New hope in an old idea?

Submitted by klas batalo on June 21, 2013

To begin understanding SeaSol it is useful to understand both the ideological and practical inspirations for SeaSol’s activity: what is SeaSol trying to accomplish and how do they plan to go about it? The five men who founded SeaSol were all members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and advocates of revolutionary unionism. These five young men, all in their twenties, were frustrated with the impotency of the left wing of the labor movement in the United States generally and the IWW specifically. They wanted to find a way to contribute to rebuilding a radical labor movement by winning tangible victories despite having only a small number of supporters. As members of a revolutionary union they had little interest in organized labor in and of itself. They did not want to simply increase union density in the United States for its own sake.Ultimately, they were interested in the potential of unions to serve as a mechanism to one-day overturn capitalist social relations entirely. However, more urgently, they wanted to find a way to organize people to take collective direct action to immediately improve their lives.

As their idea of forming some sort of mutual support network began to take shape in early 2007 they decided that they should also include tenants’ issues in their project.Their class politics prompted them to view tenants’ and workers’ issues as inextricably linked rather than as separate spheres requiring separate remedies. Both tenants’ and workers’ issues share the same ultimate solution in their view: the abolition of private ownership and the implementation of collective management. Furthermore, they believed that by working with both tenants and workers they would be able to ensure a higher and broader level of activity for their new organization. This was consistent with the most basic goal of starting SeaSol: to bring as many people together as possible to achieve tangible results using direct action.

SeaSol has no explicit political ideology as an organization, but its organizational principles and the ideas of its most active members are best described as anarchist. In the following sections we will briefly familiarize ourselves with the three general areas of background knowledge that are most relevant to SeaSol: 1) the theory of anarchist labor organizing, 2) the history of anarchist labor organizing in the United States, and 3) the plight of contemporary labor anarchists.

Defining Anarchism

SeaSol was born out of frustration at the failure of the American labor movement— frustration not only with organized labor’s present failure to meaningfully improve the lives of America’s working class, but also frustration with the Left’s failure to provide workers with a meaningful alternative to mainstream unions. The five founding members of SeaSol are all active IWW members because they believed that an anarchist approach offers the best immediate hope for rebuilding a powerful labor movement that could also one day transform society completely.

There is no universally agreed upon definition of anarchism in the scholarship.The Oxford English Dictionary defines anarchism as: “belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion (2010).” This sort of general definition of anarchism has led various scholars to argue for the inclusion of almost every antiauthoritarian thinker under the sun in the broad anarchist family ranging from Lao Tzu to Leo Tolstoy.Numerous scholars such as Robert Hoffman, Marshall Statz, Terry Perlin, and Paul Eltzbacher have repeatedly tried to define anarchist ideas in abstract and contradictory ways (Schmidt and van der Walt, 2010). Typically, scholars have tried to define anarchism by grouping various thinkers together based on the commonalities they find in their writings.

This definition effectively isolates anarchism in the realm of philosophy and ignores the irreconcilable differences between several so-called “anarchist” thinkers. The worst scholarship, like that of Peter Marshall, has argued for the inclusion of people as different as the Buddha, Gandhi, Che Guevara, and even Margaret Thatcher in the “anarchist gallery” (2008). The better scholarship, like that of Paul Eltzbacher, has still seemingly found no problems with lumping extreme individualists like Max Stirner, revolutionary socialists like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, and radical economic liberals like Murray Rothbard into a single tradition (2004). To take people with such significantly different ideas to be representatives of a single doctrine is not good scholarship. It is no wonder that such an approach has led standard works on anarchism to describe it as “incoherent.”

The disturbing generality of definitions of anarchism and anarchist thought in the literature has recently prompted some scholars to begin arguing for a more accurate and useful definition. More recent literature has made a convincing argument that anarchism is not a timeless abstract idea. Instead, some contemporary scholars suggest that examining the actual history of anarchist social movements instead of arbitrarily grouping notable anti-authoritarian intellectuals reveals a much narrower and more consistent definition of anarchism. Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt clearly demonstrate in their 2009 book, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, that anarchism is a distinct historical tendency that emerged out of specific social and economic conditions at a particular point in space and time.

