Is industrial unionism the same as syndicalism?

Submitted by Agent of the I… on October 7, 2021

It is quite common to hear the IWW considered a syndicalist organisation even though it does not officially identify as such. Even libcom.org's intro to syndicalism lists industrial unionism as one of two major tendencies within syndicalism. I wonder if this is accurate at all. If the two are different, what would set them apart? Federation is an important organising principle of syndicalism which the IWW does not subscribe to.

Mair Waring

10 months 1 week ago

In reply to by libcom.org

The simple answer is no!

Industrial unions are really simple. It just means a union that is open to all members of an industry / workplace. In my opinion the RMT union in the UK is an industrial union as on the railway it includes painters, cleaners, ticket staff, drivers etc. In contrast ASLEF is a train drivers only union I believe. Apparently back in the day even the National Union of Miners would include staff like cooks and cleaners who worked for the industry (like in a canteen for example). So even that could be considered an industrial union. In America the CIO was all about industrial unions I believe (which merged with the AFL to form the AFL-CIO), back then there were lots of (state) communists in the CIO but they were not what we would think of as revolutionary unions (like RMT in some ways today).

Syndicalism is used to mean a few things to be honest (in France it just means trade union) and can be a bit of a vague term. In my mind two definitions stand out. The first is a more democratic form of bottom-up unionism, with no (or very very few) paid officials, ideas like mandating delegates who can be recalled, that it focused on direct action and not legal action (perhaps even being unregistered, illegal/a-legal or underground). The second is the idea of revolutionary unionism (often anarchist) that views the union as a vehicle for (or towards) a social revolution that is more worker led - and views the workers taking over industry and running society themselves (sometimes through the syndicalist union, or it may also just act as a catalyst towards this). These days the International Workers Association is full of (typically small) syndicalist unions, historically unions like the FAUD, USI, CNT, SAC were syndicalist. In general its a term that's fallen out of favour somewhat, either because people just don't know what it is any more, or because revolutionary unionism had dwindled since most unions have been integrated into the state machinery.

Both of these ideas could fit for the IWW, who might be called an industrial revolutionary union. You could also make a convincing argument against them both, in my opinion, depending on how purist you might want to be or how you think things actually work in the IWW at the moment.
Back in the 1910s in Britain there was very strong overlap between industrial and syndicalist ideas (the latter of which were particularly vague here) and I think many union officials ended up giving into the pressure for more industrial unions, which often were more effective and could lead to the union growing (there was also a lot of resistance since mergers could threaten positions). Whereas syndicalist ideas never really gained headway into official trade unions here (since this would typically mean questioning why they had officials, or removing a necessity for them by moving away from a conciliatory and top-down approach, also being revolutionary is hardly great for ensuring stable jobs).

Entdinglichung

10 months 1 week ago

In reply to by libcom.org

the mainstream unions in Germany since 1945 which are members of the DGB are industrial unions, they always state that they have adopted the principle "one enterprise one union", most of them aren't particularly combative, even compared with mainstream unions in other European countries

R Totale

10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I don't want to turn this into an ICL-CIT beef thread, but I suppose it's interesting that both the North American and now the UK/WISERA sections of the IWW are in the ICL. So I suppose you could say that industrial unionism, at least the IWW version, and syndicalism are closer than they've ever been before, now that the largest IWW sections are in the same organisation as the CNT, FAU, FORA and USI?

sherbu-kteer

10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I agree with Mair Wairing's answer. It does get confusing sometimes – like I remember reading in the AWW book that they consider the smaller "base unions" like the UVW and IWGB in the UK, SI COBAS in Italy, etc as being syndicalist, which to my mind seems inaccurate (none of these unions would consider themselves revolutionary, I don't think, however militant they may be).

Interestingly, the IWW in its heyday considered itself opposed to revolutionary syndicalism as being antiquated, trade based, etc. positing its own revolutionary industrialism as an alternative. I think this was part of the reason they never joined the refounded IWA in the 20s.

