Three Class Struggles and a Funeral

By Danny Hayward, 18 June 2020
Image: Your mum Tesco (anonymous graffiti by Tesco worker)

In his review of the recent book Class Power on Zero-Hours (PM Press, 2020), Danny Hayward reflects with enthusiasm on AngryWorkers' attempt to pop the left's cosmopolitan bubble, following their journey through the warehouses, factories and customer fulfilment centres of suburban West London, to reveal the mass of contradictions presently known as the UK


It seems to me that we are living through a long revolution, which our best descriptions only in part interpret. It is a genuine revolution, transforming men and institutions; continually extended and deepened by the actions of millions, continually and variously opposed by explicit reaction and by the pressure of habitual forms and ideas. Yet it is a difficult revolution to define, and its uneven action is taking place over so long a period that it is almost impossible not to get lost in its exceptionally complicated process.

Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (1961)


British politics in 2020 is a mass of contradictions. The outright legislative terror of the early to mid-2010s has momentarily abated but the landmines planted in that period continue to go off (Grenfell, ‘Windrush’, COVID-19 ‘unpreparedness’). Measures designed to align the working class with capital (right-to-buy) produce renters unions and anti-landlordism. Stalinists lead the rearguard action against civic equality for trans women. A government of ultra-Thatcherites sets about hiking the minimum wage. ‘Momentum’ is a synonym for inertia, austerity is over and only just beginning, the ‘spirit of the blitz’ is the reality of immigration enforcement, and we all live under permanent lock-down but everyone’s at work.


In the middle of all of this, AngryWorkers, ‘a small political collective’ based in West London, have published Class Power On Zero-Hours, an account of their six years of organising in the warehouse and logistics corridor of Greenford and Park Royal. The period that the work deals with coincides roughly with the phase of British history dominated by ‘Brexit’, and Class Power deals with some of the ways in which that (non-)event has been experienced beyond the Twitter Janus Face of gammon nationalists and aggrieved liberal solicitors. It encompasses, also, three major workers’ inquiries, an account of the role of food supply chains in the context of global struggles, a new perspective on the relationship of work and automation, a sketch for revolutionary politics today, and an uplifting middle-finger to boring left-wing scholasticism of all shades and varieties. Along with D. Hunter’s Chav Solidarity and Phil A. Neel’s Hinterland, it’s probably the best book about class to come out of the tiny circles of English-speaking anarchists and communists in the last ten years, and everyone who cares about that stuff even a little bit should definitely read it.i


Break Out of the Cosmopolitan Bubble


The book’s first paragraph gives a flavour of things to come:


We felt an urgent need to break out of the cosmopolitan bubble and root our politics in working class jobs and lives. We wanted to pay more than just lip service to the classic slogan, ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’. Over the next six years, comrades joined us and we worked in a dozen different warehouses and factories. We organised slowdowns on shop floors, rocked up on bosses’ and landlords doors with our solidarity network, and banged our heads against brick walls as shop stewards in the bigger unions. We wrote up our successes, as well as the dead-ends, in our publications, WorkersWildWest, which we gave out to 2,000 local workers at warehouse gates at dawn. We tried to rebuild class power and create a small cell of revolutionary organisation. The book documents our experiences. It is material for getting rooted. It is a call for an independent working class organisation. (7)


These are the methods; what about the conclusions? What do the General Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association of 1864 mean to the working people of Ealing in 2014? How does a working class that is increasingly Eastern European experience UK politics in a period in which the main focus of the ‘national conversation’ is about how to stop them from ‘coming over here’? AngryWorkers acknowledge that ‘the years from 2014 to 2020 in London were a thorny desert’ (35) in terms of workplace struggles. Workers ‘are in a state of permanent suspension: what will happen with Brexit? Will my wife and family get a visa? Will the bank grant me a mortgage if my wife gets her overtime? Will the situation “back home” get better?’ (38) Unsurprisingly, ‘times are getting harder’ for the working classes even as the mood darkens back in the cosmopolitan bubble. There, it’s climate change and ‘global fascism’; here, it’s sciatica and the £4,000 charge to get your baby delivered in the NHS hospital (99). The prospects for ‘Revolutionary transition and its conditions in the UK’ (the title of Chapter 14 of the book) don’t look rosy from either perspective; but AngryWorkers at least have some ideas about how the obstacles might be cleared away.