Schmidt and van der Walt undertake a comprehensive study of the scholarship on anarchism and find that the term does not appear in academic or popular discourse until the early 1870’s in Europe not long after the major split of the First International. The First International was an international organization of various revolutionary groups formed in 1864 to organize a united working class movement across Europe and around the world. The organization soon became torn by bitter disagreements between the state socialists led by Karl Marx and the libertarian socialists, called “Collectivists” at that time, led by Mikhail Bakunin. The core of this disagreement revolved around the Marxist belief that it was necessary to build a working class political party to seize control of the state. Bakunin and other libertarian socialists were opposed to participating in party politics. They wanted to focus their energies instead on building a stronger revolutionary trade union movement to take direct economic action against capitalism and not become mired in parliamentary politics. Bakunin characterized Marx’s ideas as authoritarian and predicted that if a Marxist political party came to power it would become just as bad as the ruling class it had fought so hard against (Bakunin, 1873). This conflict climaxed in a split at the First International’s 1872 convention in Hague.

The Marxists continued to try to organize a First International primarily to build political power in Europe in order to overthrow capitalism and establish workers’ governments. Bakunin and others simultaneously formed a new group called the Alliance to focus on building economic power, primarily in the form of revolutionary trade unions, in order to overthrow capitalism and the state simultaneously. This split marked the clear emergence of a distinctly anarchist socialist tradition and it is at this time that the term anarchism began to appear in Europe. From then on, the Marxist and anarchist currents in socialism typically formed distinct organizations to work towards different ends. Anarchism then, is a kind of libertarian socialism that emerged in the 1870’s and is rooted firmly in the work of Bakunin and the Alliance. Scmidt and van der Walt argue that in light of this history anarchism is best understood in the following way:

“The term anarchism should be reserved for a particular rationalist and revolutionary form of libertarian socialism that emerged in the second half of the 19th century. Anarchism was against social and economic hierarchy as well as inequality— and specifically, capitalism, landlordism, and the state— and in favor of an international class struggle and revolution from below by a selforganised working class and peasantry in order to create a self-managed, socialist, and stateless social order (2009: 71).”

At a minimum, someone must believe in these things to be accurately considered an anarchist. It is inaccurate to consider someone an anarchist unless they advocate for the abolition of both capitalism and the state through non-hierarchically organized class struggle. This more specific definition still leaves room for a wide range of opinions and ideas. In anarchism’s roughly one hundred and forty year history people have attempted to practice these ideas in a wide variety of ways. For example, insurrectionist anarchists have historically favored inspiring acts of violence, or “propaganda by the deed,” such as assassinations, as the best means of inspiring massive revolutionary upheaval. However, far and away the most significant form of anarchist activity has been in organizing revolutionary trade unions. This emphasis on the potential of an organized working class to combat capitalism directly in the economic sphere without the help of political parties dates back to Bakunin and the First International. Anarchists who believe organizing revolutionary trade unions based on anarchist principles offer the best means for overthrowing capitalism and establishing a stateless society are typically called anarcho-syndicalists.

There are many forms of anarchism, but historically, it has been anarchosyndicalism that has had the most historical impact. At the height of its influence between the mid-1890’s and the mid-1920’s anarcho-syndicalism dominated the labor movements in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, and Uruguay (Schmidt and Van der Walt, 2009). During the same period, anarchosyndicalists also had a serious impact on scores of other nations where they never attained majority status within the labor movement but still comprised a significant minority. These unions were interested in using direct action and direct democracy as the best means of not only improving the lives of the working class immediately but also as a means to build the necessary power to overturn oppressive social relations entirely. The full history of anarchist organizations generally and anarchist trade unions specifically is outside the scope of this article, but for our purposes it will be sufficient to examine the one organization that has had the most direct influence on the formation of SeaSol.

The Industrial Workers of the World

In the United States, the IWW is the best example of the anarcho-syndicalist idea in practice. The IWW was founded in June of 1905 by a mixed group of radicals: socialists, anarchists, and revolutionary industrial unionists and miners. Nearly 200 delegates representing thirty-four distinct organizations attended the IWW’s founding convention in Chicago, Illinois. All were united in their opposition to the conservative craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), or as they called it “the American Separation of Labor.” AFL Craft unions at that time would regularly refuse to come out on strike in support of other workers who were not in their specific union, even in the same shop. The IWW’s founders wanted instead to build a union that would foster class-consciousness and encourage solidarity rather than needlessly divide workers by craft and exclude others entirely. In the words of IWW historian Fred Thompson:

“The IWW wanted to arrange that all workers in the same mine, mill, or factory could bargain as one unit and, where it would help, bargain for an entire industry across a large area. They wanted to avoid long strikes and employer starve-out tactics by arranging for support from workers in all industries across the country as One Big Union” (Kornbluh, 1998:v).

