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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.

Working Class History: E47: The Green Bans, Part 1

By staff - Working Class History, January 2021

Double podcast episode about green bans by building workers in Australia from 1970 to 1975 which held up billions of dollars of development which would have been harmful to the environment, or working class and Aboriginal communities.

Our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory

In these episodes we speak with Dave Kerin, a former builders labourer and member of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) and current member of the Earthworker Collective, and Dr Meredith Burgmann, who was an active supporter of the green bans, co-authored Green Bans, Red Union: the Saving of a City with her sister Verity Burgmann, and was later a Labor member of parliament.

We have produced merch commemorating the BLF and the green bans here to help fund our work: shop.workingclasshistory.com/collection…green-bans

Listen to both parts of this podcast now, as well as an exclusive bonus episode, by supporting us on patreon: patreon.com/workingclasshistory

More information and full show notes here on our website: workingclasshistory.com/2020/10/30/e4…8-green-bans/

Working Class History: E48: The Green Bans, Part 2

By staff - Working Class History, January 2021

Concluding part of our double podcast episode about green bans by building workers in Australia from 1970 to 1975 which held up billions of dollars of development which would have been harmful to the environment, or working class and Aboriginal communities.

Our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory

In these episodes we speak with Dave Kerin, a former builders labourer and member of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) and current member of the Earthworker Collective, and Dr Meredith Burgmann, who was an active supporter of the green bans, co-authored Green Bans, Red Union: the Saving of a City with her sister Verity Burgmann, and was later a Labor member of parliament.

We have produced merch commemorating the BLF and the green bans here to help fund our work: shop.workingclasshistory.com/collection…green-bans

Listen to both parts of this podcast now, as well as an exclusive bonus episode, by supporting us on patreon: patreon.com/workingclasshistory

More information, transcripts and full show notes here on our website: workingclasshistory.com/2020/10/30/e4…8-green-bans/

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.

A Low-Carbon Economy Will Be Built By Nannies, Caregivers and House Cleaners

By Mindy Isser - In These Times, October 22, 2019.

Reinvigorated movements are charting new terrain to build worker power and reverse the dramatic climate crisis facing society. Uncompromising mass mobilizations are on the rise, as more workers participated in strikes in the U.S. in 2018 than any of the previous 31 years, and historic demonstrations, like climate strikes, have taken off to demand action around climate change. Migrant workers, many of whom are climate refugees working in the care industry are waging a tremendous struggle against the Trump administration’s relentless, racist attacks, like the new “public charge” rule, which stops immigrants who receive public benefits from obtaining a green card or permanent residency. The Green New Deal offers an opportunity to bring these fights together around a broad program that tackles not only climate change, but also advances a vision of what a society that prioritizes people—not profit—could look like. But this future can only be won if the labor and climate movements find more ways to act together, and if they strategize more seriously about how to ensure low-carbon work is also good work. 

The lowest carbon jobs are the ones that don’t extract anything from the land, don’t create any new waste and have a very limited impact on the environment—an idea put forward by writers and activists Naomi Klein and Astra Taylor, along with striking West Virginia teacher Emily Comer. These jobs include teaching, nurturing and caring— invaluable jobs like cleaning homes and caring for children, seniors and those living with disabilities. Care work is generally ignored or looked down upon because it doesn’t create commodities that can be bought and sold, and because it is typically done by women. The shift towards low-carbon work should necessarily include a dramatic expansion of care work. But in order to make that possible, the standards and conditions of that work must be urgently raised. 

Care work is not only immensely important for individuals and families who depend on it, but for the economy at large. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (my employer) describes it as “the work that makes all other work possible.” By taking care of young children, nannies and child care workers allow parents to produce at their jobs. And by caring for seniors, home care workers, Certified Nursing Assistants and other caregivers keep those in the “sandwich generation,” caring for both children and parents, in the workforce. If there were no more caregivers—or if there were a nationwide caregiving work stoppage—our economy would crumble almost instantly.

The history of domestic work and care work, however, is stained by our country’s legacy of racism and sexism. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed, giving workers the legal right to organize, and recourse if they were intimidated or fired for doing so. But not all workers were afforded these rights—domestic workers and farm workers were purposefully excluded as part of a compromise in order to pass the NLRA. Democrats in the South feared that allowing farm and domestic workers to unionize would give black workers—who were the vast majority of farm workers and domestic workers—too much economic and political power. 

We’ve seen how this legacy affects care work today: low pay, no benefits, and it’s often illegal to unionize. In addition to their lack of labor protections, these workers’ social standing makes them even more susceptible to abuse at work, including wage theft and sexual harassment or assault. The vast majority of domestic and care workers in this country are women of color, many of whom are migrants.

By understanding this connection, we can build deeper solidarity between care workers organizing for power on the job and the climate movement more broadly. The exclusion of domestic workers from the NLRA, and the ensuing degradation of their working conditions and lack of rights at work, was a compromise rooted in economic injustice and political exclusion—two historical wrongdoings that the Green New Deal seeks to undo.

A “Green New Deal”?: The Eco-syndicalist Alternative

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, April 15, 2019

Capitalist dynamics are at the very heart of the current crisis that humanity faces over global warming.

When we talk of “global warming,” we’re talking about the rapid — and on-going — rise in the average world-wide surface and ocean temperature. Thus far a rise of 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880. According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, two-thirds of this temperature increase has occurred since 1975. A one-degree rise in temperature might seem like no big deal. As the NASA scientists point out, however, “A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much.”

