On workers' organisations: general thoughts for debate

On workers' organisations: general thoughts for debate

General thoughts on relation between capitalist development, class struggle and communist organisation

We re-circulate this text for debate on our September 2014 meeting in Liverpool. If you have comments or are interested in participating, drop us a line: angryworkersworld@gmail.com

a) Intro

The proposal for a workers’ organisation is based on political assumptions – one of them being that the classical distinction in ‘trade union struggle’ and ‘party struggle’, in ‘economical’ and ‘political’ struggle, which is still prevalent amongst us, has become a stumbling block. This ‘party/union’-perspective allows ‘tactical’ participation in ‘institutional’ trade union work despite the obvious problematic results for the development of collective workers’ power. The clear shortcomings of ‘institutional’ trade union work can be justified as a problem of the ‘first stage of workers’ struggles’, which will be solved by the party politics waiting in the second stage.

The ‘union/party’-perspective also allows us to abstain from deeper analysis in material conditions and internal tendencies of workers’ struggles which would be necessary in order to explain current limitations. Instead, limitations are ‘explained’ by declaring the struggles as ‘economist’ and lacking ‘political consciousness and leadership’. These are tautological explanations which are meant to give final credit to one’s own ‘external role and position towards workers’ struggle. They are of as little use for the development of workers’ collective power as the general appeals towards workers’ unity. Workers’ unity is not the question of ‘umbrella organisations’, but arises only out of the struggle within the contradictive nature of capitalist production process, which at the same time combines and segments workers. Workers’ have to find forms of organisations which materially undermines the segmentation imposed by the production process – they cannot just step out and ‘generalise externally’.

The following theses won’t say anything new, they are meant to summarise a general position as a background for the debate on current struggles and future tasks.

b) Class Composition and Class Movement

The form of social production determines the form of social struggle and the vision of a ‘social alternative’. Although this is generally accepted, most political proposals of ‘how to organise’ and most ‘communist programs’ remain rather unhistoric or attached to the last century. Capitalist social production changes rapidly, the regional centres, dominating industrial sectores and ‘workers figures’ are transformed with each cycle. Within this process ‘the working class’ changes, we have to talk about specific ‘class compositions during specific cycles. The ‘technical class composition’, as the historically dominating form of the social production process, contains the process and potential of ‘political class composition’ – the form of class movement. [1]

By ‘technical composition’ we mean the actual historical form of how workers cooperate within a process of division of labour mediated by machinery and shaped by different levels of development; how the immediate production process relates to the wider social process of (re-)production and forms and levels of consumption; how formal individual skills relate to wider social skills of workers necessary to perform labour; how different categories and sections of workers are brought together and are segmented; how the class conflict is mediated institutionally and culturally.

By ‘political composition’ we mean the process of how ‘working class’ and ‘workers unity’ actually forms out of material conditions and experiences of struggles: the concrete form of organisation of struggle workers develop based on the collective nature of the capitalist production process, overcoming it’s segmenting nature; the concrete demands and wider social critique which springs up from concrete conditions and ‘aspirations of productivity’ – a historically specific relation between living and dead labour; the form of how particular struggles relate to each other and turn into a generalised movement due to the social dimension of production and general conditions within a capitalist cycle; how this generalisation tends to happen through struggles within central industries which can express an advanced stage of conflict between capital and workers; based on this relation between central sectors and wider society, specific forms of ‘economical and political’ organisations (councils, assemblies) of the class movement are formed and can express a specific ‘social alternative’, a historically specific communism.

c) Class Composition and Periodisation

Although historical periodisation contains a certain danger of becoming schematic we can state that, e.g. the cycle of transformation from agricultural labour and small peasantry to urban and industrial work corresponded to formation of ‘communist parties’ as bridge organisations [2], the early stage of skilled industrial manufacturing work gave birth to ‘councilist’ and ‘revolutionary syndicalist’ workers’ organisations, and the period of large-scale ‘Fordist’ industries, which were more integrated into general society brought forth organisational forms of ‘mass workers’, such as general assemblies and wider political coordinations with a quite different ‘communist vision’ from earlier perspectives of ‘self-management’. [3]

In this sense the ‘revolutionary potentials’ of struggles and movements are inscribed within the actual social production process. Communist activities have to relate to the ‘gaps’ between these given material social potentials and the concrete ongoing struggles – last, but not least by referring to the experiences in other regions or of the near past. The challenge obviously lies in the fact that the ‘technical composition’ is in constant change and that a dynamic relation exists between technical and political composition. The overwhelming rapidness and spacial vastness of these changes partly explains the leftist retreat into ‘fixed organisational models’, from ‘parties’ to ‘syndicalism’. What we then have to propose to the living working class today is dead weight of past times.



d) Class Composition and Capitalist Development

The forms of collective power which workers develop based on their combination within the production process is constantly undermined by capital’s attempt to ‘de-compose': outsourcing, dismantling, introduction of new technologies and production methods requiring new skills, re-location to other regions of the globe, introduction of new categories of workers with different backgrounds etc.. The dynamic character of capitalism and ‘development’ in general is less explained out of ‘market-forces’ or ‘abstract greed for super-profits’, but by this dynamic relation-ship between struggle and changes in production as response. Capitalism contains class conflict through developmental leaps. This entails that the ‘de-composition’ (the segmentation of the working class in the production process) is done in a way which re-composes them on a higher level of social productivity. Capitalism is not merely ‘isolating’ workers in response to their ‘united efforts’ – it is isolating them through specific form of socialisation.

