How should anarchists be organising in the workplace in the 21st Century?

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Ed's picture
Ed
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Jan 2 2016 11:10
orkhis wrote:
Whilst I have a lot of time for anarcho-syndicalism as a tactic and organisational form, I think those who argue against organising outside explicitly anarcho-syndicalist need to understand that a group of 12 people working in different workplaces is not an anarcho-syndicalist union/syndicate and is unable to act as one.

So while in one way what you say is true, and I don't think anarcho-syndicalists in 21st Britain would have a go at anyone joining a reformist union (in fact, I'd say most UK anarcho-syndicalists are also trade union members), I think your conception of what trade unionism looks like is not that representative of the reality.

So, firstly, I'd say that a lot of workplaces, in fact, in the UK and US prob the majority, have no union membership AT ALL and, depending on the age of the workforce, has a workforce with no experience of the labour movement or never even heard of 'trade unions' and what they're supposed to do. So in most of my workplaces, I've not only been the only 'radical' but the only union member/organiser as well.. at that point, even a reformist union is only gonna be able to give you much the same help as a radical group (i.e. outside support)..

Similarly, where I work now (public sector), there are quite a few union members but they still don't act as a union. Rather, they're in the union for individual representation. Again, the union can't really offer much more in the way of support in moving from individual representation to collective action. That still has to be done by those in the workplace, and the reality for most unions is that they're almost as absent from it (sometimes willfully) as anarcho-syndicalists..

So again, I think this division between being the anarcho-syndicalist loner at your work and being a union member with an immediate network of fellow members is, apart from in a few sectors, not the case. And where it is, there's nothing to stop people being members of both. A good account of what that would look like is Solfed's Workmates: direct action workplace organising on the London Underground..

akai
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Jan 2 2016 14:04

Ed, you make good points here.

l would also point out something. There are now enough examples of anarchosyndicalist unions as minority unions in some larger workplaces to draw some conclusions. l know of several times in the last 2-3 years where the mainstream unions had to be involved to get a strike going, but were not only willing, but actually signed deals without the consent of the workforce ... and then the anarchosyndicalists had open assemblies and workers from other unions agreed rather with the anarchosyndicalists and went on fighting, even after their unions signed deals .... and they got better deals. That's happened with comrades in Spain and in ltaly over the last couple of years.

Of course being in the minority can also be tough at times, but there is not any set scenario and certainly being a member of a bigger union doesn't guarantee you the best fight.

orkhis
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Jan 2 2016 19:20
akai wrote:
Well, l certainly do not condemn anybody for joining a mainstream union if they have no way to act otherwise, which is often the case. However, l would point out that a few years ago we started our organization with exactly 12 people, in different cities and workplaces but now we can even win strikes inside workplaces. That does not mean that we can do that in every workplace we are present, nor can we be present in every workplace where our members are, But the reality of the working world is complex and, quite frankly, we are in also in places and doing things that the mainstream unions don't do, either because it is not profitable or because it doesn't fit in the legal framework. For example, can you believe that there is one political party in Poland which has been saying over and over again that people in small workplaces cannot make unions because they don't fulfill the legal number of workers ... but this is completely ignoring the point that they can all unionize in reality, in structures like our unions, and they can also win their demands from their bosses - actually much more easily than in some workplace with thousands of workers and a dozen unions, half of them all sold out to the bosses to keep their paid positions. Anyway, l don't know about you, but in my area of work, many people are dispersed, working on false self-employment contracts or on temporary contracts and the mainstream unions can offer us completely nothing. There are no unions for us except mine. Unfortunately, most people don't see the point in unionizing yet and only get angry when they are personally fucked over... but l am absolutely certain that when the shit does hit the fan, only we will be equipped to act in this environment where the mainstream unions have no strategy and no legal framework.

I agree, and I'm not saying that reformist unions are in any way a substitute for effective anarcho-syndicalist organising. You'll know that Solfed have been doing some really great work in Brighton organising around precariously employed workers and housed people in the city. It's not that the reformist unions aren't interested in such struggles (they arent), but they aren't even remotely equipped or orientated for it.

