Further debate on the "social strike" and workplace organisation

Submitted by AWL on 12 September, 2016 - 2:15 Author: Daniel Randall

Cautiously Pessimistic's[1] thoughtful reply to my critique of Plan C's "social strike perspective" is very welcome. Many of its themes were telegraphed in an exchanged of comments between me and Cautiously on the AWL website, under my original article (click the link above and scroll to the bottom). I'll try to focus here on issues I haven't already responded to. Their response, and mine, substantially move away from discussion of the “social strike” issue, into a more general discussion of perspectives and strategies. Although the focus is now rather wider, I think the debate is worth pursuing.

Cautiously says that, if we (AWL) think the period of "New Unionism" contains lessons for the current period, “it might be more useful for the AWL to share these lessons with the rest of us, rather than berating us for not already knowing them.” I find this a little unfair; to put it bluntly, we've been doing our best. We have published reams of material on this very topic, and organised two day schools, in 2012 and 2014, to discuss it. Perhaps not enough, and we can always do better, but the accusation that we are somehow simply stating that the period is significant, and expecting everyone else to automatically know why, isn't reasonable. The second of our two day schools on "New Unionism", in February 2014, was co-sponsored by the University of London branch of the IWGB, a branch that AWL members helped establish. This rather undermines a central claim of Cautiously's article – that the AWL thinks it is impossible for workers to do anything outside of TUC-affiliated unions.

Cautiously accuses me of performing a “magic trick where the working class goes into the hat and the membership of the PCS comes out”. They say that I collapse the entire working class into its currently-unionised minority, which is predominantly based in the public sector. But, to take just one example, AWL members and supporters are currently involved in a burgeoning dispute of Picturehouse cinema workers, immediately at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, both as direct participants and “externally”, building solidarity for the dispute within the wider labour movement. These private-sector workplaces, where young, precariously-employed workers on zero-hours contracts work do not much resemble the public-sector bastions of existing trade unionism that Cautiously accuses us of seeing as the only possible sites for struggle.

Cautiously says our perspective is “minoritarian”. It's an odd term for someone whose strategy is consciously based on the promotion of minority unions to use. The claim that theirs is a perspective for the whole class, while ours only focuses on a minority, is a posture. Functionally, theirs is a perspective for those sections of the class - in fact, much, much smaller than the six or seven million workers in TUC unions - who might be reached by an IWW, UVW, or IWGB organising project. This might or might not be a reasonable strategy: perhaps the struggles led by those unions will inspire millions of unorganised workers to form IWW branches in their workplaces, or inspire millions of Unison, Unite, and GMB members to leave those unions and join the IWGB. But whatever it is, it is absolutely, necessarily, "minoritarian", not a perspective for, as Cautiously puts it, “trying to build organisation throughout the class as a whole.”

Cautiously seems to have taken my argument that “it is not possible, even if it were desirable, to build a new, better, labour movement from scratch” to mean that it's not possible to organise an unorganised workplace, arguing that I “write off the majority of workers” not in currently unionised jobs. To make it absolutely clear, of course I believe it possible for currently un-unionised workers to organise “from scratch”. Any “socialist” who believed otherwise would be no kind of socialist at all. But the question is: what kind of “from scratch” organising, and what relationship should that “from scratch” organising have to the workers' movement which is already there, which is not starting “from scratch” (and, vice versa).

If it is Cautiously's view that the principled and strategically expedient socialist perspective is to attempt to “build a new, better, labour movement from scratch”, in the sense of attempting to circumnavigate or even ignore existing unions except where forced out of absolute necessity to engage with them, they need to explain exactly how IWGB, IWW, UVW, or SolFed organising projects in small workplaces are going to supplant the TUC unions – the older, implicitly “worse”, but (unfortunately, from Cautiously's point of view) extant labour movement.

And if it is not Cautiously's view that IWGB, IWW, UVW, or SolFed organising projects in small workplaces are going to replace the TUC unions, then they should say what their perspective for workers in the mainstream labour movement is. If their view is that “minority union” organising projects might have some kind of fructifying or radicalising influence on workers in TUC unions, which might, if expressed through independent rank-and-file networks within existing unions which have clear programmes for democratic reform, help to transform and recompose the existing movement, then I put it to them that we might, in fact, agree.

Cautiously does a fair bit of collapsing of their own, displaying more than a little rhetorical sleight-of-hand, when they arguing that a worker, or group of workers, organising their workplace from scratch would be “working outside the currently existing unions” whether or not they organised through IWGB or Unite. In fact, they wouldn't be “working outside the currently existing unions” in either case, as both Unite and IWGB provide a level of existing infrastructure, resources (both human and otherwise), and accumulated experience and knowledge of struggle. But to pose the matter starkly, if you choose to attempt to set up an IWGB branch in your un-unionised workplace, rather than attempting to organise through the GMB or Unite, you are “starting from scratch” in a much more fundamental way. There might be plenty of good reasons for choosing the former option, but they are qualitatively different.

