Book review: Workers Can Win

Legislation such as the Employment Contracts Act in New Zealand and in much of the world has successfully outlawed many of the most powerful tools workers’ unions might wield to improve industrial conditions, and that legislation has remained relatively unchallenged since implementation. Capitalist propaganda has wormed its way into the wider discourse, and many workers are under the very misguided impression their interests are aligned with the bosses’. Union membership is relatively low at only 23% of employees in the UK, and an abysmal 14% of employees in New Zealand, and unions are often seen only as a service rather than as a structure for the expression of workers’ power. There is no doubt we are faced with numerous challenges engaging in political discourse in workplaces, and in motivating colleagues to political action. Ian Allinson’s new book, Workers Can Win, acknowledges this context, and then sets out to turn that situation around and provide workers with tools to empower themselves in their workplaces.

Allinson has been a workplace activist for three decades, leading strikes and advocating for colleagues for jobs, pensions, pay, and holidays. Currently, Allinson is the industrial action coordinator on the executive committee of Manchester Trades Union Council. Writing for this book was supported by UK socialist organisation RS21. Workers Can Win is written in a casual, first-person style, and reads very much as an activist condensing and passing on their extensive experience. The text is interspersed with light-hearted illustrations by Colin Revolting. Each chapter ends with a bullet-pointed key points summary for review and quick-reference, as well as questions to prompt discussion amongst groups of activists.

The book will be accessible for workplace activists of both left-wing and more politically centrist alignments. Allinson makes clear in several places in the book his own political outlook and motivation: that is, a revolutionary democratic socialist one. In the closing chapter, Allinson is explicit that until such a revolution occurs, the industrial back-and-forth of union organising and manoeuvring against the bosses will be ongoing. However, even for those who have not yet come to these same conclusions, Workers Can Win will serve as a useful guide to achieving immediate improvements in worker strength and workplace conditions. The author scatters throughout the book arguments in favour of workers’ unity and collective struggle against the exploitation that is an inbuilt feature of capitalism. Thus, from an International Socialist perspective, the book may also be a useful propaganda tool for convincing colleagues to move leftward through workplace activity.

The pre-print proof is 244 pages in length (not including contents and glossary pages; note the print edition may vary slightly from this length). This gives Allinson plenty of space to present his arguments, anecdotes, and advice. The chapters comprise, informally, three sections which respectively detail: why workplace activism is important; how to start and how to build your union branch; and how to deal with the bosses’ responses to your efforts. Allinson commences the introduction by making clear to the reader the purpose of workers’ organisation is to empower workers. Martin Luther King is referenced, and Allinson informs the reader such collective action is both possible and necessary not just for tackling workplace issues but also for tackling broader issues such as housing and climate change. He is clear that while he is sharing his own knowledge and experience, individual circumstances vary and the book cannot be considered an exact how-to guide for every workplace or situation. Acknowledging the possibility of some material becoming outdated, the author has created a website to accompany the book and to provide updated information over time.

The biggest limitation of Workers Can Win is that it is targeted at a United Kingdom, and more specifically British, audience. Much of the advice is generalisable, and this will be discussed shortly. However, some parts of the book discuss UK industrial relations legislation and refer to UK organisations. These references will be of interest to international audiences in terms of general awareness of what is possible elsewhere in comparison to the reader’s own context. As a reader in New Zealand who has been involved in union organising, advocacy, and contract negotiations, I found some of the UK-specific material similar enough to the New Zealand setting to be of value. But nonetheless some sections may be less applicable. For example, specific information about the activities of UK unions, legal requirements for union registration, and in particular Chapter 7 which details workers’ legal rights. Allinson acknowledges this limitation, and provides a glossary which goes some way towards improving understanding. It would be fantastic if an International Edition or region-specific editions could be produced in the future.

After introducing why organising at work is important, the book proceeds to detail progressively greater stages of worker organisation. The first of these stages is identifying allies, building communication channels, connecting with a suitable union, and not getting fired in the process. Despite the book starting with these basic steps, more experienced workplace activists may nonetheless find review of this material useful to ensure they have indeed implemented all practical foundational steps such as ensuring they are receiving training in union organising and setting up a Google alert to receive updates about the employer’s publicly reported activities. From there, Allinson proceeds to discuss how to choose what issues to communicate, how to actually go about organising with colleagues, and how to plan and take action such as strikes. The last few chapters are dedicated to mitigating some of the main negative forces that are likely to arise: management interference in worker organising activities; union bureaucracy; and setbacks and burnout. Workers Can Win certainly provides a comprehensive discussion of numerous topics relevant to worker empowerment.

Allinson is a strong advocate for worker-led democratic structures. He cautions against viewing a union simply as a service or advocacy resource, or as just a small cohort of paid officers, and advises instead the union be viewed as a powerful banding-together of workers to achieve a collective goal in support of their interests against the employer. He notes also the ease with which unions can fall into a collaborative mode of working with the employer, and how this ultimately advantages the employer over the workers. Much practical advice is provided throughout the book to achieve these aims and avoid pitfalls such as getting too bogged down in casework, not gaining the support of influential workers, misguidedly withholding information from members in an attempt to maintain an appearance of unity or strength where such doesn’t exist, and so on. Workers Can Win should be an invaluable resource for trade union members, delegates, and officials to refer to from time to time to assist with keeping themselves on-track to winning their collective struggles.

Numerous times, the author refers to repressive legislation which limits the power of workers and unions. This includes the legal framework around striking, which in the UK setting which is described in the book includes ballot requirements, the requirement to engage meaningfully with the employer, and minimum notice periods before commencing a strike. It would have been great if the author would have at least briefly addressed the pros, cons, and feasibility of campaigning against such laws. Such a specific campaign would not be revolutionary, but could significantly shift the balance of power in a region to the workers’ favour, potentially make available to workers solidarity strikes as a tool for expression of that power, and thus significantly improve the conditions wherein further gains might be made for workers. Allinson certainly implies trade disputes can be utilised to fight for issues outside of the workplace, such as climate change, but we are left wishing he had at least briefly specifically addressed the value (or otherwise) of fighting industrial relations legislation itself.

Overall, my feeling as I read through Workers Can Win was of wishing this book had been available at the very start of my own involvement in union organising in my own workplace. The book is peppered with critically important strategic advice, such as avoiding becoming so involved in case work that it interferes with structural organising, and ensuring struggles are worker- rather than paid-organiser- led. Personally, I intend to buy copies of the book to gift to the delegates who currently operate in my workplace; I think Workers Can Win may also be useful material for educational discussion within our ISO branch. This book is a useful contribution to the collective workers’ knowledge base, and I recommend purchasing a copy for yourself.

Workers Can Win is printed by and available directly from Pluto Press, in paperback and ebook formats: