a hiatus between the elan of the left’s intervention in the 1970s and today’s generations of activists due to the near half-century of defeats following Thatcher makes this radical handbook even more essential. Over 75 per cent of employees aren’t in unions – and the picture amongst workers who lack employee status is probably even worse. Only 16 per cent of employees under 35 are union members. The situation in the private sector is much worse than in the public sector.

There are fewer working-class activists on the radical left today.  Many younger or newer activists do not necessarily have any mentors from that period. Allinson does not assume anything; he starts from the basics and walks activists through the details of organising effectively. His book covers all these topics:

  • Why organise at work?
  • Starting out
  • Servicing, advocacy, mobilising and organising
  • Choosing and communicating about issues
  • How to organise
  • Using your rights
  • Planning action
  • Industrial and direct action
  • Management mischief
  • Dealing with your union
  • Overcoming difficulties and limitations

You can see a lot of effort has gone into making the book user-friendly and accessible. There is a long glossary with the acronyms and labour relations jargon simply explained. Even knowledgeable activists will find some things they do not know. The language is not dumbed down, but neither is it over-academic. So there are references to other useful books, but the text is not overburdened with footnotes. There are bullet point summaries at the end of each chapter, along with a series of pertinent questions for discussion among activists. You do not have to read it end to end; it is meant to be a resource to be dipped into. Each chapter stands on its own two feet.

In some respects, the book reminds me of some of the management training texts that I have read in my career in education. Sociological and psychological insights about group dynamics are plundered to be used for progressive ends—so the key notion of the “influential worker” is explored in a very nuanced way. For example, the influential worker might not be the obvious, more voluble character. On this issue, like many others, Allinson emphasises the need for more haste and less speed. Take your time; listening is the key to good organisation. Get a number of views before making a decision. Be aware too, that you can get it wrong – the influential worker you identified could end up being bought off by management.

Handy, memorable diagrams, charts, or buzz words pepper the book. So, for example, the organising cycle is pithily summarised like this: Issue—Organisation—Education—Action—Building Power. Cartoons of uneven humour illustrate each chapter, reinforcing the key points. Unlike the books by management gurus, these are designed for different objectives—to win influence and combat capitalist management.

Unlike training materials put out officially by trade unions, this handbook does not miss out on the links to the wider struggles in society. The overall social and political context is maintained throughout. Gender, race, and international issues are integral to the text. Exploitation is explained in basic Marxist terms.

The trade union structure is not seen uncritically. Its limitations and the ability of officials to hold back struggles are explained. It is always considered a means for workers to develop independent self-organisation. The services model where members receive commercial or other benefits such as cheaper insurance is well described. As too is the advocacy one, where the trade union acts to defend the individual and casework overwhelms the activity of workplace reps. Casework cannot be eliminated, but collective action to defend workers against management action is usually more effective. Allinson constantly stresses how the best form of organisation is one in which the union is not seen as a “third party” but as a useful tool for action, “owned” by its members who take action collectively and democratically.

The section opposing the idea of the union as a “third party” illustrates the seriousness and detail exemplified by this book.  We see how you can develop “semantic drills” among the activists to prepare you to speak to fellow workers. Language can make a difference, and we should use all methods to become more effective. It is easy to not reflect on how we communicate. Activists can often live in a bubble with other activists and not realise the impact of the words they use all the time. 

Similar attention to detail is shown with the practice of charting fellow workers and mapping your workplaces. Workers’ responses to issues and actions are charted to help you access the possibility of action. Mapping helps you negotiate the difficulties of organising in complex physical spaces. Shift patterns and environments affect the possibility of actually interacting with fellow workers. Managing this information so that it might not alarm other workers could be quite delicate.

Workers Can Win website

This book was written before the current upsurge of strikes. Allinson, however, correctly explained that the capitalist organisation and exploitation of working people will always tend to cause conflict, and we are seeing this on a big scale today. Today, the handbook is even more relevant and useful. The book is not the end of the conversation. Ian welcomes feedback. The website provides all the information about the ongoing launch meetings and further action.

Ian is a long-term trade union activist and supporter of RS21 (website here)

Ian Allinson

Workers can Win, A Guide to Organising at Work, by Ian Allinson and published by Pluto Press (Purchase a copy HERE)

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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