Unlike any other union in the United States at that time, the IWW wanted to organize all workers— regardless of race, gender, origin, or industry— into one single union.

The idea was that by uniting all workers into one union, the IWW would be able to more effectively put pressure on employers by threatening to shut down entire plants and even industries instead of allowing strikes to become isolated and fail. The essence of the IWW’s politics are best summarized in the union’s own famous preamble to its constitution:

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together as on the political, as well as on the industrial field, and take hold that which they produce by their labor, through an economic organization of the working class without affiliation with any political party.

The rapid gathering of wealth and the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the evergrowing power of the employing class, because the trade unions foster a state of things which allow one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. The trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

These sad conditions can be changed and the interests of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries, if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one and injury to all.” (Kornbluh, 1998:12).

It is clear then, that the founding of the IWW was based on an acute sense of class struggle and revolutionary ambitions. In fact, once strong enough, the IWW hoped to see all of its workers lay down their tools in a massive general strike and overthrow capitalism by simply refusing to lift a finger.

It was this radical vision of worker power that fueled the IWW’s organizing efforts beginning in 1905. The union organized metal miners in the Western Federation of Miners, lumber workers in the Northwest, and immigrant laborers like the textile workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, who won the famous “bread and roses” strike in 1912. The IWW also included dockworkers in Philadelphia, migratory agricultural workers, and softwood loggers in the South where, extraordinarily, blacks and whites labored side by side even during the height of segregation in the first quarter of the 20th century. True to their mission, the IWW tried to bring all workers into One Big Union.

The IWW was unique not only because of its revolutionary politics, but also because of its militancy on the ground. In practice it was not the union’s grand statements, but rather its boldness on the shop floor that worked to swell its ranks during its first ten years between 1905-1915. After some internal squabbling during the union’s first few years, the IWW came to take a disparaging view of working-class political action and settled on a strategy of direct action. The direct-actionists discounted party politics for two main reasons. First, because it inherently excluded a large portion of the working-class that could not vote, including women, blacks, migrant workers, and foreign aliens. Second, and more importantly, because, in the words of the celebrated IWW organizer Vincent “St.” John, capitalist government was simply, “a committee to look after the interests of the employers” (Kornbluh, 1998:35). The IWW refused to participate in a government they believed was designed to enforce the will of the employing class onto the workers. They had no desire to rely on the promises of elected officials, even socialists, and wanted instead to build working-class economic power themselves. There were always members of the IWW who were also members of the Socialist and Communist Parties and favored political action, but in practice as an organization the IWW relied solely on direct action— placing it clearly within the anarcho-syndicalist tradition.

An IWW publication once defined the term “direct action” this way:

“Direct action means industrial action directly by, for, and of the workers themselves, with-out the treacherous aid of labour misleaders or scheming politicians. A strike that is initiated, controlled, and settled by the workers directly affected is direct action…Direct action is combined action, directly on the job to secure better job conditions. Direct action is industrial democracy” (Kornbluh, 1998:35).

These tactics were effectively applied in a number of work stoppages. The McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, strike in 1909 is a good example of what this philosophy looked like in action. Here, over 6,000 employees of the Pressed Steel Car Company spontaneously went on strike for better working conditions and an end to a new speed-up system. A majority of the workers there were non-union immigrants and AFL union officials ignored their strike. So, the strikers readily accepted encouragement and support from IWW organizers.

A committee of strikers was formed to determine strike strategy. Pennsylvania state troopers, or “Black Cossacks” as they were called, repeatedly tried to break the strike. The troopers charged meetings and picket lines trying to beat the fight out of the striking autoworkers with clubs. The strike committee warned that they would fight back and that a “Cossack” would be killed or injured for every striker who was killed or maimed. The troopers killed a striker anyway, and after 5,000 sympathizers representing 15 different nationalities attended the striker’s funeral, unknown strikers made good on that promise. Ten days later a gun battle broke out between troopers and strikers after a meeting that left four strikers and three troopers dead. Shortly after that, troopers decided to stop interfering with the strike. With the “Cossacks” out of the way, the strikers were able to return to freely picketing the factories and they eventually won wage increases and an end to the new system of speed-ups.

