Organising the unorganised — lessons from workers past and present

The last year has seen important campaigns to organise workers, most notably in Amazon and Starbucks in the United States. Amy Ferguson looks at the lessons we can take from these campaigns and the history of campaigns to organise workers into the ranks of the trade union movement, both in Ireland and internationally. 

The battles waged to organise the unorganised have ignited political and industrial explosions throughout history. This was a defining feature of the era of Connolly and Larkin: of the 1907 Dockers and Carter’s Strike, the 1913 Dublin Lockout and the 1919 Belfast Engineering Strike. There were many lesser-known strikes such as the 1906 strike wave of linen workers across Ulster. 

Women workers get organised 

On 14 May 1906, during their breakfast hour, teenage women workers at the York Street Mill in Belfast were growing increasingly frustrated, determined, and vocal. A deputation of spinners had met factory directors in the days before asking for a shilling-per-week increase in their wage packets. Instead, the directors responded with non-committal “promises” that their demands would be “carefully considered”, after boasting of the “extraordinary improvement” made in the profit margins of their industry, with the possibility of even “greater strides” to be made.(1)

It appeared clear to many of these young women that the factory directors ‘considering’ their conditions would make very little difference to their situation. Hence 700 workers staged a walkout from the mill and marched down to Henry Street for a spontaneous demonstration.(2)

As a sign of what was to come, the strikers instinctively understood the importance of appealing to their counterparts elsewhere to join them in their actions. Such tactics were rapidly developing amongst unskilled workers at this point. If the dispute was to continue indefinitely, such appeals could help to avoid the prospect of undercutting, scab labour, and a potential divide and rule narrative from their employers. Thus, the strikers made their way to the York Road Mill (which was situated just less than a mile away), where those inside enthusiastically embraced their appeals for assistance. Subsequently, operations at a second mill were shut down for the day. (3)

Such approaches, of indefinite strikes and calls for other workers to join disputes came to be a defining feature of what was known as ‘new unionism’ in Ireland and Britain – where unions organised all workers rather than those of particular craft or skill. Within two days these workers had won their pay rise. (4)

The radical fever sweeping the mills did not end there. Days later, inspired by the success of this dispute, workers at the mills on the Falls and Springfield roads also engaged in spontaneous strike action, during which 12,000 workers paraded the streets demanding a pay rise. These workers also won a rise after initially rejecting an offer of 6% from their employers. Throughout the remainder of the year, mill workers in Lisburn, Bessbrook, Banbridge, and Dungannon fought for similar pay rises using similar tactics.(5)

For the majority of workers engaged in these actions, this represented their first encounter with the trade union movement. That their success was borne out of militant industrial action and agitation, outside of but with the help of the official union structures, was a vital learning experience for these workers.

A changing tide 

This wave reflected a changing tide in the perspectives and politics of the trade union movement, and was in conflict with the approach of many of the trade union leaders. In 1901, Alexander Bowman addressed the Annual ITUC (Irish Trade Union Congress) Conference stating that workers and the capitalist class must “join hands” and form a “union between the classes” to protect local trade interests. (6) Don’t such words feel reminiscent of the era of social partnership and ‘national unity’ trade unionism of the modern-day bureaucracies? 

By the 1912 Conference, however, the then president of the ITUC, Michael O’Lehane, in his address, reflected a shift in approach: “The workers have learned that it is only by demonstrating their discontent that those who are responsible for such conditions make any serious attempt to remedy them.” O’Lehane also declares that Irish workers are now “quite capable” of working out “their own salvation”, indicating that they must no longer rely upon the same representatives of the capitalist class as they did years prior. (7)

Rather than appealing to the (virtually non-existent) moral compass of the capitalist class, these more radical groups of workers understood that their employers were only rich because they profited off their hard work, and that they would continue to grow rich at the expense of the working class unless they and their system were challenged directly. Considering this, Belfast worker Fredrick McGinley recalled that during the rise of new unionism, linen workers were “well-read and deep thinking” and “not unacquainted with Karl Marx.”(8)

