An anarchist introduction to trade unions


TRADE UNIONS were founded to defend the interests of workers, but today have become more and more dominated by an unaccountable, and often unelected, bureaucracy. Trade unions - or at least their leadership - have been co-opted into becoming partners with Capital, and see their role as managing their members, controlling difficult situations rather than leading struggles. You are much more likely to see a trade union official selling the management's latest "productivity package" or "re-structuring deal" than to hear him/her calling for an occupation of a plant to avoid its closure, or for industrial action to fight redundancies.Given this, one might wonder why anarchists spend so much time talking about and working inside the trade unions. To write off trade unions, however, is to ignore the basic fact that for a worker to join a trade union means having to recognise, to some degree, that he or she has different interests to the bosses.

Trade unions are certainly not revolutionary organisations. But if you accept - as anarchists certainly do - that the emancipation of the working class can only be brought about by the working class themselves, then you must also accept that the most important mass movement the working class has ever built cannot be ignored. This is true no matter how progressive or reactionary the attitudes of its members at any given time.

As anyone who has ever been on strike will know, indeed as anyone who has followed the titanic struggles of groups of workers such as the Liverpool dockers or the Dublin building workers will also know, strikes depend on collective action for their success. It is the ability to collectively stand together - either in defence of working conditions or in pursuance of improved pay or conditions - which gives trade unions their strength. When the boss looks for that bit too much sweat, the knowledge that if we all say no together, he/she is relatively powerless is a powerful weapon indeed.

This is not of course to claim that workers taking strike action are only one step away from rallying to the cause of revolution. But the message is there nonetheless - collective action in production, collective action in struggle leads us in an anarchist direction. And once in struggle people's ideas can change - often very rapidly. Those directly involved in the miners' strike in Britain in the 1980s needed no lectures on the partiality of the state's police force. They experienced it directly - usually with the brute force of a baton to beat the lesson in.

On a less dramatic scale, workers in various state and private enterprises the length and breadth of Ireland have seen the true nature of the Labour Court, the Labour Relations Commission, etc. as restructuring deals, workplace partnerships and whatever other way more exploitation can be dressed up has been rammed down their throats.

Furthermore, workers in struggle gain confidence in their collective strength, and in their own ability to take control of their lives. The establishment of strike committees, explaining their case to passers-by, even arguing with the trade union official for decent backing - as often has to happen - all contribute to this growth in self-confidence. A self-confident worker who realises that 'Unity is Strength' is more than just a slogan will, at the very least, be more open to revolutionary ideas.

This is one of the reasons why anarchists get involved in workers' struggles. It is not the only one however. We also act from a position of solidarity with other members of our class, remembering and putting into practice the maxim that 'an injury to one is an injury to all'. We offer this solidarity, however, from a position of acknowledging that it is the workers in struggle themselves who must retain control of that struggle.

The hand of solidarity is offered in support of the struggle, not with any intention of using it for our own ends. Strike support groups in which we become involved must be just that - support groups, with the strikers themselves retaining a veto over any proposed actions.

Through involvement in struggles, we learn the lessons of the class struggle. We see which tactics are successful and which should not be tried again. After all none of us has all the answers. We also aim to take the lessons of these struggles and apply them in new situations. Too often the victories of groups of workers - and the lessons of those victories for the rest of us - are only known by those directly involved. This is why we aim in this paper and in our other publications to highlight these victories - to be, as it were, a memory bank for our class.

In conclusion, the unions may appear monolithic. Sometimes work in them can be boring and appear to be a waste of time. But if we manage to wrest control from the bureaucrats currently strangling them, they will prove to be one of our best weapons in furthering the battle for a free and equal society.

Gregor Kerr

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 56 published in March 1999