Trolley problems: Unions need to put industrial democracy back on the agenda

The trolley comes unstuck with one last forceful pull and collided with my stomach. I gritted my teeth. It had been like this since we got the new ones. They were shiny, the wheels rolled smoothly and the supermarket branding gleamed on the handles and they had one maddening, horrible defect. Like most shopping trolleys that glitter like gaudy jewellery outside the country’s supermarkets, or poke from skinny waterways surrounded by rubbish and packaging, they all slot together for easy transportation in long, military columns. The little metallic tab hangs from a chain at the trolley’s handle and they hook together, an orderly consumerist centipede. But these new trolleys are made for anodyne photo opportunities with smiling actors, phantom mothers without the tell tale bags of the overworked ‘Aldi mom’ that actually exists. The metallic tabs on these new trolleys end in an irritating shape somewhere between a hook and a spade and they consistently catch on the lattices of other trolleys and require the dextrous finger-work of 19th century child labourers to prise free. I have lost endless minutes of my life to the tugging and clanging of trolleys because of this particular ‘innovation’ and it adds to the cavalcade of minimum wage microaggressions a retail employee already has to put up with.

Of course whoever designed these new trolleys likely doesn’t use one too often. They probably have a personal shopper to take care of such nastiness for them. They certainly don’t have to untangle the things by the dozen as they relentlessly entwine and grab at each other and the doors should have been locked 120 seconds ago!! The anger that animates this moment of frustration, a match to the kerosene of degradation that builds like bile in the gut of anyone living week to week in the services industry, is unlikely to touch the air-conditioned offices of the man that probably got a substantial raise for his ‘innovative’ trolley design. That is the central sickness and injustice of capitalism: the dictatorship of the workplace, where whoever shows the greatest skill in sadism tells human beings when they’re allowed to piss for 40 hours a week and where those closest to the functions and problems of production and service have the least authority to improve things using their experience and common sense.

There is much to bemoan as a syndicalist (which is our ideological speciality, alongside wearing those cute CNT-FAI hats and decrying “intellectualism” while genuflecting every morning to Grandpa Noam Chomsky) in the decline of union density and militancy in the latter half of the 20th century. But in the mournful graveyard of radical labour ideals we adorn with wreaths all the usual suspects: here lies wage advances (killed by social partnership), here lies the wildcat strike (killed by restrictive labour law), here lies the weekend (struck down at tender age by precarity). But I hover a while the headstone less visited, which reads “Industrial Democracy”.

It is astonishing that the oppressed, overworked textile workers of the 18th century could reach a moral and economic truth that seems to escape today’s brightest political minds: “Those who work in the mills, ought to own them”. If the radical labour movement, the left and syndicalists in particular have a singular aim it is this. If we are to speak meaningfully about having “democratic” societies, then our workplaces where we spend most of our hours must be the first tyrants to be toppled in the name of equitable and open decision making. Workplaces must be spaces of expression, solidarity, equanimity and worker-driven innovation, not stucco-walled police states ruled over by a few Commerce-degree Commissars who threaten to render us homeless for taking a bathroom break 15 seconds too long or calling in sick. From office blocks to coffee shops, call centres to leisure centres, the stone and machinery by which we provide for all must be run by all, ours to own and to master.

The successes that built the post-war period, that gave us the welfare state and paid sick leave, left the labour movement of the developing world complacent in places, and the last shreds of militancy were effectively stamped out as neoliberalism rolled into town to dismantle everything we struggled to build. We satisfied ourselves with a pay rise here or there, but forgot the much more radical aim of the early labour movement in the image of the factory council. It flared up here and there to be co-opted or repressed, whether in Sweden’s Meidner plan or the Mondragon collection of co-operatives, but a resurgent radical left and labour movement must put it squarely back on the agenda. Irish leftists, in the centenary of the Limerick Soviet, must reassess this central demand of radical thought and light a fire of hope from the embers of huge history, ranging from those anti-imperialist Soviets to the experiments of industrial democracy and cooperatives in Bord na Mona led by union militants in the ‘70s. The notion of ‘democracy at work’ is possessed of a moral clarity as any wage slave can sympathise with the utter alienation of work under capitalism. The left must reassert the essential call to democracy at the heart of our vision: in our neighbourhoods, our communities, our justice system and of course at our supermarket checkouts.

Or at least get this bloody trolleys fixed so I can complain to my representative on the Supermarket Soviet instead.

By David O’ Donoghue


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s