On participation in mainstream trade unions

Anarchists, particularly anarcho-syndicalists, are often highly critical of both the form and function of mainstream trade unions. Perhaps the most incisive critique comes from a postal worker, reflecting on the sell-out by the Communication Worker’s Union (CWU) for The Other Campaign;

Because the leaders of the CWU are so remote from the daily lives of the people they’re supposed to represent, it is only natural that they feel at home sitting around the table with top level managers. The massive salaries and expenses these Wimbledon based hacks receive for allegedly looking after the interests of the membership means they have very little in common with us.

But what of the ordinary workers involved in these trade unions? Unlike the full-time bureaucrats, the membership of any trade union is made up of working class people trying to get by on an ordinary wage. The vast majority of union officials – office reps, shop stewards, convenors, health & safety coordinators, etc – are also workers and are involved out of a sincere belief in the value of worker organisation.

Often, they can see for themselves the corruption caused by power and privilege. Many are disillusioned by the union leadership, but hold fast because they believe that the union movement is the only way that they can credibly advance the interests of themselves and their fellow workers.

However, this basic fact is ignored by too many left-wing critiques of the movement. There is a worrying tendency towards “revolutionary ghettoism,” wherein it is entirely acceptable to denigrate workers if they do not adhere closely to revolutionary values, or if they don’t quote Marx enough. This is particularly prevalent amongst more middle class socialists and anarchists. I am sorry to make such a sweeping generalisation, given that the middle class is a social construct created as a buffer against working class unrest and these people deserve credit for taking up the cause despite the relative privilege they live in.

The vast majority of trade union reps are sincere activists, still connected to their workplaces and doing excellent work at a grassroots level.

Unfortunately, the generalisation seems to hold true. Seeing middle class Trotskyists lead a chant of “we are black, white, Asian, and we’re Jews … and we’re gay” in the midst of an all-white antifascist demonstration is embarrassing. Having them denounce workers for the policies of their bosses is an outright insult. Take, for example, this comment on an Indymedia article about the British airways cabin crew strikes;

which BA cabin crew was going to deport Hussein to Greece then?
15.03.2010 21:42

Benjamin, friend of people in Calais, apparently

Whichever pilot, whichever cabin crew from BA enables a deportation is scum, and should be treated as such.

Unless Unite agree to require members to disengage from facilitating deportation proceedings, we should ALL be VERY wary of engaging with them!


As another commenter noted, it is a mistake to “assume that none of us oppose the system that we are part of.” Unfortunately, such a revolutionary purist approach is all too common, with “anarchists” denouncing the PCS strikes to defend public services and jobs because they are part of the state apparatus (which I specifically rebutted here) being another example. As one trade unionist friend of mine put it, “whilst people are worried about their jobs and fighting cuts, these people are calling officials standing for election ‘sell-outs’ because they didn’t mention Marxism in their election address! They’re just completely out of touch.”

There are, as stated, perfectly valid critiques of reformist trade unionism that can, and must, be made. But simply going on the attack – especially from the perspective informed entirely on theory rather than practice – is only going to make people think (probably rightly) that you’re not worth bothering with. Likewise, asking them all to simply detach from their respective unions isn’t likely going to win many people over. So what do we do?

The important point is that, if you believe in something strongly enough, you should lead by example. Workers are more likely to be convinced of the merits of anarcho-syndicalism by seeing the results it can achieve rather than by reading a theoretical tract. Organising is vital, and if sustained action and recruitment can feed off each other to create a cycle of growth.

But this should not just take place within specifically anarchist organisations. Mainstream trade unions, despite their flaws, have all the apparatus at hand to deal with the majority of day-to-day workers’ issues – disciplinary procedures, heath and safety, sickness / absence, and so forth – as well as a committed core of activists hampered in their potential only by the union leadership. Whilst the ultimate goal must be to get such people engaged in anarchist struggles, popular mobilisation is still possible within the union structures as well. As the postal worker cited at the beginning of this article notes, “it should be borne in mind that the national strikes of 2007 and 2009 were forced onto the CWU leadership by countless small, local disputes.” Pressure from ordinary workers can force the hand of those in power – indeed, that is the very premise of the anarchist class struggle!

Where should trade union participation begin (and end) for anarchists?

Before I explore that issue, I should declare an interest. I am, myself, both an anarcho-syndicalist and a trade union representative. I’m an ordinary worker, and I earn £5,000 below the average national wage for my efforts, but I also operate as a steward and a health and safety rep in my workplace. I have stood on picket lines in a hi-vis jacket and an armband which says “official picket.” The thoughts presented here are the result of a lot of self-examination on this fact and how my anarcho-syndicalist principles way up against my activity as a union rep, which began before I reached the political position that I hold now.

The lessons of history, particularly of Spain in 1936, tell us that the idea of anarchist bureaucrats is a bad one. Whether it’s within government or within a trade union hierarchy, power corrupts, not least because the privilege it offers generates individual interests which clash with working class interests. This is true even for those who came from the working class, and is not muted by one holding of anarchist ideas. As such, the idea of anarchists as full-time presidents, secretaries, or officers is a bad one.

Derek Simpson, Joint General Secretary of Unite, attempts to appeal to both the xenophobia that divides and weakens the working class and the gutter press which constantly attacks working class resistance against the bosses

This does not suggest that anarchists should withdraw from activities of the union altogether. If our central premise is activism and organisation by the rank-and-file, it would be hypocritical of us not to take part. In the position of a rep, steward, or convenor, we are able to engage in the ongoing struggles faced by those we work with, whilst also promoting a more grassroots and libertarian approach. It is unlikely, as I said before, that we will simply see a mass exodus of workers towards anarcho-syndicalist organisations such as the Solidarity Federation. As well as building up such groups, we need to recognise the great potential of ordinary unions if only their members can reclaim them. This is by no means an easy task. But if we can demonstrate that there are people who offer valid criticisms of the union leadership whilst refusing to back down from the struggle itself, we can make a powerful argument to workers which simply doesn’t exist in middle class, theoretical critiques of the movement.

Anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism are not dogmas. They are ideas. The former is the idea that workers should control industry and that communities should control their own resources. The latter is the idea that organisation and struggle by the working class, on the streets and on the picket lines, is the best way to achieve that end. There are more details, but that is the essential crux of the matter.

If we want to put those ideas into practice, then we have to do so in the real world not in a revolutionary ghetto. Talking to other workers, particularly other organised and radical workers, you can often find the same ideas. Though details may differ, unless we are talking with a committed party apparatchik, we should be able to discuss and even argue over those details without the sectarian fallout that so often paralyses the left. In the specific case of the union movement, there is no reason that we can’t reject the hierarchy and bureaucracy of the mainstream whilst recognising those workers who agitate and struggle within those parameters as comrades.

The alternative is to stand within our revolutionary ghetto, wave our flags, and hope that in time people “see the light” and flock to join us.

4 Responses to “On participation in mainstream trade unions”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] structures and mass meetings of workers over back-room deals by bureaucrats. This needs to be the approach within established unions as well. A strong anarcho-syndicalist voice inside can speak to the great many trade unionists who […]

  2. […] I expounded in On participation in the mainstream trade unions; Mainstream trade unions, despite their flaws, have all the apparatus at hand to deal with the […]

  3. […] other posts, both here and over at Truth, Reason & Liberty, I have strongly advocated anarcho-syndicalist participation within trade unions. I still believe that, and still for the same reasons. Namely, that “mainstream trade unions, […]

  4. […] depth how an anarcho-syndicalist would operate in a workplace organised by a mainstream trade union here, here, and here. But it is worth remembering that these are my own thoughts on the matter rather […]

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