Indicative of the reach of this new approach to trade unionism is the membership figures. The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), the radical union of pioneering figures like Larkin and Connolly, had grown from 5,000 members in 1916 to 120,000 members by 1921. Moreover, unions that organised amongst the newer layer of ‘unskilled’ workers – logistics workers, women workers, and others in the textiles industry – also enjoyed healthy membership numbers. For instance, by 1920 the Flax Roughers and Yarn Spinners’ Trade Union reached 10,000 members, the National Union of Railwaymen reached 19,938. Conversely, the 1921 membership of the Municipal Employees Trades Union, a union with which Bowman was associated, sat at 1,500. On top of this, the carpenters’ unions across Ireland, which dominated the ITUC in craft unionism’s hay-day, represented a total membership of 8,885 by the same year. (9)

Reigniting the Spark

There is a lot we can learn from the new unionism era – on questions of tactics, strategy, and the role of socialist politics. Obviously we are operating in a different context 100 years on. The technological advances have in many ways made organising and reaching your trade union easier. But importantly, whilst the ‘unskilled’ working-class radicals a century ago were fighting in a period of capitalist boom, today we are building the fightback in an era of crisis and decline. 

Regardless, one thing that remains the same is the huge and growing wealth gap that has fuelled class anger, particularly among the youngest and most precarious workers. A bold approach to organising unorganised workers today is essential for workers to fight back.

A prime example of this has been the campaigns in the U.S of Amazon workers building their union. While Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth sits at about $190 billion (which is about the same as the annual GDP of Greece); while in 2020 alone Amazon’s shipping increased by 20%; and while it built 220 new facilities across the U.S; Amazon workers made an average of $10,000 less than a living wage, with many taking on second or third jobs to meet the rising cost of living. 

Bezos’ empire is built on the intensive exploitation and burnout of Amazon employees. In the warehouses, turnover rates sit at 150% per year. One HR executive even described their work culture as ‘purposeful darwinism’. 

Similarly, workers at Starbucks who are plagued with poverty wages and growing workloads (whilst previous CEO Howard Schultz raked up a huge $3.6 billion net worth off their labour), are also fighting for a union across the U.S.

Taking stock for the next round

There have so far been three union votes in different Amazon facilities, two losses and one incredibly impressive victory. If we are to rebuild a new and fighting workers’ movement, we must learn from our defeats as well as celebrate our successes. Therefore, it is important we compare and contrast the union drives by the RWDSU in Bessemer (which unfortunately lost) and the ALU in Staten Island (which pulled an impressive victory). Of course, recognising the limitations of certain campaign aspects is in no way a suggestion that such campaigns have been anything other than historic and admirable.

 We can summarise the differences in the campaigns into 3 different categories. 

  1. Worker-led campaigns and democracy 

Whilst the RWDSU in Bessemer, to its credit, took on a campaign that other unions had marked as impossible for so long, its approach took the form of the typical full-time organiser-driven campaigns that are common for recent union campaigning. Meaning, it was union staffers who stood outside the facilities with leaflets trying to talk to workers, and it was union staffers who were responsible for the formulation of demands and strategy. In short, there was little organic relationship between the shop floor and the campaign centre. This pushed a reliance on media, celeb endorsements, and politicians’ statements. This dynamic underpins a number of other problems with the RWDSU’s approach that we’ll get to later on.

In contrast, the ALU campaign in Staten Island was workers-run and led. On every shift an elected organising committee ensured that there were union supporters talking to coworkers about the campaign; it held frequent meetings that shaped and decided demands and focus, down to where they should set up on campaign days; it even organised reading groups on how workers in the U.S. previously organised unorganised sectors; it printed new leaflets daily dealing with the lies Amazon was spreading in the workplace, which they were able to do because they were driven by workers on the shop floor, not staffers outside the gates.

