Thu, 07/02/2013 - 01:34

A member of the SolFed Tech & Digital workers network recounts the building of a collective identity in their workplace, pushing a collective grievance and building on workplace victories.

I was sat at home during the christmas holidays when I recieved an email from my line manager from work. The email said that me and all of the my fellow workers in the department were to get a significant payrise, backdated to November. 'Congratulations!' said the email.

I was overjoyed. Not just because of the extra money, but because I knew full well it hadn't been given to us by the company out of the goodness of our executives' hearts, but due to a long term campaign of collective action and pressure from all of the workers in my department.

It is probably safe to say that in the modern workplace collective action and solidarity are no longer the norms they once were. This is especially true in the UK. Most people experience their workplace as a competitive and alienating environment; coercive management, strict enforcement of rules, a focus on 'productivity' above all else. For many, work is a regime of inflicted discipline.

The tech industry, in which I work, can often be slightly different. There are many tech workers who seem to have internalised the kind of 'work discipline' mentioned above. Workers in the tech industries can feel the work they do is a 'labour of love'. As such, they often don't need something so crude as a bullying manager, as it is common to see workers volunteering more of themselves off their own back. One worker is willing to work an hour's unpaid overtime, another is willing to work unpaid all weekend, a third is willing to work until 11pm unpaid all week because 'the project demands it'. It wasn't until I had worked in the industry a while that I began to realise that people didn't really want to do these things. Who wants to give up their free time for no money? It had become a cultural thing, an 'expectation'. Every worker saw themselves as an individual that needed to push further than the others if they wanted to 'get on' in the industry. So you have the sight of workers actively undermining their own interests because they see themselves as a single unit, a lone worker that needs to stand out in the crowd. 

The above also very much describes my workplace. I won't lie, when I first started I too put in lots of extra effort. I worked in the lowest department of a large and growing company and I thought I might get some more interesting and better paid work if I really tried hard. After a year and a half of trying I realised it was futile. I began to see the company for what it really was, a large group of talented people breaking their backs for little reward. Meanwhile the bosses became increasingly wealthy doing little to no work. It was around
about this time that I joined SolFed and first began looking into the prospect of organising my workplace.

To begin with, I tested the waters. I started talking to trusted workmates in my department and tried to find out if there were any grievances under that facade of happy and contented working. I found it very tough going at this stage. Everyone seemed to be happy with their place in the company. Everyone had dreams that they would stand out from the crowd and take that step up the ladder. Most of my workmates seemed willing to put up with any amount of shit in order to 'do their bit'. I became very dejected at this point. Everyone seemed happy at work apart from me. I began to think that maybe I was wrong to want to organise. Little did I know that after this low point things were going to get interesting.

In our office we happen to use Skype as a workplace tool. Conversations between developers are often easier through instant messaging than long email chains. One day, when our ever-present line manager was being particularly incessant in telling us to be quiet and get to work, something that always annoyed us greatly, someone started up a group conversation, that included everyone in our department except the manager. At first it was just a funny way of chatting without being shushed every five minutes, but soon the floodgates opened. Once we had a space where we could talk to one another outside of both management control and the general 'working culture' people began to talk about grievances and found out they weren't alone. One particular issue stood out above all others. Pay.

Our line of work traditionally pays very badly, yet another suffering tolerated in the pursuit of 'getting on'. Yet we were all being paid even less than that poor standard. With our new line of communication, we began to discuss these issues as a group. It was at this point that I was able to make some small acts of solidarity which I believe went a long way.

A number of the temp contract workers were due to be bumped up to permanent positions, the same promotion that me and some others had got the year before. Taking one of the more outspoken temps aside, I told them the exact rise that we got when promoted, and advised him not to take anything less. From an individualist point of view that act would make little sense. What do I care if someone is paid less than me? I have my money. Yet I wanted to make sure that my co-workers didn't get screwed over because I see us all as part of the same class, all workers together. It was a small act of solidarity, but one that I meant very sincerely.

The information I had given of what we got the year previous quickly spread through our informal network and more discussions were had. A number of us took the line that the company would probably try to screw the new permanents out of money and that we should stand firm against it. Others took the line that our bosses were 'reasonable' and would never try such an obviously immoral and self-serving stunt.

Then the whispers first started coming down the chain. The bosses were indeed thinking of giving them less than they had given us. A whole £500 a year less. Anger started to grow, people were outraged.

What was important though was that the anger was collective. It was shared by those who were about to be shafted and those of us who had already got our money. In our conversations and our interactions together we had begun to build a sense of 'us'. Not just as a department with a particular task and a particular manager, but as a group of workers. Those of us who had already had our promotion were angered on behalf of our fellow workers, because we understood that this wasn't just an insult to a few isolated temps, it was an insult to all of us. An insult to the work we all did, a display of just how little respect the bosses had for all us.

For the first time in my working life I witnessed a plan of action began to form. As a militant I had done my best to nurture it and protect it but when the time came, the plan arose spontanaeously from the anger and collective identity that me and my workmates had. I didn't 'organise' it, and in the end I was just along for the ride, the same as everyone else.

Before the 'pay rise' was to be confirmed by the bosses, we were due to have 'review meetings' with our manager. Any one who has worked in an office will be all too familiar with these meetings. They are designed to foster that same creeping sense of individualism and isolation that the bosses love so much. 'How are you doing at work?' 'How can we (the collective will of the management) help you (the lonely worker) do better at your job?'. An idea began to form for exactly what we were going to do next.

