“Gr***ford? Where the hell’s that?!”

A summary of our organising efforts so far in the warehouse/logistics sector and why we need your help!
That’s where a small group of us has been since January 2014, working and trying to organise in a few of the many warehouses that occupy the area in-between the A40 and the M4, 15 miles from Heathrow and part of the west-London corridor, a massive industrial area that keeps London serviced and its shelves stocked. Park Royal covers 700 hectares and employs 40,000 people, mainly in production, warehousing, distribution, logistics and call centres. It’s one of Europe’s largest industrial estates. And it’s in zone 4 on the Piccadilly Line. The surrounding areas are a mix of suburban 50s housing and industrial/warehouse pockets. But the whole area seems to be a bit of a blank spot, despite the fact that about 60 per cent of the food consumed in London enters via this western warehouse sector… We have the idea that our food is produced far away, that large masses of workers are of a bygone era, that the ‘new economy’ reigns supreme as we type away behind our screens feeling super-alienated. ‘Where has the working class gone?’ we muse. But by just focusing on this aspect of the economy, we ignore the fact that new concentrations of large workforces are emerging, practically on our doorstep. A process of recomposition has been talking place, where, if we get on the tube for 45 minutes, we can see the effects of new migration patterns and how capital is organising itself and us in this low-waged mass work that is the template for working conditions under austerity. Between 2008 and 2013 the numbers of workers employed in warehousing and support activities for transportation in the UK increased from 256,000 to 315,000 [1].
This mirrors a similar trend, albeit on a smaller scale at the moment, to what’s happening in the US, where massive concentrations of workers are again being bought together in giant warehousing complexes, such as Inland Empire in California. We think this concentration of workers who largely live and work in the same place presents an opportunity to organise that is more difficult when you have a dispersed or smaller workforce. While we’d join the union ourselves, there are few illusions about what unions can do for us as a largely minimum-waged, zero-hours workforce. Between Heathrow airport as an import gateway and London inner-city supermarkets and shops there is chain of processing, packaging and distribution plants, that rely on each other. Working here, you get a real sense of how capital is having to organise itself in the face of tighter profit margins, how their ground is shaky, where the weak spots are and where we can begin developing a collective counter response. People are pissed off. If something can kick off here, there’s a lot that people can relate to. There have been recent disputes at the Argos distribution centre for example, under circumstances directly comparable to the ones we work in. But it was difficult to get any information about what actually was going on and how we could link up with workers there. Our hope is to build some connections with these types of workers, so if anyone can help with this, either you hear of local disputes within warehouses or are a warehouse worker yourself, please get in touch…

We ain’t no robots!

We work in two of the big warehouse sites around here, in distribution centres that supply food to two big supermarket chains and to a fancy cosmetics company (in total about 700 workers). We mainly do ‘picking’ i.e. pick orders, put the right stock in the right place for the right store. [2] We all work for the same temp agency, for the same logistics company but for different companies on two different sites. The modern strategies of capital are everywhere, sometimes very clever, sometimes totally chaotic, from the scanner you attach to your arm and finger that try and record your every move to the biro scribbles of sums worked out on cardboard boxes. The introduction of new technology is obviously a way of trying to control us. But they don’t make us into robots. People find ways to cheat the computer. They memorise codes and manage to sneak off to hide in the locker room for half an hour undetected. We still talk to each other as we’re picking, a mix of nationalities and experiences, about what bought us here, what life is like back home, how shit things are here, the latest gossip about who’s been fired, who has a disciplinary meeting, how we don’t give a fuck, how to escape the watchful eye of the manager, how we should work slower, that we’re looking for another job, one that is (hopefully) better paid…

Divide and Rule

But of course, there are divisions amongst us that have to be dealt with in any kind of serious organising effort. The first and probably most important one, is the one between the permanent and the temporary workers. While the casualised workforce is largely un-unionised, there are unions operating in the bigger warehouses, only for the ‘interests’ of the permanent workers. There is low membership though, even amongst the permanents, with the common knowledge that they can’t do much anyway, not for the stuff that matters: wages, shift times, pick-rate (the pace at which you have to work). The monthly contribution does not seem worth it to many. The unions don’t do much about the division between the permanent and temporary contract workers who do the same jobs but get different deals: at one warehouse, the permanent workers get over £9 an hour for the same job that a temp worker gets just over minimum wage for. At another other site, new permanent workers get the same wage as the temp workers, the only benefit is guaranteed shifts. The older permanent workers with a better contract get over £9, so even among the new permanents there is discontent. The blatant erosion of wages and conditions over such a short period of time is dangerous for management: they are forced to make quick cuts that piss people off and build resentment against the company, and yet they rely on these same workers to co-operate and get the job done ever quicker to keep their profits up.