Similarly un-serious is Cautiously's claim that “a worker who decides that they want to try organising, and starts off as the only Unite or GMB member in their workplace, is not significantly less isolated than someone who starts off as the only IWGB, IWW, or for that matter SolFed member in their workplace.” There are plenty of problems with a union like Unite, and there is frequently a substantial gulf between grassroots members and the structures of the union. But the idea that someone joining a union of over one million members, with large branches in every city and town, would not be in a qualitatively different position to an individual joining a tiny union with three branches, all of which are in London (IWGB); or a strange party-union hybrid with less than 1,000 members nationally (IWW); or even what is essentially an anarcho-syndicalist political party and not a union at all (SolFed) is just not credible.[2]

Again, I'm not ruling out the usefulness of workers choosing a union like the IWGB or UVW as an instrument for organising their workplace. But the circumstances in which that choice would make sense are, in my view, quite particular. It's not simply the mass unions' superior resources that matter, it's that by joining a mass union, workers gain the potential to link up with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of other rank-and-file workers, within a common organisational structure.

There is more sleight-of-hand at work when Cautiously says I believe it's “impossible” to “bypass” the TUC unions. I absolutely don't think that. On the level of immediate, day-to-day struggles, of course it's possible. In fact, it's possible to bypass the trade-union form altogether: if you felt up to it, you could just get your workmates together without any formal organisational infrastructure at all, and walk off the job until your boss agreed to give you what you want. But if one's goal is not simply a proliferation of small-scale workplace struggles but the building of a mass, revolutionary-socialist labour movement capable of conquering social and economic power, “bypassing” the existing movement, as if it wasn't there, is not possible. You have to have some strategy for relating to it, for transforming it, for revolutionising it.

To return to the subject of the “social strike” momentarily, Cautiously's conception of it doesn't suggest to me that it even merits a special label. Cautiously says, “the participation of those not already involved [in a strike] is crucial.” Yes, obviously. No strike can win without some level of “outside” support. No strike movement can break its banks, so to speak, and become a more generalised movement for working-class power, if the only people involved are the workers on strike. Agreed. But if that's all that's meant by the “social strike perspective”, I would suggest that one needs a rather more fundamental perspective for how we get more strikes in the first place, before we can attempt to “socialise” them. That requires a perspective for transforming the labour movement. Saying “strikes should be social strikes” isn't particularly helpful.

Cautiously isn't a Plan C member, and their brief isn't to defend them per se, so I'm reluctant to dwell too much on the elements of Cautiously's piece that relate specifically to their organisation. But to say just a word on this: Cautiously implies I'm dismissive of them, seeing them as “self-marginalising drop-outs”, for not working in unionised public-sector workplaces. If I appeared sceptical about Plan C (or proto-Plan C's) relation to the 2011 public sector strikes “from the outside”, it is rather because I am not at all convinced it was forced on them by necessity of position in the way that Cautiously implies. Perhaps I am extrapolating too much from my own personal experience of Plan C comrades, but the ones I have met have not tended to be, for example, Deliveroo drivers or Tesco warehouse workers. They seem to have a relatively high proportion of members in well-unionised, public-sector workplaces, particularly in academia. I'm not trying to have a dig about their sociological and demographic composition here; on the contrary, I wish they'd do more with it. They're as well placed as any other political group to attempt to develop a rank-and-file network of higher education workers that could be an insurgent force within the University and College Union (UCU), and it seems to me that it's their perspective, orientation, and focus, rather than the distribution of their human resources, that prevents them from trying.

Cautiously also accuses me of claiming that anyone who is not a member of the Labour Party isn't part of the labour movement. I do not think this. I very much believe that the IWGB and UVW are part of the broad labour movement; indeed, I would like to see those unions very much more oriented to the wider labour movement. Where there has been direct engagement between these radical, "minority" unions and sections of the "established" labour movement, members of both have benefited. Perhaps ironically, given the IWGB University of London branch's origins as a split from Unison, I think it's reasonable say to that they've had a mutually enriching relationship with neighbouring SOAS Unison. IWGB UoL is affiliated to Camden Trades Council: good. For me, this is where "minority union" projects are at their most effective - not as a sideshow attempts to construct an entirely new movement, but models of radical best practise within the wider, existing movement.

There are other historical precedents worth exploring: the integration of the International Union of Sex Workers, as a semi-autonomous branch, into the GMB, or the merger of OILC, a radical, cross-union rank-and-file committee that eventually cohered into a distinct union, into the RMT. I'm not suggesting here that merger into a bigger, existing union is the only or even the best course, but if it will help sustain and spread workers' struggles, it should be considered.

I mentioned the Labour Party because it remains the de facto political wing of the mass labour movement, and a site where, as I'm sure Cautiously has noticed, there is more than a little ferment at the moment. It has clearly shaken some comrades from previously-held positions: I do know Plan C members who have joined Labour. But as a group, they seem to have no perspective for political intervention there.

