A short while ago I started a series of articles on this blog that was to defend the ideas and practice of Anarcho-syndicalism from critical arguments against it. This article is a continuation of that series, this time, addressing the issue of unions. Anarcho-syndicalism advocates revolutionary, self-organized labor unions for it's strategy of the liberation of the working class and achieving workers' control. This has lead to debate among radicals since the ideas of Anarcho-syndicalism were first fleshed out. Many radicals have seen, and still do see, labor unions as a dead end.
The radical left argument against labor unions typically comes in two different forms. Firstly (but in no definite order), there is the argument from the union movement's decline. In the west the union movement is as close to dead as it has possibly ever gotten. Despite talk of "big labor" no such thing has existed, especially in the United States, for decades.1 Union membership is down to minuscule numbers and the unions that do exist are predominantly bureaucratic unions which are controlled by a paid, reformist leadership, rather than workers themselves. This has lead many to claim that labor unions have become a lost cause, they have been completely recuperated into capitalism.
The second form of the anti-union argument is that unions, as institutions, are inherently reformist. They only exist to facilitate compromises between labor and capital, rather than overcome the capitalist system itself. Firstly, it is pressing to ask what the alternative to labor unions are. A labor union is simply an organization of workers convened for carrying out class struggle against capital. How would a revolutionary movement get around forming such organizations? Workers have to organize in some capacity since they are the exploited class in capitalist society. Only workers have a defined, compelling interest in demolishing capitalism to replace it with the free association of producers, since workers are the class which is separated by capitalism from control over society's productive resources. A real question which often isn't answered by opponents of unions is; "if not unions, what?". Some might answer that workers and revolutionaries should participate in existing unions despite their limitations. The problem with this is that it's very difficult to imagine a weak, reformist, and bureaucratic union movement prevailing over capitalism in the class struggle. Some might answer that "soviets", or "workers' councils" should replace unions as the organizational form of the class struggle. If these councils are organizations convened by workers for class struggle against capital, however, then functionally they are no different from labor unions. Now we will proceed to answering these arguments directly.
The Defeat Of Labor?
As outlined above the labor movement has certainly been beaten back quite a bit by capital, but does this mean that unionism is a dead end? If it does than any antisystemic, revolutionary goals are as well. Just because a social force is in a state of momentary defeat does not mean it can not come back to prominence with the right strategy. There are certainly more people in labor unions today, even in the west and the United States, then in Anarchist federations, revolutionary political parties, or "ultra-left" groupings.
Further the idea of organized labor's complete integration into capital is certainly extremely eurocentric. Obviously there are bureaucratic, reformist unions in the third world, but in much of the third world unions are completely suppressed, rather than brought to the bargaining table. Those who try to unionize their workplaces, or industries, are harassed by management, or even attacked by hired thugs, or state forces.2 Even in the United States, recent strikes by teachers that have broken with the existing unions show an opening for the creation of a new, militant, worker controlled labor movement.
The Soul(s) Of Unionism
Now we address the second version of the argument. Are unions inherently reformist mediating agencies between labor and capital? The short answer is no. There is nothing that ordains that organizations of workers convened for class struggle at the point of production must be mediating agencies between labor and capital. In fact, in so far as a union fulfills it's ostensible purpose, it performs the opposite function. Unions are suppose to be organs of struggle, rather than organs of mediation. Of coarse, many reformist unions with bureaucracies that are brought to the bosses' table exist to manage labor's militancy in the interests of capital.
Bureaucratic-reformist unions have proliferated in the west since the beginning of the post-WW2 period. After the war the "post-war compact" was enacted. Capitalists offered workers a middle class standard of living (the so called American dream) in exchange for union bureaucracies policing worker militancy. This put the capitalist class in the perfect position to enact the neoliberal assault on unions, who's bureaucracies now managed labor's decline. This kind of unionism may be called "reformist", or "bureaucratic" unionism. Unionism, however, has two "souls", both going back to the beginning of organized labor.
One "soul" of unionism is reformist/bureaucratic, the other is militant and gets it's impetus from rank and file workers. Syndicalism, as a revolutionary movement which utilizes unionism to carry out the struggle against capital, has used the latter tendency to develop revolutionary unions which are controlled by their working class membership, and fight continuously for the overthrow of capitalism and the exploitation of labor. This is called "revolutionary unionism", syndicalism being a synonym. The CGT in France was a primary example of the struggle between the two souls of unionism. The CGT was a syndicalist union split between revolutionaries and reformist socialists. The CGT only became the reformist and bureaucratic union it is today after the reformists won a struggle for control of the union against the revolutionaries, people such as the Anarcho-syndicalist Emile Pouget.
The same struggle could be found in the CNT -FAI, revolutionary Anarchist unions which organized the revolution of July 1936 against Franco's attempted Fascist coup in Spain. In the beginning when the CNT-FAI was controlled by the rank and file workers and devoted to a libertarian communist politics which called for a movement to overthrow capitalism, it created working class control of urban areas and agricultural peasant collectives which organized agriculture according to the needs of the peasants themselves. Once the CNT-FAI began to consolidate power in the hands of leading Anarchists rather than the workers in assemblies it assimilated itself into the capitalist republic which destroyed the revolution's spirit by rolling back working class control in favor of state-capitalism. In other cases unions remained revolutionary until their dying breathe.
The FAUD in Germany organized a working class cultural movement and workers' councils that took over factories under workers' control. It was driven underground by the Nazis after a battle against Hitler's armed forces. The member section of the International Workers' Association (Anarcho-syndicalist international since the early 1920s), FORA of Argentina opposed the CNT-FAI's alliance with the Republic. The revolutionary union Industrial Workers' of the World in the United States organized masses of workers across racial lines in the United States until the US government crushed it.
Participation In Reformist Unions?
One last point we will discuss is whether revolutionaries and workers should boycott reformist-bureaucratic unions, or participate in them. Many believe in the strategy of "boring from within" which usually simply entails replacing the reformist bureaucracy with a group of militants. The problem with this strategy is it doesn't challenge the reformist and bureaucratic nature of the union, it simply replaces one set of bureaucrats with another. Some would have us disregard reformist unions completely, but even reformist unions can achieve victories for workers. The best strategy would be organizing inside reformist unions for workers' interests while building an alternative revolutionary union movement, or "dual unionism". Here is an example of "dual unionism": if your workplace is already organized by the AFL-CIO, dual unionism would entail participating in actions carried out by workers as members of the AFL-CIO (possibly being a member oneself), while working with your co-workers to build an alternative militant workers' organization.
Unionism can not simply be written off. Workers need to organize themselves in the class struggle somehow and there is no other form this can take but through organizations convened by workers for struggle against capital and for working class interests. Critique of existing unions needs to be made on the basis that they fail to form organizations that challenge capital and fight for a new society. Now more than ever workers need revolutionary organizations to carry out these two tasks.
1. Richard Wolff, Economic Update, The Great American Purge
2. The True Cost, 2015
Fighting For Ourselves, Solidarity Federation
Anarcho-syndicalism In The 20th Century, V. Damier
Boring From Within Won't Work, Tom Wetzel
Anarcho-syndicalism,Thomas Beckmann, Barbara Uebel and Markus Hoffmann in cooperation with "Videozeitung"