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revolutionary unions

Some Notes On Mass Refusal: Kim Kelly Interview with IGD

By staff - It's Going Down, January 25, 2019

Recently, It’s Going Down was asked by Kim Kelly (who we have interviewed on our podcast) to talk about the history and impact of general strikes within the United States, as well as the possibilities of its current applications for an op-ed in the pages of Teen Vogue. You can read the finished article here. What follows is our complete responses.

KK: Historically speaking, how successful of a tactic is the general strike?

In the American context general strikes have historically been very important, leading to not only the winning of key demands or beating back this or that attack, but also in fundamentally changing society, and at times, creating a potentially revolutionary situation, as workers have used them as a staging point for the taking over of cities and regions, and large sections of industries, and running them themselves.

One of the most successful general strikes, as noted by Black liberation and socialist author W.E.B. Du Bois, was when millions of enslaved Africans during the Civil War in the American south left plantations en masse and headed for the North, crippling the economy and the war machine. This, coupled with mass desertion of poor white Confederate soldiers, led to a crippling of the Confederacy, as many poor whites refused to die for the rich, white planter class, who was excused from fighting if they owned enough slaves. This combined desertion and mass general strike, played a key role in the collapse of the Confederate State, and also highlights the power of mass refusal under a neo-colonial power structure that thrives on a regimented caste system.

In the contemporary period, in 2006, a wave of wildcat strikes and school walkouts began in response to HR-4437, a bill that attempted to criminalize both undocumented people but also anyone that willingly offered them aid; for instance teachers at school could be charged if they did not turn in undocumented students. Starting from schools and growing to include strikes at workplaces, this mass movement that was largely self-organized and not led by political parties and unions, culminated in a massive May 1st demonstrations that saw a general strike of immigrant workers under the banner, “A Day Without An Immigrant.” The legislation was defeated soon after.

The immigrant general strike of 2006 also revived in the US popular lexicon the importance of May Day, which began as a celebration of the anarchist Haymarket Martyrs, who were executed by the State for their role in strikes in support of the 8-hour work day and against violent attacks on strikers. In this struggle, a variety of tactics were used, including mass strikes, which finally secured the right to the 8 hour work day.

But beyond simply attacking unjust legislation or as a means to win a reform, general strikes have also been the kicking off point for workers in the US to go about seizing the means of existence; in some cases, entire cities and regions.

The Plan (Documenatary)

By Steve Sprung - The Plan, May 2018

Full Length Version:

THE PLAN is a two-part film essay - Part 1 (120mins) Part 2 (90mins). It tells the story of the Lucas workers alternative plan in the context of its time and in relation to the challenges we face today.

The two parts are suitable for screening together, with an intermission, or on consecutive occasions.

From Solidarity Networks to Class Organisation in Times of Labour Hallucinations

By Angry Workers World - LibCom.Org, June 24, 2017

Dear sisters and brothers,

Some comrades from Frankfurt got in touch recently, wanting to set up a solidarity network. They approached us with some concrete questions. [1] We want to use the opportunity to reflect more generally on our limited experiences with our solidarity network initiative so far and about the political direction we want to take steps towards. We do this against the current background of post-election ‘Corbyn-mania’ and a surge in political activities focused on the Labour Party. The first part of this text briefly explains our opposition to the focus on electoral activities, whether that be through the Labour machinery or in the more post-modern form of ‘municipalism’ [2] – despite the fact that locally in our area, the election circus had less of an impact, given that most workers here are not allowed to vote anyway. And as an alternative to this electoral turn, the second part focuses on our political proposals towards a locally rooted class organisation. We then go on to talk in more detail about our concrete experiences with the solidarity network in west London.

