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WSM and platformist positions on trade unions

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Mike Harman
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Apr 10 2006 08:25
WSM and platformist positions on trade unions

Admin - Split from Anarchist Workers Group thread

jack white wrote:
Serge Forward wrote:
groups like the WSM and AL have always had a less critical approach to the trade union bureaucracies than either the AF or SolFed.

What are you talking about here?

This is the WSM position paper on unions: http://www.struggle.ws/wsm/positions/tradeunions.html (by the way, at least one older one is on the struggle.ws site - is this intentional? 'cos it's not obvious that it's been updated).

The position paper rules out breakaway unions and all forms of syndicalism (which I assume would include attempts at base unions), along with the "outside and against" position. This limits WSM activity in workplaces almost entirely to activity within the business union structures.

The main section on activity within the unions is here:

Quote:

7.1 Our perspectives for activity within the unions are centred on encouraging workers themselves to take up the fight against the bosses, state interference and the TU bureaucracy. Our most important area of activity is on the shopfloor.

7.2 We encourage 100% union membership and all WSM members are members of their appropriate trade union. When members take up employment in non-union jobs, they are expected to join an appropriate trade union. However, depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary for some considerable time for this person to remain a secret/ "sleeper" member. The process of unionisation of non-union workplaces is extremely varied and complex. In some cases an immediate organising drive can unionise a workplace, in others it is only when a specific issue arises that workers begin to become receptive to unionisation, in yet others it will be the product of slow and undramatic work aimed at convincing people in ones and twos. The WSM members on a particular job are best placed to decide what strategy is most useful in their workplace."

7.3 No WSM member will accept any unelected position that entails having power over the membership.

7.4 Members elected as shop stewards consider their position as that of a delegate rather than that of a 'representative' who can act over the heads of the members.

I personally have a few issues with it.

First the idea that in a non-union workplace the proposed activity in all cases is to join an appropriate business union, even if in secret, then try to recruit all of your workmates to it if the conditions are there. It's hard enough getting people to join a business union in a unionised workplace (as I've found out from recent experience), and it seems to rule out the idea of informal workplace groups - which have been successful enough in some cases. Not to say this might not be suitable in some situations, although most examples of unions going into non-union shops have been initiated by the bureaucracies recently - like GMB at ASDA.

The second thing is the idea that union structures can be democratised, maybe one or two might be, but I don't see that happening with any of the big unions in the UK, ever. It's much more likely that entirely new organisations will spring up if it gets to the point where levels of militancy are that high that the structure could be changed in the membership's favour.

In most cases, people are better off being in a standard Trade Union than none at all. I'm not outside and against. But, I'd only use it for the minimum 'services' it provides - basic protection and maybe legal/H&S advice, maybe the ability to call meetings and stuff - and would have no pretense to that having anything to do with my politics, just basic pragmatism. If anything major happened at a work situation I think any useful activity would have to be outside the union structures - especially since all the senior managers could potentially join the one I'm in, and the workforce is split between two unions that are very unlikely to ever work together. Inside and against (and also outside where possible), in other words wink.

This wasn't just about the WSM though, it was also about other platformist organisations - NEFAC's workplace position paper was discussed on here a shortish while ago, which led to a pretty long piece by Chris Wright on it:

http://nefac.net/node/2001

http://libcom.org/library/nefac-workplace-position-critique-wright

martinh
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Apr 9 2006 19:16
Catch wrote:

The position paper rules out breakaway unions and all forms of syndicalism (which I assume would include attempts at base unions), along with the "outside and against" position. This limits WSM activity in workplaces almost entirely to activity within the business union structures.

I'd say it also seems to jar with WSM practice, as they've been involved in backing the "breakaway" IWU, rightly IMO. Perhaps a WSMer would care to elaborate?

Regards,

martin

jack white
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Apr 9 2006 19:57

Hi Catch, Martin H.

I'm involved in the IWU (conference was yesterday). I'll try to elaborate on that and on what Catch brought up later this evening. Maybe it'd be worth splitting this thread?

gurrier
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Apr 10 2006 00:29
Catch wrote:
...it seems to rule out the idea of informal workplace groups - which have been successful enough in some cases....

It doesn't rule out informal workplace groups - how could it? 'you will not discuss class politics with co-workers except in formal settings'.

Do you know of any examples of successful 'informal workplace groups' which have lasted any length of time in a job?

Catch wrote:
The second thing is the idea that union structures can be democratised, maybe one or two might be, but I don't see that happening with any of the big unions in the UK, ever. It's much more likely that entirely new organisations will spring up if it gets to the point where levels of militancy are that high that the structure could be changed in the membership's favour.

I don't think that we have any particular position on whether union structures can be democratised in the long run or whether an increase in support for our ideas would lead to a breakaway. Our position, as I understand it, revolves around the idea that militants should be where the workers are and that there is no point is the small number of radicals setting up on their own in the here and now and that it is a much more worthwhile task to agitate within our unions. Who knows what might happen if we gain enough influence to make a difference? In any case our position is not premised on any particular outcome being likely in such a situation, just that we have even less of a chance of getting there if we don't make the arguments to the people who don't already agree with them.

