Ahead of our upcoming labor convergence this August in Tbilisi, Georgia, we print a slightly abridged version of an interview originally published by our comrades at Partisan Magazine. Partisan co-editor-in-chief Spencer A. talks to Robert Ovetz and Shawn Hattingh about their contributions to the book Workers’ Inquiry and Global Class Struggle (Pluto Press, 2020) and how workers’ inquiry might be used to find, share, and sustain new militant forms of organization in the global gig economy.
Spencer A: To start, I’ll note that the DSA Communist Caucus has been really interested in this book and the conceptual framework it draws upon in part because you’re thinking about workers’ inquiry, class composition, and these are ideas that we’ve been trying to use as a caucus to understand our own organizational practices and think through the kinds of things we can do when we’re organizing in our workplace or organizing with tenants. Could you lay out the concepts of class composition, technical composition, political composition, and workers’ inquiry and what you see as their use for organizing and developing or understanding workers’ struggles?
Robert Ovetz: The origin of workers’ inquiry goes back to Marx. Towards the end of his life, he did a survey that he published in a French magazine in which he asked a whole range of different questions about what conditions are like at work, who the workers are, how the workplace is organized, and what are the conditions in the community… he didn’t get a response and that survey was forgotten, for a long time. In the 1950s, it was taken up almost simultaneously by a French group and an Italian group. Then in the 1960s, it was first picked up by the Johnson-Forest Tendency and [later] in the 1970s by a group around what became Zerowork, which only put out two print issues. So [ultimately] in the US, in Italy, and in France, there were these attempts to engage in what they started calling a workers’ inquiry. In other words, how is capital organized? How does that affect the way that work is organized and how does that affect the way that workers are organized, not just for production, but also in the class struggle?
I look at class composition as having three elements, which I draw from the works of Harry Cleaver. There’s some different terminology that’s used around these three elements of class composition theory, but I think of them as: the technical composition (the current composition of capital) and the decomposition and the recomposition of working class struggle. So I’ll take each of these in turn: in general, class composition theory essentially is attempting to understand how capital’s organized, how it imposes work, and how workers resist.
First, then, is the technical composition which essentially asks us to understand how capital’s organized, what’s the strategy for imposing work, how is technology introduced into the workplace, how are workers fragmented and segmented according to race and gender, skill type, salary, job type, and so forth? And how does that technical composition get imposed in response to previous waves of struggles? Workers struggle, capital responds by changing the technical composition and reorganizing.
I like the way that Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James put it in their work, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. They describe technical innovations and cooperation as “at the same time moments of attack for the working class and moments of capitalist response,” so the technical competition is a response to previous waves of class struggle.
Once the class composition is understood in terms of the technical composition, then it leads us to try to understand the existing composition of the working class. Now this is sometimes referred to as the political composition of the working class. But I think of the existing composition of the working class as understanding how workers are organized in the workplace. For the purpose of struggle, as a result of the new technical composition, how does capital’s strategy essentially reshuffle and reorganize workers? How are workers divided, organized, fragmented and segmented?
That’s the starting point to understand the third element which is how can we identify new tactics and strategies by understanding the current composition of the working class as a result of capital’s efforts to decompose working class power. By studying the technical composition, it helps us understand the current composition of the working class, and that will lead us to devise the tactics and strategies, so that we can overcome divisions, segmentation, fragmentation, etc. in order to recompose the working class in a new cycle of class struggle.
I see these three elements as a kind of spiral dance. I think of it like moving up the spiral. And in order to understand this spiral dance, workers’ inquiry is necessary because it gives us the methodology for being able to understand each of those three elements of class composition.
Spencer A: Thanks for going through that! I think this idea of a spiral dance or this kind of ongoing movement is really helpful for me to think about these various pieces of class composition theory and also think about things that I feel like I’ve seen in my own workplace and in efforts at organizing the workplace. One thing that I think you pick up on in the book that I really like is that part of what workers’ inquiry can do in understanding something like what gets called the political composition of workers is that it can point to ways in which workers are already organized in some way or another. They are already doing things like refusing work, engaging in struggle in various ways, though perhaps in a specific and siloed manner or in a way that isn’t immediately obvious within existing frameworks by which we understand the organization of workers. Workers’ inquiry lets us latch onto those activities and think about how to stitch them back together into a more durable organization in the long term.
