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Some Thoughts on Workplace Groups

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Translator's Note

To understand the nuances of this document it helps to know what Netzwerk IT is. Network IT, to use its English name, is a platform for the employed and unemployed. Individuals, groups of employees and campaigns can communicate with each other, organise in the workplace and network with each other.

Network IT has two principles: helping people to help themselves and openness. Helping people to help themselves assumes that people are not stupid.

Workmates know very well what they need. However, they are often isolated and do not believe that they can change things. Openness for us means in particular that we do not exclude anyone. We cannot stop at national borders when companies are globalising themselves. Undercutting each other only results in everyone losing out.

Network IT is not a trade union and does not want to become one. A union is based on representation. One elects representatives who then manage everything for you. The worker then withdraws from the company or political arena and usually becomes passive except in the case of wage negotiations or other particular events. The same is true of the workers' legal representation in Europe, the works council.

Whether it is necessary to also work in the unions or works councils can be decided on an individual basis. The question is always whether such positions help or are detrimental to the basic principles of helping people to help themselves and openness.

In the document below we use the term “workplace groups” for self-organised and autonomous groups of employees.

For more information on Network IT see its English leaflet 'Self-Expression of Interests versus Interest-Representation',


The rough draft of this paper was written as part of the preparation for the NetzwerkIT Meeting in April 2010. We wanted to discuss "workplace groups". At first we thought that the situation in companies is so different that general statements are hardly possible or at least do not go further than left-wing platitudes. Perhaps we achieved more. Our main hypotheses are:

  • We are active at work because we have to work. We do not do so voluntarily.
  • We see workplace groups as self-organisation. They are both means and an end.
  • Workers are not homogeneous. There are informal structures. Conflicts are everywhere, sometimes they escalate.
  • The formation of workplace groups is based on existing informal structures and is stimulated by conflicts in the workplace.
  • Workers are not stupid. We do not act and think for them, we are actively involved. They must take their own decisions.
  • To survive we have to be flexible and unpredictable.
  • Publicity prevents paternalism based on secretiveness and creates pressure.
  • Engendering and maintaining solidarity is of the utmost importance.
  • Your (corporate and state) borders are not our borders.
  • Self-isolation in its various forms is one of the biggest risks.

Why workplace groups?

We must work to earn our living. Our work is determined by others: submission to predefined processes and objectives, being pushed around, pressure to compete and perform, exploitation of our creativity and our dedication, humiliation and insults from management, more or less continuous monitoring and control, forced to do pointless activities and not least the threat of loss of income. Against this we defend ourselves. We can't do it on our own. Therefore we want to organise with our colleagues. Autonomous workplace groups can be helpful in doing this.

We do not want better bosses We want a society in which we can consciously shape our own lives. Self-organisation is the only remedy for old and new command structures. One possible form of self-organisation are workplace groups. Also we are not the ones who know the way. We bring ideas, speak our minds, but those involved must decide themselves.

We are not interested in workplace groups as a "basis" for actual or would-be leaders or as mobilisable masses for trade unions or political parties.

Informal Structures

Corporate structures are not exhausted by those officially documented in organigrams. In everyday life it is usual that networks and informal groups evolve. We use them to support each other– mostly so that we can get our work done. "Unofficial channels" are based on such structures. This is a small example of lived solidarity. However, it has its limits.

What's more there are many differences and conflicts among colleagues. Mostly they can be divided into roughly three groups:

  1. The resigned and distanced have internally quit their jobs. In view of the fact that neither the job, the career or the pension is safe, it makes little sense to work very hard. They hide behind processes and know how to keep up appearances. They often appear to be particularly keen. They have learned to be formally unassailable. Sometimes they resort to "active alienation". [1]. Their number increases rapidly when companies are in crisis. Also every reorganisation drives colleagues to internally quit their jobs. Open resistance is rare in this group.
  2. Those committed to the job who, despite all odds, still manage to achieve good results. Most career entrants fall into this category. Unpaid overtime is for them a matter of course. They identify with their work and are willing to pay a high price for an ever decreasing fun factor. Work-based conflicts are supported by this group. If they learn that performance does not pay, they change to the group of those who have internally resigned. This can sometimes take time.
  3. The would-be career-oriented managers are on the other side. A change to the group of the internally resigned is not seldom. There they form the sub-group of "managers in spirit" who always know what mistakes management are making.