Mike Harman
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Apr 10 2006 00:57
gurrier wrote:

It doesn't rule out informal workplace groups - how could it? 'you will not discuss class politics with co-workers except in formal settings'.

By 'informal groups', I mean workplace resistance groups - organised informally outside union structures to co-ordinate activity and information. Not just informal discussions in general. My singular lack of experience in either a functioning real union or functioning informal group means that chats in the pub are as far as I've got unfortunately sad

The impression I get from the position paper, if possibly a false one, is that if informal discussions went well then the result of them would be to encourage people to join the union, then once they're in to encourage them to argue a particular line within it. This is what I'm doing at the moment, I'm not knocking it on principle, but neither would I encourage it on principle. Especially since my 'encouragement' is "it's shit, they won't do fuck all, but join anyway" wink

Quote:

Do you know of any examples of successful 'informal workplace groups' which have lasted any length of time in a job?

MWD lasted for a little while no? I think a more important question would be how many workplace groups of any type have carried out sustained struggle in a job within the past few years. Very, very few is the answer. The nature of an informal group (which MWD wasn't really, more a proto-union from what I've seen), would be that it'd be relatively clandestine and unlikely to publicise itself too much I'd've thought, plus it wouldn't be much more than informal chats unless something was actually going on.

Quote:

I don't think that we have any particular position on whether union structures can be democratised in the long run or whether an increase in support for our ideas would lead to a breakaway.

Rank and file initiatives might well lead to a breakaway if it got far enough - I can see action like this leading to other things, if only indirectly. Lefty breakaways are discouraged in the position paper though aren't they?

Quote:

Our position, as I understand it, revolves around the idea that militants should be where the workers are and that there is no point is the small number of radicals setting up on their own in the here and now and that it is a much more worthwhile task to agitate within our unions.

The workers are at work, at my job a tiny number of them are in the union, and it's in a sector and area with traditionally high union membership rates. In that situation, to work within the unions you need to get people into them first, which means recruitment drives - doing the reps job for them - to get people into an organisation that's main activity will be to send them leaflets about insurance and credit card deals and take £120 a year off them. I'm doing that a bit, fairly quietly, but it's fucking sickening to be honest no matter how honest I try to be about the reality of it.

Quote:
Who knows what might happen if we gain enough influence to make a difference?

For me the question isn't whether we might make a difference within the unions, it's being able to make a difference at work. The two are by no means necessarily the same thing.

Quote:
In any case our position is not premised on any particular outcome being likely in such a situation, just that we have even less of a chance of getting there if we don't make the arguments to the people who don't already agree with them.

Well although the IWW in the US is doing alright, in the UK I'm sceptical. SolFed doesn't and can't function as a union. I'm not a syndicalist, nor do I completely reject trad. trade unions a priori like some of our proper ultra-leftist friends. To be honest, I think the best thing we can be doing right now is circulating information about struggles going on and organising at work on a person-to-person basis informally. I don't think there's the potential for much more than that at the moment.

Deezer
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Apr 12 2006 07:56

There might be other stuff missing from here, I think I remember there being another post from jack white among other stuff. I'd linked to the discussion on the Ireland forum here:

http://libcom.org/forums/viewtopic.php?t=8707

Cheers;

circle A red n black star

Mike Harman
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Apr 12 2006 23:54

Thanks for the link boul, that helps a bit.

jack white
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Apr 17 2006 23:42

Hi folks,

apologies for not getting back to this until now.

re the IWU. Its not really accurate to describe it as a breakaway union - it was more of a potential breakaway.

(cue longwinded explanation)

Most of the original people involved in the IWU (including the current General Secretary and the current Treasurer) were members of the Cork Operative Butchers Society - a small independent union that had its own negotiating licence. When Mick O'Reilly was sacked as Republic of Ireland Secretary of the ATGWU it was seen as an oppertunity to launch a new radical union. O'Reilly went along with this to the point of encouraging and supporting the launching of the new union but then his situation changed and he went back to his old job. (he actually spoke at our national conference about getting the IWU into the ATGWU - this idea was politely rebuffed.

I think the part of the position paper about breakaway unions hasn't been updated in a while. I reckon the sentiment is fair enough though- if you believe in working in the existing unions then theres no point isolating all the radical workers from everyone else, to be honest though I think thats a bit simplistic as well. For me its the type of issue which would be best decided on a case by case basis.

Anyway I think our involvement in it is good. We've got a structure in Dublin based on monthly meetings and working groups - recruitment, publicity, admin etc which is pretty democratic and gives all members the chance to have real input. We also got a motion put through at national Conference which we're pretty happy with:

Quote:
“1. Each member of the union will be attached to a branch and will be invited to regular branch meetings.