e) Economical – Political Contradiction of Productive Cooperation

Capital is forced to accumulate, less due to ‘internal competition’, but in order to be able to respond to workers’ struggle with an raise of workers’ consumption levels while at the same time increase in their exploitation. In order to ‘de-compose’ workers strong-holds and to re-combine social labour on a higher level, the general costs for machinery increase. The increased use of machinery and its increased share in total production costs is an expression of how capital intends to contain class struggle. Here we find the ‘economical’ and ‘political’ contradiction combined in the production process, in front of workers’ eyes and contained in their experiences: from an ‘economical’ point of view a smooth and close cooperation between workers is necessary in order to increase social productivity. Under given social class relations the ‘productive closeness’ of the social producer contains a ‘political danger’. Despite the fact that it hampers social productivity, which any worker is well aware of, capital has to segment the production process ‘politically’, be it through immediate division of labour, division between intellectual and manual labour, between sectors, between regions, different spheres of production and reproduction, between developed and underdeveloped regions, private and state sector and between nations. This is the sphere of communist theory, understanding and revealing the ‘political systemic forms’ based on workers’ direct experiences.

The ‘political segmentation’ of the social production process is not merely a question of control and domination of the working class. It is also a political requirement for capital in order to obtain its major social legitimation and ‘fetish': to be seen as pre-condition of social production. Capital brings together individual workers within an industrial production process which cannot be put into motion unless labour is combined. Combination happens ‘under capital’, the resulting social productivity seems the productivity of capital. The fact that millions of new connections of global production are established ‘through capital’ is the major social backbone of exploitation and class system. What seems like cunning tactics of divide-and-rule creates thousands of little hick-ups in the production process, thousands of problems and mis-coordinations. That things run smoothly despite all the imposed barriers largely depends on workers (improvisation, creativity, overcoming problems) – who individually might perceive these problems as problems of ‘mis-management’. Here again workers’ organisations have to reveal the systemic nature.

This ‘capital fetish’ (capital as precondition of production) can only be undermined through revealing the social and political dimension of production process – by interrupting it in struggle. In order to obtain even the most minimal ‘victories’ and economic gains workers are increasingly forced to push beyond their immediate company level. If the daily grind of global supply chains start to stumble, because workers in one link interrupt the flow of production, this gives us a moment to create direct relationships. Communist activities have to refer to the ‘practical existence’ of the ‘collective worker’ – the totality of social cooperation necessary in order to produce, the antagonistic living force within capitalist relation of production. The ‘collective worker’ is necessary reference point in order to gain in power in any struggle for immediate demands and material basis for general radical social transformation on a world-scale. In this sense the ‘collective worker’ is a more historical, material and dynamic concept to analyse the process between particular struggles and political potential of change than the notion of ‘class in and for itself’, which leaves a gap in the transformation, generally filled with vague terms of consciousness.

f) Generalisation and Capitalist Cycle: Boom and Crisis

There has been little historical debate about the relation between class struggle, change of production system and wider capitalist cycle in terms of ‘boom and crisis’. [4] Debates have evolved separately about product or technological cycles, about cycles of ‘expansion’ and financialisation. The question of whether workers face boom or crisis, partly expressed through the conditions on the labour market, obviously impacts on the question of how they can struggle, of how their struggles can generalise and pose the question of a social alternative. Systemic questions mainly arise at times when the working class still contains the structural power and aspirations of a period of ‘expansion’, which also opened space for widespread critique of the ‘alienating and despotic form of expansion’, but faces a crisis which eradicates the hope for ‘a better future’, despite the still blatant potentials of social productivity. The period between 1968 and 1977 is an example, we most likely face a similar situation on a more global scale today.
With the current global crisis it becomes more and more difficult for capital to portray itself as a pre-condition and coordinator of production: capitalist social productive cooperation has to pass through the fragile channels of companies, markets, money. Under condition of crisis the cooperation rips, small links in the chain go bust, millions thrown into unemployment, millions are made to work till total exhaustion. ‘Managers’ supposed to be responsible to ‘coordinate’ the cooperation of billions, but they are increasingly trapped within their ‘small links in the chain’, be it sectorial or regional. Their only answer to the crisis – bail out followed by austerity – aggravates the conditions.

The managers of capital try to enforce austerity against the overt potential for abundance. They can only succeed as long as they are able to separate the social experience of over-productive labour from the poverty of un-/underemployment. Obviously this separation does not take a pure form of ‘employed working-class’ on one side, ‘impoverished proletariat’ on the other. This separation appears in its various shades of development and underdevelopment, of high-tech and labour intensity, of regional deprivation and boom centres, of respectable workmen and lumpen, of hire and fire. This separation will appear in all imaginable ethnic colours. With the disappearance of the old buffer-classes, with the social death of peasantry and artisans in the global South, the demise of the self-employed educated middle-classes and petty bourgeoisie, capital has to face up to it’s living self. While being in it’s essence the violent coordinator of social labour – ‘globalisation’, international supply-chains etc. – in this crisis more than ever capital has to hide and segment the global character of social cooperation from the emerging global working class. In the attempt to segment and re-combinate capital becomes a burden to social cooperation. It gets in its own way. Therefore the challenge for working-class communists is to point-out the ‘political separation’ of development (social productivity) and underdevelopment (poverty), the potential of abundance in the face of stark misery. In order to do this we will have to re-consider old concepts used to describe the relation between centre and periphery, e.g. the concept of ‘imperialism’, ‘Third World’ etc., which seem to blunt in order to analyse the emerging global class composition.

