Members of the Anarchist Federation respond to criticisms of the organisation's workplace strategy On the Frontline: anarchists at work. Taken from issue 74 of Organise!, the Anarchist Federation's magazine.
The last Eighteen months have seen some of the largest attacks on living standards in Britain in recent times. Mass layoffs, attacks on pay and conditions, spiralling unemployment, cuts in services and attacks on claimants all paint a bleak picture which doesn’t look to be brightening any time soon – indeed it appears that they are the opening salvo in the biggest attack on the working class since the 1980s. However, 2009 also saw some inspiring struggles in which workers were willing to take on seemingly impossible odds. Secondary picketing and factory occupations burst back onto the scene as militant workers flouted anti-strike laws, while months of local disputes in the Royal Mail (including a number of wildcat walkouts) led to national strike action by postal workers as the year came to a close.
Such action deserves ongoing solidarity and support. But beyond providing this to workers we should be aiming to help bring struggles together. On top of this, as well as supporting the actions of fellow workers, we are faced by our own battles on a day to day basis; battles which stem from the same predicament anyone who has to pay the bills regularly faces. Winning a better world requires a working class willing to fight in its interests; and building this kind of confidence among our fellow workers requires a strategy. But does that strategy currently exist?
Early last year, the Anarchist Federation published On the Front Line, its workplace strategy. Distributed in pamphlet form, the document was an attempt to clarify the organisation’s thinking on the problems we face at work, and the practical avenues for workplace organisation in different kinds of workplaces (unionised, non-unionised, etc). On the Front Line made no secret of the fact it was provisional, and the product of discussions which remained far from conclusion, stating in its introduction, “There is one last thing that this document is not. It is not final. We present this as provisional, as all revolutionary ideas must be. Our commitment to developing these ideas in the light of new ideas and experiences is absolute.”
In this spirit, we want here to revisit the discussion of the nature and role of unions. We aim to help clarify the nature of the problems we face at work and what we can do about them. We seek to contribute to ongoing discussions within both the AF and pro-revolutionary circles on workplace strategy; discussions which we feel are vital in laying the groundwork for co-operation between members of different class struggle political tendencies – co-operation we see as essential given the brutal conditions the working class currently faces.
In this article we do not want to respond to all the criticisms made of the pamphlet, or to return to all the issues it covered. Here we want to focus on clarifying the critique of unions, and address some of the ambiguities visible in On the Front Line with what it calls “syndicalist and grass-roots unions”. This is largely a question of analysis, and we do not propose any detailed industrial strategy here – though of course the basis of any practical strategy is it analysis of the world we live in, and we hope to contribute to this process. We recognise one of the major criticisms of the pamphlet – that it describes events but does not really advance any real strategy, instead describing “tendencies” – but cannot detail in depth what we advocate here. We hope that this article will assist the development of a shared strategy on the part of class struggle anarchists. Insofar as we do this, we are doing it as individuals and not reflecting the collective view of the organisation, which at date remains that advanced in On the Front Line.
The argument we want to make here is that the problem with unions isn’t that they aren’t under the control of their membership, but that their function within capitalism is to negotiate the conditions of exploitation of their members. They are the mediating organisations of labour-power, and serve to mediate the conflict of interests between employers and the workforce. It is this representative function which is the problem, and remains the problem whether or not the mediating organisation is a bureaucratic TUC-affiliated union or a member-controlled union with a revolutionary constitution. Insofar as they are the recognised representatives of workers, and seek to make deals on their behalf, they stand to run into the same pitfalls.
To elaborate further, we want here to examine significant workers’ struggles which have taken place in Britain in the past 18 months, with a view to analysing both the behaviour of the unions in these situations, and the reason why this behaviour takes place. In the final section of the article, we want to look at whether there is any scope for “syndicalist and grass-roots unions” to behave differently in Britain in 2010. One of the most significant criticisms of On the Front Line was its lack of reference to historical evidence or recent struggles. We aim to rectify this here, by looking at three major struggles of 2009, and the role the union played.
The Visteon Occupations
On the 31st of March 2009 the car parts manufacturer Visteon announced its bankruptcy, with the closure of three of its plants in the UK and the loss of 610 jobs. After flying visits by receivers to the factories, the workers were sacked without notice and with no guarantee of any redundancy or that they would see their pensions. Management, who were fully aware of the impending bankruptcy of the company had kept the staff working right up until they were fired, knowing full well they would not be paid for the hours they worked. Management had already secured their pensions in advance, and the evidence points towards the company having been run into the ground deliberately.
In response, workers at the Enfield and Belfast plants occupied the factories. Workers at Basildon occupied too, but finding nothing of value left on the site, they trashed the offices. They were evicted by riot police, and began a 24-hour picket of the plant. The Belfast occupation received strong support from the start; many of workers, who were split evenly between Protestant and Catholic backgrounds, lived locally. Meanwhile, support groups sprung up to provide supplies, funds and practical solidarity to the workers at the three factories.