Image: George A. Romero (Dir.) Dawn of the Dead (1978)


For this reason, Class Power on Zero-Hours isn’t a defeatist book. The authors love their area. They’ve spent years getting to know it. They want it to be at the centre of a working class movement. The desire is at the root of their impatience with parliamentary reformism, but it’s also what compels them to overcome their revolutionary scruples and to try things that they normally wouldn’t, such as joining big conservative trade unions and throwing themselves into the miasma of their internal politics. The text gives a meticulous overview of what the neighbourhood offers: control over 60 percent of London’s food imports, hundreds of unorganised small and large businesses operating on a low-wage model, and widespread disgust for official workers’ organisations that have sunk into the status quo like an old trolley into a canal. Right to the finish AW remain convinced that Greenford and Park Royal have the potential to exist at the centre of a new culture of class initiative and autonomy, and the dozens of pictures in Class Power on Zero-Hours of pay protests by women workers, occupations of Labour Party offices, IWW organising drives, and scores of workplace newsletters are a beautiful, moving anticipation of how things could be.


Organised around this six-year history are a series of more general claims, dealing with ‘the political’ (prospects for ‘democratic socialism’) and ‘the economic’ (unevenness of automation under capital), and trying to bridge the gaps in-between. If we take the book’s absolute ground level conviction to be that ‘the working class has become invisible’, (30) and has been subordinated to the concerns of an educated inner-city ‘left’ (an argument AngryWorkers share with the other two books I mentioned above), then its other main arguments can be arranged in something like the following sequence:


  1. ‘the left’ has responded to the transformation in its class base, not by altering its practices, but instead by changing its theories;

  2. the most common theoretical claim on the left is that we have moved from an ‘industrial’ to a ‘service’ economy. The second most common is that ‘unskilled’ and ‘semi-skilled’ manual jobs are being progressively automated away. Both of these claims are untrue (they are psychological projections);

  3. a political theory that accepts both claims is likely to conceive of power in terms of trade unions and the state. It will be broadly oblivious to the ways in which both serve to oppress workers and stifle their initiative (this is what ‘democratic socialism’ is);

  4. the recent emergence of complex global supply chains servicing the ‘consumer economy’ has required the concentration of large groups of industrial workers in massive central logistics hubs;

  5. the workers in and around these extra- and peri-urban hubs are organisationally weak, but have significant ‘structural’ power;

  6. a left that wields economic power in the form of independent working class control over productive resources is still the main prerequisite for a revolutionary change in the way we live.


These arguments are all plausibly and intelligently made and should be debated. For me, though, the best thing about Class Power on Zero-Hours is that its ABCs never get in the way of its account of the situation on the ground. For AngryWorkers, ‘getting rooted’ in the working class means encountering people as they actually are, and not as someone on the internet thinks that they ought to be. In his book Poverty Safari, the Scottish writer and musician Darren McGarvey says that ‘the prison population is filled with some of the most emotionally intuitive and manipulative people you are likely to find’. He means that people who have experienced abuse often have a reason to become highly perceptive of emotional signals given off by potential abusers. No one has to read AngryWorkers’ account of women forced to wet themselves on the assembly line at food processing company Bakkavor to know that the reality of British society for poor people is ubiquitously and ridiculously abusive and that abuse has become best practice in all of its basic institutions. For many people who have grown up in and/or who now live in this country, the pressing desire to change things is hard to separate out from the need to test boundaries and generate emotional reactions. One element of the ‘idealism’ of the authors of this book is that they are able to report on and recognise the validity of that need, even as they refuse to give up on the belief that we might all expect more from our ideas about how to live than a useful set of instruments for assessing the reactions of whoever happens to be standing in front of us. (This is not a liberal victimology; it’s a fact about the modern, humane, technically progressive societies in which ‘radical politics’ needs to base itself. Readers who want some examples of this should check out the discussion of snitching on p.74, bullying on p.178, and current (male) workplace ideology on p.257).


Getting Rooted


‘Getting rooted’ also means confronting the institutions that currently appear in and have a relation to working class lives. In inner London this can often mean the poverty managers in the Labour Party. In the Bakkavor factories and Tesco customer fulfilment centres (CFCs) where the AngryWorkers work, it more often means the larger trade unions – those ‘crown jewels’ of the British left and sceptres of the British management class. About half of the two long workers’ inquiries that make up the main bulk of Class Power on Zero-Hours deal with their experience of becoming reps in GMB (Bakkavor) and USDAW (Tesco),ii and it’s easy to forget while you’re reading these sections that you’re dealing with the inner workings of unions active in British supermarkets and not of the East German secret police. Ballots are rigged, people have their names taken for voting the ‘wrong way’, rep positions are kept literally in the family, managers go on all-expenses paid trips (free bar!) to the union delegate conference, and salaried union organisers look on while the bosses take down the union newsletters from the ‘official’ union notice board. To give a snapshot of how things pan out during the years in which AngryWorkers are active: an attempted strike on pay at Bakkavor is foiled by a combination of inept GMB officials, GMB balloting thresholds, scab GMB reps, and GMB members’ own justified fear of dismissal. A narrow failure to win an indicative ballot for strike action on pay is followed by the removal of a sympathetic GMB organiser, and his replacement by a timeserving bureaucrat. The latter assists the Bakkavor management in implementing more or less the same wretched deal that they had pulled out of their ass in the first place, and with this peace returns to the manufacturer of 80 percent of the UK’s entire supply of houmous.


