Fighting for ourselves - preview

Fighting for ourselves - preview

Preview excerpts of the forthcoming text by the Solidarity Federation setting out the background and the tasks ahead for anarcho-syndicalists in the 21st century.

In this post we are excited to present some excerpts from Fighting for ourselves: anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle, by the Solidarity Federation (‘SolFed’). The pamphlet will be officially released in full in October and SolFed will distribute paper copies at the London Anarchist Bookfair on October 27th. SolFed is a revolutionary union initiative based in the UK. They’re affiliated with the International Workers Association, an anarcho-syndicalist federation of unions and organizations of which the CNT in Spain and the FAU in Germany are members. Some of us in Recomposition know members of SolFed through posting on libcom.org or visits to the UK and we take what they have to say seriously. This feeling is also mutual for SolFed when it comes to the IWW, as they have adopted the Organizer Training we use here in North America and tailored it to their needs.

In February of 2009, Brighton SolFed wrote a pamphlet called Strategy & Struggle: anarcho-syndicalism in the 21st century. It provoked quite a bit of discussion within SolFed, as well as the wider English speaking anarchist/communist movement. Taking internal criticisms on, the pamphlet was withdrawn and work began on an improved and more extensive piece.

Fighting for ourselves: anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle is that document. Fairly extensive for a pamphlet, Fighting for ourselves includes a broad history of the workers movement, from the first proto-union groups started to the German councilists, to the CNT and FORA, to the historical IWW and ‘workers parties’. It identifies these groups and currents in relation to what they’ve learned from and how this is incorporated into their world view and action.

We think the new pamphlet is very good. We’re eventually going to write up and post a review of the entire pamphlet, but before we do that, we’ve gotten permission to post some excerpts from it that we think readers of our blog will find interesting. We post these here because we think these excerpts are interesting in themselves, and even more so because we want to encourage people to read the whole pamphlet once it comes out.

The first excerpt is about the historical IWW. To be clear, we don’t think this section is worth reproducing merely because we’re members and love the ‘old timey’ stuff, but because it mentions things of some significance today. Also the way the old IWW is portrayed has ramifications on what happens in the IWW of 2012, similarly probably to how the way the CNT of the 1930s is portrayed has effects on the CNT of today.

One of these things is, instead of parroting the line that the union was ‘apolitical’, it sees that the ‘direct actionist’ members seeing politics expressed better through economic or direct action. Another aspect that’s briefly acknowledged is the One Big Union concept and that there has been nuance and variations on how this was interpreted and viewed.

Finally, unlike many other historical accounts, it confirms, yes, the IWW still exists, and it is still organizing. Along with the One Big Union concept (which referenced recent articles in the Industrial Worker) and the direct unionism debate, it’s a reminder that what the IWW does and says has importance, and that people many thousands of miles away pay attention. We in the IWW, should, in turn, pay attention to them.

One reason we should pay attention to SolFed is that their vision of a union is directly relevant to current discussions that IWW members are having about organizing, as the second excerpt demonstrates. Many people in the IWW have advocated against the IWW signing contracts with no strike clauses and have tried to develop noncontractual approaches to organization. In the second excerpt, SolFed lay out two categories for understanding unions, “the associational function” of unions and “the representative function” of unions. Elsewhere in the pamphlet, they describe most unions today as demonstrating the “domination of the representative function over the associational one.” We think contractual organizing creates or encourages this domination of representation over association, which is part of why we’re against contractualism in the IWW. Rejecting a representative approach to organizing, SolFed call for building unions that embody “the associational function of a union, stripped of any representative functions.” This is what we think IWW unionism should aspire to be.

First excerpt, about the IWW

[S]yndicalist ideas were also taking root amongst the working class in North America. The IWW was founded in 1905 amidst violent class conflict. “Few strikes took place without loss of life. The resulting bitterness had made the prospect of fundamental change appealing to most workers.”# Much like the CGT, it espoused a revolutionary intent and oriented itself to the whole working class, not just particular crafts or trades. They called this model ‘industrial unionism’, where all the workers in one industry, whatever their job, belonged to the same industrial union, and in turn these industrial unions all belonged to the ‘One Big Union’ of the IWW. At the time only a minority of workers were organised, and the IWW set out to 'organise the unorganised'. From its very beginnings, the IWW was also a racially mixed union at a time of widespread segregation. ‘Big Bill’ Haywood issued a statement of intent at the founding conference, declaring that “we are here today to confederate the workers … into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.” [1]

On the participants at the founding conference, historian Patrick Renshaw writes that they were not representative of the working class as a whole, but rather the radical elements of it.
“Most of them came from unions that, for one reason or another, were at loggerheads with the AF of L [American Federation of Labour]. They were all radicals, and most of the leading personalities had been influenced by socialism of varying kinds, though this was often overlaid with syndicalism or anarchism. They shared a common conviction that the craft form of unionism, represented by the AF of L, should be replaced by industrial organisation.” [2]

Consequently, the IWW represented an uneasy truce between militant unionists, anarchists, syndicalists and party socialists, with Marxism a major influence (much of their famous preamble paraphrases passages from Marx [3]).

