You are here

revolutionary unions

Class Power can Remake Society: Remembering Australia’s "Green Ban” Movement

By Ben Purtill - Organizing Work, March 24, 2021

Ben Purtill recounts when building laborers in Australia stopped work, first over wages and working conditions, and then to protect the environment, among other “social” causes. Image: Jack Mundey, Building Labourers’ Federation members and local residents at a Green Ban demonstration, 1973.

Jack Mundey, who died aged 90 in May 2020, first made his name as the union leader associated with one of the most inspiring moments of class struggle of the last 50 years: Australia’s green ban movement. As a secretary of the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) from 1968, Mundey — a member, then president, of the Australian Communist Party (CPA) – was widely credited with coining the term “green ban” to describe a form of strike action undertaken in defense of environmental causes. Members of the NSW BLF also downed tools in defense of the gay community, indigenous Australians, and feminists, at a time when these causes were far from the mainstream of Australian society.

Reviled and vilified at the time, Mundey received a State Memorial Service in March 2021. Attended by the great and the good of Sydney, Mundey was hailed as a savior of the city — a renegade who broke with the base concerns of economistic trade unionism to focus on more refined issues than wages or workplace conditions, while prefiguring a social liberalism the nation would only begin to embrace decades later, and a green politics that it has yet to.

While the perceived content of Mundey’s unionism now sits quite comfortably with liberal — even conservative — values and principles, the form of unionism pursued by the NSW BLF at their peak in the early 1970s would undoubtedly be condemned were it revived today. Militant, democratic and regarded as quasi-syndicalist by critics and supporters alike, the story of the Mundey and the NSW BLF is one of both the power of the rank and file and the limits of leadership, no matter how left-wing.

Black Bans, Green Bans and everything in between

Most historical accounts suggest the green ban movement for which Mundey is best remembered began in 1971 at Kelly’s Bush, an area of parkland in Sydney’s affluent Hunter’s Hill suburb. A group of local women contacted the BLF having exhausted all conventional means of halting the development of the area by construction firm AV Jennings. With luxury houses set to be built on what was the last remaining patch of native bush in the suburb, the BLF called a community meeting attended by over 600 local residents and announced a ban, meaning no work would take place on the site. Unions had been using the term “black ban” to designate disputes aimed at an economic end, for example a wage increase, but since this action was being taken to defend the environment, “green ban” was decided to be more appropriate.

Over forty green bans followed until 1974, when the NSW BLF was deregistered as a union, resulting in billions of dollars worth of development being prevented in Sydney; the tactic was also deployed in other towns and cities across Australia, most notably Melbourne. All green bans were declared in a similar manner as a point of principle: the union did not decide to initiate a ban, local residents did so through a public meeting. If it was decided that a site would not be developed, BLF members would not work on it. In following this tactic, large areas of the historic centre of Sydney were saved from development, and the union joined alliances with an unlikely range of characters: early environmentalists, heritage campaigners, and middle-class homeowners.

The NSW BLF also applied the tactic to other causes and concerns, for example the expulsion of a gay student from Macquarie University, the demolition of houses occupied by indigenous Australians in the Redfern suburb of inner-city Sydney, and the right of two women academics to teach a women’s studies course. In each case, the campaigns were won. More broadly still, the BLF campaigned against apartheid South Africa and the war in Vietnam. As union secretary of the NSW branch during this period, Mundey is now typically remembered as the brainchild of this movement, even earning him a speaking slot at the United Nations Conference on the Built Environment, but it reflected much wider changes occurring both within the Australian left and among rank and file union members.

Green Syndicalism in the Arctic

By Jeff Shantz - LibCom, March 30, 2021

On February 4, 2021, a group of Inuit hunters set up a blockade of the Mary River iron ore mine on North Baffin Island. The mine is operated by Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation and has been extracting iron ore since 2015. Mine operations are carried out on lands owned by the Inuit.

Blockade organizers arrived from communities at Pond Inlet, Igloolik and Arctic Bay over concerns that Inuit harvesting rights are imperiled by the company's plans to expand the mine and associated operations. Solidarity demonstrations have been held in Pond Inlet, Iqaluit, Igloolik, Naujaat, and Taloyoak. In -30C degree temperatures.

Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation is seeking to double its annual mining output to 12 million metric tonnes. This would also see the corporation build a railway and increase shipping traffic through its port at Milne Inlet. These expansions would threaten land and marine wildlife along with food sources essential to Inuit people. The waters surrounding the port are an important habitat for narwhal and seals in the Canadian Arctic. The expansion also threatens caribou and ptarmigans.

A fly-in location, Inuit blockaders shut down the mine’s airstrip and trucking road, closing off access to and from the site for over a week. Notably this has meant that 700 workers have been stranded at the mine site and food, supply and worker change flights have been suspended. Workers have been on site for at least 21 days.

This could, obviously, have posed points of contention, even hostility, between workers and blockaders. Certainly, the company tried to stoke these tensions in its efforts to go ahead with mining operations. In a letter filed with the Nunavut Court of Justice on February 7, Baffinland told the protesters that their blockade is against federal and territorial law, and the Nunavut Agreement. In classic divide and conquer fashion, the company asserted: “You are causing significant harm by blocking a food supply and keeping people from returning to their families.” The company has also gotten the RCMP involved.

Yet an important development occurred a week into the blockade, and after the company’s court theatrics, as stranded workers issued a powerful statement of solidarity with Inuit people and communities and the blockaders specifically. The open letter is signed by a “sizeable minority” of Mary River mine workers currently stranded at the mine site (with 700 workers it represents a sizeable number). They have remained anonymous due to threats of firing leveled against them by the company. In their letter they assert that they recognize the Inuit, not the company, as “rightful custodians of the land.”

The letter represents a significant statement of green syndicalism. One that should be read, circulated, and discussed. It is reproduced in full here.

Socialist Rifle Association Staff Join the IWW

By Staff - Industrial Workers of the World, March 13, 2021

WICHITA, Kansas — The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is excited to announce that workers of the Socialist Rifle Association (SRA) have recently organized with majority support as the Socialist Rifle Association Workers United (SRAWU) under the IWW. As of March 13, SRAWU has submitted a request for voluntary recognition, which is guaranteed by the SRA’s bylaws. SRAWU is thrilled to begin the process of negotiating their contract. Their key demands include a Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) policy and the right of union representation at any Assembly meeting wherein matters affecting staff pay, hours, benefits, advancement, or layoffs may be discussed or voted on.

The reputation of the Socialist Rifle Association is that of radical democracy and a vigorous pro-labor attitude. The workers of the SRA have gone too long without workplace guarantees against harassment as well as a lack of representation in matters concerning their working conditions. This has too often led to wonderful, hard-working and talented individuals experiencing burnout and in some cases quitting. Given this, unionizing the SRA workspace is the next logical step in the existence of the organization.

“In 2018 when we started the Socialist Rifle Association, I could never have imagined it growing to the point that it has. So many amazing people have poured their sweat and tears into this organization, and unfortunately many of them have been burned in the process. It’s time for the staff and volunteers of the SRA to unite and organize for their own wellbeing while we continue to do everything we can to support our chapters and membership,” said Faye Ecklar, Director of Mutual Aid.

Socialist Rifle Association workers hold dear the belief that the best and most productive way to advance the goals of the SRA is to work collaboratively on making a productive, safe and healthy workplace.

Nikol Heathcock, Chapters Director, stated, “I am excited about the opportunity to be involved in building something like this for our staff, and personally I’m looking forward to being a union member!”

The Socialist Rifle Association Workers United is asking that you show your support for their unionization efforts by engaging on the union’s Twitter, as well as telling the SRA how excited you are that their workers are unionizing!

One of the Best Places to Fight for the Environment Is in Your Workplace

By Libronaught - Medium, February 24, 2021

One of the biggest roadblocks standing in the way of practical, cooperative solidarity between social movements is the idea of “separate issues.” In recent years people have begun chipping away at this shibboleth, but we still have a ways to go. One significant problem within the problem of the single-issue silo effect is that labor is sometimes mistakenly viewed as just another issue.

Labor is not just an issue. Labor is a power base. Labor organizing can be more effective at winning social gains on a range of “single issues” than weekend demonstrations, conscious consumerism, electioneering or lobbying.

