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Anarchist communists in the workplace in North America

category north america / mexico | workplace struggles | feature author Wednesday December 14, 2005 19:13author by Eleventh federation congress - NEFAC Report this post to the editors

NEFAC workplace position paper

The struggle toward libertarian communism must be brought about by the whole of the working class, the workplace and labor unions are an essential point of agitation and struggle. Anarchist-communists must organize within the ranks of labor unions, active in this struggle as both advocates of social revolution and as fellow workers in a collective battle against exploitation

Class struggle is by no means confined to workplace. Class conflict occurs everyday in neighborhood-based battles for decent housing, the fight for welfare, the battles for access to quality education, the struggle against prisons and police brutality, in the arena of popular culture, and especially against racism, sexism, and other oppressions that stratify and divide the working class. However, as anarchist-communists, we have a particular strategic interest in workplace struggles due to the ability to directly challenge the material interests of the capitalist class

Independent rank-and-file tendencies within existing unions, coupled with workplace resistance groups, solidarity networks , and, eventually, workplace assemblies and coordinating councils, provide a glimpse at the kind of self-managed workers movement needed to not only effectively challenge the employers, but also develop the unity and revolutionary class consciousness needed to overthrow the capitalist social order.

[Italiano]

NEFAC workplace position paper


Introduction

As anarchist-communists, we want a radical reorganization of the workplace. We want workplaces that are run by directly democratic federated workers' and community-based councils. We want the highest decision-making body to be general assemblies of workers held on the shop floor and in the communities where they live. We want to abolish the wage system, end the alienation and division of labor, and usher in a new society of libertarian communism.

To achieve this society, we engage in a struggle against the bosses; a struggle between the working and the employing classes; a revolutionary class struggle that will only end when the class system itself is destroyed and everyone controls and shares in the wealth that we as working people produce.

We believe that the struggle toward libertarian communism must be brought about by the whole of the working class, and see the workplace and labor unions as an essential point of agitation and struggle. Labor unions represent the largest organized grouping of the working class. For this reason we feel that anarchist participation within the unions is essential. Anarchists must be involved in workplace struggles, both because we are both workers and because we are revolutionaries. As we fight the bosses with our fellow workers, we also fight the mediation of our struggle.

We anarchist-communists must organize within the ranks of labor unions, retaining our specific praxis. We become active in this struggle as both advocates of social revolution and as fellow workers in a collective battle against exploitation. We choose participation over authority and solidarity over isolation. It is through the process of collective struggle that people become radicalized and more open to anarchist ideas. To win the battle of ideas, we fight for direct action, mutual aid, and direct democracy in our unions and more importantly in the workers' movement as a whole--in short, revolutionary anarchist praxis.

CLASS STRUGGLE

At every stage in the historical development of society -– from ancient times through feudalism, to present-day capitalism -- there has been a division between those who produce goods and services, and the small minority that expropriate. This division has led to the development and irreconcilable interests of the two primary social and economic classes, resulting in an ongoing class struggle between them.

Class struggle is by no means confined to workplace. Class conflict occurs everyday in neighborhood-based battles for decent housing, the fight for welfare, the battles for access to quality education, the struggle against prisons and police brutality, in the arena of popular culture, and especially against racism, sexism, and other oppressions that stratify and divide the working class. It is not simply the fight for better wages and working conditions, but a daily struggle for the direction of society.

However, as anarchist-communists, we have a particular strategic interest in workplace struggles due to the ability to directly challenge the material interests of the capitalist class. Capitalism is, above all, a social relation; but it is also an economic system with real material weaknesses at the various points of production, communication, and distribution. Our greatest strength as workers is in the collective refusal of our labor. An organized working class is a force that has the potential to shut this system down and re-create society in our own interests.

The workers who produce the wealth under capitalism differ from all previously oppressed classes. Firstly, we now have the productive capacity to create enough wealth to provide the basic necessities (food, shelter, clothing, education, health care) for everyone and still have plenty to spare for science, culture, luxuries, etc.

Secondly, and more importantly, our everyday life as workers prepares us to eventually self-manage our society.

UNION BUREAUCRACY AND REFORMISM

Although we realize there are some exceptions, the reality of the labor movement today in North America is one of compromise, and often collaboration, with capitalist exploitation. Unions serve as a mediator between the working class and the bosses, often playing the role of business organizations that negotiate the sale of their members labor power to employers (and, in exchange, they offer workers material benefits: job security, health care, better wages). They seek a fairer form of exploitation under capitalism, rather than an end to exploitation itself.

As the labor movement has failed over the years to mount a fundamental challenge to the power of the bosses, the unions became increasingly top-down in their structure and integrated into the system. The officials who run these organizations work to contain workers' struggles within the framework of their longstanding relationship with employers and politicians.

While there are variations amongst the unions (some of which are more democratic and militant than others), most are dominated by a hierarchy of paid officials and staff, who control bargaining with employers, the handling of grievances, and tend to have a social service relationship to the rank-and-file (with whom they remain unaccountable to). This bureaucratic stranglehold, along with years of regulatory labor legislation, has led to unions often becoming roadblocks to serious working class power in North America, rather than fulfilling their historic role as effective vehicles for class struggle.

It is important to understand how this bureaucratic leadership emerged. Successive waves of union organizing, often involving militant tactics such as wildcat strikes and occupations pressed a tactical retreat on the bosses and the capitalist state, leading to the extension of new rights to workers' organizations. In place of open class warfare, a process of limited and uneven concession granting was established. This truce regulated and compartmentalized workplace struggles to keep them below the level of serious disruption. A new layer of union functionary emerged to broker and executes this deal. These union executives needed to placate membership with regulated contract gains while simultaneously ensuring labor force stability and an environment suited to accumulation for the bosses. While limited outbursts were permitted, union leaders were obliged to police the deal and maintain order in the ranks. The bureaucracy developed centralized structures and methods of control and direction that fit its role and function.

Beyond bureaucracy and internal hierarchies, most unions that are officially recognized by the state are unable to act outside of existing labor laws, and often limited in their ability to take effective action against employers. This means that they can support only the most moderate action, and they are typically unwilling to risk even this. Local unions that pursue a more independent, militant stance against employers are likely to run up against roadblocks of officials to effective action. In the worst cases when AFL-CIO or CLC affiliated locals are deemed too militant, national or international unions use their power to impose a dictatorship called a trusteeship, tossing out their elected officers and seizing control of the local with appointees of the bureaucrats.

Anarchist workplace militants must become revolutionary opponents of the union bureaucracy, refuse the terms of compromise with the bosses, and directly challenge those who seek to enforce it. It is necessary to build a rank-and-file movement which understands how this bureaucratic hold has entrenched itself, and which can actually work to break both the union bureaucrats and the bosses' hold over workers' struggles.

As the existing unions are not suited to overthrow the capitalist class (or, often times, even capable of taking effective action against employers) a workers' movement that can transform society needs to be built independently of the existing union hierarchies, both inside and outside of the union bodies. As workers move towards more militant action and more widespread solidarity, self-organization becomes a more realistic possibility.

Independent rank-and-file tendencies within existing unions, coupled with workplace resistance groups, solidarity networks (flying squads, workers' centers, student-labor action groups, etc.), and, eventually, workplace assemblies and coordinating councils, provide a glimpse at the kind of self-managed workers movement needed to not only effectively challenge the employers, but also develop the unity and revolutionary class consciousness needed to overthrow the capitalist social order. These are the areas where NEFAC seeks to be actively involved in the workplace.

DIVISIONS WITHIN LABOR

We recognize the exclusion that many workers face within capitalism due to certain forms of discrimination (such as racism and gender discrimination). These forms of divisions prop up capitalist isolation tactics between sectors of the workforce, as well as reinforce reactionary attitudes between various sectors of the working class.

We must recognize the vast divisions in the world of labor between people of different language, "race" or ethnic origin, which fuel racist, xenophobic and reactionary attitudes amongst workers. We must struggle against these divisions, by acting autonomously and building internationalist and anti-racist alliances. Through class organizing in the workplace, workers can develop strategies that break down racist and xenophobic divisions inside as well as outside of the workplace, demonstrating that racism is a social construction that serves to maintain ruling class power (divide to rule). By making an internationalist and anti-racist class struggle possible, we live a social alternative enabling worker's from different back ground to meet and learn from each others.

We must defend undocumented immigrant workers from attacks by capitalist exploitation of their "legal status". We must defeat racist and xenophobic attitudes amongst sectors of our class, by building solidarity between rank-and-file workers of "legal" and "illegal" status. Our most powerful argument against these racist attitudes is by organizing for common goals, so that capitalists can't take advantage of immigrant worker status to push the standard of wages and conditions down for all workers. By organizing defense of immigrant workers within the workplace we expose the relationship between capitalist organization of national boundaries as a relationship that serves the interests of the capitalist class, and not for selected sections of the "legal" workforce within artificial geographic boundaries. This activity also weakens the statist control of national and ethnic distinctions.

