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Dec 6, 21

Why Anarchists Can’t Be Absent From the New Wave of Labor Militancy

Anarchists must push for self-organization, direct action and mutual aid in the midst of a wave of mass strikes, workers walking off the job, and growing anger at rising inequality.

The month of October was the start of what has been called “Striketober” a massive wave of labor strikes across the so called United States. An estimated 100,000 workers mobilized on the job as their union contracts expired and while this is normal protocol for unions what happened next was inspiring. A “rank and file” revolt began at various unions, disregarding union admin’s wishes and demanding more. UAW workers at John Deere voted down a contract enforced by UAW officers, Kellogg workers are demanding more than what their job and previous union contracts have given. On top of this, there has been immense internal change for business unions. The Teamsters, long dominated by the son of Hoffa, and his particular strategy of screwing over workers, was dethroned by a grassroots Teamsters movement that promised more militancy. After a decades long grassroots campaign, UAW workers recently won democratic voting for it’s union structure. This signals an increased militancy or want of militancy by rank and file union members.

This wave was unsurprising given the immense dehumanization of the previous year as a result of the pandemic. What was surprising was the level of coverage. Mainstream news was having a filed day reporting on this level of militancy with many agencies having no idea how to report on a strike because this was their first time doing so. It seemed that almost every form of media was buzzing with strikes and unions especially so for more progressive and revolutionary circles.

That is however except for this outlet which was surprisingly absent of any coverage or pieces even passingly mentioning this strike wave. Even the more spontaneous “Great Resignation” which some have likened to a general strike has seemingly not been reported on by anyone writing for IGD. This is not to say that what was published in October and November was unimportant, in fact a lot of what came out in those months were very urgent and important. But it is interesting that there is little presence of anarchist organizing in the workplace, the place that most of our lives still revolve around.

This is nothing new, as anarchist labor organizing declined in the U.S. before World War 2 and was in free fall along with all other forms of labor organizing in the 1970s. If recent pieces published in IGD are anything to go by then most anarchists and abolitionists don’t place much importance in labor specific organizing. Most see anarcho-syndicalism as a stuffy dead ideology and anarcho-syndicalists as larpers out of touch with reality. But the reality is that strikes and workplace direct actions are one of the most important tools that workers have against capitalism, a tool that has been missing from the anarchist tool belt for some time. One of the main reasons why capitalism is struggling so much currently has in part to do with the absence of workers, either because so many of us have died or so many have simply walked away from the job. It is also true that nothing scares the shit out of bosses more than a union drive, as evident from Starbucks and Amazon‘s massive attempts to crush recent drives.

I am not demanding that everyone join a union more so I am asking fellow anarchists and abolitionists to start organizing the one place we’ve largely been absent from: the workplace. I am advocating to not just have an affinity group outside of the job but to take direct action at jobs themselves. So long as we largely remain outside the workplace, we not only lose a valuable battle ground we also lose a large number of people open to our ideas. Even if you think that anarcho-syndicalism could never progress out of the 20th century I implore you to still read simply because labor organizing itself is valuable tool. Capitalism and the state are multifaceted entities with moving parts and in order to dismantle such systems we need to engage in a war on all fronts.

The Workplace

Most critiques of labor organizing from anarchists and even non-anarchists is that the modern day workplace is a different beast from what came before. There is a sense that starting in the 1970s and ramping up in the 90s that work altered so significantly that now labor organizing can not keep up. It is definitely true that capitalism of the late 20th century has been altered numerous times till now and the most obvious example is the loss of manufacturing jobs that unions traditionally organized in. Technology has advanced rapidly, many jobs are automated and many jobs as David Graber so eloquently put it are bullshit jobs that serve no purpose other than to provide a job. There’s temp workers galore, along with independent contractors, tech jobs, and some jobs where workers don’t even work together. On top of these horrendous new forms subjugation many jobs like Amazon are run via algorithms that remove the “human face” of capitalism. To many then it seems as if labor organizing can’t compete with these changes and for the old tactics that’s correct but we must ask what has fundamentally changed?

What had fundamentally altered in the workplace? Many theorized that the workplace would erode, evolve into something hellish. Automation run amok or the destruction of traditional forms of being as a result of the changes of capitalism. However something even worse has happened. The workplace didn’t erode or evolve rather it multiplied!

