Interview with Jamie Woodcock and Sai Englert of Notes from Below

The UK socialist publication Notes from Below released its first bulletin in 2018 under the proclamation, “No politics without inquiry!” Inspired by the Italian workerist Quaderni Rossi and the American Viewpoint Magazine, the collective publishes worker-written investigations into labor conditions with the aim of strengthening worker organizations. Issues of Notes from Below have included correspondence featuring student and courier strikes, cleaner unions, tech worker coalitions and a game-design jam with the IWGB Game Workers branch. The workers’ inquiries are a basis for understanding the current class composition in the UK — how work is structured and where unrealized alliances might be made.

Last year, I wrote my own worker’s inquiry as a subeditor in a UK finance newsroom, and I felt US labor organizations could learn from the process of workers’ inquiries. I spoke with two Notes from Below editors, Jamie Woodcock and Sai Englert, about their latest publication From the Workplace, and the collective’s newly begun Class Composition Project, which will begin publishing early next year. Their picture of fractured workplaces is not rosy, but it is a model for using worker writing to build worker power.


Sam DiBella: How did Notes from Below form?

Jamie Woodcock: A group of us who had been involved in different organizations came together because we thought there was a lack of understanding about how work has changed and the implications that has for how we organize. We started Notes from Below to understand how workers’ experience had changed.

One of the big changes we were grappling with is that for our generation, the likelihood is that people are not in a trade union. Many people don’t know anyone in a trade union, haven’t been on strike or [don’t] know anyone in other working-class organizations. Many people are working without those institutions. The left, at least in the UK, understands some sectors of the economy. Those tend to be teaching, universities and the public sector, but the rest of the economy … How management behaves, what technology is there, how the work is organized — many of those questions aren’t being asked, let alone answered.

Sai Englert: At Notes from Below we take working-class agency in the transformation of society seriously. Organizations on the left tend to share this idea in theory. They will hark back to a high point in the UK in the 1970s, in which there was impressive rank-and-file mobilization. Groups will speak about rank-and-file strategies, but in practice they will spend much time vying for influence in the union bureaucracies. This reality is an outcome of the general disorganization of the labor movement. There is an objective difficulty in rebuilding rank-and-file power. I joined Notes from Below to think through how to get out of the current impasse without taking shortcuts.

DiBella: I had a friend in SEIU, and he would complain about college graduates going right into union bureaucracy positions. Is that similar to what you’re talking about?

Englert: There’s less of that in the UK than in the US, although some students have gone from Corbyn’s Labour Party to becoming union organizers. At the same time, in the public sector, there is still a comparatively higher level of unionization. This is also where the left is stronger. But because even unionized workplaces are so disorganized, you quickly go from being a militant shop steward to having “facilities time.” Your employer pays a percentage of your time to work for the union. So many good organizers end up being on 100% facilities time and effectively become middle-ranking union officials.

On the other side, left groups often have disproportionate influence inside of unions. That ironically ends up playing against them. The socialist or revolutionary left is weak in the UK, but it’s overrepresented in national trade union bodies. There isn’t a rank-and-file that clashes with the bureaucracy in most unions, and left union strategy has become about the war of position at the top. The question we need to answer is, how do we move beyond this?

DiBella: Notes from Below’s means for answering those questions is workers’ inquiry. What does that look like?

Woodcock: Workers’ inquiries take a number of forms, including surveys, interviews and co-writing. It is a method that guides all of those. It is a way of taking work seriously — to make sense of it and then collectively document and analyze it. I sometimes worry that “workers’ inquiry” sounds like an expert tool or something you have to be trained to do. You don’t have to be an expert to do an inquiry. You just have to talk to your colleagues and try to understand your work. Worker writing gives people that moment to step away from work, write it up and share it with other people. It’s an experience most people don’t get often.

