Combative Unionism: Clarifications to our position paper - Prairie Struggle

Combative Unionism

Shortly after the release of our position paper on “combative unionism” which sparked much criticism and legitimate questioning, members of Prairie Struggle set about reviewing the critiques and debating the position paper and its legitimacy. Though the process of creating this position paper entailed much debate and thought, the process is a continu- ous one.

The sentiment that theory and prac- tice is always evolving to better adapt to its conditions is one all members of Prairie Struggle share. It is in this spirit that most if not all critics and questions where received; with enthusiasm, as we feel that the question of involvement within the labour movement and its labour organizations is one that is too often dis- missed by a broad bass within the anarchist movement.

Though many of the debates surrounding the paper developed online and face to face, we were very grateful that one of our comrades, Klas Batalo, took the time to critique and review the document. Klas Batalo illustrates in great detail many elements that are confusing and perhaps wrong about the paper. Though we feel that much of the confusing elements can be explained due in part to geographic reasons, we also feel that that Klas Batalo’s review serves as a good review for us to clarify our positions in this paper. This is the reason why we will be using Klas Batalo’s review as a starting point to the debates surrounding the paper. You can also find attached in full Klas Batalo’s review.

“One thing I think could help clarify PSO’s position is making more of a clear distinction between the labor movement and the unions.” In the review it is noted that the words labour and unions are used interchangeably through out our position paper. Our justi- fication to this can be mostly explained due to the specific geography (the Canadian prairies and Que- bec) where the inspiration for our position paper is drawn.

Generally speaking, in Quebec and the Canadian prairies, the word labour and union go hand in hand. Specific revolutionary groups or unions who operate outside mainstream unions are generally small in size and form a very small minority tailored for the radical crowd. Often, if not always, these groups exist to exist and when these groups practice industrial actions or solidarity, it is generally attended by the same folks and most often in solidarity with union’s that are part of the mainstream labour movement who are engaged in labour disputes. When actions do take place to support members of the working class who are not within the labour movement or unionized, these indi- vidual rarely join the groups from which they are re- ceiving support. Thus, they resemble less of an organized movement and more of an interest group.
For example, the workers solidarity network (montreal 2005-2008 group started by NEFAC) would regularly conduct solidarity campaigns with unions on strike and retrieve unpaid wages for precarious workers. Most often precarious workers were themselves rad- icals or part of the broader left. Actions in support of precarious workers that where not part of the “scene” were far and few between and most often these individuals would not radicalize or join the network. When the network did try to break out of the “ radical Ghetto” by establishing a geographical union, it failed and subsequently announced its disbandment. This is only one example of radicals trying to establish them- selves within the labour movement. Other examples can be drawn from the IWW in Quebec and the prairies, which are most likely the only organized al- ternatives to mainstream labour that the left has in these particular regions. They form a small, but noticeable part of labour, yet hold little political weight in comparison to their mainstream union counterparts. This is why we use “labour” and “union” interchange- ably at times. This does not mean we see no differ- ence between the different groups who identify themselves as such. It goes in pair with the general public perception of the words and Prairie Struggle does not wish to define these words in the pure form due to the fact that where we live, generally speaking, there would be little more to include under a broader meaning.

“They state that it is not a strategic issue of if they should support unions but “one of tactics and what can be done under these conditions to promote revo- lutionary change...not if we should be involved within the labor movement, but how.” As in this example they use these terms many times throughout the paper interchangeably. This is unfortunate since they do spend quite a good while defining different types of unions and workers organizations such as: Lobby Unions (for US readers these are yellow unions, or employers/vertical unions), Business Unions, Com- bative Unions, Revolutionary Unions, Workers’ Councils and Mobilization Committees.”

“When they use the terms interchangeably it can be- come confusing”

Klas Batalo’s review mentions that using these words interchangeably is confusing, and we understand and agree that in some instances we could have been more precise in the use of these words. Here we do agree “in general the piece could benefit from more readability by adjusting (words) for these considerations”.

Words that also seem to cause much confusion in Klas Batalo’s review was the use of the words “within labour” or “in labour”.

“the reader is left to assume that when PSO says we should intervene as “combative unionists” in the labor movement, they mean the Business Unions.”

Klas here along with many others see the use of the word “within” or “in” under the wrong light. We do believe that “We” should intervene as combative union- ists among the MEMBERS of the labour movement including members of business Unions. Our justifica- tion for this is not that we believe that Business unions are working class organizations, but that their base is.

Though this may not be clear in our position paper when we say “Business unions and Combative unions are organizations based on the class interests of the workers. They come to existence by the need of workers to organize on class lines and advance their own interests in opposition to those of the bosses.” We are in agreement with Klas Batalo that business unions “used to be workers’ organizations, but now they are not”. These unions have been over- run with bureaucrats, and legalization to now resemble organizations that offer bargaining services in exchange for salaries and benefits.