We decided that we were each going to go into the meetings one by one, as scheduled, and do the usual box ticking and pointless discussions as usual. But when asked about 'any other issues?':

'We want a proper pay rise'.

A pact was made that we would all say this, we would all stick to it no matter what. Here the importance of solidarity and collective identity is shown in stark relief. If we couldn't trust each other to go into that meeting and each do our bit then it would have never amounted to anything.

As it happened, it worked better than expected. Subverting the individual nature of the review meeting with collective action really shook our manager. This was evidenced by the change in his reaction between the first meeting ('well I'm sure it's something that will get discussed at some point') and the last ('Oh I'm dead in agreement! I'm very keen to push for this! I don't get paid that much either...'). We knew his responses because everyone came back and reported to the collective chat. Our manager's growing realisation that this was in fact his whole department speaking together put him on the back foot and I don't think he ever really recovered from it.

Our co-workers were promoted and in the end recieved exactly the same pay rise as the previous year. This was a very, very small victory, but I was pleased with it nonetheless. We had decided something collectively, had decided on a plan of action and had executed it.

But once the genie is out of the bottle it's very hard to put it back in. All of the talk about wages and pay rises had made us all look very hard at our own pay packets. Information was sought out about the average wages for our line of work and brought back to our informal group chats. We soon found out that we were all being paid well under the industry average - even those of us who were supposedly at the 'top' of the pay scale. The discussion also moved on to the work we actually did. While our tasks were often categorised as 'the grunt work' we began to realise that we were actually expected to have fairly high levels of technical awareness, precise skillsets. All this while getting paid a wage that was becoming increasingly difficult to live on.

The idea went round that we should push for another pay rise. A proper one, for all of us. I began to realise that another struggle was beginning to build on the foundations of the previous. That had been a testing of the boundaries. We had tried our luck and come out on top. So why couldn't we do it again? There were fears of course. Genuine fears that should never be taken lightly. The big one, naturally, was that we could all get fired. Yet as we had become more aware of our own contributions to our work, the collective skillset that resided among us we began to realise that, while any one of us was expendable, all of us together was a different matter entirely.

I mentioned in a discussion one day that seeing as the company had scheduled all it's project releases so tightly together (expecting us to make up any shortfall with voluntary overtime, naturally), sacking the entire department would be a catastrophe. Deadlines would be missed, important customers would be angry, all while the company faffed about trying to train up an entirely new department to replace the one they'd just sacked mid-project. It wouldn't be a professional look.

It was at this point that 'solidarity' became more than just a word. It was a realisation that we all shared the same interests and could only really fight for them together. It went from being an abstract concept into a real shared experience. In a reversal of the usual roles We arranged a meeting with the manager. A friend in another department later messaged me asking 'why were you all marching your manager through the office?', so it was something that didn't go unnoticed. We aired our grievances and specifically told him that we needed a pay rise. We had arranged it beforehand that we would all take turns in telling him what our low pay was doing to us and the difficulties we were encountering because of it. This was so that there were no 'ringleaders' or people to put on the spot. We had all called this meeting. We all wanted more money. Deal with it.

Our manager tried to fob us off with numerous excuses and delaying tactics over the next few months, but we kept the pressure up. In regular meetings with the manager we always made a point of bringing the issue up again, wanting an update. Eventually our manager eventually broke and told us that while he wanted us to get a pay rise he himself was rarely listened to by upper management. It was an admission that I found very telling. We had put him under so much pressure over this issue that he was admitting to his
entire department that he was generally powerless in the face of the bosses.

Yet because of that admission, our manager redoubled his efforts in trying to force the issue upstairs. I personally think that it was because if he failed to get us what we wanted, not only would he lose all respect for his position, but he would also have to deal with a group of very angry and organised workers. He gathered support from different departments, called in favours from certain key managers in the company and
presented a new pay scale proposal to the executives. He had done all these things due to the constant pressure we had put on from below.

After the executives and shareholders had met for the yearly pay review, we got our emails. A complete overhaul of the payscales meaning a pay rise for all testers. As an unexpected bonus, the company had decided to abandon using temp labour, with all existing temp testers being given permanent contracts. I don't know why that happened, it's possible that they were planning to do it all along. On the other hand, perhaps it was the case that with our department presenting a united front the benefits usually gained from the temp/employee divide had become meaningless.

Looking back, I am well aware of the limits of our victory. We are all still wage labourers trapped in crappy jobs, libertarian communism is not being proclaimed in the streets as a result of our actions. Yet in these days when we are all packaged and sold to bosses as individual workers, when so many feel alone and alienated under capitalism, I find it heartening to know that collective action still retains its strength. In our case it was perhaps even stronger given that it was so unexpected. Our company had no idea how to deal with collective demands and long may that continue.

What happened in my workplace won't happen in all workplaces. Each one is different, with different conditions and different people. Yet I believe that the fundamental basis remains the same. To get to know your workmates as people, to try and break down that artificial wall we construct around ourselves as workers. To find your commonalities, to try to build a collective identity as human beings and to find a place you can express it together. That is the starting point for resistance, however small it may be.

My experiences have reaffirmed my belief in the tenets of solidarity, direct action and self-organisation. It is a long hard road, but I hope that any fellow workers reading this might take some inspiration from it, and look to see how they could apply those tenets to their own workplaces and communities.

Above all else we have to get talking to each other. Within workplaces within whole industries and within whole communities. We truly want to see a world free of exploitation and oppression, but not one of us can do it alone. 


This article is also available in the Slovak language here, translation courtesy of Priama Akcia, the Slovak section of the IWA.