Englert: With people who wrote for us, we would say, “think about technical, social and political composition.” Technical: what’s the work? What do you do? What happens in your workplace, materially? Social: what happens outside of the workplace? Where do people live? What is their relationship to the state? What is the role of oppression in shaping people’s experiences at work and beyond it? Political: what are the political relations? If there’s a union, where is it located? Who’s in it? What other organization is there? Are there ways people refuse, sabotage or slow work? By saying “try to describe these three areas,” inquiry is something everybody can and should do.

DiBella: People already do a lot of work toward understanding their workplace. When you’re at the pub after work and complaining, there’s a certain point where you have to say, “OK, this is the third time we’ve done this, this week. Is this just what we do after work?”

Woodcock: I see that as making explicit things that already happen. Everyone complains about work. It’s a coping strategy. But inquiry is not just about capturing that. It’s also about saying, “Why is it like that? Could it be different?” and politicizing those conversations. People are not used to it, and that’s where co-writing can be useful — to have someone else to ask, “Well, why is it like that?”

Englert: Creating — whether a forum discussion, a podcast or an article — forces you to come to a point of analysis and, therefore, of action. Other people will have these questions too, and this opens up the question of what we do about it. We want to normalize thinking politically and consciously about our workplaces.

DiBella: Notes from Below’s current Class Composition Project involves data analysis and working with national statistics, which differs from your writing-focused publications. How did you arrive at that approach?

Englert: The idea of the workers’ writing project was also to encourage workers to develop collective reflections across industries. COVID-19 started and got in the way of that second bit. The hope for the Class Composition Project was to analyze the labor movement and to move away from a project based on individual contributions. The shape it’s taking reflects the political problems we’ve talked about.

There’s a vicious circle, right? In many industries, there is a lack of an identifiable militant layer that sees itself as such and thinks politically about its workplace. That opens challenges for a project that depends on working-class militants having their own workplace analysis. We set up the Class Composition Project to allow other people to get involved and take control of it. We assumed we would find people in all industries that were interested and understood the utility of it. We quickly got a lot of interest. Over 300 people signed up to the email list; we had meetings of 50 to 70 people. But people didn’t feel comfortable taking a lead and get going.

So, we started reorganizing the project. There’s a couple industries where we have groups of workers. In those industries, we’re encouraging collective reflection. We will also invite individual contributions. The other aspect is our national questionnaire, out of which we’re also pulling interviews. We’ve done about 20 interviews at this point. That’s a way for interested workers to reflect with us. If the project is successful, we will have created networks of workers who are starting to collectively reflect and analyze their work.

Woodcock: What Sai has outlined is a series of experiments for how a small group in a publication can sketch out how we move forward. Even if we end up with just a map of the industries and what the key changes and dynamics are — that is a huge step forward.

DiBella: Overall, what do you see as the role of writing in socialist groups or movements?

Englert: There is a long socialist vocabulary around the division between work of the mind and the body. But there’s something weird in our society, where many people do “work of the mind.” For example, they work in offices but certainly aren’t trained to write, to express political ideas or even to reflect out loud and publicly. People not in the habit of writing feel this pressure about publishing and the sense that it should be a perfect product or the preserve of academics. Obviously, the division of labor under capitalism creates that. Undermining that division is one working-class tradition we have to recapture.

Woodcock: We’ve seen how people’s lack of confidence can be overcome. The last collection showed that it is possible to support workers from diverse kinds of work, educational experience and levels of confidence to write about their work. We’ve had people reach out and say, “Can you send us a couple copies, because somebody I work with wants to read these and then we’re going to talk about it.” It shows that when you are complaining about work with your colleagues, this is not just something that’s distracting you from the “politics” of going to meetings — it’s actually politics. Writing isn’t an end in itself, but the worker writing process is a useful starting point.

Englert: One of the challenges is getting people to write about stuff that might not look like a great achievement or a big victory — the everyday work or the inability to organize. In the collection, I thought the Amazon piece was great. There were things other Amazon workers have already spoken about. But also, there was no grandstanding. There was a quite pessimistic end. In that pessimism, the author started by saying it’s not possible to organize in that workplace but then pointed to places outside the workplace where workers could meet collectively. Also, reading about the reality of being in that warehouse and how mind-numbing it is, how much they hate their managers, how difficult it is, how surveilled — it creates the possibility of other workers recognizing that experience and realizing their experience is also relevant.