To question if business unions are working class in- stitutions is engaging the debate on the wrong line of questioning. Despite their integration into the state and capitalist system, we recognize that their subsistence still relies on worker participation (real or legal) for survival. The current form of bureaucratization and legalization of these institutions is a) relatively new, and b) a capitalist intervention to pacify worker control. Thus, when we say business unions are working class, this isn’t a description based on their current function, rather an insight into where business unions draw their resources, power, and origin. These are sources not lost because of the level of bureaucrati- zation, and legalization, rather they are sources cur- rently being micromanaged and controlled for the interests of ‘labour peace’, whatever the fuck that means.

Business unions hold two potential areas for anar- chists or combative militants to engage in. The obvious one is to fight for workers rights against capitalist owner ship of the means of production. The second is to engage in class warfare against the bureaucratic elements within the union for worker control therefore making business unions an interesting terrain to en- gage in to develop class antagonisms.

Klas Batalo wonders “what is more important to the concept of Combative Unionism the base or the leadership?”. For us the question of leadership is a fun- damental one which we mention on multiple occasions in our position paper.

We advocate that ”In order to facilitate the proper de- velopment of militancy and participation, we organize under the model of direct democracy and radically op- pose representative democracy. It should be made clear that the objective is to give full decision making power to the general assembly and that executive powers are revocable at any time by the assembly. This empowerment through the general assembly is ground for experimentation and development for the basis of a new world.”

Klas Batalo rightfully points out that within coalitions such as CLASSE, which was a large strike coalition composed of combative and non combative unions, that “the executive of CLASSE during the movement of 2012” were continually “facing a militant base often opposed to it’s decisions.”. Even though l’ASSE, a combative union, does not function like the CLASSE coalition, it would be wrong to assume that executives within combative unions such as L’ASSE never sur- pass their mandates as they can most certainly inter- nalize similar dynamics. What we argue for within a future framework of combative unions are executive committees who hold clear and precise mandates to administrate the day-to-day “poutine” of the union. These “administrators” would be revocable by the general assembly at any time and would hold no leg- islative powers. It is clear that we advocate that all powers be in the hands of the general assembly fundamentally creating radical opposition to executives who would surpass their mandate.
For us, the question of having executives is not a focal point of combative unionism. We see the use of these elected, revocable executives with clear man- dates as a way to facilitate the internal functions of the unions. We see the use for elected Internal sec- retaries, external secretaries, finance secretaries ect... as a more viable option then informal division of fundamental tasks. The way and shape that these internal administrative committees take are ultimately up to the general assemblies to deliberate and decide on and we don’t believe each of these executive or administrative elements within combative unions will be the same. We simply recognize the need for some form of formal structure to take place in order to promote the continuation and proper functioning of as- semblies, meetings and such.

In our position paper we argue that combative unions hold total autonomy from political parties as one of their defining points. It would be wrong to assume that all local unions within the Quebec student movement believe in this core ideal. Klas Batalo points out that she/he is “unsure if this is necessarily so, and would seek clarification about autonomy from party politics within the student combative unions, because it is” her “understanding that much of the movement got side tracked towards the end of Summer 2012 with support for Quebec Solidaire and pushing for elec- toral victories for other parties.”. Klas here, confuses combative unions with the whole of the Québec stu- dent movement. The Québec student movement is composed of many independent local unions, com- bative unions (affiliated to l’ASSE), and unions affili- ated to the reformist federations (FECQ, FEUQ) who have been characterized by their affiliations with the “Parti Québécois”. It is true that political recuperation of the 2012 student strike took place. Even though l’ASSE spearheaded the mobilization for this strike, they did not form the majority of the movement. The coalition that was formed by l’ASSE, which was com- posed of combative unions and independent local unions opposed the end of the strike and the deal of- fered by the “Parti Quebecois”. So it would be false to assume under the example given by Klas that com- bative unions within the student movement may not be opposed to partisan politics.

As we have mentioned in our position paper, the com- bative unionist elements of the 60’s/70’s within the labour unions in Quebec did in some way support the creation of a “proletariat political force”. Jean Marc Pil- lot who was an influential militant within this period and movement openly declared that one of the goals of combative unionism would be the eventual creation of a socialist political force. He eventually did join such a force, l’UFP (Union des Force Progressist who would eventually become Quebec solidaire) and has been betraying some of the core principles of combative unionism ever since with his recent declaration during the 2012 strike, that “direct democracy is only a vehicle to establishing a representative democracy”. It is clear that there are grounds for con- cern within combative unionist history. What we find interesting and draw our conclusions from are the po- sitions taken in l’ASSE and the student combative unionist movement against partisan politics. There- fore it would not be wrong to assume that entire elements of combative unionism oppose partisan politics, especially within the student movement, and it would also not be wrong to assume that even within l’ASSE, militants of Quebec Solidaire work day in and day out to soften the position of complete autonomy from political parties.

What we argue for is that complete autonomy from political parties be a founding principal in the creation of a combative labour movement.

