14/09/2011 - How workers can serve themselves and their communities

IN THE current issue of British Worker, Pat Harrington – General Secretary of Solidarity Trade Union – wrote an article entitled Solidarity: More than just a union. This explored proposals relating to both the education and welfare of our members, supporters and indeed the general public. 


He said:
“I feel that we should explore ideas on how the union can help people with practical matters.  Some of my fellow Solidarity National Executive members have already pointed the way.  For instance, David Kerr has noted that as well as campaigning against Con-Dem cuts, trade unionists should be thinking in practical terms of how we can support those who are worse off than themselves.”
The article noted that – to address these questions of education and welfare – the union should involve itself in some form of self-help, social action initiative or charitable acts. 
In a continuation of this debate, another Solidarity member - Steven Herbert from the South of England – puts forward radical ideas on how workers can serve themselves and their communities.
WITH each passing week, more and more people are realizing that economic growth is no longer possible.  Economic development on the old model, which UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon recently characterized as a “global suicide pact,” is becoming constrained by the limits of natural resources of the finite planet. (Energy, arable land and fresh water being the foremost among them, and stressed further by extreme weather events that increase in frequency due to the rapidly destabilising climate.)
Since the narrowly averted financial collapse of 2008, aggregate indicators of economic growth have been anemic at best, and would be negative were it not for a dramatic expansion in public debt and aggressive financial manipulation by American and European central banks.  These methods are only effective up to a point.  Some time ago it became apparent that we had reached the point of diminishing returns on debt expansion: further expansion of public debt decreases rather than increases GDP.  Perhaps the next realisation to hit us is that public debt is in runaway mode. It will continue to go up whether government spending is cut or increased.  From this it follows that the government's days are numbered, but few people are ready to make this leap yet.  The inevitable consequences will be mass unemployment.
With society facing an economic collapse, it would be an opportune time to rethink the division of labour.  Since the industrial revolution it was normal for the bosses to own the means of production – with workers only being able to offer their labour. Today, however, the means of production is becoming more ‘distributed’ and ‘networked’.  Machines once the preserve of factories are now affordable the masses. For example, for the price of a laptop and printer you can be a publisher; for the price of a mobile phone and a car you can be a taxi driver (in theory), for the price of a lathe, a router and access to eBay you can be a micro manufacturer.  Thus, in this article I’d like to show how workers can serve themselves and their communities.
In the 1970s Keith Paton, in a far sighted pamphlet addressed to members of the Claimants’ Union, urged them not to compete for meaningless jobs in the economy which has thrown them out as redundant, but to use their skills to serve their own community.  One of the characteristics of the affluent world is that it denies its poor the opportunity to feed, clothe, or house themselves, or to meet their own and their families’ needs, except from grudgingly doled out welfare payments.  He explains that:
“[E]lectrical power and ‘affluence’ have brought a spread of intermediate machines, some of them very sophisticated, to ordinary working class communities. Even if they do not own them (as many claimants do not) the possibility exists of borrowing them from neighbours, relatives, ex-workmates. Knitting and sewing machines, power tools and other do it yourself equipment comes in this category. Garages can be converted into little workshops, home brew kits are popular, parts and machinery can be taken from old cars and other gadgets. If they saw their opportunity, trained metallurgists and mechanics could get into advanced scrap technology, recycling the metal wastes of the consumer society for things which could be used again regardless of whether they would fetch anything in a shop. Many hobby enthusiasts could begin to see their interests in a new light.”
The building, bottom up, of local economies based on small scale production with multiple purpose machinery might well take place piecemeal, beginning with such small workshops, at first engaged primarily in repair and remanufacture of existing machinery and appliances.  As Peak Oil and the degradation of the international transportation systems cause corporate logistic chains for spare parts to dry up, small garage machine shops may begin out of sheer necessity to take up the slack, custom machining the spare parts needed to keep ageing appliances in operation. From this, the natural progression would be to farm out the production of components among a number of such small shops, and perhaps designing and producing simple appliances from scratch.  (An intermediate step might be ‘mass customization,’ the custom design of modular accessories for mass produced platforms.)  In this manner, networked production of spare parts by small shops might be the foundation for a new industrial revolution.
This would not be the first time in history this has happened.  During World War II, Japan experienced strategic bombing particularly of factories by the Americans.  In response to this, small workshops attached to family homes played an important role in the Japanese industrial economy.  Many components and sub-processes were farmed out for household manufacture, in home workshops consisting of perhaps a few lathes, drill presses or milling machines.  In the war, the government had actively promoted such shadow factories, distributing machine tools in workers’ homes in order to disperse concentrated industry and reduce its vulnerability to American bombing.
After the war, the government encouraged workers to purchase the machinery.  As late as the late fifties, such home manufacturers were still typically tied to particular companies, in what amounted to industrial serfdom.  But by 1960s many home manufacturers had become free agents, contracting out to whatever firm made the best offer.  The overhead costs of home production, after the war, were reduced by standardisation and modular design.
The Japanese bicycle industry had its origins in just such networking between custom producers of spare parts.  To replace these imports with locally made bicycles, the Japanese could have invited a big American or European bicycle manufacturer to establish a factory in Japan.  Or the Japanese could have built a factory that was a slavish imitation of a European or American bicycle factory.  They would have had to import most or all of the factory’s machinery, as well as hiring foreign production managers or having Japanese production managers trained abroad.  Instead, workshops to repair imported bicycles had sprung up in the big cities.  Imported spare parts were expensive and broken bicycles were too valuable to cannibalise the parts.  Many repair shops thus found it worthwhile to make replacement parts themselves—not difficult if a man specialized in one kind of part, as many repairmen did.  In this way, groups of bicycle repair shops were almost doing the work of manufacturing entire bicycles.  That step was taken by bicycle assemblers, who bought parts, on contract, from repairmen: the repairmen had become light manufacturers.
So whilst we will be experiencing significant economic changes over the following years, we do have opportunities.  The new factor today is a revolutionary shift in competitive advantage from wage labour to the informal economy.  The rapid growth of technologies for home production, based on small scale electrically powered machinery and new forms of intensive cultivation, has radically altered the comparative efficiencies of large and small scale production.  The current explosion in low cost manufacturing technology promises to shift competitive advantage in the next decade much more than in the entire previous century; 3D printers (a printer which actually produces real objects) are actually a reality!
If you want to put these ideas into practice, I would recommend researching the topic area of your micro-business.  I have found to a far more useful for acquiring knowledge than my local library (my local library seems only want to keep new and popular books and sell off everything else.) I have spoken to retired engineers, machinists and hobbyist about reacquiring skills and their knowledge is invaluable.  I have discovered that education which relates to manufacturing is becoming rarer and those courses which are available tend to gravitate to the theoretical rather than the practical. I believe that in the years ahead the tangible will be more valuable than the virtual.  Finally, I would thoroughly recommend The Homebrew Industrial Revolution - A Low Overhead Manifesto by Kevin A. Carson.  This book can be purchased from or downloaded free at
SOLIDARITY members and supporters can get hold of the latest issue of British Worker simply by e-mailing [email protected] and asking for a free pdf copy.