to ‘the movement’: on work and unions in an age of austerity

This article was commissioned by Shift Magazine, a publication addressing the radical ecological direct action movement, to discuss the trade unions in the wake of the March 26th demonstration.  Because it addresses a readership who may not have much personal experience of union involvement, or a particular political orientation to labour militancy, aspects of it may seem obvious to regular readers of The Commune.  It was written in early April.

The ecological direct action movement has supported workers' struggles before: but is it time to do more than support from the outside?

In an age of austerity, at a time in which industrial struggle seems to be on the agenda in a way in which it hasn’t been for years, activists are asking questions about unions.  What can we expect from them?  How should we relate to them?  Why are they as they are?

We begin with who we are

Movements tend to reproduce their own social base and subjectivity according to the tactical repertoire which constitutes them.  The things they do determine who takes part, and who takes part determines what they do.  Thus, a movement based around students, unemployed people, NGO workers, and those with jobs that allow them a high degree of personal flexibility, tends to reproduce itself based on a set array of actions: camping, occupying or blockading commercial property, street-theatre, banner drops, etc. – with an apparent diversity, but all a characteristic response to the lack of a mass social base rooted in contexts of everyday experience in which non-activists can be mobilised for . . . action.

The ecological anti-capitalist movement has largely been constituted outside, and to an extent, against, work.  It has not therefore, often, found itself with plurality of militants at a single workplace, or in a given industry, who need to, or who could, struggle within that context.  Where the movement has had such a plurality; there is quite probably little or no collective awareness of that fact, and there has been little or no effort to bring them together, or support them.  Their social position has not been seen as a potential tactical lever by the movement as a whole, and perhaps not even by the workers themselves.

Therefore, the movement tends to relate to workers’ struggle, and therefore to unions, as something outside itself.  When activists need to get normal jobs in large workplaces – and they show enormous creativity in not doing so – they often leave the movement; particularly if they also need to put time into a family.  So – as in the case of debates over open cast mining, or coal-fired power stations, unions appear as an external ally or adversary: not something we’re part of.

Just as there is, in general, no useful revolutionary theory not based on revolutionary practice, there is no useful critique of trade unionism which does not rely on, or imply, a practical project to supercede unions in practice.  That is: cheering or denouncing unions, whether from inside or outside, is wholly sterile.  Even a nuanced critique, which understands the countervailing dynamics of the union form (how they express class struggle; how they hold it back) is somewhat sterile, unless it is linked to practice.  Such a nuanced critique is nonetheless necessary.

The unions: what they are

Unions, in Britain today, seek to bargain with employers over workers’ terms and conditions and are based on a mass worker-membership.  They are stable institutions, persisting through occasional disputes, and rather longer periods which see little conflict at all.  From these facts, a number of dynamics follow.

Firstly, unions appear as an expression of workers’ self-organisation, and reflect, to an extent, workers’ opinions and perceptions.  However, they are also better adapted to compromise – which is what they spend most of their time doing – than they are to struggle.  As permanent institutions based on a fairly passive membership, they acquire a permanent administrative staff and a leadership to run them – what is often called ‘the bureaucracy’.  In the absence of permanent industrial warfare or revolution, they need to be able to compromise with the employer.  And therefore they also need to compromise with the state, which seeks to regulate industrial relations through a legal framework which appears to offer a proper procedure for industrial action, but without making it too easy.  Thus, over time, unions develop an institutional interest in capitalism, and a symbiotic relationship with the state.  In the UK, this relationship is expressed partly, but not wholly, through the unions’ support for the Labour Party.

However, this process is not something entirely apart from workers.  The mass of workers themselves accept capitalism and the state, and it is their lack of willingness to engage in relentless anti-capitalist struggle which provides the basis on which unions are founded.  So, all is well between workers and unions?  Not at all.  Typically, the leadership of the union has a greater interest in compromise than the base; a fact which is often exposed when workers decide to struggle.  They probably weren’t all that interested in the union when it wasn’t organising struggle, but when they do engage, are confronted with an organisation which has become more suited – in terms of its form and leading personnel – to compromise than the sort of action they want, or need, to win.  Just as workers seek to organise through their union, they also discover a conflict with the official leaders, structures, and rule-book.