“Tensions between revolutionaries and reformers manifested itself in countless disagreements over tactics. The most bitter of these within the ranks of the IWW itself involved those who urged the IWW to have a political arm and those who argued that the basic power of workers was at the point of production.” [4]

The basic fault line was between those who wished for the IWW to be an economic organisation linked to a separate political wing, and those who argued for direct industrial action as the means of social and political change. The most notable of the former tendency was Daniel DeLeon of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), who wanted the IWW’s industrial muscle to back the party’s electoral ambitions. Opposing this view were the various shades of direct actionists, who argued that the political aims of the union, enshrined in the preamble as including “the abolition of the wage system”, were best pursued on the industrial front and thus that the IWW was both a political and an economic organisation at the same time. [5] This battle was settled in favour of the direct actionists in 1908, with the expulsion of the DeLeonists. Subsequently, the IWW engaged in a series of high-profile free speech fights, confirming this attitude to pursuing political and social goals through direct action rather than recourse to party politics.

The Wobblies, as they were known, grew in size and reputation off the back of several high profile struggles, most notably the aforementioned free speech fights and the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, where the IWW had only a few hundred members but exerted great influence. But they found that membership tended to swell dramatically with struggles, and then ebb away. It’s been said that “many a worker who did not carry the red membership card or had kept up dues payments was still to be counted a Wobbly.” [6] The IWW was opposed on principle to the kind of incentives for member retention pursued by more mainstream unions, such as health or insurance benefits, and instead opted to deploy a job delegate system. This entailed travelling organisers authorised to collect dues and form union locals amongst the highly mobile, casual workforce of the early 20th century United States. Consequently, “a local could exist in the hat or satchel of a mobile delegate.” [7]

This was an innovative model and one which refused to succumb to the temptation to stabilise membership against the ebbs and flows of struggle with a host of member services. But it also brings to the fore a dual meaning of the term ‘One Big Union’. On the one hand, this meant ‘One Big Union’ as opposed to ‘many sectional unions’. This conception was perfectly compatible with the ever-shifting membership of the IWW, and in fact made sense as casual workers could simply transfer from one industrial union to another within the IWW if they changed industries. However, the other interpretation was that ‘One Big Union’ meant all, or at least a substantial proportion of, workers needed to be brought into the ranks of the union for the purposes of a revolutionary general strike and the transition to industrial democracy:

“[the] industrial unions would fight for gains within the existing system until the IWW was strong enough to call a general strike that would bring all economic activity to a standstill. The condition for returning to work would be the substitution of industrial unions for all business enterprises and governmental agencies. The means of production would then be run by the unions to satisfy social needs rather than private profit.” [8]

The extent to which this was a literal aspiration or a revolutionary myth varies with the Wobbly. Some ‘Wobs’ were unaware of the revolutionary aspect of the IWW when they joined [9] and the reality is that both interpretations coexisted within the IWW. [10] What is clear is that the US government took the revolutionary threat of the IWW seriously enough to launch a brutal wave of repression. Between 1916 and 1918, dues-paying membership soared from 60,000 to 100,000, with influence extending far further than those numbers alone. This also gave the Wobblies a significant cultural influence on the wider working class. In 1917, using damage to war production as the pretext, over 150 leading Wobblies were arrested, tried on spurious charges and given long prison sentences. Union halls were raided by armed vigilantes and shoot-outs ensued. Of course, only the Wobblies were arrested and sentenced to long jail terms – or simply lynched, as in the case of Wesley Everest. [11] The repression broke the IWW as a serious force, and the apparent ‘success’ of the Communist Party in Russia led to a resurgent Communist influence which eventually split the declining organisation in two in 1924. After a period of two rival IWWs (who at times fought in the streets for control of the HQ), the much weakened official IWW continued through the 1920s and 30s under increased anarchist influence, but as an increasingly fragmented and marginal force (though as late as 1936, the IWW on the Philadelphia docks was had the power to prevent a ship leaving with munitions for the Spanish fascists [12]). It survived through the post-war period and remains active today. [13]

Second excerpt, about association and representation

“[Solidarity Federation] identify two distinct meanings bound up in the term ‘union’. The first is simply that of an association of workers, joining together for some common purpose (whatever that may be). In other words, the union is the means by which workers relate to one another. That relationship may be horizontal or hierarchical, usually voluntary but, as in the case of ‘closed shops’ where workers have to join the union, sometimes compulsory. Their association may be long-lasting as in today’s trade unionism, or more transient as in the early, pre-amalgamation unions. The purpose of their association may be simply economic – ‘bread and butter issues’ – or encompass wider social or political goals. We can call this the associational function. This function is a product of the reality of life under capitalism. Individually, workers are powerless. Collectively we have power. Workers needed to defend themselves against the opposing interests of the bosses and have historically organised themselves into combinations such as trade unions in order to do this, realising that workers' strength lay in their association.