Robert Ovetz: Yeah I think what’s interesting about that is that workers are struggling all the time. We’re struggling over particular issues in the workplace and over things that are happening in the community that we are tied to. And what’s necessary is to figure out how people are already devising new tactics and strategies, because we’re not coming up with them from scratch. People are already looking at the situation and adapting their tactics and strategies to that and what’s really important is that we identify those and amplify them and circulate them to get a wave of class struggle. I think you’re onto something really important there that those struggles are happening all the time.
Spencer A: So maybe this is a good chance to go into some of the things you specifically talk about in the case study you give in the book which concerns your own workplace, the California State University system. There you’re situated in the organizational efforts of the union you’re a part of, the California Faculty Association (CFA). You’re situating in your essay the efforts in 2016 to build towards a strike in relation to larger waves of educational strikes and you talk about this tactic of a strike threat. Can you talk us through what a credible strike threat is and the organizational lessons that you would pull from the case study you took up?
Robert Ovetz: I did a study, with the help of a research assistant, to count how many strike threats were made in the US over a five year period from 2012-2016. And we literally went through newspaper accounts, union publications, government reports and anything we could find about strikes to see essentially how many threats to strike there were. There’s no agreed- upon definition of what a strike threat is. Sometimes unions do it formally. We just saw that with UC-AFT where the members voted to strike at a certain time. And sometimes they’re done informally. Contract negotiations are stalled and you start to see some escalation of strike related activity. We documented two times as many workers were involved in strike threats during that five year period than were reported as actually having struck by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which keeps track of this. They essentially use the same methods for counting strikes. To be clear, we’re not counting strike threats that resulted in strikes, only threats. What we also found was that there were about 35 percent more actual strike threats involving twice as many workers than actually counted as striking by the BLS—so there’s something going on there. Once we documented that, I then looked at our own strike threat.
I’m a contingent lecturer at a CSU, and at that time I taught at two CSUs. Our Union had made a formal strike threat and several months later, the strike date came and we didn’t go on strike because we settled. What I wanted to know was what makes a strike threat credible? There’s essentially two elements to whether a strike threat is credible.
First, is it credible to the employers? Do the employers really think that you have the capacity to go on strike and will it actually be more costly to not settle and then face the strike? And then, also, it has to be credible to the members, to the workers. Can we actually pull off a strike?
What I found in both regards was that our strike threat really was not credible. There are various reasons for that. One of the main reasons is that-—and you’ve probably experienced this yourself—many of our unions now just focus on bargaining. In the lead up to bargaining they engage in advocacy and mobilizing, but really not a lot of workplace organizing goes on, if any. There’s a lot of media, a lot of protests and things like that. I did a kind of reverse workers’ inquiry into: did we actually have the capacity? Did we adapt our tactics and strategies to the conditions in which we found ourselves? What I found was that the credibility of our strike was really low. Now, we did settle, we got a small pay increase, but there was also a productivity increase and there was a change in the pension benefits, so it was all a wash.
What I argue is that in order for a strike threat as a tactic to be effective in worker organizing, we really have to combine that with the workers’ inquiry. We have to really look at how our work is organized and then draw tactics and strategies from that to adapt to it.…
As a result of my research, my argument is that if we continue to use the strike threat as a tool in union organizing and working class organizing, then we really need to do a workers’ inquiry in order to get a strike threat that has the potential for disruption. Because the greater the threat of disruption, the more likely the employer will then say ‘Okay, what do you want? We don’t want you to go on strike.’ And when the employer, when the boss comes to you, then you know you have power. But if you lose and you go back with your tail between your legs, that was not a credible strike threat—the employer just waited it out. That’s the outcome if you don’t have a high level of disruptive power, combined with a super majority of the workers that are involved. The question is how do we use a workers’ inquiry to make strikes and strike threats more effective?
