The following case reveals the strategical potential of solidarity networks: to create links between individual proletarians in structurally weak positions and the world of workers’ power in big workplaces.
A friend of a Punjabi guy who we had previously supported against his boss, got in touch with us. He is also a Punjabi truck driver. He had worked as a yard labourer at a local building supply merchant for a year. The boss is also Punjabi. There are around 20 people employed by the company, most of them work on part-time contracts, while working over 50 hours a week. The boss pays the overtime in cash. When our worker friend left the job the boss withheld 11 days holiday pay, saying that, due to the part-time nature of employment, he was not entitled to the money. We spoke to the boss and he acknowledged verbally that our friend had actually been working full-time and that he was willing to pay under one condition: that our friend signs a declaration that he didn’t receive any social benefits during the time of employment. The boss calculated that with this threat to report our friend to the authorities he would intimidate him to drop the case. We initially thought of complying with the boss’s request, as we knew it was just a bluff; if the boss would have reported it to HMRC, he would also incriminate himself – he would have to tell HMRC that he pays his workers cash in hand. But in the end, we decided against playing the boss’s game and organised a picket with friends and former solidarity network contacts. We had some leaflets describing what was going on. It took five minutes and the handing out of two leaflets before the boss agreed to pay.
During the picket we had a short discussion with a building worker of Afghani origin, who supported our action, but also pointed out that it wasn’t so simple: ‘There is a demand for jobs like this, and workers benefit from these arrangements too – you get paid and can claim some benefits on the side’. It’s true, there are desperate workers who have recently migrated to the UK and who need jobs within ‘their community’ and cash-in-hand payments allow them to top up below-minimum wages with social benefits, which creates a relation of collusion and ‘fair deal on both sides’ between workers and the boss. We told him that we are not here for charity, but in order to encourage workers to break this deadly mixture of dependency and collusion – as it undermines wages and working conditions for the wider working class.
This case in itself can be seen as a success, in particular because we have created another bond with a local worker. A week after this case the actual potential of bonds created through solidarity network cases revealed itself. We received a phone call from another truck driver of Punjabi origin who is employed by one of the world’s largest airline catering companies Alpha LSG near Heathrow airport. Comrades of ours have worked at LSG and we have been distributing our newspaper there ever since. However, the contacts created through the newspaper distribution had been pretty flimsy so far:
Through word of mouth, this LSG truck driver got in touch. He was a a friend of another solidarity network guy we helped and have kept in touch with when he was driving for a small transport company. We met in Southall with one of his workmates. They told us that all LSG drivers hired after August 2017 receive 40p less per hour than the more senior drivers, although they do the same work, e.g. driving food to the big A380 aeroplanes. Unite the union had agreed to this pay gap on a national level. The two workers hoped that the Equal Pay Act would allow them to claim equal pay. We had to disappoint them. We told them about the IWW and the possibility to act as an independent union. We decided to speak to the local Unite rep at LSG first, to see what he thought about the situation. He told us that he had done everything he could by putting in a grievance.
We are now in a situation where the IWW could actually play a role in a major multinational corporation. The problem is that our capacity is limited, in terms of actual (wo)men-hours that we can put into this. We will suggest a bigger meeting with the new drivers to discuss the situation. It might well turn out that they hope for a quick legal fix and are not up for taking more collective practical steps. Nevertheless, these are the type of connections – between small backyard enterprises and potential industrial power – that any working class organisation would have to create, or rather, unearth.