This connection also is reflected in the decision by ALU that all those in elected union positions, including the president, be on the average wage of the workforce. This is vital in fighting bureaucratisation and the conservatism that comes with it.

This factor was significant also in effectively tackling union-busting. One part of that was being able to counter Amazon’s lies and manipulations on the shop floor on a daily basis. As well as this, it also cut across the company’s main line of argument – namely, the idea that a union represents an interfering third party which is only out for workers’ dues, rather than the collective organisation and power of the workers themselves. You could see why this argument would get more of a hearing when the main people arguing for unionising weren’t your coworkers but union staffers.

  1. Clear demands 

One thing that defined the RWDSU campaign was the avoidance of formulating demands that are based upon the material conditions of the workers and on the issues they’re talking about. This is connected to the idea of the necessity for worker-led campaigns; nobody knows the issues in a workplace better than those working there. 

RWDSU relied upon vague platitudes like demanding ‘respect at work’, or ‘a voice on the job’. When it was asked why they weren’t connecting the idea of fighting for a pay rise with unionising, they cited a fear of ‘making promises they can’t keep’ which reflects a lack of confidence in workers to actually fight for and win bold demands. Why couldn’t they keep such modest promises? This approach becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; they run an unfocused campaign that can’t play the job of empowering workers to take action. 

Unfortunately, at times the Starbucks Workers’ United campaign has also avoided centering concrete demands in their campaigns for union recognition. A lot of material has repeated similar sentiments as in the RWDSU about “the right to real partnership” or “making Starbucks listen”. Such campaigns relied quite heavily on ideological appeals to the concept of trade unionism. And this can and has got them somewhere, especially considering the demographic of baristas and Amazon workers: young people, black people, queer people. Many of which have been radicalised by the likes of the Sanders campaign and movements against oppression and do, from that experience, generally view unions favourably. 

However, that is not enough for most people; when the majority of the workforce has had little to no experience of trade unionism before — the unions and their activists are going to have to prove that unionising is something that will make a difference in their ability to put food on the table, pay the bills, reduce their stress and instability.

But also, awkwardly, this avoidance of talking about demands, of talking about what could be won with a union, meant that the companies themselves swept in first of all, to claim that staff benefits would be lost, and second, to outline ways in which they were going to — cynically and minimally as possible — try improve things for workers without that pesky union; stuff like tokenistic pay rises, stock shares etc.

In contrast to this, workers with the ALU were approaching people with politicised slogans like “Do you support ALU? We’re fighting for a $30/hr starting wage”. Their leaflets demanded an end to unpaid overtime, longer breaks, job security, and paid time off. And these types of campaign angles, again, were developed organically from conversations between workers. So it aimed to actually connect the stuff the workforce was frustrated with, to the idea of empowering the workforce to not just to vote for the union but to prepare for active struggle to secure these demands, which is a vital lesson for workers engaging in union activity for the first time.

  1. Naming the enemy – a class struggle strategy

Within the language surrounding what a union could mean for workers the RWDSU alludes to a partnership type approach to trade unionism. It implies workers and bosses just need to work together, that if workers could only get a seat at the table then all their problems would be solved. These notions sow illusions in the idea that workers could ever genuinely be equals in a capitalist work environment, and in doing so it fails to actually prepare workers for the huge anti-union drives and hostility they’ll face by the company during the campaign.

If you go to the RWDSU Amazon website and have a scroll through their ‘Why Join a Union?’ tab, they pose it as being a legalistic aid: “Amazon sometimes addresses issues at work but it’s all temporary. A union contract is in writing, negotiated upon, and Amazon would need to legally follow the guidelines and there are mechanisms to hold them legally accountable to us as workers.” When Amazon is violating legal guidelines in their union-busting campaign left, right and centre this line of argument becomes particularly weak.