Everyone has their own experiences, dreams and personal goals. Even among colleagues it is not all sweetness and light. Management deliberately encourages competition and individualisation: dismantling of strong teams, constant reorganization, evaluation and ranking, [2] apparent career prospects and rewards for those who toe the line, harassing out of the company of the “poor achievers”, isolation of the disobedient. Conflicts

Overt and covert conflicts with management are common. The amount of work, content and intensity are subject to permanent conflicts. The respective working conditions characterises these conflicts. [3] Non-participants (works councils, trade unions, interventionists) often do not notice them.

Conflicts that go beyond everyday squabbling are the exception. It takes a special occasion, an action that is perceived to be particularly unfair or arbitrary. In the case of latent discontent, a trifle can be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Spontaneous anger can lead to conflicts and actions. Small groups can make a big difference. If changes in the whole of society are on the agenda (eg. 1968 ), conflicts can also escalate quickly. The same applies to mass lay-offs or other measures that affect many colleagues simultaneously.


Workplace groups often come into being in overarching conflicts (eg the Union of Railway Engine Drivers strike, 2008), a circle of particularly active colleagues remains. Disbanded teams sometimes survive as an independent group. Sometimes a group of like-minded people comes together.

The activities of these groups are very different: Mutual information on developments in the company, uncovering of management lies ("All offshore projects are successful"), exchange of ideas, for example, to simplify work, self-help and assistance in most different forms, starting conflicts, networking across departments, active participation in departmental and works meetings, carrying out actions right up to organising union and autonomous struggles.

What and how is always dependent on the specific situation. It always pays to look at the respective lines of conflict, the balance of power and the position of the colleagues. We address below some aspects that in our opinion should always be taken into account:

Remain Flexible and Unpredictable

Ridged group structures only make sense if there are real opportunities to actually change things. This is the exception. Structures must be appropriate to the situation. Networking, information sharing and mutual support, e.g against bullying, are always important. Contact to individuals within the personnel department or management can suddenly be just as important as contacts outside the company: Professionals of all types - lawyers, newspaper editors, potential supporters locally and in other companies.

We must be prepared for a long haul and not put ourselves under pressure, for instance by regularly publishing a works bulletin. Rather than isolate ourselves, we should try to go with the tide. Weekly meetings can very quickly become tedious. Less frequent ones, perhaps only a few per year may be enough to stay in touch, and then meet more often if needed. Contact and exchange of information can also be done by the use of forums, mailing lists or a web site, for instance by using a blog.

Our goals are based on those of the colleagues, not on an abstract program. We put forward our point of view. If things are going in the right direction, we take part and sometimes we try to go one step further than the determining protagonists would like.

We do not lay down our means of struggle or types of action in advance. Often colleagues come up with ideas that are unusual and until that time unimaginable. The funeral of a project at Alcatel-Lucent in 2008, the short film about it and what happened afterwards is a good example of a very unusual and successful action. [4] Going to the labour court, working to rule and other forms of sabotage, trade union and spontaneous strikes, factory occupations, demonstrations, boycotts, selective publicity in all its forms and in all types of media - all have their place. It just depends on the concrete situation.

Who belongs to the workplace group is nobody's business. Communication takes place via private mail addresses and by phone.

Making Things Public

Making a hue and cry about corporate grievances can result in minimal protection. Customers are often interested in such abuses, especially if they are also indirectly affected.

Conflicts belong in the open. Secrecy - even from the union and the works council – is always detrimental. This is about decisions being taken over our heads - not only by management but also by the works council and the union. If underhand manoeuvres ('secret diplomacy') come out into the open, witch hunts are organised against those who are supposedly responsible for the publication of alleged "internal company information". “Company loyalty” is then invoked, i.e. closing ranks against evil and strangers from without. Making things public is depicted as being "bad for business."

Many fundamental rights end at the factory gate. In particular the right of expression has only limited applicability. Even when the web is used, it must be ensured that the authors can not be discerned. Denunciations can be expected. Even uncovering illegal activities may result in dismissal, which the courts consider to be lawful. [5]

Obtaining Solidarity

Solidarity is a nice idea. Solidarity with one another and from outside the company does not necessarily take place due to good arguments. Competition characterises our daily life, everyone should look after themselves. Mutual assistance and solidarity are often no longer perceived as such. In the case of lay-offs, solidarity among those not affected is very difficult to achieve.

