Understanding working conditions in order to transform them
The Autonomy think tank and digital co-operative Common Knowledge launched a toolkit for workers who wanted a better understanding of their jobs last year.
‘Transform Your Work’ is a free guide hosted on Notion for people to use in their workplaces. The two groups describe the guide as “a collection of approaches, step-by-step guides and historical examples of worker organising”. It is a useful starting point, particularly, for people who have not done any organising before.
‘Workers inquiries’ have an almost 150-year history, as a form of survey. In this method, workers take ownership of investigations into their pay and conditions, as opposed to relying on other agents like academics.
“Primarily, we hope the toolkit will help its users to better understand the places they work in, the conditions of their employment and how they relate to others both inside and outside their workplace”, said Jake Kellam from Autonomy and Gemma Copeland from Common Knowledge.
“While this could be a springboard for more expansive forms of action, even smaller transformations can prove to be significant – for instance, if a worker (or group of workers) gain a clearer idea of the particular ways they hold power within a workplace, or how technology introduced into their environment has opened up (or foreclosed) different possibilities.”
The toolkit contains different research methods including visual research, diary-keeping, and surveys. Autonomy and Common Knowledge explain that each method “leads to different kinds of knowledge” that can give workers insight into their roles.
“We imagine that the toolkit would be most useful to new organisers and union branches that are just setting up, as it’s pitched at a more introductory level. Experienced organisers might find some of the techniques too basic, although hopefully there are enough creative or unusual techniques for anyone to get something out of it.”
Workers inquiries are currently popular thanks to publications like Notes from Below. A socialist magazine edited by – among others – Callam Cant, it has run reports from Amazon Fulfilment Centre, call centres, and gaming companies.
Yet workers inquiries are said to have began with Karl Marx. In later life, he was asked to design a survey for workers by a French magazine. Editors for Viewpoint Magazine, Salah Mohandesi and Asad Haider explain Marx produced a “list of exactly 101 detailed questions, inquiring about everything from meal times to wages to lodging.”
In an article on the history of inquiries, Mohandesi and Haider say that despite his efforts Marx received zero responses to his inquiry and the first attempt was a failure. Later attempts by the Johnson-Forest Tendency and Socialisme ou Barbarie were able to gather more responses.
Aware of this history, Autonomy and Common Knowledge took advice from organisers built their toolkit with the advice of trade union organisers,
We did some user interviews with a few union organisers. We specifically looked to recruit people who were actively working, in a range of different professions, rather than union bureaucrats. We used the prototype to understand how people like this might use these methods in their workplaces. Their responses helped us improve the prototype by making the content more accessible and engaging, and adding more real-world examples.
In the end, the two organisations launched the toolkit in an event with Notes from Below, The World Transformed, and the architects’ branch of United Voices of the World (UVW). Appropriately, UVW members have been some of the early adopters of the resource.
We know that one branch of UVW has run a workshop with their members to try out some of the inquiry techniques. Hopefully there have been others too!
We imagine that the toolkit would be most useful to new organisers and union branches that are just setting up, as it’s pitched at a more introductory level. Experienced organisers might find some of the techniques too basic, although hopefully there are enough creative or unusual techniques for anyone to get something out of it.
Kellam and Copeland believe the toolkit is best suited for people who have not experienced organisers. In this way, the toolkit suites the culture of, what is sometimes called, “base unions”, where actions are coordinated by members rather than leaders from offices.
We hope that people who don’t see themselves as “organisers” might also find the toolkit useful. You don’t necessarily have to be part of a union to try out these methods. They can be repurposed or combined with other techniques to suit a range of different circumstances.
Transform Your Work is available on Notion.