The second function, perhaps most familiar in the age of the ‘service provider’ union model, is that of the representation of workers vis-à-vis capital. This usually means management, but sometimes includes politicians and the state, should they decide to intervene in a dispute. We can call this function the representative function. The representative function carries with it certain assumptions. Firstly, it is premised on the legitimacy of the existence of social classes, between which it seeks to mediate. Secondly, in order to gain the right to negotiate on workers’ behalves, representative unions tend to jettison any explicit politics which could put off potential members, since size becomes the all important factor in determining their place in the TUC pecking order (in the UK, this has normally meant outsourcing ‘politics’ to the Labour Party).”
(…)
The desire for economic representation makes perfect sense in the absence of a revolutionary perspective, just as the desire for political representation – i.e. suffrage – makes sense in the absence of an anti-parliamentary perspective. If you are not opposed to the capitalist system, representation within it is the most you can ask for. (…) All the time we hear workers and leftists accusing the trade union leaders of ‘selling out’ and being bureaucratic. This is, of course, true, but anarcho-syndicalists view this as inevitable in organisations which collaborate with capitalism and the state rather than seek to destroy them.

How does this play out in practice? Let us start by looking at the basic building block of any union – the branch. The first thing to note is that the vast majority of branches exist and function away from the workplace, the seat of struggle. Rather than the branch proactively organising in the workplace, activists or workers with specific grievances find the onus on them to initiate contact and maintain channels of communication. This they only do on rare occasions and it is safe to say that most workers only attend branch meetings on a handful of occasions throughout their working lives, if at all. Indeed, internal union surveys show that at any given point only 5% of union members attend branch meetings. Nor is it necessarily the case that even those who attend on a regular basis have much in common. Many unions organise meetings on the basis of where members live. These meetings can consist of groups of people who may not work in the same workplace or even the same industry, the only thing in common being that they happen to belong to the same union. This type of meeting can even be reduced to members just turning up to pay dues.

Even in those few unions that do organise on an industrial basis – one workplace, one union – and thus don’t divide the workforce, union meetings are still dominated, not by workplace matters, but internal union business. The staple diet of such meetings is endless correspondence, various motions, countless elections and nominations for committees, conferences and union positions. What is rarely acknowledged is that these decisions are taken by a tiny minority of members. As decisions are taken further up the union ladder, tens of people acting for hundreds eventually becomes hundreds acting for millions. The culmination of this charade is the block vote where union leaders cast votes on behalf of hundreds of thousands of members on policies, and for people, that the overwhelming majority of members will never have heard of let alone voted for. The trade unions may still have millions of members between them, but in day to day union business it is a minority of officials and activists that speaks for them.

We should also dispel the idea that all branch activists are also involved in the workplace struggle against the bosses. For a start, in many unions branch secretaries are required to be on full time release, and so never see the workplace. And even when they are not officially full time, they can end up sitting on so many committees and holding so many positions they do not have the time for something as mundane as work. Then there are those who are active in the union but have no base in the workplace. These people can even be on the so called 'left' of the union and will argue for all sorts of motions to be passed from 'troops out' to freeing Palestine, but do little to organise in the workplace. Indeed it could be argued that unions act as a check on militancy, even at branch level. How often do angry workers turn to the branch for support and advice over incidents that have happened at work, only to have all that anger deflected away from taking effective action by branch officials promising to 'get something done' by contacting head office or bringing in a full timer? (…)

[T]endencies towards bureaucracy and the development of institutional interests separate from the workers themselves are natural developments of the representative function. However, they are also increasingly enforced by law. In the UK, industrial action is only lawful if it is preceded by a properly conducted ballot, employers are given sufficient notice, and a host of legal technicalities are followed. Unions are legally liable for damages arising from unlawful action, and consequently become even more conservative in authorising ballots and calling off industrial action at any hint of a legal challenge. The problems with trade unions don’t start with the law, but union legislation has further crippled effective workplace organisation whilst strengthening the bureaucratic tendencies that had already developed.”

Notes:

1. Quoted in Patrick Renshaw, The Wobblies: the story of the IWW and syndicalism in the United States, p.46.
(Return to text.)

