There’s No Such Thing as a Spontaneous Strike

It’s easy to look enviously at strikes in other countries and bemoan American workers’ apathy. But even the most dramatic forms of mass resistance are the product of years of commitment to changing people’s minds and understanding workplace politics.

Demonstrators forming part of the procession of energy personnel march during the twelfth day of nationwide strikes against pension reform on April 13, 2023, in Marseille, France. (Marion Pehee / Getty Images)

In March 2023, over one million people marched throughout France to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s effort to raise the retirement age. In an article published by CBS News, Elaine Cobbe described how the “the massive strikes” severely impacted “rail, road and air transport . . . causing widespread delays and cancellations. They also forced some schools and power plants to close and led to blockades of ports and oil refineries.” Earlier protests were equally massive, one of which “marked the largest single-day union-backed demonstration in France in thirty years.”

Seeing such staggering numbers of workers unite for a common cause is certainly inspiring. Yet it can also be dispiriting for workers in the United States and United Kingdom. It’s hard to imagine such a widespread strike occurring in either country today, when working conditions leave so many feeling alienated, precarious, and isolated. Even given Macron’s success in raising France’s retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four, Americans and Britons would still stop working later than their French counterparts. Sadly, many in both countries would consider themselves lucky if they are able to retire at all. An alarming number of young workers don’t believe they ever will.

Yet what we’re seeing in France is not due to luck or some spontaneous decision on the part of over a million workers. Rather, as organizers Lydia Hughes and Jaime Woodcock explain in Troublemaking: Why You Should Organize Your Workplace, it is, like any strike, “only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface . . . there has often been years of organizing and troublemaking.” This process begins in the workplace, where each of us has the power to create transformative change through unionizing.

Of course, anyone who has considered, let alone tried, organizing a union knows the kind of language employed to discourage taking action. We’re a family. Things aren’t so bad. Fighting back is hopeless. Sometimes it’s not even necessary for bosses to articulate these self-serving cliches. Centuries of relentless anti-union campaigns have tried to variously convince workers that their boss really is their beneficent parent, the fact that conditions are worse for someone else means they’d be selfish to improve their own, or unions are the real threat. And when rhetoric and propaganda hasn’t been enough, bosses have been more than willing to manipulate the legal system, use the press to smear their own workers, or employ outright violence to maintain the status quo.

Today, as corporate juggernauts with obscene amounts of wealth exert control over our lives, it’s easy to feel that fighting for the smallest change at the workplace really is hopeless. Then again, Hughes and Woodcock ask, “if we cannot change our own work environments, how can we imagine changing the world?”

Troublemaking is an invaluable resource for three reasons, particularly for those with little or no experience with unions who may feel daunted by the prospect of simply talking with coworkers about fighting back. First, the authors offer multiple instances in which workers unionized against incredible odds to achieve victory — odds that certainly put the potential for an awkward conversation in perspective. Second, Hughes and Woodcock provide a theoretical framework to understand capitalism more broadly. However, this framework is always in the service of practice — you does not need to read Das Kapital before you can start a union, but it is necessary to grasp the class conflict at the heart of the boss-worker relationship. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into traps like thinking a good boss would solve everything, or that asking nicely might be enough. Worse, it is difficult to imagine going beyond defending existing rights to aggressively demand more in the hope of ultimately changing society for the better. And finally, Troublemaking consistently demonstrates why action is not just a strategy but “a learning process that builds networks, skills, and confidence.”

Against All Odds

Each of the examples of successful organizing in Troublemaking illustrate key points. The first example concerns medical couriers in London working for the Doctors Laboratory (TDL) and shows how even gig workers, despite not sharing a single workspace, can come together. Alex was a courier at TDL who, like his fellow independent contractors, had no “paid time off, sick pay or a pension.” His schedule was also determined by his “controller,” who could, depending on his mood, force Alex to continue the grueling work of racing around London as long as he wanted.

Despite the lack of benefits or control over his schedule, Alex hesitated to organize at TDL partly because “he felt his conditions were better than others.” Once he did see the need for a union, he faced the challenge of uniting workers who didn’t all speak the same language and were afraid that “even by asking for something small they could risk losing everything.” Yet Alex persisted and, eventually, the TDL couriers were staging strikes, contacting TDL shareholders, and taking their employer to court. In the end, these workers led “the most successful gig economy campaign in the UK.”

The next example concerns Dalits, or “untouchables,” working as manual scavengers in India. They are so despised as a caste that, despite manual scavenging being illegal under Indian law, the state allows them to be pressured into this dangerous, degrading work. They are exposed to waste, toxic fumes, and other dangers with no safety equipment because, if they refuse, they will have no job at all. Given these circumstances, “this could sound like the perfect example of ‘unorganizable’ workers.” Yet just like Alex, one worker, Milind Ranade, took the first steps to forming a union. It took over a year just to get the process started, but once the workers decided to act collectively, they were eventually recognized as permanent workers for whom their employer was responsible.