We must recognize the specific oppression of women under both capitalism and patriarchy. A long time before industrialization - and long after that – the place assigned to women was one of the "queen of the home", a place pointed out as their first and natural vocation. When the massive participation of women in the workforce occurred, opposition came out from all sides, from religious groups to the unions, saying that female work was against the natural order of things. But since society could not afford to develop itself without the work of women, essential to the development of capitalism and above all to the survival of working class families, we saw a great range of laws orienting the work of women towards jobs fitting better with their "nature". This has caused the creation of large female job ghettos in which the professional qualification of women was not recognized since it was "natural". If the work of women was not recognized as the fruit of diverse learning and special aptitudes, but rather as being part of their innate qualities, it was not worth a particular remuneration. In this way women's' jobs were, and still are today, paid much less and not valorized. The capitalist reality of the "double day" of work – social reproduction labor (such as housekeeping and childcare) in addition to this undervalued wage labor – forces women to stay home in a private sphere and contributes to their isolation. We must therefore fight against the economic and social inequalities that women live in society and in their workplace by struggling against the wage discrimination towards women and the low union rate of jobs worked by women, as well as their precarity and bad working conditions. The solidarity of the workers' movement must be extended to all workers, no matter if their labor is recognized, waged, and legal or not. We also must support and defend autonomous women's organizing around their material conditions and militantly defend all the gains made by our class, including those that provide advancement for women.

We don't believe that by simply abolishing capitalism, that racist and patriarchal attitudes in the working class will be destroyed. Class struggle is a struggle against all forms of oppression; therefore the class system must be brought down by a cross-gender and inter-racial mass workers' revolution. By organizing against these forms of discrimination inside the workplace we connect the dots between capitalist exploitation and social oppression, how they are linked and how we can draw these struggles together into one united class struggle for the liberation of all workers. Through rank-and-file action we must organize against these divisions by building campaigns and workers' organizations that are anti-racist, pro-immigrant, and anti-sexist. By agitating and acting in defense of these excluded sectors of our class in the workplace, by supporting and encouraging the autonomous organizing of all oppressed groups in all areas of society, and supporting leadership and activity within these struggles, we participate in creating class-based, internationalist, feminist and anti-racist organizing strategies that are capable or developing into a more advanced class struggle movement.

RANK-AND-FILE AUTONOMY

If society is a vast interlocking network of cooperative labor then those networks of cooperation provide a good starting point, if only a starting point, towards throwing off the bonds of coercion, authoritarianism, and exploitation. It is in these relations of cooperative labor, which encompasses millions of daily acts, that one can find the real basis for social life. Without these networks, often unrecognized and unpaid, society would collapse. We believe that for workers' struggles to move towards anarchist-communism, that they must provide within them the social basis for the re-organization of production into a libertarian communist economy. This social basis necessitates that workers' struggles be cooperatively run on the shop floor, while expanding and generalizing not only to other workplaces, but also outside the workplace to the community that the workplace is located in.

Sometimes this struggle formalizes itself into groups of workers that act outside and in opposition to not only the exploiting class, but also the union bureaucracy. Some names that these formations have taken in the past are workers' committees, flying squads, resistance groups, action committees, etc. Other times, this is expressed through unofficial spontaneous collective action, such sit-down-strikes, occupations, slows downs, sabotage, and wildcat strikes utilizing informal networks that exist between workers. What matters is not the name or even the specific organizational form they take, but rather the way that the unmediated class struggle of these workers' formations starts the transformation of the organization of production.

COMMUNITY-LABOR ALLIANCES

This brings us to the importance of building active links between the grassroots popular struggles in the neighborhoods and the labor struggles taking place inside them. We call this the community-labor alliance. Community-labor alliances are best built by a mutual reinforcement of ongoing struggles in the communities and workplaces. It is for this reason that NEFAC advocates workers' and people's organizations actively support each other, build solidarity, and end the artificial division between the workplace and community struggles.

ALTERNATIVE INSTITUTIONS

The labor movement once put a great deal of energy into building more permanent forms of alternative institutions. An expanding variety of mutual aid functions were provided through workers' organizations in the early days of labor. Long before the government monopolized social services, many workers' organizations created a network of cooperative institutions of all kinds: schools, daycare, summer camps for children and adults, homes for the aged, health and cultural center, insurance plans, technical education, housing, credit associations, etc. While we recognize that, in the past, working people have won significant victories that have forced the government to provide these services; we actively fight for self-managed social services that are controlled directly by the workers themselves.