For their part, USDAW have a ‘partnership agreement’ with Tesco that removes from most union members the right to be balloted on the latest pay ‘agreements’ decreed by Tesco managers. When one of the AngryWorkers succeeds in getting a motion passed against this stitch-up at the USDAW annual conference, the union circumvents it by declaring that the only people who can bring an end to the status quo are the patsies who are its immediate comprador-beneficiaries (see: ‘Store Director Forum’). This is the story of how 400,000 people are kept year after year on shit wages with few prospects despite a relatively high level of unionisation and significant ‘structural’ power derived from their control of large proportion of the country’s total food supply.iii


Acceleration and Stagnation


So what can we learn from this account of labour organising in the West London logistics corridor? First of all: existing political structures are inadequate to people’s immediate needs. The last thirty years has seen revolutionary changes in the way in which capital in the UK is organised. Well known milestones in the timeline of institutional change (the accession to the World Trade Organization of China in 2001; the accession to the EU of Poland in 2004) and technical transformations (GPS and sales based ordering systems (127)) express themselves in Britain in the form of a recomposition of the working class lock, stock and barrel. Whole new industries in goods distribution have sprung out of nowhere (126). Migrants have raced across borders to work in them. Huge capitalist companies like Tesco have fought ruthlessly for market share, sabotaged their own profitability, and fallen upon their own staff like snakes eating themselves (235)). Every division in the working class that can be used, is used. Eastern European workers are used against majority South Asian ones, and Romanian workers in one company are used to impose concessionary bargaining on Romanian workers in another. The process is breakneck and all-encompassing – it grants to our cities their ‘social geography’, and to the people living in the wrong parts of them their lung cancer. On a national scale, it drops the most capital-intensive storage and processing machinery in a field in rural Lincolnshire and doubles the pick rate for minimum-wage warehouse workers in Enfield.


Compared to all this acceleration (note: not ‘automation’), the institutions of working class representation in Greenford are fucking stagnant. The working class itself is worn out and stagnant. The union reps want to get promoted so that they can move out and get a mortgage in Luton which is stagnant. An atmosphere of 1950s stuffiness invades the descriptions of the area, its streets of lower-middle class terraced housing in neat parallel rows now botched into semi-slums for ‘unskilled’ migrants. Dissatisfaction expresses itself among Tesco and Bakkavor employees as depression, domestic abuse, high blood pressure, sleep problems, and the occasional bout of weed psychosis. A health and social support system cut to the bone offers fuck all in the way of back-up. The ‘radical left’ talks about ‘rebuilding grassroots communities’ but is too far away to notice that this means something different than shoring up the existing trade union bureaucracies. Actual grassroots unions offer a glimmer of hope, but their public relations strategies tend to locate them in the city centres as well. Where does this leave us? What else is news?


Image: A bus stop in Forest Gate, London

It might help to focus on the openings instead of the uphill struggles. When I last passed through Greenford, on the way back from a funeral last December, I got a similar sense to the one that I do in the more residential parts of Newham, on the other side of London, where you can stand on depressed streets that look like they haven’t changed architecturally since the National Front ran the pubs in the ’70s, and stare out along the Overground line at a Stratford skyline that seems to have descended from another planet. The population has been abandoned, the Labour Council is a real estate agency. The stickers on the bus stops have nothing on them but a phone-number for a ‘massage’. On one or two of them someone has added ‘God loves you’ in biro – and in political vacuums like this it’s not a surprise that AngryWorkers had to stop putting up posters for their West London solidarity network because they got more phone calls than they were able to answer. Class confidence and mutual aid can be rebuilt in these urban fringes, they just can, and the living need for them is so fucking blatant, but you have to remember it’s a world of J. Hus on the radio and people self-harming in bathrooms as well as global logistics networks and the rates of relative surplus value. (Chapter 5 of Class Power on Zero-Hours is probably where these ‘domestic’ issues are addressed most directly.)