g) Union Question

On the background of the process of ‘class de-composition and re-composition’ we can easily see that the problem with trade union struggle is not merely its ‘burocratic undemocratic forms’ or limited ‘economic demands’. The formal and legal framework of trade union organisation does not allow workers to organise on the same level and scope as capital is trying to both combine and disorganise them. While modern companies combine workers beyond categories, company, sector and national boundaries, trade unions can neither reflect this scope nor the rapidness of changes. In addition they have to stick to legally prescribed forms of struggle which by definition will keep workers subjugated to the playing field of state and capital. Amongst communist there will not be much disagreement about these facts.

The disagreement rather concerns the question of the relation between ‘economical’ and ‘political’ struggle, between ‘trade union struggle’ and ‘party or political organisation’. [5] Without going into detail we can state that the position which perceives the ‘economical’ and ‘political’ struggle of the working class as two separate stages – and therefore the ‘party’ as a kind of political complement to the trade unions – has its origins in a historically specific stage of development of capitalist class relations: an early one. The traditional Leninist conception is based on social conditions where industrial production and working class was still marginal, where the state was not majorly involved in industrial relations, where there existed still a major gap between ‘factory and wider social reproduction (schools, science), where the ‘immediate production process could be seen as a mainly ‘economic sphere’ with little connection to the rest of society and ‘politics’.

Since Lenin, with the development of a ‘planning state’ (state industries, direct intervention in industrial planning and relations etc.) as the extension of planning from factory into society, with the extension of ‘scientific’ industrial form of production into all spheres of social life and with the working class becoming a social majority, the question of what is ‘economical’ about the social production process and what is ‘political’ has obviously changed. With these changes also the institutional role of trade unions has transformed drastically. From a ‘school’ of workers in a seemingly gradual process towards ‘political consciousness’, they have been reduced to institutions which – confronted with the vast extension of the social production process – are legally and formally confined to a very narrow social sphere. Their main influence is based on the necessity of capital to control the wage-productivity development. Under these conditions, to maintain Lenin’s classical notion of a rather schematic distinction in economic and political struggle will have negative results.

h) From Workers’ Struggle to Social Transformation

The classical two-stage model of ‘trade union’ and ‘political party’ formation makes it impossible to discover the ‘revolutionary contradictions’ within the social productive cooperation. It is a disjointing, rather then elevating on a higher level of consciousness: limited to the trade union framework workers will not be able to generalise their struggles along the lines of their already existing productive relationships and the ‘political generalisation’ through the party is in most cases happening detached from social production in the ‘political sphere’ (campagnes, mobilisations etc.).

The generalisation within social production itself is the main precondition to materially undermine segmentations and the ‘capital fetish’ (capital as the organiser of society). It is ‘economic struggle’ through which workers have to discover the political nature of capitalist production – the class content of science, technology, institutions. This mass process of discovery cannot be by-passed, the ‘generalisation’ cannot be short-cut through the various channels bourgeois politics have to over: from trade unionism to parliamentarism, from identity politics to regionalism or nationalism.

The class movement will have to develop its organisation along the lines of global productive connections and materially change these connections: in its intensive stage class struggle will simultaneously have to create the (pre-)conditions for ‘the production of communism’. Workers’ struggles will not only ‘attack capital and the state’ by withdrawing social labour – strikes will interrupt social reproduction to an existential degree and thereby force the class movement to re-organise production and circulation while fighting. In this stage of class struggle we will be able to discover not only how social labour is globally integrated, but also that most social labour in capitalism is superfluous – no one will complain about the lack of market research calls or supply of electric tin-openers. A huge mass of human energy and creativity will be set free. At the same time the class movement will face the question of how to re-organise production in a form which not only guarantees effective subsistence, but also extends the ‘self-organisation of struggle’ into a self-organisation of social production: abolishment of hierarchical division of labour and uneven development. The revolution is not only an act of ‘smashing/taking power’, but of revolutionising social relationships, of getting rid of the contradiction between individual and social by materially transforming how we (re-)produce our social existence. In this sense is only logical that the ‘trade union/party’-perspective also disjoints ‘revolution’ from ‘production of communism’ and sees communism rather as a ‘policy’ which can be introduced.

The Leninist conception of ‘trade union’ and ‘party’-struggle was based on a less developed industrial/agricultural society. The practical expression of this notion revealed itself when the new (Bolchevique) state dismantled the Sowjets, the workers’ economical-political organisations, during the first years after the Russian Revolution. [6] The ‘New Economic Policies’ (Fordist industrialisation plus ‘market’ incentives) at the time required to impose ‘a strict centralised regime on factory and society’. We can argue about the ‘historic necessity’ of this policy, e.g. the historic necessity to appease the emerging middle-peasantry or maintain a standing army, fact is that in order to impose this regime the new state forced workers to give up their economical-political power in form of the sowjets. The new state strategically re-introduced a separation: workers were supposed to turn to ‘trade unions’ for their ‘economical needs’ and to ‘the party’ for political direction. In this way workers’ productive collective power was undermined and the driving force of revolution extinct. This was the degeneration.