Spencer A: I like that idea of what kind of workers’ inquiry do you do not just to understand but to actually be involved in the organizational process? One thing that strikes me is you were talking a little bit at the end there about disruptive power. I think you refer to this as a type of strategic power in the essay, this idea that workers have to be able to stop something from happening, and have to be able to stop flows of capital from moving for something like a strike to be functional and credible and make the employer actually care about it. And so, I’m curious about something. I went on a wildcat strike last spring, the COLA [Cost of Living Adjustment] strikes at the UCs, which started out as specifically a grading strike at UC Santa Cruz. What I found very compelling about this was that the workers there came to understand their disruptive power was in this very specific tactic of the grading strike. This was precisely because there were all these sorts of administrative apparatuses set up to make it have a huge cost to the university administration to have to deal with even something like a small majority of students at the university not having their full grades recorded. One of the questions that comes out of that is: can these chokehold possibilities allow even something like a minority strike action to have something like real disruptive power?
Robert Ovetz: Those are two great questions and I’m glad you asked them. Regarding the first one, I would say that the UC grading strike was one of the most impressive wildcat strikes I’ve heard of since the US postal strike in 1970…You identified that a small number of workers at a choke point, if well organized, can apply leverage at that choke point and disrupt the functioning of the institution.
…A class composition theory/workers’ inquiry approach goes beyond [much of the current common sense about union organizing]—it’s about class struggle and transforming society… In strategic locations in which you have disruptive power, if you have well-organized workers located in the choke point and you apply your power there you can tip the balance of power for all workers in that workplace or that sector or even in the global economy. I think that was one of the great powers of your grading strike. It spread to virtually every UC campus and there was a possibility that it would be replicated elsewhere as well. That’s a great example of doing an inquiry and finding the choke point and then applying your organizing power at that choke point and then circulating it. By circulating it you’re building power among the working class as a whole, in this case contingent academic workers. So this brings me to the second part of your question, which is what does this mean in terms of academic labor as a whole, right?
Spencer A: This is maybe a good point to transition into Shawn’s case study. Shawn, in many ways you’re thinking about the shifts in militant labor struggles over the last 50 years or so in South Africa, and how those shifts have related to various organizational forms, including these radical militant unions in the 70s and 80s, and then leading up to the present of these new organizational forms that have developed. I’d first like to ask if you wanted to try to provide that history for readers who may not be familiar with the case study.
Shawn Hattingh: Yeah, South Africa has a relatively long history of radical trade unionism, which is probably reaching its height in the late 70s early 80s. For black workers, trade unions were in fact banned for most of Apartheid, so in 1973 you had a wave of wildcat strikes and it was quite interesting where they came out of – a lot of the students involved in workers struggle started these and then drew in other people as well. And you had a large wildcat strike in Durban in 1973 and out of this, independent unions that mainly focused on self-organizing of black workers emerged. You have the birth of a union federation that was quite interesting called FOSATU [Federation of South African Trade Unions]. It was very big on worker control, so the idea that the unions are controlled by workers’ mandates coming from below. So there was a really interesting period. Then there was an attempt to merge FOSATU with other unions, some of which came out of the black consciousness tradition or Pan Africanism, and one of the big ones was the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). In the 80s, you had a whole merger of different unions and that’s how COSATU [Congress of South African Trade Unions] was formed…
Neoliberalism in South Africa has actually quite a long history. There was the first privatization in 1979 of state-owned corporations. It was in the early 90s when there was a drive towards trade liberalisation. South Africa wanted to join the WTO and in fact established tariffs beyond what the WTO actually demanded, so you have a whole restructuring of work, specifically in the early 90s… You have a whole section of the economy that shifts from manufacturing to service-providing, whether that’s warehousing or wholesaling… And you have the emergence of casualisation beginning then. Here’s a whole drive within the 90s to really promote casualisation and by the 2000s it really was taking off so once you get to the current period, you can actually make an argument that the majority of people that are employed in South Africa are precarious workers. So your permanent workforce over those years from the early 90s to now is declining and permanent workers tend to be concentrated in the state sector. So you have a whole restructuring of work, you have the economy changing, manufacturing declines, the service sectors grow.