The Labour of wishful thinking

  • * We understand that ‘hope’ is needed amongst a divided and beaten working class and that Labour’s rhetoric of social unity and equality is welcomed.
  • * We would criticise our comrades of the radical left if they merely proliferate this ‘message of hope’ and material promises (end of austerity), without questioning the structural constraints which will make it difficult for a Labour government to deliver on their promises. Syriza in Greece has shown how a hopeful high can quickly turn into an even deeper depression once ‘our government’ has to turn against us.
  • * For us it is less about warning the working class not to vote on principle or focusing on Corbyn’s problematic power struggle within the Labour apparatus, but about pointing out the general dynamic between a) a national social democratic government, b) the global system of trade, monetary exchange and political power and c) the struggle of workers to improve their lives. In other words, all of the historical lessons have shown us that the outcomes of channelling working class energies into parliamentarism within a nation state that fits into an overall system of capital flows, has always ended up curtailing a longer-term working class power.
  • * The Labour party proposals in general are not radical as such, e.g. their promise to increase the minimum wage to £10 per hour by 2020 (!) under current inflation rates would more likely lead to a dampening of wage struggles amongst the lower paid working class, rather than instigating them. The minimum wage regulation introduced by Labour under Blair in 1998 had this effect in the long run.
  • * An increase in taxation to mobilise the financial means to deliver on their promises will increase capital flight and devaluation of the pound – most capital assets which bolster the UK economy are less material than in the 1970s, therefore it would be difficult to counter the flight with requisition (‘nationalisation’), a step which Labour does not really consider on a larger scale anyway.
  • * While any social democratic program on a national level is more unlikely than ever, the Labour program focuses workers’ attention increasingly on the national terrain: struggle for the NHS, nationalisation of the railways etc.; (in this sense the leadership’s leaning towards Brexit is consequential and at odds with most liberal Corbynistas); while officially Labour maintains a liberal approach towards migrants, those Labour strategists who are less under public scrutiny as politicians, such as Paul Mason, are more honest: if to carry out a social democratic program on a national scale means to have tightened control over the movement of capital, by the nature of capital-labour relation, this also means to tighten the control over the movement of labour; it would also mean re-arming the national military apparatus in order to bolster the national currency that otherwise wouldn’t have the international standing the pound still has. [3]
  • * A social democratic government needs a workers/social movement on the ground in order to impose more control over corporate management, e.g. through taxation. At the same time it hampers the self-activity of workers necessary to do this – e.g. through relying on the main union apparatus as transmission belts between workers and government.
  • * In more concrete terms we can see that groups like Momentum or local Labour Party organisations have done and do very little to materially strengthen the organisation of day-to-day proletarian struggles on the ground, but rather channel people’s activities towards the electoral sphere, siphoning off energy and turning attention away from concrete proletarian problems. Many ‘independent’ left-wing initiatives – from Novara media to most of the Trot organisations – became election advertisement agencies.
  • * While for the new Labour activists – many of them from a more educated if not middle-class background – there will be advisory posts and political careers, we have to see their future role with critical suspicion.
  • * If a Labour government would actually try to increase taxation and redistribute assets, the most likely outcome is a devaluation of the pound and an increase in inflation due to a trade deficit, which cannot be counteracted easily (see composition of agriculture, energy sector, general manufactured goods etc.)
  • * The new Labour left – trained in political activism and speech and aided by their influence within union leadership – will be the best vehicle to tell workers to ‘give our Labour government some time’, to explain that ‘international corporations have allied against us’ and that despite inflation workers should keep calm and carry on; wage struggles will be declared to be ‘excessive’ or ‘divisive’ or ‘of narrow-minded economic consciousness’. More principled comrades who told workers to support Labour, but who would support workers fighting against a Labour government risk losing their credibility and influence.
  • * Instead of creating illusions that under conditions of a global crisis ‘money can be found’ for the welfare state we should point out the absurdity of the capitalist crisis: there is poverty despite excess capacities and goods (for which ‘no money can be found’ if they don’t promise profits for companies or the state). We have to be Marxists again, analysing structures rather than engaging in wishful thinking.
  • * We should focus our activities to a) build material counter-power against bosses and capitalist institutions that makes a difference in the daily lives of working class people and b) prepare themselves and ourselves for the task of actually taking over the means of (re-)production. [4] For this we need to be rooted and coordinated internationally. We can clearly see that in the face of these big questions our actual practice seems ridiculously modest, but we want to share our experiences honestly and invite others to organise themselves with us. [5]

Bread and Roses

By anonymous - Hambach Forest Defenders, April 8, 2017

As soon as barricades are destroyed in the Hambacher Forest they have been rebuild often even right behind bulldozers and before cops left the forest. This friday was no exeption but for the fact that this time also bread and roses have been put up in the place of destroyed barricades protecting the forest. This is connected not just with not continuing the resistance on an empty stomach but also with "Stones Are Our Breads and Barricades Our Dinner Tables." action that happened during this cutting season. It was also inspired by 1912 Breads and Roses Textile Strike and Riots in Lawrence Massachusetts which were organized by women and united over 30 different ethnic groups and also used workplace sabotage. The striking mothers with their children were brutally attacked by police at a train station as the kids were being sent to live with supporters when due to the prolonged strike the families could no longer feed them themselves. This resulted in international solidarity and finally with congressional hearings, positive workplace pay increase settlements, changing of work conditions and eventual shortening of the work week itself.