i) Tasks and Continuity of Workers’ Organisations

On this background we maintain that their is a continuity between ‘economical-political’ organisations today – from the the most minute level of shop-floors and industrial areas – and these future ‘economical-political’ organisations of communist revolution. [7] In a modern capitalist society there can’t be a conceptual-organisational gap between the embryonic and developed forms. Workers’ organisations have to find practical collective answers within daily workers’ struggles in a way which always keeps open the possibility of expansion and generalisation – towards the ‘collective worker’. The coordinated collective steps have to be able to ‘give some relief’ to workers here and now by helping to gain concrete ‘victories’, while at the same time referring organisationally and conceptually to the necessity of social revolution. They have to use the minute scope of ‘anticipation’ (question of which forms of struggles or demands could help catalysing and generalising struggles in concrete time and space) based on the knowledge about current struggles and their position within wider social production. They have to use the current global scope of struggles to build international links which survive the ebb and flow of particular struggles and can come to a truely global perspective and organised practice. Workers’ organisations in that sense are not the ‘organisations through which the working class struggles’, they are rather organisations which support the tendencies towards self-organisation and emancipation in the struggles and movements as they happen.

Footnotes:

[1] For the historical debate about these concepts see:
http://libcom.org/library/renascence-operaismo-wildcat
http://libcom.org/library/storming-heaven-class-composition-struggle-italian-autonomist-marxism-steve-wright
[2] Loren Goldner argues this thesis in his text concerning the general relation between capitalist development and agrarian revolution:
http://libcom.org/library/communism-is-the-material-human-community-amadeo-bordiga-today
[3] Two essential texts on the question of changing class compositions and changing forms of ‘communist movement':
http://libcom.org/library/class-composition-sergio-bologna
http://libcom.org/library/tribe-of-moles-sergio-bologna
[4] One of the few attempts has been undertaken in ‘Forces of Labor’, by Beverly Silver.
http://www.wildcat-www.de/dossiers/forcesoflabor/fol_preface.htm
http://www.wildcat-www.de/dossiers/forcesoflabor/fol_dossier.htm
[5] Essential text by Mouvement Communiste on the ‘union question':
http://mouvement-communiste.com/documents/MC/Letters/LTMC0311EN.pdf
[6] On the relation between ‘Bolshevik’ state and workers’ sowjets:
http://en.internationalism.org/ir/1977/08/communist_left
http://libcom.org/files/The%20Russian%20revolution%20in%20retreat.pdf
http://libcom.org/library/bolsheviks-workers-control-solidarity-introduction
[7]
The experience of workers’ coordinations in Italy in the 1960s – 1970s illustrate the ‘economic-political’ character and the cohesion between direct struggle and revolutionary organisation:
http://libcom.org/history/porto-marghera-%E2%80%93-last-firebrands

Posted By

AngryWorkersWorld
Jul 30 2014 13:18

Share


  • The ‘revolutionary potentials’ of struggles are inscribed within the social production process. Communist activities have to relate to the ‘gaps’ between these social potentials and the ongoing struggles – last, but not least by referring to the experiences in other regions or of the near past.

Attached files

Comments

plasmatelly
Jul 30 2014 17:39

In all honesty, I would like to be part of this debate, but I don't understand half of what is being said. I have read it twice and it's annoying the fuck out of me that I'm excluded because someone decides that the only people who should understand this piece are those who have a degree in the subject. I'm not saying there's nothing of worth being said (it might be life changing stuff..), but if something is worth saying, just say it in plain language.

AngryWorkersWorld
Jul 30 2014 18:57

Oh shit, honest apologies, we had no intentions to exclude anyone - the opposite, we wrote to you guys in Newcastle to meet up, but never got a reply smile. But yes, we might have to reconsider our style of writing, unfortunately we can not blame any A-levels or degrees in Marxism for it :-/. One problem is that for some of us English is second language, which leads more easily into the trap of schematic formulations. More importantly, we are political children of the Italian Marxist debate, which developed a problematic level of abstraction, expressing itself in too dense terminology. In the text we tried to explain some of it: technical composition, political composition, social cooperation, collective worker. May be we have to let these terms go and leave them resting in peace. Again, would be good to meet up in Newcastle to discuss things face to face. Stay tuned.

klas batalo
Jul 30 2014 20:54

i thought this was really good, though a comrade who read it said it used "scare quotes" too much...i honestly felt those were helpful for highlighting important things, idk...

i guess i'm familiar with operaismo so i was able to parse this some, also familiar with the gurgaon workers news, who have had some similar writings.

i sorta read technical composition as class in itself and political composition as class for it self, thought i can see with the discussion of the collective worker AWW, do not see this formulation of much use anymore. i know about the theory of the mass worker, and i guess this collective worker label is describing the contemporary worker who is collectively connected to many other workers in the world via globalization but do not necessarily have a mass experience of work, i.e. atomized often precarious working conditions?

i think the most compelling argument here is that the forms of organization have to be informed by the current relationship workers have to social (re)production. the theses that the party/union, dual organizational framework of yore no longer applies in most situations, and that there should be social revolutionary political-economic workers' organizations that in embryonic minority form work for the generalization of self-organized forms of autonomous workers' power?