The irony is that in South Africa we fluctuate between the 31st and 28th biggest economy in the world, so not huge, but we have one of the most financialized economies around. So our stock exchange, for the size of our economy, is in fact quite large. So a lot of the mining houses also went in towards partly being financialized, so shareholder returns are massive for them. That’s why there’s all this drive in specifically mining to casualize, to contract, to labor broker. So you have this situation where there’s a couple of things happening, one is this change in the workplace. Unions are not responding. Part of the reason is for them it doesn’t actually pay to recruit these casual, contract, and labor broker workers. We have a system in South Africa, where if you get union recognition, then you’ll get sub[scription]s deducted off your pay, so if you get people that are working for six months, five months, three months it doesn’t pay to recruit those people because there’s not a long term subscription. Back in the 80s, COSATU was basically a blue collar union–manufacturing, mine workers–when you look at COSATU today it’s largely, ironically, a white collar federation. So that’s why you will see the mining unions decline, manufacturing declines, but the state sector unions grow, where the most permanent workers are. … you have a whole shift and [the unions] have never been successful at addressing how work has changed. They fail largely to recruit precarious workers, especially labor broker workers, contract workers, casual workers and they’re really battling against doing that, so a lot of people now fall outside of unions. At the height of our unionization, 1997, it was about 47% of the workforce in South Africa and it’s now down to about 28%.
The second thing that you see was the union was essentially…becoming an appendage of the state. Part of it’s political: COSATU was the biggest federation aligned with ANC and you have a lot of people in COSATU that will be part of the union bureaucracy with the hope of jumping into Parliament. And, especially in 1994 you get a massive exodus of COSATU as leadership joined parliament. What happened is then some of the bureaucrats demanded, well if you don’t want us to jump into Parliament, you need to pay us the same salary as parliamentarians. So you have a massive gap between what a bureaucracy is paid and what workers and members are paid. I’ll give you an instance: the general secretary of the Mine Workers Union was earning over a million rand when an average mine worker is earning 60 grand a year, so this is a massive discrepancy.
And the union’s essentially changed a lot. It borrowed some of the worst traditions of the South African Communist Party, its democratic centralism, and you see a shift where mandates used to come from below, today the mandates come from above, so the General Secretary will give mandates on how they work–so it’s a total reversal of what worker control is meant to be…You also have–ironically, in some ways, it was a victory–but you have quite centralized bargaining. It was originally fought for by the union in many industry sectors to have centralized bargaining, but what it’s done is it has taken power away from the shop floor. What has happened is unions will mainly negotiate wages within these collective bargaining structures. We have bargaining councils in many industries, but it will be done by specialists that the union has hired…And then you have a problem with–also, at the same time, it was a victory, but it was also kind of a defeat–so the labor laws are changing from 1995 to 1997. [These laws now] prescribe[e] how the union should be organized… you must have an executive, you must have shop stewards. And the law actually stipulates, if you want to register, then you must have audits, to have an executive, this is how you organize a union. And that turned out to be quite a defeat. And importantly, what the law says is, if you’re not a registered trade union, a company can recognize you, but it’s not legally obliged to do so– so even if you have a majority of the workforce, if you’re not a registered trade union with the Department of Labor, which is a state entity, then you don’t have to be recognized… What is also stipulated in the law is you need to inform a company when you’re going to go out on strike. You then have to get permission, in order to be protected which is a lengthy process. It can take up to 3, 4, 5 weeks so the company has a lot of time to prepare so wildcat strikes aren’t illegal but they’re not protected. So if you go on a wildcat strike companies have the right to fire you.
…So the militancy of the trade unions declines – you have pockets of militancy but on the whole it really has declined and that’s why, when we have seen really radical stuff happening, it explodes outside of the unions.…Specifically, the unions have been pretty hostile to these things…In one instance the union officials themselves opened fire on the workers that were marching.
Spencer A: That was the moment in the essay that was especially shocking, seeing these union officials literally opening fire on workers. You mention in the essay some of the new organizational forms that have emerged in this situation. Could you speak a little to what those look like and the extent to which these kinds of antagonisms with the union still exist across these new forms?