The second opening is also an obvious moment of closure. The funeral that I mentioned took place the day after the UK General Election. On the way there we passed through David Davis county, the constituency of Haltemprice and Howden, a ‘fertile Yorkshire agricultural belt’ which is now home to the main warehouse of the online retailer and the national distribution centre for Wren Kitchens.iv At every roundabout the stupid face of the ex-Brexit Secretary flickered up in the car headlights and stared blandly back at us, his unsignifying features printing themselves on the darkness across cheap sheets of two-ply corrugated plastic. A few thousand Chinese plastic cable ties on a few hundred wooden fences. Democracy, and capitalist imperialism. 300,000 mostly migrant warehouse workers, two million landlords. 400,000 Tesco employees, 200,000 finance and investment advisers. The decline in global working class power strung up on every one of those fences in an agricultural hinterland full of Polish and Romanian workers. Remember ‘For the Many, Not the Few’? AngryWorkers understand that there’s a crudely statistical basis for the demise of Corbynite democratic socialism in the UK – one that can save us the bother of having to pick through all the sophisticated ‘strategic’ ones. Davis was returned as MP for Haltemprice and Howden with almost three times as many votes as the Labour candidate in second place, and this is a result of the way that wealth is produced and distributed in this country as well as of an ‘ideology’ called Brexit:


In the UK the ‘middle class’ block is still a considerable force – there are four million business owners with no employees (self-employed), most of which can be seen as disguised working class people; there are at least 1.2 million ‘bosses’ ... employing between 1 and 50 people, which can be categorised as an exploiting middle class [...].There are 120,000 lawyers/solicitors in the UK... (etc.) (353)


The Long Funeral


The day after that car trip we all woke up into a more general funeral. It’s still going on now. As I write this it’s spreading across most cities in the US, in a extended memorial service of fire. One of the lessons that it makes very obvious is that the gigantic middle classes of capitalist core countries like the US and the UK are not (and have not been) subject to moral suasion – it just doesn’t fucking matter that the existing regimes have cheerfully murdered their way through the last decade, because Bernie Sanders is an anti-Semite, and Jeremy Corbyn is in the IRA. Of course these excuses are only alibis for the expression of naked class interest.v


The funeral encompasses a diversity of tactics. AngryWorkers differ from many parts of the radical left in their stubborn conviction that a revolutionary alternative still needs to pass through the crucible of workplace struggle: they are consistently (if comradely) negative about the ‘nihilism’ of communist thinking that places all of its hope in the evolutionary self-transcendence of riots. Still, there remains a core of agreement. The 200,000 finance and investment advisers in the UK cannot get their food grown, shipped, stored, sold, prepared, sold again, and then cycled to their door, past their building concierge, up their lifts and into their flats without the cooperation of a class of people whose deteriorating conditions of life is the direct corollary of all of their comforts and convenience. Two million landlords cannot receive their supplementary capital income every month without the consent of 4.55 million working tenants. If the relative sizes of these two groups means abandoning the comforting fiction that a movement for justice in this country can be smilingly rubber-stamped by an overwhelming electoral majority, then, as the US police chiefs now say as they greenlight firing into crowds of mourning people – this is on them, not us. We cannot morally pressure them into treating us like humans; but we can fuck up their evening meals, their retirement plans, their transportation networks and if necessary the entire fabric of their city centres. There are so many thousands of their city centres.


In a couple of places in their book, AngryWorkers allow themselves to think about their experiences counterfactually. If a workers’ struggle had kicked off at the airline caterer Alpha ASG, where they had distributed their newspaper


not only do hundreds of local people work there, they also have links to many thousands more in other local workplaces, many contending with deteriorating conditions in outsourced companies. Alpha LSG workers keep the operation at Heathrow airport going – and they can therefore disrupt it ... [this] ... would have a ripple effect among the entire local workforce (16)




a local wage campaign, ‘No one under £12’ or something similar [...] could spread from [warehouse] unit to unit, making use of the various social spaces, like workers’ cafes and shisha bars […]. As at the edge of the area hundreds, if not thousands of international students live in apartment blocks and pay high rents to real estate developers – links could be forged. (31)


We can imagine things going further: major recurring blockages of Heathrow would make it as difficult for the business class to move in and out of the country as COVID-19. A slow-down in the traffic of food would quickly leave inner city supermarket shelves empty. Unofficial strikes by Deliveroo, Uber workers, etc. would further exacerbate the crisis for middle class consumers. Riots would break out, governments would dissolve and be reformed, and veiny salaried critics of ‘identity politics’ would die alone in their Islington armchairs, ugly red wine stains on their droopy chins, their hearts stopped.