AngryWorkersWorld
Jul 31 2014 09:25

Yip! Sorry, no good style to self-comment too much, just a last word for clarification. We think in the end it boils down to the question whether one thinks that there are specific tendencies within capitalist development and class struggles which bear a higher potential to pose a threat to the power of capital and to become a point of attraction for other sections of the working class. There have always been 'crucial struggles' - not because workers in these sectors, regions or at this point of time were specifically 'conscious' or because they had help of enlightened political organisation, but because they took place at a certain time and place in the (global) production process. We don't say that revolutionaries should solely focus on these struggles, rather we should understand and then highlight how these struggles are already connected to other workers - through industrial networks, experience of migration, or simply the fact that they share similar general conditions (casualisation, technological domination). We think we have to develop organisational strategies within what is already happening in day-to-day life of the working class - due to the social nature of (re)production and actual experiences of struggle - rather than to repeat external campaigns of 'organising' or to proliferate well-meaning demands.

We are pretty bad at bringing the different levels of analysis together in a comprehensive way. So far we either circulated 'work-place' or struggle reports, based on our concrete experiences, e.g.

http://libcom.org/blog/community-champions-other-crack-report-after-working-caretaker-east-london-housing-estate-2
http://thecommune.co.uk/2010/08/05/workers-report-general-conditions-and-the-conditions-for-generalisation-at-hackney-street-cleansing-department/

Or wrote long and mainly empirical texts about how we see the general situation of crisis and struggles in the UK.

http://libcom.org/blog/never-mind-bankerssome-thoughts-uk-crisis-06052014

The text above was supposed to explain on a more general and theoretical level why we think it is important to analyse very closely what is happening at work, what the limitations of struggles are and how the general (empirical) social situation changes. Ironically, when we circulate struggle or work-place reports some of our comrades find them anecdotal and 'unpolitical', and when we try to explain our theoretical thoughts on which we base some of our decisions, e.g. to currently work and self-organise in the warehouse sector, other (or the same!) comrades think that we engage in abstract head-fucks. We hope to be able to bring these different levels together in a more readable way in future - and share more of our current 'practical' efforts. In turn, we would encourage our comrades in organisations like Solfed or IWW to put forward critical reflections of their own efforts or of how they see the current situation of the struggles of our class - beyond general statements of solidarity and victory...

Steven.
Jul 31 2014 10:00
AngryWorkersWorld wrote:
The text above was supposed to explain on a more general and theoretical level why we think it is important to analyse very closely what is happening at work, what the limitations of struggles are and how the general (empirical) social situation changes. Ironically, when we circulate struggle or work-place reports some of our comrades find them anecdotal and 'unpolitical', and when we try to explain our theoretical thoughts on which we base some of our decisions, e.g. to currently work and self-organise in the warehouse sector, other (or the same!) comrades think that we engage in abstract head-fucks.

ha ha that's a very good point! Normally I find your texts extremely readable, and very interesting. I must admit I found this a bit dense and so I quickly gave up on it (also in general I find I don't really get much from "theoretical" texts, I prefer to read practical ones and draw my own theoretical conclusions from them). But I will have another go if I get some time…

kevin s.
Jul 31 2014 14:16

I've just skimmed the piece (agree it could stand to be shorter and easier to understand), interesting stuff but kind of repeats a lot of the same political content of other left-communist and anarcho-syndicalist writings of late.

Also I gotta disagree with this claim, I'm not sure why folks insist on repeating this...

Quote:
trade unions [...] have to stick to legally prescribed forms of struggle which by definition will keep workers subjugated to the playing field of state and capital.

This is just a historically false statement, period. Yeah law-abiding unions are confined to the law, just like law-abiding anyone or anything is confined to the law. That doesn't mean that all trade unions "have" to stick to legal forms of struggle. There's tons of examples of trade union struggles violating the law .. and I'm not just referring to revolutionary-led stuff, some of the most militant union struggles have been from frankly anti-revolutionary people (in some cases more militant than revolutionaries). Just because someone writes a theory that trade union struggles are confined to the law doesn't make it a fact, and repeating it over and over again doesn't make any truer.

Steven.
Jul 31 2014 14:37
kevin s. wrote:
I've just skimmed the piece (agree it could stand to be shorter and easier to understand), interesting stuff but kind of repeats a lot of the same political content of other left-communist and anarcho-syndicalist writings of late.

Also I gotta disagree with this claim, I'm not sure why folks insist on repeating this...

Quote:
trade unions [...] have to stick to legally prescribed forms of struggle which by definition will keep workers subjugated to the playing field of state and capital.

This is just a historically false statement, period. Yeah law-abiding unions are confined to the law, just like law-abiding anyone or anything is confined to the law. That doesn't mean that all trade unions "have" to stick to legal forms of struggle. There's tons of examples of trade union struggles violating the law .. and I'm not just referring to revolutionary-led stuff, some of the most militant union struggles have been from frankly anti-revolutionary people (in some cases more militant than revolutionaries). Just because someone writes a theory that trade union struggles are confined to the law doesn't make it a fact, and repeating it over and over again doesn't make any truer.

TBH that was one of the sentences I did read and think was very true.

Looking at recent history, say the past 25 years (i.e. the time in which contemporary union laws have been in place for the most part), what are the examples of these illegal union struggles?

I can think of one or two from the states, but these are from when unions have been trying to get recognition, not after they have got it. Certainly in the UK, Canada or the US the examples I can think of where the law has gone against workers (by legislating them back to work, or declaring strike ballots invalid), the unions have caved. They definitely having a big majority of cases, at least.

Joseph Kay
Jul 31 2014 14:40

Did the NUM defy the courts in '84-5?