While on their own such institutions can and are absorbed into the capitalist system (and do not constitute a strategy for revolutionary change), we take a position in favor of creating workers' owned and run services that operate, as best they can under capitalism, on the basis of the need for the entire working class with the participation of the communities that benefit from the services. We believe that such institutions and programs open up space for experimentation of a limited form of self-management under capitalism.

WORKERS CENTERS

Today one expression of this need for alternative workers' institutions, as well as the previously mentioned community-labor alliance, is seen in the development of workers' centers. Workers' centers provide a location and organizational support for campaigns in defense of precarious workers such as immigrant workers, workers in small shops, and non-unionized industries. NEFAC takes a position in support of workers centers and encourages participation and utilization of them as part of our extra-union strategy.

GRASSROOTS SYNDICALISM AND INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZING

We support industrial organizing over organizing by trade or craft. Industrial organizing brings together all workers in a workplace into a common union organization. Trade unionism - which allows each location, profession, or sector to be represented by different unions, weakens class identification and solidarity. With the aim of creating a workers' movement on a class basis, NEFAC supports the goal of eventually building grassroots syndicalism, which would incorporate all workers regardless of skill, trade, industry, or even current employment.

THE GENERAL STRIKE

A central part of our program is the call for the general strike. It serves as a bridge between demands for reforms and the ultimate goal of revolution. The old method of each union fighting for its own gains, striking one at a time against a particular boss, is of limited use. The capitalists help each other against the unions. Companies have grown in size, through mergers and expansion, on a national and international scale. A multinational company uses the profits of one part of its business empire to make up for losses due to strikes in another part. The bosses have their own "union", namely the national state. Through the state, they have outlawed the most effective methods of striking, such as mass picketing, sit-down strikes (occupation of work sites), and cross-union strikes (sympathy strikes). They have given the courts the rights to limit strikes, and some workers are legally forbidden from striking at all.

We think the answer is to increase solidarity among unions, as well as among unions and the community. As many workers as possible should be prepared to strike together. Most useful would be for a large number of workers in an area to strike at once, effectively shutting down production in the whole area. The area might be a city, a country, multiple countries or global. Such general strikes would be very difficult to break.

Rather than just walking out of the factories, offices, and other work sites, the workers should occupy them. This would make it harder for the capitalists to bring in scabs or to assault the strikers (since such assaults could destroy their property). Locking out the bosses, the workers could decide to restart the workplaces, to produce goods and services on the basis of the needs of the community.

There have been general strikes in many countries at various times—in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Most of these strikes were for limited gains. But a general strike poses the possibility of revolution, especially if it is over several cities or even nationwide. To have the workers running a city or region, even for a while, to have workers councils instead of the state, to have the workers patrolling the street instead of police, to have work sites producing for the needs of the workers--these suggest a different form of society. They ask the question, ""Why not get rid of the capitalists and the state?"

Right now the workers have suffered many defeats and only a few victories. They do not trust in their power. More than all the radical rhetoric, a successful general strike would show in practice that we have the power to change the world.

REVOLUTION

Any popular movement for working class power must be prepared to defend itself. The working class already has one source of power; it has the ability to shut down the economy and to start it back up on another basis. This is not enough to resist a persistent reign of physical terror by the state. Working people must be able to resist with weapons in hand. Workers' defense squads must grow from defense of pickets from scabs and goons to popular militias. Armed defense must be combined with a political appeal to the ranks of the armed forces sent against the workers. The ranks of the armed forces consist of the working class and can be reached. They are more likely to do so if they feel that the workers are prepared to fight to the end, until they win (it is no light matter to defy military orders and soldiers will not do so unless they feel they will get away with it). The more prepared the working class is for serious self defense, the less violence there is likely to be.

Violent revolutions in the past have resulted in new rulers. We, however, are building a movement for the self-rule of the working class, where the armed people are democratically organized and the economy is a communist one based on the maxim: "From each according to ability to each according to need". We wish to smash the state, to dismantle capitalism and all authoritarian institutions, and create a lasting freedom of libertarian communism.

We want a social revolution, literally a "turning-over", so that those on the bottom of society overturn their masters and manage themselves. If society is to survive, the workers must replace capitalism with a federation of self-managed industries and communities with production based on needs, not profits.

