In October 2012 Priama akcia (PA) will publish a pamphlet called “How to Create a Group Dealing with Workplace and Community Related Problems” in Slovak language. This Afterword is the final part of the pamphlet and was written by PA members. It is basically an attempt to take a look at the SeaSol concept from the Slovak perspective. At the same time it is an attempt to compare the approach taken by solidarity networks with the approach of anarcho-syndicalist organizations. An English version is provided on PA website and on libcom.org with the aim to stir debate.
The Afterword was offered to several comrades in different countries for reading and comments before publishing and we are glad some of the comrades responded. Despite the fact we don’t include the debate that followed via e-mails here we would welcome their comments either in form of the original responses sent to PA or any other comments! Many thanks goes also to the comrades who helped with the grammar corrections.
As for the content of the whole pamphlet, besides the Afterword, it contains two Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol) texts translated into Slovak („Building a Solidarity Network Guide“ and „Interview With SeaSol by Libcom.org“ from Build Your Own Solidarity Network originally published by Workers Solidarity Alliance in 2011) and three examples of concrete SeaSol struggles (Gladys, Dominic, Naftali) taken from already published articles on PA website.
Afterword: Activities Related to Workplace and Community in our Conditions
In the history of workers’ struggle against capitalism and the state there are many political tendencies and different attitudes towards problem solving in the workplace and community. Since the anarchosyndicalist tradition is the closest to us and we know the most about its practical use, we decided to compare it to the approach taken by SeaSol. We did it also because at the first glance, SeaSol approach is almost identical to the approach of Priama akcia (PA) and other anarchosyndicalist organizations (especially smaller ones). Undoubtedly the issue can be viewed in a broader context, but we wanted to provide the shortest, most comprehensive and especially the most practical afterword to what is written on the previous pages.
When one tries to compare the approaches it is most likely that the similarities are noticed. Both types of organization:
• put the emphasis on solving problems related to workplace and community
• use very similar tactics or methods and both try to encourage the self-activity of people in a struggle and to spread solidarity.
Despite having published a translation of texts about SeaSol, it does not mean that we have an uncritical attitude towards the approach of this organization and of solidarity networks in general. When we discussed the differences between us and them, we looked closely mainly at practical matters and specific conditions in Slovakia. In other words, we tried to assess what makes the situation in Slovakia different from the situation in the US and what the practical consequences on the current and future activities in the field of workplace and community organizing are. Since the existence of an organization is a prerequisite to realizing workplace and community activities, our conclusions center around this focal point and can be narrowed down to the following questions:
• What should be the strategy and aims of an organization dedicated to problems in a workplace and community?
• Do we need a new organization to achieve these aims or can they be accommodated within an already existing one?
We do not take our response formulated in this afterword to be a generally valid truth – more likely an invitation for further discussion.
1) Strategy and Aims of an Organization: Do We Want to Build Solidarity Networks or Workplace and Community Groups?
Priama akcia explains its strategy and aims in the Statutes of Priama akcia, which can be found on the PA website . Here we only quote some key thoughts from the statutes (for a more complex understanding of the topic, we recommend to read them in full): “As an organization striving for a fundamental social change we distinguish between short-term, mid-term and long-term aims, which mutually affect each other. Thanks to our strategy they form a logical pattern, which explains how to get from point A to point B, i.e. how to reach the state of things we aim for by means of our own activity. Short-term aims can be summarized as achievement of short-term demands here and now, mid-term aims are represented in the building of the organization and achieving demands which need more time and people, long-term aims signify a transition towards a society without capitalism and the state.”
To better understand the differences in the area of strategy and aims we extract one more quote from the part about creating organizational structures being an example of a mid-term aim: “Our aim is to build an organization consisting of individuals and independent groups functioning in the community (local groups), in individual industrial branches (industrial groups) and in concrete companies (workplace groups).” In another part of the Statutes we clarify that “… the primary function of the [workplace] group is to improve the working and wage conditions of the workers. The activity of the group is focused mainly on the involvement of as many workers as possible in the decision-making process. To this end, group meetings or general assemblies are called in the workplace or outside it.