Cautiously says: “If Owen Smith, Chuka Umunna, and John McTernan are inside the labour movement, but the rank-and-file workers organising their workplaces and fighting for better conditions at companies like Deliveroo and UberEats are outside it, then I’m very happy to stay out in the cold.” This rather neatly expresses part of the problem: unfortunately, Owen Smith, Chuka Umuna, and John McTernan, and any number of other right-wing MPs and capitulatory, class-collaborationist union bureaucrats, are “inside the labour movement”, and in positions of not insignificant influence. The challenge is how we get them, or the ideas they represent, out of the movement – or, at least, out of a position of political hegemony – and replace them with other ideas (certainly, including many of the ideas and approaches currently expressed by unions like IWGB).

The obligatory anarchist-versus-Trot dig about paper selling makes an appearance too. I hope Cautiously retrospectively applies the same level of scorn to Kropotkin's Freedom, or to the New York anarchists in the 1930s who produced - and, shock horror, sold - a newspaper called... wait for it... Vanguard.

That word has attracted some negative baggage over the years. But although it's perhaps not the first self-description I'd reach for, I am a vanguardist. And, whether they want to admit it or not, like all serious class-struggle anarchists, so is Cautiously Pessimistic. The role of the vanguard, which in anarcho-syndicalist discourse has sometimes been called the “revolutionary minority”, or “militant minority”, is not to lead the rest of the class in a military-commandist fashion, but rather to constantly enlarge itself by persuading fellow workers of revolutionary-socialist (or “libertarian socialist”, if you prefer that term) ideas. The revolutionary minority must have a perspective for making its ideas hegemonic within the class (otherwise revolution is an impossibility), and that means taking on the likes of Smith, Umuna, and McTernan directly, on existing terrain – not attempting to build a new movement off to one side where their ideas can't bother us.

Cautiously cites our pamphlet Change The World: Organise At Work as evidence that we focus only on workers in certain industries, to the exclusion of others. We're actually on slightly different terrain here; this pamphlet is an attempt to persuade young left-wing activists leaving education to get jobs "in industry", as it were, rather than, say, for "left-wing" NGOs or on the staffs of trade unions (or, now, the Labour Party). The pamphlet was written in the spirit of Peter Kropotkin's excellent “An Appeal To The Young”. It does recommend a focus on certain industries and sectors, “workplaces where a strike will have maximum disruptive power”, but makes clear that the recommendations are “not exhaustive”.

Hopefully Cautiously agrees with us that socialist activists leaving education should "think politically" about where they look for work. If so, there is a real issue of activist energies and burnout to consider. Does this represent a Catch-22 on some level ("don't get a job in a warehouse until the conditions for organising become better; but the conditions for organising won't become better until someone organises")? Yes, probably. But activists organising within existing unions to reform and transform them, and turn them outwards towards such workplaces and industries, have at least as much of a chance of success as small numbers of individual activists "salting" (to employ the American term for getting a job in a workplace in order to organise it) a warehouse or call-centre without the support of a mass organisation. If you have a choice, I'd recommend taking the path less likely to burn you out.[3]

These assessments might change. BFAWU's "Hungry for Justice" campaign, consciously modelled on fast food industry organising efforts in America and New Zealand, would undoubtedly be bolstered by a few militant-minded activists getting jobs in McDonald's.

Of course, most "from scratch" workplace organising campaigns aren't started by someone who has consciously taken the job with the intention of organising the workplace. But, despite the aforementioned possibility of bypassing trade-union forms altogether, it's rare that they will develop very far, or consolidate any gains, if workers have no contact whatsoever with any "outside" organisation (i.e., a union). Until the infrastructure of the labour movement changes dramatically, there remains a reasonable likelihood that workers who are minded to organise at work will approach bigger unions, if for no other reason than they are more high-profile. Therefore the political and organisational character of those unions matters a great deal, even for workers in currently unorganised industries. Again: we have to go through the existing mass labour movement, not around it, nor attempt to construct a new, "pure" labour movement on the fringes of the existing one. Attempts to do anything “from scratch” must be seen within the context of that overall perspective for transforming and recomposing the entire movement, not as embryos of a separate movement that can supplant it.

I want to end on a point of potential agreement that I think this debate reflects, although Cautiously might correct me on this. AWL has long criticised and opposed what we see, to use Ellen Meiksins Wood's phrase, as the "retreat from class" across the far left. On a whole host of questions, large sections of the left have abandoned the idea that the working class, in all its social diversity but fundamentally organised at the point of production, has an irreplaceable, and in some senses "privileged", role to play in winning socialist change.

As I noted in the article that began this exchange, Deliveroo and UberEATS couriers' strikes explode the myth, peddled by advocates of no-privileged-role-for-the-working-class-type perspectives, including on the left, that new types of work have rendered workers' organisation and struggle impossible or obsolete. I think Cautiously agrees.

Reasserting the central role of the working class in radical politics, and within that the central role of workplace organising, seems an essential role for class-struggle revolutionaries within the broader left. Despite our differing, although, I would argue, overlapping, traditions and perspectives, I'd be happy to work with anarchist comrades like Cautiously Pessimistic to promote a return to class.

[1] Cautiously Pessimistic blogs anonymously. I refer to them in this article as “Cautiously”, and use the pronouns they/their.