These dynamics also affect the nature of trade union demands.  Not only are the demands not revolutionary, they very rarely move beyond wages and redundancies, to question the content and nature of work, and the place of the worker within society as a whole.

Unions are therefore best understood as the expressions of two countervailing dynamics.

On the one hand, unions are a basic form of workers’ self organisation against the day to day predations of capital; they express – albeit in a very staid manner – the class struggle.  On the other, unions are institutions which seek to control and limit that very self-organisation, limit the militancy of its members in pursuit of that aim, and limit the scope of demands they raise.  These tendencies are both so strong, and so integral, to unions that it is rare that one entirely wins out. The extent to which one prevails over the other differs from time to time, and place to place, depending on the circumstances.

Ideas about trade unions

Most Trotskyists identify the struggle over work precisely with the trade union struggle; and attributes the failings of unions in large part to a ‘crisis of leadership’, which can be solved by themselves being in charge.  They are probably also officially in favour of democratising the unions, and will generally support unofficial action.  Trotskyists generally accept that unions are ‘not revolutionary’ (the remnants of a critique of trade unions which was common in early 20th Century Marxism), but rarely have a general structural analysis, such as the above.  They do not, typically, prominently raise the possibility of struggle beyond the unions.

The orthodox ‘ultra-left’ position adopts the opposing view.  Rather than seeing unions as institutions ripe to be captured and redirected by revolutionaries (and implicitly free of a structural relation to capital and the state), they see unions solely in their aspect of a limit to the class struggle.  This, at its worst, results in a total disengagement from trade unions, and a tendency to denounce every defeat of the working class as evidence of ‘union sabotage’.  There is little acknowledgement that workers organise class struggle through unions, still less that workers often choose to end disputes themselves.  Blaming ‘the union’ posits a bogeyman, wholly external to the workers’ movement – and prevents serious engagement with the subjective and material sources of workers’ interest in compromise with capital.  It also lets us off the hook: given that we have failed to build support for our ideas – direct action, participatory democracy, anti-capitalism – don’t we have cause to take a hard look at ourselves?

A third position, which is often held implicitly but very rarely expressed, is that of critical routineism.  Many libertarian activists who are formally critical of both perspectives are involved in their union because they want to do what they can to oppose day to day injustice.  They don’t necessarily want to take over the union, and are aware of the limits of trade unions, but neither do they have a clear idea of how to go beyond it.  Often, the union will take up alot of their energy, not leaving much time for extra-union-routine politics.  Whilst individually critical of unions, their day to day activity doesn’t move beyond trade unionism.

Critique beyond theory: the need for an independent practice

Earlier in this article, I argued that the lack of an independent libertarian revolutionary practice in relation to work was not only a product of our movement’s sociological isolation, but a cause of it.  We’ve seen that unions are the crucible of countervailing dynamics, which express class struggle, just as they stifle it.  We’ve seen that trying to take over trade unions is likely, in the end, to be as futile as denouncing them from the sidelines; and as unlikely to develop an anti-capitalist dynamic as individualised routine.  What does that leave?  Loren Goldner calls it ‘extra-unionism’: “be in the union, be outside the union, but your perspective is beyond the union”.  But how?

There are no easy answers.  But it’s possible to suggest a few different approaches.

Industrial networks.  At present, our movement makes no serious attempt to ensure that militants working in the same job or sector get together to organise collective work.  A first step would be to make it part of our regular practice that health workers and education workers, for instance, meet in fora such as the Anarchist Bookfair.  Discussing perspectives for organising solidarity and agitation could form part of this.

Solidarity unionism.  In the US, the IWW has developed a workplace organiser training which has been taken up and adapted by the Solidarity Federation here in the UK.  The purpose is to train workers how to build collective confidence and power on the job, without relying on official structures or mediation.  In the US, the Starbucks and Jimmy Johns workers’ unions have been two important consequences of this approach.  We need to stop thinking of ‘direct action training’ as based on a discrete series of skills, such as lock-on and tripods, but instead about we involve non-politicos in direct action.  Contact SolFed if you’re interested.