In the US, we are often taught to view voting, lobbying and mass demonstrations as ways to participate in democracy. They all are, of course, but it’s not the full picture. As Jane McAlevey persuasively explains in her extraordinary book, A Collective Bargain, US democracy as we know it today would not exist if not for the labor movement. The organizing and solidarity efforts among US workers that eventually won the 8-hour day and the weekend began right after the American Revolution. Labor solidarity and organizing among women has put a driving force behind demands for gender equality for over 150 years. From the 1910s to the 1940s, a massive swell of labor solidarity and organizing crossed race and gender lines, won the current US Labor Rights laws, and led the country out of the Great Depression. Labor unions went on to participate in the 60s Civil Rights movements.

Bows and Arrows: Indigenous Workers, IWW Local 526, and Syndicalism on the Vancouver Docks

By Jeff Shantz - LibCom.Org, February 17, 2021

Few may be aware that the first union on the waterfront of Vancouver was organized by Indigenous workers, mostly Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh. And it was organized on an explicitly syndicalist basis as Local 526 of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW group would become known as the Bows and Arrows, a name that spoke to their active and more politically militant perspective and commitment to Indigenous solidarity. The Bows and Arrows organized on a multicultural/multiracial foundation of class solidarity.

While the lifespan of IWW Local 526 was brief (formally only a year while informally for about seven years) it had a lasting impact on working class organizing on the waterfront, anti-racism and racial solidarity on the docks, and on political organizing in Indigenous communities. It also showed the pivotal role of organizing within the logistical chains of global capitalism in sabotaging resource extractive industries, while providing a model of work organization that sustained community relevant work and work cycles rather than the single career monoculture of industrial capitalism at the time.

As historian Andrew Parnaby suggests, the Bows and Arrows:

"Join[ed] in the broader upsurge of support for the Wobblies that took place among loggers, miners, railroad workers, and seafarers prior to the Great War…Reformers, rebels, and revolutionaries: collectively, they were responsible for a level of militancy on the waterfront that was unmatched by most other occupations, provincially or nationally. Vancouver waterfront workers went on strike at least sixteen times between 1889 and 1923; the four largest and most dramatic strikes were in 1909, 1918, 1919, and 1923." (2008, 9)

While Local 526 would finally be broken through battles with waterfront employers that have been described as titanic, these workers provided important and lasting examples of working class militance, workplace organizing tactics, racial solidarity and anti-racism, and cultural defense. They offer a critical model of syndicalism in diverse workforces and changing economic conditions within a context of settler colonial capitalism.

Response to Greg Butler's critique of the Green New Deal and the Rank-and-File Strategy

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, February 7, 2021

As stated in our standard disclaimer (at the end of this editorial), the opinions expressed in this text are those of the author alone and do not represent the official position of the IWW or the IWW Environmental Union Caucus. This piece includes very strongly worded opinions, therefore the author deemed it best to emphasize that point.

There are certainly plenty of constructive, comradely criticisms of the Green New Deal, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Kim Moody's "Rank-and-File Strategy", The North American Building Trades Unions, and Jacobin (none of which are either mutually inclusive nor mutually exclusive). Unfortunately, Greg Butler's The Green New Deal and the "Rank-and-File Strategy", published on December 17, 2020, by Organizing Work, is not a good example. In fact, Butler's piece is little more than a sectarian swipe at a number of targets which are only indirectly related to each other, and worse still, it's full of inaccuracies and unfounded claims that have no evidence to support them.

Murray Bookchin’s Legacy: A Syndicalist Critique

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas And Action, January 14, 2021

January 14th is the 100th anniversary of Murray Bookchin’s birth. Perhaps it is worth looking at his contribution to radical politics.

Bookchin had been involved in the communist youth movement in the 1930s. He eventually abandoned official Marxist organizations for a turn to libertarian socialism. A central feature of Bookchin’s politics from the Sixties to the end of his life was his opposition to the worker struggle orientation that was central to syndicalism and many anarchists — as well as Marxists — in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

After World War 2, the general strikes and pitched street battles of workers in the Thirties were a fading memory. The post-war years saw a consolidation of a conservative bureaucracy in the unions. The American working class by the 1960s no longer had the large “militant minority” of radical workers that had been a feature of American workplaces from the early 1900s through World War 2. This led certain radicals to seek out a new “agent” of revolutionary change. Bookchin was an example of this way of thinking:

“Contrary to Marx’s expectations, the industrial working class is now dwindling in numbers and is steadily losing its traditional identity as a class….Present-day culture [and]…modes of production…have remade the proletarian into a largely petty bourgeois stratum….The proletarian …will be completely replaced by automated and even miniaturized means of production….Class categories are now intermingled with hierarchical categories based on race, gender, sexual preference, and certainly national or regional differences.”

