‘Workers’: Life, Creativity and Resisting Racial Capitalism

By Jay Gearing and Ben Rogaly

The Gladstone Community Association (GLADCA) Annual General Meeting was as packed with graduating ESOL students ready to receive their certificates in October 2018 as it had been the year before. Ben had been invited to the 2017 GLADCA AGM by Alison Davies, herself an academic researcher in the city. Based on his experience then, we chose this as the most suitable time and place for a second public screening in Peterborough of Workers, a film that ‘shows working people in some of the broader contexts of their lives – as musicians and poets, as community activists and informal teachers… as individuals whose employment conditions are onerous and whose creative capacities persist’.

At the screening, members of Peterborough’s multi-ethnic, multi-nationality, multi-faith and multi-lingual working-class came together to celebrate and eat, showing off the city’s diversity. This at a time when a seminar was being announced to launch a new academic book that seemed to legitimate the idea that there could be ‘too much’ diversity

As David Roediger reminds us, anti-racist struggle is a contributor to the struggle against class inequalities. Theories of racial capitalism show how capitalists have long created, perpetuated and taken advantage of racialised and other socialised difference in the workplace to enhance their power over labour by dividing workers.

When, earlier in 2018, Workers was selected for The Sociological Review’s Undiscipliningconference we were thrilled. Here was a conference organised by an academic journal that seemed explicitly to resonate with Jacques Rancière’s opposition to ‘that ancient hierarchy which subordinates those dedicated to labour to those endowed with the privilege of thought’. The conference also promised an annual lecture by Satnam Virdee whose earlier work had inspired us to think about the historical role of racialised others in UK labour struggles. And there were to be responses by Sivamohan Valluvan and Bev Skeggs both of whom, in very different ways, pioneered critical reworking of the white, male, national citizen version of the image of ‘workers’ and of the English working-class.

Our deep and intimate involvement in Peterborough – through years of research in Ben’s case and being a life-long resident in Jay’s – meant that we already had close relations with people who had worked in the city’s warehouses and food factories to build on. Both of us see listening as central to what we do. Listening to current and former workers as peoplemeant that the film would work as a series of portraits. Following on from Ben’s and Kaveri Qureshi’s interviews earlier in the 2010s we wanted to ask people about their experiences of being part of diverse warehouse and food factory workforces, and about moments when people came together across difference to resist harsh supervisory regimes. At the same time, we sought to avoid defining people according to their occupations at a particular point in their lives and used a broad understanding of creativity to ask about people’s creative lives within and beyond the workplace.

Before Jay came on board Ben had put a version of these ideas together with the rest of the Creative Interruptions team as part of a bid for research funding. It was always a collaborative process in other ways too. An early meeting about the framing of the Creative Interruptions proposal was attended by Agnieszka Coutinho, one of the narrators (Workers, Chapter 5) in the eventual film. Following a model used by Les Back, Shamser Sinha and their co-authors, we are now preparing, with Agnieszka, a jointly-written chapter for a forthcoming collection ‘Creativity and resistance in a hostile world’ being edited by Sarita Malik and the rest of the Creative Interruptions team. 

In Peterborough, photographer Chris Porsz had also discussed the ideas for the film with Ben before Creative Interruptions was funded. He attended and spoke at the first of two dinners cooked and hosted for narrators and Peterborough-based digital media artists by Metal Peterborough, where Ben was writer-in-residence. The second dinner was followed by a screening for the film’s narrators of a first cut, using a cinema space secured by Jay at the back of a Peterborough wine bar. The film was greeted enthusiastically and we were urged to complete the work. We released a trailer for the film and arranged a public première at Peterborough Central Library in June 2018, three weeks before the Undisciplining conference. About eighty people attended including many current and former workers, trade unionists and other activists. It was followed by a lively question and answer session at which we were urged to distribute the film widely to assist campaigns for workplace rights.

When Ben had put out a call for proposals for Peterborough-based film-makers in May 2017 four were received. These were ranked by eight different people from a wide range of backgrounds including Creative Interruptions International Advisory Group member Fatima Manji of Channel 4 News, who grew up in Peterborough; a former warehouse worker; Peterborough-based arts commissioners; and Sarita Malik and Photini Vrikki of the Creative Interruptions team. They all considered the pitches of the people who applied and almost unanimously recommended Jay, who had previously been suggested for the work by Peterborough resident and community garden activist Sophie Antonelli, a mutual friend.

The two of us met often in Peterborough and sometimes in Brighton and communicated frequently by phone, text and email. Using Jay’s equipment and some prior technical training from him, Ben conducted audio interviews in summer 2017 – mostly at the premises of Metal Peterborough – on the basis that this would be the audio used for the film. However, when Jay listened to the recordings he decided that they were not of sufficient quality. Ben had intervened, reassured and assented too often. As an interviewer he was too audible. So when Jay, as planned, visited the narrators’ homes for video footage he also recorded on-camera interviews with each of them, listening to Ben’s interview first, and often using a similar line of questions. Jay built on the intimacy that had emerged through Ben’s relationships with narrators in some cases over a six-year period, and doubled down on this, using his own personal, emotionally aware and intimate approach. He left plenty of time to be with the people being interviewed in their own space. Our conversations before and after each interview, along with the words of the narrators, further honed the themes of the film and informed the editing process. Following an afternoon when we worked together to reduce one of the film’s chapters from two hours to five minutes of audio, the rest of the editing was done by Jay.

There were others who decided not to be part of the film, people whom we had approached and met with. Some of them even attended the Metal Peterborough dinners. At least one of these people stayed closely in touch with the work after recording an audio interview with Ben. We also met with a former revolutionary leader from south-east Asia who had been interviewed as part of Ben’s earlier research and was currently working in a Peterborough warehouse; and we had an introduction to a Sikh woman in her sixties who worked in a potato chip factory and with whom we communicated at regular intervals over several weeks. Two narrators came on board right at the end: Joanna Szczepaniak (WorkersChapter 3), whom Ben had kept in touch with since 2011 and now runs a Polish newspaper, and Natalina Cardoso (Workers Chapter 9), introduced to us by Gladstone Community Association.

After over a decade of austerity, declining real wages and worsening employment conditions, the residents of Peterborough, as of the UK as a whole, face new economic, political and cultural struggles. It is our hope that Workers will contribute in a small way towards moving away from a culture that stigmatises working-class creativity towards one that values and respects people who work in food factories and warehouses as people; and towards bolstering the prospects for collective action in the face of divisive racist and anti-migrant rhetoric and the practices of racial capitalism. 

Jay Gearing is an Independent Filmmaker based in Peterborough under the guise of Red 7 Productions. He directed and co-produced Workers. Twitter: @red7productions

Ben Rogaly teaches in the Department of Geography at the University of Sussex. He researched and co-produced Workers. Twitter: @rogaly

Read a review of ‘Workers’ by Dawn Lyon here.

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