Workers Can Win book review

The new book, ‘Workers Can Win: A Guide to Organising at Work’ by Ian Allinson is an important, useful and timely book. I highly recommend it to anyone on the left, in unions and working on campaigns outside unions. It combines political education, a training manual, strategic thinking and engaging case studies. Ian is very focused on power and how workers get more through a radical perspective on organising. This take on organising is a precise framework based on what has worked in the past, which is similar to Jane McAleveys’ ‘deep organising’ model. Since learning about this organising approach in 2016, I have been frustrated by the lack of a UK guide on how to apply it. Ian has gone far beyond my expectation with this excellent book. There is also a Workers Can Win website.

Let’s look at the content in the book. Chapter 2 looks at why to organise at work. This looks at why conflict happens at work between employers and workers due to the power imbalance at work. Then at the collective nature of workers. Employers want us to be good team players but limit it to that. There is some useful discussion on the lack of worker power in society and the need for more. Ian describes the limited role of unions and how the priority is to build worker power through organising over focusing on increasing union membership. He explains the different relationships between unions and employers. There is a key section on workers winning by threatening greater ‘disruption costs’ for employers through industrial action that force them to concede. He looks at work today, exploitation and waves of protest and uprising, and the importance of preparing for them. For those new to organising at work, there is a crucial section on work colleagues’ objections to organising and Ian’s responses to overcome them.

Chapter 3 goes into more detail on starting out with trying to organise at work. The basics of talking, listening connecting with workmates and finding allies. Ian stresses the importance of staying safe to ensure you keep your job so you can keep organising. To keep a record of management treatment of workers that are organising and be careful about what might be used against you. The chapter describes the importance of democratic decision-making in your organising group. He gives details on building up resources, skills, a support network and choosing a trade union to join.

Chapter 4 explores the different models of trade unionism of ‘services’, ‘advocacy’, ‘mobilising’ and ‘organising’. And how successful trade unionism requires a combination of these depending on the context. Ian unpacks ideas around what unions are for. He looks at the potential for casework to help with organising at work and the pitfalls. He describes some key issues to organise around at work: non-payment of wages and the minimum wage; and dismissal. And outside work around immigration and state benefits. 

Chapter 5 focuses on issues, choosing and communicating about them. Ian explains how effective organising is around ‘issues’ such as pay, hours, workload, stress, safety, work environment, management behaviour, bullying, harassment, and discrimination. He describes the ‘organising cycle’: issues, organisation, education, and then action. There is a useful explanation of how and why managers justify their control. I found the section on how to frame issues and the language to use very helpful. He goes into good detail on how to conduct an organising conversation. I liked how he described giving people a little push past ‘belief barriers’.

Chapter 6 gets down to the details of how to organise. It looks at leaders and influential workers; workplace mapping and charting; structure tests; communication trees and distribution networks; meetings; socialising; democracy; and collective action and how it can shift workers’ consciousness.

Chapter 7 is about how to use our workplace rights and there are pros and cons to consider. Ian covers contracts of employment; employer policies; health and safety; discrimination; redundancy and TUPE; whistleblowing; union recognition; facility time. He describes the risks and weaknesses of the last. He describes employee forums that are set up by employers and how employers use them to channel discontent in a harmless direction and make independent self-organising pointless. Ian lists three different employers’ forum structures and strategies: Information and Consultation of Employees; European Works Councils; and Informal forums.

Chapter 8 focuses on planning action to win concessions, workers’ power, and how to plan to win a campaign. This chapter goes into detail on how workers need to credibly threaten disruption that would cost the employer more than meeting the workers’ demands and ensure the employer doesn’t have any other options. It looks at different types of power and the need to understand the difference between worker and employer power. There is good detail on planning campaigns to win and a useful section on using leverage to win.

Chapter 9 looks at industrial and direct action. Ian explains the industrial action process. On the difference between unlawful vs illegal strikes; and good details on lawful industrial action. Also on walking off the job regarding health and safety. He describes different types of action. Ian recognises that strikes are expensive for workers and employers. There is an interesting section on ‘selective action’, with some workers striking and others contributing financially, including drawbacks and employer response. I enjoyed the section on campaigners outside supporting strikers workers such as blockading bus depots to get around anti-union laws. Ian explains the difference between continuous and discontinuous strikes and different forms of industrial action. There is a section on the anti-union laws and to scrap them we need to make them unenforceable. There are details on strike pay and funds; the practicalities of striking; the importance of high worker involvement in strikes; democratic structures; building solidarity; the media; winning and settling disputes regarding disruption costs and balance of power.

Chapter 10 describes how management tries to interfere with workplace organising. This includes intensifying work and maintaining control of the workplace. Ian explains how workers can respond to this. The chapter covers how employers attempt to derail the union during negotiations. Ian explains how union vs employer bargaining works and the radical approach of big bargaining. The final section looks at how employers attack unions when they feel threatened.

Chapter 11 focuses on the important topic of dealing with your union. On using your union beyond work and how to deal with union structures. Unions are not just the members, Ian explains the contradictory nature of unions and union officials. Unions are a site of struggle and Ian outlines the main responses workers have tried to deal with this. There is a section on the recently formed micro or independent unions. There is an interesting section on union strategy, the need to win over the majority of workers and how big gains happen when big unions implement new approaches. One way to improve unions is to change their internal rules to help workers and organising. Ian describes the rank-and-file approach, which I support too. He gives examples of Chicago teachers and construction workers in London. Finally, he describes how to stand up to the union bureaucracy.

Chapter 12 is the final chapter, and looks at overcoming difficulties and limitations. Ian describes campaign pitfalls and provides troubleshooting advice; problems with campaigners; burnout and organisational culture; and if unions are enough