Revolutionary unions and the use of "professionals" in disputes

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akai
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Apr 14 2016 07:58

Another derail, while this is all an interesting question, which I don't have time to comment just now, the issue from the original thread was not about using lawyers or not, although maybe somebody took it in that direction. The issue is various instances when work which is otherwise done by volunteers become paid services even when there are volunteers or can be done in another way. IWA members can refer to one or two internal debates. Then there is the professionalization issue and others that relate to preferring this model over a volunteer and collective model. That is the real issue.

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OliverTwister
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Apr 14 2016 14:55

In response to Juan Conatz:

My understanding of the use of lawyers and economists by the CNT is that it is mainly to fight mass layoffs and factory closures. This is a big deal in Spain where capital is desperately trying to restructure, in a big way ... but where there is also a legal and socially understood "right" to keep a job unless the company can prove that economically speaking it is impossible for them to avoid the layoffs/closures. If the workers can challenge the companies claim, and show that the layoffs/closures are for reasons other than absolute economic necessity, the company does not have the right to implement the layoffs or close the factory.

In some ways the job rights that are considered "normal" in Spain are similar to what we associate with having a union job in the US - you normally have a set schedule, a guaranteed monthly salary, a right to keep your job unless the company shows it has a cause to fire you, etc. These are based on contracts that are negotiated nationally for each industry by whatever unions are "representative", but they cover all workers employed in that industry. That is my understanding of Spanish labor law, although I may be wrong in some details.

The crazy thing about this, from a US perspective, is that the Spanish state actually enforces these labor laws (although who knows for how much longer?). They will prevent a company from closing the doors or implementing layoffs if the court agrees with the workers. This is totally different to anything we're dealing with. It's very different from the NLRB's "make the worker whole" that has the worker sitting at home for 2 or 5 years waiting to be reinstated.

The flipside is that the court part of this does require trained economists and lawyers who can cut through the "justifications" that the company will put up. This is by its nature very technical.

That said, revolutionary unions always have to weigh what legal options exist to use as tools, and whether exercising those options requires de-escalating their struggles. I don't think it's always the same, and in some cases it probably has to be figured out through trying and learning. I think the campaign you mentioned is a really good (and too-little-discussed) example of how the NLRB does have a mechanism built in to de-escalate struggles.

Going back to Spain, it seems like the CNT have weighed the tactical use of the courts and are combining that with building permanent workplace organizations and mass struggle. There is the case of CEMUSA, a company that maintains bus stops. Last year a group of workers built a CNT workplace branch of ~30 in Madrid, out of ~300 workers. During the year there were constant rumors that the company was going to be sold, and finally at the end of the year they announced that it was being sold and the new owners were requesting an ERE (legal request to allow mass layoffs) of 80% of the staff, many of whom have been there for 20 years. The CNT seems to be the only organization that is fighting against these layoffs, and they are doing that with a court challenge against the ERE but also with street demonstrations. Presumably at the same time the CNT branch is engaged in day-to-day struggle in the workplace.

This is something that seems like it is really starting to mark the CNT out from the business unions who do not challenge the ever-increasing use of EREs to restructure the workforce.

For Spanish readers or google-translate users:
On building the organization at CEMUSA
This article from last month claims the CNT is a "majority union" at CEMUSA
Pictures from a demonstration this month against the ERE.

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Chilli Sauce
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Apr 14 2016 16:31

Steven, good post. I've been coming around to a similar view for some time now. That said, I'm not sure a/s orgs need to strive to be mass organizations. This was sort of touched on in Fighting For Ourselves, but the a/s union can be the dedicated, militant core always attempting to organize struggles that involve as large a cross-section of the workforce as possible - and hopefully politicize and create further militants in the process.

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Steven.
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Apr 14 2016 18:36
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Steven, good post. I've been coming around to a similar view for some time now. That said, I'm not sure a/s orgs need to strive to be mass organizations. This was sort of touched on in Fighting For Ourselves, but the a/s union can be the dedicated, militant core always attempting to organize struggles that involve as large a cross-section of the workforce as possible - and hopefully politicize and create further militants in the process.

Yeah, fair enough, but then I don't see that as being qualities to be different from an anarchist communist political organisation which has a workplace focus (not to exclude struggles in the community and amongst unpaid workers, retired workers, unemployed workers etc). But anyway as Joseph says this is a derail and has been discussed many times before. If people want to continue to discuss this please start a new thread.