The other examples given by Hughes and Woodcock are just as inspiring and show how, in the case of Kickstarter, tech workers who are sometimes seen as categorically different due to perceived privileges can still be exploited and work together to improve their conditions, while in another case, migrant workers and residents of a Bolivian village take on a university, the US and Bolivian governments, and a multinational corporation. But even though there often is a single individual responsible for starting the organization process, readers should not infer from this that only extraordinary people can start a union. Alex, Ranade, and others like them deserve to be commended for their courage and dedication. But all workers have the potential to do something extraordinary. Indeed, none of the individuals referenced in Troublemaking would have achieved anything if it were not for the courage and dedication of workers just like them.

Putting Theory Into Practice

Part two of Troublemaking begins by laying out basic Marxist principles and the vocabulary necessary to understand the mentality at play in any work conflict. For example, Hughes and Woodcock show why a boss’s individual personality means nothing in the context of the employer-employee relationship. One boss may genuinely want to help their employees, but the nature of capitalism demands that they exploit them as much as possible or risk losing their very status as a boss. Next, the authors summarize the history of Taylorism, which radically transformed the nature of work and further alienated workers from their labor. After that, they explain why technology is never neutral — a particularly relevant subject given the recent writers’ strike that, in part, concerns the potential for bosses to use AI to devalue writers’ labor.

After providing a theoretical and historical foundation for readers, Hughes and Woodcock show how these theories inform some of the methods that unions utilize in campaigns. One such method is “work to rule,” in which workers only perform “the work that is specified in our contracts [because] often our employment contracts do not match with what we do every day at work. The reality is that we often do much more.” Consequently, “just following [the rules] can cause disruption.” Other methods include “go-slows” (working at a deliberately slow pace), “callout bans” (a refusal to work outside of contracted hours), and more creative actions that are specific to certain industries. For instance, “bus drivers in Sydney refused to take fares for a day in protest,” which meant that they were not inconveniencing people yet were still hurting their employer. In another example, in 1970, US postal workers continued “to deliver welfare checks even while they were striking.”

At this point, the authors turn their attention to the composition of unions themselves. They define the four types of unions — craft, industrial, professional, and general — and examine their strengths and weaknesses. They then outline the “two broad union models,” which are “the servicing or business model, which focuses on servicing individual needs,” and the “organizing model.” The former “will have a clear hierarchy with specialized paid staff . . . there is little place for democratic debate or discussion, and members consider themselves getting something from the union, not being the union.” In contrast, the latter type “focuses on how members of a union can ‘organize.’ This can mean many things, including recruiting members [and] building their confidence.”

The authors note there are other forms of unions, including those centered on a community, church, or social movement. However, these tend to align more with the structure and philosophy of the organizing model, with its emphasis on “the self-activity of workers.” This is followed by a discussion of how bureaucracies are not inherently negative — in fact, they can be essential to success — and why the rank and file should always be recognized as the core of a union. This last point leads into the final section of Troublemaking, where Hughes and Woodcock introduce the concept of “workers inquiry.”

“Experts in Our Own Fragment of Capitalism”

It might seem obvious that workers should lead the way in advocating for themselves. Yet just like an emergent leadership class within a union can become more aligned with the interests of bosses, there are many instances where, whether by virtue of class privilege or education, individuals will presume to speak on behalf of an oppressed group as opposed to using their position to amplify their voices.

Marx wrote late in life that workers “alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer . . . only they, and not saviors sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills which they are prey.” This is central to the message of Troublemaking, for, as Hughes and Woodcock argue,

If we want to understand struggles at work, we as workers are the only people capable of documenting them. More than that, we are the only force capable of winning a struggle to transform our world. This is the idea of a worker’s inquiry. It is a method that combines research with organizing. It is a process of discovery, not only of the conditions of work now but also how we fight them.

This perspective informs Notes From Below, a publication edited by Hughes, Woodcock, and other organizers. Notes From Below publishes a range of material on class composition, bulletins by and for workers, and, recently, hardcopy issues.

At a time when corporations are pushing to weaken child labor laws, casualization threatens job security, the gig economy seeks to deny workers their very identity as workers, and bosses seek ways to reduce worker power through automation and now artificial intelligence, it is more important than ever that all workers recognize that they must actively resist the worst excesses of neoliberal capitalism. And all they need to do is heed what Hughes and Woodcock write is “fundamentally, our argument . . . you should become a troublemaker in your workplace.”

It isn’t easy, but it is simple. And revolutionary.