Thinking about unions: association and representation

Association means getting organised

A discussion document (1/2) I wrote a few months back, which may be of interest in light of the 'Direct Unionism' debate.

Anarcho-syndicalist criticisms of trade unionism are often scathing and incisive, but are weaker or non-existent when it comes to the bureaucratisation and class collaboration of ostensibly revolutionary unions – most famously the CNT’s participation in the Spanish government during the (counter-)revolution of 1936-7. On the other hand, critiques of syndicalism from outside the tradition don’t get much beyond asserting 'the fundamental nature of unions' is to blame, instead advocating, for example, federations of revolutionary workplace groups. But without understanding the actual processes by which revolutionary workers' organisations are recuperated, what’s to stop them going the same way?

This is part of a much larger historical/theoretical project to critically assess the strengths and limitations of 20th century revolutionary traditions and develop an understanding of contemporary anarcho-syndicalism as a matter of trial and error around a political-economic core, combining anarchist ideas and syndicalist methods in various ways adapted to various conditions.


Association and representation: thinking about unions

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a union? A big, bureaucratic service provider with a cheap credit card offer? A relic from the past? Solidarity and strike action? The industrial militancy of the and flying pickets of the 1970s? The answer will of course depend on your experiences and your political perspective. And indeed, all of the above are partial truths. To help unpack this, I want to reconstruct the evolutionary path from syndicalism to anarcho-syndicalism. This path has been an uneven, multi-linear one, far too complicated to recount here in any detail. Instead, I want to focus in on one central tension, between a union as an association of workers and a union as a representative of workers.

What do I mean by this? Well, in the first instance, a union is an association of workers banding together for a common purpose. Historically, unions emerged from the conditions of emerging capitalism. First in craft production, then amongst industrial and service workers. In the early days, unions couldn’t be anything but such associations. There were no legal union rights, employers refused to recognise them and unionists faced harsh repression (most famously the Tolpuddle Martyrs).

However, over time employers were forced to come to terms with the fact that unions were a fact of life. They began to recognise them as the representatives of the workers, to be negotiated with on their behalf in order to secure the shop floor peace and order necessary for profit-making. Thus the second function, the representative function was born. Many unionists actively fought for this, and saw the acceptance of unions as a victory.

As unions became accepted by capitalism, they more and more came to resemble capitalist institutions themselves, with a hierarchical structure topped by salaried bureaucrats, dedicated legal departments, and numerous other full time staff. Today, the associational and representative functions are completely intertwined. Indeed you join a union in order to be represented. But when this process first began in earnest at the dawn of the 20th century, it provoked a backlash from the more radical rank-and-file elements, a broad current known as syndicalism.

Historian Bob Holton writes that one of the major factors behind the British syndicalist movement was that "instead of undue repression it was increasingly agreed [by bosses and politicians] that trade union demands could be more effectively diffused by bargaining and in particular by utilising union officials as a mediating influence between labour and capital."

Syndicalists saw this as a result of an increasing separation between bureaucratic union officials and the militant rank-and-file. In other words, they saw mediation as a consequence of bureaucracy. The solution was therefore to de-bureaucratise the unions – ‘boring from within’ – in order to democratise the union and give power back to the rank and file. The limitation of this approach was that it didn’t really explain where bureaucracy came from in the first place. Why had workers surrendered control of their unions to highly paid officials?

Syndicalism opposed rank-and-file control to bureaucracy and proposed direct action in place of mediation, but it wasn’t able to properly explain where the tendency towards bureaucracy and mediation came from in the first place. The problem is highlighted by the number of modern day bureaucratic unions with radical syndicalist origins (of which the French CGT, founded under large anarchist influence is the most obvious example). To solve this problem required the synthesis of syndicalism with a clear revolutionary perspective: anarchism.

Anarcho-syndicalism developed at different rates in different places adapted to local conditions. The most famous anarcho-syndicalist union is the Spanish CNT, but historically that contained numerous conflicting tendencies. On discovering a delegation from the CNT had met with the Catalan government to try and get the CNT legalised and alleviate the repression, the revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti penned the following rebuke:

"They persecute us. Yes, of course they do. We’re a threat to the system they represent. If we don’t want them to harass us, then we should just submit to their laws, integrate ourselves into their system, and bureaucratise ourselves to the marrow. Then we can become perfect traitors to the working class, like the Socialists and everyone else who lives at the workers expense. They won’t bother us if we do that. But do we really want to become that?"

Durruti recognised that bureaucratisation and subsequent mediation was a result of taking on a representative role. His ominous warning came to pass two years later, when CNT leaders took up government positions during the revolution as representatives of their members, alongside representatives from political parties, despite strong - sometimes armed! - opposition from the rank-and-file. But within post-war anarcho-syndicalism the lesson has been largely learned, and representative functions are consciously spurned in favour of functioning as an association of workers for the purpose of direct action. Today's CNT for example refuses to take part in union elections, works councils or accept state funds since they "give your ‘representatives’ the power to sign and negotiate for you". Instead they insist that "You and only you, are representative. When you take in your hands your problems, you gain representation." This is similar to the criticisms of trade unionism made by the Direct Action Movement:

Of all the areas that the unions seek to have influence in by far the most important is its dealing with management, for it is from this area that all their power flows. They must retain the right to negotiate wages and conditions with management. It is by having the power to negotiate on behalf of workers that they retain their influence within the workplace and ultimately attract and retain members. In turn it is having that control and influence in the workplace that they are of use to the boss class. The unions offer stability in the workplace, they channel workers anger, shape and influence their demands and, if need be, act to police the workforce.

The problems with union bureaucracy are well known to militant workers. But unless we couple syndicalist methods with the clear revolutionary perspective there’s a well-worn path back to bureaucracy. In the words of the IWA “all the revolutionary workers of the world must build a real International Workers Association” based on direct action and an explicit rejection of the representative union functions.


May 21 2011 02:08

You've no doubt read this, but I thought it was a good article and relevant to your post:

Joseph Kay
May 21 2011 06:35

Is that the same one that appears in the book 'Workers Councils'? If so I've read it, if not I'll check it out...

May 21 2011 06:45

Joseph, very clear and concise article on the origins of A-S.

Some tentative questions, though.

Shouldn't the sequence 'negotiation, representation, bureaucratisation, mediation', be preceded by 'non-revolutionary proletariat'?

In other words, the problems that you've addressed are rooted in the stage of (under-) development of the working class?

I'm not a fan of placing the blame on 'unions', I'm more interested to discover why this keeps happening, even in Spain in 1936.

It seems that the first stage, 'negotiation', will always occur while workers are not prepared to, not just fight (within the system), but to actively destroy the power of bosses (ie. the system itself). In other words, 'being militant' needs to become 'being revolutionary'.

I suppose I'm saying 'negotiation', and the rest, with bosses is inevitable this side of the big day (outside of successful, but small, direct action, which needs to grow in strength as an opposition to 'negotiation').

But while the majority of workers don't embrace 'direct action' for and by themselves...