A New Syndicalism?

A New Syndicalism? (Flint Jones)
[The Northeastern Anarchist #2 Spring 2001]

Anarcho-syndicalism has changed a lot from it's origin in
workers' movements of the late 19th century. It saw
many of its practices adopted by reformist institutions,
and other practices rendered illegal by the repressive
hand of the state. Criticisms have grown outside of
workplace related issues, and failures have been
revisited time and again. I'd like to constructively
address some of those criticisms to develop a
revolutionary strategy for tactical intervention with the
economic struggles of our class. Organizing around
economic means is not enough, there are more
struggles than class warfare, but any revolution that
doesn't abolish class isn't a revolution (1). We need to
not try to resurrect old models of anarcho-syndicalism,
but reincarnate the ideals for a new life in our changing

A criticism common these days is the claim that
anarcho-syndicalism is dominated by a positivist
productionalist idea. Indeed, at one time there were
many syndicalists that emphasized the parasitism of the
rich, and encouraged that science and syndicalism
could create a more productive and efficient system.
This idea, however, co-existed with the opposition to
long work hours, celebrated the free existence of the
migrant worker, and shopfloor battles against the
deskilling and taylorization of crafts. Much worker
resistance is not just a resistance to capitalism, but a
resistance of work in general, particularly when labor is
alienated through domination and exploitation.

It is not simply a question of production, but of the kind of
production we are involved in. Increasing the amount of
junk we have is not beneficial. Having all of our needs
and a good number of our desires met with miminal
effort and ecological cost, is close to an economic
utopia. Quality of life issues like a reduction in working
hours and safety protections are old anarcho-syndicalist
issues. However, some of the important environmental
issues can not relegated to only what workers do at
work, or to the wanton demands of consumers, but also
whether there is going to be a toxic waste dump in your
backyard (or toxix waste at all!) or to build a dam.
Bio-regional, libertarian municipalist(2) or other
communal approaches might offer us a direction to look
for additions to workers' and consumers' councils.

Another criticism of anarcho-syndicalism is that it has
generally been viewed as primarily being concerned
with organizing workers as a labor union (3). This focus
on only organizing with workers at the place of
confrontation with their employer limited
anarcho-syndicalists to fighting isolated, defensive
battles. The old utopian economic solution of "workers'
control" through a union "administration of things" or
workers' councils is very limiting since the interests of
workers and consumers can be different. Everyone
participating in an economic social relationship is a
consumer; though everyone is not a worker. As human
beings, we are so much more than these economic
roles, but we are these things as well; and in fact, it is
these roles that are the only ones capitalism addresses.

The problem of workers' councils having a monopoly of
economic decision-making is addressed in Michael
Albert and Robin Hahnel's work on participatory
economics. Parecon basically advocates federation of
workers' councils based in the workplaces and
consumers' councils based in the neighborhood.
Parecon lacks a revolutionary praxis; they have no way
to get there proposed federation. I think there is a way...
and that is a worker and consumer syndicalism. We
need to organize not only at the point of production, but
also along the lines of transportation and
communication, as well as at the point of consumption.

Consumers, like workers, need to organize for their own
interests, and while more difficult to organize than
workers, organizing one can greatly support the other.
There are many similarities between organizing a labor
union, and organizing a tennants' union(4) or a bus
riders' union. Workers and consumers have more in
common with each other than they do with the capitalists
and bosses.

Syndicalism should be thought of as the practice of
organizing along principles of direct action and direct
democracy by the exploited for economic action against
their exploiters. It's primary weapon being
refusal--refusal to work, and refusal to buy. From slow
down on the job, to sabotage, from putting your rent in
escrow until the leak is fixed, to a mass rent revolt until
rent is lowered. As struggle increases, we move from
refusal to occupation and expropriation.

Probably the most useful criticism coming from council
communist influenced groups like the Anarchist
(Communist) Federation is that unions are defined by
their mediation between workers and capitalism. The
union bureacracy becomes separated from the interests
of workers as the professional staff acts as mediators
and negotiators between workers and employers. The
union comes to exist as a permanent economic
organization with interests separate from the rank and
file. The union bureacracy attempts to control the
workforce through discipline to fullfill contracts, as much
as it confronts the employers for a better contract. The
union must deliver a docile and stable workforce to the
boss or lose its power to bargain; and to do so it must
work to reduce the militancy of spontaneous worker
struggle against the employer. The union is your pimp.