The second major division is amongst the different nationalities. The workforce is majority Polish, although there are also sizeable numbers of other eastern European nationalities present, increasingly from Romania, Bulgaria and southern European countries (Portuguese, Italian). There are also many workers from South Asia and African countries. High unemployment back in their countries of origin has caused large-scale migration, typically young people who end up doing a much shittier job than they’d be qualified for back home. The stress of these jobs, combined with the lack of language skills often result in people staying within their respective communities/language groups, especially so for the ‘Polish community’, who make up the majority in most workplaces and which means that Polish is often the main language spoken. They get material support from Polish people that are already here e.g. in getting a place to stay (which normally is unaffordable through an agent meaning lots of people end up living in cramped conditions without a contract), a job, dealing with the bureaucracy, things like getting working tax credits or a national insurance number. But this also means that it’s relatively easy to work and live without learning much English and sticking to other Polish people. Something that capital obviously exploits when deepening divisions amongst workers. The area is also home to an older Indian population, who are more well established and are part of the petit bourgeoisie, often occupying middle-management and landlord/shop-owning positions. Some of the Polish women get hassled on the street by older Indian men, who assume they are prostitutes. So there’s some material basis for why newer Polish workers who aren’t used to such ‘diversity’ come out with suspicious and racist stuff against the Indians, or ‘chapattas’ as they’re known. While to a large extent this is broken down when we’re all working alongside each other (there are many more recent Indian migrants who do the same shitty work), there is still a sense of ‘sticking to your own’ and immediately trusting people who speak the same language, even when they might be managers. Management knows this, so deliberately promote Polish and Indian managers to ensure these kinds of patronage type relationships are reproduced on the warehouse floor.

The scary thing is, it’s only UKIP talking about the competition and distrust of ‘foreigners’ that plays out on the shop floor. The mainstream left bang on about how great multiculturalism is, which is largely irrelevant in a context where the divisions between different sections of migrant workers can greatly affect their ability to find common cause against their real enemies. Polish people around Gr**nford do largely share flats and rooms that cut their rent bill (which is extortionate) and make it possible for them to accept lower wages than ‘British’ workers might. Quite a few of the Polish people we know have the idea that they will soon return to Poland (even if this turns out to be an illusion), and so work 16-hour shifts, knowing that it’s only for a short period. 12-hour shifts can then more easily become the norm for everyone. Recent Indian migrants largely have a better grasp of English because of the colonial history, so can find themselves at a greater advantage in the workplace in terms of promotion even though they might have worked there for less time. This can cause resentment. And vice versa where the workforce is mainly Polish: “Why are they being made permanent when they can’t even speak English? It’s not fair” etc. Therefore, we see the anti-immigration rhetoric by government also functioning as a way to inflame divisions between different recent migrant groups, especially when you have workplaces that are often entirely made up of non-‘British’ workers. We must face up to the realities of these differences in terms of our organisational efforts. We cannot afford to just ignore them and call for a voluntaristic unity.

The Big Squeeze

The work is repetitive, deeply boring, stress levels are high as the managers try to squeeze more work out of us, knowing that we will shirk at most available opportunities. They always have to think of ways to keep the pressure on: how to get the most out of a workforce that gets shit money and can leave for another job at the drop of a hat? Keeping people working hard requires all their best efforts: from texting you every day about your pick-rate, to cancelling your shift if you don’t meet the target, to calling disciplinary meetings about your performance, to displaying productivity league tables every day so you can compare yourself to others, daily threats of losing our jobs at the briefing at the start of every shift if we don’t work faster or follow their rules, large amounts of managers’ time stalking us, telling people to stop talking and work faster, concentrate more, continually employing more people so that they can weed out the slower ones, arbitrary drug and alcohol tests… One method they use to ‘motivate’ us is to dangle the carrot of the ‘permanent contract’. If we have a good pick-rate, we’re compliant, if we bust our (sometimes non-literal) balls to take extra shifts at their whim and generally take their shit, we ‘might’ get made permanent. This rarely happens though. The temp agency does the same: they decide who gets shifts and who not, they cancel shifts, sometimes as ‘punishment’ if you called in sick the week before.

