The past couple of months have seen SolFed engage in an escalating “disruptive action” campaign to redress a case of unpaid wages by the world's largest employment agency. Four days into a national week of action, the Office Angels temporary agency capitulated and gave their ex-worker his due wages.
SF was contacted by Dan in March. He had worked for Office Angels for three days last December. When he began work, he was not given a time sheet. When he inquired about this, he was told not to worry. Then, on his final day of his employment he not only sat next to the company manager, he received a phone call from Office Angels to check up on him. Despite all this, when Dan went to collect his wages, Office Angels claimed he only worked one day, not three. After telephone calls and polite meetings didn't work, he began a thread on the website libcom.org asking for assistance on his situation. Office Angels, who obviously monitor their online reputation quite closely, sussed out Dan's identity then had the nerve to harass him for daring to ask for help on the issue. At this point, Dan asked the South London Solidarity Federation to step in.
Efforts began in earnest, with a single picket and a delegation sent to the Wimbledon Office Angels branch where Dan had been employed. The “Office Devils” (as they'd now been dubbed) only response was to ban Dan from all Office Angels premises. Next the London Locals of SolFed chose to picket the busy Oxford Street location of Office Angels in central London. This time, SF members went into Office Angels, spoke to management, demanded Dan be paid, and informed them actions would continue until Dan received his full wages.
After this picket, SolFed began to develop a public aspect to the campaign, something aided by two important factors. First, each picket so far (and throughout the dispute) was met with overwhelming public support. As even Office Angels admits, “There are in excess of one million temporary workers in the UK. ...Many people find themselves in a position where they need to consider temporary work as a result of job loss or redundancy.” That means millions of workers have experienced the shady practices and hyper-exploitative business model of Office Angels and their ilk.(1) Second, we were already having interested groups coming to us offering support. Using this momentum, the first thing we did was to create an online callout explaining the situation and requesting sympathetic individuals attend our next picket and involve themselves in a “communications blockade” of the Wimbledon Office Angels. This, the first of two “communications zaps”, saw hundreds of phone calls and emails sent to the Office Angels managers by individuals and groups who were more than happy to express their dissatisfaction with Office Angel's unscrupulous employment practices.(2) Finally, we encouraged any Office Angels staff who'd been mistreated by the company to contact us. Even a cursory glance at online employment forums makes clear that what Dan had experienced was far from an isolated case. Plus, SF has a long-running campaign against casualisation and precarious employment. The fight against employment agencies is, predictably, at the forefront of such a movement.
In any case, the morning before our first public picket, Office Angels contacted Dan. He was told that “this has gone on long enough” and he would “definitely” get paid. A manager promised to contact him by noon with the details. When that didn't happen and perceiving this promise for what it was—a stalling tactic—the picket and communications zap went ahead. When Dan called up Office Angels later that night, he was told things were being held up in the legal department.
At this point, we could see Office Angels was beginning to falter. The pickets, emails, phone calls (especially the phone calls), and the online exposure were making a difference. They'd clearly tried to fend off a picket while acknowledging the dispute “had gone on long enough.” Of course, for us and for Dan, the fight wasn't over until the money was in the bank. To ensure this would happen, we planned for two things. The first was to call a National Week of Action (complete with a second communications blockade on the Wednesday). Leading up to this week, London SolFed put out a callout for other SF locals and comradely organisations (the UK IWW, the Anarchist Federation, and the Commune in particular) to picket Office Angels locations in their town or city. The second was to begin preparations for an International Week of Action against ADECCO, the company which owns Office Angels and is also the largest employment agency in the world with over 5,500 locations. By calling on SolFed's membership in the International Workers Association (the IWA or, as it's also known, the AIT) we could get pickets around the world. We also contacted the US IWW and the Syndicalist Youth Federation in Sweden.
The National Week of Action began with pickets being announced around the UK: numerous pickets in London, three in Northampton, two pickets in Reading, another two in Brighton, and pickets in Oxford, Nottingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Bristol, and Liverpool. Some of these pickets brought demand letters; some just sent delegations into the office to speak to a manager; and in some cases Office Angels just closed up shop for the duration. By the end of the dispute over 15 pickets had taken place around the UK! Some of these were organised by SF locals, some by IWW or AF branches. In any case, it was an outpouring of solidarity and the initial response from Office Angels branches—calling the police and harassing picketers—proved they were shaken. But, by the second day of the Week of Action, it appeared that someone higher up in Office Angels or even in ADECCO had taken over the publicity angle. On the Office Angels website, a press release went up from their managing director. In it unnamed “various individuals” were accused of undertaking unjustified “disruptive action”.(3) There was also a change in their response to our pickets. The cops were no longer called and managers came out to speak to us—trying their best to be friendly and practically begging us to see if we'd been contacted by any other Office Angels workers. This was most evident in Reading. On the Tuesday an Office Angels manager had aggressively confronted an SF member, a mother with her 14-month old child, and tried to rip fliers out of her hands. Thanks to cool-headed SF members, things didn't escalate and he soon left. The next day, Reading went back to picket again. This time the same manager came out and apologised profusely. Someone, somewhere, was putting putting pressure on local managers to play nice.