Under capitalism, workers are a component of producing an ever-accumulating surplus of value that is stolen from our labor. In an anarchist-communist society, production will be organized on the basis of need where there is no surplus of value. This anarchist-communist production can only be realized by the cooperation in production that takes place in the community as a whole. There can be no isolated anarchist-communist workplace; the reorganization of production by its nature requires the elimination of division between the workplace and the communities in which we live.

(Adopted at eleventh federation congress, November 5-6, 2005,
Sherbrooke, Quebec)

author by blackgadfly - acephalous societypublication date Thu Dec 15, 2005 02:26Report this post to the editors

As anarchist-communists, we are all aware of the roadblocks we confront when dealing with bureaucracy and hierarchy on the job and within every square block of our cities and townships. I am interested in learning how members of NEFAC or similar revolutionary socio-industrial organizations view the more INTIMATE relationships between union officials and the rank-and-file. How do some suggest we are to bridge the gap between these two seemingly contradictive positions within union organization? Where do some suppose real allegiances lye? It is a common phrase within revolutionary working class movements, that 'the working class has nothing in common with the capitalist class'. Now, union officials generally do not have a stake in the ownership of the means of production, but they do tend to act as a buffer between those who they are intended to represent (working class) and those whom are temporarily supplying them with the means of providing for themselves and their families (capitalist class). What steps, as revolutionary industrial unionists, should we take to begin dismantling hierarchy and illegitimate authority, while establishing direct democracy and direct action on the job, in unions such as the SEIU or other so-called "progressive" factions within the Change to Win Coalition?

No war, but class war.

blackgadfly

author by John C - IWWpublication date Thu Dec 15, 2005 03:04author email classwar55 at yahoo dot comReport this post to the editors

This is a very interesting point that you bring up; one that I feel is not addressed enough. Like you said, the relationship between rank-and-file workers and union officials is very tricky: the officials don't necessarily have a stake in the means of production, but they, as you said, "act as a buffer between those who they are intended to represent (working class) and those whom are temporarily supplying them with the means of providing for themselves and their families (capitalist class)". To understand this group of officials, we need not look any further than the words of Bakunin when he talked about the emergence of a new class of experts, scientists and professional politicians would arise, once the role of government was taken out of the hands of the masses. Though he was referring to what would happen if a "dicatorship of the proletariat" was installed, his vision of these managerial types becoming a new class is one that seems to have not been paid enough attention to. Some have gone so far as to actually recognize this group of people as an already existing class in itself; calling it the "techno-managerial class" or "coordinator class". I'm not sure where everyone stands on the existence of such a class, but it is definitely something that we, as revolutionary anarchists, should examine a little further. Maybe by doing so, we could come closer to knowing how to bridge that gap that blackgadfly speaks of.

author by mitchpublication date Thu Dec 15, 2005 08:58author email wsany at hotmail dot comReport this post to the editors

Just briefly on the topic of union officials and the rank and file.

I think it's important to define who you are talking about when you talk about "union officials".

For example, elected shop stewards and elected local officers are "union officials".
Are they the same as appointed paid staffers? Are they the same as appointed unelected delegates or full time unelected representatives, business agents or organizers? Are they the same as the autocrat who's been in office for a gazillion years and just appointed his kid secretary-treasurer? I don't think so.

Also, while I'm not in the IWW, one of the writers on this topic signed off as being an IWW member. One coud also say that the position of GST, Delegate and so forth would also be considered "union official" tiltes. Obviously they represent a different perspective but can still, in the parlance, be considered union officals. They are offically represnting the union.

So I think one has to look at the nature of the position and how far removed from or in opposition to the rank-&-file they might be.

The point is that tiltes are less important than the function and how that function is close to and controlled by the membership.

author by Pat Murtaghpublication date Fri Dec 16, 2005 11:30author email murtaghpatrick at hotmail dot comReport this post to the editors

Just a question ? Is it likely that you would put this 'position paper' on line as a pdf pamphlet ? In my opinion this would be valuable.
Pat the M.

author by Phebus - NEFACpublication date Fri Dec 16, 2005 21:26Report this post to the editors

Indeed, we're gonna do a booklet with it. It should be on our website soon.

author by Tom Wetzel - WSA (personal capacity)publication date Sat Dec 17, 2005 03:54author email info at workersolidarity dot orgReport this post to the editors