Shawn Hattingh: …It started emerging in 2009-2010. There we started to see these actions that were taking place in the platinum mines. South Africa is the largest platinum producer in the world. That’s more important than gold in our economy and a lot of the source of hostility itself on the strike. A lot of the ANC elite have shares in this thing so [Cyril] Ramaphosa (the current president of South Africa) at the time was part owner of Lonmin when the Marikana massacre happened. So you started seeing about 2009 people really unhappy with the long term deals that NUM signed. And they felt that it wasn’t keeping up with the cost of living. They weren’t happy with incidents of racism. One of the demands is also that the outsourcing and labor brokering and contracting ends, they wanted to be made permanent workers as well, so they started sitting underground, they would go out on strike and sit underground in the mines, but the way it started organizing-wise, it was basically through people going around and holding meetings. And that took a period of three-four years and then the main thing that culminated in was a series of strikes of the really big platinum mines. It tended at first to be like individual mines and people would do sit-ins and individuals organized differently – sometimes they’d elect a committee to negotiate with bosses, sometimes they would say no, we don’t want a representative going there. The representatives sell us out so if you want to come, if you want to negotiate, you come and speak to a mass meeting, so at times they forced management and even owners to come sit and speak to them, 2, 3, 4 hundred workers at a time. And the state also dealt with that pretty violently. So there’s one instance where they went underground and they shot at people, so it was also violent and the private security that the mines own were pretty violent. It was originally in individual mines, then it started taking place in 2012, you had like a big strike at one of the main platinum producers with people organizing the same way, like mass meetings. There’s quite a nice picture from Marikana, literally like 2-3,000 workers in a meeting discussing what they want to do…
So, it was really like kind of an interesting way of organizing that tried to push participation. I suppose it wasn’t maybe that conscious about the participation, but it was conscious that we’re in this together, we are one. If you want to speak to us, you’re not going to shop stewards, not going even through representatives, you come and speak to us as a whole….
There were attempts also to set up worker councils. One of the things that workers weren’t keen on in these experiments are shop stewards. So, they won’t have shop stewards, they tend to try and do it more collectively. There were attempts then to set up worker councils like at Heineken breweries. This is this idea of really trying to organize differently, what we would call direct democracy. Yeah there’s really a sense of that’s what’s needed, that we need to be in control of our own struggles, our demands, and then it’s kind of an instinctual thing so there’s no kind of left grouping that is dominant within these things that said “Oh, this is the way you should do it.” In this thing, this way of organizing, one of the weapons is wildcat strikes so obviously it’s not a registered formation. None of these are, so you’re not constrained by trying to have a protected strike and the reason why they could do it was they were masses of workers. And like they were literally willing to put their lives on the line. In some cases they did so yeah. It was a militancy that drove these things…
Spencer A: This is amazing to hear about. Maybe one thing I would ask… is: what do you see coming out of thinking across these different case studies, both yours, Shawn and Robert, but also the book, which is called Workers’ Inquiry and Global class struggle? So what do you see sort of emerging out of putting these things in conversation with one another, and this can be a question for both of you?
Shawn Hattingh: So I think, what they all have in common is trying to figure out what tactics you use now. I mean a lot of it is the idea of militant strikes and that being one tactic. I think the other thing that strikes me: it’s kind of a draft globally of how do you organize now? You had a whole earlier way of organizing – it is vastly different to what unions have become now – bureaucracy traveled across the globe, so I think what workers are really searching for is how do you organize in a way that’s effective? I think capital has changed in such a way, and even the manufacturing process has changed in such a fundamental way and it’s restructured the working class, so there’s now a need to find something else, something different to organize in and that’s kind of the common search whether it’s trying to find a way within unions or outside unions but it’s kind of clear this is a common search in the present environment. This is probably one of the harshest forms of capitalism that we’ve ever been in, whether it’s restructuring the workplace, but also the kind of ideological onslaught against anything that is collective, even against societies.
Spencer A: I wanted to follow up quickly on one thing that comes to mind because part of what is leading to the forms of organizing that you’re highlighting in South Africa is the fact that so many workers are precarious, contract workers, labor brokered workers. One of the things that that made me think of is the rise of gig work in the US and I’m curious if you see these South African formations as potential models for workers…elsewhere in the global gig economy?