It’s not that “work” or our expenditure of time focused on a meaningless task to produce profit for little pay has changed, but more our relationship to work has changed. Most people still work a job except now they work two or three. We still get paid, but now its less and for some it’s piecemeal or not at a fixed rate. We still have bosses but now those bosses are faceless or don’t exist and we’re being ordered around by a machine. We still have co-workers but like most people we’re alienated.

So fundamentally the relation is the same its just that variances in that relationship now exist. If you’re a stuffy business union focused on keeping the peace then of course you’re screwed. The largest union in the United States the AFL-CIO has not grown in new industries because it doesn’t really care to. It’s not focused on advancing liberation, so instead it’s focused on its own stability. Only two mainstream unions have attempted or signaled any kind of movement when it comes new industries. Teamsters for exampled have repeatedly said they will take on the hell that is Amazon. UAW for all its awful faults have successfully organized colleges specifically students, teaching assistants, and researchers, a rather unorthodox industry for a historically industrial union.

Besides this there have been numerous spontaneous workplace actions from non-industrial industries. Numerous tech companies have had walkouts over sexual assaults and ethical concerns over AI. In the video game industry there have been consistent organizing, from Riot games employees staging walkouts, to the recent efforts of Blizzard-Activison employees fighting against sexism and and a culture of sexual assault at the workplace. Two years ago there was the formation of the Google Employees union that wasn’t so much worried about pay but rather the companies numerous Orwellian maneuvers.

The service industry is still organizable even if it doesn’t seem like it. One of the most recent labor centered pieces published on IGD was about the Burgerville Workers Union that has successfully unionized their fast food workplace. Starbucks workers in Buffalo have been leading a successful campaign recently and will most likely have a union soon. This does not even begin to mention the existing unions and organizing possibilities of grocery stores.

I mention all of this not because these efforts will lead to a revolution but more so to point to the fact that labor organizing is teeming with life still. It’s not that new industries and new jobs are un-organizable, that the game has completely changed but more so a new set of tactics must be used and developed. The workplace didn’t change rather it comes in different flavors of hell. Work itself still exists but our relationship has altered.

Part of this relationship change is that it is much more central to our lives. I am Zoomer so my historical memory may be off but it seems as if we are collectively working more hours. Working a 9-5 job with time off for the weekend seems to most people I talk to as an ever decreasing prospect. We’re working more hours for less pay and this means that our relation to work itself has become more overbearing. There is something sad when my comrades say they cannot take part in an action or can’t attend a meeting because it interferes with their work. In 2020 I knew many people who were trying to juggle their direct action and mutual aid efforts with their work schedule. This isn’t because they loved work or the job they worked at but because there was no other option, that job meant whether or not they would have food. As was true at the start of capitalism, it seems as if there’s only two times we exist under: Work time where we grind along at a place we hate and hope to destroy some day and free time where we can be radicals doing what we love and care for.

Excuse me for saying that this dichotomy blunts our efforts. If we can only be so radical as our work permits it, if we have to manage our actions based on how much free time we have from a job then our lives revolve around work simple as that. By removing labor organizing from our tool belt by leaving the workplace as simply the workplace we fail to develop our freedom. We fail to confront capitalism at its blood flows and fail to free ourselves from the meaninglessness of modern life. We also fail to extend our reach to the very people that need it. Most people probably aren’t in an affinity group already and as such we have to out reach to the wider society. But even people in the same city or community may not see our propaganda, or see our demos and if they work a hell job like most of us they wont have time to. The one place that still draws in large numbers of everyday people dying for radical change is the workplace. Most of your co-workers probably hate or want to hate the system just as much as you do and yet do most show up to meetings? You must ask yourself how many of your co-workers who live in the same community as you regularly show up to actions? If you live in a particularly high density area with culture of anarchism and abolitionism them many probably do turn up. But how many can say the same?

If the workplace. has become unwillingly central to our lives then organizing the workplace must in some way be central to our praxis. Most of your co-workers probably have the same feeling as you but if you don’t reach out how can you know? And what’s the best method of reaching out, how can you organize your dispossessed workers into revolutionary comrades? How can we form workplace affinity groups to do direct struggle against the workplace? A revamped and modern anarcho-syndicalist movement can provide these answers and the tools to make our efforts even more effective.