[2] I am reluctant to open up another front of this debate on “the party question”, so I should clarify what I mean when I refer to SolFed, and to an extent the IWW, as “political parties”. They are, in my view, “parties” in the same sense that AWL, and indeed Plan C, are a “parties” - that is, a political tendency within the working class organised around shared ideas whose activity is based primarily around fighting to make those ideas hegemonic, through political education and direct action. A trade union, which relies for its maximum possible power on organising all workers, regardless of political affiliation, is a distinct organisational form. Our class needs both parties and unions to win power.

[3] On the subject of warehouses, I think the Angry Workers of the World (AWW) Workers' Wild West workplace bulletin project in some west London warehouses is extremely respectworthy, and in some senses a very good expression of the kind of work I think revolutionaries can and should be undertaking.

It too lacks any kind of perspective for transforming, or even relating to, the existing trade union movement. GMB and Unite officials often appear as walk-on villains in their stories, and it's obvious that some of their correspondents are union members, but there's no sense in which the unions themselves are seen as a potential terrain of struggle. Undoubtedly, that has a lot to do with the editors' political background in a particular tradition within workerist autonomism, which to attempt to engage with here would take us off in quite another direction.

I would also add that AWW's critique of Plan C on the “social strike”, which Cautiously recommends in comments under my original article, is quite valuable. I share many of their criticisms, although as Cautiously rightly says, draw quite different conclusions from them.


Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Wed, 14/09/2016 - 19:17

As I'm sure you can imagine, there's a much much longer response coming at some point, but I just wanted to check this point:

"...arguing that a worker, or group of workers, organising their workplace from scratch would be “working outside the currently existing unions” whether or not they organised through IWGB or Unite. In fact, they wouldn't be “working outside the currently existing unions” in either case, as both Unite and IWGB provide a level of existing infrastructure, resources (both human and otherwise), and accumulated experience and knowledge of struggle. But to pose the matter starkly, if you choose to attempt to set up an IWGB branch in your unionised workplace, rather than attempting to organise through the GMB or Unite, you are “starting from scratch” in a much more fundamental way"

Should "unionised workplace" be "un-unionised" or "non-unionised" here? I don't want to have a cheap dig if it's not justified, but given that a lot of this conversation has consisted of me saying something along the lines of "you're mostly focused on workplaces where union organisation already exists and don't have that much to say about the places where it doesn't", and you saying "nah, that's not true, we totally care about unorganised workers" (paraphrasing wildly here, obviously), then for me to say "I'm not that convinced that the resources of larger unions make that much of a difference in places where they don't already have a membership base", and for you to respond with "but if we change this conversation to be about workplaces where the GMB do already have members then things look different" feels like a bit of a weak counter-argument. But if that bit is a typo and you actually meant to say "if you choose to attempt to set up an IWGB branch in your un-unionised workplace, rather than attempting to organise through the GMB or Unite, you are “starting from scratch” in a much more fundamental way" then that's quite a different point - just wanted to check which one I should be responding to. More to follow.

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 15/09/2016 - 11:22

In reply to by Cautiously Pes…

Yes, it was a typo, which I've now corrected. Thanks for picking it up and apologies for the confusion.



Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Mon, 19/09/2016 - 22:24

OK, I've finished off my reply to this. This does feel like one of those conversations where every point made raises a lot of other counter-points, so I've tried to keep some kind of balance between skimming over too much and making this even more unreadably long and rambling.

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 22/09/2016 - 19:52

In reply to by Cautiously Pes…

Finally, someone prepared to bring the legacy of the strike of rickshaw couriers at Ye Olde Telegraph-Powered Food Delivery service in 1899 in from the cold. I salute you, comrade.

Seriously though, good article. I will reply, eventually. I think the exchange is worth continuing, tangent-generating and rambling though it is.



Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Wed, 21/09/2016 - 19:51

By the way, if you have the time, this recent piece from the AWW, while very long, is also quite interesting about some of the themes that have come up in this discussion (and has a lot of proper stats in it).

A sample:

"In terms of more serious attempts to understand the revolutionary subjectivity and limitations of the uprisings, what is left is an unproductive separation of analysis: some people emphasise the increasing numbers of proletarians expelled from the immediate production process (surplus population, unemployed) and others focus on the productive collective power of workers in the emerging global supply chains (global working class debate). Some discovered the ‘era of riots’ [8], while others proclaimed the ‘global strike wave’ [9]. Both sides are able to provide ample sociological proof for their position – figures about slum dwellers or the global integration of production.

We can ask ourselves why this separation of political focus has emerged. While it has something to do with the social position, regional location, and political preferences of those who analyse, the main material reason will be the real separation within working class existence: how workers experience impoverishment and productive power is structured and diversified regionally, sectorially, in terms of gender etc. In that sense most theoretical analysis and their one-sided focus only mirrors reality, without questioning it...

