Blast from the past – Workers Inquiry like it’s 1999

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Interviewed by friends from ‘Notes from Below’, one of us reflects with comrades about workers inquiries in call centres in the bad old 1990s. Ain’t getting younger, but the experience might still be relevant for folks today…

https://notesfrombelow.org/article/interview-kolinko-collective

*** Can I start by asking why you decided to start the workers inquiry/militant research project? Why did you choose call centers?

Three aspects are worth mentioning: the limitations of the radical left and our attempt to reconnect revolutionary politics with class struggle; the experiences of militant inquiry – or conricerca – as a useful tool to do that; and call centers as the new locations of mass labor and potential workers’ struggles.

During the 1990s, the radical left in Germany integrated itself into the mainstream by despising the working class. Its focus was on building antifascist ‘democratic’ alliances and occupying moral high ground as ‘anti-Germans.’ ‘Post-modernism’, ’post-industrialism,’ and identity politics were ideological weapons to facilitate this integration. A few groups within the former autonomist left tried to relate to social reality, but they did this by regurgitating the ‘social question’ in a paternalistic and liberal way: the divided workers were supposed to gather around the transitional demands for a guaranteed income, universal rights, or electoral municipalism. Most groups had an external and schematic way to relate to class reality.

For us, workers inquiry was the first step to re-ground revolutionary politics. We saw it not as a sociological endeavor but as an experimental effort to re-establish a productive relationship between revolutionaries and the self-organization of workers. We wanted to understand the particular conditions in order to be able to find and present a political perspective and to propose steps that transcended a singular workplace or sector.

Some of us had already for some time discussed the history and instruments of the Italian Marxist current operaismo (“workerism”) and found that its workers’ inquiry (conricerca or “co-research”) is a good method to understand the situation of the working class and intervene in its struggles. After previous attempts with such workers’ inquiries – e. g., on construction sites – we had some experience. A few of us were unemployed at the time, and we looked for jobs were we could start a collective inquiry. Call centers were mushrooming in our region at the time, the second half of the 1990s, so we chose to go there.

We also focused on call centers because they were the location of a new way to organize office work: Firstly, call centers abolished the former white-collar clerical skills and qualifications and redistributed these among a larger number of rather ‘unskilled’ workers who would be less able to develop ‘professional pride’ or other forms of qualification based narrow-mindedness; secondly, call centers re-concentrated a workforce, i. e., they put hundreds of workers under one roof at a time when the mainstream told you that computer and internet would inevitably lead to people working isolated at home; thirdly, call centers socialized and connected work beyond borders. We witnessed similar experiences of work and exploitation among a largely young and gender-mixed workforce around the globe. This gave us hope for organic cross-border exchange and solidarity, although we could already see the problematic role that ‘national’ trade unions played.

Early on we also witnessed first signs of resistance, e. g., strikes among call center workers in the banking sector. We wanted to understand these developments and intervene – as a small collective of about ten people we chose to limit our efforts to a certain sector in order to avoid overstretching our capacities. So most of us got jobs in call centers.

*** How would you describe the process of workers’ inquiry that you used? Could you tell us a bit more about the questionnaires and leaflets?

The questionnaires were first and foremost a guideline for our own discussions and work reports. We only interviewed close workmates and friends – it was not an attempt to engage in mass surveys. That does not mean questionnaires couldn’t be used more extensively, though.

The leaflets related mainly to concrete problems in particular call centers. They created more stir. The four issues of the newspapers were kind of didactical: we decided to address four main issues of exploitation: the extension of the working day, the intensification of labor, the myth of quality and the reality of alienation, and the struggle against the bosses and the problem of (union) representation. We tried to relate these general topics to the concrete reality in call centers. We also added reports and stories but the topical framework was rather rigid.

In hindsight, we could have presented the newspaper more as an open paper for the exchange of news between call center agents, which might have encouraged more people to send us stuff or get involved. Our own experience in this regard was sketchy: we had participated in various working-class ‘newsletters’ or leafleting efforts before, mainly as part of the wider collective Wildcat in Germany, but our circles didn’t really have much experience with consistent working class publications and organizing efforts. Still, it was interesting to see how colleagues used the newsletter as it was a source of information and triggered conversations about the working conditions. As it was not used for setting up an organization, we didn’t do it for long. If we had done that, such a newspaper might have brought more worker activists together or workers who like ‘to do something.’

