Anarchy in the Unions: Contemporary Anarchists at Work - Jeffrey Shantz

An article looking at anarchists' involvement in rank-and-file committees and flying squads in Canada.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 5, 2011

In the past few years, striking media coverage of anarchists has stirred memories of the moral panic over anarchism, which marked the beginning of the twentieth century. Also, police assaults on anarchists during economic summits, including pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, and mass arrests, in addition to shootings and even killings, have suggested to the general public that anarchists are something to be feared. That view has been reinforced in mainstream media depictions of anarchists as “thugs” and “hooligans.” Lost in recent sensationalist accounts are the creative and constructive practices undertaken daily by anarchist organizers seeking a world free from violence, oppression, and exploitation. An examination of some of these constructive anarchist projects, which provide examples of politics grounded in everyday resistance, offers insights into real world attempts to radically transform social relations in the here and now of everyday life.

Where there has been broader attention given to anarchist activities, beyond discussions within anarchist circles, most discussion and emphasis have been given to forms of countercultural or subcultural activity. Academic commentators have been preoccupied with unique cultural activities such as anarchist zines, so-called autonomous zones and infoshops, street parties and protests like Reclaim the Streets, websites, and micro radio. Indeed, these have often been inspiring undertakings, enlivening activist imaginations and raising transformative possibilities. At the same time, as a result of the disproportionate focus on such cultural manifestations, less poetic forms of anarchist activity and organizing, in particular organizing within workplaces, has gone unnoticed, overlooked, or unremarked upon.

Much of anarchist activity in North America is still characterized by this description from the anarchist communist Dielo Trouda group in 1926: “local organizations advocating contradictory theories and practices, having no perspectives for the future, nor of a continuity in militant work, and habitually disappearing, hardly leaving the slightest trace behind them.” Many of these short-lived projects are based on the “synthesist” model—a mishmash of ideas and practices—of which anarchist communists have generally been wary. Such groupings work relatively well if the task remains at the level of running a bookstore or free school (both worthy projects in themselves). Yet, the absence of durable anarchist organizations, rooted in working-class organizations and communities, still contributes to demoralization or a retreat into subculturalism. Indeed, there have been explicit arguments among anarchists that attention should be given predominantly or even exclusively to building anarchist alternatives untainted by immersion in “mainstream” society rather than engaging within existing institutions such as unions. In one recent article that received a good deal of attention within anarchist circles, an anarchist author explicitly dismissed issues of class and union organizing as old movement issues best left to Marxists and other socialists (see Jeppesen 2004).

As anarchist movements face possibilities of growth, as happened after Seattle in 1999, questions of organization and the relation of various anarchist activities to each other and to broader movements for social change will only become more pressing and significant. Indeed, the goal of developing anarchist perspectives within unions and other workplace organizations is one that contemporary North American anarchists have generally neglected.

Even in cases where attention has been given to workplace organizing among anarchists, the focus has remained somewhat narrowly focused. Most discussion, even within anarchist movement publications, has tended to emphasize syndicalist organizing in which anarchist build alternative independent unions, rather than organizing within traditional or mainstream union contexts. This emphasis is understandable given that syndicalist organizing has made some important contributions, particularly in organizing within traditionally unorganized sectors. The work of the Industrial Workers of the World in organizing among Starbuck’s workers, truckers, and even squeegee workers has provided inspirational examples of innovative organizing within the current context.

At the same time, the work of rank-and-file anarchists within mainstream unions has largely been overlooked. Ironically, it is in rank-and-file labor struggles that contemporary anarchist communists have really been innovators, doing things that are quite atypical for many North American anarchist organizations. Unlike left groups that have focused their energies on running opposition slates in union elections or forming opposition caucuses, anarchist unionists work to develop rank-and-file organization and militancy. They take the position that regardless of the union leadership, until there is a militant and mobilized rank-and-file movement, across locals and workplaces, the real power of organized labor will remain unrealized.

Recently, much interest and discussion has been generated by the emergence of union flying squads. Flying squads—rapid response networks of workers that can be mobilized for strike support, demonstrations, direct action and workingclass defense of immigrants, poor people, and unemployed workers—present a potentially significant development in revitalizing organized labor activism and rank-and-file militancy. For many anarchist union activists, the flying squads present a significant possibility for organizing rank-and-file power within the workplace. The flying squad is autonomous from all official union structures and is open to rank-and-file workers who hold no union position or workers in unorganized workplaces or who are unemployed. The flying squad supports direct action against bosses of all types.

