The Need For Industrial Unity: a question of anarchist organisational imperative

An article on organisation by Liberty & Solidarity, which we disagree with completely and find the tone rather pompous, but reproduce here for reference.

Most comrades are familiar with the benefits of industrial organisation, as opposed to trade or craft based organisation. The theory that the early workers movement arrived at more than 100 years ago, that all workers along a supply chain, in the one industry, should be formed into the one organisation. It has been proven to provide greater leverage and political power for the organised working class, than the splitting up of workers in the one industry into multiple unions.

As such then, the idea that socialists should push for all workers to be united and co-ordinated within the one industry, along a supply chain, into one organisation is something that is held to be something of a no-brainer, at least in theory, on the left.

In Britain today, despite the obvious ratchetting up of the class struggle, with a number of defensive struggles against plant closures, privatisations and cuts, and the few offensive struggles coming on the back of the Viking-Laval, what we have seen is the continuation (albeit slowing) of overall trade union decline.

* The rate of union membership (union density) for employees in the UK fell by 0.6 percentage points to 27.4 percent in 2008, down from 28.0 per cent in 2007. Amongst all those in employment, including self-employed, in the UK, union density fell from 25.3 per cent in 2007 to 24.9 per cent in 2008

* Estimates of union membership for UK employees shows membership in 2008 has fallen by 1.8 per cent (125 thousand) to 6.9 million compared to 2007. Membership for those in employment has fallen by 1.5 percent (112 thousand) to 7.2 million, in the same period

* Union density among female employees in the UK fell by 0.4 percentage points to 29.2 per cent in 2008; while for male employees it fell by 0.8 percentage points to 25.6 per cent. For the seventh consecutive year female union density has been higher than males. The gap between male and female union density widened by 0.4 percentage points compared to 2007

* Private sector union density fell by 0.6 percentage points to 15.5 per cent in 2008, whereas public sector union density fell 1.9 percentage points in 2008 to 57.1 per cent. The rate of change in public sector union density has nearly doubled from -2.3 per cent in 2007 to -4.2 per cent in 2008

Given that the degree to which our class is organised to defend itself and assert our interests, matches fairly well to the degree to which our class is capable of winning victories, this is a question of paramount importance to socialists everywhere.

Those organisations, and sections of organisations, which are fighting back, and are organised to assert the most pressure (in general those organisations which are opposed to social partnership, and are industrial in organisation, for example the RMT), are however bucking the trend. The RMT goes into this recession during a period of steady growth and regular victories.

On the left and labour movement at large however, the picture is even grimmer than the statistics. Despite the UK's nearly 20,000 active socialists, and its many thousands more labour militants, dysfunctional organisation, a range of initiatives counter-posed to each other, and organisations with significant clout and influence who are failing to mobilise effectively comprise the general picture on the left. From the recent Tower Hamlets teachers strike, through to patronising attitudes taken by much of the left over the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute, through to the failure of significant organisations to actually get organised the basic principle of unity of action, unity of purpose, and unity of industrial organisation in the face of the class enemy in the workplace is failing to be lived up to.

While pointing this out alone has limited efficacy in addressing the problem one of the things I have observed more particularly on the anarchist left is that this basic principle: industrial unity, is at best only dimly understood. More usually the anarchist movement's approach to the rest of the left is to talk disparagingly about "The Trots", or to shit-talk those workers with enough nous to get it together to be organised into a trade union, for all their 'reformism'. High drama stuff, I'm sure, but it's beside the by when it comes to the basics of organisation.

Industrial Unity

Across the left in the UK, there are two general trade union regroupment projects underway. These are the National Shop Stewards Network, and the Industrial Workers of the World. Both are attempting to do similar things. Both are riddled with the contradictions and problems of a left that does not understand one of the principles it purports to hold.

In principle the TUC and Labour movement is said to take industrial organisation seriously. The TUC en bloc, in theory, was supposed to co-ordinate to achieve industrial unity. Leaving aside the obvious arguments about the limits of legalism and social partnership (and actually the experience of many countries across the world is that it is not anti-union laws that prevent unions taking illegal action, butrather the degree to which trade unions and their leadership are ready and prepared to break these laws), what is clear is that the TUC has not, does not, and will not co-ordinate industrially, to ensure that all workers in a given industry are organised into one body along a supply chain. This raises fundamental questions about the role of the TUC (which we are all aware of, and which are not the focus of this article), but in effect this is the mission of the NSSN and the IWW to address these questions.