We think the everyday stuff is interesting, and the majority of people think that’s weird. That’s where Jamie started: if we don’t get to the places where nothing seems to be happening, then we get stuck in the same loop where we talk about the places where the left is and the things that happen there.

DiBella: It goes back to that nostalgia about huge leftist labor movements, which we also have in the US. It’s tempting to imagine we just need to recreate that.

Englert: Ironically, what do I want? I want mass rank-and-file movements. I want huge workers’ parties. I want mass political strikes. All of that I share with the collective imagination of the radical left. But I am also frustrated that it’s clearly not where we are, and I don’t get any sense we’re closer to it. To ask these questions is to practically think, what would it take to rebuild working-class self-organization, analysis and debate? We often feel that these are obvious questions everybody on the left should be asking. Yet, they sometimes elicit frustration from other people on the left. Somehow, it’s more controversial than we think it is.

DiBella: Before the pandemic, you planned writing workshops so people could work on their inquiries together. What was that like?

Woodcock: We originally had collaborative workshops planned, and we held one before the pandemic started. We were keen to have these big workshops to bring people together. We were unable to do more of them, but I think some people were intimidated by talking about their experience with people from sectors that might be deemed more exciting. It’s something we’d like to do again. It’s a constant dream that we will be able to go back to safe, in-person things in the UK. The process was about one-to-one phone calls, trust building and working things through individually first and working up to group meetings.

Englert: It’s difficult to have a singular approach to the inquiries. Once we created the call, some people immediately sent a fully written article. Others we had to pull over the finish line, and they found every bit difficult. Some people started the collective process and talked to their colleagues. One submission was a collective submission. But this points to the fact that there’s a massive unevenness. Some people were already union activists. Other people had no contact with unions or even organizing. It’s not always obvious what the shared experiences are at the beginning of a discussion.

Under Thatcherism, there was a unified experience of working-class struggle in the UK, of defeat and destruction. So, it did generate a collective sense of where labor struggles were going, of what was not possible and of what was being destroyed and undone. Such an overarching vision is harder to grasp today. There are places where you feel things are going backwards and simultaneously places that were described as unorganizable but where you actually see militant, even if numerically small, achievements and victories.

DiBella: What are some of the results from the workers’ inquiries so far? What does UK work look like right now?

Woodcock: American readers might be less familiar with the “fire and rehire” going on across the UK. Employers are confident enough to sack a whole load of people and rehire them on much worse conditions. There’s an employers’ offensive coming out of COVID-19, a shift of class power through the pandemic. If you look at industrial relations statistics in the UK on lost days and strikes, they are astonishingly low.

It’s easy to imagine nothing is happening in workplaces across the country, and then you find out there are informal networks, and in some places, workers have pushed back on something with management. Workplaces are much more alive than it appears from the outside. At present, the left and most of the trade union movement are often unable to connect to that smaller scale stuff. I don’t want to overblow it, but the stuff we believe about work — that there’s always a struggle at work — is still true.

Englert: The workers’ inquiries helped us get a sense of the workplace fracturing through outsourcing and casualization and different experiences of workplaces with lack of contact between different groups of workers. Many workers understand outsourcing is a problem, but there’s not a collective experience of it. What the workplace therefore looks like is the outcome of division and atomization. In some industries, like construction, there’s high levels of militancy, despite or because of — who knows — a lack of official organizing.

There’s been, over the last decade — these are not workers we have a lot of contact with — two rounds of unofficial industrial disputes among construction workers, who are often self-employed. There are also important cleaner campaigns, which tend to happen with unions — some of them new, some of them older. The overwhelming image is one of diversity. There is a tendency to want to find the golden bullet and say everybody should do this. That’s not what the picture we are seeing looks like.

Starting to find out what the picture actually looks like is what we’re trying to do with Notes from Below. Not just to understand work but to collectively figure out how we can organize against it.

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