Add new comment

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 -… (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: . 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,

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.