Couldn’t sleep last night. These are rough and need serious editing. I don’t like the ‘it isn’t/won’t work’ aspect of the one below. I need to edit that out, because that’s not what its about, but wanted to put something up anyway lest I let it sit on my desktop too long.
We must be frank about the failures both of traditional union organizing and what I will call anti-contractual organizing. From the perspective of revolutionaries it is clear how the business unions have failed, but usually controversial that revolutionary unions have failed. In the United States our inability to organize within the framework laid out by the state for unions led to the development of a critique of contracts. In fact it was less a critique of contracts than the historical role unions evolved into which is represented well by the role unions take via the contract. Specifically the union as an external body that enforces agreements upon the workplace, and channels working class unrest into avenues that can be controlled and diffused. In shops where this contractual system reigns there is generally little or no participation amongst the workers, and often greater management strength in controlling the structure and flow of work.
Yet contracts themselves contain clear positives. They give space and time to consolidate gains won that might otherwise vanish with changes in the workplace. Additionally they form a foundation around which the union can organize both internally in the shop and externally in the industry.
The IWW has for in recent times experimented with organizing via solidarity unionism (in brief: organizing without dependence on mediating bureaucracies, instead utilizing social relations and solidarity on the shop floor to directly impliment workers’ desires). These campaigns would organize without predicating elections, membership, or contracts. Many such drives were successful in that they won the gains workers sought. Workers were radicalized out of these struggles, and brought into the organization without prior political experience. Yet by and large these campaigns have a natural trajectory. They win gains, things heat up more broadly, and as gains are won they deflate. Workers tire of struggle, they move on to better work, management wises up, etc.
Alternatively some of these struggles moved towards contracts. Seeing the deflationary tendency, or based upon concrete needs particular to one or another industry contracts are viewed as a way to solidify this process. There has been much debate and writing about having “agreements” rather than contracts. This would mean one-page documents detailing simple matters like workers’ control of grievances, no at-will clause, pay increases, etc., but without no-strike clauses, outside arbitration, or management rights. Yet these practices never, to my knowledge, came to fruition. The dynamics of contractual bargaining requires significant power to impliment such contracts, and in our limited experience there was not the power to do so. The traditional way to attain such would be to build a union, win a contract, and build upon that contract (which of course is a fairy tale). This path has been pursued again and again whenever it has come up, despite widespread desires to avoid it. Why is that?
The story above I think is a familiar one to anyone who has organized as a worker (and most revolutionaries haven’t, especially not ones who leave it to the business unions to do it for them). There is a clear dynamic in these struggles that was latent to me for a long time, but is increasingly manifest. When organizing there is a dynamic between the struggles of workers and maintaining those struggles and activity. Secondly there is a dynamic within contracts between meeting workers’ needs and building towards a contract. None of these dynamics however are universal or ahistorical as I will show below. Generally speaking workers struggles tend to coalesce and dissipate around concrete issues and needs. Organizing directly can build and win struggles, but the level of agitation necessary for longer term struggle tends not to come naturally. One can build worker-organizers out of these struggles, but it is clearly a minority who is willing and interested to devote the time and resources towards perpetual organizing.
Consequently some push for a theory of organizing as building these organizers, spreading out throughout industries or regions, and then creating a base for widespread disruptions that create the conditions necessary for sustaining intense struggle necessary to transforming work. Though all such experiments are fairly young, we have not seen much success along these lines. The Anarchist Federation UK, the Sojourner Truth Organization, the IWW, the Johnson-Forest Tendency, the Northeast Federation of Anarchist Communists, etc., all have experimented with building networks of such worker-organizers without long-term success.
Likewise contractual struggles within the IWW have constantly devolved into service unionism where there are worker participation gradually withdraws as they see it is unnecessary to maintaining the gains, concessions on matters of production are made, and the union gets put in the position of managing and enforcing the workplace through the contract. Sensibly the workers identify the union with the gains and services, and engage it as such. Hostility and aversion are common as the union does exist as an outside regulating body and not the self-activity of the workers. This dynamic is well studied and discussed and doesn’t require more explanation.
The question posed by these experiences and tendencies is how we orient ourselves to workers’ struggle in times where struggle does not already exist. I won’t consider here anti-organizationalist positions or boring-from-within other business unions here, as I think there are more important questions than those debates. It comes down to our goals. Our goals aren’t to manage our own oppression within the workplace, nor is it to be the enforcer of workplace discipline. Our goal isn’t even to win particular economic gains. Instead we seek to build revolutionary class consciousness and transform social relationships amongst participants. We want to do this in a way that sustains the struggles we engage in, and provides a foundation for when opportunities arise to broaden and connect struggles into revolutionary activity.
From this perspective our means have failed us. Contractual organizing has taken us away from direct organizing, leads us away from our goals of social transformations, and has failed to build a sustainable libertarian revolutionary movement.
The direction I think we should take is to recognize both the time we live in, our capacity, and where the best use of our energy lies. There has been something missing here all along. Though revolutionaries, we have failed to build beyond daily grievances in our work. We have ignored nurturing the social networks and community crucial to maintaining proletarian organizing, and we have failed to both develop and utilize our long term vision and revolutionary goals that give substance and beauty to our struggles.
The task then is to refocus on direct organizing beyond contractualism, but from a revolutionary anti-political perspective. This would mean actively nurturing and prioritizing social relationships to fulfill the human needs we all have, and that bring us together in closer bonds of mutual love and solidarity, bonds that unite us in dark times and inspire us when we feel alone and alienated. This strategy uses direct struggles to further develop consciousness, and creates or expands prefigurative institutions that reflect our community. Our vision is our true asset, and something that builds new worlds in our hearts, and heals wounds in our souls. The fantasy that we can organize without such a vision or with a sufficiently watered down vision has watered us down, and left many wondering why we are struggling. To this end we should in our practice and our words assert the cause of mutual aid and direct action against capitalism and the state, and to build a new society born out of revolution and based on the abolition of all classes, inequity, and oppressive hierarchies. This society based on hortizontalism, communism, and our desires will be our light.