Devrim
Jul 31 2014 14:50
kevin s. wrote:
Also I gotta disagree with this claim, I'm not sure why folks insist on repeating this...
Quote:
trade unions [...] have to stick to legally prescribed forms of struggle which by definition will keep workers subjugated to the playing field of state and capital.

This is just a historically false statement, period. Yeah law-abiding unions are confined to the law, just like law-abiding anyone or anything is confined to the law. That doesn't mean that all trade unions "have" to stick to legal forms of struggle. There's tons of examples of trade union struggles violating the law ...

I agree with this. Just because today's unions do nothing, it doesn't mean that mainstream legal unions never do. I can remember seeing the general secretary of a TUC union throwing bricks at scabs back in the late 80s.

Devrim

fingers malone
Jul 31 2014 15:05

I think the entire miners' strike was in breach of the anti strike laws

Devrim
Jul 31 2014 15:13

I am not talking about Scargill either.

Devrim

fingers malone
Jul 31 2014 15:15

Ok relevant acts: 1980 Employment Act, 1982 Employment Act, 1984 Employment Act.
After the 1982 Act came in, trade unions voted to oppose it. In 1983 there was a big showdown when Eddie Shah sacked NGA members for going on strike. NGA started to picket at Warrington which was considered secondary action under 1980 and 1982 Acts. This led to injunctions which the union defied, fines, threats of sequestration, NGA members on strike in solidarity and stopping Fleet Street for two days, and mass pickets at Warrington which led to 5000 pickets being attacked with landrovers at 4am in a field.

Spikymike
Jul 31 2014 15:25

It's the difference between describing a genuine tendency for the way trade unions act as some kind of 'iron law' but it is surely the case that trade unions at an 'official' level wil rarely go outside of the relevant laws unless their own continued existance as a viable permanent representative body is severely threatened.

fingers malone
Jul 31 2014 15:28

[cross posted with Spikey Mike] This is something that I think is massively misunderstood. At Warrington the NGA lost. When all these acts came in, people massively defied them. And lost. That is the problem. There were many really militant strikes which were in defiance of these laws and those strikes lost. People got killed. That's why we are in the shit situation that we are in today.

Steven.
Jul 31 2014 15:44
Spikymike wrote:
It's the difference between describing a genuine tendency for the way trade unions act as some kind of 'iron law' but it is surely the case that trade unions at an 'official' level wil rarely go outside of the relevant laws unless their own continued existance as a viable permanent representative body is severely threatened.

I think this is pretty much right. If workers in the membership are well-organised enough that they will break the law against the wishes of the union leaders, then union will go along with it. If not, the union won't, in most cases.

(On a slight pedantic point, I'm aware of the examples people mention but these are all nearly 30+ years ago, not in the past quarter-century)

fingers malone
Jul 31 2014 16:00

deleted

fingers malone
Jul 31 2014 15:59

I think I'm not expressing myself very well. To look at the consequences of these acts, it is really important to look at the first strikes which happened immediately after they came in, and which in many cases defied them. To say we should be talking about these current trade union laws and then set a twenty five year window which just slightly excludes them is not helpful.

Steven.
Jul 31 2014 17:26
fingers malone wrote:
I think I'm not expressing myself very well. To look at the consequences of these acts, it is really important to look at the first strikes which happened immediately after they came in, and which in many cases defied them. To say we should be talking about these current trade union laws and then set a twenty five year window which just slightly excludes them is not helpful.

yeah, don't worry I know I said it was only a pedantic point, and my 25 year limit was completely arbitrary.

Going back to your point, don't get me wrong my argument isn't that the unions are what is stopping us from breaking the law, and if we broke the law we would automatically win. Plenty of incredibly militant struggles with huge amounts of lawbreaking and even violence on the part of the workers have been defeated.

I guess what I think is just that right now, the law is a barrier to us in terms of trying to defend/improve our conditions. And unless we are well organised amongst ourselves to take action and break the law, then the union leaderships are not going to do it for us.

fingers malone
Jul 31 2014 17:40

Well, then I agree with that.

kevin s.
Aug 1 2014 00:45

Hey Steven, I totally agree with this...

Quote:
Going back to your point, don't get me wrong my argument isn't that the unions are what is stopping us from breaking the law, and if we broke the law we would automatically win. Plenty of incredibly militant struggles with huge amounts of lawbreaking and even violence on the part of the workers have been defeated.

I guess what I think is just that right now, the law is a barrier to us in terms of trying to defend/improve our conditions. And unless we are well organised amongst ourselves to take action and break the law, then the union leaderships are not going to do it for us.

I think union leadership, structure and behavior are heavily influenced by external influences such as government legislation, court interventions and political affiliations within the union. I think unions tend to avoid hazardous law-breaking adventure out of various motives: ideological pressures (legalism/lawyerism, political loyalties, etc.); shitty leadership; and organizational self-preservation.

That's substantially different than this however...

Quote:
trade unions [...] have to stick to legally prescribed forms of struggle which by definition will keep workers subjugated to the playing field of state and capital.

Unless what was meant by "have to" is "legally have to" in which case that's literally the case not just for unions but for every single person on the planet.

Quote:
Looking at recent history, say the past 25 years (i.e. the time in which contemporary union laws have been in place for the most part), what are the examples of these illegal union struggles?

Well, outside my personal experience, there was the famous Republic Windows occupation in Chicago. There's also uncommon, but far from rare, violent picket scuffles or acts of vandalism. All pretty tame compared to riots and dynamite bombings, but still...