Base groups and bulletins.  In the 1970s, libertarian socialists in Big Flame and the early International Socialists adopted an effective organising model.  It was particularly well suited to large factories, but there may be a way to apply it today.  Militants based inside and outside the workplace would work together to produce a regular workers’ bulletin, designed to reflect the experience of work and struggle, and help workers communicate with each other.  Rather than laying down ‘the line’, at their best they’d show the radical implications of being honest about our working lives, and provide a way to organise politically at work, without relying on the union.   The support of outsiders was often necessary due to the pressure of work, family-life, and union activity.

Workers and service users: in and against the state.  Cuts are attacks on service users and workers.  In the late ‘70s, another period of public sector cuts, workers and service users found ways to organise to support each other, in a way that cut against the capitalist logic of the state sector which divides the working class against itself.   These attempts are documented in chapter 6 of the book In and Against the State.

We live in an economic and political reality very different from the high points of class struggle, characterised by mass expressions of workers’ autonomy.  But, once again, workers are in the front line.  Where will we be?  To find a way to answer this in practice will require ingenuity and experimentation. But unless we learn to speak with our own voice, we will never be heard.  And if we are never heard, we might as well be mute.

Some of Tom Denning’s previous articles discussing the movement against cuts can be found on the Red Pepper and New Left Project websites, as well as for the May Day International project.

3 thoughts on “to ‘the movement’: on work and unions in an age of austerity

  1. A good article, and i recognise more detail wasn’t appropriate for the article and its audience, but I had a few thoughts:

    “Trotskyists generally accept that unions are ‘not revolutionary’ … but rarely have a general structural analysis, such as the above. They do not, typically, prominently raise the possibility of struggle beyond the unions..”

    To be fair to the trots, this assertion is not true! Trots are involved in lots of prominent ‘extra-union’ stuff – the SWP RTW campaign, and the SP initiated NSSN. And have strong critiques of current unions.

    Also no mention of the UK IWW, why is that? It is one of the largest libertarian socialist organisation in the UK, and is trying to do all of the ‘extra-union’ stuff you suggest. It has networks of people involved specifically in healthcare and education (usually people dual carding in different TUC unions) that make bulletins, being that that’s where a majority of its members are see – ,


  2. Hi Jon,

    About the Trotskyists – I suppose those examples are not what I mean by “struggle beyond the unions”. I agree that RTW and NSSN are not themselves unions, but their idea of workers’ organisation is more or less to act within the union framework, with the aim of replacing the leadership and reforming them. Thus both groups (in reality, just fronts of the SWP and SP respectively) identify the struggle at work precisely with the trade union struggle.

    Both groups will generally support unofficial action when it occurs, and their members will even lead it – although the SWP raises this rhetorically, the SP has an actual record of doing so. However, for them, these are ad hoc episodes which are symptomatic of the inadequacy of the present leadership, rather than something which tells us about the limits of trade unions as institutions, and the need to go beyond them.

    As for the IWW, I only didn’t mention them because I’m not aware of what they do, and haven’t come across them doing anything myself. So I’m not denying they do – but I can’t reference it because I don’t know about it. Could you tell us more about the activities of the IWW networks?


  3. Surely its also not just a matter of working beyond the unions but of working beyond the methods of reformism, which is part of Communards response, but not the whole of it. For example, you can work in a TRA, but if the nature of the work is only to seek reforms, to use it as a pressure group to get the Council to do something, or not do something, it is only to repeat the methods of Trade Unionism. If, however, you work in a TRA, and point out that such struggles against the Council/other Landlords will be a perpetual thing just as wage and other industrial struggles are a perpetual thing – and in the same way, and for the same reasons workers will always ultimately lose such struggles – unless it demands control over its estate (which itself ultimately can only come from Collective, Co-operative ownership) then this activity becomes truly revolutionary and transformatory, rather than merely combative and episodic.

    I argued this in a recent blog post AWL Misrepresentations where I set out how this kind of activity could be undertaken in many different kinds of existing organisations, from TRA’s to Neighbourhood Watch Schemes to Trades Councils. In fact, as I quoted from Lenin in “Left-Wing Communism”,

    “We must work to accomplish practical tasks, ever more varied and ever more closely connected with all branches of social life, winning branch after branch, and sphere after sphere from the bourgeoisie.”

    And, this was precisely the kind of thing that lenin had in mind. It was all about workers self-activity to engage in, and extend this kind of revolutionary and transformative action.


Comments are closed.