I've been looking over some documents from the pre-WWI French CGT (generally considered the foremost plain "revolutionary syndicalist" union) and it stands out to me how different the union scene was then. In 1910 Émile Pouget wrote that the CGT had 2600 affiliated members. Not individual people, but there were 2600 individual unions altogether! The way the pre-war syndicalists tried to overcome the potential divisions was to push for federation on multiple levels: unions of the same trade joining together in a national "union des syndicats", and unions of the same locality joining together in a "union locale" or through a Bourse du Travail. Then they federate upwards into two parallel streams, which then join together at the top as the CGT.

I think this all got dropped in the restructuring that occurred later under the influence of both reformists and Leninists in the CGT/CGT-U. Now, the CGT organises on an industrial basis, I think? It's obviously not revolutionary anymore. I don't know how the CGT-SR (the revolutionary syndicalist split-off from the CGT-U) approached things.

On the other hand, the IWW tried to overcome divisions by advocating for literal one big union. In the USA they tried to build that one big union themselves, whereas in other countries like Australia they acted more as a militant pressure group pushing for the existing unions to amalgamate and restructure as industrial unions (plus advocating for direct action, rejection of industrial arbitration).

As others have pointed out, there's nothing about industrial unionism that renders it inherently revolutionary. The CIO unions in the states are just standard mainline unions now. Ditto with the AMIEU in Aus, which was set up at the instigation of IWW activists. As well, simply declaring yourself an industrial union doesn't actually mean you're an industrial union. The AMIEU is nominally there to organise the entire meat industry, but leaves certain sectors of it to other unions through demarcation agreements (eg the UWU covering poultry workers).

Of course what relevance this has to the 20th century is a diff question altogether. The IWW joining up with the ICL is a good sign even if the IWW is nominally already an international unto itself.

asn

10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Coordinated direct action across industry in the early days in the 20th and today should be of obvious importance re waging effective industrial campaigns eg all transport workers taking action together in different modes eg buses, trams, trains, truckies, couriers etc and so avoiding unintentional scabbing on each other. In Australia with the predominance of bureaucratic 'corporate unionism' aligned with the ALP needless to say we don't have such coordinated effective action. Any industrial action is manipulated by the union bosses in cahoots with the bosses and Govt. to harmlessly let off steam and set up the action to fail and of course using COVID lockdown restrictions to avoid holding mass meetings. Its all run ultra bureaucratically. This sort of thing has been going on recently in transport sectors over enterprise bargains. Most of the Trot press coverup this skulduggery by the union bosses/ALP godfathers. As they are likely funded by them, Also syndicalists see industrial unionism in the context of establishing workers control of industry and the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist set and preparing workers for this task. While locals of Syndicalist union movements play an important role in workers self education to also prepare them for the above revolutionary tasks eg lectures, study groups etc. Not opportunities for middle class/student leftist navel gazing, excuses for social occasions, oppression mongering and Stalinist legacy informed political correctness displays.

"Of course what relevance this has to the 20th century is a diff question altogether. The IWW joining up with the ICL is a good sign even if the IWW is nominally already an international unto itself"

The problem is all of them have grossly simplistic notions and fantasies of how to build mass syndicalist union movements eg engaging in organising drives in all manner of industries with notions of 'gradually' getting bigger and bigger whilst working with the framework of restrictive industrial relations set ups. In reality they are all to some extent drawn into the orbit of the corporate unions and IR set up whether they are fully aware of the fact. However many like red and black color schemes and hark back to romantic pasts. To my knowledge they do not focus all heir efforts/resources/militants on one strategic sector affecting key arteries of the capitalist set up involving long range serious organising efforts leading to major industrial action affecting millions. Changing the climate in the workers movement leading to major splits toward syndicalism in the corporate unions etc. If you make a survey of historical precedents this simplistic gradual approach doesn't work but leads to catastrophic rightward splits toward the corporate unions eg the experience of the IWW in the USA eg major split in mid 50's and SAC (Swedish Workers Centre) particularly in 21st Century.
In regard to the CGT-SR - it never had 'industrial unions' it consisted of relatively small unions organisng mostly artisans - with a relatively small membership compared to the CGT and Stalinist controlled CGTU. However during the sit down strikes in 1936 it experienced some significant growth but remained a small minority see David Berry's Book on French Anarchism and review in archive section on www.rebelworker.org