What we’re up against

There was a conflict recently that erupted over a plan to cut overtime pay for temp workers at one site. Unusually for around here, these temp workers got £9 an hour for overtime. One day, management asked people to sign something effectively scrapping this ‘bonus’. Some people refused to sign. The largely male, Polish workforce relied on this overtime payment, working like dogs on 12-16 hour shifts to save some money. A sizeable minority refused to sign and agreed to an overtime ‘strike’. We distributed a leaflet the day after the management tried this, which sparked a range of discussions inside the warehouse. The management saw a collective effort and made an announcement postponing the cut for 4 weeks. We distributed another leaflet on the day they were due to introduce it, outlining how we saw the situation. Already the management had been undermining the overtime strike by asking the permanent workers to take on the overtime, which they had been. They were also busy hiring new people from a different temp agency. Ultimately, they introduced the cut quietly and collective efforts fizzled out. There was an attempt at having a meeting outside of work but there were the usual problems: people didn’t turn up, some of the ones that did were drunk, some wanted a full-out wildcat strike with no regard for the consequences because they wanted to leave the job anyway, people were tired from working the late shift, it was all a bit chaotic. And, to add to all that, turnover is high, the working population mobile. While this is obviously difficult in terms of organising and building some collectivity that is antagonistic towards management in a single warehouse, it also means people have experiences from other local warehouses, they are not attached to the job so may be more willing to take risks and ideas and resistances can spread more easily. People stay in touch with one another, groups of people move to new jobs together. People who are sacked at one site, manage to get a job at the one over the road, even if it’s working for the same company! But there is scope for action: a group of us recently made a demonstration at a local temp agency that were withholding holiday pay from a few of us. Despite having been fobbed off for over 6 weeks when we had individually tried to get our money (e.g. “we’ve sent you your P45 so it’s too late to get your holiday pay now”; “you need to phone head office, it’s nothing to do with us anymore”;” it’ll be in your bank account by Friday”; “yes, you’re owed the money but I need to look up the details, I’ll call you back”, (which of course, they never did…) within half an hour, with 10 of us occupying their small office and making a fuss, we’d got the money. There’s a sense that ‘foreigners won’t do much’, amongst the bosses as well as some of the workers themselves, which can be used to our advantage: they weren’t expecting us, and were obviously nervous when they saw some placards and flyers, a level of organisation that could be escalated if needs be. [3] There are other small examples of collective steps we have been part of: protest letter to management about compulsory overtime, group visit of the temp office after they had called us in half an hour earlier than usual, but then refused to pay us for it. These were ‘multi-national’ little steps, but they remained within the boundaries of daily micro-conflicts.

What is to be done?

The question is, how do we organise under these conditions, which are replicated across the logistics and low-waged sector? We can’t rely on the law or legal rights. The Agency Workers Directive is largely useless as the laws can be easily circumvented (e.g. the stipulation that agency workers who have worked continuously for 12 weeks in a particular workplace have access to the same pay and conditions as permanent workers is gotten around by either discontinuing their work there for a week or by being made to sign a ‘permanent’ contract with the temp agency). The law then is largely useless. We can’t rely on the union who are only (or largely) using the law. We are not an organisation that can promise the workers’ successes. We can only try and promote attempts to do stuff collectively, without anyone having to stick their neck out and be a hero. Cos the next day, rest assured, they’ll be fired. We talk to people while we’re picking, but it’s difficult to have longer conversations. Breaks are staggered and short, just enough time to wolf down some chicken and chips from the canteen or eat some leftovers from the night before in a draughty container. People agree that the work is shit. People skive at the first opportunity – usually a system failure that means nothing is ready to pick. People agree that the wage is not enough to live off, some do 2 of 3 jobs at the same time to make ends meet or save some money for the future. We have good contacts with people in our immediate surroundings, but spreading the word beyond that is difficult. Getting people to organise collectively also requires a medium that can instigate a collective discussion. Hence, the good old leaflet! Timely, concise, and that somehow presents the common situation, like a mirror, to a divided workforce. From that, we see what will emerge… But in an area where word gets around and people know your face, we can’t distribute them ourselves…

Warehouse/logistics workers in various cities in Italy (Piacenza, Milan, Padova, Verona and Bologna) have been struggling for over a year, often resulting in violent repression by the cops. A minority of workers, mainly illegal men from north Africa, have joined a syndicalist union, S.I. Cobas [4] and made blockades outside gates to stop trucks leaving and entering. We can debate the limits of these tactics and the general situation’s comparability to here, but one thing they crucially need and have had over there is support from activists and students from left-wing social centres in nearby cities. It is difficult to do things alone because of the composition of labour and how the production process is organised. We also feel that here. It is difficult to meet or arrange meetings with co-workers because we all work different shifts, are knackered, have limited time and capacity to e.g. start a local newspaper for warehouse workers. So outside involvement is needed to aid workers’ self-organisation! We plan to distribute a leaflet to fellow workmates at the two warehouse sites we work at very soon. The time is ripe, as a sizeable group of people who started at a similar time to us, who have been there a few months, are near breaking-point: fight or flight time. There is a sense that something has to happen, but with all the internal divisions and different shifts, we think that a well-timed leaflet could galvanise some action inside, to spread the idea of a common ‘going slow’-strategy that has been mentioned in various one-to-one conversations, and also to link up workers at both warehouse sites. We obviously can’t do this ourselves because we work there. We don’t fancy dressing up in a chicken costume to give them out either. So this is call for some practical support! If you have some free time and want to get involved in any aspect of our work, from leafletting, setting up a newspaper, having some discussion…then get in touch! We will also be doing a session at the Anarchist Bookfair if people want to pop along to find out more…

Some AngryWorkers

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jan/06/supermarkets-open-dark-stores-online-food-shopping-expands

[2] Some promotional videos from ocado, the largest online grocery company, that explain a bit about the process and how happy everyone is! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aKG5H4WX2I http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJ9DPnfDCE8 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_6A-SpXLkM&feature=youtu.be

[3] https://libcom.org/forums/organise/walk-temp-agency-west-london-138-07082014

[4] http://en.labournet.tv/video/6676/cycle-struggles-logistics-sector-italy