Anarcho-syndicalism and the limits of trade unionism

One statement that I quite often make is that I’m not a trade unionist. This can confuse those who know me, because I am a member and active rep within the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). However, though I believe in worker organisation as a part of class struggle and the challenge to capitalism, this doesn’t mean I believe in that specific philosophy as its best form. I’m not a trade unionist – I’m an anarcho-syndicalist.

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

The only question, then, is one of limitations. In the post cited above, I said that “As well as building up [specifically anarchist] groups, we need to recognise the great potential of ordinary unions if only their members can reclaim them.” This was perhaps the wrong turn of phrase, as it implies that I believe trade unions can be reformed, and emerge as the kind of revolutionary unions that anarcho-syndicalists advocate. This isn’t the case, for a number of reasons.

Revolutionary unions, such as the German FAU, cannot be created from the reformation of traditional trade unions

The role of the trade unions within capitalism

The main limitation of trade unions was summed up by Anton Pannekoek in his essay Trade Unionism;

Certainly, trade union action is class struggle. There is a class antagonism in capitalism — capitalists and workers have opposing interests. Not only on the question of conservation of capitalism, but also within capitalism itself, with regard to the division of the total product. The capitalists attempt to increase their profits, the surplus value, as much as possible, by cutting down wages and increasing the hours or the intensity of labour. On the other hand, the workers attempt to increase their wages and to shorten their hours of work.

The price of labour power is not a fixed quantity, though it must exceed a certain hunger minimum; and it is not paid by the capitalists of their own free will. Thus this antagonism becomes the object of a contest, the real class struggle. It is the task, the function of the trade unions to carry on this fight.

Trade unionism was the first training school in proletarian virtue, in solidarity as the spirit of organised fighting. It embodied the first form of proletarian organised power. In the early English and American trade unions this virtue often petrified and degenerated into a narrow craft-corporation, a true capitalistic state of mind. It was different, however, where the workers had to fight for their very existence, where the utmost efforts of their unions could hardly uphold their standard of living, where the full force of an energetic, fighting, and expanding capitalism attacked them. There they had to learn the wisdom that only the revolution could definitely save them.

So there comes a disparity between the working class and trade unionism. The working class has to look beyond capitalism. Trade unionism lives entirely within capitalism and cannot look beyond it. Trade unionism can only represent a part, a necessary but narrow part, in the class struggle. And it develops aspects which bring it into conflict with the greater aims of the working class.

Thus, the key flaw of trade unionism is the flaw of all representative politics. A top-down structure develops almost of necessity, and the leaders “sit in conferences with the capitalists, bargaining over wages and hours, pitting interests against interests, just as the opposing interests of the capitalist corporations are weighed one against another.” As such, “they learn to understand the capitalist’s position just as well as the worker’s position; they have an eye for “the needs of industry”; they try to mediate.” That mediation means that they are not the voice of organised labour, but have the duty “to regulate class conflicts and to secure industrial peace.”

Brendan Barber, head of the British Trade Union Congress, is just one of many prominent bureaucrats whose role is to regulate class struggle and defuse the antagonism between the working class and the ruling class

Beyond the interests of the working class, labour leaders “own existence is indissolubly connected with the existence of the unions.” Thus, when “class conflicts become sharper,” they risk losing “the only source of security and power” in “the financial power of the union, perhaps its existence.” Thus, “they must act as spokesmen of the employers to force the capitalists’ terms upon the workers.” And “when the workers insist on fighting in opposition to the decision of the unions,” we reach the point where “the union’ s power must be used as a weapon to subdue the workers.”

For proof of this, you can examine innumerable sell-outs of the rank-and-file by trade union leaders. The Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) is a case study in the tensions between member militancy and leadership sell-out. But perhaps most revealing is the situation many trade unionists look to with nostalgia and longing – the closed shop.

In a closed shop, workers must join the union within a particular workplace in order to gain and keep employment. Its compulsory nature alone would raise objections amongst anarcho-syndicalists, who argue for voluntary workers’ organisation – not only on the basis of free choice, but also because such organisations have no requirement to respond to the interests of those with no choice but to be a member. It is also the partnership with capital taken to its extreme, the bureaucracy of the union essentially taking on the role of maintaining worker discipline and managing expectations in lieu of the bosses having to do it. The union is thus not just a mediator but middle management.

Returning to the broader question of trade unions, it is evident that they are not – and cannot be – revolutionary organisations. For one thing, if union leaders are willing to betray their members when they are simply pushing a more militant agenda, this will go ten-fold if they are seeking to restructure the organisation for rank-and-file control. It would perhaps even unite the right and left of the union in their efforts to extinguish the threat of self-organisation. Other approaches are needed.