This main contradiction of capital appears both as an internal character of production (separated cooperation) and its result (relative impoverishment). The championing of either ‘surplus population’ or ‘workers’ productive power’ separate these two dynamics instead of analysing how, in reality, the experiences of ‘impoverishment’ and ‘collective productivity’ coincide or are segregated within the global working class. The separation also leads to a different understanding of revolution and consequently of one’s own role. If we focus merely on the first aspect of the contradiction – the creation of an impoverished surplus population – we will mainly perceive the social process as a kind of automatic tendency: capital accumulates itself and churns out a growing numbers of discontented unemployed. While this results in a quite deterministic view on social developments on one side – which we can just observe and which has little to do with the agency of the exploited – it also results in a pretty superficial and mechanical view of revolution as insurrection and rupture: at some point there are just too many poor people to be controlled. Instead we should analyse how the experience of cooperation and collective productivity and struggle of workers relates to the experience of impoverishment."

Submitted by tsf (not verified) on Mon, 28/09/2020 - 06:42

While I understand your argument, I don't think the Solidarity Federation fits clearly into EITHER your definition of party or union. SF-IWA does not organise primarily around ideas or propaganda, but it does organise and take action for its members' interests. Neither of these things fits well into the idea of a party.

More important, SF has a very different perspective on organising compared to most of the Left - it could be seen as a synthesis of the party and union. Their point starts with a different idea of membership. To most unions "organising" very quickly becomes "signing up members". Unless there is an active dispute, branch meetings only have a handful of people. In contrast, SF would only aim to include those branch attendees in membership. When disputes are organised in the workplace, they aim to be coordinated by mass meetings, totally independent of the union. There are some good arguments for this in "Fighting for Ourselves". In practice, most workplaces have an official union already and so this is an ideal which must be adapted to conditions on the ground - see the "workmates" pamphlet for a good example of this.

On that last point, the SF industrial strategy is clear that members dual-card in a mainstream union when one is in place. So you were not correct to state they only engage with mainstream unions when forced! Understandable mistake, as there is rarely *public* engagement, and different opinions about how far engagement should go, but it is certainly there at the lower levels: branches and trades councils.

One advantage of the SF model that you missed is the international behind it. While the numbers locally may be low, an international network of millitant union organisers is *extremely* useful in defending people's interests. Largely because it is not something that bosses expect - a small dispute leading to stores picketed a thousand miles away definitely gives weight to demands! This type of action isn't something that the mainstream unions can organise, and it is far easier for the state to restrict and constrain them.

I think you make a good point about radicalising influence. British syndicalism has always been most effective at having a *tactical* influence on the labour movement (something Albert Meltzer discussed). Workers' networks may be a good example - pioneered over two decades ago by syndicalists, unless there's an earlier source I don't know? So far as I can tell, the first "solidarity networks" began with syndicalists in Europe - arguably their influence is noticeable in the tactics used by the ACORN tenants union. Imo it's a shame this aspect is so rarely discussed, even by syndicalists themselves!

Thanks for taking the time to read my reply

Submitted by Daniel Randall on Mon, 28/09/2020 - 22:27

In reply to by tsf (not verified)

Hi comrade,

Thanks for this comment.

I think you're right that what an organisation like SolFed aspires to be is something like a synthesis between the party and union "forms". Obviously, the question of whether such a synthesis is a) possible and b) desirable is a key difference between anarcho-syndicalists and "partyist" Marxists of various sorts. I won't retread that debate here, except to say that I think while the historic high points of such attempted syntheses (the US IWW in the early 1900, the French CGT in the late 1800s/early 1900s) are absolutely heroic episodes in class struggle history, their ultimate fate, and the fact that many of their central leaders drew decidedly "partyist" conclusions from their experiences might tell us something.

On dual-carding... okay, so SF members dual card. Fair enough. I still think SF's overall strategic perspective amounts far more to attempting to build an alternative labour movement from scratch, as opposed to a strategy of revolutionising the existing one. The latter isn't something I think is preferable for reasons of expediency or anything like that, it's something I regard as a historical necessity without which a working-class revolution won't be possible. There's no road to a revolutionary workers' movement that doesn't go "through" the historically-developed labour movement as it actually, currently, exists.

Finally, it's simply not the case that solidarity actions with workers' struggles internationally "isn't something that mainstream unions can organise." The potential for international coordination and solidarity across and between "mainstream" unions is absolutely vast. That they take international solidarity actions of any kind only rarely is far more a product of bureaucratic inertia and the fact that "internationalism" in some unions actually amounts to little more than "spending thousands of pounds to send bureaucrats, and aspirant bureaucrats, to the Havana May Day parade". It's nothing to do with the fact that "it's far easier for the state to restrict and constrain them", it's a matter of subjective factors within the unions that can be challenged and changed via oppositional struggle within them.

Thanks again for contributing, would be interested to read further responses.

Submitted by tsf (not verified) on Sun, 18/10/2020 - 04:21

In reply to by Daniel Randall

Thanks for your reply. I'm definitely interested to discuss this further. I'll address the issue of mainstream unions last, since my reply to that part is the longest. In my opinion that is the most important issue here, and the rest is just matters of fact regarding SolFed and the IWA-AIT.