In the long term experiencing solidarity is often more important than the specific goal of a dispute. Confidence and trust are based on shared experiences. Also in the case of collective actions distrust in each other must be overcome. If we, for example, refuse to do overtime on Saturday, then we should not just stay at home, but instead arrange to meet for breakfast inside or outside the company. This helps to overcome individual unease.

The worst defeat is the breach of solidarity. Who has experienced its loss in a community will not get involved again so quickly in collective action. Especially bad is when the spokesmen save themselves at the expense of the less active. A classic example are works council members who in "tough negotiations" with support of the colleagues manage to save some jobs, especially their own. Even in defeat individuals should not be sacrificed. Therefore, for example, a general reduction in working time with loss of pay is preferable to the dismissal of even one colleague.

Ignore corporate boundaries

Existing corporate boundaries are not our boundaries. Workplaces and companies are tailored according to economic criteria. We are interested in working contexts. External contractors, temporary workers and the outsourced are also a part of this. We also seek contacts to colleagues in partner companies (whether here or in India).

Take Account of the Risks

And finally the most important risks:

  • Workplace groups can easily become self-isolated propaganda groups. Classic examples are the groups of the various left-wing sects.
  • Activists may fall into the role of a political clown. They always know the answers - but no one is interested any more.
  • Even workplace groups can become representatives. The workers expect them to solve their problems instead of thinking and acting for themselves. This happens quickly when members of the workplace group are elected after a successful battle to the works council. The existing tendency to substitutionist politics is then amplified.
  • Interest representatives and delegates of all kinds can quickly become turncoats – regardless of how politically steadfast they are.
  • Individual initiatives can sometimes give an impetus, but they are always extremely risky. If in doubt, refrain from doing so!
  • Especially after a quick initial success, frustration and resignation spread in view of the passivity and the adaptability of most colleagues. It does not help to intensify ones own activities and taking even greater risks. Patience, understanding, openness and an awful lot of staying power is required.


Berni Kelb: “Betriebsfibel” (Workplace Organising), Wagenbach, 1971, also available at

Thorsten Bewernitz (Hrsg.): „Die neuen Streiks“ (The New Strikes), Unrast, 2008

Peter Grohmann / Horst Sackstetter: “Plakat. 10 Jahre Betriebsarbeit bei Daimler-Benz” (Placard, 10 Years Organising in the Workplace at Daimler-Benz), Rotbuch Verlag, 1979

Monique Piton: „Anders leben. Chronik eines Arbeitskampfes: Lip, Besancon“ (Living Differently, Chronicle of an Industrial Dispute: Lip, Besancon), Suhrkamp, 1976

Kolinko: “Hotlines – Call Center | Untersuchung” (Hotlines – Call Centre, An Investigation), Kommunismus, 2002, available at

Inken Wanzek: “Der Widerspruch des Gerry Gollmann … und anderer, die den Mut fanden, nicht aufzugeben ...” (The Objection of Gerry Gollmann to his Dismissal … and Others who had the Courage not to give up) Books on Demand, 2009.

Flying Pickets (Hrsg.): “Sechs Monate Streik bei Gate Gourmet” (Six Months Strike at Gate Gourmet), Assoziation A, 2007

Redaktion Druckwächter: “Wir bleiben hier. Dafür kämpfen wir! Akteure berichten über den Arbeitskampf bei AEG/Elektrolux in Nürnberg 2005-07” (We are staying here. That's what we are fighting for! Participants report on the industrial dispute at AEG/Electrolux in Nuremberg), Die Buchmacherei, 2009

Jochen Gerster, Willi Hajek (Hrsg.): „Sechs Tage der Selbstermächtigung. Der Streik bei Opel in Bochum Oktober 2004“ Six Days of Empowerment. The Strike at Opel, Bochum, Die Buchmacherei, 2005

John Holloway: Crack Capitalism, Pluto Press, 2010


[1]See Corinne Maier: Bonjour Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay, Orion, 2006
[2]Employee reviews are common practice. Open ranking is found primarily in international companies. At the top are the high performers, below the low performers. The latter are more or less directly threatened with dismissal.
[3]In software development, for example, there are disputes over costs and deadlines (submissions, milestones) and ways of working. We try to reduce the work to the essentials, avoid documentation, reporting processes and bureaucracy. We help each other with our knowledge, use open source software and prefer what we imagine to be agile processes. Experienced professionals estimate the amount of work more realistically and do not disclose time buffers.
[5]See Whistleblower-Netzwerk eV and

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