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“If It Isn’t Rank and File, It Isn’t Anarchist”

By Anarchist Materialism - Anarchist Materialism, April 20, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

“Our duty, which was the logical outcome of our ideas, the condition with which our conception of revolution and re-organisation of society imposes on us, namely, to live among the people and to win them over to our ideas by actively taking part in their struggles and sufferings” — Errico Malatesta

In order for the Anarchist movement to mature in this country, we must address a particularly troubling dilemma.  Are we to continue our historical struggle within the working class or do we evolve into a professional class of labor organizers and bureaucrats?? Addressing this question isn’t only about disagreements in methods but in affirming an anarchist conception of organization from the base.  Whether in garment factories and ports or in hotels and retail, our focus on the rank and file has always been obvious–without the revolutionary self organization of the workers, we will never overthrow this unjust system of economic and political domination.

Unfortunately there exists a layer of self proclaimed anarchists as well as other leftists today who have not only chosen to separate themselves from the rank and file, but to defend their activity as a strategic form of social insertion.  Such a view is heavily deluded and guided in no small part by years of NGO influence on social movements.  In the current political environment, there are anarchist staffers in every union imaginable from the SEIU and UFCW to the UAW and UNITE HERE.

Students interested in labor are directly recruited out of universities into internships with Jobs with Justice and other business unions, while militant rank and file workers are tempted off the shop floor with higher pay and benefits.

Though this sad state of affairs shows a severe weakness of the left in offering alternatives, it is also a deliberate tactic of the union leadership.  By placating agitated workers with radical staff who “get it”, the union leadership is able to control mobilization and to later use their staffers to push through harmful cuts and “reforms.”

Not only are these staffer positions treated as an acceptable way of mixing politics with profession, but they contain a certain level of prestige.  Whether from bargaining , collecting grievances, or participation in high profile symbolic arrests, anarchist staffers continue to play into performance politics rather than building a self organizing rank and file movement. 

Furthermore, “Anarchist bureaucrats have called for strikes with short notice, with little rank and file feedback, and with little preparation.  They have looked at board meetings as key decision making spaces rather than trying to develop shop floor democracy.  Some get embroiled in negotiating committees, centralize knowledge, and waste time that can be spent helping the rank and file develop towards wider and more sustainable action.”   Instead of “organizing themselves out of a job”, such field organizers invariably create dependency and guide if not outright control the activity of the workers.  Their role is therefore substitutionalist for doing the necessary work of building collective skills and empowerment within the working class itself.

In addition, despite the fact that many of these business unions actively poach IWW campaigns,  practically every branch of the IWW has dual carding staffers.  Many of these staffers utilize the union as shock troops to help out their own unions’ campaigns or to procure similar jobs for excited young wobs needing “organizing experience”.  Rather than boring from within mainstream unions and outflanking or combatting the rigid leadership structures, these organizers instead become appendages of the union bureaucracy. Interestingly enough, while the IWW constitution actively prohibits officers in other unions, it doesn’t say anything explicitly about paid union organizers:

“No member of the Industrial Workers of the World shall be an officer of a trade or craft union or political party. Branches may allow IWW members to become officers of trade or craft unions as long as these exceptions are reported to the General Administration and no IWW member receives significant pay (more than dues rebate and expenses) as a result of being an officer or official in a union that does not call for abolition of the wage system.” – article II section 1C.

Regardless of this omission, there are reasons why the IWW have historically used the term “fellow worker” to differentiate themselves from bosses, management, and bureaucrats.  Without being rooted in the working class, it would be impossible to relate to the interests and struggles of the base.   In practice, this failure has created a culture of rhetoric over social insertion that often limits self organization.

These problems are even further magnified in the the mainstream unions.  Here is a sample of bureaucratizing language included into the core mission of business union staffers:

  • The American Federation of Teachers“Help the Officers and Executive Board plan and implement all union activities, including but not limited to membership meetings, orientations, rallies, demonstrations, job actions, and social events.”
  • THE CWA – “Conduct worksite visits to discuss current events and employee concerns…  Coordinate and process grievance and disciplinary matters, including: preparing, presenting and appealing cases to Divisions, Departments, mediation and arbitration within defined timelines”
  • SEIU describes their staff’s role to “work on the front lines building power FOR workers”.  (
  • UNITE HERE describes the duty of its staff to “ORGANIZE AND LEAD worker committee meetings.”

This contrasting vision of “organizing” reflects real political differences between self-management and business unionism.  Their model includes methods of influencing government, operating within arbitration, and standing in for worker initiative.

According to Ned Resnikoff of Jacobin Magazine this is necessary because:  “modern unions need staff. Private employers have developed exceedingly sophisticated union-busting tactics over the past century, and beating them often requires a dedicated team of communicators, researchers, lawyers, organizers, and statisticians, among others.”

