This is my article which tries to reply to councilists, syndicalists, and boring-from-within anarchists. I wrote this about a year ago. It is written wrong, but i’m going to work on it here.
Why Organize: The nature of unions, and the goals of revolutionaries
There is an old argument that unions are by their very nature trapped in capitalism and end up serving the interests of the businesses and government. Of course there is ample evidence for this view, and others in a way validate it by merely asserting the opposite. That is, they argue that unions are the framework not just to overcome the systemic problems we have at work (revolution), but also the world we want to build after the revolution. All this misses the point, not just about unions, but about what we set out to do when we organize in the workplace.
The argument goes something like this. Unions attract members as long as they can improve working conditions. Improving working conditions requires making compromises with employers. If a union refuses on principle to make compromises and rejects the system of work itself, no gains will be won and members will leave. On the other hand, if struggles are successful and workers struggle explodes, whatever tactics work best will become dominant and principles will be set aside. This is because the point of a union is to improve working conditions. So either a union accepts any worker independently of principles and therefore will become stuck in superficial changes to labor, or a union becomes a political organization based on revolutionary principles that is ineffective in changing workplace conditions.
The supposed conclusion of the argument is that either we should reject unions and do something different (usually small propaganda groups, cheerleaders for the revolution), or we should use existing reformist unions no matter how deformed they are to spread our ideas. There are two hidden goals for workplace organizing in this line of thought: (i) to build consciousness of the need and means for overthrowing work as we know it, and (ii) to build the organization necessary to do so.
People who make this argument believe that (i) doesn’t happen because of the form of the struggle (negotiating conditions within capital, i.e. concessions and reforms) and the outcome (contracts, agreements, etc), and (ii) doesn’t happen because the union is tied up with the system, and these ties will (and has) betrayed us when it really counts (uprisings). This gets it all wrong though. The reason why workplace organizing is valuable is because the process of organizing on the job can open your eyes to the need for radical change in ways that thinking about it and debating it can’t. When you come together with other workers and take action, it can change you and the way you see the world. It is about the process of struggling against the system of work with your coworkers as a group (a class), and this is even true in cases where you loose or end up with a bad agreement. The context of the struggle and the principles that you and your organization bring to it, can shape the way you see the events that follow.
In order to make these experiences and transformations wide-spread we need a base with infrastructure. We need materials to distribute, places to meet, meetings with process, trainings, etc. These things help us widen the participation of people who can be transformed by workplace resistance, and prepare for struggles that can bring about a new era.
That isn’t to say though that the infrastructure and institution (the workers organization) is neutral. History shows us that people who have a naive view of vehicles of struggle (political parties, the State, unions, social organizations, etc) end up with unpleasant surprises. We need infrastructure, i.e. things like unions, but we have to be ready (i.e. organized as a force) to counteract power within them and to defend our goals forcefully. In the course of our struggle these organizations will be bolstered and transformed, replaced when they are no longer useful or representative, or we will overthrow them. The goal of workplace organizing has two points. The first is to make our lives better in the immediate. Having an analysis of capitalism, we know that improvements can’t last and the deck is stacked against us. But being able to take control over our work, is a crucial part of the second task.
That is to build consciousness that we can’t build with other means, and to make that process as broad as possible to build enough experience to move us towards the overthrow of our oppression. We build workers organizations as a means to doing this work, but must fight against the tendencies within that process that integrate themselves with the businesses and the State.
That doesn’t mean that we can just write in whatever principles we want to our organizations. Instead the principles of an organization reflect the place of history of sections of the class, and their struggles. We seek to move members and workers as a whole forward towards consciousness of the source of exploitation and its solution. What a workers organization is, then, is a dynamic thing. It’s means, its principles, and its form will vary based on where the workers are at, not where we want them to be.