*** The context of the inquiry could be described as “cold” with no open struggle. What are the challenges or opportunities of doing an inquiry like this, rather than a “hot” (or at least “hotter”) context?

There were some disputes in call centers in our region – so things were, at least, “lukewarm.” But, yes, our approach at the time was: we cannot ‘kickstart’ struggles, so let’s go with the flow and learn. We didn’t see ourselves as ‘organizers’ back then, and, again in hindsight, maybe we should have tried a more active form of intervention and organizing. However, if there is no struggle – or no deep rooted anger among the workers, at least – then any form of organizing will have limited effects.

*** Do you think there is a tension between research and organizing (or intervention) in a project like this? How can it be resolved?

In general, once the research is done by workers themselves, there is no tension between research and organizing – research is a continuous precondition and an organizing effort in itself. Tension exists if researchers come as externals, with their separate aims – for instance, as academics or as representatives of (trade union) organizations which develop interests separate from those of workers.

At the time, we were sure that we don’t want to get involved with the mainstream unions and the legal straight-jacket of works councils. And at the time ‘rank-and-file’ unionism and syndicalism was much less prevalent than today. The only serious efforts in this regard we witnessed were made by base unions in Italy. We could have tried to formalize our efforts more and presented ourselves as a ‘call center workers’ organization’ but in most situations that we found ourselves in this would have been an artificial step. It was all still at the stage of building trust and informal networks among colleagues, and we pushed this as far as we could.

*** At Notes from Below, we analyze class composition through technical and political, as well as integrating social composition. We define social composition as the specific material organization of workers into a class society through the social relations of consumption and reproduction. Is this an aspect that you considered during the call center inquiries?

The ‘social composition’ outside of workplaces and its social antagonisms can be pretty individualistic or separating, especially when it comes to concepts like ‘consumers’ or ‘citizens.’ Still, there is a need to organize a struggle in something like the ‘proletarian sphere’: tenants organizations, workers’ self-education, and the women workers’ fight against sexism.

At the time, in cities like Berlin a lot of the call center workers were of student background – and any organizing efforts would have to take this double-existence into account and unearth its potentials by getting a dynamic going between campus struggles and workplaces. In the Ruhr area where we were living, call center workers were more of a mixed crowd, among them students, workers who had had other office jobs before, and former industrial workers. Perhaps we could have tried harder to address the previous work experience of some of these colleagues and see if they still had contacts and engagement with the more traditional worlds of work and struggles. We also largely failed to address the question of how our single mother colleagues organized their life after work.

Still, our proposal at the end of the book hotlines – to form ‘proletarian circles’ – engages with the fact that working class organizing should encompass all questions of life, from living arrangements to the question how we deal with illness or old age. At the time of the call center inquiry we just did not have the capacity to aim at parallel structures of workplace activities and ‘solidarity networks.’

*** Hotlines takes a very self-critical tone at points, giving the reader insights into what worked as well as what didn’t. Could you tell us a bit more about what you learned from the process?

Well, self-critique and the ability to make use of others’ critique is a precondition for progress. Obviously, we tried a lot of things at the time and made mistakes, but we did not want to present our activity as the best solution for everything or the call center workers’ struggle as the central struggle or class composition. Still, we were also attacked at the time by groups who saw what we were doing as crossing some holy political line – too much “intervention”, or not enough “organizing”, depending on the political dogma behind.

Regarding the call centers, we learned that although they often employ hundreds of workers, that doesn’t make them into factories. The lack of material cooperation between workers in call centers might be one of the main reasons why we didn’t see the emergence of workers’ power and confidence. In hindsight, we should perhaps have been more confident in proposing some type of organizational structures like a region-wide call center workers meeting or group beyond the single workplace – or, at least, experiment with it. On the other hand, we were also not strong enough as a group in terms of active members to engage more in other struggles in the region at the time, as the struggle of GM workers. During the call center inquiry we were very busy with wage labor and political activity and didn’t have much energy for more.

