Anarchism and the Trade Unions


The Workers Solidarity Movement has, since its formation eight years ago, placed special emphasis on the struggles of trade unionists. Were we right? Why place this special emphasis on trade unions rather than any other organisation or campaign?From the dawn of class society there have been uprisings by the ruled against their rulers. From the time of ancient Rome to the democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries slaves, peasants and the urban poor did not accept their miserable lot without fighting back. But all these struggles ended, when victorious, with the replacement of the old rulers by a new set of rulers. Little improvement was seen in the daily life of the vast majority.

The workers who create the wealth under capitalism are different to all previous oppressed classes. They have to fight together if they are to win and they can only achieve their freedom together. The small peasants of Ireland in the last century did fight together at times, particularly in the Land League agitation. But the goal of the small peasant was to become a bigger peasant and then an independent small farmer. Modern workers can not share such a goal. They can not break up large industries, power stations, supermarkets, hospitals, railways, schools and so on, and share them out piece by piece among themselves. They can only control production and essential services collectively.

This means that the working class can be a force capable of not merely rebelling against the existing system but of taking over and recreating society in its own interests. As the majority class the modern working class can not become a ruling class in the way that the merchants replaced the feudal lords. There wouldn't be enough people for them to exploit and live off, even if such an idea became popular. The victory of the working class will see it having to dissolve itself and usher in a truly classless society.

The trade unions were the first organisations thrown up by the working class in the struggle against the bosses. Trade unions are, essentially, defence organisations of workers under capitalism. Their very existence is a challenge to the right of the boss to set the wages and conditions of work. No matter how conservative, bureaucratic or downright backward a union may be, to join it implies a recognition that there is a class division in society and that workers have to get together to fight for their own separate interests. This is a sign of some level of class consciousness.

This does not mean that they are revolutionary. Few unions have ever claimed to be for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Mainstream trade unions are not revolutionary organisations. They were formed to defend and improve conditions for working class people under capitalism.

Trade union struggle is a necessity for two reasons. Firstly to protect and improve conditions - if the unions disappeared tomorrow does anyone think the bosses would not go on an all-out offensive against workers? Just look at conditions in countries where genuine unions are suppressed, like Taiwan, Indonesia or Thailand with their child labour, starvation wages and violent repression of dissent on the shopfloor. Secondly, as anarchists, we recognise that when workers are brought into struggle they can develop a sense of their collective power and become more open to radical ideas. A good example is the Gateaux strike of a couple years ago. This group of workers had not had a strike for as long as anyone could remember, they certainly were not considered the shock troops of Dublin trade unionism. Yet within days they were illegally occupying their workplace, asking left groups including the WSM to join a support committee and sending flying pickets to try to picket out the workers in their sister company, Allied Lyons in Drimnagh.

While the unions were thrown up by the class contradiction within capitalism, their dominant ideas are also influenced by that system. They aim to get the best possible price for labour power rather than the end of exploitation. They organise to maximise their bargaining power within the capitalist market. As a result they see things in a sectional way. Each industry or group of workers looks after its own interests. That is why the famous slogan "an injury to one is the concern of all" is more often honoured on banners than in real struggles. A recent example was the refusal of SIPTU to ballot its members in the banks and security firms for solidarity action with the IBOA strikers.

Most workers accept the idea that reasonable negotiation can offer a way out of most problems. Given the regularity with which this is promoted by the media, politicians and trade union leaders it would be surprising if they did not. Usually it is only the experience of struggle that breaks workers from this idea. That is why a workforce who have been in many struggles over the years such as in Waterford Glass have become a byword for solidarity and militancy. It was these workers who dipped deep into their pockets for the British miners, the Barlo strikers and the Gateaux occupiers. It was these workers who struck when Gardai attacked pickets at Clover Meats and who led the anti-water rates campaign in the South East with militant protests and threats of strikes while much of the trade union movement ineffectively passed motions that committed themselves to nothing concrete.

There does emerge within unions a strata that develops a professional interest in a partnership with the bosses. This bureaucracy has about as much in common with the founders of the trade union movement as Peter Cassells has with James Connolly. These bureaucrats may be elected or unelected, what marks them out is that they have extended powers but are not answerable to the membership except in the most formal way. In reality they are often beyond any control from the rank and file membership.

They may take notice of what their members say, but do not have to if they don't want to. They earn more than those they are supposed to represent. For example Ciaran Ryan of the IBOA gets £80,000 a year while SIPTU's Billy Atley is believed to make over £90,000 a year when so-called expenses are added to his salary. We don't know the exact figure because that has never been released to SIPTU's members. With the best will in the world, which they definitely don't have, people on this sort of money could never really understand the problems faced by a low paid worker taking home £120 a week.

They often sit with bosses and the government on commissions and the boards of semi-state companies. Atlee and Mick Johnston of the Communications Workers Union sit on the board of Telecom - and were very noticeably silent during last year's frauds and scandals. In short they enjoy a lifestyle quite different from that of their members. Many of the newer full-time officials have never even worked in an ordinary job.

They see their union work as a career. More than a few change sides and take jobs with employer organisations. Some keep changing in search of ever higher wages. Ciaran Ryan started as an official with the shop workers union IDATU, then went over to the Federated Union of Employers, and then back to the unions as General Secretary of the Irish Bank Officials Association. It was an irony that two of the negotiators from the big four banks he faced across the table had previously been his juniors in the FUE.

The career of the union official is that of a fixer, an arbitrator, a concilliator, a negotiator. What is important to them is their skill at negotiating, not pulling out all the stops to win their members claim. They will rarely call for strike action. Instead they will have you running back and forth to Rights Commissioners, the Labour Court, the Labour Relations Commissions and any other talking shop they can find. They will negotiate around the clock, all aimed at finding what they consider a reasonable solution. Strikes are very much a last resort, and one to be used very sparingly. They will condemn without hesitation any unofficial action - that is action which was not sanctioned by them.