The building of a shop stewards movement, or base union approach (parallel organisation beneath the official structures of the trade unions, to ensure the building of industrial organisation and industrial unity), has long since become vital in a country where one half of public sector workplaces, and just under a fifth of private sector workplaces have collective bargaining agreements. In other words there is some union organisation in most workplaces. The issue is that it is poor, union members are poorly engaged with their unions (if at all), and organisation is often sectional, and not organised to assert power. So then, what is needed is comprehensive organisation from within, in order that this organisation (which does exist in a large number of places) is put onto a footing where it can begin to go on the offensive.

Every socialist (regardless of ultimate ideology) has a vested interest in seeing trade union organisation of this nature move forward. It puts the class in a better position to win victories, when we are organised industrially, instead of by trade or craft, and when we are organised en bloc within our workplaces to share the workload of successful organisation, and to take ownership over our own direction as a class. Regardless of how deeply scuzzy, reformist, Stalinist, or just plain wrong, we may feel that other socialists are in an ultimate sense, it is as much in the interest of all leftists everywhere that workers are organised, and that this organisation is propelling the working class to win in struggles. Even if we seek to lead workers by the nose, or pass off dodgy regimes as being the right way to socialism, we can all agree on this basic premise.

So why isn't it happening?

Well at the moment groupthink seems to have overtaken analysis on the left. There are a variety of competing initiatives. Individual groups have (for whatever reason) become hegemonic in projects aimed at regrouping trade union organisation. Within the IWW, the broad left has not become engaged with the project to build a base union in the health and education industries. The IWW has failed to move too far beyond an activist base comprised largely of anarchists. Within the NSSN, while it has been more successful to date in attracting a wider array of socialists active in the unions, it has often been a focus for debate and discussion on matters of irrelevant socialist and sect trivia, and in general the dominance of the CWI within it, has allowed them to channel energy from the project into their own plans for using the very important initiative to popularise and campaign for a new workers party. Both of these organisations have seen forward movement, and it is not the purpose of this discussion to debate whether either have a point, or to cast doubt on their merits. The point is that as a left, and as an anarchist movement, we should not be accepting of things which act to the detriment of industrial unity.

What we must become the tireless opponents of, in our struggles to ensure that the working class movement recovers from its 20 year torpor, is anything which stands in the way of progress towards industrial unity.

It is not the role of anarchists to push our narrow sectional interests to the disadvantage of the class struggle. We cannot prevent others from acting in ways which prejudice the overall struggle, when we insist on only organising as anarchists, or putting our overarching ideological goals in the way of the path of progress to industrial unity and class victory. Not only do we lose the moral initiative, and damage urgent imperative of our activity by such sectarianism, we also cannot be convincing. We look like children.

When anarchists within the IWW describe the IWW as 'having anarchist principles' we are sectarian. When we enter into trade unions with a view to popularising anarchism and anarchist methodology with those terms we are sectarian. It is not that these ideas are wrong per se, it's just that by using that lexicon we unnecessarily alienate those for whom these descriptions, terms, turns of phrase, or ultimate methodology are less than desirable.

Yes, we may think that we are right in this, that our critique is solid, or that we have the best ideas. But ultimately if in the process of gaining our narrow ideological advantage we affect the ability of our class to project power, and to fight and win, then we have already lost.

We have decades of miserable failure to patch up. Miserable failure that is resultant from the sectarianism and ideological focus of the left. And rather than blaming others for this failure we have to start blaming ourselves. Blaming ourselves because we cannot fix the dolt that just will never get it. We cannot win the argument with the unthinking muscle memory or sectoid-style practice. Rather we must get our own house in order and make sure that we are an example of how it should be done. When we can say that we have mobilised every activist in our organisations to become a shop steward or trade union militant, when we work tirelessly everywhere to rebuild trade union branches from the ground up, and where every level of the economic organisations of our class are stuffed with tireless anarchist militants then let us openly cast stones. Until that point then, we should be active in crushing and undermining all and everything that stands in the way of industrial unity. We have no need to talk about this work. It is just self-evident and many across the left, regardless of their ultimate objectives share these objectives. We need to be making common cause with them as the first port of call for any self-respecting militant.