In contrast, ALU’s material consistently spoke in the language of class struggle, naming the enemy clearly and unapologetically. It highlighted the direct link between the immense wealth of Bezos and the conditions of the workers. Understanding this relationship between bosses and workers is essential to developing the right tactics and strategy to win. From day one, the ALU made it clear that a fight for a union would put them in direct conflict with Amazon, because the company and the workers had conflicting interests. 

While these three lessons can’t cover absolutely all the nuances in the campaigns, it is nevertheless important to recognise how interdependent they all are, and how they underpin the workforce’s ability to challenge union-busting. A genuinely workers-led campaign will be able to come up with clear demands and tactics that prove to their coworkers the need to get involved in the union vote and struggle against the employer, and underpinning that again needs to be an understanding that workers and bosses have irreconcilable class interests. 

Organising the unorganised in Ireland 

The impact these newly-organised workers have extends far beyond their own workplace conditions. As experience shows, the influx of newly-radicalised young workers has important consequences for the workings of the unions. Their very existence and the application of the militant strategies they’ve learnt begins to challenge the bureaucracies at the union tops that have grown comfortable with casual acceptance of the status quo.

They also play a vital role in inspiring their counterparts elsewhere to take similar action. For instance, members of the Socialist Party and Unite Hospitality have been organising ‘walkarounds’ where activists visit cafes with the aim of talking to workers about the importance of trade union organisation. At a growing number of these venues, the baristas have positively cited the actions of Starbucks workers across the sea in challenging the hyper-exploitative conditions of the hospitality industry.

It is critical that the unions here capitalise on a growing positive attitude that young and unorganised workers have towards the question of unionisation and challenging dodgy work practices, and take seriously their responsibility in fighting the cost of living crisis. 

This requires devoting serious resources and developing a long-term strategy to organise in key sectors, including: 

1) Those that are strategically vital to the capitalist system, such as in logistics. The power of those workers when they withdraw their labour could be decisive in securing important demands for the labour movement; 

2) Those dominated by young people who are growlingly sympathetic towards the unions and the necessity of collective action in counteracting the symptoms of capitalism, such as hospitality, retail and call centres. Organising this section of workers is also part of challenging the race to the bottom. It is unfortunately no surprise that professions such as teaching, nursing and academia are battling with devastating slashes to working conditions whilst the economy is dominated by low-paid, zero hour contract jobs; 

3) Agency workers in the public service. This again is vital to the question of tackling the race to the bottom, as well as in protecting the efficiency of industrial action within the public sector; whilst a big chunk of workers can’t engage in strike action because they aren’t union members, it undermines the effectiveness of the action.

  1. Belfast Newsletter, 3rd May, 1906.
  2. Evening Echo, 15th May, 1906. 
  3. Belfast Newsletter, 15th May, 1906.
  4. Cork Examiner, 21st May, 1906.
  5. Belfast Newsletter, 19th May, 1906, Belfast Labour Chronical, 26th May, 1906 and Belfast Newsletter, 24th May, 1906, Belfast Labour Chronical, 26th May, 1906, Belfast Newsletter, 25th May, 1906, Belfast Newsletter, 2nd June, 1906, Sunday Independent, 10th June, 1906 and Belfast Newsletter, 12th June, 1906, A Century of Women project; the 1900s, (Accessed 20.09.21), and  Belfast Newsletter, 13th June, 1906.
  6. ITUC, 8th Annual Report, 1901, pp. 4-11. 
  7.  ITUC, 19th Annual Report, 1912, pp. 5-11
  8.  Printed memoir of Mr Fredrick McGinley’s early and working life, 1900-1914, P.R.O.N.I. T3580/1.
  9.  D’Arcy, F.A. (2006) ‘Larkin and the Dublin Lock-Out’, in Nevin, D. (ed.) Lion of the Fold. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, P.41, and  ITUC, 26th Annual Report, 1920, pp. 145-159.
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