100 years later is it possible for RWE's irreversible destabilization of the Planet's climate and pumping its atmosphere full of toxins responsible for killing over 7 million people a year, as conservative estimates by World Health Organization indicate, result in equally positive response on the part of today's politicians?

The latest police action of clearing the barricades opens up the Millenarian Hambacher Forest to destruction by RWE and its release of megatons of carbon and a long list of toxins that lay below its floor and its roots. To be pumped into the atmosphere in the name of profit and greed regardless of the consequences showing that this time as well there will be no response that has anything to do with social and ecological justice on the part of legistlators, politicians and cops all deeply co-opted by the special interests of the coal industry without more radical actions such as those at the Hambacher Forest.

What is Class Oppression? Who is the Working Class?

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, November 15, 2015

Occupy Wall Street highlighted class inequality in the USA through its talk about the concentration of income and wealth in the hands of “the 1 percent.” This does put a bullseye on the ruling class in our society. But much of the talk about class in recent times has focused on income inequality. The idea is that “the 1 percent” are at the top because they have the highest incomes. But this fails to get to the heart of the matter. The existence of different income levels doesn’t explain why there are classes at all. After all, what explains why there are such huge differences in income?

When American union leaders talk about a worker struggle as a “defense of middle class jobs”, you’d think they must lead an organization of lawyers and doctors. Again, this is about income. In the past, unions in some industries were able to use their leverage to secure wage gains that would enable some workers to “lead a middle class lifestyle.”

That way of looking at things is a product of the years of the so-called “class truce” after World War 2. By the ‘40s workers had gained major concessions from the capitalist elite in North America and Western Europe.

These concessions didn’t happen because of the election of liberals and “collective bargaining” by “responsible union leaders.” In the period between World War 1 and the 1940s the entire capitalist order was under assault around the world. There were revolutions in numerous countries, widespread factory seizures by workers, general strikes. Throughout Latin American there were large revolutionary syndicalist labor movements. Repressive dictatorships were imposed in many countries to crush radical working class movements.

The capitalist elite were forced to make concessions in the ‘40s because of a threat to the very existence of their system. From that period until the early ’70s real wages in the USA continued to rise for many workers.  This happened for two reasons:

(1) The employers could provide increasing wages because investment in technology increased output per worker hour, and:

(2) Workers engaged in strikes which enabled them to capture a rising share of the revenue created by their labor.

They were helped in doing this by institutional changes won in the ‘30s-40s era — such as wide-spread collective bargaining and a legal baseline of minimum wages. Many at the time thought this was some sort of permanent change in the system.

In fact that era of relative peace in the class war proved to be a brief period in the history of capitalism in North America and Western Europe. Since the ’70s the ruling class has been on the war path to uproot the gains of the ’30s-’40s era, suppress unionism, and keep wages low. In the so-called “neo-liberal” era, the bosses’ system has returned to its more  basic “laws of motion.”

Talk of some workers being part of “the middle class” because they have somewhat higher  wages than poorer people obscures the reality of class oppression and drives a rhetorical wedge between better paid and lower paid workers.

Syndicalism: An International and Historical Perspective (Dek Keenan)

By Dek Keenan - Zabalaza Books, October 12, 2014

This paper will introduce syndicalism both as an historical international phenomenon and as a contemporary international model and movement. It presupposes very little knowledge of, but hopefully some substantial interest in, the subject on the part of the reader.

What does Syndicalism mean to us as labour movement activists? It may mean the million workers in the Spanish CNT fighting with a new world in their hearts during the Spanish Civil War. It may mean the legendary Industrial Workers of the World organising the One Big Union across craft and trade, race and gender lines. It may mean a vast movement of workers across Latin America during the first half of the 20th Century. It may mean Starbucks baristas fighting today to build unions in coffee houses in New York and Santiago. But it very possibly means none of these things.

Because syndicalism constitutes one of the least understood currents in the workers movement. And yet syndicalism was the driving force of immense and powerful labour movements across the globe in the first decades of the 20th Century; from Argentina to Japan and from Australia to Portugal workers gathered under its flag. And today it represents a small, but growing, part of the international labour movement; albeit one that remains unduly obscure and marginal.