I'd like to comment on the exchange between John and Mitch. I think both have a good point. The Communist revolutions demonstrated that the class I'd call the "coordinator class" -- salaried managers and top professionals -- have the capacity to be a ruling class. This means that capitalism doesn't contain merely two leading or main classes, as Marxism teaches, but, in its mature corporate form, it has three main classes.
The coordinator class is not based on property ownership but on concentration of decision-making and expertise into a few hands. If we're to avoid empowering a coordinator ruling class through a revolutionary process, we need to work, beginning now, to avoid a process that concentrates decision-making and expertise into the hands of a few in movements. This means we need programmatic ideas about how to build up knowledge, self-confidence and capacity in ordinary folks so that self-management of movements becomes a real possibility. Things like study groups, public speaking classes, grassroots organizer schools, and so on. "Leadership" is a slippery word. It can refer to informal influence, through being articulate, knowledgeable, active. It can refer to holding a position of responsibility, doing things on behalf of one's fellow workers -- consider the situation of
an elected shop steward. And it can refer to those who have some hierarchical managerial-like power over others -- think of the role of James Hoffa Jr in the IBT and of Andy Stern in SEIU. I believe we should be "against leaders" only in this third sense. That said, we also should aim at developing "leadership skills" (skill at leadership in the first two senses) broadly within the rank and file, so that self-direction of the movement is made more real and effective.

author by Jimpublication date Sat Dec 17, 2005 04:43Report this post to the editors

"Labor unions represent the largest organized grouping of the working class. " - NEFAC

I'm curious as to what this is supposed to mean. Following NEFAC's logic, wouldn't the Manpower corporation really be the largest organized grouping of the working class in the United States, for example?

Unions are organized, but they aren't "of" the working class, even if many working class folks think otherwise. (although in the course of some struggles, workers realize their unions are fucking them over). If working class people vote for a political party or take out a membership, does that make the party an organization of the working class? Unions are hierarchies through which union bosses live off the dues of the rank-and-file. That might not be a pure Marxist class distinction, but it's a class distinction nonetheless.

As for shop-stewards, I don't know so much what it's like elsewhere, but in British Columbia, Canada, it's the lowest-level officials who enforce the ending of strikes, undermining any tiny moves towards self-organized action, leading to deals that drive down workers' wages and working conditions.

During the hospital workers' strike last year, there was a report of wildcat strikers tearing up their picket signs and throwing them at a low-level union official who told them to go back to work.

author by Tom Wetzelpublication date Sat Dec 17, 2005 05:23Report this post to the editors

Unionism is a contradictory phenomenon, and
the nature of unionism, and its relationship to
workers, varies greatly within North America at
present, varies even more over time, and even
more between countries over history.

Due to the weakness of groups of workers in
relation to the employers, struggles end in
compromises, at present, even under the best
of circumstances. To the degree there is a
union hierarchy that is independent of the workers
themselves, this exists to enable them to enforce
the part of the truce with the employers that is to the employers' advantage. The ultra-left view is to
focus only on this aspect of unionism, and avoid
the other side of the contradiction, that unions can
and are vehicles through which collective struggles
are organized.

To the degree that the separation of the union
from control by the workers makes it an ineffecitve
means of strugle and to the degree workers want
to organize an effective struggle, this motivates
the search for new forms of organization, outside
the control of the union hierarchy, including
also reforms or changes internal to the union,
break-away unions, independent unions, and
so on.

In regard to the specific issue of shop stewards,
I'd emphasize exactly the point that mitch
made:

"one has to look at the nature of the position and how far removed from or in opposition to the rank-&-file they might be."

For example, are the shop stewards elected?
Nowadays in the USA they often are not. Also,
how big is the group they "represent"? A way that
worker control over these representatives was
weakened historically in U.S. unions was by
enlarging this group, so that it becomes a large
and scattered group. And is the shop steward
or union rep a paid position? All of these
questions affect the degree of control that
rank and file workers have over the shop
steward or local rep.

author by blackgadfly - acephaolous societypublication date Sat Dec 17, 2005 22:43Report this post to the editors

The common definition of "union official" is someone placed or appointed into a position of authority, or the ultimate decision making capacity of the union rank-and-file that they make the claim to represent. This is a far cry from the type or extent of the representation that comes from a GST or delegate. These positions of representation are constrained to the direct and immediate interests of the rank-and-file, and the position they fill is a direct result of an referendum vote electoral process [not an appointment common to the bureaucratic orgaization of autonomous trade unions for organizer positions outside the infrastructure of say the AFL-CIO] that creates a close-knit relationship which negates the notion that there is any real distinction at all between the interests of the rank-and-file with that of a delegate or GST. In fact, the position of GST or delegate has no power outside the immediate and direct interests of the rank-and-file. So, are delegates really representatives, officials, etc, when the entire purpose of their duties are nothing more than an extension of rank-and-file decree? Furthermore, does the delegate or GST embody any more power than the structure of industrial direct democracy and direct action on the job afford to them? This is quite different from the "union official" descripiton I was using to identify bureaucratic trade unionism.