Anarcho-Syndicalism for Our Time

As mentioned before I get the sense that most people don’t like or don’t care for anarcho-syndicalism. From some articles IGD published few years ago I take it that most people see anarcho-syndicalism as antiquated, that is either/or/and ineffective, un-revolutionary, or counter revolutionary. These critiques have there merits as the initial anarcho-syndicalist movement of the 20th century was definitely stuffy, advocating a movement of one mega anarchist union that would capture the means of production and destroy capitalism. A lot of them had a positive view of work and had no concept of ecology or climate change. But I find it ironic that some, specifically other anarchists can’t fathom that this tendency could change and progress over time. Anarcho-syndicalism did not die in the 30s it still persisted. It has changed over the 100 years its been around and while some are stuck in the past there is a vibrant movement. Numerous writings already exist of what anarcho-syndicalism looks like in the 21st century and many groups around the world still commit to it’s practice. One of the largest internationally organized group of anarchists, the International Workers Association is a specifically anarcho-syndicalist group.

What I offer here is not a complete analysis of anarcho-syndicalist strategy for our time but rather ideas and the approaching of a dialogue. I’m going to explain what this new strategy can look like and what sort of tool it offers to us as anarchists and abolitionists.

A traditional “American Union” will most likely not be attainable as of yet. Previous syndicalist belief was that all workers should join the on ideologically pure anarchist union and then declare a general strike. For various reasons this hasn’t happened and is largely impossible to do. What we could use instead is a workplace specific affinity group or council that organizes on the shop floor. The current labor movement of the U.S. is focused largely on the National Labor Relations Board and the various legal hoops of union certification, card checking and voting. While many unions are formed this way many also die this way and it becomes much harder to do if the union is independent of a larger established business union.

As such what we could all need is an affinity group for the workplace. Not a group of workers organized in a union but a group of workers organizing themselves for their workplace. issues. Such a strategy already has a name “solidarity unionism” and it is a tactic largely used by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). While it doesn’t create a stable union this has been an effective form of organizing direct victories such as increase pay and workplace protections. What separates this from normal labor organizing is the emphasis on direct action and direct worker democracy. Other unions are bound by contract to not cause trouble and can be very bureaucratic. The modern anarcho-syndicalist union has to be fluid, able to impose strikes and stoppages whenever the workers see fit.

Such a strategy, without proper maintenance and education will not lead to very stable unions. Either through turnover rates that wipe out radical co-workers or apathy after a long campaign. As such the modern anarcho-syndicalist union must be on the move, focused on the workers affinity rather than a specific job and location. Such a tactic is already present within the IWW but it is also present in another anarcho-syndicalist group the Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA). The idea here is to have the union agitate where the workers are not where the work is. Wherever the worker goes the union follows and as such the union can spread it’s organizing across a wider geography. Along with this all forms of work must be organized. Unlike the business unions, to us there is no work too low or beneath us that doesn’t deserve to be organized. Most work currently is degrading and the more degrading it is the more it needs to be organized

The modern union must also incorporate other unions among its membership. These past few months were the time of immense rank and file revolts of other established unions. The message is clear, these unionized workers want more than what they are currently being offered, more than what the current system can provide them. They are practically screaming to us that they want an alternative and any form of anarchist workplace organizing will have to agitate within established unions themselves. The IWW and WSA already advocate this type of strategy and this goal here be not to reform the establish union but to speak to its membership. From experience, local unions can be the best hot spot for class conscious workers already disillusioned by reformism.

But how will such groupings and strategy help us and our communities from the onslaught of capitalism and the state? In three ways: Attaining immediate goals, developing an effective tool for change, and creating mass solidarity.