Also on the second day of the Week of Action, Dan was again contacted by Office Angels. This time they told him they had documentation confirming that he had worked 2 days and would pay him for them. Still not satisfied, we went ahead with Wednesday's communications blockade. Wednesday morning saw Dan contacted again. Office Angels offered to pay him for the full three days if he was willing to go to court for Office Angels if they had to go to court to retrieve their money from their client, Kinetic, to whom Dan had been contracted out to. How ironic. They wanted to enlist Dan's help to ensure they got their money. Shall we say: denied on principle. Besides, UK law states that agencies have to pay their employees regardless of whether they've been paid by their clients. It's not Dan's job to sort out Office Angel's money problems and it's not like he'd get paid for his time if he had to go to court. Dan politely refused the offer and that night they informed him they'd be paying him his money and “hoped” he'd support them against Kinetics if needed. Well, we'd seen them lie before. Their word wasn't good enough and the pickets weren't going to stop until the money was in the bank. This created a funny situation though. Pickets continued on Thursday despite Office Angels' claims of intention to pay. This meant that managers would come to us, waving press releases claiming that all was okay, Dan had been paid! By Friday the money was in Dan's account. Office Angels had amended their online press release, claiming “new information has recently come to light and we have taken this individual at his word and paid all monies outstanding.” The only new information that had come to light was that Dan was not going to be their lackey and that they were scared of what an International Week of Action would look like. With Dan paid and thanks all around for the support and solidarity, we called off any further pickets.
Postscript: Why did we succeed?
To begin, there has been an uptick in class struggle since the recession began. That means that—for better or worse—we're living in an environment that is easier to organise in. However, we think there's something larger (though very much related) going on, namely an appetite for practical activity within the 'activist'/political community (not to mention within the wider population). This is post-Millbank austerity Britain. People are pissed-off and, for the first time in a generation, they know who they're angry at. With the decline of basic industry and the marketisation of the public sector, working for an employment agency—with none of the hard-won legal rights of permanent staff—is an experience far too many of us have had to suffer through. The Office Angels dispute gave class struggle anarchists an opportunity for tangible, practical activity. For too long, many of us have had to make do with public or, even worse, online debate about anarchism, producing literature, or going to picket lines in the increasing rare incidents of strikes. Now, these are all important tasks. However, we want to reach a point where anarcho-syndicalists unions are facilitating, organising, and leading struggles in the workplace and the community. For many of us, Office Angels was our first experience seeing an anarchist organisation take an active role in a workplace dispute. We liked it. And we want more.
Second, we proved ourselves a legitimate threat. When we went London-wide, Office Angels was forced to go London-wide. When we went national, Office Angels was forced to go national. During the first 5 days of our week of action, there were over a dozen pickets in the UK. We should also note that the course of this dispute saw a change in management at the Wimbledon branch of Office Angels. Now, we're not ones to speculate, but perhaps this should be a warning for local managers (at Office Angels and elsewhere): If the Solidarity Federation shows up at your door, pay up. Or your job may very well be next.
Finally, direct action works. We achieved what we achieved without lawyers, courts, industrial tribunals, or even union reps. And we won. We planned and strategised and, despite some inevitable hiccups, we orchestrated an escalating campaign against the largest employment agency in the world. We didn't even play all the cards in our hands and we still forced Office Angel to pay up out of pocket mid-way through our National Week of Action. After all, they still haven't been paid by their client. In the process we strengthened our class confidence. Everything from giving demand letters to managers to speaking to the public to co-ordinating activities, we're better at that now than we were three months ago.
Direct action works. Dan's living proof.
(1) We use the term “hyper” here intentionally. Capitalism is fundamentally exploitative. However certain business models, employment agencies being one of them, are consciously employed to undermine workers rights gained through decades and even centuries of struggle.
(2) We should note here that the focus was always on managers. It's a further unfortunate reflection of Office Angels management that they forced their office staff to do their dirty work and refused to take our phones calls themselves.
(3) Another interesting point: comrades in Reading claim that when they were first given a copy of the Office Angels press release by a manager, the term on it was “direct” not “disruptive” action and that it was only later changed on the website. Office Angels, thanks for vindicating our strategy....