So, when we return to the question raised in the title, according to us the answer depends mostly on the mid-term and long-term aims of the organization.
If the only thing we want is to help people with a problem and in the process gain more self-confidence and skills, a solidarity network can be a fine choice. Despite the fact that probably the most successful solidarity network, SeaSol, was started by people who also wanted to include in their activities a criticism of capitalism and the state, solidarity networks do not have a mid-term and a long-term strategy and aims. They concentrate on short-term conflicts and campaigns to achieve immediate demands. Usually they help people who have already left the workplace or moved out.
Solidarity networks like SeaSol can be a kind of an orientation point for the building of a workers’ movement striving for social change, but we would like to point out that they can represent nothing but an orientation point. They offer solidarity in problem solving, but that’s where their function ends. As stated by the SeaSol member:
“So far, most of SeaSol's workplace-related fights have been in support of someone who has already quit or been fired, and either they're owed wages, or they were fired unjustly, or the employer is still retaliating against them in some way (threatening to sue them, stopping them from getting unemployment or injury benefits, etc). Likewise most of our landlord fights have been in support of someone who has moved out of the building and has had their deposit stolen or been charged unreasonable fees. In these situations, the ex-employee or ex-tenant no longer has much to lose in fighting back, since the target employer or landlord is no longer in a position to fire or evict them.”
This quote is probably the best description of the nature, functioning and also limits of solidarity networks.
In contrast to this approach, the aim of anarchosyndicalist organizations and also PA is to build an organization, which can effectively prevent a worker being dismissed or cheated, or to achieve reinstatement. Anarchosyndicalists not only solve the consequences (e.g. winning an overdue wage for a dismissed worker, which is a common activity of solidarity networks as well); they strive to influence the working conditions (e.g. fight for higher wages together with fellow workers) or solve problems outside the workplace, i.e. in the communities their members live (activities of the Polish ZSP in the Warsaw tenants’ movement are a good example).
Although solidarity networks try to build workers’ self-confidence and develop their organizational abilities, communication and other skills, and organize an ever increasing number of people, they do not aim to create groups in individual workplaces and communities. If they wanted to go in this direction, they would have to change their strategy as well as organizational structure, define their mid-term and long-term aims and do more than “just” offer solidarity to those outside the workplace or community. They would become similar to a trade union or an anarchosyndicalist union.
It is true that today we do not have the capacity to create workplace groups and realize larger projects, campaigns or struggles, and we neither claim that such things can be done immediately. However, we think it is important to understand that workplace groups are a key factor if we want to move towards a society without capitalism and state, and therefore we should strive to create them. In the meantime let’s do what we can with our abilities, resources and energy, at the same time not forgetting that our activity has more than just short-term aims.
2) A New or an Already Existing Organization?
When discussing the differences between a solidarity network and an anarchosyndicalist organization in our geographical setting, it is important to answer a simple question: if the functions of a solidarity network are fulfilled by an already existing organization, why not join its activities and draw from its experience instead of starting from scratch?
The SeaSol members confirm that solving problems in the workplace requires a change of the strategy of solidarity networks, and go even further when they think about transforming a solidarity network into an organization, which would act in the workplace:
“SeaSol is only now starting to put serious work into developing the capacity to do this kind of “inside” organizing effectively, while continuing to carry on our usual “outside” fights at the same time. We're going into this effort jointly with the IWW, making heavy use of the IWW’s on-the-job organizing training curriculum. It’s the next frontier.”
These statements sound unclear and do not say what happens to SeaSol if it indeed adjusts its strategy. Therefore, we contacted the authors of the text and found out more in a discussion on libcom.org.
“… the last part of the text says that seasol wants to deal with workplace organizing which i really don't follow. to me it automatically becomes a union type of organization (very close to some European anarchosyndicalist groups, mostly the smaller ones). and this means severely changing the perspective and structure of seasol. ”
“True, integrating workplace groups within the main structure of SeaSol doesn't seem to be practical. They need their own meetings and structures at the workplace and/or industry-wide level. At best we can help them get started and help them fight, and then either we bring them into the IWW or else they remain independent and we form a lasting alliance or federation with them.”
