What is anarcho-syndicalism: revolutionary unionism

The third part of a series exploring anarcho-syndicalism, its aims and principles, and the practicalities of enacting them in the real world.

Although it isn’t limited to workplace struggles as traditional syndicalism is, industry remains an important battleground for anarcho-syndicalism. After all, it is here that the working class create the wealth of the world, stolen and claimed as property by the parasites of the ruling class.

The social order within which we live is built upon the back of the labour of the working class. It is our work that maintains not only day-to-day life, by keeping the trains running and the shops open, but also the power structures of the state and capital. Collecting taxes, maintaining security in corporate spaces, filling the ranks of the military, and doing the construction which hands over more of the commons to private tyranny. All of this is done by those with nothing to sell but their labour.

Hence the revolutionary potential of organising within the workplace. Done right, it can be not just a means to force meagre concessions from those who profit by our labour, but the key to dismantling capitalism from within.

An IWW cartoon which captures how important the general strike is as a tool to bring about revolution

But how do we reach such a point?

The first thing we need to consider is our objectives when organising within a workplace. Obviously, ultimately, we want a revolution. But, in the more immediate term, what we want to do is mobilise the workers.

This is not done by getting “them” to sign up to an organisation and play follow the leader. Instead, we need to be encouraging and building a culture of self-organisation and independence from bureaucratic structures. The workers are not “them” but “us” – the rank-and-file of the workplace, doing a job for the primary aim of putting a roof over our heads and food on our table.

Thus, barred from membership of any serious anarcho-syndicalist organisation would be those whose roles and/or interests are incompatible with the interests of the broader working class. For example;

  • scabs
  • police and prison officers
  • those with the power to restrain or imprison in detention centres
  • bailiffs
  • full-time trade union officials
  • officers or Executives within political parties
  • those with the power or primary role to hire and fire

The reasons for most of these exclusions should be obvious and uncontroversial.

I will deal with scabs in more depth in a separate essay.

My argument about the role of the prison system in suppressing the working class can be found here.

A broader discussion on agents of the state such as police and prison officers can be found here. There, I made the point that revolt amongst the police and the armed forces will be a vital element of any future revolution. However, due to the tactic of the police using plants and agent provocateurs to undermine revolutionary or potentially revolutionary organisations, it shouldn’t need stating why until that point they should not be welcomed with open arms into an anarcho-syndicalist organisation.

The problem with full-time trade union officials is that their first loyalty is to the union bureaucracy, being their employer, over the rank-and-file workers. After all, for them worker organisation – although it may have started as a passion – is now little more than a job.

Returning to the primary question of organising within the workforce, the next question is one of tactics. Obviously, given the diverse nature of work in modern times, there is no one exact formula for doing this. However, broadly, it is safe to say that nearly all places of employment fit one of three scenarios, each of which require a quite different approach.

Workplaces with a strong union presence

The positive point about workforces which are already strongly organised is that they are willing, at the least, to defend their existing pay and conditions and stand up for themselves. The downside is that their struggles are led by union bureaucrats, and thus easily switched off if they have the potential to be revolutionary.

The anarcho-syndicalist FAU - it was their success in organising cinema workers in Berlin that led the mainstream German unions to collaborate with the state in an attempt to suppress them

This isn’t to say that anarcho-syndicalists should try to organise a rival union or to set the workforce off against the stewards.

This would be counterproductive, and likely unsuccesful, in the first place. It would also alienate the stewards who, ultimately, are workers too. They are distinct from full-time officials, as they still do the job of the ordinary worker and know first hand the issues people have at the coal-face.

Thus, a somewhat different approach is called for.

As 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 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.

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.

Ultimately, “there is no reason that we can’t reject the hierarchy and bureaucracy of the mainstream” trade union movement “whilst recognising those workers who agitate and struggle within those parameters as comrades.”

Otherwise, all we can do is “stand within our revolutionary ghetto, wave our flags, and hope that in time people “see the light” and flock to join us.”

Unorganised workplaces

Within unorganised workforces, the situation is a lot more straightforward. With no mainstream union in place, anarcho-syndicalists are free to put their ideas forward without the worry of their being lost under the weight of a bureaucracy.

In this case, wherever possible, the best way forward is to set up our own independent unions.

Members of the ZSP, the Polish section of the International Workers' Association (IWA), on a picket line

The basic principles under which such an organisation should be built are laid out by the Solidarity Federation in their industrial strategy;

Rank and File Control

Decisions should be made collectively. This means they are made by mass meetings, not by officials in union offices. These mass meetings include all those in the workplace, regardless of union membership. It will not, however, include scabs or managers.

Anyone we elect to negotiate with management should have a mandate from the workforce that gives them clear guidance on what is and is not acceptable. Mass meetings of workers need to be able to recall all delegates.