In solidarity,

blackgadfly

author by Tom Wetzelpublication date Sun Dec 18, 2005 00:02Report this post to the editors

Assuming the IWW is a union, a delegate in
a union shop or a local branch secretary is
in fact a union official, as this term is understood
in ordinary English. Since you don't run the
English language, you can't change the meaning
of words to suit your own purposes. Moreover,
the IWW's executive committee, branch
secretaries, and delegates will be treated as
officials for purposes of labor law in the USA.

Nor is it the case that there are no unions outside
the IWW where there is a similar level of rank and
file control over their representatives.

I was once an elected shop steward in an
independent union where the steward was
elected by a periodic assembly of my departmentt
and stewards in other departments were elected
by similar organizations in their departments.
The union's "executive committee" consisted
of all the shop stewards plus the secretary-
treasurer who was elected union-wide. These
"officials" were directly controlled by the membership
of the union.

As I said before, the degree of control that
rank and file members have over officials, in
the sense I'm using it here (its meaning in
ordinary English, not sect-speak), has varied
over time in USA unions and does now vary
greatly from union to union.

author by mitchpublication date Sun Dec 18, 2005 00:50author email wsany at hotmail dot comReport this post to the editors

The whole point I was trying to make is that there are distinctions. That what one think is a "common" description may only be partically true. To be an elected and accountable union officer is defferent from someone appointed to a position. Or an autocrat who's basically built a machine to insure their power.

I suppose withoin our circles we generally understand the term, but outside, say among coworkers, the terms are much less clear. I often times think that we do ourselves a misservice in using terms, phrases, slogans that no one outside our numbers understand. I concede that this list is one of like minded comrades, but ...

In blackgadfly's original posting they wrote:

"... view the more INTIMATE relationships between union officials and the rank-and-file. How do some suggest we are to bridge the gap between these two seemingly contradictive positions within union organization?"

In the early years of the the industrial union movement in the US, all "officers" had to come out of the working ranks and be directly elected. Often times with clear and deifined periods of time that thay could serve. This included stewards, local officers and paid field staff. I suspect that this is one programatic avenue to follow even today. I'll note that the elected officers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers must continue work the fields at some point during their tenure.

blackgadflycontinues

" What steps, as revolutionary industrial unionists, should we take to begin dismantling hierarchy and illegitimate authority, while establishing direct democracy and direct action on the job, in unions such as the SEIU or other so-called "progressive" factions within the Change to Win Coalition?"

If comrades believe this is an avenue to follow, I would suggest that an answer to this is to find a job in a workplace organized by one of these unions and begin the process where it really belongs: on the workplace floor. I supose it begins one workplace and one local union at a time. Perhaps groups of militants may want to decide they will "concentrate" their efforts in one area or one union. That they will make commintments to "lonh haul" efforts. It is a question of working with people on a day to day basis and not simply of the "right program" (but that's also helpful).

In another posting Jim writes:

"As for shop-stewards, I don't know so much what it's like elsewhere, but in British Columbia, Canada, it's the lowest-level officials who enforce the ending of strikes, undermining any tiny moves towards self-organized action, leading to deals that drive down workers' wages and working conditions.

During the hospital workers' strike last year, there was a report of wildcat strikers tearing up their picket signs and throwing them at a low-level union official who told them to go back to work."

I am curious if the shop stewards are direclty elected or appointed? In direct elections, are the bureaucratic machines put to work to turn out favorable candidates to the incumbent leadership? Are the unions generally very conservative in their views?

In "sweatheart" unions you'll get "sweetheart" stewards and other apparatchiks. Somework places you'll get "kiss ass" stewards who place themseleves above the members. Some places you can have racist stweards holding on to the last vestiages of privilage of another generation of workers.

In other cases you have super and decent stewards and local officers.

Sometimes you get stewards just thrown into being a stewrad cause no one else cares or are totally scared shitless of the boss. I remember working with guys in a really dirty sweatshop in Harrison, New Jersey, Tungston Alloys. It took a battle to organize the shop and keep the shop unionized. But the workers were totally petrified of the bosses. I mean totally. Workers were scared to become elected department reps and scared to run for chief steward. So this very sweat but not so bright guy gets elected as cheif stewrad (well, sort of pushed into it) and the workers and the boss "killed" him. Not lietarlly, but made a human punching bag out of him. It was terrible. Yet Bobby was so good hearted and unfeathered by things he just took it. But not one of the critics wanted to come forward take on the boss on all the issues that needed confrontation. So Bobby and the union (a good, decent local union affiliated with the left-United Electrial Workers) were blamed for the workers own fears. So what do you do?