Firstly regarding the IWW and French CGT, I don't agree that they are a synthesis in the same way as the Solidarity Federation. For a start, the SF strategy is based on a critique of those unions. (See "Fighting for Ourselves" for the organisation's position on that - though I think the online-only "history of anarcha syndicalism" text might have more details?) I'll discuss this more later as it relates to the mainstream unions as well. In short, there was a tension in these unions right from the start, they aimed at a mass membership even if those members were not on board with all the unions' principles.

The early syndicalist unions started in places where there were few decent unions already in place, and compared to the present there were less social-democratic concessions to lure workers to the center. Since the UK did not share those conditions, the British syndicalists were a propaganda group who worked inside the mainstream unions - with surprising success. For example Unite is now technically one big industrial union, like the IWW aimed to be, a direction started by syndicalist Tom Mann all those years ago! (source: The Making of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Volume I) The way SolFed lays it out in Fighting for Ourselves, they see these unions on a spectrum between two kinds of syndicalism. On the one hand "neutral" or economic syndicalism, on the other hand anarcha-syndicalism. The idea goes that SF is much further along toward the pole of anarcha-syndicalism, whereas these early unions were further back toward economic syndicalism. What is more, the way that SF puts that into practice has developed a lot over the years and I think it is quite a long way from the practices of the old IWW and French CGT - such as their perspective on recruiting members.

Second, my point about international struggles is the weakest, granted. I think you are right, the present inertia is not an essential feature of mainstream unions. That being said, it is a benefit *at present* to joining the IWA over those others - the chance to learn from militants all over the world who provide each other with mutual support. However, I accept that this contact could just as well come from outside of the union, for example if you join a party.

One last point before I jump into the issue of mainstream unions. Another difference between SF and a party, is the focus on tactics not ideology. A party will put more resources into political education, events, and positional statements. As indeed many anarchist groups do (I think the priority given to spreading ideas vs spreading tactics is the main difference in practice between the anarchist-communist federations, and the anarcha-syndicalist federations). In SF most outreach comes in the form of organiser training, education about rights, cultural events talking about struggles - this is more union-like than party-like.

On the mainstream unions, I disagree with both most anarchists and with most socialist parties. There are a lot of details we could go into there, and I'd like to hear your thoughts on both the majority opinion in addition to my own. I'll start out with how I understand the majority, and then my own ideas after.

I think you are correct that the majority opinion in SF and the IWA is to build an alternative labour movement, with involvement in the mainstream unions only temporary. Their key point is that organising disputes should not be a matter of union membership at all, but instead coordinated by mass meetings of workers in the dispute. The best example of this is the "workmates" organising on the London Underground - http://www.solfed.org.uk/solfed/tp-1-workmates-direct-action-workplace-… (This example also shows the potential for action outside of official union structures to influence the official union as it tries to catch up with workers and keep them on side)

Between disputes, "shop committees" or organising committees should be formed by the most militant workers in a workplace to coordinate organising efforts. These shop committees are then linked together either by industrial networks, or by the SF itself, depending on the level of interest that committee members show in SF. It's something that needs to be adapted to conditions as we find them. At their best, between disputes union branches are essentially organising committees. When they are not, they are still a useful base from which to meet and recruit other workers to make a committee - as I understand it this is the basis of dual-carding.

Why take this approach? I'll explain the reasoning as I understand it. Firstly the perspective on unions that it is based on, and then three arguments for why the structure of the mainstream unions needs a radical rethink.

Big disputes do not need a formal union to initiate or to run them. I'm going to give an argument for this from history. The Royal Dockyards strike of 1801 had no formal union, but still mobilised workers from most trades and yards in England to come out on strike. Source: "History of Work and Labour Relations in the Royal Dockyards". This followed the Channel Fleet Mutiny of 1797 where a unanimous strike by sailors from Plymouth, to Torbay, to Spithead, to the Nore took coordinated action to win demands. Source: "1797: Unity and Perseverance". (note - I disagree with splitting up the Nore and Spithead mutinies, which is the approach many writers take, but that's another issue for another time). I think both of these show that a mass dispute can be organised without a formal union, and even won in the case of the mutiny. The mutiny even used a system of mass meetings on ships, coordinated by a council of delegates - very similar to what the "workmates" pamphlet talks about! (The Invergordon Mutiny also followed a similar pattern over a hundred years later, source: Len Wincott, "Invergordon Mutineer") Apologies if that seems an obscure example, it's what I know best because where I live the Navy and Dockyard are historically the biggest employers.

If disputes do not need a formal union, then that implies it is possible to carry on the class struggle using a radically different kind of organisation to the formal unions that we have today.

Drawing from this interpretation (and granted, it's a big leap to make from so few examples), the next question is: what are the unions for, and why did they evolve? Putting aside for now their role as friendly societies providing mutual benefits. One answer is: their role comes *after* a strike. Both of those examples were met with horrific repression. Although the delegates from Spithead and Plymouth were never disciplined, attempts to organise further disputes that year were put down brutally. Neither the Navy nor the Royal Dockyards saw the same level of organisation again for a long time. Formal mass unions are an answer to that problem. They are an infrastructure to re-mobilise, to spread the word about attempts to sack "ringleaders". They leave behind the tools to start the next dispute from a position of strength. So the question becomes: are mass-membership unions the only way to do this? Are they the best way?