The IWW was convinced that it was successful strikes like the one at McKees Rocks that truly built working-class power. The union viewed every shop they organized and every strike they won as bringing them one small step closer to building a revolutionary movement. The IWW’s class politics also guided their decision to refuse to sign a contract at the end of a strike. In their view, only temporary “truces” could be effected on the “battlefield of capital and labor.” In his pamphlet, the IWW: Its History, Structure, and Methods, St. John wrote, “There is but one bargain that the Industrial Workers of the World will make with the employing class— complete surrender of the means of production” (Kornbluh, 1998:36). Additionally, the IWW did not want to open itself up to legalistic processes of contract mediation, and instead wanted workers to have the power to take action themselves whenever they felt it necessary as measured by a simple majority vote. In the eyes of the IWW, the workers of the world are wage slaves, forced out of necessity to sell their labor in order to attain the basic necessities of life: as long as this was the case there could be no peace until workers controlled production themselves. Moreover, the IWW knew that contracts often caused workers to let their guard down and become disorganized— which is all management would need to begin rolling back any concessions they were forced to make as a result of a previous strike.

The IWW continued to grow and flourish for just over ten years, from 1905 until the US entered World War One in 1917. During that time the IWW was able to win many impressive gains for the workers in their union and organized some of the most famous strikes in US history including the Lawrence, Massachusetts, strike of 1912 and the Patterson, New Jersey, strike of 1913. At its height in 1923, the IWW reported one hundred thousand card-carrying members (Siltonen, 2005). For a short time, it seemed that the union was on its way to realizing the dream of One Big Union. However, the IWW’s rhetoric, militancy, and staunch refusal to participate in contracts, mediation, or other traditional ways of controlling unions made the union some powerful enemies. The IWW entered a rapid decline during World War One when those enemies successfully capitalized on the union’s staunch anti-war position.

As early as 1914, the IWW had already declared its opposition to World War One in a resolution that stated: “We as members of the industrial army will refuse to fight for any purpose except the realization of industrial freedom” (Kornbluh, 1998:316). The IWW’s class politics led them to argue that war was simply when poor workers from different countries slaughtered one another in order to line the pockets of the capitalists who risked little themselves. The IWW continued organizing and striking as usual during the war, but their principled stand against the war provided a field day for the employers who were resisting their organizing efforts. It did not take long for the public relations men at major lumber and mining companies where the IWW was especially active at the time as well as moneyed newspapers around the nation to take advantage of the nationalist sentiment that was sweeping the US. The IWW was soon being painted across the country as German sympathizers, spies, and labor saboteurs, funded by German gold.

No evidence was ever produced in support these claims. The IWW did not spend its time actively opposing the war and did not even officially encourage its members not to register for the draft. However, the patriotic fervor surrounding the war provided the perfect cover for the government to crack down on the IWW. Throughout the summer of 1917 federal troops suddenly became widely available to help suppress IWW activity across the country and on September 5th, federal agents stormed IWW meeting halls, offices, and meetings and arrested 184 members of the organization on charges that the union was, “a vicious, treasonable, and criminal conspiracy which opposed by force the execution of the laws of the United States and obstructed the prosecution of the war” (Kornbluh, 1998:318).

The September 5th raid was a green light from the federal government for States to begin cracking down as well. In California alone, over 500 members of the IWW were arrested between 1919 and 1924, and 164 were convicted. To make matters worse for the IWW, twenty-one states and two territories passed criminal syndicalism laws between 1917 and 1920 making it easier than ever to arrest members of the IWW. These laws made it a crime even to advocate anarcho-syndicalist ideas. The IWW resisted these new measures as best they could, but they were not strong enough to counter the public and government attacks on all radicals during the war and post-war period. The union did not dissolve, but it would never be the same after this time. In the words of famous IWW organizer “Big” Bill Haywood, the IWW had been shaken, “as a bull dog shakes an empty sack” ” (Kornbluh, 1998:325).

Anarcho-syndicalists in the 21st Century

The early 1920s marked the peak of the revolutionary labor movement in the United States. No explicitly revolutionary union has ever boasted as many members as the IWW did before its decline after World War One. The IWW is still active, most notably trying to organize Starbucks workers in New York City and Jimmy John’s sandwich shops in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, but the union has only several hundred members. The truth is that the IWW is just about as weak now as it has ever been, and certainly much weaker than it was when it was founded in 1905. In many ways the union’s present problems are simply a reflection of the impotency of organized labor at large.

Unions have been in decline now for over fifty years in the United States. There is no consensus as to the reasons for this decline. Some theorists have argued that macroeconomic factors such as globalization and the transition from a manufacturing to a service based economy are responsible (Lee, 2005; Kaupins, 2008). This body of work argues that the emergence of the modern global economy has fossilized the labor movement in the United States. Another explanation suggests that it has been the concerted efforts of an increasingly virulent anti-union business community that has successfully crushed American labor unions (Clawson, 1999). This body of work suggests that the decline of unions has more to do with anti-union legislation, corporate propaganda, and the emergence of the multi-million dollar union-busting industry than anything else. These theorists are especially likely to view the policies of the Reagan Administration as a benchmark, specifically president Reagan’s decision to break the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike in 1981.