We dispute this idea that a labor movement can’t be professional without a huge layer of paid staff.   Not only do many modern unions around the world run without paid professional organizers, but such staff actually maintain the servility and oppression of the very people who they claim to be supporting.  Unions commonly utilize worker mobilization only as bargaining leverage for contract negotiations/legislation and not as an organizing tool for a more politicized and capable working class.  After a union or a contract is won, union bureaucrats typically switch over into service mode.  Those committees which still operate do so in the model and official line laid down by the staff vis a vis the leadership.  Despite their likely benign motivations, such activity is liberal and buys into the savior mentality of much of the US left.  According to the Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland):

“The structure of the unions gives far too much power to the bureaucrats and it is inevitable that no matter how radical or left-wing they might be when they get the job their role sucks them into the business of conciliation. After all, the officials must be able to prove that they control their members – in other words, stop them fighting the bosses – if they are to have anything to sell at the negotiating table. If such control cannot be promised, why should an employer bother to negotiate?” – Red and Black Revolution, Issue #3, 1997

Yet even those unions which publicly support self-organizing, utilize staffers to funnel workers and valuable resources into voter registration and electoral politics.  In this arena, it is no surprise that unions are the single greatest mobilization body for the democratic party.  Union staffers have been put to work organizing for the recall of Scott Walker in Wisconsin and taking part in local and national electoral campaigns.  In one particularly horrid example, UNITE HERE aired commercials supporting Rahm Emanuel against a more progressive democrat.  Though, 40 former staffers publicly condemned the action, the current staff remained publicly silent.  In contrast, while the rank and file contribute a percentage of their dues to campaign contributions, they have much more space to critique and change these practices than union staff.

To reverse these trends, Anarchists need to commit to a workers movement that has independent action and can challenge the union bureaucracy.   If we are to have any hope of building struggle which resembles anarchist principles, we must build it from the shop floor!

Thinking about becoming a paid organizer?  

“We want you to attain that independent life you have wanted … But realize that all this requires your effort: in order to achieve it, you need the assistance of others. You need others to be concerned with the same things as you, you need to help them, as they will help you. In a single word, you must struggle communally.” – National Committee of Mujeres Libres (1938)

This section will examine common rationalizations for seeking paid organizing positions in the labor movement and some problems associated with them.

“Unions allow me to talk to workers”

Instead of building trust and radicalizing your co-workers through shared experiences, this common defense of union jobs creates separation and turns organizing into a profession.   Paid organizers are often a different race and language than many of the workers and  frequently address them wearing a suit to signify professionalism and respectability (which are all things that are won through long periods of trust).  From this context, they assume a managerial role–as their whole purpose is to exist as an authoritative figure, telling workers what is allowed and what is expected.  If workers begin to act more militantly with unapproved “wildcat” strikes, workplace occupations, attacks on scabs, or sabotage, the leadership utilizes staffers to discipline them and pull them in line.  Such a situation famously occurred when the radical Austin, MN local of UFCW was put under trusteeship after a year of the militant P-9 strike.  When the trusteeship meeting was called, most of the seats were taken by staffers, while it was closed off to the public.  While almost 20 workers were still facing felony riot charges, UFCW staffers were mailing out stickers across the country saying “Hormel is Union Made”, and attempting to enforce a ban on strike buttons and bumper stickers.

Additional problems occur as older staffers and union officials complain about the lack of care and motivation of the rank and file.  This is buoyed by the bureaucrats making themselves feel good as an inner circle versus the relative “apathetic workers”.  Without the experience of being on the shop floor there is little way to contradict these impressions.  Staffers that begin as radicals often then end up in practice losing faith in the workers to self organize. According to an Anarchist and former union staffer who was interviewed for this article:

“Union rules prevented us from going out for a beer with a worker after shift, accepting the most token of gifts, or doing even the most routine of favors.  Workers … have to be able to relate to an organizer at a bare minimum and excessive mandates can create a barrier in some ways to fostering a healthy and trusting relationship. I think my role limited others when I was forced due to practical concerns to take short cuts and do work myself that the bargaining unit members themselves should be doing. There was too much work and the union did not give us enough time to be able to really carefully do it the right way, in a bottom-up fashion. I was primarily at a 600-person bargaining unit ….with many career employees, and there were only a handful of union stewards and no workers committees outside of one bargaining committee that had just been thrown together at the last minute. That’s the state of your average union nowadays.”