The simple answer is that we can't know until we try. But there are good reasons to try something better - I'll give three.

Firstly, two centuries of experience shows that class consciousness goes up as well as down. This changes a mass union in stages. In the first stage, at low points the membership tends to get less engaged and more conservative, changing the politics of the union. In turn, the union holds together through bureaucrats, who stagnate and tend to be more centrist, less militant. After all, gains at this stage are made more by negotiating with bosses and politicians, using legal codes to protect individual workers. Finally when consciousness rises again, suddenly, workers find themselves ahead of the union, with the bureaucrats trailing behind. At this point parts of the union become a stumbling block, holding back and even sabotaging the struggle. At worst this ends with workers disillusioned in the union and giving up on militancy. I think we have seen this happen a few times over the last decade, it's certainly what I have heard from union members involved in strikes.

This is one explanation for what happened to the French CGT. It is now essentially a mainstream union, a shadow of what it once was. One response to this tendency is to create a union where the bureaucracy are more radical than the membership - this is a dangerous game and can alienate members, leading to splits and a minority union in practice. This was arguably one of the problems with the IWW and the original CNT. Further, while we can fight to keep the union "pure", I think that this goes against the grain of history created by material conditions. What we can do instead, is to break it all up into structures that have different levels of permanence. The mass meetings last for the duration of a dispute. The organising committees and networks last as long as they can - with loose ideas and loose structures. Finally the core of the union, the militants, form a permanent organisation for mutual defense and coordination. After all it is those militants who are most at risk of victimisation. This is where direct action on the part of anarcha-syndicalist unions is important - they can defend millitants more effectively than going through the bosses' tribunals, and put up a better fight than a mass-membership union that suffers from inertia during a low point in the struggle. I've seen mainstream unions kick out great organisers because people in the leadership didn't like them. Fighting a reinstatement campaign is an uphill struggle with no guarantee of success. At what point does it become a waste, to use our time and energy fighting against our own union, instead of against the bosses?

I believe this is why we already see organisation in parallel to the mainstream unions - for example the Blacklist Support Group, the Hazards Campaign, or the National Shop Stewards' Network. The new Education Solidarity Network also seems to be an example! I think the weakness of organisations like the NSSN, is that they too easily become a site for power struggles, between people with a different idea how things should be done. (source: conversation with an early member - could dig harder, but this is just a comment thread so I'm trying to work from memory) These differences aren't going to go away, so I think we should have separate organisations. These can then collaborate on an ad-hoc basis, instead of getting bogged down in disagreements. (and I say this following a difficult split in the IWA - both sides now seem far better off working separately, than when they were united!) And so we arrive at SolFed - a union whose formal membership are militant organisers with a shared strategic and tactical perspective.

The second argument against Trade Unions, is that as an open and legal organisation registered with the government, they are less able to withstand repression. At the most basic level, organising a new workplace is a risky business and activists need as little visibility as possible. The best organising I ever did was never seen by the boss, to them I just appeared a model employee! (I wasn't great at it but I gave it a go and got results) Taking on formal roles in a trade union can jeopardize that and single people out. We know that this has been used by blacklisters and HR departments to sabotage class struggle, in cooperation with police. Source: Blacklisted. Going higher up, mainstream trade unions face restrictive laws. The freedom that trade unions had in Britain before Thatcher were the result of clandestine organising against the law (eg the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Swing Riots). What's more, effective struggle today means going against the law. Unions are strong when branches ask for forgiveness not permission - such as wildcat strikes by CWU members. This creates a contradiction. Bureaucrats cannot endorse militant action, and this means the union cannot do anything that encourages it. The union ends up promoting a tame version of class struggle that revises the history of how disputes were actually won. Take for example the TUC valorisation of Tolpuddle, while ignoring the militant Swing riots. Take the history of early class struggle which centers on respectable, mostly male, struggle at work and ignores womens' riots over food prices. (I've seen research arguing that in Devon, during high employment working class people would strike over wages, while at low employment they would riot over prices) Their job is to carry the struggle forward from one dispute to the next, but mainstream unions often dissipate class consciousness and militancy instead of raising it. They are not an ideal vehicle to re-mobilise former militant workers, and sometimes even do the opposite. This is not a matter of who is in charge, it is the result of innate limitations and conditions out of our control - in particular trade union laws, which need an illegal union to change them!

