Fancy a challenge? Try keeping your politics intact whilst working with ordinary, apolitical workmates to build an unofficial union. Apolitical workplace organisers have it easy! If, like me, you hold dear a set of political beliefs that can only be fully realised once state and capital are no more, organising with your workmates may prove the most frustrating way of spending your precious time.
I've been here often before; working outside and around established unions, without unions and in the face of unions. I'm an anarcho-syndicalist, though this can all go out the window sometimes when faced with occasional bouts of nearly overwhelming mean spiritedness from my workmates. Not to try and sound cocky but providing workmates are up for a battle, organising a recognisable syndicalist structure albeit without any constitutions, can prove easy. Easy because people prefer to participate in grass roots unions; official representative unions turn members into passive consumers herded along, often grumbling only out of earshot. Perhaps it is the path of least resistance that sees these unions form along syndicalist lines when members want to play equal and active parts. For those who haven't tried organising for themselves, people open up in grass roots unions and there is greater commitment to the struggle; and along with the new found vehicle for expression, sadly, can come the shit patter that is usually shut away for nights on the town.
Its de ja vu, all over again
So, here we go again; I'm involved in another proto unofficial union effort, and to be honest it's coming along quite nicely. It's a small affair and modest in most ways, and perhaps not even a vehicle to launch a discussion. And in true anarcho-syndicalist tradition, I can't comment too much about the specifics about what we're up to - and herein lies another area in which often lets anarcho-syndicalists down: missing out all too often on the opportunity to make the most of even the victories. But from the conversations I've had around our network, I know people have already invested hope for a more militant future.
So, stories about anarcho-syndicalists organising in the shadows is ground well covered, but what I want to look at is that problem between us as politically - and often economically - motivated beasts mixing it up with the people that would be shown the door at most anarchist group meetings.
My friends, the bastards
Like every one else, I temper who I am to suit the occasion. Everyone does. That doesnt mean you arent true to your own self, it just means you dont spend your every waking moment flying in the face of reality. Probably like you I abhor all the ism's that divide working class people, and do my bit - and sometimes more (sometimes not enough) - to challenge the derogatory and abusive, passively hate filled language and attitudes I hear on a daily basis at work. But I'm no saint; at some point you have to choose your battles and when to make a stand in order to win. I work in construction and taking a theatrical stand on an issue is often counter productive - and shit, I've got to stay sane! People who know me probably temper their language in line with what they think is acceptable to me, and I really appreciate that. But, it's not about seeing to it that people keep it zipped for fear of offending others; it's about challenging that language and, even though I hate saying this, it's about educating people.
Having only ever done this type of work, I have possibly a very inaccurate understanding of the attitudes and language of fellow workers in other jobs. I may be hopelessly off the mark, but I guess for poorly qualified manual workers, what I come across is common, though I might say a hell of a lot less worse than it was back in the eighties.
So, despite the fact that every last one of my workmates would expose themselves unknowingly as the devil incarnate before even opening their mouths should they even enter an anarchist meeting, they aren't bad people on the whole. In fact, they're my friends.
Organising the bastards
So where does that leave me? Wait until everyone has a profound understanding of privilege, value, class, language as well as all the other stuff before convincing them of anarcho-syndicalism? Well, it's an option.. though with an eye on the time and my less than able powers of persuasion, it may prove more productive to work with my bastard mates. And besides, I don't have a profound understanding of any of those areas of study.
For any chance of being able to convince my workmates to come over to the politics of anarcho-syndicalism, leaps of faith are very much out the window for most workers; what they want is convincing protection and victories. However, every time reformist unions turn their backs or betray workers, a window of opportunity opens for small unofficial unions like this one. Put a few victories under the belt and you have something the less brave might feel inclined to join.
In the face of union repression
This isn't Spain. We can't just declare ourselves a union and expect the bosses to recognise us as a bargaining force. Though this doesn't stop us getting what we want or providing protection in the way of determined solidarity, providing we hold the upper hand - trust me on this one, it really is like that. Most firms are as about as streamline as they can be before they can't function; take a look at just how a sickie from one of your workmates can throw things into chaos - firms cannot afford to have trouble from determined workers unions, official, unofficial, temporary or permanent. Usually the biggest obstacle is nothing like laws, it's a divided shop floor. And obviously we suffer some of that too. Of course they aren't all complete bastards. Some are wonderful people; hilarious, warm spirited and daft.
And the politics..?
Apart from challenging dodgy language and attitudes, talking up and instilling a sense of class identity and solidarity and loyalty, that is where the politics end. Its never easy sitting round a table having to keep listening to the odd bastard chipping away and staying composed enough to shut them up with reason.
Turning something like this proto-union into a politically motivated body is not going to happen; if there was a SolFed branch or presence (beyond the SF promotional stuff scattered around work - and, yes it does get read!) then maybe SolFed would grow in our workplace as a result of supporting our efforts, and in turn be able to have that political presence that anarchists are trying desperately to create. And yes, maybe it would be a process of slowly building a branch presence as one by one people warm to the politics of anarcho-syndicalism, because growth means nothing if it dilutes the ideas to accommodate workers who only want improvement without actual political agreement.
But as the anarcho-syndicalist union USI in Italy has shown in the San Raphael hospital, a union with 500 members isn't impossible, it starts the same, with one determined group who can successfully challenge attitudes and put a few wins in to convince fellow workers of the potency and relevance of political unions, to join up and to be less of a bunch of bastards.