*** In Hotlines, you proposed revolutionary nuclei to undertake inquiries, with the possibility of exchange between them. Did anything come of this?

The inquiry got us in touch with groups around Europe, and it facilitated the establishment of regular summer meetings of somehow like-minded activists since the early 2000s. Our inquiry wasn’t the trigger of any larger movement, but it seems to have inspired various groups in various countries to debate and engage with workers’ inquiry. Even now, about twenty years later, we are still asked about it, and the hotlines book is used as an example. It was also important that we put the main experiences and results in that book – something many groups never manage to do after an intervention. The book was even re-published a few years later with a new preface in India, and some students did small scale inquiries into the local call center sector there.

What we probably didn’t make clear enough is that such an inquiry is not ‘a project’ – in the way many left-wing groups pick ‘projects,’ sometimes quite randomly – but a step towards the creation of a political class organization based on a certain political understanding and moral attitude. We hoped that with the experience and with new contacts to comrades around Europe we could help with some regrouping of the class struggle left. For that purpose we published the newsletter prol-position which featured articles and translations about workers’ struggles beyond sectoral boundaries.

However, neither the summer meetings nor that newsletter succeeded in pushing aside the main three obstacles that separate the revolutionary milieu: the increasing professionalization and academization of the left; the laissez-faire or hands-off attitude towards workers’ struggles of some leftist groups who are afraid to contaminate the proletariat; and the formalist attitude that tries to push workers’ struggles into ready-made organizational structures but doesn’t analyze the different potentials the production process offers to workers’ organizing attempts.

*** How do you think class composition has changed since the hotlines book? If you were going to start a workers inquiry project now, where would you get a job?

Not by chance, most of us now work or are active in or around logistics: as airport or warehouse and delivery workers or as supporters of organizing efforts at Amazon. The struggles of warehouse workers in Italy and in other regions have demonstrated that the re-concentration process of modern supply and distribution chains provides a material structure for the re-emergence of workers’ collective power. We therefore proposed and started inquiries within the logistics work-force in collaboration with comrades from other initiatives, including Wildcat in Germany, AngryWorkers in the UK, and Inicjatywa Pracownicza (or workers’ initiative) in Poland.

We have to remember that we did our inquiry at the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s, so before September 11, 2001, the ‘War on Terror,’ and the crisis that started in 2007 and 2008. At least, three things have changed since:

Firstly, with the crisis the intensification of work has increased, deskilling, the speed of work, and often surveillance and control as well. Our logistics jobs are just examples, the situation got worse in many workplaces, and that has been accompanied by an increased pressure from the side of the welfare state and the tightening of the migration regime.

Secondly, the renewed globalization of warfare has made it easier to discuss ‘the system’ with work-mates, even though we might not agree on what ‘the system’ is. This was more difficult in the 1990s. Today our inquiries necessarily become ‘political’ and global, not only by the global character of industries and migration, but by the global and political dimension of the crisis. Therefore it is more important than ever to draw a clear line between workers’ class organization on one side and efforts to compromise workers’ independence by parliamentarian experiments on the other. The left runs the risk of reproducing the old stale division between ‘honest syndicalism’ for the economic struggle and ‘the parliamentarian party’ for the political. Inquiry today means to create organizations that are able to unearth the global connections between day-to-day class struggles that point beyond the increasingly brittle limits the current system imposes – as, among others, state borders, monetary policies, the corporate form, the nuclear family, and the parliamentary system.

Thirdly, we have seen a global wave of struggles in the late 2000s and early 2010, not just the ‘square occupations’ but many strikes and even strike waves in many parts of the world including the Global South. That gave us at least an idea of what could be possible if these struggles would combine and be infused by a similar revolutionary will and impetus as in the late 1960s. Aside from that, we have also seen a series of workers’ struggles, smaller everyday confrontations as well as organized wildcats and union-led strikes in various sectors in Europe since. For instance, at airports in Germany you had everyone from cleaners, to pilots, cabin crews and security workers from different companies involved in strikes in the past ten years. And working conditions have become so poor that many workers are looking for alternatives.

So it seems that this is a good time to get involved in these struggles through workers’ inquiries – certainly a better and more promising time than the late 1990s.