But for workers employed by large employers (public or private), I personally feel that a small a-s org/union would be limited in its reach and impact. Now if half a dozen anarcho-syndicalists were working in the same workplace...

syndicalistcat's picture
syndicalistcat
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Jan 13 2016 05:00

Labor law situation in USA allows for minority unionism in a workplace where no union has a contract. At present only 6 percent of workers in private sector are under contracts. But 11 percent overall because unions are more widespread in public sector (such as teachers, transit workers).

So if people form a committee in a workplace where there is no union contract, their activity is technically legally protected....tho they may be fired anyway. But then it would be possible to mount a campaign to get them re-instated, tho this can be slow.

There is still a lot of manufacturing in the USA but much of the manufacturing that exists is in the south where unions don't exist, and where the local culture is very conservative.

I think forming a committee is the first step. It's sort of a union in embryo. There are also solidarity networks in USA which organize through community against landlords & bosses by organizing people outside the workplace to defend single individuals who are victimized, but they have had a hard time building groups or committees in workplaces.

I think industrial concentration is probably needed where a group of militants target an employer & work there to build an organization there. In USA it's hard to find people with that degree of commitment these days.

At same time there do exist some committees in workplaces under union contract which are independent of the unions. Railway Workers United is an example in USA. Some of the main militants are syndicalists. This is a sector where there is high union membership due to union contracts on the Class 1 railroads (the five big railroads). But the unions are craft unions that are bureaucratic, have a long history of stabbing each other in the back, and are not trusted by the workers. So RWU exists as a parallel organization.

jc
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Jan 14 2016 00:15

Here's my thoughts:

First off, have you read the "workmates" pamphlet? That was by someone in rmt and is all practical examples of organising - http://www.solfed.org.uk/pamphlets

Second, what we do depends on the individual situation in our workplaces. Like in my workplace - there's no established union and people don't really have much faith in them. So whatever I believe, I'm going to have to do some organising outside official structures anyway. You're probably the opposite if you're in an rmt workplace - if there's an established union that people have a lot of faith in, then you can be as ultra-left as you like and still need to interact with the union branch if you want to achieve anything. So, there's no blueprint that's going to apply everywhere. Some working-class people still believe strongly in the unions, for others it's almost the opposite and being "from the union" might even make them less likely to listen (bit of a north-south divide there I reckon).

Third - we need to be clearer what we mean by "unions". Leaders and bureaucrats aren't very helpful to us. But branches and trades councils can be. That's what I've seen on the ground - anything above branch level apart from trades councils has been a waste of time. And historically, lots of the best strikes have been organised by branches against the wishes of the full timers. So I'd say if you do work inside the union (it's possible to do a decent job of organising outside it though, for sure), keep your feet on the ground and the issues at hand, rather than getting tangled up in the bureaucracy.

Fourth, and this is the most important point, us workers aren't doing well at the moment in the UK. Unions are getting weaker and there's not much organising outside of unions to make up for it either. The most important thing is that dedicated people like us get on with doing some real organising! What's most important isn't if we do it in our branches or by setting up workplace assemblies outside of them. So long as we get people together to fight for improvements to our lives, and make sure that everyone has a say, then we're making progress! We can work out what national structures we want in a few years time, but if left-ish workers don't start putting a lot more effort into this basic work then we're fucked. I'm terrible at workplace organising and even I've managed to do something (and thanks to my workmates, won a little bit too!). If I can do it anyone can smile. The most important thing isn't having the perfect strategy, but going at it with passion and being willing to learn and listen as you go.

That's my opinion anyway smile

Sleeper
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Jan 15 2016 20:06

Hi and yes I have read through all of this thread, everything, and I appreciate every contribution to the discussion so far.

Now we seem to have reached a place where we can talk about working class people organising in the workplace regardless of what the state/capitalists want.