Anything less than this is the acceptance of the failure to optimise. When we fail to optimise for victory, then we are in effect optimising for defeat.

This is completely and utterly unacceptable. Industrial unity should be our watchword and our battlecry.

Let's rebuild the power of our class.

Comments

Steven.
Mar 26 2010 20:53

A few responses to some of the points in this article:

Quote:
Those organisations, and sections of organisations, which are fighting back, and are organised to assert the most pressure (in general those organisations which are opposed to social partnership, and are industrial in organisation, for example the RMT), are however bucking the trend. The RMT goes into this recession during a period of steady growth and regular victories.

plenty of "industrial unions" are following the general decline in union membership and militancy.

The RMT is growing and winning not because it is "industrial" but because its membership is well organised and militant, and importantly it is in a key industry - transport - where the workers can severely disrupt the economy.

While in terms of who it has as members the RMT is an industrial union as it recruits everyone who works in transport. However, importantly it does not act as an industrial union. It acts as many separate unions, dividing up the different grades and job types.

The point of the revolutionary idea of industrial unions was that when train workers struck, buses would not run either and undermine the strike.

Unions today do not act in anything like this way - they are tied to the state by labour laws which they must impose on their membership or face fines.

So even in the RMT when train drivers strike, cleaners and station workers continue to go to work. When cleaners strike, drivers and station workers go to work, etc. The union divides them all up, so they don't act "industrially" at all.

Meanwhile, plenty of other "industrial unions" are stagnating and losing, and sabotaging struggles like all the other unions - like my union, Unison.

Quote:
While pointing this out alone has limited efficacy in addressing the problem one of the things I have observed more particularly on the anarchist left is that this basic principle: industrial unity, is at best only dimly understood. More usually the anarchist movement's approach to the rest of the left is to talk disparagingly about "The Trots",

regardless of the rights or wrongs of this statement, it has nothing to do with anarchists' understanding of industrial unity, and so is an irrelevant strawman insult.

Quote:
or to shit-talk those workers with enough nous to get it together to be organised into a trade union, for all their 'reformism'. High drama stuff, I'm sure, but it's beside the by when it comes to the basics of organisation.

This is another complete strawman. While I have big disagreements with most anarchists on many things, I would like to challenge the author to find evidence of this claim.

I would say that much more serious problem amongst anarchists is that they mindlessly cheerlead the unions, without having any understanding or critique of the role they play in capitalist society of negotiating the sale of labour to capital, thus assisting the continuation of exploitation.

In any case, as I have explained above, the author appears to have no understanding of "industrial unity" either, because he is unable to see that this industrial unity is not actually real, and does not actually occur within the unions - and nor could it legally.

Quote:
When we enter into trade unions with a view to popularising anarchism and anarchist methodology with those terms we are sectarian.

here Nick demonstrates that he has no understanding of the word "sectarian". Furthermore, as he is a member of the Trotskyist Scottish Socialist Party I'm not sure why he would be interested in "popularising anarchism" anyway.

Quote:
When we can say that we have mobilised every activist in our organisations to become a shop steward or trade union militant, when we work tirelessly everywhere to rebuild trade union branches from the ground up, and where every level of the economic organisations of our class are stuffed with tireless anarchist militants then let us openly cast stones.

again, this demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the role of the unions - it is much less nuanced even than most of the Trotskyist left.

Quote:
Anything less than this is the acceptance of the failure to optimise. When we fail to optimise for victory, then we are in effect optimising for defeat.

I just wanted to quote this because it it is so pompous it's hilarious.

And as for "crushing... all and everything that stands in the way of industrial unity", apart from the sinister language does that mean that the author supports crushing the unions which prevent industrial unity, like the RMT which he fawns over?

In general, I could see that this style of article could look convincing to some naive young people who don't have much experience of work or the unions, but to those of us who do it's clearly a confused mess of rehashed social democracy calling itself anarchism (or should I say "libertarian socialism"?).

I would be very interested in seeing responses to these points from the author, but seeing as he appears to have left libcom because his arguments didn't stand up, and because people didn't take his arguments for communists to use nuclear weapons to fight imperialist aliens seriously unfortunately feel this probably won't happen...