We know that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is at the heart of the problem. For many centuries the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ranged between 200 and 300 parts per million. By the 1950s the growth of industrial capitalism since the 1800s had pushed this to the top of this range — 310 parts per million. Since then the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen very rapidly — to more than 410 parts per million by 2018. This is the result of the vast rise in the burning of fossil fuels in the era since World War 2 — coal, petroleum, natural gas.

The problem is rooted in the very structure of capitalism itself. Cost-shifting is an essential feature of the capitalist mode of production. An electric power company burns coal to generate electricity because the price per kilowatt hour from coal-fired electricity has long been cheaper than alternatives. But the emissions from burning coal travel downwind and cause damage to the respiratory systems of thousands of people — including preventable deaths to people with respiratory ailments. This is in addition to the powerful contribution to global warming from the carbon dioxide emissions. But the power firm doesn’t have to pay money for these human costs. If the firm had to pay fees that would be equivalent to the human cost in death, respiratory damage and contribution to global warming and its effects, burning coal would not be profitable for the power company.

Firms also externalize costs onto workers, such as the health effects of stress or chemical exposures. The “free market” pundit or hack economist might deny that companies externalize costs onto workers. They might say that wages and benefits paid to workers for each hour of work measure the cost of labor. But the human cost of work can be increased without an increase in the compensation paid to workers. If a company speeds up the pace of work, if people are working harder, if they are more tightly controlled by supervisors, paced by machines or software, this increases the cost in human terms.

Toxic chemicals used in manufacturing, in agriculture and other industries pose a threat to both the workers and to people who live in nearby areas. Usually working class people live in neighborhoods near polluting industries, and often these are communities of color. This is another form of capitalist cost-shifting.

State regulation of pesticides or air pollution often ends up acting as a “cover” for the profit-making firms. Despite the existence of pollutants generated by leaky oil refineries and pollutants emitted by other industries in industrial areas in California — such as the “cancer alley” of oil refineries in the Contra Costa County area  or the similar refinery zone in Wilmington — the government agencies set up to deal with air pollution in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County protected polluters for years by focusing almost exclusively on pollution generated  by vehicle exhaust. In this way the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District have been an example of “regulatory capture” by corporate capital.

Power firms that generate vast amounts of carbon dioxide emissions — and firms that make profits from building fossil-fuel burning cars and trucks or from the sale of gasoline and diesel and jet fuel — have not had to pay any fees or penalties for the growing build up of the carbon dioxide layer in the atmosphere. The global warming crisis thus has its explanation in cost shifting and the search for short-term profits and ever growing markets — features that are at the heart of the capitalist system.

If global capitalism continues with “business as usual”, the warming will have major impacts — killer heat waves, more ocean heat pumping energy into hurricanes and cyclones, rising ocean levels from melting of ice in the polar regions and melting of glaciers, destruction of corals in the oceans, and a greater danger to the survival of many species of living things.

Labor Unions and Green Transitions in the USA

By Dimitris Stevis - Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change, February 27, 2019

“In broad terms there are now two camps amongst US labour unions with respect to climate change and renewables (the two not always related). On one side, are those unions that believe that something needs to be done about climate change and that renewables are a good strategy. On the other side are those that are opposed to meaningful climate policy –even as they claim that climate change is a problem.”

This report outlines the deep cleavages with respect to climate policy but also argues that the views of unions are more complex and contradictory than the opposition-support dichotomy. Additionally, it seeks to understand what explains the variability in union responses to climate change and policy. What can account for the contradictions evident amongst and within unions?

Read the report (PDF).

For a Fighting Ecological Trade-Unionism

By Daniel Tanuro - International Viewpoint, February 21, 2019

How can we reconcile social struggle and environmental struggle? This question poses problems for trade unionists. To avoid a climate catastrophe, it would be necessary to reduce economic activity, to suppress useless or harmful production, to give up a substantial part of the means of transport ... But what would happen to employment then? How can we avoid a surge of unemployment, a new rise of poverty and precariousness? In today’s relationship of forces, in the face of financialized and globalized capitalism, these challenges seem impossible to meet ...

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has drawn a radical conclusion: under the guise of fine words in favour of the "fair transition", it has chosen to accompany the evolution towards an impossible green capitalism. The Vancouver resolution (2010) is clear: this document advocates a transition that "does not endanger the competitiveness of companies and does not place undue pressure on state budgets " (Article 5). We feel that we are dreaming: the demand for the respect of competitiveness is not even accompanied by a reservation concerning the fossil fuel sector, the main cause of climate change! However, without breaking the power of this sector of capital, it is strictly impossible to avoid the climate catastrophe ...

The ITUC wants to believe that a "democratic governance" integrating the "fair transition" would open up "new opportunities", that it would create massively "green jobs", good and "decent". This is wishful thinking. Capital invested in the "energy transition" in no way derogates from the ruthless capitalist offensive against wages, working conditions and trade unions. Germany is at the forefront of both renewable energy and expanding an underclass of poor workers. In many countries, governments use ecology to dismantle union strongholds in traditional sectors.

Developing a genuinely trade-union alternative to the class collaboration policy of the ITUC leadership is of strategic importance. The working class occupies a decisive position in industry and services. Without its active participation, an anti-productivist transformation of the economy will remain impossible. But how to win workers to the struggle for the defence of the environment? That is the question. The answer is difficult. All the more difficult because the balance of power is deteriorating and the poison of division is spreading in the working class.

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