Simon Faithfull, #1016 Lemons (99p), undated


It’s easy to write sentences like this. But only if you have a basis in the working class (only if you are working class) and can describe that class in the way AngryWorkers can, are you able to talk sympathetically about the reasons why it hasn’t all happened already. The fear, stress, sadness, the stupid middle-management bullying, the grief from co-workers and romantic partners, the Damocles’ sword of UKBA hanging over so many hundreds of thousands of heads, the long legacy of the business unions of the ’90s – none of this is going away. It has to be confronted. As soon as it’s confronted it looks vulnerable: the high-tech machines break down, the sex-pest line managers are disciplined though they magically re-appear the next day, the landlord is squeezing £3,000 p/m out of some piece of shit 4-bedroom home that should have been torn down in the ’80s, the freight company can’t even arrange for the trucks to arrive on time – and anyone who thinks that this is just a seamless impersonal triumph of ‘modern logistics’ is watching from a self-service checkout a very, very long way away.


It’s June 2020. It’s the beginning of a new volume in our history. The last one was called The Long Revolution, the new one’s called The Long Funeral. This weekend I saw an expression of it in the actions of thousands of people who took the knee to scream out the name of Belly Mujinga on a wet road in Parliament Square, and in 2017 AngryWorkers saw it in the responses of Greenford Tesco CFC workers to the Grenfell disaster too – ‘the only ... moment’ against a background of sullen depoliticisation ‘when a single event forced most people to say something’. There’s no need to romanticise all this. Every one of the killings and catastrophes that defines the new moment really is a kind of anti-revolution, an intense concentrated expression of the loss of working class power just as a revolution is an intense concentrated expression of the recovery of it. Our broad tradition on the left used to say there’s power in a union. It now has to understand there’s power in a funeral too, and that talk about ‘communism’, ‘revolutions’, ‘parties’, ‘democratic socialism’, ‘communisation’, ‘insurrection’, ‘capitalism’ etc. is idle unless we can recognise this reality for what it is – which is exactly what Class Power on Zero-Hours does, as it sets out its case for the one concept on ‘the left’ that can fill all of its other languages, histories, struggles and debates with new meaning. The clue’s in the title.


Danny Hayward is intermittently contactable at <gatqaes AT> and runs the website




i D. Hunter, Chav Solidarity,; Phil A. Neel, Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict (London: Reaktion, 2018).

ii GMB was originally the General, Municipal, Boilermakers Union, but no longer uses its full name. It has 630,000 members across most industrial sectors. USDAW is the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers – around half of its 450,000 members are Tesco employees.

iii It is interesting that the AngryWorkers accept an ‘opportunistic’ relation to bureaucratic trade union structures but maintain a polemical attitude towards social democratic party political structures. This seems related to me to the cleaving of their analysis into the immediate (shopfloor struggle; the observed conditions of life in an immigrant working class neighbourhood) and the eventual (mass insurrection; the armed struggle for communist relations of production and distribution). To my mind, the historical lesson of the twentieth-century revolutions is that there is no passage from the former to the latter that doesn’t lead through the forms of democratic parliamentary or anti-colonial nationalist politics (see the relation between the February and October revolutions of 1917 and the role of the Republic in the Spanish Revolution; but also the emergence of the Chinese Revolution out of a war of national defence or the role of the Black Mayors movement of the 60s in preparing the ground for the Third Worldist revolutionary internationalism of the 70s). This doesn’t mean that revolutionaries today need to adopt Stalinist ‘stageist’ approaches to political transformation; only that they should recognise that processes of radical historical transformation are going to be fucking messy, and that this demands from us the ability to balance against one another conflicting political imperatives. The nuanced balance sheets that emerge from AngryWorkers’ ‘opportunistic’ relationship to bureaucratic trade union structures seem like a model for this kind of approach. I suspect that they won’t agree.

iv Andy Bounds, ‘”Brexit?” Just get on with it’ is the blunt message from Yorkshire’, Financial Times, 15 March 2019,

v To be clear, I am not saying that it is impossible for a left-wing party to be voted into power; I am only rejecting the idea there exists an overwhelming majority of people ( ‘the many’) of whom it can be said that left social democracy is always unambiguously in their ‘class interests’. The interests of voters depends on all kinds of ‘externalities’, including the ways in which class struggle affect the ability of middle class people to benefit from the existing social dispensation. At the end of 2019 it really did seem that a very large part of the UK voting population had been bludgeoned into disillusionment by parliamentary procedure.