Rank-and-file working groups and committees are generally recognized bodies within a union that are established to deal with specific areas of need. They step beyond the limitations of traditional unionism to assist both members and nonmembers. Rank-and-file and community alliances offer one example of how to make the connections which are crucial to developing militant working-class solidarity. They can bring anticapitalist activists, community members, and unionists together to work on a day-to-day basis. Some of the working groups that I have helped to organize and/or participated in have focused on antipoverty organizing, indigenous rights, housing, and defense of immigrants and refugees.

Some commentators (Shantz 2009a) have noted similarities between flying squads and anarchist affinity groups, suggesting that flying squads reflect the type of organizational form preferred by anarchists. Flying squads, like affinity groups, are organized on a smaller, typically face-to-face, scale, operate on the basis of member equality and participatory democracy, and gear their efforts toward direct action.

While these are not strictly anarchist organizations, involving as they do a cross-section of workers, they are areas in which contemporary anarchist unionists have focused their energies. It is within such rank and- file initiatives that many anarchists have found the best possibilities for militant workplace organizing. Based on these examples, anarchists in Peterborough and Montreal have recently taken part in developing flying squad networks in their cities. In Toronto, the anarchist collective Punching Out was active in forming an autonomous flying squad to coordinate strike support and help build workers’ self-organization and solidarity, bringing together unionized and nonunionized workers along with unemployed members. The Precarious Workers Network coalescing in Montreal is primarily organizing among unorganized and unemployed workers. The Downtown Workers Union in Montpelier, Vermont, which organized service workers citywide, also developed a flying squad. Underpinning these efforts is a growing commitment among some anarchists to what is generally called “social insertion.” This perspective reflects a shift of organizing efforts away from building anarchist subcultures toward work within working-class community and workplace organizations.

Social Insertion

One significant influence on the development of recent anarchist theory and practice is the notion of “organizational dualism,” a concept of some importance within the Italian anarchist movement struggling under fascist rule in the 1920s (Weaver 2005). For Italian anarchists, organizational dualism spoke to the need for anarchists to be actively involved as militants within the labor movement, as well as contributing to the day-to-day activities of their own explicitly anarchist political organizations. Thus, while contemporary anarchist communists work to build explicitly anarchist organizations as spaces for theoretical, strategic, and tactical development, they also work actively to contribute to daily struggles within organizations of the working classes and oppressed.

A crucial element is the process of what anarchist communists, or especifists, in various contexts across Latin America call “social insertion” or the involvement of anarchists in popular social movements and the daily struggles of the oppressed and working classes. This may include work in neighborhood committees, landless tenant movements, or rank-and-file union organizing. Among the most potent examples of social insertion are the efforts of the Federacao Anarquista Gaucha (FAG) of Brazil within neighborhood committees in urban villages and slums, the so-called Popular Resistance Committees. Over a decade of organizing, the FAG has built a strong relationship with urban trash collectors or catadores, supporting them in forming their own national organization. This organization strives to mobilize trash collectors around day-to-day needs, while also raising money toward the establishment of a collectively operated recycling operation (Weaver 2005). They have also worked to open universities to poor people and established several community radio operations and Independent Media Centers.

In these activities of social insertion, anarchists do not set themselves up as an activist group or subcultural enclave but contribute to the day-to-day building of popular movements. This is explicitly intended as a counterposition to participation within the usual circles of “activist” groups or advocacy campaigns organized by “activists.” Instead of acting on behalf of others or as representatives of the exploited and oppressed, as activist groups often do, anarchist communists argue that anarchists should involve themselves in their own communities and workplaces, addressing their own daily needs, whether material or otherwise. Examples of such groups include movements of rank-and-file workers, neighborhood associations organizing against landlords and police, poor people’s movements against social cleansing, indigenous groups defending claims on the land, and movements of immigrants and refugees opposing deportations. For anarchist communists, these self-organized groups, mobilizing to meet their own real needs, rather than well-meaning activists choosing favored single issues to advocate, represent the possible force that might radically transform society (Weaver 2005).Without the labor and land of the working classes and oppressed, capital and states cannot sustain their power. Activists and advocacy groups, however, have no similar impact on the survival of capitalist or state authority.

