Three workshops at Occupy LSX
by the Precarious Workers Brigade
[this text was written a few months ago and was supposed to be published in Occupy London’s own newspaper, The Occupied Times - but in the end didn’t make it in, so we publish it here]
The Precarious Workers Brigade is a London-based group of culture and education workers brought together around issues of precarity. The term precarity has been used a lot recently and can be defined in terms of the conundrum of personal and collective issues arising from “flexible” insecure work. The proliferation of free, fragmentary and temporary jobs and unstable working conditions can be seen as a structural response to the market’s need for flexible workers, but also a result of a desire, on the part of workers and particularly workers in the cultural sector, for more autonomy. As PWB, we came together to map this set of conditions, create a new vocabulary to talk about the situations we find ourselves in, and to delvelop practical tools to intervene in these situations.
We are mindful of our own complicity and we are aware that precarity has existed in other parts of the labour market and the world long before the current crisis and can be seen as the rule, rather than an exception, within global capitalism. Starting from our own position, but aiming to expand beyond the sectors we work in, our praxis comes from a commitment to developing collaborative research and actions that are practical, relevant and easily shared and applied.
Within the current climate of budget cuts to culture, education and welfare and the debates around the financial crisis, we were very keen to be more involved with the Occupy movement. We came to Occupy LSX with the wish to map out a broader context and establish a common ground with other groups and individuals affected by precarity. Following a preliminary meeting in which we presented our group and our activities around the issue of free labour in the cultural and education sector footnote 1. We decided to facilitate workshops focussed on the issue of organizing precarious workers. Our three workshops were held on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, inside Tent City University and at the Bank of Ideas respectively. Each location provided quite different environments in which to speak, discuss and engage, and perhaps because of this, the meetings had quite different constituencies and demographics.
While it was cold, noisy and difficult to run a workshop on the steps of St Paul’s, the group we ended up with when we moved into the tent was very varied with workers ranging from cleaners, construction workers and designers to teachers, students and banking lawyers. Outside, we had invited people to share their experiences of precarity and cleaners, office workers and students had taken turns on the mic and reported on their experiences. Once inside the tent, discussion moved towards how we could organise and what it could mean to withdraw our labour when we are unpaid or self-employed workers. A union organiser facilitated part of the session and asked everyone in the group to talk about where they worked, if they were part of a union and if they had ever participated in a strike. The sharing of identities and experiences was incredibly important, both as a way of getting a sense of whom the group consisted of and as a way of drawing out similarities and parallels between our experiences. The pattern of self-employment seemed quite dominant across very different sectors, from construction work to the arts.
What emerged were the isolation, the fragmentation and the consequent difficulty of organising because of being in a work place for short periods of time, or the open-ended or mediated nature of contracts of employment. It was interesting to see that many agency workers are now being forced to register as self-employed, thus getting the worst of both worlds. We heard more from the union rep about their strategies of organising, emphasising either the workplace as the unit to build unity from or the idea of sectoral unionism as successful organising tactics. Although it was very positive to hear about successful organising strategies, a disparity became obvious between these organising models and experiences of no stable or permanent workplace, temporary and overlapping work and people belonging to several sectors or situations at once. Following the workshop, we invited the others to walk in solidarity beneath our Precarious Workers banner at the N30 March.
The two following sessions included a reasonable range of occupations and employment situations, but as the sessions moved from Tent University to the Bank of Ideas, became more arts-based in composition. During the second session, the tensions between trade union models and less formal ways of organising emerged again through the diverse narratives brought to the meeting, however, were not really resolved. We started by sharing and re-telling our own stories, which we find proves very powerful as a way of mapping our composition and constituency. For those PWB members who had narrated their precarity stories a few times, it was interesting to notice how there were new angles to include and things we had overlooked. Through these moments of consciousness-raising, however, we were interested in how we could move beyond the collective sharing of personal experiences towards organising. At the end of this workshop we realised that we had not asked people to voice their demands, needs or desires and that this could be a good step to go beyond the testimony-giving process.
In our third, final workshop we attempted to move beyond personal experiences to imagining collective change. The session was built around three questions:
How do you make a living? What would you like/need to change to feel less precarious? How could we organise collectively to make this change?
These questions seemed to unfold broader dimensions of precarity, moving beyond work towards issues such as housing, health and the desire for free time. The cooperative model emerged in the discussion as an alternative productive and reproductive model, but many questions about how to organise collective action and to think alternative forms of organising still remain open.
Footnote 1: See our counter-guide to internships, available free on our website: precariousworkersbrigade.tumblr.com/CounterGuide