2. Patrick Renshaw, The Wobblies: the story of the IWW and syndicalism in the United States, p.47. (Return to text.)
3. IWW, Preamble to the IWW cconstitution: http://www.iww.org/en/culture/official/preamble.shtml (Return to text.)
4. Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer (eds), Solidarity forever: an oral history of the IWW, p.5. (Return to text.)
5. Many of the anarchists described this as ‘anti-political’, equating politics with party politics and the state. We use the term in a more everyday sense, that someone who is an anarchist has political beliefs. (Return to text.)
6. Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer (eds), Solidarity forever: an oral history of the IWW, p.9. (Return to text.)
7. Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer (eds), Solidarity forever: an oral history of the IWW, p.8. (Return to text.)
8. Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer (eds), Solidarity forever: an oral history of the IWW, p.3. (Return to text.)
9. For instance, see Fred Hansen's recollections: "I didn't know about the revolutionary part at first, but as soon as I got in the organisation, I started reading an awful lot – not only IWW literature, but the communist literature, the anarchist literature, anybody's literature." In Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer (eds), Solidarity forever: an oral history of the IWW, p.189. (Return to text.)
10. A recent series of pieces in the IWW’s Industrial Worker argues there’s at least four interpretations of the term ‘One Big Union’, some of which complement and some of which contradict one another: 1) every worker or most workers join the IWW; 2) a vision of a universalism/libertarian socialist principles for the IWW; 3) a vision of a new society (where unions run things instead of states, not unlike Marx’s comment about replacing governance of people with administration of things); and 4) a vision for revolutionary change (the class united). See http://libcom.org/library/industrial-unionism-one-big-unionism (Return to text.)
11. 1919: The murder of Wesley Everest: http://libcom.org/history/articles/murder-frank-everett (Return to text.)
12. Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer (eds), Solidarity forever: an oral history of the IWW, p.179.
(Return to text.)
13. See http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/unions/iww/timeline.htm for a timeline up to 1983. The IWW has recently enjoyed something of a resurgence, most notably with the Starbucks Workers Union. As a living organisation in much changed circumstances, this is omitted from the analysis here. Many of the debates and contradictions of old live on. However, the contemporary debate of most interest to anarcho-syndicalists is that around the notion of ‘direct unionism’, which advocates a form of direct action unionism rather than reliance on representation and contracts. See http://libcom.org/tags/direct-unionism for a developing archive. See also the Recomposition blog, which contains much of the ‘direct unionism’ material as well as accounts of contemporary workplace activity along direct action lines: http://libcom.org/blog/recomposition
(Return to text.)

Comments

Iskra
Sep 5 2012 18:26

Sounds interesting. I've been waiting for this for a quite a long time. Hope to read it soon smile

klas batalo
Sep 5 2012 20:04

Nice preview. Look forward to more.

Is this gonna be the Anarcho-Syndicalist version of Fighting for our lives? grin

Juan Conatz
Sep 6 2012 22:37

Reading through the pamphlet, it makes me think that a U.S. version is needed.

syndicalist
Sep 6 2012 23:12
Juan Conatz wrote:
Reading through the pamphlet, it makes me think that a U.S. version is needed.

I suspect there's more diversity of views in the US then in the UK.

Nate
Sep 7 2012 03:54

Juan, I agree. I'd like to see one that makes the IWW its center of gravity in the way that SolFed is the center of gravity for this one. In the run up to that it might make sense to lay out like particular issues people could write stand-alone pieces on, which could later be edited to make up a long pamphlet. That'd make it less of an all-or-nothing process, and could make it so that more people could collaborate too. Like people could write their own parts and stuff, and then eventually on person could edit it all into one thing.

Juan Conatz
Sep 7 2012 09:10
syndicalist wrote:
I suspect there's more diversity of views in the US then in the UK.

Not sure what you mean..

ATLanarchist
Sep 7 2012 11:17

Nate, that's a great idea--i would love to see that happen!

syndicalist
Sep 7 2012 12:53

self deleted

Jim Clarke
Sep 7 2012 16:08

I'm looking forward to reading the Recomposition review when it comes out, and hopefully this pamphlet will help with promoting revolutionary unionism in the English-speaking world (and ideally beyond). It would probably be worth waiting to see how this goes down before rushing a US pamphlet out, I know Fighting for ourselves talks about UK history a bit, but the lessons it draws from the events can apply pretty much anywhere.

Chilli Sauce
Sep 7 2012 16:31
syndicalist wrote:
Juan Conatz wrote:
Reading through the pamphlet, it makes me think that a U.S. version is needed.

I suspect there's more diversity of views in the US then in the UK.

Or recomp could write it.... Alternatively, the Direct Unionist folks could come back together for such a project.