For anarchist communists, as opposed to anarchists who emphasize counterculturalism, the key issue facing anarchist militants is not winning a battle of ideas among other activists within the antiglobalization movements. Rather than devoting energy toward winning over other activists or self-identified revolutionaries, anarchist communists focus on ensuring that direct action, mutual aid, collective decision making, horizontal networks, and other principles of anarchist organizing are encouraged and supported where they emerge within movements of the oppressed and exploited. They expend their energies in working to see that these tendencies become the living practices of the social movements (Schmidt 2005). Social insertion encourages a rethinking of how anarchist organizers develop their relationship with the nonanarchist actors driving the daily struggles of the working classes. Anarchist militants and revolutionaries must be at the heart of social struggles rather than being satisfied with anarchistically “pure” activities at the margins. The predominant role of anarchist militants in organizations like unions is, for anarchist communists, contributing to autonomy from political opportunism and strengthening members’ libertarian instincts, and the organization’s libertarian tendencies, while supporting the development of movements in revolutionary directions (Schmidt 2005).

Developing Workers Autonomy: Anarchists, Flying Squads, and Rank-and-File Groups

Militant anticapitalists of various stripes, recognizing the crucial roles played by workers within production relations, have viewed the flying squads as important in the development of workers’ organization against capitalist authority and discipline. Anarchists, maintaining the necessity of working-class selforganization and autonomy from bureaucratic structures, have been encouraged by the possible emergence of active networks of rank-and-file workers bringing collective resources to defend broad working-class interests. Here are organizations with rank-and-file participation working to build solidarity across unions and locals and alongside community groups, engaging in direct action while striving to democratize their own unions. No wonder then that the reappearance of flying squads, particularly in Ontario, Canada, in a context of halting resistance to a vicious neoliberal attack, notably among some sectors of the labor movement, has been cause for much excitement.

The flying squad is a rapid response group of members who are ready to mobilize on short notice to provide direct support for pickets or direct actions. It is not necessarily an officially recognized body of the local. The flying squad structure may consist of little more than phone lists and meetings but, significantly, should maintain its autonomy from the local and national union executives. Generally, flying squads should be open only to rank-and-file members because they must be free to initiate and take actions that the leadership may not approve of. Some flying squads refuse even a budget line item so that they are in no way dependent upon leadership. In Canada, flying squads have offered crucial support to direct actions around immigration defense, tenant protection, squatter rights, and welfare support by mobilizing sizable numbers of unionists who are prepared for actions without regard to legality. Flying squads take direct action to interfere with bosses’ abilities to make profits. Not limited in their scope of action by specific collective agreements or workplaces, flying squads mobilize for community as well as workplace defense (Shantz 2005).

Rank-and-file committees and flying squads can become important parts of struggles over a broad spectrum of issues affecting working-class community life, including those which the mainstream unions too often ignore such as housing, indigenous rights, defense of immigrants and refugees, unemployment, and opposing the criminalization of poverty. They can offer spaces for building bridges between workers, across unions and industries, and between union and community groups. Autonomous from traditional union structures and organized around militant nonhierarchical practices, rank-and-file working groups and flying squads can provide real opposition to conservatism within the unions as well. They provide a better approach than the more common model of the “left caucus” which tries to reform union policy, usually, again, through resolutions at conventions (Clarke 2002). The rank-and-file committees actively and directly challenge the leadership within their own locals and across locals.

Flying squads of various types have long been an important part of labor militancy internationally. In Britain, community-flying pickets successfully mobilized to defend hospitals in working-class neighborhoods against closure in the 1970s. In India, several farmers’ unions recently formed flying squads to confront officials at purchase centers to ensure that their demands for proper payment for their crops were satisfied. Members of the Carpenters Union in southern California, who were primarily immigrants, many of them undocumented, used flying squads and direct action effectively during the framers’ strike of 1995.