Partically on the question of stratagy, in my posting of Aug 27 2005, 1:52pm on Patrick Star's article The future of the USA Labor Movement I wrote that

"The "big fight" of my anarchist generation was is it ok for an anarchist to become a shop steward or local union officer. Almost never did someone become a staff person. It was always the point of view that "workers power" was on the "shop-floor". That was our shove-off point. So the terrain has changed dramatically.

I remember an instance in the 1980s when were very involved with our needle trades work. The question came about whether we should allow a Fur & Leather Workers Union(you know, the "red" Furriers) staff person be part of the Needle Trades Action Committee. Marty was a good comrade but we felt that as a staff person he was removed from the shopfloor and could be a friend but not a member. It was a big deal then. Now, not so big.As I said, things have changed."

I guess I've come to a certain conclusion that not all situations can be painted with a wide brush. That there are variables to everything. But, of course, I would absolutely agree that there is a long established bureaurcacy called the "union officadom" that acts in its own interests and not always that of the workers.

One last observation, I am pleasantly pleased to see how close the views of many north american anarchist communists are to our (WSA) views of anarcho-syndicalism. Perhaps it has taken more than 20 years for this to again occure, but, this is quite heartfelt.

I will say that there is an absloute need to promote anarchist class struggle ideas and to share, as wide as possible, our experiances and thank anarkismo.net for being a forum for this dicsussion.

Comrades, please excuse the length of this positing.

In solidarity,
mitch

author by blackgadfly - acephalous societypublication date Sun Dec 18, 2005 01:32Report this post to the editors

Tom:

Please do not insinuate that I would desire some sort of monopoly of control on the usage of the English language. Sometimes, disagreements on terms used to define particular positions within union organization can be extended well beyond international borders to mean different things. Now, my understanding of the "official" may be in contrast to yours, but it does not suggest that I am attempting to conjour up some notion of inidvidual supremecy over the English language, or any vernacular of the sort. The purpose of my initial concerns have been extracted entirely from this discussion. My attempt was not to establish a discussion on the value of "official" vs. "un-official" positions, but the basis for the interactions that exist between the rank-and-file and those who supposedly represent them. I apologize if this has caused confusion on both our parts. I am more concerned with bridging the gap in the interim and the elimination of the gap as a long-term objective, as per my earlier post which instigated this "speaking past one another" discussion. I think we would be more productive by addressing the relationships of the situation, rather than discussing what it means to be an "union official."

author by Tom Wetzelpublication date Sun Dec 18, 2005 02:15Report this post to the editors

If you suggest that I was engaging in "personal
slander" or "defamation of character" then you
are engaging in what you object to, that is, making
a personal attack on me. I think it is simply true
that individuals cannot simply determine by their
own stipulation what words mean. That is what
I said. Saying that is not a personal attack on you.

I think it should have been clear from context
what Mitch meant by "official." An official, thus
understood, is. I suggested, anyone who holds
a formally defined position. You may disagree
with this interpretation, you may think that people
ordinarily mean by an "official" someone with a
top-down power that separates them from the
ranki and file, and giving them control apart from
the ranks.

And given how widespread control by a
professional hierarchy is in USA unions, it is
understandable how someone might make that
inference.

But if this is an objection to what Mitch or I have
said, then it would be helpful, if you want to have
an honest discussion, to acknowledge the
meaning that Mitch and I had in mind. You could
say something like "Okay, I understand what you
mean, there can be positions that aren't simply
top-down, it's just that I think people usually think
of the more bureaucratic type of union official
when using the term 'official'."

Moreover, I believe that in fact there are radicals
who do insist on stipulating their definitions of
terms, as of they could simply set what words
mean, apart from the way the mass of people use
words. And that is a sectarian practice. This is
true even if this is not what you were doing. And
saying that this is a sectarian practice does not
amount to "defamation of character."

author by mitchpublication date Sun Dec 18, 2005 02:22author email wsany at hotmail dot comReport this post to the editors

Ok, why should I have known that I seem to have a way of opening the wrong can of worms..... I think we all now understand the context of blackgadfly's original positing and Tom and my additional clarifiation's.

Let's try and move back to the general discussion at hand.

Your humble can opener....
mitch

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