This quote is from Bookchin’s last book, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy. This shows a certain lack of understanding of how syndicalists — and other socialists — view the working class. The basis for the revolutionary potential of the working class lies in its position as both the majority of the population and its objectively oppressed and exploited situation. Workers do not have their own means to obtain a livelihood. Thus we are forced to seek jobs from employers, to obtain the wages we need to live. And this arrangement forces workers to submit to autocratic managerial regimes where workers are denied control over the decisions that directly affect them day to day in the labor process and the running of the workplaces. Employers own the products of our labor and use this to suck down profits — an inherently exploitative situation.

No shortcuts to an ecosocialist future

By Fred Fuentes - Green Left, October 16, 2020

Faced with a global triple crisis ‒ health, economic and climate ‒ it is no wonder most people believe the world is heading in the wrong direction. But who people blame for this situation and their responses have varied.

Socialists believe the capitalist system is at the heart of these crises and that the solution lies in replacing it with a democratic socialist society.

The challenge we face

Under capitalism, corporations will always seek to defend their narrow interests. They do so by, among other things, funding political parties, opposition movements, media outlets and institutions that serve their agenda.

But, while the capitalist class is united in its defence of capitalism ‒ even at the cost of the Earth ‒ different sections of the capitalist class have varying interests and views on how to best protect them.

United States Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump would appear to be the candidate par excellence for corporations. Yet more billionaires are backing his opponent, Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Unsurprisingly, CEOs in the energy/natural resource sector are overwhelmingly behind Trump’s climate denialism.

But when it comes to finance (Wall Street), technology (Silicon Valley) and the media, Biden is the preferred candidate. Many of these same sectors have also been involved in promoting climate institutes, campaign groups and even protests, such as last year's Climate Strike.

This does not make these capitalists allies in the fight against climate change, racism and sexism. They just sense that taking such a stance is the best way to protect, and in some cases even raise, their profit margins.

Why does this matter then? Because to achieve our aims, we need to know exactly who we are up against.

Going on the Offensive: Movements, Multisectorality, and Political Strategy

By Lusbert Garcia - Black Rose, September 1, 2020

By making a brief analysis of current social movements, we can see that they do not work together, that is, in a synchronous way between movements that operate in different areas of struggle. First off, this article is a complement to the translation of the article “A debate on the politics of alliances [Un debate sobre la política de alianzas]” where I talk in broad strokes about the numerous areas or sectors of struggle and think through how to build a multisectoral movement, that is, a broad movement made up of a network of social movements that work in coordination in different sectors and at the same time are articulated based on the common denominator of autonomy, feminism and anti-capitalism.

We know that the root of all problems lies in the capitalist system and the modern states that support it, and that this economic, political and social system supports a production model based on private ownership of the means of production and private benefit as a fundamental principle. All this constitutes what we know as the structural, and its manifestations in all areas of our lives, which is known as the conjunctural, of which we could mainly highlight: territory, labor, public services, accommodation and repression. When we analyze the political-social space, we must recognize the conjunctural problems that manifest as a consequence of the material structure:

  • The territorial issue would include within it the spheres in which the interests of the class which rules over the territory enter into conflict with those of the working class. It is the physical space in which all struggles will take place, so we can highlight the following areas: neighborhood or district if we talk about cities, rural and land struggles if we talk about undeveloped or non-industrialized areas, and we could even include the national liberation struggles for the self-determination of peoples against imperialism. Environmentalism and food sovereignty would also fall into this category.
  • Labor here would constitute one of the main axes of class conflict. It is the battlefield where capital and labor meet most directly. In this area we can mention the workers’ movement that is articulated around unionism. Although we have to differentiate between unionism that advocates social peace—that model that always leads to class conciliation, betraying the working class—and the revolutionary or class unionism that advocates the exacerbation of class conflict in the workplace.
  • The fight for housing is a movement that goes back a little over a century during the rural exodus caused by industrial development and the creation of working-class neighborhoods. Today, with capitalist restructuring underway again in advanced capitalist countries and those in development, access to housing is again a social problem that affects the working class as it finds itself with less economic capacity to face mortgages and rents, as well as access to decent housing. Faced with this problem, movements against evictions have sprung up in many countries, as did the squatter movement a little earlier.
  • As for state public services, in the face of this phase of capitalist restructuring, markets are increasingly interfering with these services through budget cuts, outsourcing and privatizations. Here we can mention: Education, Health, water and sanitation, public transport, and pensions, among others; and the respective social movements that arise in response to cuts and privatizations, such as the student movement, White Tide [1] and other movements against the privatization of water, the fight against increases in rates on public transport, etc.
  • Last but not least, all opposition movements receive state repression; therefore, it is important that we begin to see repression as an obstacle and a social problem that seeks to curb our social and political activities while serving the ruling class to perpetuate its dominance. In this regard, we must speak about the anti-repression issue and face repression collectively and outside of our own militant circles, as yet another social movement.

Syndicalism for the Twenty-First Century: From Unionism to Class-Struggle Militancy

By Gabriel Kuhn and Torsten Bewernitz - CounterPunch, December 6, 2019

The capitalism we grew up in has collapsed. Its democratic mask has become transparent and its social pretensions hollow. In times of crisis, capitalism resembles a wounded predator and attacks indiscriminately. Crises also open up new possibilities for workers’ resistance, but this needs organizations that can sustain it. The last decade has painfully shown that such organizations do not exist. Capitalism’s current crisis is far from over, though. There is still a chance.

We are both active in syndicalist organizations. One of us in the German Free Workers’ Union, FAU, the other in the Central Organization of Workers in Sweden, SAC. In this text, we raise the question of where the future of syndicalist organizations lies. Our proposal might seem ironic: in order to save syndicalism’s mass orientation, the focus on unionism needs to be overcome.

Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the Brexit referendum, and the rise of the extreme right in various European and Latin American countries, there have been plenty of discussions about the left having lost touch with the working class. Oddly enough, syndicalists are largely absent from this debate, although the syndicalist tradition would predestine them to be an important voice in it and offer practical experience. When leftist pundits discuss what is often referred to as a “new class politics,” they regularly evoke inherent aspects of the syndicalist tradition, from direct action and self-management to horizontalism and internationalism.

Yet, syndicalists must blame themselves for their absence. “Real syndicalism” has largely become cliquish, paranoid, and self-marginalizing. The rejection and hostility that we experience from mainstream unions goes a certain way to explain this but not all of it.

One reason for the state of the syndicalist movement is that syndicalists dogmatically adhere to a particular form of organization that, with very few exceptions, hasn’t proven successful in almost a hundred years: the syndicalist mass union. Let’s be honest: if syndicalist unions that have existed for several decades struggle to have four-digit membership numbers, they have failed as aspiring mass unions. The Spanish CGT, with close to 100.000 members, is the only syndicalist union that can claim mass support today – and it is often accused of “reformism,” or even “traitorism,” by other syndicalist unions.

Syndicalist unions aren’t benefiting from the current crisis of mainstream unions, which organize no more than ten percent of the global proletariat. This although neoliberalism has given rise to a new army of “unorganizable” workers (today often called the “precariat”) who filled the ranks of the syndicalist mass unions a century ago. In short, revolutionary syndicalism as we know it might be a thing of the past. In order for it to survive, it needs to be reinvented.

Minuscule unions cannot be the answer. Militant workers’ organizations, however, might be. A union with a thousand members can only have limited impact; a class-struggle organization with a thousand members can have a huge impact if they are committed militants and organizers.

The dogmatic syndicalist attachment to the mass union is based on a false interpretation of history. Syndicalism’s ultimate goal was not to establish mass unions. Syndicalism’s ultimate goal was to establish a classless society, or, as many a syndicalist preamble declares, “libertarian socialism.” A hundred years ago, building mass unions appeared to be a viable means to reach this goal. Today, it does not. This doesn’t discredit the syndicalist idea of strengthening worker’s self-organization and solidarity in order to fight capital and the state. It only means that syndicalism has to express itself in other forms.

Pages

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.