Direct Action

Direct action at work means strikes, go-slows, working-to-rule, occupations and boycotts. We are opposed to the alternative which is ‘partnership’ with bosses. Workers can only win serious concessions from management when industrial action is used or when bosses fear it might be.

Solidarity

Solidarity with other workers is the key to victory. Workers should support each others’ disputes despite the anti-trade union laws. We need to approach other workers directly for their support. ‘Don’t Cross Picket Lines!’

Control of Funds

Strike funds need to be controlled by the workers themselves. Officials will refuse to fund unlawful solidarity action. Union bureaucrats use official backing and strike pay to turn action on and off like a tap.

Unions use a large proportion of their political funds on sponsoring parliamentary candidates. Backing the Labour Party is not in the interests of workers. We should also not fall into the trap of backing so-called ‘socialist’ candidates. The Parliamentary system is about working class people giving up power and control, not exercising it.

It needs to be recognised that such a union, including all or most of the workers in any given place of work, would by its nature not be anarcho-syndicalist. However, if organised according to the principles outlined above, then on the basis of bread and butter issues such as pay and conditions this shouldn’t be problematic.

The most succesful example of such organisation, by far, is the IWW’s Starbucks Union. They have been able to organise workers across the world, and a Global Day of Action saw actions against the chain in 20 countries globally. And the example is worth following.

Beyond the bread-and-butter of the union, the issue of social change arises. Obviously, as anarcho-syndicalists, we want more than just a slightly “fairer” deal from those reaping the fruits of our labour, we want a society wherein the workers control industry and communities control their own resources – that is, anarchist communism.

Not every worker is going to support such a goal. Indeed, more often than not anarcho-syndicalists will be in a minority where they work. But they can argue for such a broader and more long-term perspective, and build support for more revolutionary goals, through the exchange of information and ideas.

The aim, as SolFed put it, “is not to control the workplace organisation but to put forward an anarcho-syndicalist perspective in the meetings of the workplace organisation and attempt to gain broad support for our aims and principles.”

This is by no means an easy task. Those ideas, spread by parachuted-in outsiders with a party line, will fail to win many people over. But, offered by those within the workforce, who have stood together in struggle against poor conditions or management bullying, they carry a greater weight.

The casualisation of work and disposable workforces

In the modern age, with the increasing casualisation of work, there will be some workforces wherein organisation is impossible.

One example of this is marketing. The people who knock door-to-door, or stand out on the streets in the city centre, trying to get you to switch electricity supplier or donate to a charity are most often part of a disposable workforce.

On the one hand, those who sign up are often only looking to do the job as a stop-gap before something else comes up, or to make a quick buck. On the other, the sheer number of people applying for the jobs and willing to do them (perhaps because they believe the hype or because they don’t know what it entails) allows the employer to drop troublesome workers with relative ease.

Clearly, in such places, it will be hard to build up a stable union membership because of the sheer volume of people passing through. And any such attempt would only paint a target on the organisers back.

A picket outside Subway in solidarity with a worker fired for being pregnant - actions such as this are vital for building a culture of solidarity between workers and combating the casualisation of labour

The SolFed industrial strategy advises that in these situations “we should just call workers assemblies when a dispute arises.”

This is all we can do in the immediate term. But the upside is that the temporary nature of such jobs means few (if any) will have a mortgage or anything equally substantial riding on them. The point will be to maintain organisation and militancy elsewhere to attack increasing casualisation and ensure that more jobs don’t end up at the same point.

Class consciousness and the revolutionary general strike

In the long term, the aim of such organisation is to build the militancy and class consciousness of the working class. Then, hopefully, they will have the power and the will to use the general strike as a tool of revolution.

The Spanish Revolution of 1936 was the product of decades of such revolutionary organising. As were the self-organised soviets of the Russian revolution, before Kronstadt. The sharing of information and ideas, as well as the practice of self-organisation and militancy in more short-term struggles, form a neccesary part of the build up towards revolution.

After all, it cannot happen overnight, and in order to stay true to libertarian principles it must be enacted by the workers themselves.

Is this a pipe dream? Not neccesarily. Though they were short-lived, the examples of anarchy put into practice in Spain, Russia, and even the Paris Commune of 1871, show the full potential of workers’ self-organisation. The point is to take on board that which was done right and to learn from the mistakes in any future revolutionary action.

Even if an anarchist revoltion were ultimately impossible, I’ll happily second the sentiments of Mikhail Bakunin;

By striving to do the impossible, man has always achieved what is possible. Those who have cautiously done no more than they believed possible have never taken a single step forward.

And faced with the class war, the only direction we want to go is forward.

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  1. […] What is anarcho-syndicalism: revolutionary unionism (propertyistheft.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] question is how we reach such a society. In the post on revolutionary unionism, I talked about “the revolutionary potential of organising within the workplace” and […]

  3. […] 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 than a […]



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