In personal experience, there's a large SEIU local in my city which uses varying degrees of civil disobedience on an almost yearly basis, for at least the past five years. All the cases I know of are nonviolent, some are just lame PR stunts and some were actual physical disruption of police actions (e.g. they were heavily involved in aggressive Occupy Homes actions against home evictions). And I'd say said militancy is just as driven (some claim more so) by the union staffers than by the rank and file (dunno how much rank and file pressure is involved, wobs tend to claim it's almost purely staff-driven but most of that's usually based on outside stereotypes and not actual evidence).

IWWs and other revolutionary unionists tend to be distrustful (understandably) of SEIU as a bureaucratic mainstream union, but the local SEIU has a way more impressive record of law-breaking than the local IWW does (in fact the main tactics I've directly witnessed by anti-contractual unionists are the relatively mild "march on the boss" which is a legally protected tactic, and filing unfair labor practices with the government labor board.) Again, that's purely my own experience, and maybe that's a skewed experience. I will say though that my own, direct experience and that of others I know, frequently flies against of sweeping left communist and anarchist theories about "the" unions.

Maybe it doesn't disprove the whole theory, but it pokes a lot of holes in it.

Last point, I mostly agree with this, barring the above objections-

Quote:
Certainly in the UK, Canada or the US the examples I can think of where the law has gone against workers (by legislating them back to work, or declaring strike ballots invalid), the unions have caved. They definitely having a big majority of cases, at least.
OliverTwister
Aug 1 2014 01:33

How about the oil workers union in Venezuela that is constantly decried as a CIA front, but goes on illegal strikes? The bus drivers union in Tehran? The longshore or miners unions in South Africa?

Agree with Kevin that it is incorrecty making a universal law based on the general trend in G8 countries over the past few decades.

Also interesting to note how many small theoretical groups are arguing for forming similar groups as many of us in the IWW have actually been working to create, albeit much more quietly, over the past 5-10 years. Not opposed to the more theoretical discourse, just pointing out that stuff very much along these lines is already in existence...

Juan Conatz
Aug 1 2014 03:19

Haven't finished reading this yet, but thought I'd weigh in on the discussion...

It (the discussion) actually reminds me of when Oliver and I were writing the first draft of our piece on Wisconsin. It was way more polemical and obviously ultraleft. In some ways, I wish we would of stuck with parts of it, but Nate recommended cutting stuff out that people would stumble and concentrate on, to the detriment of the overall piece. He was right. It is really easy, when writing to want to unload a lot of unrelated shit, but readers often get hung up on one phrase and all of the sudden, that's the only thing people are talking about when it comes to your 20 page pamphlet. 0_0

On Kevin's disagreement with the unions having to stick to "legally prescribed forms of struggle". There's for sure truth to that. The partnerships of social democracy and the New Deal did create a relationship where unions were incentivized not to break the law, whether labor law or criminal law. The vast majority abide by this and enforce it on their locals, as seen in the wildcats and the subsequent conflicts between the rank-and-file and union officials during the 1970s. But it isn't entirely true. If I remember correctly, in Howard Kimeldorf's Battling For American Labor, he says that during the 1910s-1920s, despite its talk of partnership with employers and labor peace, AFL strikes were more violent and ended up breaking more laws than the IWW's strikes. One only needs to look at the 1934 strike wave in the U.S. with the Minneapolis Teamsters, the West Coast longshoreman and the Toledo auto parts workers. Or the Flint sitdowns. Or the general strikes following WW2. In almost all these events, the law was broken, often explicitly expressed with intent beforehand. Even more recently, the PATCO strike, the NY transit strikes, the ILWU actions at Longview, etc. show that traditional trade unionism need not necessarily be bound by legality. There's also a host of other smaller things unions do that are illegal. Remember, Unfair Labor Practices can and are filed against unions, too. Let's also not forget that there is a vocal minority of union staffers and rank-and-file, perhaps best represented by Joe Burn's book, Reviving the Strike, that think and want to break laws in order for their mainstream or representational unionism to be more effective.

This sort of gets into the 'militant reformism' thing that some of us in Recomp have talked about. Really, some people have been used to law-abiding unions that accept the current social partnership and labor scheme for so long, they think that's the only way they can exist. They fetishize illegality, when I think the real issue here is whether a union accepts the relationship between it and capital. For example, even if, say, UAW and SEIU were engaging in sitdowns and militant pickets, that doesn't erase the problematic aspects of what they are. You can aim for social partnership and labor peace with bricks and baseball bats.

As far as Kevin S' specific claims about SEIU vs IWW here when it comes to illegality, I'm not going to get into that discussion because online is not the place for stuff like that. I will say I disagree with him on this, and think he neglects the sort of complex give and take relationship the SEIU local here has with the police and DFL machine. This relationship allows an amount of leeway on certain things. I'm not pulling this out of my ass either, I've seen it first hand. I don't think this changes what he's trying to say (traditional unions don't always abide by the law), but the example given is one which I believe is not entirely accurate.

kevin s.
Aug 1 2014 23:23
Quote:
about SEIU vs IWW here when it comes to illegality, I'm not going to get into that discussion because online is not the place for stuff like that. I will say I disagree with him on this, and think he neglects the sort of complex give and take relationship the SEIU local here has with the police and DFL machine.