While some type of rank-and-file organizing, along the lines of what we now call flying squads, has been a constant in labor movements, the contemporary flying squads in Ontario are inspired by the flying pickets that emerged during the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ strikes of the 1930s, including, notably, during the 1934 general strike in Minneapolis. Flying squads played an important part in the 1945 United Auto Workers’ strike against Ford in Windsor. That strike, which won the rights associated with the Rand Formula (union recognition, dues check off, and closed shop) for workers in Canada, turned when strikers organized an incredible vehicle picket in which the entire Ford plant was surrounded and shut down by several rows of vehicles. Flying squads were used effectively to mobilize people for actions throughout the strike and to spread information throughout the community. By focusing on building flying squads, anarchists are thus drawing upon traditions and practices that have long played a part in working-class organizing, though attempting to radicalize them.

Not coincidentally, the contemporary flying squads in Ontario made their reappearance in several Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) locals in Windsor during the mid-1990s as a mobilization force for actions against the newly elected neoliberal provincial government (see Levant 2003, 20). The network within the CAW spread during organizing of the Ontario Days of Action, rotating, city-by-city one-day mass strikes against the Tories. In the midst of a lengthy strike against Falconbridge mining, during which picketers were subjected to ongoing violence by company goons and security thugs, members of CAW local 598 initiated a regional Northern Flying Squad to reinforce and defend the lines and step up the struggle against the company. They helped to organize a solidarity weekend that brought flying squads from across Ontario for militant actions against Falconbridge, actions that many consider to have been the high point of the strike.

On different occasions, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) along with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3903 flying squad had gone directly to Pearson International Airport to demand an end to threats of deportation against families. Leaflets were given to passengers, alerting them of the situation, and visits were paid to the Immigration Canada deportation office in the basement of Terminal One. After demanding and receiving a meeting with the airport’s Immigration management, the combined efforts of OCAP and the flying squad have caused management to issue stays of removal, with the deportations eventually cancelled. This unlikely result, rare in immigration cases, in which the removal dates were cancelled prior to a Federal Court challenge, is a testament to the powers of direct action (Shantz 2005).

It must also be stressed that the presence of flying squads has been crucial in the success of these and other actions. Clearly, government officials, security, and cops respond differently when confronted with a room packed with workers holding union flags and banners than when confronted with a smaller number of people that they are willing to dismiss as activists. Through such actions, the flying squad demonstrates how organizations of rank-and-file workers can step out of traditional concerns with the workplace to act in a broadened defense of working-class interests. The expansion of union flying squads, with autonomy from union bureaucracies, could provide a substantial response to the state’s efforts to isolate immigrants and refugees from the larger community. The emboldened aggressiveness of Immigration Canada after September 11 makes such actions in defense of working-class people absolutely crucial.

In addition, CUPE 3903 is home to vital working groups with real links to community struggles. In November 2001, 3903 provided an office and resources for OCAP to work along with members of the 3903 Anti-Poverty Working Group. The working group moves beyond the limitations of traditional unionism to assist people (members and nonmembers) experiencing problems with collection agencies, landlords, bosses, and police, and to help anyone having difficulties with welfare or other government bureaucracies. The office provides a possibly significant example of a rank-and-file initiative that forges community alliances while fighting the local implementation of the global neoliberal agenda. This type of alliance offers one example of how to make the connections that are crucial to growing our movements. Indeed, it brings antiglobalization activists, antipoverty organizers, and unions together to work on a practical day-to-day basis.

Rank-and-File Committees

Another area of organizing work undertaken by anarchists has been within solidarity unionism and support for rank-and-file committees. Anarchist unionists have been actively involved in building and/or supporting alternative rankand- file networks within and between unions and workplaces. In some cases, this has meant supporting rank-and-file union members whose unions have refused to fight effectively for members’ needs and concerns. One such case involves the Metropolitan Hotel Workers Committee (MHWC) in Toronto.

The hotel industry is Canada’s largest employer of immigrants, women of color, and single parents. It is generally acknowledged that hotel workers, across the industry, face horrible working conditions. Long hours of work are matched with low pay and unsafe working conditions. Too often, these conditions are also matched with an inactive and compliant union leadership that views these problems as “part of the business.” This has been the case for workers at Toronto’s Metropolitan Hotel, where conditions are so miserable that workers accurately refer to it as a “five-star sweatshop.” Unfortunately, as is all too common, when the Met workers turned to their union, HERE, for support, their concerns were ignored, minimized, or dismissed.