“Gain organizing experience and training”

It can seem extremely daunting to take on organizing your coworkers.  This becomes particularly true in a climate where you are told that workers don’t care and are super depoliticized.  However, the training that is given by a business/service union for staffers is not necessarily going to give you the skills needed to build radical solidarity with your co-workers, nor will it be applicable towards class struggle.    Role-plays of house visits and 1-on-1’s can be useful, but creating the level of comfort and long term trust that your coworkers will step up and take risks with you (or won’t rat you out) is something you get on the job.  You can learn common concerns and demands from a training, but you can’t learn what the specific conditions are or engender structural critiques.  Ultimately, we want to build anarchist/libertarian unions. ..not service ones, so there needs to be a deeper analysis than just workplace issues. While the experience of exploitation,  racism, sexism. ..etc on the job is the most important mechanism of radicalization,  the fear that coworkers would automatically be repelled by a systemic analysis shows a loss of confidence in the people.

That being said, you don’t even have to be a staffer to receive these trainings, as they often give them out to “leaders” they are cultivating.   In the AFL-CIO organizer training session, “participants will learn one on one communication skills, leadership identification and development and strategic planning skills.”  In addition to business union trainings, workers centers  and the IWW give a number of trainings, you can pick up Labor Law for the Rank and File,  Labor Notes: Trouble Makers Handbooks, and utilize a number of other outlets for gaining knowledge about tactics/strategy/talking points which dont require you to sacrifice your principles and position as a rank and file worker.

“I needed higher wages and healthcare”

Not having healthcare in this country is a serious problem.  Despite the affordable care act, many people are still lacking coverage or have to pay for premiums outside of their work.  So it makes sense that it would be a huge factor in seeking employment.  However, there are many rank and file jobs which offer coverage (including many who exist under the staffer’s collective bargaining unit) so the argument falls short.  Furthermore many union staffers have to work long hours that can even be worse than those of a rank and file worker– so it is not necessarily a cushy alternative to working for other bosses.  According to one former staffer:

“The hardest part for me as a paid union staffer that consistently clashed with my values was the complete disregard of the union for prioritizing the health and self-care of its own organizers. We were expected to do burnout levels of work with little to no support, and the sort-of corporatization of the job (expecting organizers to work long, unpaid hours, weekends, canceling vacations, etc)….”

There is an underside to this question too.  While acknowledging the good intentions of people who become paid organizers, it is important to understand how they play into exploitation. Salaries for these paid organizers are undemocratically stolen away from the rank and file much like the value robbed by capitalists.  For example on average, UFCW staffers make $50k a year.  In contrast, the average pathmark, stop & Shop, and Shoprite worker’s wages hover slightly above minimum wage.  Lacking a democratic mandate for their jobs, Anarchists which take such positions are guilty of theft from their fellow workers (leeching off their labor not unlike bankers, landlords, and bail-bondsmen).  


“Never attempt to secure a position above your fellow workers, whereby you would become at once a bourgeois and an enemy of the proletariat: for the only difference between capitalists and workers is this: the former seek their welfare outside, and at the expense of, the welfare of the community whilst the welfare of the latter is dependent on the solidarity of those who are robbed on the industrial field.” – Mikhail Bakunin

Staffers have little power to influence events.  They are often hired by unaccountable union leadership and are utilized to fulfill the goals of the union as they currently exist.  This includes:

Working where the union prioritizes.
If the union decides to no longer support campaigns, workers are left out to dry.  UNITE HERE abandoned garment workers, Teamsters has abandoned numerous workplace committees before elections when it appeared they could lose. (Some examples include: multiple campaigns of California port truckers, Sex Workers/Exotic Dancers in  Anchorage Alaska in 1997 (who after being abandoned were violently harassed by Hells Angels and then locked out of the club), and FedEx workers in Massachusetts in 2011,

At most they can advise workers and slightly affect tactics (rather than strategy).  They cannot vote on strikes, union affiliations/dis-affiliations, or in elections for the leadership of the union; nor can they be delegates at congresses or conventions.  Furthermore, they are silenced when bringing up controversial political positions, such as against police brutality or support for international solidarity.  Under these circumstances, it is unclear what staffers actually hope to accomplish politically with their roles.  How are they building independent power to challenge the union leadership and break out of the structure?  They are not the workers themselves and would have little power to “reform the bureaucracy from the inside.”


Despite our claims to the contrary, the current Anarchist movement in the US is not birthed from the working class, but rather attempts to “represent it” through non-profit organizing positions.   By appearing to show radical street cred,  unions give themselves cover with the rank and file and later utilize these “militant” staffers to ultimately push reformist activity and concessions. Challenging them means centering our anarchist praxis on the working class and participating with and not above other workers in the struggle.

As shop floor militants, we can push for more combative labor actions, build workplace democracy, and shoot for political goals past the next contract.  We must break with the idea that solidarity is either an academic exercise or grows from some radical aesthetic! It is birthed from experiences of collective oppression and participation in collective action and is the foundation which makes anarchism possible!

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