I totally agree (also seen it first hand, I took a lame civil disobedience training from them a few years ago where it was pretty explicit) that's the case for a lot (but not all) of traditional unions' illegal or borderline illegal activities. (The same criminal organizations for that matter.) And inversely is the reason why IWW action have tended to be more cautious than you would expect from the sort of bad-ass militant rhetoric that's so common by wobs or other revolutionary unionists...

This still doesn't fit in with the more stereotypical image of mainstream unionism. If anything cozy relationships within the political system are often viewed as an inhibiting factor in union militancy while anti-electoralist/anarchist tendencies are viewed as encouraging more militancy due not having a stake in the system. While that's true a lot of times, maybe even more often than not, I've also seen the opposite effect in which unions "on the outs" with the system have more to fear from repression and are therefore more cautious. Which for example is partially the explanation for this:

Quote:
If I remember correctly, in Howard Kimeldorf's Battling For American Labor, he says that during the 1910s-1920s, despite its talk of partnership with employers and labor peace, AFL strikes were more violent and ended up breaking more laws than the IWW's strikes.

I know that's definitely the case the longshore unions. The IWA/AFL longshoremen had a worse record of disruption (intentional and accidental) during WWI than the IWW longshoremen, yet the IWW was targeted for worse repression due it's explicit revolutionary politics (first red scare, etc.). (Which, granted, revolutionary politics were a way more real and imminent threat at that time than currently in the American history.)

All I'm arguing is that folks should get in a stronger habit of citing evidence rather than repeat the same cliches over and over again.

Nate
Aug 4 2014 23:31

Super quick on the illegality and violence being compatible with social peace thing, three quick stories I heard from people who were union staff in the late 90s and early 00s -
- food production strike, the union staff came close to planting rats in food packages, to harm the company
- steel contract negotiations, steelworkers threw pennies into machinery regularly, fucking up a great deal of money's worth of steel and threatening to break the machines, the company eased up at the bargaining table
- healthcare strike, low level union staff slashed scabs' tires to undermine picket-crossing

in all of these there was no official connection to union officialdom that could be used to harm the union had the person been caught and blabbed, but these objectively benefited the union and the return to/maintenance of relatively normal employer-employee relationships

Nate
Aug 5 2014 06:05

Okay I've read this now. I think this is excellent, and I think I need to re-read it when I've had more sleep. (I have a few disagreements that I think are really minor and I'm not sure are worth mentioning right now.)

AngryWorkersWorld wrote:
We are pretty bad at bringing the different levels of analysis together in a comprehensive way.

Everyone is! smile

I liked this quote -- "Communist activities have to refer to the ‘practical existence’ of the ‘collective worker’ – the totality of social cooperation necessary in order to produce, the antagonistic living force within capitalist relation of production. The ‘collective worker’ is necessary reference point in order to gain in power in any struggle for immediate demands and material basis for general radical social transformation on a world-scale." That makes sense to me. I think this is also true of other political projects that are pro-capitalist, though. Juan mentioned the conversation some of us have had about militant reformism. In the terms of this article, militant reformism is a struggle for smaller scale changes within capitalism. It may be that system-stabilizing reforms are impossible, but it may not be. If they will occur it will be in response to struggle. (That fits with this post when it says "Capitalism contains class conflict through developmental leaps." It's true that "The increased use of machinery and its increased share in total production costs is an expression of how capital intends to contain class struggle." It's also true that improvements in some people's lives are another way to contain class struggle, and those improvements aren't always more costly - in the United States, state-run health insurance could save a great deal of money for collective capital while also improving a lot of workers lives.)

I think in the present there's a disagreement between different pro-capitalist forces over what capitalism needs - how much and what kind of state intervention is needed. (The capitalist state seems to not really be discussed in this article. Am I right about that or did I miss it?) I think some forces in that disagreement will also seek to take the collective worker as a reference point in order to gain power in a struggle within the capitalist class (a struggle where everyone wants to gain power partly for their own advantage and partly because they think they know what's best for capitalism). I'm not sure if I'm agreeing or disagreeing with you (this is just something your piece made me think of) so I'll end that now.

Two other things. I'm curious if you've read the SolFed Fighting For Ourselves book? Because the conclusion sounds to me a lot like what they're calling for. I'm curious if this is you all are converging on a similar idea or something else, and if you see yourselves as doing something similar or not.

And lastly, you talk about the party/union relationship as rooted in a particular time and place. That makes sense in one way and I like it. At the same time, it sounds like you're implying that the old idea of the party/union relationship and the Leninist "schematic distinction in economic and political struggles" was correct in its time and is now outmoded. That seems to me a bit of an evasion of whether it was ever correct, and is different from what you say a bit afterward, which seems to me equally true of the present and of the early 20th century -- "The classical two-stage model of ‘trade union’ and ‘political party’ formation makes it impossible to discover the ‘revolutionary contradictions’ within the social productive cooperation. It is a disjointing, rather then elevating on a higher level of consciousness: limited to the trade union framework workers will not be able to generalise their struggles along the lines of their already existing productive relationships and the ‘political generalisation’ through the party is in most cases happening detached from social production in the ‘political sphere’ campagnes, mobilisations etc.). The generalisation within social production itself is the main precondition to materially undermine segmentations and the ‘capital fetish’ (capital as the organiser of society). It is ‘economic struggle’ through which workers have to discover the political nature of capitalist production"

AngryWorkersWorld
Aug 5 2014 07:41

Hey,

We all pretty busy, will try to reply by mid of next week...

Stay tuned!