Faced with an ongoing situation of brutally racist management, which prohibited workers from communicating with each other in languages other than English and treated workers differently depending on ethnicity or religion, awful working conditions, and a union that can only be described as passive, rank-andfile workers at the Metropolitan decided to get organized to take care of things themselves. To begin, several workers came together to form the MHWC, a committee made up strictly of rank-and-file members, to share information and strategize effective actions and campaigns to improve working conditions and put an end to harsh management practices. Within months, more than onequarter of the Metropolitan’s workers had joined the committee. This became a crucial struggle for rank-and-file workers, most of whom are immigrant women. Of the approximately 200 workers at the Met, more than two-thirds are women, most of whom are Filipino, Chinese, South East and South Asian, and West Indian backgrounds.

Anarchists, including some within the OCAP and CUPE Local 3903, played active parts in assisting the MHWC in its development. They helped organize and mobilize people for rallies, took part in skill sharing to address issues within the workplace, and challenged the union leadership to support the committee. The rapid growth of the Committee reflected the seriousness of the problems facing Met workers and the long-standing need for effective action to deal with the issues, given the union’s unresponsiveness.

Faced with inaction, obstruction, and outright hostility from their local’s leadership, the Met workers finally decided to take things into their own hands. A true rank-and-file movement has come together to take on the employer in a manner that is direct and effective, while also challenging the union representatives over their lack of support. Despite the hostility of local leadership, the Committee has already made some important gains. Grievances have been satisfactorily resolved and Committee members have done skill sharing with each other to teach themselves how to take grievances forward. This is “do-ityourself” solidarity unionism where members look after each other, share resources, and determine their course of action collectively—a real model for anarchism at work. Within weeks of forming the MHWC, workers were able to have a particularly nasty manager removed. This occurred after repeated requests to local representatives to do something about this manager had left the situation unchanged. Because of the efforts of the Met Workers Committee, a conference scheduled to bring 300 people to the Met was cancelled, an outcome that stunned management. Through a series of direct actions and rallies, the Committee has confronted the hotel management directly with demands that management rehire, with compensation, all victimized workers who have been forced from their jobs and to stop the practice of harassing and firing injured workers.

While the union leadership bemoaned the lack of translators, without explaining why a union would hire staff who do not speak the same language as large proportions of the membership, the Met Workers Committee members shared skills with each other to teach themselves how to pursue grievances and work refusals. While the union’s top-down authoritarian structure prevents it from drawing on the skills and talents, including multilingualism, of members, the Met workers have provided translations skills that have allowed OCAP to expand its own antipoverty casework to people it otherwise could not have assisted.

All along, the MHWC has maintained that they identify, not only as members of a particular union or as part of a specific workplace, but on a broad working-class basis. Thus, they have reached out to poor and unemployed workers in community groups like OCAP as well as making alliances with rank-and-file members of other unions, such as the Anti-Poverty Working Group of CUPE 3903.With support from these groups, the MHWC organized several direct actions and rallies at the workplace. In addition, the Committee broadened its efforts to confront the bosses in the community as well as the workplace. Met workers worked with the CUPE 3903 Anti-Poverty Working Group to press York University to remove the Met’s owner, HenryWu, from the Board of the York Foundation. This class-based organizing is significant, not only in terms of bringing greater resources to bear on the situation, but also in helping to break down the sectoralism that often keeps working-class folks divided by workplace, union, or employment status.

As the Committee grew and enjoyed some successes, it was approached by workers from other hotels to see about starting similar committees in more workplaces. These are crucial steps in building a vital network among rank-andfile activists geared toward autonomy and self-activity. Significantly, the MHWC focused its efforts on building an informed and active rank-and-file base rather than putting together a reform slate for infrequently held executive elections. These efforts will do more than any left-led reform movements,leadership slates, or caucuses to establish the basis for a revitalized and militant workers’ movement. That the MHWC has had difficulty standing up under the pressures of hostility and lack of support from its own union leadership shows also the obstacles and challenges that such rank-and-file networks face.