Most of the workers were members of the Unite union, and had paid subs for years. Despite this, the union gave no financial support until the end of the struggle, and the only contact between the union and the workers was through the site convenors. At Enfield, union bosses arrived only to give erroneous legal advice (they told the workers they faced jail for their actions – they didn’t) and pressured the workers to end the occupation. Other legal advice from the union was similarly useless, and it was their supporters who had to point out that squatting is not illegal, and they didn’t face arrest for it. Funds came from supporters and union branches, and Unite didn’t recommend that its members support the struggle or even publicise it on their website.
The union was faced with workers taking action in their own interest and on their own initiative. This was a threat to its own role as official representative of the workers. Its response was to isolate the struggle, and attempt to take the initiative away from the workers concerned. To this effect, it was successful in pressurising the workers to leave the plant (giving up their own leverage – control over the fixed capital of the company) so that it could negotiate. Though the union claimed that this strengthened negotiations, it seems the opposite happened – workers were now only able to negotiate from a position of weakness. In fact the only reason that Ford came to the negotiating table was ex-Visteon workers organising delegations to Ford sites, to attempt to get them to “black “ Visteon products. The threat of unofficial secondary action was more of an incentive than the entreaties of the union. In the end, after union bosses flew out to America to broker a deal, leading to improved redundancy packages. However the question of pensions remained unresolved, and although workers voted to end their action it remained a partial victory.
Oil industry walkouts
On 28 January 2009, approximately 800 Lindsey Oil Refinery workers went on strike following the announcement by the Italian construction contractor IREM that Italian and Portuguese workers were hired to work on the site, rather than local workers. On 30 January, around 700 workers at the Grangemouth Oil Refinery in central Scotland walked out in solidarity. They were also joined by walkouts at Aberthaw in South Wales, at the ICI site in Wilton, Teesside and at the British Petroleum site in Saltend, Hull.
When workers at other refineries and power station sites walked out in solidarity, Mass meetings were organised to decide how to take the struggle forward. They were joined by other workers at pickets and demonstrations outside various power stations and refineries. They showed little sign of being concerned about the illegal nature of their actions as they showed solidarity with their fellow work colleagues. They were angry at the prospect of unemployment and ever worsening living conditions.
From the outset, the strike movement appeared to be trapped in nationalism. With workers standing on picket lines with banner and placards proclaiming “British Jobs for British Workers”. The media and trade unions encouraged this outlook; it was never the demand of the workers as discussed and decided at their mass meetings. The principal demand of the strikers as ratified by a mass meeting, was that the NACEI Agreement cover all workers. Also, 200 Polish workers came out in support of the strikers, furthering undermining the initial nationalist perspective of the struggle.
On February 5th, a deal was reached, after several days of discussion between TOTAL and GMB. The deal created 102 new jobs in addition to the ones awarded IREM.
The strike at Lindsey resumed on 11 June 2009, after a subcontractor at the site laid off 51 employees. The strike was quickly followed by sympathy strikes at Cheshire’s Fiddlers Power Station on 15 June and Aberthaw on 17 June. The strikes escalated on 18 June, with walkouts at four further sites. On the 19th of June 2009 nearly 700 construction workers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery were sacked. The sackings came following 1,200 workers walking out unofficially at the plant in the jobs dispute. These were followed by walkouts of 3,000 workers at other sites around the country in support of the Lindsey workers.
These unofficial strikes forced the Total oil company to withdraw the sackings. They also won the jobs back for the 51 construction workers whose redundancies sparked the walkouts.
The Lindsey workers did not wait for the union with their secret ballot and rulebook to walkout in support of their sacked colleagues. Nor did the workers at other sites. The union was put on the back foot, having to play catch up with the movement that was not under its control; although initially the union leadership called on workers to go back. They were forced, faced with emergence of the movement against the mass sacking to try and recuperate it back within union control. The two main unions representing workers involved in the action were GMB and Unite. They instantly sought to enter into negotiations with Total in order to take the initiative away from the developing movement and end the dispute. Also this struggle was fought on a much clearer basis, this time the strike movement that was much larger and without the reactionary slogan “British Jobs for British Workers”.
2009 Postal Strikes
On October 8th, postal workers voted in favour of taking strike action. Strike action occurred at Royal Mail offices in London and Edinburgh in response to the announcement of potential job and service cuts which breached the 2007 Pay and Modernisation Agreement (this agreement was struck to end the strikes at Royal Mail in 2007). This also occurred in the aftermath of a series of local walkouts during the summer, forcing the CWU to open a national ballet for strike action.
The CWU decided to have a series of two and three day strikes. But in early November, they had reached an ‘Interim Agreement’ with Royal Mail management. This agreement brokered by Acas, called off the national postal strikes.
The agreement will further the process of eroding the conditions of workers at Royal Mail. Introducing changes to present working practices meaning workers can be expected to work all sorts of different shifts, with management having the ability to use posties at any time. Also group working will be introduced which sets responsibility for dealing with large volumes of mail traffic on the shoulders of individual postal-workers.