Of course, for speakers of a Romance language syndicalism will be recognised as simply the word for ‘unionism’. So, when we talk of syndicalism in the context of this paper we are actually talking about revolutionary syndicalism and, later on, anarcho-syndicalism. Revolutionary syndicalism or revolutionary unionism (I will for brevity use the term syndicalism to indicate revolutionary syndicalism throughout this paper) emerged in the latter part of the 19th century as an alternative vision to the dominant unionism which had developed and which were aligned with social democratic political parties or which simply followed a class collaborationist line. Syndicalists, aware of the failure of this form of unionism to defend the interests of workers and generally informed by socialist ideas, of both anarchist and Marxist origin (Darlington, 2013), looked to establishing workers’ organisations that would provide both day to day resistance to the bosses and a structure able to establish a new society based on a collectivised system of worker-managed production and distribution. In the United States and Canada this vision tended to be described as Revolutionary Industrial Unionism rather than syndicalism, but this can be understood as a ‘local’ variant of syndicalism re-named to reflect a notion of advanced industrial development (Dubofsky, 1969).

Syndicalists took diverse routes in building such organisations, sometimes based upon federations of small trade and even craft unions, sometimes upon national industry-wide unions and sometimes co-ordinated in one big union (e.g. Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States and globally). What they shared, however, were the following common characteristics.

Why Environmentalists Must Support Workers’ Struggles

By Stephanie McMillan - December 18, 2013

This is to specifically address class struggle as it relates to the ecological crisis. It will not address all the other (many!) reasons that working class struggle must be waged and supported.

First, we must recognize the fact that global capitalism is driving ecocide.

The problem reaches much farther back than capitalism itself. The combination of an early gendered division of labor with the adoption of agriculture and corresponding formation of permanent settlements set the stage for class divisions and the private accumulation of surplus wealth. Maintaining this arrangement required the development of states with armies, social oppression and repression to weaken internal opposition, and ideologies to make it all seem normal and pre-ordained. And as land was degraded and resources used up faster than they naturally replenished themselves, expansion became imperative, leading to conquest and forced unequal trade.

These intertwined and matured over time into an ever-more complex tangle, culminating in late-stage capitalism: the all-encompassing, all-devouring, spectacular horror that is our current global social living arrangement. The environmental crisis, specifically climate change, is the most urgent problem we collectively face. It is a simple fact that if our planet no longer supports life, then all human pursuits, including social justice, will also come to a screaming halt.

But attempts to solve the environmental crisis head-on, without addressing the underlying structural causes, will ultimately fail. Approaching it directly (for example by blocking a pipeline to prevent tar sands oil from reaching a refinery) can not overturn the socio-economic system that makes resource extraction a non-negotiable necessity. Capital is relentless, and will flow around any obstacle—or smash through it. Throughout history, it has demonstrated the willingness and capacity to wipe out anyone—including entire populations—who attempt to resist.

Historically only one class has been able to challenge capital and offer an alternative to it: the working class. This is not because of any sort of moral superiority, nor is it a matter of suffering the most. In fact, there are many others who are deprived of any means of survival altogether, which is an even worse situation than being exploited as a worker.

The reason that the working class has this capacity is that it is strategically placed. Workers have the most direct relationship with capital: they produce it. Even capitalists themselves merely manage and accumulate it, which they accomplish through the exploitation of workers in the production of commodities. Commodities embody surplus value in the form of unpaid labor, combined with natural materials (which capitalists simply claim ownership of through legal or other violent means). This surplus value, when it’s realized as profit and re-invested, becomes new capital.

Capitalism runs on exploitation, by paying the aggregate of workers less than the total value of their products (the rest becomes profit). So in order to sell all the surplus commodities that can’t be profitably consumed within a social formation, capitalism is structurally required to “expand or die.” The problem with this economic model on a finite planet is obvious.

Who Gets Paid When Machines Do the Work? A Look Back at the Luddites, and Why Capitalism and High Technology Are Incompatible

By members of the Southern Maine IWW - November 13, 2013

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.

200 years ago in England, artisan cloth workers launched what became known as the Luddite uprising, smashing machines which were “destroying their trades, undercutting wages and forcing them into unemployment and destitution.” Although their legacy has been distorted over time, the original Luddites were primarily concerned about the introduction of technology into their field which was “hurtful to commonality,” or the common good. A thoughtful web site celebrating their intent is here: http://www.luddites200.org.uk/

Although labor-saving technologies definitely have their advantages for those who own them, as long as economies are governed by the principle that social members’ access to the commodified essentials of life — food, shelter, medical care, etc. — is regulated by one’s access to money (which typically comes in the form of wages), there is a limit to how helpful these technologies actually are to workers. For example, since the 1970s, the introduction of computers into the workplace has exponentially increased workers’ productivity per hour, increasing company profits likewise, yet the capitalists who own the workplaces (and the technologies) have refused to share the wealth. Rather, workers’ wages have stagnated over the last 40 years, and layoffs have abounded — because we do not control the technology, also known as the means of production.