Struggles over the Flying Squads

The national and local executives of some unions in which flying squads and rank-and-file committees have emerged have clearly shown concern about these developments, as the case of the MHWCand its struggles with HERE illustrate. This has played out particularly badly within the CAW.

During the summer of 2001, people in cities, reserves, and towns throughout Ontario were gearing up for a campaign of economic disruption that would directly confront and interfere with the political programs and economic practices of the government and their corporate backers. This effort suffered something of a setback when the CAWleadership decided to withdraw support from the campaign in June. The decision came following a mock eviction of the Finance Minister from his constituency office by OCAP, students, and members of CAW and CUPE flying squads. Then National President of the CAW, Buzz Hargrove, was so upset by the action that he agreed to meet with the Labor Minister to discuss union funding and support of OCAP. In an inexplicable act of collaboration, Hargrove sat down to establish union policy with the man who had only months before introduced legislation gutting the Employment Standards Act and extending the legal workweek from 44 to 62 hours.

Significantly, not only did Hargrove cut OCAP’s largest source of funding, but he also clamped down on the CAW flying squads, which were only beginning to grow. CAWflying squads were brought under control of the National by requiring approval of the National or of local presidents prior to any action. The National even tried to prohibit use of CAW shirts, hats, and banners at actions not sanctioned by the National. Thus, the CAW leadership cynically used the excuse of the eviction to clamp down on a rank-and-file movement that it saw as a possible threat to its authority. The strangling of the flying squads may be one of the sharpest blows rank-and-file activists have suffered recently and has deeply hurt efforts to fight back against capitalism in Ontario.

These actions effectively derailed actions in major industrial centers like Windsor, where activists, recognizing the vulnerability of just-in-time production in Windsor and Detroit, had initially planned to blockade the Ambassador Bridge, the main U.S.-Canada node in the North American Free Trade Agreement-superhighway. Stopping traffic on the bridge for even a short period of time would have caused millions of dollars in damages because of the reliance on just-in-time production in the factories on both sides of the border. This possibility was not lost on Hargrove, who let it slip during a meeting with representatives of OCAP allies when he angrily voiced his concern that in Windsor, some members were talking about shutting down production at “our plants.”

Right now, the CAW bureaucracy’s clampdown on the flying squads is complete. At a panel discussion on creative tactics that I took part in at a recent Labor Notes conference, Michelle Dubiel, a CAW “Ontario Chapter” flying squad representative, stated approvingly that marshals had finally been instituted in the CAW flying squads. Dubiel noted that there had been much discussion and some resistance to this but was reassured that members were eventually brought to see the necessity of marshals. The impact of this takeover of the flying squads has been lethal in some areas. A flying squad member in Sudbury recently told me that the northern flying squads were virtually extinct. Similarly, the rank-and-file, cross-local flying squad in Windsor was shut down before it really got started.

Beyond Union Reformism and Flying Squads as Left Opposition

Some union activists have viewed the flying squads primarily as a means of union reform, a companion piece of the left caucus’ loyal opposition to the union leadership. A prime example of this approach is expressed by Alex Levant (who has put much work into building my former union’s flying squad and served as a vice president in the local) in an article in New Socialist magazine (March/April, 2003). Levant poses the problem for rank-and-file activism largely as one of “conservative leaders who practice ‘business unionism’” (Levant 2003, 22). Levant (2003, 22) suggests that flying squads “pose a threat to such union leaders’ positions by fostering membership activism, which bolsters left opposition currents in these unions.” Business unionism, far from being a preference of specific leaders, however, is a structured relationship, legally and organizationally, within unions and between unions and bosses. Levant (2003, 22) is correct to suggest that such locals “contribute to the crisis of working-class self-organization by discouraging members’ self-activity,” but this crisis will not be overcome by replacing conservative leaders with leftist ones. Nor should we accept that social unionism is not still a form of business unionism (Shantz 2009b). This is shown clearly in the case of the CAW, which has long practiced “social unionism.”

Taking the left opposition perspective, Levant is unable or unwilling to openly or directly criticize leadership in the CAW for their ongoing efforts to control that union’s flying squads. In his article, Levant quotes CAW representative Steve Watson approvingly while making no mention of his role in the CAW breaking of the rank-and-file aspects of the flying squads. Notably, at the above-mentioned antideportation action at the airport, it was Watson who intervened at the last minute to keep CAW flying squads from participating, even though many workers at the airport are CAW members, and could have played an important part in stopping the deportation.

