Thursday, October 29, 2009

The London Workers Group [1977-1985] - a relic of an exciting past, or an inspiring example for the future?

The London Workers Group was founded in 1977. It was founded by a Guardian typist active in the NATSOPA Union chapel, a train driver from ASLEF, and an Islington postal worker. The three had met at a Libertarian Industrial Network conference in London - the LIN was a very loose national network of about 35 individuals active in various industries, but not organised geographically.

A much needed organisation

The LWG was a new kind of solidarity organisation - a very active libertarian workers collective, open to all workers (employed or unwaged) in London, engaged in providing solidarity to individuals in their own workplaces, supporting various disputes and discussing a wide range of issues. The politics was radical, libertarian and anti-capitalist, embracing a range of alternatives including workers councils, anarcho-syndicalism and anarchist communism. Meetings were open to all 'workers' in the widest sense, and non-sectarian. The group was pro-worker and supportive of any workplace disputes, but critical of wage-labour and trades unions. The meetings were very lively, positive and generally focused on real life - rather than abstract ideology - and practical action. At the high point, weekly meetings were averaging 20 people attending (mostly employed workers). The group also produced widely-distributed and substantial down-to-earth news/discussion bulletins, distributed for free - over a period of 7 or 8 years.

The LWG initially met every fortnight in 'Rising Free' (an anarchist bookshop in Islington), and then weekly in various pubs chosen to be near traditional employment hubs (The Earl Russell behind Kings X Station, and then The Metropolitan in Farringdon). There were regular publicised discussion meetings averaging monthly on all kinds of issues. For example, in one 6 month period in 1980 alone there were 4 public meetings on 'Industrial Trainees', 'The Steel Industry', 'Demonstrations', and 'Creating Autonomous Workers Groups'.

Spreading ideas

The flyers for these meetings were often humorous, thoughtful and/or an incitement to action and served as a way of spreading the group's ideas to potential supporters. Real influence in specific industries was limited accept in a few cases such as support for a long strike of Garners Steakhouses workers (a couple of whom were associated with the LWG) and their efforts to set up an Catering Rank & File group, in the print industry (as a number of the group were printworkers), and in the later years a postal workers group. There was much leafleting of trade union events and wider demonstrations, and sometimes organised heckling, calling for workers not to follow leaders but instead to take over their workplaces and make social revolution.

The LWG bulletins ran to 14 editions, mostly produced on a gestetner duplicator in Islington and Haringey - sometimes running to 500 copies. There were articles about the print industry and its union issues (especially about chapel-level organisation and about the looming impact of new technology); similar detailed pieces about post office and rail issues; about the theory and practice of workers councils, syndicalism and trades unionism; the nature of 'work'; news from a range of disputes that LWG activists were involved in or knew about; about the unemployed/unwaged groups movement etc.

Links with other organisations

The LWG tried to forge links with the few other similar groups around the UK. At the end of the 1970s, at the LWG's initiative, a couple of conferences were held with the long-established Syndicalist Workers Federation (mostly based in the north of England) and others, which led to some sharing of information and joint campaigns and ultimately the creation of a loose, federal 'Direct Action Movement'. However, the second conference decided this should become formalised as a new anarcho-syndicalist individual membership organisation rather than an alliance of independent, libertarian local workers' groups. This effectively excluded the LWG, which was an open collective rather than a membership group, and which was supportive of a range of ideas including workers councils rather than just anarcho-syndicalism. The DAM eventually became today's Solidarity Federation or 'SolFed'.

There were later contacts with 'Left Communist' groups (such as the 'International Communist Current'), but they were usually small, ideological sects only interested in endless polemical 'debates' rather than real workers solidarity. In the end the LWG had to ban such groups from their meetings as they were using them as recruiting grounds.

Towards the end the group became more ideological in content, and started also producing a glossy analytical magazine 'Workers Playtime' (produced cheap or free by printers active in the group) and a range of polemical leaflets for demonstrations and events.

The end, and the future.

The LWG gradually faded away during the mid-80s, some of the active members continuing to produce Workers Playtime, with special editions on the miners strike and then on the printing industry. Some went on to help form the national anarchist organisation Class War.

During 1986-7, former LWG activists from within and without the print industry were actively involved in support for the Wapping pickets. This included practical support for the independent printworkers 'Picket' news bulletin, written by and for the printworkers in dispute. 5,000 copies were distributed weekly to strikers throughout the year-long dispute - it was enthusiastically backed by all those involved in the dispute but hated by Union Officials and the Communist Party as it was outside their control. This strikers' bulletin was everything that the LWG had been arguing for for years and could have helped inspire other similar initiatives in other disputes. However, ironically, the LWG had already folded.

Despite the inspirational miners and printers battles, their defeats led to gradual demoralisation and ebb in workplace resistance. But the need for such resistance is stronger than ever….

- Dave Morris, 2006

1 comment:

  1. Rising Free was never an anarchist bookshop, although it did make available a range of radical books, amongst them some anarchist tomes.