So do we try to recreate something from the 19th/20th century, syndicalism, or do we look to networking in different ways to realise our anarchist vision within the 21st century?

orkhis wrote:
akai wrote:
Well, l certainly do not condemn anybody for joining a mainstream union if they have no way to act otherwise, which is often the case. However, l would point out that a few years ago we started our organization with exactly 12 people, in different cities and workplaces but now we can even win strikes inside workplaces. That does not mean that we can do that in every workplace we are present, nor can we be present in every workplace where our members are, But the reality of the working world is complex and, quite frankly, we are in also in places and doing things that the mainstream unions don't do, either because it is not profitable or because it doesn't fit in the legal framework. For example, can you believe that there is one political party in Poland which has been saying over and over again that people in small workplaces cannot make unions because they don't fulfill the legal number of workers ... but this is completely ignoring the point that they can all unionize in reality, in structures like our unions, and they can also win their demands from their bosses - actually much more easily than in some workplace with thousands of workers and a dozen unions, half of them all sold out to the bosses to keep their paid positions. Anyway, l don't know about you, but in my area of work, many people are dispersed, working on false self-employment contracts or on temporary contracts and the mainstream unions can offer us completely nothing. There are no unions for us except mine. Unfortunately, most people don't see the point in unionizing yet and only get angry when they are personally fucked over... but l am absolutely certain that when the shit does hit the fan, only we will be equipped to act in this environment where the mainstream unions have no strategy and no legal framework.

I agree, and I'm not saying that reformist unions are in any way a substitute for effective anarcho-syndicalist organising. You'll know that Solfed have been doing some really great work in Brighton organising around precariously employed workers and housed people in the city. It's not that the reformist unions aren't interested in such struggles (they arent), but they aren't even remotely equipped or orientated for it.

But for workers employed by large employers (public or private), I personally feel that a small a-s org/union would be limited in its reach and impact. Now if half a dozen anarcho-syndicalists were working in the same workplace...

Sleeper
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Joined: 19-10-15
Jan 15 2016 20:56

That pamphlet is something I've never seen within the RMT. Personally I believe we have to find other ways to organise ourselves now smile

jc wrote:
Here's my thoughts:

First off, have you read the "workmates" pamphlet? That was by someone in rmt and is all practical examples of organising - http://www.solfed.org.uk/pamphlets

Second, what we do depends on the individual situation in our workplaces. Like in my workplace - there's no established union and people don't really have much faith in them. So whatever I believe, I'm going to have to do some organising outside official structures anyway. You're probably the opposite if you're in an rmt workplace - if there's an established union that people have a lot of faith in, then you can be as ultra-left as you like and still need to interact with the union branch if you want to achieve anything. So, there's no blueprint that's going to apply everywhere. Some working-class people still believe strongly in the unions, for others it's almost the opposite and being "from the union" might even make them less likely to listen (bit of a north-south divide there I reckon).

Third - we need to be clearer what we mean by "unions". Leaders and bureaucrats aren't very helpful to us. But branches and trades councils can be. That's what I've seen on the ground - anything above branch level apart from trades councils has been a waste of time. And historically, lots of the best strikes have been organised by branches against the wishes of the full timers. So I'd say if you do work inside the union (it's possible to do a decent job of organising outside it though, for sure), keep your feet on the ground and the issues at hand, rather than getting tangled up in the bureaucracy.

Fourth, and this is the most important point, us workers aren't doing well at the moment in the UK. Unions are getting weaker and there's not much organising outside of unions to make up for it either. The most important thing is that dedicated people like us get on with doing some real organising! What's most important isn't if we do it in our branches or by setting up workplace assemblies outside of them. So long as we get people together to fight for improvements to our lives, and make sure that everyone has a say, then we're making progress! We can work out what national structures we want in a few years time, but if left-ish workers don't start putting a lot more effort into this basic work then we're fucked. I'm terrible at workplace organising and even I've managed to do something (and thanks to my workmates, won a little bit too!). If I can do it anyone can smile. The most important thing isn't having the perfect strategy, but going at it with passion and being willing to learn and listen as you go.

That's my opinion anyway :)