The following article is from issue 10 of Working Class Resistance, August 2005, published by Organise! and written by Jason Brannigan.
Direct Action Gets The Goods
From the black block havin’ a go, to the clown army tickling cops and putting flowers in their hair, from marches to smashing McDonalds, gluing locks to throwing bricks and even it seems going to rock concerts– all of these activities have had the term direct action applied to them incorrectly.
Direct action is being confused with actions that are probably best regarded as symbolic and more often than not ineffective. A lot of the confusion is down to media reports of anything they regard as outside the parameters of acceptable protest as direct action, but a significant amount of it is down to the desire on the part of many activists to do ‘direct action’. This leads to claims by those involved that actions, such as the recent Making Poverty History event on Derry’s walls, are ‘direct action’ – such events may sometimes be worthy and may raise awareness but direct action they certainly aren’t. Many activists regard summit protests, such as those held in Gleneagles against the G8 meeting, as direct action – but such protests, even if they are successful in shutting down a summit remain as symbolic as the summits they are protesting.
Direct action has also become a by-word for violence, to the extent that much of the anti-war and anti-globalisation movement talk specifically of NVDA – Non Violent Direct Action. That’s not to say people engaged in direct action shouldn’t defend themselves or that violence is never acceptable, simply that this view of direct action is partial and misrepresentative.
So what is direct action? Put simply it:
…refers to action undertaken directly between two individuals or groups, without the interference of a third party. Specifically to Anarcho-Syndicalists (and other libertarian communists) this means: The rejection of participation in parliamentary or statist politics and the adoption of tactics and strategies which place responsibility for action firmly in the hands of the workers themselves. (Anarcho-Syndicalist FAQ, http://anarchosyndicalism.net/faq/1d.htm#1d2)
Cliched though it may sound direct action really is about empowering ourselves and breaking the dependency on others to do things for us.
Rather than pleading, through official intermediaries, with our bosses or electing politicians to sort it:
Fundamental to direct action is the reality that we can only rely on ourselves to achieve our goals (SolFed, About Solidarity Federation).
Direct Action in Our Workplaces
Direct action can be applied in as many different areas as there are forms of direct action. Of course for libertarian communists the main areas of application are in our workplaces and communities. In their leaflet A Workers Guide to Direct Action the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) sets out what they mean by direct action in a workplace context:
Direct action is any form of guerrilla warfare that cripples the bosses ability to make a profit and makes him/her cave into the workers demands. The best known form of direct action is the strike, in which workers simply walk off their jobs and refuse to produce profits for the boss until they get what they want.
Strike action is at times more limited than this implies, particularly given the constraints of Trade Union bureaucracies, the impact and fear of anti-union legislation and a prevalent ideology of social partnership.
Wildcat strikes, “unofficial” strikes, where this stranglehold is removed have become increasingly used by workers in recent years and such action certainly returns some of the impact to the strike weapon.
In June up to 300 postal workers took immediate wildcat action due to the suspension of 30 of their fellow workers. The action took place at the Tomb Street sorting depot following workers refusal to accept un-agreed working practices, and the action taken ensured the dispute was resolved within two days. Compare that to the debilitating and drawn out process that accompanies the balloting process for official industrial action and there can be little doubt that a short sharp shock is often a better option.
However if a wildcat drags on large amounts of financial solidarity are needed to support the strikers, even in the case of official action the bosses ability to sit out a strike for longer than many of us could survive of strike pay (if our ‘leadership’, who are still after all drawing their fat salaries from our membership dues, deign to provide us with any) means that other methods of direct action may be more appropriate and effective.
In my own experience, several years ago as a result of mounting grievances, fellow railway workers decided to inform the company that they were unavailable to work an upcoming bank holiday. Management panicked – one manager was sent by car towards Bangor getting out along the way in order to board a train worked by one of the workers’ shop stewards. Faced with the prospect of having next to no trains running and with no time to do anything about it a meeting between workers representatives and management was set up immediately. The upshot of this was the addressing of many of the workers grievances and a small but significant improvement in working conditions. And no one lost out on overtime for working the bank holiday either, due to the swift resolution of the dispute. In this case it was enough to threaten wildcat action in order to get results.