Going back to the original question posed here, I think that Oliver raises a really good point that I think it depends on the country you're in. In Spain, as the government can actually force companies to reverse layoffs, then it does seem worth pursuing. In the UK labour law protections are extremely weak (American users have complained that the NLRB can take years to get people's jobs back. In the UK it is practically impossible to get courts to reinstate dismissed workers), so I don't think it is worth it. Even from a purely practical point of view, it is rarely worth individual workers actually getting a solicitor to take employers to court (for example, only 7% of unfair dismissal claims are successful, and those that are get an average payout of about £4500). So I can't see in what circumstances a "revolutionary" organisation would want to do this. Unless, say, the IWW wanted to look like a "real" union (but then even in mainstream unions it is very difficult to actually get legal support to take employers to court, as normally they will refuse to do so unless there is a good prospect of success).

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syndicalistcat
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Apr 15 2016 05:44

"Fighting for Ourselves" has a number of problems. Not 'striving to be a mass organization" is one of them. It's all well and good to talk about minority unionism as an initial starting point, but a union must strive to become a majority force if it wants to be able to shut down the operation. No power if it can't do that.

The other problem is that "fighting for ourselves," at least in the USA, suggests the narrow sectoral fixation typical of American unionism. "We're just out for ourselves." This is a reason people regard unions as narrow "special interest groups". It's one of the things that has discredited unionism in USA. It ignores an essential feature of revolutionary unionism, which is the emphasis on building class-wide solidarity. So we're NOT just "fighting for ourselves." For example when I helped to build a teachers union in the '70s the union struck for demands for the students' needs. This goes beyond "fighting for ourselves."

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Joseph Kay
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Apr 15 2016 05:58
syndicalistcat wrote:
"Fighting for Ourselves" has a number of problems. Not 'striving to be a mass organization" is one of them. It's all well and good to talk about minority unionism as an initial starting point, but a union must strive to become a majority force if it wants to be able to shut down the operation. No power if it can't do that.

FFO wrote:
we are not a minority out of aspiration, but out of recognition of reality. We, of course, seek the widest possible adoption of anarcho-syndicalist ideas and methods throughout the working class. It’s just that we see no reason to wait until then to organise. We need to use what capacity we have to organise what struggles we can in the here and now.

syndicalistcat wrote:
The other problem is that "fighting for ourselves," at least in the USA...

Whereas in the UK there's this problem:

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Joseph Kay
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Apr 15 2016 06:20

Re: professionals. In my limited experience, going a legalistic route does very quickly pull against workers' self-organisation. Even if you're just getting free advice it can quickly create a deference to the experts, even if some of those experts are workers in the workplace who've read up/gone on a labour law course etc. However it might sometimes be the most viable option, depending on the law, and depending on what workplace action you're in a position to organise.

E.g. the Pop-Up Union tried to organise a lawful industrial action ballot because there was appetite for an official strike but not for a wildcat. That meant the timescale was more or less entirely set by the legalities. However there was plenty of organising to be done to persuade people and sign people up, and everything was done as much as possible through general membership meetings to keep it transparent and accountable. But there was a tension between legalism and self-organisation. (Ofc in the back of our minds we knew if we built up enough momentum and appetite for a strike a wildcat might have become possible).

In the end it fell into one of the legal traps on ballot technicalities and management got an injunction blocking the strike. That suggests amateur legalism is inferior to relying on professionals. But then again big unions with dedicated professional legal teams also get injuncted, or more often simply refuse a ballot. The law's been designed to be a minefield ofc. As Steven suggests, that might just mean that English labour law offers much less scope for collective struggle than in Spain or the USA, though I'm sure similar tensions apply there too.

syndicalist
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Apr 15 2016 14:33

It's all a question of balance, really.

I think some of the other discussion on the CNT was not strictly relative to the use of lawyers, but having to pay a firm for their services. I gather that in the past, most of this sorta legal stuff was done pro bono.

Agreeing mainly with Juan here, in terms of NLRB. I think where some of the more legalistic corridors might be around tenant issues and individual wage theft. And similar individual advocacy stuff. Surely in the worker center sphere, the shift from (mostly) direct action to more legal/political forms exists and is known. *

* Not exactly part of this convo, but thinking about the question in general, I am reminded of this. Sorta "mid-stream" in the early 2000s involvement in workers centers or supporting worker center type activities, WSA ran these two pieces in our "Workers Solidarity" newsletter: https://libcom.org/forums/news/now-out-wsas-workers-solidarity