Many postal workers struggled at a local level initially, but when the CWU took ownership of the strikes calling national staggered strikes and to then call them off unilaterally in order to negotiate. It is inevitable that workers will be demoralized, having lost wages (postal workers in Liverpool and London lost three weeks wages). Trying to defend themselves from attacks on their living conditions, to be sold a deal which was hardly distinguishable from the offer on the table at the outset.
Grassroots and syndicalist unions
As we have seen from these events, there is a tension which keeps appearing between the union and the workers – when faced with an angry workforce looking to take action, the union has two real options – subvert and sabotage it, or attempt to co-opt it under its control. In practice, the examples above shows that both tend to happen. But why does this happen? And can the “syndicalist and grass roots unions” we describe in On the Front Line pose an alternative?
The reason the union acts in the way it does, co-opting and sabotaging its members, is because of its function as established, recognised, and legal representative of the workers. In this role its job is to negotiate deals on their behalf, and establish the terms of their exploitation. They sustain a bureaucracy of well-paid professionals whose job is just that. Beyond these organisational weaknesses, the structure of union laws precludes any alternative, and in practice, the anti-strike laws are a godsend to unions who use them to terrorise workers out of action, whether the legal threat is real or not (as was the case at Enfield and in the early days of the Lindsay walkout). There is a legal obligation for workers to jump through the hoops facilitated by their union, the demoralising process of negotiation, meetings, consultative ballots, more negotiation, strike ballots, etc. This legal context is real, and provides unions with carte blanche to sabotage militancy which looks set to exceed what is tolerable – no union leader, no matter how “left”, will allow their organisation to be crippled by the litigation open flouting of union laws would represent. This is what we see as the major problem for “syndicalist and grass roots unions” as a strategy in Britain in 2010, a problem that isn’t really engaged with in On the Front Line.
In the pamphlet, the only current example we gave of these “syndicalist-type” unions is the Industrial Workers of the World. Though the IWW seeks to become a functioning union, it has had few job shops in the UK, and has less than 1000 members. In practice, it is used by its members as a form of industrial network, and many of its advocates point to this side of the IWW as its most promising quality. While we recognise this, and see any networking between pro-revolutionaries and other militant workers as important, this is not without its own problems.
Part of the problem is that despite this the IWW isn’t clear about how it sees itself - and in On the Front Line we repeated this uncertainty. On the one hand it is an expressly radical organisation, with a preamble and constitution arguing for the abolition of wage labour and “industrial democracy”. As we have seen, its members frequently posit it as a network for radical and militant workers to stay in touch with each other, Dual-carding with other unions in their workplace in order to agitate a more militant line. On the other hand, it posits itself as a “union for all workers”, seeks legal recognition as a functioning union and the ability to organise workplaces itself. Insofar as we treated the IWW as a useful networking tool in On the Front Line, we failed to square this with how it sees itself and its stated function as a “union for all workers”.
In its incarnation as a “union for all workers”, it styles itself as the answer to the problems of TUC unions: “We are a grassroots and democratic union helping to organise all workers in all workplaces ...We are NOT:
• Full of stifling bureaucracy or linked to any political party or group.
•Led by fat cat salary earners who carry out deals with bosses behind your back
•Going to sell you services, life insurance or credit cards”
But why do unions “carry out deals with bosses behind your back”? It is because of the obligatory representative functions that legal unions carry. They have a legal obligation to enforce anti-strike legislation on their members, with the threat of the union being crippled by legal action from employers otherwise. If the IWW became the functioning union it aimed to be, it would still face these realities. It would have the option of either enforcing the atomising and demoralising legal processes of building to strike action on its members, or it would have to have named representatives with the legal responsibilities they carry. Whether the IWW wanted to or not, the organisation would be required to either police its membership, or be litigated out of existence. It isn’t ultra-left dogmatism to recognise this – its about understanding the legislative reality of 21st century Britain.
To take an example from above, how would the IWW have acted if it was the union representing construction workers during the disputes in oil and construction sector last year? Perhaps it would have been less nationalistic in its rhetoric, but ultimately it would have been forced into the same position as the TUC unions – between attempting to take control of the struggle and sabotaging it. If it openly participated in organising secondary action it would be faced with the full weight of anti-strike legislation, and crippled through the courts. This means its options would have had to have argued against secondary action and unofficial walkouts, or to advocate them and risk its own future as an organisation. Likewise the mass meetings at Lindsay which decided on demands and voted on whether to accept offers would have had only faced the difference of what union to ignore, as decision-making power was in their hands and they weren’t bound by the same legal strictures
Of course, it is all well and good to criticise something, but in the absence of an alternative the exercise isn’t a positive one. In contrast we argue for an industrial network of militant workers who would put forward the perspective that workers should control their struggles through mass meetings and act as a militant presence in a workplace, sector or industry and for the extension of struggles when they arise. In contrast to the IWW in its incarnation as a legal, functioning union, it would not seek to negotiate deals with management, but would seek for mass meetings of workers to make decisions – in the teeth of anti-union laws and the machinations of the unions. Unlike a legal, registered union, it would not aspire to organise any shops as the representative union; it would have no named officials (whether called “delegates” or not) and not be bound by anti-union laws.