I do agree with Levant that the flying squads have a tremendous potential in building rank-and-file militancy and self-organization. However, that potential can only be met if autonomy from the leadership is established and defended with vigilance. Flying squads do not “work best” when they “respect” the roles of the leadership as Levant advocates. Flying squads work best when they understand the roles the leadership plays, including the role of taming and reigning in members’ self-organizing initiatives at various points. It also seems that flying squads work best when they empower workers and when they foster selfdetermination.

At times, leadership will call on the services of left militants when a show of strength is tactically advantageous only to abandon, isolate, or purge them when things have gone as far as the leadership deems necessary. This is a crucial lesson that must be kept in mind when we consider flying squads with marshals under the direction of national and local executives. From an anarchist perspective, militant activists must reject the role of “left critics” of the union bureaucracy, refuse the terms of the compromise with the bosses, and directly challenge those who seek to enforce it. It is necessary to build a rankand- file rebellion in the unions that actually works to break the hold of the bureaucracy.

Conclusion: Rank-and-File Autonomy

For anarchists, rank-and-file autonomy means being prepared and willing to fight independently of the leadership and against it when required. As anarchist organizers, they are upfront, open, and direct about confronting the conservatives within their unions. No gloss should be put on efforts to contain rankand- file militancy or excuse it for any reason. Anarchists contest reformist approaches to rank-and-file movements, which would position them as little more than conscientious pressure groups.

None of this is meant to imply that the leadership is holding back an otherwise radical membership. That is, of course, romantic silliness. Rather, developing militancy within union movements requires a clear recognition of the necessity for developing experiences of effective struggle that go beyond what the bosses or governments would permit and, at the same time, viewing honestly how the current unions’ leadership impedes this.

Rank-and-file movements offer a space for radicalizing workers to come together and focus members’ energies. When people engage in struggles, whether strikes or demonstrations against neoliberalism, they develop at least some sense of collective power, confidence, and an experience of doing things differently. This can encourage an openness to more radical ideas and practices with which to address to problems we find ourselves facing. Mainstream unions, even where some resources are given to political education, are generally not going to present and develop openly radical alternatives. Certainly, the leadership of mainstream unions cannot be expected to do so. As workers, this is one area in which anarchists can and should be active. Putting forward radical alternatives, agitating for those alternatives, and working to make them real should be part of the work that is done within rank-and-file networks. These are merely first steps in a long process of building rank-and-file opposition, with much work to be done and opposition to be overcome along the way. At the same time, it is encouraging that anarchists’ efforts have been well received in various contexts. These efforts are initiatives for working-class selfactivity that should not be limited to being a democratic complement to the bureaucracy. Anarchists try to think beyond this to see something more in the emergence and growth of autonomous rank-and-file networks. The need to build a resistance that includes rank-and-file unionists, nonorganized workers, nonstatus workers, and migrants is critical.

The capitalist offensives of the last decades have broken down working-class organization and infrastructures of resistance. Dismantling employment standards, freezing the minimum wage, eliminating rent controls, and deepening cuts to social assistance for unemployed workers have made life more precarious for broadening sections of the working class. This situation is not just a matter for deep humanitarian concern but a serious warning to the workers’ movement. If the working class is reaching such a level of polarization and a section of it is experiencing such misery and privation, we are in a profoundly dangerous situation.

Many workers are becoming tired of engaging in struggle only to find themselves under attack, not only by the boss, but also by the officials of their own unions. The questionable actions of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), especially during a recent Conservative Party convention in Ontario, when the OFL organized a separate action and then left the scene when activists were attacked by police, have convinced some grassroots activists and rankand- file workers alike of the need to make end runs around the unions’ officialdom and develop real alliances. Certainly, this is a healthy development, one which anarchists must take seriously. This means meeting with fellow rank-and-file workers and having serious discussions about what sort of assistance anticapitalist movements can offer in their struggles against conservative leadership, policies, and structures in their own unions. This is something that even anarchists who are less comfortable with workplace organizing can contribute to.