While some of this needs to be taken with a grain of salt
since many unions do not behave this way,(5) and many
of these problems point to a lack of democracy in
current unions, or show the difficulty of staying within
labor law during struggle, I do think they make an
important point. Unions alone can not be the vehicle for
revolution. They are designed as confrontational
organizations within a hierarchial economy. They might
be good tools for surviving in this environment, but that
doesn't mean they are the best tools for destroying

Some neo-council communists forget, going so far as to
oppose any kind of political organization or even any
form of activism, that many of those workers who
particpated in the spontaneous formation of workers'
councils also participated in unions and political factions
before struggles became large enough to form councils.
Anarcho-syndicalists believe that the unions can be
schools for revolution. It gives workers confidence,
resources and time so that they can prepare for a
revolution. It develops a web of solidarity, mutual aid,
and trust that can be developed no other way than
through participating collectively with our class in
struggles that are reducing the rate of exploitation.

Unfortunately, until there is a revolution, there is always
going to be some degree of negotiation between the
exploited and the exploiters. If our class organizations
refuse to negotiate an eventual return to a rate of
exploitation, then the bosses and state will construct an
organization with whom they they can negotiate.
Eventually they will find enough scabs or break the
struggle forcing us to accept the deal negotiated by a
fake union. If we deny ourselves the ability to have at the
very least a democratic control over the negotiation
process, then we are sure to get fucked by it. (5)

It's a common myth that if we all belonged to the best
revolutionary organization, we would gain the critical
mass that is in agreement on the correct theoertical and
tactical unity and we would then have a revolution! The
debate becomes, which revolutionary organization is
best, and thus which organizations aren't then
revolutionary at all. It doesn't take long to see where this
will go. It would create a horde of rival sectarian
organizations sqabbling over whether the
Confederacion Nacional Trabajo (CNT) was
revolutionary in 1936, before, afterwards, or not at all.

The idea of "One Big Union"(OBU) here is taken out of
context. The appeal to OBU is a notion of solidarity in
action, not a monopoly of revolutionary activity by one
body of organized labor. The Industrial Workers of the
World(IWW) was very critical of "union scabbing" at the
time where one union would continue work (and even
increase work with overtime and job loading) while
another union was on strike. The idea was that all
workers in an industry should strike together. That was
the intent of OBU. Workers would support each others'
strikes regardless of craft, political party, union affiliation,
race, ethnicity, etc...

I think we witnessed this during the general strikes in
which the IWW agitated and participated. The IWW
contest for the membership of workers with the
American Federation of Labor obscured this point. In
some ways this is uniquely a phenomenon of the United
States labor law which only allows one union to
represent workers. This method of election for official
recognition by the government of one body of workers'
representatives, certainly did much to weaken radical
labor unions while giving advantages to reformist and
business unions.

Unions vary. They vary alot. Even in the U.S. you have a
spectrum of unions that include: hierarchical,
state-collaborationist, mafia-controlled, corporate,
pro-capitalist, sexist, racist, and nationalist unions, some
are moderate social-democratic reformers, some are
radical anti-capitalist democratic direct action unions,
and even others are small formal anarcho-syndicalist
groups. All unions are not the same, whether they are
offically recognized by the government or not. Whether
the government recognizes a body of organized workers
isn't really up to us, but rather the government and the
employers. When you've got a successful strike, the
bosses are desperate to negotiate and grant
recognition. Unions, though, are made by the collective
actions of the workers, not the paper endorsement of the
state or the permission of the capitalists.

If all unions are not the same, then some are better than
others. We should do everything we can to encourage
better unions. In the better unions we should encourage
the support of revolutionary struggle, even if the
revolution means the destruction of the organizations (or
at least its role as negotiator with the bosses).

In most places, a majority of the workers are not
organized into any but the most informal of work
resistance organizations. There is plenty of space for a
radical union that operates according to
anarcho-syndicalist principles to grow without ever
having to challenge the officaldom of the business
unions. Perhaps the IWW can today be a banner in
which similar efforts can gather.

For those workers who already have a "union" at work,
they have to figure out their own strategy. Does it make
more sense to try and reform the union toward a
revolutionary goal, or does it make more sense to form
an alternative and challenge the business union's role?
One problem for us from a class perspective is that
many vital industries are already in the domain of
business unions. Those industries would be essential
for the creation of general strikes and revolution.
However, the onslaught of neo-liberalism has launched
its war against even reformist unions, breaking the
decades of "cooperation" between labor unions and
capitalists. The AFL-CIO is changing under the strain of
assault from the capitalists, increasingly wild-catting
workers, local autonomy, rank & file democratic
movements. Other strains include radicals involved as
organizers for those portions of the unions that are
growing; the class collaboration of some union bosses
more interested in acting as pimps; and the
fragmentation being created by the United Brotherhood
of Carpenters and the withdraw of local unions from
central labor councils to setup their own progressive
labor councils. As much as we have an opportunity to
organize with the unorganized, we also have
opportunities for radicalization in the reformist unions.