Direct action at the workplace can get the good in various ways. Our pay is terrible, we can be harassed and fired at any moment and most don’t have access to healthcare. These are all things that workplace organizing can help to address through strikes, workplace stoppages or workplace. shortages. Individually the bosses wont give us anything but collectively as workers we can get a whole lot out of them. But this is basic union rhetoric, the last remaining unions in the U.S. are already know as being more well paying, more aware of workers rights and offer people healthcare. An anarchist and abolitionist minded union can go further asking for things such as the reduction of the work day more time off and more say in workplace. affairs. Historically the 8 hour work day was an anarcho-syndicalist concept but they also came up with the idea of the 4 hour work day. Right now our lives are centralized on long and terrible work and that wont change unless we collectively make a move. Any form of organizing can also help translate our beliefs of revolution to those who’ve never heard it before. Attacking the workplace through direct action can help people achieve their own consciousness of further liberation.

Furthermore the strike is a powerful tool that has long since been ignored by modern movements. The stopping of work, and thereby the stopping of profit creation deathly terrifies capitalists which is why they have tried their best to kill the labor movement. An anarcho-syndicalist movement in the U.S. directed by a much larger social movement can offer up the strike as another point of the people’s spear. Corporations will often be able to maintain their power in the face of a protest but will be struggling to survive if that protest was augmented by a workers strike within the workplace. Such inclinations already exist, for example when union bus drivers refused to co-operate with cops during the George Floyd Uprising. This action came from only a handful of workers in one industry – what if similar actions like this were better organized and spread out? What if Monday’s action isn’t merely a protest in the street but a movement that halts the entire city? To have a revamped anarcho-syndicalist movement is to have the strike, the most direct attack on the workplace, back within our use.

Finally mass solidarity. Classical anarcho-syndicalism proposed the idea of a general strike, that once everyone was in the giant union a general strike would be organized and capitalism would fall apart. This is largely impossible to organize but not impossible to achieve. Historic general strikes happened less due to planning and more due to solidarity. Workers of various industries and unions went on strike in solidarity with on union, completely shutting down production and hurting capitalists. A modern day anarcho-syndicalist movement that is fluid and moves whenever the worker goes and wherever an affinity group is established can help to build wider solidarity among workers and develop the skills necessary for that solidarity to be effective. If we politicize the workplace and spread the knowledge of what direct action within the workplace looks like than we can create the kind of solidarity necessary to make social change. As mentioned before, there is already a pseudo general strike happening now and it is ripping apart the systems of capitalism. It is spontaneous but it is not borne out of solidarity and as such can do little more than raise the wages of a few select areas. If the situation was altered however, and the mass resignation we see now was borne out of solidarity and the drive to fundamentally change society than we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. To build an anarchist labor movement is to develop the skill that will and the spontaneity needed for revolution. The strike and workplace. solidarity are powerful tools and the more we ignore them the more our fight becomes difficult.

Educate, Agitate, Organize

If I’ve convinced you of anything I hope it’s that the labor movement isn’t quite dead yet and that workplace organizing is still important. I don’t care if people think anarcho-syndicalism is dead or stuffy I care that people recognize that by removing ourselves from the workplace as organizers and agitators we remove ourselves from a central battle ground. I also hope that people understand that the strike is important, that the economic damage it causes is still something capitalists greatly fear.

For those convinced of revamping anarcho-syndicalism or for those already convinced but looking for an avenue I’ve already listed two organizations. The Industrial Workers of the World is more neutral-syndicalist while still retaining the ghost of anarchism. It also varies from branch to branch and member to member but they are well established and are willing to organize any and all workers. The Workers Solidarity Alliance is the specific anarcho-syndicalist organization that isn’t a union and more of an activist network for organizing new types of unions. Both these organizations are good places to start to organize your workplace. What I’ve listed here is an incomplete thought of our possibilities as workers and it will require serious organizing to flourish fully. We have to collectively design our new strategy in order to develop our power.

To end with, a recent poll has been going around, showing that 68% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 view unions favorably. No poll yet exists for abolitionism or anarchism but would the numbers reflect the same? I don’t bring this up to play the numbers game but more to say that the next generation, my generation, are excited about unions and labor organizing because for us it represents a direct attack on capital. It symbolizes to many I’ve spoken to workers power at it’s most strongest. If there isn’t an anarchist or abolitionist response then “we” run the risk of being picked up by more authoritarian or reformist organizations that already provide an avenue. Because the labor wave is coming, it just depends on how ready “we” are for it.

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