There are other methods of direct action available in the workplace, Rudolf Rocker, a German Anarcho-Syndicalist wrote in his book Anarcho-Syndicalism in 1938:
By direct action the Anarcho-Syndicalists mean every method of immediate warfare by the workers against their economic and political oppressors. Among these the outstanding are the strike, in all its graduations from the simple wage struggle to the general strike; the boycott; sabotage in its countless forms; anti-militarist propaganda; and in particularly critical cases… armed resistance of the people for the protection of life and liberty1.
Direct action is about workers acting to defend or improve their conditions using work to rules, strikes and occupations rather than trusting the Labour Relations Agency or Industrial Tribunals to sort things out for them.
Direct Action Against the War
Before the war on Iraq millions of people marched in opposition on February 15th 2003, including around 15,000 in Belfast and 100,000 in Dublin, but they were ignored by politicians.
Direct action is harder for them to ignore, and while workers and anti-war activists were unable to carry out much in the way of it there were nevertheless some small but significant examples of direct action that give us a glimpse of the potential and strength of it as a method of resistance. In particular the action taken by grassroots activists and anarchists at Shannon airport forced three of the four commercial airlines that had been transporting Gulf bound US troops to pull out. Action ranged from breaches of the perimeter fence to physical attacks on US planes. This had an impact and provided a glimpse of what could be achieved but one of the problems was the lack of interaction with workers at Shannon. One of the forerunners of Organise!, the Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation did attempt to build bridges and a bulletin aimed at the workers was distributed during one of the protests, but this was isolated and unsustainable for such a small group with no local base.
More potential had been glimpsed on the 7th of January 2003 when two train drivers blacked a train carrying ammunition to Glen Douglas on Scotland’s west coast. The ammunition was believed to have been destined for the war on Iraq – in the end it had to be transported by road.
Direct Action in Our Communities
In communities in the south direct action has meant organising to defeat the water charge and fighting the bin tax. Socialist Party TD Joe O’Higgins may have got elected on the back of the anti-water charges campaign but it was not his election that defeated the Irish government.
Mass opposition and direct action defeated the charge and anti-water charges campaigners in the north should learn valuable lessons from this victory of working class people.
Civil disobedience and mass non-payment also toppled Thatcher and defeated the Poll Tax in Britain.
Direct Action in Spain
In 2003 striking CNT (the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Union) members took on Ferrovial Servicos, a street cleaning and bin collecting company, due to breaching of agreements made following action taken the previous year. After 134 days of struggle, protest and mounting pressure on the company – which saw 6 workers going on hunger strike, the use of scab labour by the company, daily demonstrations, a noisy wake-up call every morning outside the City Council and a blockade every afternoon, picketing at the company gates, weekly protest marches to Seville and performances of the Full Monty by striking workers – the dispute ended in victory for the workers.
A Rejection of Powerlessness
Direct action is a rejection of the notion that working class people are powerless. Improvements to our lives are not handed down benevolently from above – they must be fought for. For libertarian communists direct action is more than an effective means of defence or even of going on the offensive and changing something for the better, it is, for the working class:
A continuous schooling for their powers of resistance, showing them every day that every least right has to be won by unceasing struggle against the system (Rudolf Rocker).
Direct action is an essential preparation for the free socialist society that we are striving to create. Through engaging in direct action, even when we make mistakes, we have the opportunity to learn from experience that there is no need to leave things to ‘experts’ or professional politicians. We should have learnt by now that that course offers us nothing but disempowerment, betrayal and broken promises and results in a pervading sense of powerlessness. And yet we are far from powerless. Direct action teaches us to control our own struggles, while building a culture of resistance that links with other workers in struggle. Solidarity and mutual aid find real expression and as our confidence grows so to does our ability to change the world.
Direct action, like they say, gets the goods.
1 Rockers example of armed resistance in ‘particularly critical cases’ was written in reference to the revolutionary struggle against Fascism that had been ongoing in Spain since 1936.