WSM Points of Unity Explained: 5 - Trade Unions


'5. A major focus of our activity is our work within the economic organisations of the working class (labour organisations, trade unions, syndicates) where this is a possibility. We therefore reject views that dismiss activity in the unions because as members of the working class it is only natural that we should also be members of these mass organisations. Within them we fight for the democratic structures typical of anarcho-syndicalist unions like the 1930's CNT. However, the unions no matter how revolutionary cannot replace the need for anarchist political organisation(s).'

Throughout history the trade union movement has been a vitally important mass movement. In the face of bitter hardship and repression - even state murder - the downtrodden have banded together and demanded more, driving society forwards in the process. For instance, in Ireland we can thank the union movement for the end of child labour and for the 'weekend'. However, unions are not a relic for museums. Recent victories for better conditions and pay are a practical proof of that, not to mention participation of some fairly large unions in wider grassroots political campaigns. In spite of the relative decline of trade unions in the past neoliberal decades, their role today is still greatly important, as long as there are zero-hour contracts, wage cuts, pay freezes, lay-offs, unpaid overtime, long days, workplace bullying, and capitalism itself.

In a class society, where there is eternal pressure from capitalists to cut costs and increase profits, unions are basic self-defence for the working class. Without them, we are isolated and fully open to attacks on our quality of life. Also, at the most basic level, being part of a union shows a basic recognition of the class nature of our society, the simple fact that the employers are pitted inevitably against the employees, that we have different interests. In fact, this is exactly why the owning class constantly try to undermine the unions and pretend that we're one big happy economic family.

Of course today unions are commonly ridden with bureaucracy and conservatism, and in many cases can be considered part of the system we are fighting against. In the biggest unions, like SIPTU, the leadership largely calls the shots, acting as middlemen between the state and business on the one hand and the workers on the other. Sadly, union members are mostly reduced to apathetic and disenfranchised order-takers who see 'the union' as something outside of themselves. Although even in the most rigid and hierarchical unions there are exceptions to this and popular initiatives.

This is the exact opposite of the ideals and organisational strategy of the WSM, but also people like Jim Larkin and James Connolly who were both staunch 'syndicalists'. Syndicalism (from the word 'syndicate') is basically radical trade unionism. Unions are directly democratic and actively run by the membership - i.e. from the 'bottom-up' rather than from the 'top-down'. All officers are mandated and recallable, and there is an emphasis on initiative and direct action. Workers organise by industry rather than splitting up by trade (for instance, health rather than doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners) to encourage people to stand up for each other and to wield more social power. With this federalist structure, large numbers of people can co-operate over large geographical areas democratically.

Furthermore, syndicalist unions are deliberately building towards the working class ending capitalism and taking over the operation of society, from providing clean drinking water, to counselling, to designing and manufacturing computers. As the wealth creators of the world, withdrawing our work is one of our most powerful weapons. The aim is to build towards a general strike, threatening to grind the whole capitalist machine to a halt.

The pinnacle of syndicalism was the anarchist revolution in 1930s Spain, where at its peak the anarcho-syndicalist CNT – the largest union in the country – had 1.5 - 2 million members and, to give one example, ran the collectivised transport system of Barcelona. Examples of syndicalist unions in Ireland today are the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Independent Workers' Union (IWU, not exactly syndicalist but radical) which though small show promise.

However, while the WSM advocates for syndicalist structures within the unions, we do not see building revolutionary syndicalist unions as enough to make revolution. We need specifically anarchist political organisations, like ourselves, which will spread anarchism.

Because of all of the above, it is WSM policy that members join a union where appropriate. Not just radical unions like the IWU and IWW, but ordinary unions. Not all mainstream unions are the same, or as stitched-up as SIPTU, and there can be significant room to do good work and influence them to become more democratic and radical. And even when a union is poor locally it’s still the case it will be a space where we can talk with our fellow workers and organise for our interests in the workplace - something very much more difficult if not impossible in non-union workplaces.

This is one in a series of short articles explaining the WSM Points of Unity.
To listen to all these pieces together, click here.
To read all the WSM Points of Unity, click here.
To read about the next Point of Unity - (Other) Mass Movements - click here.