Third and finally, the mainstream unions are geared to the workplace, but struggle can often benefit by moving outside of the workplace and into the community. All the oldest strikes in history were community strikes as well as workplace strikes - because workers tended to live near their work. Mother Jones talks about strikes at an all-male mine, which nevertheless were really organised by the women in their community. Source: The autobiography of Mother Jones. At their weakest, organised workers in Plymouth Dock/Devonport would enlist help from their neighborhood to lobby for improved conditions. A more recent example is a struggle in Puerto Real 1987, where the whole community was drawn into the fight - details here: http://www.solfed.org.uk/solfed/tp-2-anarcho-syndicalism-in-puerto-real . Class exploitation does not just take place at the point of production. Fundamentally, exploitation means that the labour-time we put in at work does not match the labour-time we get out when we spend our wages. So capitalism exploits our labour in rents and debt and mortgages as much as it exploits us in the workplace and wages. Issues outside of work, like austerity, or worst of all benefits cuts - limit our ability to organise. When unemployment means homelessness and debt we are much less likely to take action. Our organising needs to expand beyond the place of work, but as the mainstream unions manage their mass membership based on the workplace, they are not well-placed to do this. The dynamic approach of anarcha-syndicalism with its lighter organisation means it can adapt much faster based on changing conditions. SolFed's small disputes are divided about equally between unpaid wages, and issues with landlords.

A start on this has already been made outside of anarcha-syndicalism but it is not well-organised. Unite Community branches deal with everything from benefits to housing to austerity. But they are only open to members not otherwise employed, and therefore many people effected by a dispute or campaign cannot participate in decision-making. The ACORN tenants union has grown faster, but as well as reproducing the issues with mainstream unions above, is disconnected from the workplace side of class struggle, therefore neither ACORN nor the mainstream unions can benefit from "force multiplication" by combining workplace and community organising. This is not just an issue of winning disputes but gives us a new avenue to react to repression of workplace organisers, mobilising the community when the workplace won't do. Best of all, community organising connects workers from different workplaces, encouraging solidarity.

To summarise all that: Formal unions are only needed in between big disputes, not during them. However, mass membership unions have weaknesses when used for this purpose, and these weaknesses stem directly from their structure as it faces up to material conditions and material interests. These include a dampening effect on class struggle, a vulnerability to repression, and inability to combine workplace and community struggle. Therefore we should try to organise unions on radically different principles, based on our past experience of struggle, merging the roles of union and party into hybrid political unions. In this case, an anarcha-syndicalist union.

Now last but not least, my disagreements. The problem with all the above, good as it is, is that it all relies on persuading people to get involved in the new union project. Apart from any objective factors, people might choose not to get involved, and then we are stuck. It's too easy to think about the working class as just "the syndicalists" and then a mass of people with no clear ideas, but that isn't the reality. Many would prefer a formal union (or like one former workmate: want a formal union, but not linked to the labour party, and also not an anarchist one or a conservative one either! People are complicated). Many are members of other tendencies: AFed, AWL, SP, and so on. We can't just assume people will get on board when they see anarcha-syndicalism in action. Other tendencies and small unions might not be willing to work with us. Joining and then speaking from within may be the only influence or cooperation we can have. So in my opinion, we need a "plan B" in addition to making an independent anarcha-syndicalist union. (I think we need a lot more "plan B" thinking on the left - no one has ever overthrown *global* capitalism, so it stands to reason we should try several strategies at once in the hope that one of them is successful!)

That Plan B should be an anarchist programme inside the mainstream unions, to reform them from below (ie not via leadership elections or national policy). Trade union branches are the only place I've seen left unity really work in practice (and then only when there's no leadership contest). Instead of leaving entirely, or climbing the greasy pole of TUC bureaucracy, anarchists in mainstream unions should re-organise those unions toward syndicalism. Whether we succeed or not, any achievements can only add to the ability of our class to fight. First, that means making branches directly-democratic and bringing in more participatory democracy. Second, that means encouraging local militancy in defiance of the laws - as has been done in CWU branches - using syndicalist tactics to win unofficial disputes. Third, that means connecting branches together outside the TUC structure. Trades Councils had this role before the TUC was formed, and have proven they can adapt quickly to a revolutionary situation, as in the 1926 general strike. These councils need to be linked together, and moved toward direct democracy using mandated, re-callable delegates instead of representatives. To initiate this plan, all we need is to get a few like minded militants together to share progressive motions and provide mutual support. In summary: reform the unions from below, by pushing union branches and trades councils to use militant syndicalist tactics, and to be directly democratic.

This disagreement is with anarchism in the UK - anarchists in South America have developed strategies such as "social insertion" which are similar to the approach I recommend. This is not a criticism of those anarchists.

Where I disagree with most socialists is that I do not see the use in joining leadership elections. I'm sure you already know the kind of arguments anarchists make against this (time, fairness, conflict of interest, usefulness, disempowerment), so I'll just give my first hand experience. I think I have a much better time in union branches when people know I'm not a threat to their leadership positions. I also have a much better working relationship with different factions than those factions have between each other. Staying out of elections isn't a hard and fast rule - I know anarchists who were so respected by their union branch, that members demanded they take up a post! I've also seen uncontested positions used well when they were taken up with no fuss. But that is all very different to the time and energy put into contesting elections, against other union members who won't be happy about it. I think I've even worked better with paid officials as a result - since I have no interest in unseating them or making national union policy, I am only ever "useful" or else "not their problem".

Thankyou for reading this very lengthy response,

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