It Starts On Your Job: Syndicalist proposals

Bulls eye

A fourth bonus article after a series of three articles about syndicalist vision, strategy, and movement building. The fourth article is about making plans for action in individual workplaces. Thus, these articles start off on the macro level of class struggle and move down to the micro level on the job.

The fourth article was first published on the US labor union website Organizing Work. Also in French. The other articles were first published in the summer of 2022 on the website of US labor magazine ASR. A longer version of the text below was previously published in the Swedish union paper Arbetaren.

Submitted by Joakim on October 25, 2022

Rasmus Hästbacka of the Swedish syndicalist union SAC suggests how big and complex workplaces might be organized, using the example of a university.

Swedish and American workers face very different, yet very similar, problems. A problem in the USA is that most workers don’t belong to unions and therefore cannot use unions as a resource and tool to defend their interests. A problem in Sweden is that most workers belong to unions that are so dysfunctional that it is hard or impossible to use them as a resource and tool. I have already written a piece on why Swedish unions suck, so I won’t repeat myself here.

In both Sweden and USA, I believe we can give the labor movement new life if we train more organizers who have a clear idea of what they can do on the job, every week, month after month. For me, organizing is about co-workers developing and using their collective strength in a systematic way.

With inspiration from the Labor Notes book Secrets of a Successful Organizer, such a plan can be divided into four phases as follows:

1. Mapping and personal conversations

2. Making an action plan

3. Collective action

4. Evaluation

Mapping and personal conversations

The first phase is about mapping as many departments and other units as possible and having personal conversations with those workers. This is done by members who work at the units, not by external organizers. Ultimately, you need a list of all employees of the unit to be organized. Arrange meetings in your spare time. If it takes time to work through the staff, let it take time.

The purpose is to find good organizing issues in each place and find informal or natural leaders. These are employees who have influence because they enjoy the trust of colleagues.

The authors of Secrets of a Successful Organizer formulate what characterizes a good organizing issue:

1. Breadth: the issue engages many employees

2. Depth: the issue engages them strongly

3. The issue is winnable through pressure exerted by workers; and

4. The collective action planned has good chances of making the collective even stronger.

Write down the workplace issues that colleagues bring up, what change they want to see and which methods they are prepared to use to pressure management. Note who the key people are, the informal leaders that others mention by name. Personal conversations build good relationships and encourage colleagues to participate in union work and education.

Second phase

Once you have found a good organizing issue and a concrete demand to gather co-workers around, then it is time to make an action plan. The plan must state how the demand should be presented and what pressure should be used if the bosses reject your demand. It needs to be made clear who is doing what and in what order. Crucial to the success of the action plan is that the informal leaders are with you.

In choosing methods of pressure, it is important to choose methods that are both effective and that many employees are willing to use. A majority of the staff should want to participate or at least support the methods. You need not be fixated on strikes or other varieties of economic pressure. There is also moral, psychological and legal pressure. I and a fellow union comrade have written an article about just that, alternatives to striking.

Third phase

The third phase is collective action. It is of great value if a syndicalist section has been established in the workplace. A section is a local job branch. Before implementing an action plan, the co-workers should have discussed the support needed from the section. Decisions should also have been made if you want to cooperate with other unions or act independently of them. A general advice is to be open to cooperation with other unions but clear on the conditions: that the campaign is controlled by workers on the shop floor.

It is not until organizers have talked to all their colleagues and the staff has gathered around an action plan that it becomes of great value. The planned collective methods create pressure at the bargaining table. Without a plan for collective action, it will be a battle of words and the law; such battles usually bring meagre or no results.

Fourth phase

The fourth and final phase is evaluation. The authors of Secrets of a Successful Organizer emphasize that evaluation is as important as the previous phases. To evaluate is not just to tick a box about whether your demand was met or not. Co-workers should evaluate their ability to act together, i.e. discuss strengths and weaknesses, in order to develop the capacity for the next battle. After the evaluation, the four phases can be repeated with a focus on new organizing issues and so on.