A third group of theorists argue internal factors have also played a major role in the destruction of American unionism (Kaupins, 2008). Supporters of this theory argue that widespread union oligarchy and the emergence of “business unionism” has caused American workers to lose interest in unions. Although the causes are still be being hotly debated, the decline of organized labor in the United States is a fact that has been well documented from different points of view by various labor historians.

Regardless of the cause, the demise of unionism has stripped workers of their greatest source of power. Workers are now almost entirely dependent on the strength of the legal system for protection while they have no way to go on the offensive in order to make changes at their workplace, let alone in society at large. As for anarchosyndicalists, the decline of unionism has rendered them practically irrelevant: what is the use in talking about the revolutionary potential of trade unions when there are so few? Anarcho-syndicalism is a tendency within trade union movements and without them it can only exist as an abstract idea. After all, the IWW did not emerge from thin air in 1905. It was founded by a coalition of like-minded trade unionists from across the country already representing tens of thousands of workers. There is no such movement for the IWW to pull from today. The question for anarcho-syndicalists then, and really for any one who wants to see a fighting labor movement in the United States, is: what should they do now?

The Emergence of SeaSol

SeaSol offers an alternative strategy for how to begin organizing in an anti-union era. Its founding members realized that the IWW simply cannot organize workers at this point in the 21st century in droves as it did in the early 20th century. In fact, the IWW as well as most mainstream unions have been struggling for years to organize any new shops at all. Without a stronger labor movement, it is all but impossible for anarchosyndicalist ideas to gain traction. SeaSol was founded on the premise that the labor movement needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

Its founders were not at all opposed to on-the-job organizing, and all remain IWW members, but they were motivated by an overpowering sense of pragmatism that pushed them to organize outside of the union. Most importantly, they wanted to reach people who were unwilling or unable to organize on the job, but who were willing to participate in direct action. They knew that this group was going to do something different from the IWW, but they wanted to take the union’s core principles with them: direct-action, direct-democracy, and a strong sense of class struggle.

The founding members of SeaSol also decided that they wanted to include tenants in their organizing efforts. The IWW has no history of tenants organizing, but anarchists have always been opposed to landlordism, and anarcho-syndicalists in other countries have a long history of participating in tenants’ struggles. The Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), probably the most famous anarcho-syndicalist union in history, helped to organize tenants in the early 1930s. The CNT’s Construction Union organized a massive rent strike in Barcelona calling for a 40 percent decrease in rents. The strike involved as many as 100,000 people who went on to demand better living conditions and forcibly prevented evictions. According to Schmidt and Van der Walt:

“Rent strikes were a major feature of anarchist and syndicalist activity elsewhere as well. British anarchists organized a ‘No Rent’ campaign in 1891, while the syndicalist Clyde Workers’ Committee was involved in a major rent strike in Glasgow in 1915. Anarchists organized rent strikes in Havana, Cuba, in 1899 and 1900. In the Mexican city of Veracruz in 1922 anarchists and members of the CPM, which was markedly influenced by anarchism, formed a Revolutionary Syndicate of Tenants that 30,000 people—more than two-thirds of the total population—out on a rent strike. This inspired similar protests in other cities in the state of Veracruz…” (2009: 192).

Anarcho-syndicalists were also active in other tenants movements in the early 20th century in Panama, Argentina, Chile, and Portugal.

In keeping with this long tradition, and in hopes of bringing more people into their organization, SeaSol also purposefully tried to bring tenants into their organization. In the summer of 2007, they set up a website and a free online voicemail service, and began putting up posters telling people who had problems with their employer or landlord to call. The idea was simple: wait for someone to contact the number, meet with them, hear their story, and if it was compelling try to plan a direct action campaign with them around winning a specific demand from their employer or landlord. SeaSol tries to bring together the most militant people from across workplaces and neighborhoods to support each other as equals in these campaigns and in the past five years the organization has had notable success. It is still small and faces a wide array of challenges, but it is also growing and continuing to succeed on a greater and greater scale. SeaSol is drawing on the anarcho-syndicalist tradition in an effort to build a new kind of working class organization. Understanding whether or not SeaSol’s approach is effective is instructive not just because it helps us to understand the organization, but also because it foretells what this organization may yet become.