In our position paper, we argue that building combat- ive unions is a path of least friction for the Canadian prairies and other province alike. Sure, in Canada there are regroupements of revolutionary unionists along with a few little, but active branches of the IWW. Some IWW members support a dual card strategy, which we are in favour of to begin with and support. Some of our members hold or have been IWW card- holders for some time. In all honesty, we see these initiatives of IWW members mobilizing within their existing mainstream unions to radicalize the debate as a combative strategy. Where we part ways with the IWW is, how to create revolutionary unions in the now. It would not be false to state that the dual card strat- egy isn’t widely accepted within the IWW and is even source of vigorous debates and friction. For us we see a disconnect between the goals that revolutionary unions fix for themselves and the strategies applied.
Combative unionism is not a plea to establish “from scratch” a new form of unionism within the revolutionary left or mainstream labour. It is a strategy that rev- olutionary unionists have been using for over 40 years in Quebec and France. The reasoning behind not stating this in our position paper and openly dividing combative unionism from revolutionary unionism is that in some way, revolutionary unionism in Canada finds refuge in being divorced from labour when we believe that it has every interest to fight for its place within our conception of the mainstream labour move- ment. The creation of such revolutionary unions out- side the current labour movement sometimes derives from some sort of analysis that “if we build it, they will come”. There is also a strong desire for some to self identify as “revolutionary unionists” within the move- ment. Sometimes, these attitudes translate into a purist position where the strategy is overshadowed by identity. This is partly why we distance ourselves from certain revolutionary unionist who claim to be involved within the labour movement, but negate the fact that mainstream labour is part of the labour movement at all. We agree though that this is a generalization that is not totally accurate everywhere and that some mil- itants within the IWW and factions of council commu- nism have been trying to combat such a divorce. This is why we are not in opposition to the IWW. We see much intersectionality between our strategy proposed and the work being done by these groups and individuals.

Also, it is important to mention that combative union- ism is a strategy that has been tailored to the mainstream labour movement for multiple reasons. We don’t debate that this should be the only strategy and that mainstream unions should be the only place to apply revolutionary unionist politics. Much of our members are or have been involved within main- stream labour for some time. The main reason this paper is focused on mainstream labour comes from witnessing a large section of the revolutionary left completely scratching out this section of the working class organized under such bureaucratic organizations. The Combative Unionism paper we published had as an objective to reinitiate debate on whether or not we should engage in some way the mainstream labour movement and how.

Klas Batalo also points out that we describe combat- ive unions as apolitical. The use of the word in our position paper is confusing to some and in some re- spect misguided. When we advocate the need for combative unions or combative mobilization commit- tees to be “apolitical”, we don’t mean in the literal way that they should be without politics.

What we do mean is the need for such combative organizations to be completely detached from political parties or political groups. For example, the IWW is neither anarchist nor socialist. What defines it is the method in which they organize and take action. Essentially we believe that combative unionist should use this as a template.

The approach we take here is one of baby steps towards radicalizing the base of such mainstream labour orgnizations. We believe that antiauthoritarian, anticapitalism, and socialist politics can transpire through action, structure and strategy without using alienating symbols or labels. This is why the strategy of combative unionism is based on class orientation and solidarity, direct democratic structures, combative tactics and autonomous means of organization. Class antagonisms created by capitalism and other systems of oppressions can be unifying, but must be pre- sented in a way in which workers can relate. There is a great need for revolutionary politics to become rel- evant and we believe focusing on strategies can es- tablish our political desires.


Essentially, we argue the need to tailor revolutionary politics to the working class, not tailor the working class to revolutionary politics, which is what typically happens when revolutionary unionist history and tactics are transposed in a totally different context.

Though this paper does not especially lay out what should be done when effective mobilization committees come to existence or assemblies manage to re- gain power from bureaucracy, it does lay some sort of foundation for the debate. Whether or not we should set about some sort of new independent labour international or join the already existing revo- lutionary unions is for us an area for which requires much more debate and where combative unionist will need to experiment and explore.

What our debates have concluded for the time being is:
When combative mobilization committees manage to effectively mobilize the base, it should set about exposing the existing class antagonism within the union, build radical opposition towards reformist and bureau- cratic elements who seek to take the power away from the assemblies and eventually set about creating links with other mobilization committees within other unions.

When practicable these committees should set about building a strong local union under democratic, combative and autonomous principles laying grounds for a future disaffiliation. Whether or not this takes place through a coordinated effort among multiple mobiliza- tion committees in many unions or not is still ques- tionable. We believe that a strong local union can still be undermined by the national/international bodies and must when pragmatic; separate itself from these internationals to keep power within the assemblies.

Inexperience in the development of strategy and po- sition papers has definitely contributed to confusion in certain elements of the position we take. Errors and contradictions may take place in the paper. As we have mentioned above, this debate for us is not a closed one and is continually ongoing. We are very greatful for Klas Batalos and other’s contribution in this debate. We hope that our intentions are seen as open, and sincere in the establishment of a radical combative labour movement.

By the regina PSO Branch