In regard to the IWW approach to building industrial unions in Australia. They focused on promoting combined unions shop committees to facilitate direct action but also create the basis on the job to set up new syndicalist industrial unions and merge with the IWW. They made certain progress in ship building and repair and in the railways/tramway shops. In Broken Hill the miners union recognised IWW red cards as membership cards for their union but this was exceptional, Check out Verity Burgmann's book on the IWW in Australia and articles in the Journal of Industrial Relations re the origins of shop committee movement in Australia. They also had syndicalist proposals passed at meetings of the bureaucratic unions. These unions weren't so integrated in the corporate set up as today and there was a much higher morale of workers and effects of strike wave movements and the rise international syndicalism in those days in the early 20th Century.

ajjohnstone

10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I don't think we can forget the once prominent phase of union organisation which was centre on union amalgamation campaigns and union restructuring projects.

Enter the word amalgamation into the Marxist Archive website search and it produces scores of hits.

asn

10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

"Interestingly, the IWW in its heyday considered itself opposed to revolutionary syndicalism as being antiquated, trade based, etc. positing its own revolutionary industrialism as an alternative. I think this was part of the reason they never joined the refounded IWA in the 20s."

Despite what these elements said - the IWW was very much part of the international revolutionary syndicalist movement in which anarchist groups played an important role but not of the Stalinist legacy informed identity politics and navel gazing way of many of these groups of today - See"'Red November Black November Culture and Community in the IWW" by Salvatore Salerno, He particularly looks at the gestation period in late 19th Century/Early 20th Century leading to the formation of the IWW in the USA and the strong influence of the international syndicalism on it and various aligned militants and the important role of such anarcho-syndicalist groups as the Paterson based "Right to Existence" in the pioneering work in the mid west and eastern states leading the formation of the IWW in 1905.

asn

10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

"I've been looking over some documents from the pre-WWI French CGT (generally considered the foremost plain "revolutionary syndicalist" union) and it stands out to me how different the union scene was then. In 1910 Émile Pouget wrote that the CGT had 2600 affiliated members. Not individual people, but there were 2600 individual unions altogether! The way the pre-war syndicalists tried to overcome the potential divisions was to push for federation on multiple levels: unions of the same trade joining together in a national "union des syndicats", and unions of the same locality joining together in a "union locale" or through a Bourse du Travail. Then they federate upwards into two parallel streams, which then join together at the top as the CGT. "

From my reading about the early days of the CGT such as Ridley's "Revolutionary Syndicalism in France" - most of the large union affiliates weren't really syndicalist but more in line with reformist bureaucratic unionism of that era. However they formally adhered to the founding "Charter of Amiens" more due to a rejection of parliamentary political parties. They were known as the 'reformists.' Their focus would be on negotiations to settle disputes and only taking industrial action as a last resort. However most of the small union affiliates were in line with the revolutionary syndicalist orientation and favoring various forms of direct action .They were known as the 'revolutionaries'. However due to a quirk of the organisation involving voting at congresses based on one vote per union affiliate, the revolutionaries had predominant influence for some years. They had their people elected to important CGT committees such the 8 hour day, anti-militarist, etc and waged and influenced key campaigns such as for the 8 hour day. Particularly aimed at drawing the reformist affiliates in a syndicalist direction.

syndicalist

10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

When discussing "industrial unionism", I always crack up with this line by Daniel DeLeon:

"The one-legged conclusion regarding economic organization and activity fatedly abuts, in the end, in pure and simple bombism, as exemplified in the A. F. of L., ..... as well as by the anarcho-syndicalist so-called Chicago I.W.W.,”the Bakouninism, in short, against which the genius of Marx struggled and warned."
https://www.marxists.org/archive/deleon/works/1913/130120.htm

Not that I believe the IWW is anarcho-syndicalist or "bakunist" in inspiration.

ZJW

9 months 3 weeks ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Properly formatted version of that paragraph (as well as the context in which it appears) can be seen on page 38 here: http://slp.org/pdf/de_leon/ddlother/ind_unionism.pdf . (The site stupidly does not allow copy/pasting.)

jc

9 months 3 weeks ago

In reply to by libcom.org

In my opinion, it was ONE of the defining features of syndicalism in the early 20th century. People used it to identify themselves. Nowadays it's pointless as industrial unionism has one through sheer perseverance (what is Unite, UK, if not One Big Union?? Interesting fact - syndicalist Tom Mann influenced the formation of Unite's predecessor the TGWU, suggesting that joining different transport unions up together would be beneficial)

My other opinion is that anarcha-syndicalists are moving away from the One Big Union model, towards cooperation between militant unions and building up a workers' movement bigger than any one union affiliation. Workplace struggle has always been bigger than the formal unions anyway, and mass syndicalist unions were, historically, a failure in that they all collapsed in on themselves.

