The Registry Method explained

An explanation of the registry method used by the SAC to organise undocumented workers in Sweden. Originally posted on by “Altemark”.

Submitted by wojtek on November 27, 2012

The “registry method” is a form of struggle developed uniquely by revolutionary syndicalists in Sweden during the early 20th century, with the method maturing during the years until it’s heyday in during the 40-50′s. So, what is the registry method? This tactic was developed by first and foremost navvies creating the Swedish railway network – the idea can be traced to a industrial conference in 1913, and later reaching its full maturity among building and forestry workers – trades in which SAC often was the majority organisation.

SAC rejected the path chosen by the social democrat LO confederation, whose mindless focus on collective bargaining resulted in tying the hands of the worker’s class organisation behind their backs, with industrial peace clauses as the rope. With the balance of power in favour of the militant union struggle, a new front was opened up – not only working for better pay or workplace environment, but attacking the holy principle of the employers right to lead and distribute work and to employ and dismiss personnel at their own whim. This was seen as the logical step to fostering self-activity and preparing for workers’ taking over and running the industries, the ultimate goal in building a libertarian socialism.

To quote the railway worker and Gothenburg local of SAC, Ingemar Sjöö in his text “SAC and Syndicalism”:

The basic principle of the register] was to set a minimum acceptable wage for a given piece of work which no one was to go below. If by chance an employer offered less then a blockade was declared. There never was a question of collective agreements or negotiations but only ultimatums from the register committee. The problem with LO affiliated members and unorganised labour “resolved itself” by persuasion or at worst by tougher methods (the argument of the fist).

The minimum requirement for the initiation of a campaign to establish the registry in an area was to have at least half of the labor force sympathetic or members of SAC. And when LS (locals) of SAC managed to take the struggle to this level it proved to be very effective, especially in the mentioned industries – the crucial export industry forestry in northern Sweden and in Stockholm foremost among roads, paths, pipe- and cable-layers. For example, hourly wages were generally around 35% higher than the result of LO negotiations and collective agreements.

Both the registry method as well as the SAC's role as a serious alternative to business unionism declined with the increasing power of the paternal social democrat “folkhem” (People’s home, but German "volksheim" captures the multiple dimensions of the concept better). This was established through collaboration with the class enemy, particularly with signing of the so-called Saltsjöbad-agreement in 1938 with the employers confederation SAF – the formal beginnings of the so-called “ Swedish model”. Around these times secret agreements were made between LO and SAF that could guarantee LO providing workforce if an employer was in conflict with SAC and there was a weak point in the syndicalist position.

The registry method survived well into the 50′s, with some certain local situations in the forestry industry where the registry was used into the 70′s before this previously large industry declined in importance and as technical innovations made a large part of the workforce superfluous. Another reason for the collapse of the working class control over the work was that the registry demanded a high degree of specialization and many man-hours from the SAC local which sometimes lead to almost all of the energy being absorbed by this administrative work.

This, in short, is the story of the historical registry. But in the early years of the 21st century new material conditions woke up the idea of reviving the registry in a new form. SAC contacts with sister organisations in foremost Spain brought the plight of the large and shady world of the paperless immigrants into view. These experiences were instrumental in the SAC's surprisingly successful inroads here. Today (2009?), almost 800 of SAC:s members come from this group, many of whom have gained status as legal immigrants thanks to putting pressure on often very shady employers.

It was in 2005 that the Skärholmen local of SAC in an immigrant-thick and poor working class neighborhood of Stockholm started to work with organising “the unorganisable”. Earlier the activism in defence of immigrants had been focused on political solutions and demands. But now the paperless working group began with months of meticulous groundwork by using the contacts of militant members, often Latin Americans, to make an inventory of the wages and workplace environments that immigrants are faced with. This was later used as base for the often several orders of magnitude demands on wages as well as real contracts leading to “legalisation” of these previously “illegal” comrades.

On the SAC website section on the registry method the modern incarnation is explained thusly:

This is a short manual for how this works. The balance of power and collective solidarity decides the extent of success. The registry has been practiced in this form on hundreds of workplaces in Sweden.

1. The local decide the price of the work.

2. The employer accepts the price.

3. The local provides the employer with a workforce, and by these means the employer is robbed of the right to hire and fire.

4. Those who are re-employed through the registry appoint their foreman themselves, and so the employer is robbed of the to right to lead and distribute the work.

5. If the employer does not accept the conditions laid out by the local one cuts of the supply of workforce either through not assigning any workers there and/or by blockade. Either the work is done with the wage level appointed by the local and the workers the local votes to be representatives – or not at all. There exists no space for negotiations about the price or choice of workers.”

The militants responsible for identifying this specific material condition and successfully applying the modern form of the registry method to these conditions are aiming at encompassing ever larger groups of workers as well as in the long run generalize the unions control over the delegation of work. As reviewed earlier, in the heydays of 20th century Swedish syndicalism the registry was viewed by many as the foremost methods for realizing the promise of syndicalism. But right now the work is concentrated around precarious workers and mainly the situation of the sans papiers.

The declaration of principles of the Syndikalistiska Registret – that is the contemporary incarnation of the method – can also be of interest.

Through this declaration of principles and goals the Syndicalist Registry is constituted.

5a. The registry is a method of struggle in the hands of the working class to fight for their rights, their autonomy and freedom.

5b. In the registry members are only persons who are a part of the working class and do not have a trade which is based on oppression of the working class. This means that none of the following are accepted as members of the registry; employers, police and even less career military officers.

5c. All members of the Registry dedicates themselves to accepting and following the democratic decisions made by the local and the local section of the Registry.

5d. If the Registries local section or local take a decision in a democratic fashion and in trying to reach consensus to initiate a strike, not following this decision is a crime against solidarity and being a scab is totally unacceptable.

5e. An attack on a comrade in the Registry is an attack on all members of the Registry and this will be avenged in the ways found most fitting and grounded in democratic decisions.

5f. The primary method of the Registry is direct action.

5g. The long term goal of the Registry is to create the conditions for and training ourselves in self-activity and self-determination and to prepare ourselves to seize the means of production in a society that is just, egalitarian, socialist and libertarian.

The declaration of principles was unanimously accepted on the 14th October, 2007 in the Z-hall of the ABF-house (Worker's Educational League) with a participation of 250 comrades.

Another interesting point of discussion is how the Registry in practice seems to be a weird kind of bridge over the traditionally separated industrial (section, syndicates and federations) and geographical (LS, locals) manifestations of SAC – the Syndikalistiska Registret right now has Skärholmens and Västerorts LS of SAC attached to themselves at the same time as the basis of organization so far is the building of workplace sections and syndicates.

SAC in general seems to be a little special case whose organisational plan in its formative years was influenced in turns by industrial unionism and more geographically centered ideas. Is it non-functional? The internal debate is divided in this question as far as I understand it. It would be nice to have pros and cons for this with examples of libertarian unions (actually acting as unions) who have decided for either the one or the other approach.