We need specifically anarchist groups which spread
syndicalist ideals among our class and can provide a
perspective, history and theory for our fellow workers to
consider. This is to be a leadership of ideas, not a
vanguard. These probably need to be no larger than a
successful publication group, such as
Anarcho-Syndicalist Review; though undoubtly if they
are confederated with similar organizations they can
increase their reach and ability to intevene.

We need solidarity organizations that build support for
workers across lines of industry, craft, locality,
nationality; and where the need is across racial, tribal
and gender lines. These organizations need to be open
to anyone as long as they are willing to working in a
directly democratic matter taking direct action in the
interests of supporting workers in struggle. A good
example here would be the New York City based Direct
Action Network Labor group. It's groups like these that
will probably do much of the work in spreading the
solidarity that will be needed for successful general

We need workplace organization. I'm talking about on
the ground bread & butter organizations that help
workers survive day-to-day. The kinds of organizations
that get us coffee breaks or a pay raise. Sometimes, it
will mean negotiation with the State and the Bosses;
which means a contract even if all it is is a verbal
understanding. Ideally, these would be direct action,
directly democratic orgnizations of workers.

We need organizations pushing for the radicalization of
reformist and business unions. These can be networks
of rebel workers in the construction trades plotting a wild
cat strike, or the activities of militants with a newsletter
and alternate slate for the next elections, with a proposal
to change the union's constitution to allow more
democracy. Hopefully, they will either succeed in
changing the union, or in gaining enough supporters to
break away and form a rival union that is a better model
of workplace organization than the business union.

We need a seed for a new society. For that space we
manage to carve out for ourselves through alternative
economic organizations, communes and cooperatives,
we need to encourage those to grow as an economic
rival to capitalism. Much like unions, they are not the
revolution unto themselves for they have not escaped
the market economy completely, only mitigated it. They
do provide important models and can provide
employment for the black listed, and cost effective
services for our class that objectively improve their
income and resources. Workers cooperatives,
consumer cooperatives, mutual insurance, credit unions
and people's banks are all examples of these kind of
alternative economic orgnizations. They must become
confederated with each other, and support each other
and the revolutionary movement in general or they will
be isolated and destroyed by the competiveness of
capitalist exploitation or the repression of the state.
Cooperatives can also learn much from the directly
democratic nature of the radical labor and consumer
movement--many cooperatives have failed in being
cooperative by centralizing decision-making or trying to
"compete" in the global market.

By using a multi-organizational economic approach, we
can confront the existing power structure and builds an
alternative through dual power. We can advance from
isolated class struggles to a revolutionary movement
united in action and solidarity.

While focusing on our class organizations is a good
thing, we should always keep in mind that the revolution
is not just the organization of unions and their activities.
When revolution comes, it is going to be much more
spontaneous, chaotic and massive than any of the
formal organizational forms in which we participate. Will
we be ready?

1) The lead editorial by Nicholas Phebus in this issue on
revolutionary strategy.

2) There are some deep criticism of the local electoral
strategy of some libertarian muncipalists, but the idea of
organizing directly democratically in municipalties to
build dual power is a valid one. Perhaps a revolutionary
strategy involving neighborhood committees like the
Popular Commitee Saint Jean-Baptiste in Quebec City
can be developed? It would be interesting to see if
popular committees could develop in the United States.

3) Anarcho-syndicalism in practice often had a
communal aspect. But increasingly anarcho-syndicalism
is thought of only in terms of workplace organizing. This
has been one of the anarcho-communist criticisms of
syndicalism from the very beginning.

3) Becky (?) has an article on tennants' organizing in
this issue.

4) The Industrial Workers of the World often refused to
sign contracts. The some CNT locals struck only for
libertarian communism and not for any negotiation in
modifying the rate of exploitation.

5) An excellent example of the union bureacracy
selling-out the membership is the recent struggle at
Jeffboat ship-building yard along the Ohio River. The
Teamster local president tried to sign a sweet heart deal
with the boss, ignoring the voted opposition to the
contract from the rank & file, as a result the workers
(including a group of IWW members) held a short
wildcat strike. In the case of Jeffboat, the wildcat strike
gained support from the Teamster international. The
international forced the corrupt local president out office,
calling for a new election and putting all future contracts
to be decided by vote of the membership.