No matter how the IWW identifies itself, it was certainly an INFLUENCE on syndicalism in the UK and it's members were part of the syndicalist current in the early 20th century. The fact it came so close to joining the IWA testifies to that (not to mention that it's UK and US branches have now joined the CIT)

EDIT: going from the definitions in "Fighting for Ourselves", the IWW constitution preamble is "Revolutionary Syndicalist". It's practice through the decades has been between that and simple syndicalism (ie workers' organised in a syndicalist way, without necessarily having a formal plan for revolution)

ajjohnstone

9 months 3 weeks ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Other than amalgamation which jc refers to in his post and I mentioned in message #7, there is the Canadian One Big Union which was based on a slightly different model than the IWW.

https://www.worldsocialism.org/wsm/2020/11/11/the-one-big-union/

Workplace organisations constantly evolve in response to shifting circumstances. The 1930s saw the rise of the CIO for instance creating industrial unions for auto workers as an example.

With today's gig economy and many being Uber workers, unions are again undergoing a re-shaping to incorporate informal employees without iron-clad contracts.

If work becomes informal, unions will obviously become more flexible. With a swing to increased working from home, it may well be a return to pre-factory cottage industries and organising done online. Who can tell? But IMHO without face-to-face organisation, we may well be weaker.

asn

9 months 3 weeks ago

In reply to by libcom.org

"My other opinion is that anarcha-syndicalists are moving away from the One Big Union model, towards cooperation between militant unions and building up a workers' movement bigger than any one union affiliation. Workplace struggle has always been bigger than the formal unions anyway, and mass syndicalist unions were, historically, a failure in that they all collapsed in on themselves."

Their decline was often the result of factors completely beyond their control eg the rise of Fascism and mass Stalinism in the shape of the Communist Parties in the 20's and 30's, Other factors include a series of military coups and dictatorships in Latin America and the rise of the welfare state. Today particularly in the Anglo World we have had a major decline in the Communist Parties and the rolling back of the welfare state as part of neo-liberalism. So factors/conditions are in recent years coming into place which may favour the revival of revolutionary syndicalism. Another factor which needs to be facilitated is the strike wave movement phenomena and raised morale of workers which occurred in the early 20th Century. This requires strategic industrial organising - long range serious work in sectors straddling key arteries of the capitalist setup resulting in big actions affecting millions. Changing the state of morale of workers and generating the major splits from the corporate unions. Leading via a series of steps/phases to new syndicalist oriented mass union confederations which we would encourage to form federations of syndicalist industrial unions. To my knowledge the CIT and IWA have nothing to do with building mass syndicalist industrial union movements. Most of their affiliates have grossly simplistic notions of gradual growth re building mass syndicalist unionism and are drawn into the web of various countries industrial relations set ups and in the orbit of the corporate unions. Some of their affiliates are full on cults and sects.
You seem to have done little research into the history of international syndicalism indicative of the anti-intellectual climate of the syndi- sect.

See 'Revolutionary Syndicalism: An International Perspective ed. Wayne Thorpe and Marcel Van der Linden

asn

9 months 3 weeks ago

In reply to by libcom.org

For a critical review of Fighting for Ourselves see below

(en) Australia, Book Reviews, Rebel Worker Vol.33 No.(220) 2012 July-Aug. ... Fighting For Ourselves: Anarcho-Syndicalism and the Class Struggle

Also see on Libccom Ken Weller's memoir of 1956 in the UK illustrating the insurmountable obstacle of mass stalinism facing syndicalist initiatives for many decades in the 20th Century in the UK other parts of the anglo world and elsewhere.

syndicalist

9 months 2 weeks ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I'm not sure I get this.

jc

....... mass syndicalist unions were, historically, a failure in that they all collapsed in on themselves.