Monday, August 3, 2009

The following revolves around a perennial question in the anarchist movement- what is our relationship to unions, and by implication other mass movements. To all intents and purposes this question was settled in the late 1800s when the French CGT advanced the theory of anarchosyndicalism in opposition to both the fad of individualist terrorism in their own country and the idea of "exemplary insurrection" in the Italian sense. The idea of anrchosyndicalism went on to "coonquer the world", at least that of anarchism, and the present labour movements of a large part of the world, in Europe and Latin America have an "anarchosyndivalist grandmother" in their family line. Needless to say anarchosyndicalism experienced an eclipse, losing ground to the totalitarianism of both communism and fascism and also to "liberal trade unionism" on the English/German?Americam model. Recent decades have seen a resurgence of anarchosyndicalism as anarchists seek for a realistic way to put their ideals into practice. The outstanding example is the Spanish CGT, but even the IWW has seen an influx of anarchists who are determined to see anarchism as a reality and not as a talking shop subject.
It is in the situation of this revival of anarchosyndicalism that Molly asks the two most recent questions on this blog. "What is the Anarchist Attitude to Unions ?". This has always been a big subject of debate in anarchism, and I doubt that I have covered the many nuanances of the participants by the questionaire that I have set up. There is first and foremost a section of so-called anarchism, most popular in the USA, which denies the relevance of social class entirely. For those people unionism would, of course, be something that they merely list as one more thing that they feel superior to. For the rest of us ordinary mortals, however, who live ordinary lives in class society and see no reason to listen to the superior pronouncements of those who preach an end to civilization- while living very high on the hog by its benefits-how we will go about remedying our situation is a valuable question.
The "new anarchists" who have come to the movement in the past few decades (unlike Molly who became an anarchist in the early 70s with all the socialist baggage attached) are gradually moving to practicality, and their influx into organizations such as the IWW is evidence of same. The new anarchists carry their own baggage. No...civilization won't end. It can't ( the last community in the world with a knowledge of metallurgy will conquer the rest in a few years), and any hoped for collapse will lead to a situation far worse than the one we have today. No...showing off the size of your balls in ritual combat with the police, where you are always defeated in the end, at international ruling class gatherings is not a sensible way to anything but more ritual combat. No...the claim of those "post-leftist" anarchists to the "individualist anarchist" heritage is tenuous at best. No...there is no quick and easy way to bypass long term organization amongst ordinary people (if this requires shedding subcultural badges of superiority so what) via either riot or terrorism.
We come back to the perennial question of "what is to be done". For the best of the new anarchists this means trying to carry their ideals into reality via a connection with ordinary people, and unionism is one of the primary ways in which this will be done. There are other ways, of course, such as community organizations, but unions should be a primary focus of anarchists today.
All of this, of course, eventually comes down to specifics. If there is one thing that a site such as Molly's Blog/Molly's Polls can provide it is an independent view of the possibilities for anarchist efforts today, without the need of any loyalty to a specific organization or point of view. Without the need of enthusiasm. In the spirit of this I lay out the following difficulties as to one anarchist effort at organization, the organization of places such as Starbucks. I do not do this out of a desire to discourage activists engaged in these efforts but merely out of a desire to point out the difficulties and discourage excessive optimism.
1)There is a simple fact. There is only one Starbucks that has been unionized in the entire world- one in Regina, Saskatchewan, organized by the independent RWDSU of Saskatchewan which is small but has a geographical concentration in an area that has a tradition of radical political action (of which the RWDSU is part). This fact should speak volumes about the difficulties of organizing such a workplace.
2)The record of organizing other "fast food joints" in the world is also negative. I cannot find any example of where a McDonalds has been organized anywhere. The record of failure, which at least in Canada, has involved major unions should give campaigners pause. Not all of the failure can be ascribed to the "non-libertarian" nature of a major union such as the CAW (in their campaign to unionize Starbucks in the 1990s). A lot of it can be ascribed to the simple difficulty of the task.
3)What is the nature of the difficulty ? From Molly's point of view the transition between "simple unionism" and "libertarian unionism" involves the situation where workers at a given workplace go from simply demanding better conditions of employment to seeing that they have property rights to their jobs and eventually to the workplace itself. this is all well and good and even possible at a factory where a worker expects to spend a good portion of their working life at. The whole idea of workers at a fast food joint or such a place as Starbucks (whatever bullshit the company puts forward) aspiring to spend years, let alone the rest of their life at the same job hardly accords with reality. This leads to point #4.
4)The workforce at any place such as Starbucks or any other such service outlet is necessarily transient. This doesn't mean that it is "unorganizable". It does, however, mean that any union in such a place will have to prove its worth to new membership at the rate of about every 2 years. Such an union may have staying power if it has enough community penetration that the bosses can be assured that any new employees are at least as troublesome as those that the business has shed. Hence the need for continued propaganda in the community in support of the union.
Where to go from here ? Frankly I don't know. All that I know is that the effort to unionize such places as Starbucks will require tactics that the ordinary run of the mill unions haven't even begun to conceive of. Hopefully anarchist inspired unions will be more successful.