Shawn Hattingh: Yeah, so, in some ways, I would argue, yes… I could see this kind of being directly related to Amazon, for instance. What we face here, as well, is the rise of zero-hour contracts and Uber. There have been attempts to organize within that but it’s extremely difficult because it’s not a centralized place that’s bringing workers together. So I think something like the Casual Workers Advice Office – you could replicate that maybe elsewhere…I think these could be replicated but what has been kind of quite frightening also is how corporations have responded to try to break these things. So I presume if you tried it in the US or elsewhere, I think it could be done, but there would be a reaction, there would be some way to try and break it and that’s just I suppose the nature class struggle.
Spencer A: Robert – could you speak to how you make sense of reading across the different case studies in the book?
Robert Ovetz: I read Ed Emery’s call for “no politics without inquiry,” a call for a project to construct a global workers’ inquiry that really motivated me to put together these case studies. Of course they’re limited because they’re case studies in particular workplaces, sectors, and individual countries in a particular snapshot of time. We didn’t take that next step to explain and connect how they’re all part of a global wave of class struggle that we’re in the middle of right now. But what’s really fascinating is they demonstrate that there are several different things going on whether it’s in mining, game workers in the UK, public school teachers in Mexico, or auto workers in India is that workers are self-organizing and with or without unions they’re looking at the conditions that they find themselves in, and they’re developing new tactics and strategies.
Shawn just gave us this incredible litany of the ways that these platinum miners really understood the situation they were in and they understood also that the unions there played a disciplinary role of imposing work and control on the miners. The workers held open air assemblies like you said Shawn and then just announced they we’re going on strike. They understood the organization of work, how they were divided. They were divided among permanent workers and contingent workers and contract workers so there are a lot of lessons we can learn from these different case studies. That’s one of the reasons I put this book together. We really need to know how other workers’ struggles are happening in different countries and learn the lessons from them.
There are some parallels between what Shawn and Dale wrote about and the situation you and I were talking about with academic labor. The super majority of academic teachers in the United States, and also around the world, are non-tenured, contingent or contract workers who are essentially the equivalent of “zero-hour workers,” the term they use in the UK and South Africa. We have to understand how that builds in a kind of hierarchy that pits workers against each other in order to devise tactics and strategies to fight against that management strategy. For the short period of time in South Africa the platinum miners were able to upend the function of the unions and the role of the state in order to contest the power of the corporations. What brings these different case studies together is how workers in different places have been studying their conditions, doing inquiries, and then coming up with tactics and strategies at work to struggle against work.
That’s what brings them all together. They are really baby steps towards building a global workers’ inquiry, but of course, the dynamics of struggle change all the time, the spiral dance I talked about earlier. We’re always moving to another level or terrain of class struggle, so this is just the beginning of an inquiry into the current phase, and we need to continue to update this. There are some projects of folks doing this. For example, Notes from Below in the UK have an impressive project where they have workers submitting their own inquiries online and they’re trying to build a nationwide workers’ inquiry into different sectors there.
Robert Ovetz writes about the politics of the global labor movement, work, and the crisis of capitalism at the turn of the 20th century. He has a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Texas-Austin. Robert is a lecture in Sociology at UC-Berkeley and a senior lecturer in Political Science at San José State University in the US. Robert is the author of When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921 (Brill2018 and Haymarket 2019) and We the Elite: Why the U.S. Constitution Serves the Few (Pluto 2022). He is the editor of Workers’ Inquiry and Global Class Struggle: Strategy, Tactics, Objectives (Pluto, 2020). He is an Associate Editor of and contributor to The Routledge Handbook of the Gig Economy , edited by Immanuel Ness (Routledge, 2022), and has been published in eight other books in six (French, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish) languages. He is currently co-writing his next book on non- profits, NGOs, and capitalism for Haymarket Press. Robert is a labor writer for Dollars & Sense and The Chief magazine. His writings can be found at https://sjsu.academia.edu/RobertOvetzPhD Follow him on twitter at: @ovetzrobert
Shawn Hattingh is a researcher and educator at the International Labour Research and Information Group.