Example of a successful campaign

When I worked at the university in the city of Umeå, the staff at two departments (Law and Political Science) managed to stop a stupid reorganization and push several bosses to resign prematurely. The reorganization was about merging the two departments into one, based on the odd idea that bigger is always better. The methods we used were: petition, open questioning at staff meetings, and boycott of a series of meaningless meetings. At the Department of Law, we arranged an advisory vote on the boss of the department. The boss received very few votes and was replaced by a candidate who received a clear majority of the votes.

Two of us in the departments in question were members of SAC. We used regular meetings for syndicalists outside our departments as a coaching and sounding board. Members of other unions got no support at all from their own unions.

Even though we won the conflict, no formal structure was created. This made the conflict unnecessarily protracted and cumbersome. If we had formed a better structure, I believe we would have won quicker and had the opportunity to reflect and further develop our collective power.

Formal structure is necessary for employees to be able to make and implement democratic decisions and bridge the ups and downs of activity and of various individuals’ commitment. So in the rest of this article, I’d like to reflect on how the Secrets approach could be developed on a broader scale in Swedish workplaces where not all workers are members of the same union, using a syndicalist approach.

A syndicalist approach

As said, members of the Swedish syndicalist union SAC form local job branches called sections. At present, Swedish syndicalists have formed sections at four universities. On campuses, syndicalist sections usually hold meetings on at least two different levels: general section meetings for all members employed by the university, and meetings for individual departments or other units.

For a syndicalist section, it is natural to form these subdivisions at individual units as soon as the section has recruited groups of members there. The purpose of a subdivision is to promote the ability of colleagues to stick together and act together. The purpose of the section is to coordinate all subdivisions in joint action.

Let’s say we have a section that holds general meetings for members at a university, but not yet meetings at individual units. Such a section can start by arranging a meeting for all members who want to organize their own unit or support others who organize. At this meeting, the four phases of organizing can be discussed. In the continued work, these meetings can serve as support and sounding board for everyone who is organizing.

What kind of unions?

If SAC and other unions train more organizers, I hope we will build worker-run unions. More precisely, hope lies in formal unions that welcome workers in general. I call them popular movement unions.

If you want to get started with organizing, I highly recommend reading Secrets of a Successful Organizer and discussing it with your co-workers. The book is both in-depth and easy to read. The authors provide, for example, step-by-step guides for personal conversations and mapping the workplace. Readers receive solid advice on how workers can win conflicts, but also advice on how to deal with apathy and disappointments.

If workers build popular movement unions, then we have a chance to start moving towards a new society.

Rasmus Hästbacka

Rasmus Hästbacka is a lawyer and has been a member of the Umeå Local of SAC since 1997. He is the author of the book (free online) Swedish syndicalism – An outline of its ideology and practice. More articles by the author on Libcom here.

Comments

asn

1 year 4 months ago

Submitted by asn on October 29, 2022

Stockholm Syndrome?

Definition of malady by ASN industrial psychiatrists: A 'young' minority syndicalist movement commencing in the early 20th Century which was 'kidnapped' by an industrial relations set up interwoven with the Social Democratic bureaucratic union/party/welfare state set up and can't see outside the bars of this cage. So unwilling to escape 'kidnappers' and so trapped within it. Consequently unable to facilitate the building of mass syndicalist industrial unionism and turn the tide in the class struggle. However still attracted to nostalgic romantic past and red and black colour schemes.