2. At least 50% of the National Executive Committee will be branch delegates. These delegates will be directly elected by the branches, and will be mandatable and recallable. To facilitate this, the agenda for National Executive Committee meetings will be circulated in advance in time for issues to be discussed by branches and branch delegates to be mandated.

3.The immediate and ongoing objective of all branches of the union is to recruit new members. When a branch reaches a certain size, a full-time paid official will be elected. The logistics of implementing this policy will be discussed by all branches and by the National Executive Committee over the coming period with a view to having detailed proposals for Annual Delegate Conference 2007.”

Ideally I'd be part of a strong militant anarcho-syndicalist union, and the IWU obviously isn't that but it is a fighting union. At this stage of development it also has the potential to be a really democratic union. it does have its problems but as someone who's worked in fully unionised sites where no one could name the shop steward and on jobs where the bosses were part of the union thats whats important to me.

Quote:
The impression I get from the position paper, if possibly a false one, is that if informal discussions went well then the result of them would be to encourage people to join the union, then once they're in to encourage them to argue a particular line within it.

Our position would allways be to encourage people to join a union. If you're talkinga bout all the workers in a non-union site then I think it could be possible to do something outside of union structures but for legal protection if nothing else I think its worth people joining a union.

(I'm the only person in my workplace in the IWU, possibly the only person in a union - apart from the principle it does give me some backup if I ever got fired...)

Quote:
Especially since my 'encouragement' is "it's shit, they won't do fuck all, but join anyway" Wink

I think thats a pretty sensible position to take actually - there's no point misleading people.

Quote:
For me the question isn't whether we might make a difference within the unions, it's being able to make a difference at work. The two are by no means necessarily the same thing.

You've hit on the 2 reasons the WSM are involved in unions here. 1 that they're a tool for defending and improving the conditions of workers and 2. that as structures of the working class they offer a place for us to argue our politics.

I think both parts are related, it wouldn't take too much effort to go along to poorly attended branch meetings and get a load of meaningless motions passed if you want to in a lot of unions. They're only relevant if the union is relevant to peoples lives - i.e. produces results and have a certain level of participation.

Sorry I took so long to get back to this - I've probably missed some of the points raised- if I did get back to me and I'll try to respond a bit quicker this time!

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EdmontonWobbly
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Apr 18 2006 00:01

Isn't the criticism that the these unions are small though, not that they are anarchist?

I find it really interesting that the WSM has a bit of literature against being involved in syndicalist unions, largely focusing on the fact that these unions are small and marginal. But the IWU isn't very big at all either, in fact it seems like it is about as big as the IWW. Now personally I am all for 'fighting unions' as well as syndicalist unions, and even informal workplace resistance groups within business unions.

Forgive me if this sounds like an unfair criticism, but it seems the WSM judges a union based on how far their politics will go within that body rather than working for the union as a good in itself.

Now with business unions I think that is actually pretty fair, because they will also 'use' activists for their hard work enthusiasm and talent, and get rid of them before they can actually be effective radicals. I have no qualms about infiltrating business unions to push forward an ideological agenda because I think in the end the unions are using their militants too.

But with small fightin unions, syndicalist or otherwise, I think the aspect of self managed struggle makes them a value in and of themselves. While it is fine to just treat the business unions as another place to spread ideas I think that many small unions should be supported for the free hand at trying unconventional tactics that they allow.

For the workers involved I think an IWW campaign is going to teach us a hell of a lot more about organizing in the workplace than any business union drive. It will also teach the workers on the shop floor a lot about self organisation- if done properly.

jack white
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Apr 18 2006 00:17
Quote:
I find it really interesting that the WSM has a bit of literature against being involved in syndicalist unions, largely focusing on the fact that these unions are small and marginal.

I don't think that this is actually the case - mind you if you find some such articles post links to them and we can discuss it.

Quote:
Forgive me if this sounds like an unfair criticism, but it seems the WSM judges a union based on how far their politics will go within that body rather than working for the union as a good in itself.

This is unfair - well its untrue anyway. Most members of the wsm are actually in 'business' unions - where there's not much chance of our politics going too far in the near future anyway. WSM members got involved in the IWU as individuals first - there wasn't some grand scheme to infiltrate and see if we could take them over. Obviously as members we try to co-ordinate our activity and push for policies which reflect our politics - smae as e would in any organisation or campaign.

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EdmontonWobbly
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Apr 18 2006 19:40

Okay fair enough, maybe I wasn't really being accurate.

But I still think it is a bit odd that the platformists are supporting the IWU when I have heard many platformists criticize the IWW. It seems to me the IWU has the same numbers, same amount of experienced organizers, and a very similar approach to much of the IWW in North America. Does this mark some kind of reconsideration of syndicalism as a tactic in one of the older platformist federations?

(Don't get me wrong I think that the IWU can be very useful, just as the IWW is, there are plenty of places the mainstream unions won't touch that small syndicalist formations can build in).