The limits of trade union activity

So what, if trade unions will always be dependent upon the prevalence of capitalism to exist and thrive, is the point of having anything to do with them?

The answer, simply, is the rank-and-file. In Pannekoek’s words, the union “is not simply an assembly of single workers; it becomes an organised body, like a living organism, with its own policy, its own character, its own mentality, its own traditions, its own functions.” Thus, turning a trade union into a revolutionary union is a near-impossibility, given the interests it develops as an entity.

However, it is those “single workers” who are important. For they are part of the wider working class, whose interests lie not in a better managed, “nicer” capitalism, but beyond it – in a free, classless society. As such, within workplaces already organised by mainstream trade unions, an anarcho-syndicalist would seek to promote mass participation and collective decision-making.

This is done as a member or a rep of such unions for a number of reasons. As well as the protection being a union member affords in the immediate term, and the infrastructure already in place to deal with individual member issues (as mentioned earlier), there is the fact that trying to build a breakaway union could have detrimental effects such as splitting the workforce during a dispute, or union scabbing. Whilst we advocate rank-and-file independence from the bureaucracy, but this means nothing if done to the cost of class unity.

The limits of such activity are, ultimately, up to individual discretion. As an arbitrary measure, I would say that they correspond to the limits of rank-and-file influence within the unions.

So, quite obviously, a full-time official who is answerable to the bureaucracy and who makes decisions with no democratic mandate is beyond these limits. This goes for those appointed to their positions by an employer, but also those (such as general secretaries) who are elected. After all, their election is parliamentary in style – they are representatives, chosen to make decisions on behalf of the members, rather than delegates chosen to voice decisions made directly by the members.

Beyond that, I think it’s a case of what roles within the union structure you give credit to. Personally, I’m off the opinion that going beyond a branch level puts you in murky waters. This is not to say that it should be avoided at all costs, and certainly you should look to make connections beyond your own locale. But this should be with a recognition that, even if you still hold the same job and wage as other workers, the further you get from the grass roots, the closer you get to “becom[ing] the slave of [the] capitalistic task of securing industrial peace — now at the cost of the workers, though [you] meant to serve them as best [you] could.”

During the recent student protests, Aaron Porter became the epitome of the union bureaucrat trying to contain discontent, whilst the rank-and-file of his National Union of Students showed it was possibly to break away from - rather than just replace - the official leadership fulfilling that role

Revolutionary unions

From an anarcho-syndicalist perspective, the alternative to this approach is revolutionary unionism. A rank-and-file movement, across communities as well as workplaces, based on self-organisation, direct democracy, and a decentralised, federal structure.

I have explained this idea in depth in the series What is anarcho-syndicalism? But, if trade unions cannot be transformed – as it is political alchemy – into revolutionary unions, how do we reach that point?

Within communities, and unorganised workplaces, they can of course emerge from scratch. But where there is already a union presence, and particularly a strong one, trying to form a separate grouping and asking people to join will only cause splits, as already stated. That is why anarcho-syndicalists agitate within the trade unions. And it is precisely from that agitation that such new forms of organisation can emerge.

Making the arguments for a bottom-up structure, and for collective decision-making on the basis of workers assembly is only the start. Ultimately, we want to put that into practice.

This starts to emerge when we reach a point where we are able to call such mass assemblies, with all of those in the workplace – barring obviously scabs and management – taking part. Once this happens, we can see the rank-and-file of the union break away from the chains of top-down bureaucracy and act autonomously.

This will undoubtedly incur the wrath of management and union bosses alike, from which we will see union power attempt to pacify worker militancy. But, by organising in this way, workers gain a glimpse of their true collective strength and the confidence to combine and stand up for themselves without having to look to leaders or “representatives.” From which, the first spark of revolutionary union flares up.

This is by no means a guaranteed formula for creating such a spark. By definition, no such thing can exist for the creation of anarcho-syndicalist structures. But there are basic principles and ideas, which people can build upon, and in doing so stretch the limits of workers’ ambitions beyond the capital-partnership of trade unionism.

4 Responses to “Anarcho-syndicalism and the limits of trade unionism”
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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by . and Anarchoblogs, Phil Dickens. Phil Dickens said: PiT: Anarcho-syndicalism and the limits of trade unionism […]

  2. […] Phil has an interesting post on anarcho-sydicalism and its connections to trade unionism. […]

  3. […] previously on the limits of trade unionism, I cited the Communication Workers’ Union as one example of the contradiction between member […]

  4. […] 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 strict […]

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