Sunday, 3 May 2020

Review of Class Power On Zero Hours by Angry Workers Collective

Class Power On Zero Hours by Angry Workers Collective (Angry Workers Publishing 2020).

The core of this book describes working conditions in Bakkavor’s food processing factories in West London, then moves on to describe how a Tesco distribution centre operates. The opening 100 plus pages are used to set the scene, then there is the central 180 pages, finally after a curious detour into 3D printer manufacture - and leaving aside an appendix - the last 50 pages deal with the question of revolutionary organisation. Cut into the descriptions of contemporary labour and class exploitation is much useful analysis and historical material:

The food and drink industry is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, accounting for 17% of the total UK manufacturing turnover, contributing £28.2bn to the economy annually and employing 400,000 people. And while a lot of fruit and veg is imported, the shelf life of freshly prepared products (FPP) means that outsourcing this work overseas is not possible. All the FPP found in the chilled section of our supermarkets comes from UK factories. Page 136. 
People in Britain buy around 3.5 million ready-meals a day, which easily makes it the leading ready-meals market in Europe. Working hours are some of the longest in Europe, which perhaps explains the demand. Page 139. 
Bakkavor is one of the biggest UK food companies you’ve never heard of. You’ve probably got a Bakkavor food item in your fridge, but you wouldn’t know it because their name won’t be on the packaging. They employ around 17,000 people across various sites in the UK and source 5,000 products from around the world to supply the largest supermarkets with their own-brand products - from salads, to desserts, to ready-meals and pizzas. Pages 147/148. 
Bakkavor has an ageing workforce, the majority in the 55-64 age bracket. The next biggest age group was workers aged between 45-54, fewer again in the 35-44 age range. I think this was a huge factor in the docility of the workforce in general, even when the union was ramping up its activity. There was an aversion to risk, a palpable fear of going on strike, and a resignation that only comes with living a hard life with few victories. That isn’t to say there weren’t some older workers who were up for the fight. Page 155. 
A toxic culture of disrespect pervaded the factories… All the stress and bad vibes  understandably had a negative impact on peoples’ mental and physical health. One guy dropped down dead in the smoking area. Another guy, a night shift hygiene worker, died in his late forties. A mild-mannered Polish guy from the maintenance department had a psychotic episode and climbed onto the roof, sobbing in front of his workmates. A young office worker who everybody ignored even killed himself. Others had strokes and panic attacks and were taken away by the ambulance, which came with depressing regularity. It wasn’t just that they were old or smoked, although of course those were factors. I think it was also the type of work and toxic culture that drove people to their limits. Page 178.

The poor working conditions at Bakkavor, bad pay and struggles to improve it - alongside the unhygienic methods of food production - are described in detail. The switches from more objective analysis to an utterly subjective position and speculative assertion are sudden and frequent. Some might see this as a weakness but it is actually the book’s strength. It’s a rhetorical device designed to give those who haven’t done these jobs a feeling of insight into them and a sense of empathy with those depicted in the book. Likewise if you have been employed in the industries described you might be drawn to a conscious embrace of the book’s wider analytical perspective in part due to a sense of identification with the text’s more subjective turns. Even even those who have not worked in these industries - or on some other factory floor - will recognise the social relations depicted from shops, offices and other places of employment.

In short Class Power On Zero Hours is worth reading for its central sections about food production and distribution. The opening and closing parts of the book may resonate with some but were less than thrilling to me. I found the initial section about west London especially tedious and almost gave up when I read the following sentence on the first full page:

Nobody on the London left had even heard of Greenford, not surprising due to its status as a cultural desert, in zone four on the Central line. Page 7.

I don’t know - and don’t care - if I’d count as part of what Angry Workers configure as the London left but I’d not only heard of Greenford, until lockdown I was going through it once once a month on my way to an extended training session the martial arts club I belong to has in South Ruislip. Likewise, I have two friends - one born in the same south-west London hospital as me - who work for Ealing council (pest control and a desk job); for those who don’t know, Greenford is part of the borough of Ealing. While I passed through rather than went to Greenford and Park Royal growing up, I spent plenty of time back then in Hounslow which isn’t so far away.

Ultimately the claim that ‘nobody’ was familiar with Greenford reveals Angry Workers’ contact with the working class across much of London when its members first arrived here to have been rather limited. Other things they say point to the same conclusion. On the basis of what the collective writes it would seem that many of those they hung out with in London before moving to the city’s west were students who’d come here to take university courses and who saw themselves as on the left but were clueless about about the place they’d relocated to. The text makes it clear Angry Workers went to great efforts to connect with the working class in west London, but leaves the impression they are still disconnected from it in other parts of the city.

The assertion that Greenford has cultural desert status appears obnoxious, racist and anti-working class: clearly not positions Angry Workers would want to be associated with even if what’s quoted above might be (mis)read as linking them to views of this type. Bourgeois distaste for proletarian culture - sometimes expressed with the absurd assertion that the working class don’t have a culture and exists in a ‘cultural desert’ - can be found among parts of what Angry Workers seem to be describing as the London ‘left’. What ‘the left’ is and whether 'liberal' elements who want to transform everyone into a bourgeois subject are part of it might be seen by some as open to debate, although not by me. In odd places Class Power On Zero Hours lacks clarity in its verbal formulations but on the basis of the entire text, a generous guess would be it is the views of reactionaries who wish to demean working class immigrant communities that are being invoked in the statement about Greenford’s cultural desert status rather than the Angry Workers collective itself believing this to be the case. That said, anyone who was born in the west or south-west of London or who has spent much time there can safely skip the early parts of this book. It is uneven but there is more than enough in its main section to make it worthwhile reading if you’re consciously engaged in class struggle: or even if you're not, yet!

Finally, I really liked the solid pink inside covers of the book, so much so that I’m almost tempted to overlook the fact that this publication really cries out for an index. I’m unlikely to read the whole book twice but it would have been helpful to be able to find the parts I’m going to want to access again easily with an index.

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