For workers to be able to embrace labor-saving technology, which could afford us all a four-hour workday (or less) at the same rate of pay or better than we had forty years ago if it were distributed properly, we must unionize and put massive pressure on the capitalists who own our workplaces to do so. Ultimately, we must also change the social norms which state that it’s permissible for a handful of 1%er fat-cats to own and operate productive industrial infrastructure on which the common good depends according to their whims, for their own private profit, and often without regard to natural resource limitations and pollution. After all, what good is high technology when all it does is make your boss’s situation more stable and enriched, and yours more precarious and disposable?

Save the machines; ditch the 1%. Join the IWW and help to abolish wage slavery worldwide.

To Stave Off Zombie Apocalypse, Organize a New Society Within the Shell of the Old

By x365097 - Southern Maine IWW, July 13, 2013

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.

Let’s think back to late summer, 2008 — half a decade ago, right about now. It had been more than five years since the invasion of Iraq by the US, and nearly six years since the invasion of Afghanistan. The PATRIOT Act was still in the news, there was massive anti-Bush agitation from liberals and the left, and many people were looking forward to a change of regime — any change — in 2009.

The financial catastrophe that would soon arrive, however, punctuating the presidency of George W. Bush like a second 9/11, would make matters unfathomably worse, complicating the US economy for years to come and paving the way for the austerity agenda to trample workers’ hard-won economic rights like Orwell’s proverbial jackboot to the face. Of course, there had been preliminary signs of trouble; those had been plain to see. But when the blows finally started hammering down, they caught almost everyone unprepared.

Individualist survivalists, already bolstered by the much-hyped threat of terrorism, came out of the woodwork to sell emergency water filters and K-rations to the gullible and (somewhat justifiably) afraid. The average American worker hunkered down, usually alone or with a few family members, and prayed that the worst — a foreclosure, an eviction — might pass them by. And the media told us endless stories about the struggle to survive amid the mindless hordes who would ravage the remains when it all finally broke down outside the “Green Zone” of Wall Street.

It didn’t — and still doesn’t — have to be this way.

Why revolutionary syndicalism?

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, October 31, 2012

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.

1. A Strategy for Workers Liberation

Capitalism is at its heart an oppressive and exploitative economic system. The core is the class structure, in which the majority are dispossessed of the means of production of goods and services, and must submit to bureaucratic production regimes. These regimes control our labor so as to pump out wealth privately accumulated by the plutocrats at the top of the heap (and paying high salaries to the bureaucratic class of managers and high-end professionals), and backed up by the coercive force of the state. Working people are thus an oppressed class, although it is also internally quite heterogeneous and various sub-groups are oppressed in various diverse ways.

The working class can’t be free and can’t ultimately ensure well-being for itself unless it can take over the control of the process of production (which includes transportation and distribution and production of services), and the land and all the means of production, becoming masters of production, in control of our own work of and technological development. To do this means dismantling the institutional power of the bureaucratic/managerial and capitalist classes, so that we are not subordinate to any dominating class. As Ralph Chaplin put it in “Solidarity Forever”:

All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.

Workers self-management of all of social production is thus a necessary condition for working class liberation. If we don’t control production some other class will, and then we’re not free. This means there must be a mass worker movement that has the capacity and aspiration to take over the means of production, and continue social production under direct worker’s management. This takeover of production is not all there is to social emancipation but this is very basic in that the working class cannot liberate itself if it doesn’t do this.

Also, by “takeover of production” I do not mean that the existing workplaces and techniques of production are continued without change, but with workers replacing management. I also mean that the working class then sets up a system of working class control that re-organizes social production, works to change technology, works to develop worker skills to break down hierarchical divisions of labor, changes production to ensure our species survival through a change in ecological impacts, and in general works to make social production more socially beneficial. Breaking down the present class division between subordinate workers and middle management and professionals also requires major changes in the educational system and the way that learning is linked with social production.

But to achieve its liberation the working class needs to have a strategy. Part of the point to the focus on the struggle between workers and bosses is that this provides a lever for changing society. Workers have the potential to exert power here because the flow of profits to the capitalists requires our cooperation in production. Thus the ability to bring production to a halt is a potential form of power the working class has. Again, to quote Ralph Chaplin:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.

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The Fine Print I:

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