Some points: If mass syndicalist unionism is to be achieved in Sweden the SAC needs to be dissolved and as I have argued previously - morph into mostly an 'underground' shadowy catalytic network focusing on one strategic sector which can change the situation re direct action which can slow the tempo of the employer offensive and initiate the strike wave movement phenomena leading to major syndicalist oriented splits from your corporate unions and attacking their base on a major scale. Definitely not co-operating with their corrupt bureaucracies.
Agencies of ruling classes in various countries have shown a grasp of this obvious approach eg Margaret Thatcher in the 1980 's with the British Miners, Ronald Reagan with the aircraft controllers. here in the antipodes John Howard with the wharfies in 1998 etc. While the key UK ruling class strategist General Frank Kitson author of "Low Intensity Operations" was particularly worried that various UK leftist groups in the 1970's would focus on just one industrial sector. The above victories of the agencies of the ruling class assisted by the corporate union bureaucracy had major flow effects on peripheral and other sectors. So you see the class struggle, the employer offensive and industrial organising must be seen as very much in this dynamic process. Your recipe for industrial organising completely ignores this issue.
In this sector you would find militant networks - perhaps today not very active and invisible on the surface. Meanwhile with the crisis and demoralisation of Marxist-Leninist groups - there is a space in these sectors to take play a key role unlike in previous historical epochs. However with this alternative approach - involving following up existing contacts and 'salting' your underground syndicalist movement could link up with them. Providing very intensive assistance. Assisting them to get overcome various obstacles to militancy and direct action. Particularly the launching of an under ground workplace paper. You completely ignore the importance of such a workplace/industry paper. It would play a critical role in reviving militancy via particularly the psychological role it could play with raising morale. These key militants would have a vast knowledge of what's going on in the sector re union stuff and on-the-job struggles you need re organising. Absolutely no need for this Labor Notes workplace researching with so called 'organisers' you advocate. All you are doing is squandering limited resources and personnel in strategically irrelevant peripheral sectors like these campuses. (But if you were to look out of your 'organising box' - those with uni jobs would have important skills for this 'industrial organising underground' work eg writing articles, desk top publishing etc which would be extremely valuable in putting out underground papers in this strategic sector and helping with distro and otherwise.) Whatever 'victories' in these peripheral sectors will be swept away by renewed management attacks because you are not tackling the tempo of the employer offensive. By focusing on this strategic sector you could assist militants to defeat in the very early 'seeming invisible' stages new spearheads of the employer offensive and so slowing its momentum.
Ten or Twelve years back there was a report of the SAC having 12,000 members - apparently today 3,000 or so, this trend will just continue. You can't play the game of the corporate 'respectable' unions - any formal organisation and organising you will be open to deep state/employer/political establishment spies infiltration while the SAC is encircled by the corporate unions and a sitting duck for crushing by the state if so required. In confronting these issues conventional 'Labor Notes' style organising won't work. You seem oblivious to this whole serious problem. Needless to say the SAC would be useless re getting going the big 'illegal' industrial action required re launching the strike wave movement leading to syndicalist oriented breakaways.
You focus just on Sweden - you can't approach the revival of syndicalism on a national scale - it occurred of course in the late 19th and early 20th Century on an 'international scale' in many countries. We have to facilitate this international development and strike wave movements today (which is more possible with the crisis/decline of Marxist Leninism, roll back of the welfare state, spiraling inflation associated with the Ukraine Crisis and War etc) through encouraging other movements to take on the above more 'realistic' strategy and assist them otherwise. Needless to say the capitalist set up is ever more globally integrated. Again you seem oblivious to this issue but approaching this organising on a narrow national level similar to the corporate unions which the SAC is in the orbit perhaps unconsciously.

Joakim

1 year 4 months ago

Submitted by Joakim on October 29, 2022

Can you present a clear line of argument, please, instead of vague rambling and nonsense about kidnappers.

asn

1 year 4 months ago

Submitted by asn on October 30, 2022

What I was trying to present was an radically different industrial organising approach in a more realistic way - taking account of real world conditions of today and historical precdents. Particularly in the context of big picture issues of the employer offensive, the strike wave movement and transitional steps toward establishing mass syndicalist industrial unionism. So like what goes on in the real world - such a discussion and presentation should be a bit rambling and messy to an extent. All the criticisms made are all interwoven too. Radically different to simplistic Labor Notes, Libcom, etc 'how to' manual style organising recipes and presentations which don't capture this 'friction', complexities and messiness. I could probably write a book on the subject, but alas I'm too busy with this messy 'real world' industrial stuff. Also see www.sparksweb.org for what such an industrial paper could look like and articles in back issues of RW on www.rebelworker.org

Joakim

1 year 4 months ago

Submitted by Joakim on October 30, 2022

OK I'll check the links. Maybe you should do some reading about the Swedish labour market.