The union official has a professional interest in all this. He or she considers that skill at negotiating, rather than action by the members, is what wins gains. Once the negotiations are completed the official has a professional interest in seeing that Agreements with the boss are observed. After all, what boss will negotiate if agreements will not be adhered to? The official has to develop that trust with the boss and see that the members stick to the agreement. The official's job literally depends on it. The result is a cautious and conservative bureaucracy at the top that stifles rank and file involvement and activity. Confidence and democracy on the shopfloor is of secondary importance, if it is a consideration at all.

This can lead revolutionaries to conclude that the unions are now part of the state machine, just one more means of controlling workers. This has manifested itself in other countries in the view that workers should leave the unions and destroy them; that no permanent organisation of workers under capitalism can avoid becoming totally integrated into the state and a tool in the hands of the bosses. The people who promote this claim argue that the unions are holding workers back from making a revolution! We are very easy on them when we dismiss their position as childish, and ultra-leftist. But the point about becoming part of the state machine does appear to have some basis, especially when you take into account the Programme for Economic and Social Progress based on 'social partnership' between employers, government and unions. To make this case it is argued that there is no essential difference between the bureaucracy and the union as a whole. Clearly it is a nonsense to describe the majority of workers as part of the state machine.

But what of the bureaucracy, who do exercise very real control over the unions at the expense of the rank & file membership on the job? As a whole the bureaucracy swings between the position of mediator and that of open defender of the status quo. As a grouping they cannot go completely over to defending the bosses interests. To some degree they have to respond to their members' needs and demands; they are, after all, working within workers' organisations which have as their reason for existence the opposing interests of bosses and workers. On the other hand they cannot become totally responsive to their members' demands as that would see a generalised conflict with the bosses breaking out, which would see the end of their role, power and careers. There are a few individual exceptions to this but, as a collective grouping, this remains the case.

The response of the left social democrats and Trotskyists is that we have to elect and/or appoint 'better' officials. They see the problem primarily in terms of the individuals who hold the posts. This stems from their conception of "socialism" as some sort of giant state enterprise bureaucracy where things are done "for the workers". Workers' self-activity plays no leading role in their scheme of things, just as real workers' control is not part of their plan for a "socialist" society. Their ideas are rooted in an authoritarian view of the world.

A third position we come across is that of breaking away and forming new unions. The effect of this is to take the minority of combative and radical workers out of the old union, leaving it totally at the mercy of the bureaucracy whose antics had provoked the split. We urge those workers to remain and fight within the union, to win over the membership - not to leave them without a combative focus.

Breakaway unions offer no alternative in the long run as the problems that led to their formation will develop in the new union. Ireland's labour history is littered with examples of this. The ITGWU and FWUI (which merged to form SIPTU), and the National Bus and Railworkers Union, to name but a few of the main unions, were all born as "left" breakaways.

While in Ireland today we don't advocate breakaways, except possibly in the most exceptional cases, we ultimately stand for the right of workers to make the decision themselves.

Our perspectives for activity within the unions are centred on encouraging workers themselves to take up the fight against the bosses, state interference and the TU bureaucracy. Our most important area of activity is on the shopfloor.

No WSM member will accept any unelected position that entails having power over the membership.

Members elected as shop stewards consider their position as that of a delegate rather than that of a 'representative' who can act over the heads of the members.

When going forward for elective positions we make it clear that we are not accepting the structure as it now exists. We will fight for more general meetings, accountability, mandation, information for members.

We see a need to bring militants within the unions together to mount a challenge to the bureaucracy and their ideas. That is why we are involved in the Trade Unionists & Unemployed Against the Programme campaign and its paper Trade Union Fightback. We see it as a first step towards building a rank & file opposition. In times of struggle sections of workers realise that the officials are holding them back and seek to organise independently. This is the way to build the self-activity of the working class that anarchists talk about.

The rank and file movement is that movement within the unions of militant workers who are prepared to fight independently of the bureaucracy, and against it when necessary.

The form it has taken in Ireland has been that of combative shop steward committees, inter-factory committees, and groupings of activists within particular unions and/or trades.

Such a movement arises when workers go into struggle and are attacked not only by the boss but also by their own union officials. It requires the confidence to fight on both these fronts, and to be generalised to the degree where it can appeal for solidarity action over the heads of the bureaucrats.

Within the rank & file movement we fight for our politics, we never hide them. But we do not want to take over, the movement should be independent of any one political organisation. While we seek to convince as many workers as possible of the need for anarchism, we do not do this in an opportunist manner at the expense of the growth of the movement. It should never be made a front belonging to the revolutionary organisation. Its role is to provide a focus for workers moving to the left and wanting to fight.

Trade unions will not become revolutionary organisations, they were never set up to be that. However from within trade union struggle will arise the embryo of the workers' councils of the future. The early beginnings of this are seen wherever workers create their own rank & file organisation (without mediation or "all-knowing" leaders) to pursue their class interests.

Towards this end we push as hard as we can for independence from the control of the bureaucracy.

The role of the WSM within these struggles is to unify the different sectional struggles into an awareness of the overall struggle between the classes; to act as a "collective memory" for the movement (i.e. able to explain the lessons of past struggles); to combat the politics of reformism and Leninism within the movement; to explain and popularise the anarchist-communist idea. Essentially our role is that of a "leadership of ideas" - as opposed to a leadership of elitist individuals.

Talk given by Alan MacSimóin at the WSM open discussion in Dublin on May 6th, 1992