In other words, the authors of the text consider the shift towards groups in the workplace possible, but it would not be SeaSol anymore. Either people would create their own (formal or informal) organizations in the workplace, or they would join the IWW.
It is clear that the experience and development of SeaSol are specific. A question arises: why was a solidarity network created in Seattle, in a city where there is also a radical group focused on workplace organizing (IWW), of which some of the SeaSol founding members are members? From what we know, we conclude that there are two main reasons: 1) SeaSol activities could not be well done within the IWW framework, because the IWW focuses on organizing in the workplace, not outside it; 2) the IWW does not have a strategy and aims similar to some European anarchosyndicalist groups (they are not even an anarchosyndicalist organization) or PA and they are not suited to these types of activity. A SeaSol member described it in the interview: “Persuading some other group to take up this relatively unknown approach would have been a waste of time. It made sense to create SeaSol as a separate organisation from the IWW for various reasons—we would not be subject to secondary picketing laws, not all the initial people involved were IWW members, and it would allow us to be more flexible. The various bureaucratic NGOs and unions were too slow moving to take or even follow initiative in the area of small housing and work-related fights, anyway.”
The Seattle Solidarity Network filled the existing vacuum in the field of workplace and community activities and got together the scattered anticapitalist and anarchist activists in a big city into a group focused on these issues. In Slovakia there is no such situation, which we consider rather an advantage. What is done by two organizations in the USA is here (and in other countries outside USA) the aim of one organization, in Slovakia of PA. Some could object that not everyone wants to be a member of PA. Therefore, we would like to clarify that membership in PA is not a condition of expressing support in a struggle. This concerns people who need solidarity as well as those who offer it. So far, we have encountered no problems with this approach and people who have joined solidarity actions organized by PA did not mind that PA was signed under the action. We think that people cannot be pushed into becoming members. It is a decision they have to arrive at without pressure. It should be based on their own needs and interests. Only time will show, if they express their solidarity more than once or twice, and if they really want to be active systematically. In PA, we do not have an official “sympathizer” status common for other organizations, but our activities are often joined by people who find them meaningful but do not wish to be members. We respect people’s reservations towards membership in an organization, or that they want to think it through, because membership represents a certain commitment and responsibility. It is possible to cooperate with PA and support the struggles we engage in also without becoming members. Our aim is mainly that those who joined the struggle (no matter if they are members or not) see in the course of the struggle that it makes sense to stay active – at least by supporting people in other struggles. According to us, it rather does more harm to have a lot of members who are unreliable or exist only on paper.
We would like to conclude the question, whether to create a new organization (solidarity network) or engage in an existing one, as follows: if we take into account experiences of PA, international solidarity bonds and the fact that we have been realizing activities similar to SeaSol activities considering them a part of our long-term strategy, then it seems pointless and maybe even counterproductive to create solidarity networks in Slovakia. Sooner or later, the activists of such solidarity networks would have to answer the question: what exactly are we building and are we heading for it with the right type of organization?
* * *
Regardless of the conclusions drawn from this publication and the afterword, the prerequisites to realizing solidarity activities are responsibility, focus on a small area of problems, and the necessity to find time also for things which can be very tiresome (arranging things, adjusting details, unexpected and unplanned situations…). We do not want to discourage people, nor pretend that everything is as easy as it appears from the well-written and encouraging text from the SeaSol members.
In our afterword, we tried to summarize some differences between the solidarity networks and organizations drawing from the anarchosyndicalist tradition. We do not think this summary is exhaustive and we are open to further discussion. We would be grateful for any feedback and critical and constructive comments.
Priama akcia - IWA Slovakia
1) We focus, however, mainly on problems in the workplace, not in the community. The reason is quite simple – we have encountered them more often, have more information about them and think that we can solve them more easily with our current strength. Certainly, this situation can change.
3) Discussion to http://libcom.org/library/you-say-you-want-build-solidarity-network
4) On the contrary, in the past the organizing and development of PA activities was significantly slowed down by such members who did not know clearly why they are in the organization in the first place.
Originally published in the English section of PA website