On The Frontline Redux: The Problem With Unions

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.

Submitted by RedAndBlack on May 12, 2010

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.



14 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Spikymike on June 5, 2010

This artcle is a useful start in correcting some of the apparent confusions in the otherwise useful AF official pamphlet 'On the Frontline'.

I think it's authors are right to focus on the representative function of unions within capitalism in negotiating the conditions of exploitation of their members.

They are also right to describe the British trade union laws as reinforcing that role in Britain rather than undermining it. But they place a bit too much emphasis on the significance of these particular laws in so far as the 'representative function' operates against workers class interests in many different legal and political contexts throughout the world and more importantly has always operated thus throughout the history of capitalism.

The current British examples given are useful but the article, as the original pamphlet, still neglects to put their basic analysis of the 'representative function' in any historical context. The British trade/industrial/general unions, as with those in other countries, haven't just arrived where they are today but have developed in conjunction with the development of modern global capitalism.

They have always exercised their representative function but never-the-less were able in different countries at different (if generally earlier) times to assist workers in making some genuine gains within the continuing framework of capitalism. Indeed it was their abillity to do this which has enabled them even in modern times to maintain some influence with workers.

However, it was their success in the early development of capitalism on the basis of the 'formal domination of capital and formal subsumption of labour', which along with capitalist competition, helped propel it's development in stages to the current (more or less) world wide 'real domination' of capital.

Thus the inherant function of unions both past and current has to be understood in this historical context ie that any union formations today, both because of their fundamental function and because of the changed nature of modern capitalism (both economic and social), must tend to operate in the same way and inevitably so to the extent they become 'permanent'.

The same does not apply to temporary networks of industrial/workplace militants or necessarily to more permanent minority networks of pro-revolutionary groups which do not seek to 'represent' workers ( though other equally damaging tendencies towards dogmatism, sectarianism, bureaucracy etc are a danger to small groups that remain isolated from any widespread class struggle practice).

For more on some aspects of this see:



13 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by laborbund on January 28, 2011

This article makes some very good points, though I would like to respond to what I see as some misconceptions about the IWW contained in it. The author wrote, "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”.
I don't know what the legal framework in the UK is like, but here in the United States, unions which seek formal union recognition file for an election with the national labor relations board and if they win the employer is obligated to recognize the union as the legitimate bargaining unit for the workforce. There has been quite a bit of contention inside the IWW over whether or not to use the NLRB process. On the one side, some wobs argue that more bread-and-butter gains can be made for workers when the union has formal, legal recognition. On the other hand, quite a few of us (myself included) subscribe to a strategy called "solidarity unionism" which ignores legal recognition and proposes the use of direct action to win demands. The idea is that we are a union when we say we are, not when we are recognized as such by the state, or an employer. Furthermore, we don't need legal standing to take action on the job. For those of us who subscribe to solidarity unionism, the objective isn't to gain legitimacy or even win a contract. Instead the objective is to build workers power and class consciousness by involving as many workers as we can in direct actions. I don't feel that being a "union for all workers" is necessarily as synonymous with seeking legal recognition as the author suggests.

The author asks, "how would the IWW have acted if it was the union representing construction workers during the disputes in oil and construction sector last year?" and answers, "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."

In the IWW there is pretty much no such things as a wildcat strike, because any job action members take is taken as a result of a democratic decision of the members. So the IWW probably wouldn't be pushed into a situation of trying to sabotage or control one of it's own strikes. Conversely, I could picture wobblies deciding that they are willing to face the legal consequences of illegal action.

I really recommend that the author(s) go to the IWW site and read some articles on "solidarity unionism". They might find that it isn't too far away from what they themselves are advocating.


13 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on January 28, 2011

Yes, also the authors of this article are well aware of that tendency


13 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Ed on January 28, 2011

Hi laborbund!

Yeah, I'd say that you're approach to workplace struggles is similar to that of most libcom posters (i.e. direct action based).. however, as you probably know as you're party to internal emails and the like, the UK IWW is not (hence spending thousands of pounds registering as an official union).. I think this is where the AF criticism comes from (many of them were in the IWW as well)..

One thing I thought I'd pick up on in your post was this:

In the IWW there is pretty much no such things as a wildcat strike, because any job action members take is taken as a result of a democratic decision of the members. So the IWW probably wouldn't be pushed into a situation of trying to sabotage or control one of it's own strikes. Conversely, I could picture wobblies deciding that they are willing to face the legal consequences of illegal action.

I'm not sure of strike laws in the US but in the UK there is a very strict procedure (others correct me if I get specifics here wrong):
1) Workers vote about whether they want to have a vote for strike action (voting done from home via letter NOT shopfloor)
2) Workers vote on strike action (voting done as above)
3) The strike can take place only one week after the 'yes' vote

Anything which doesn't comply by these rules (and others, oh yes, there are others) is not a legally protected strike. This means workers can be dismissed and the union can be sued/have all its assets frozen unless it distances itself from the strike.

As for picturing Wobs facing the legal challenge, I mean, that's a big thing that even the most militant unions in the UK won't do. Even at it's very biggest I'm not sure the IWW is in a position to start breaking the anti-strike laws on it's own and face having its bank account frozen and losing the registration it just paid all that money for.. also, as this article on organising a cinema in Sheffield says, "Some within the IWW felt that the Showroom organising had been too hasty in the first place, that we could risk getting the union sued and that we should scale back our efforts." :(

Anyway, hope that clarifies some stuff for you about the criticisms of the IWW on this site. I think in the past criticisms of the IWW has been very harsh but I think that's been because the division between the two tendencies you mentioned were not immediately clear. Obviously there is and has been some fantastic work going on in the US IWW (particularly Edmonton and Twin Cities, though others also..)..


10 years 11 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by meerov21 on August 15, 2013

One thing seems rong. "Syndicalism"
There is NO syndicalist type unions in modern world.
Revolutionary sindicalism of real IWW in the begining on 20 c. totaly refused collective agreements with administration and legal trial. That was revolutionary movement struggling against cooperation with boss. Has modern IWW the same politics?


8 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Spikymike on October 28, 2015

The Solidarity Federation in their 'Fighting For Ourselves' booklet seem to have got a better and clearer grasp of the problems associated with the 'representative function' of unions referred to in this 'Redux' text than the alternative AF 'On the Frontline' strategy document with this recent AF soft criticism of the IWW indicating that it is still a confused issue for the AF: https://afed.org.uk/the-working-class-needs-who/
The Redux 'network of militant workers' approach is similar to the earlier less confused AF strategy of promoting a network of 'workplace resistance groups' but in the current UK climate the absense of any such network has inevitably driven a more understandably pragmatic approach to making the best out of a bad situation and using whatever networking opportunities there might be whether through the IWW or SolFed or any other more temporary arrangement that might suite.
It is the necessary 'representative function' of unions (supported for practical reasons by most workers) which at this stage of capitalist development still prevents the emmergence or re-emmergence of any genuinely revolutionary union of size and significance, irrespective of the differeing legislative contexts, which means that whether organisations of militant politicised workers call themselves 'unions' or not they will inevitably be restricted to a minority agitational function or else follow the same path as the more traditional unions.