For anarchist communists, anarchist ideas are not the responsibility of a vanguard or intellectual elite of “advanced workers.” Anarchist militants should not attempt to move movements into proclaiming an “anarchist” position, but should instead work to preserve their anarchist thrust; that is, their natural tendency to be self-organized and to militantly fight for their own interests. This assumes the perspective that social movements will reach their own logic of creating revolution, not when they as a whole necessarily reach the point of being self-identified “anarchists,” but when as a whole (or at least an overwhelming majority) they reach the consciousness of their own power and exercise this power in their daily lives, in a way consciously adopting the ideas of anarchism.

The anarchist organizer does play an ideological part within social movements, for anarchist communists in actively contesting and opposing the opportunistic elements that emerge to shift the movement toward the dead ends of electoralism or vanguardism (Weaver 2005). Anarchists also play a part in opposing the reactionary elements that emerge within movements that seek to limit the movement from within or make concessions to opponents in the state and capital.

As an active minority within the working class, anarchists work to provide a rallying point, through example and ideas, in struggles against capital and the state as well as standing against authoritarian ideologies or practices in workingclass organizations. For the most part, they remain small though growing. They certainly have no illusions about “leading” the anarchist movement, let alone the working class more broadly. Instead, they try to maintain relationships of solidarity and mutual aid with anarchists who take different strategic and tactical approaches while disagreeing honestly with them. Given the marginalized position of anarchist and communist ideas within the working class in North America at this point in time, much work is still spent in getting anarchist perspectives out there.

There are many important lessons from anarchist history that need to be learned, revived, and shared. At the same time, the work contemporary anarchists have put into building rank-and-file workers’ committees, flying squads, and precarious workers’ networks shows that, despite their numbers, they can make real material contributions to building the capacities of working people for struggle. These interventions are not made in a vanguardist way to build our organization or recruit members but in a principled way to help build class-wide resources and win material gains.

As P. J. Lilley and I have suggested elsewhere: “If anarchists are to seize the opportunities presented by recent upsurges in anarchist activity and build anarchism in movements that have resonance in wider struggles, then we must face seriously the challenges of organization, of combining and coordinating our efforts effectively. We will be aided in this by drawing upon the lessons of past experiences and avoiding, as much as possible, past errors” (Shantz and Lilley 2003). It is clearly a mistake to approach movements either as recruitment grounds (as more formal organizations often do) or as social clubs (as is more typical for informal groups). For contemporary anarchist communists, the key is to be involved in a principled way that prioritizes building workingclass strength in their communities, neighborhoods, and workplaces rather than building their specific organization. Developing particular anarchist organizations is worthwhile only in as much as it contributes to that larger goal.


Jeppesen, S. 2004. Seeing past the outpost of post-anarchism. 03/03/9448142 (accessed January 21, 2009).

Levant, A. 2003. Flying squads and the crisis of workers’ self-organization. New Socialist 39:20–2.

Schmidt, M. 2005. The social question: Latin American anarchism and “social insertion.” http:// (accessed January 9, 2008).

Shantz, J. A. 2005. No one is illegal: Organizing beyond left nationalism in fortress North America. Socialism and Democracy 19 (2):1–7. ———. 2009a. Living anarchy: Theory and practice in anarchist movements. Bethesda, MD: Academica Press.
———. 2009b. The limits of social unionism in Canada. Working USA 12 (1):113–29.

Shantz, J., and P. J. Lilley. 2003. The platform: It’s not just for platformists anymore. node/243 (accessed March 20, 2008).

Weaver, A. 2005. Especifismo: The anarchist praxis of building popular movements and revolutionary organization in South America. (accessed September 21, 2008).

Jeffrey Shantz is a rank-and-file union and antipoverty organizer and scholar. He has been active in his union’s flying squad and helped to found the local’s antipoverty working group. His ongoing research is on worker self-activity, including green syndicalism, connections between radical ecology, and labor organizing. He teaches human rights and community advocacy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver.

Originally appeared in WorkingUSA September 2009 (Volume 12, Issue 3)



11 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on November 1, 2012

It'd be interesting to review and see how some of this has held up and stacked up since it was originally written.

klas batalo

11 years 6 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by klas batalo on November 1, 2012

I'd especially want to hear more about that in relation to Canada since it focuses so heavily on it.