Debate Labor

Boring from Within Won’t Work

By Tom Wetzel

In their reply to my attempts to defend revolutionary syndicalism, Joe Richard and Ty Carroll try to force the debate into an arbitrarily narrow set of choices.

The attack on “dual unionism” seems to be designed to rule out efforts at building new worker-controlled unions outside the bureaucratic framework of the AFL-CIO type unions.

The basic problem today is the glaring need to build a new kind of worker unionism that is directly controlled by the workers, is based on direct participation and practices of powerful disruptive action, recognizes the flat antagonism of interests between workers and the employers, builds solidarity in action between workers in different sectors, and builds solidarity with grassroots social movements and struggles outside the workplace. A workers movement of this kind in the USA would have to be prepared to violate court injunctions and unjust laws that restrict worker action. To do this, alliances and mutual support need to be developed between unions and social movement organizations so that worker action has mass support.

A movement based on direct participation, collective decision-making, and direct action is essential to the process through which the working class develops the confidence, aspirations for change, organizing skills, and social cohesion to mount a fundamental challenge to the dominating classes. Some Marxists refer to this as the process of “class formation” — the working class “forming” itself into a social force for change. Marxists and syndicalists can agree that it’s necessary to encourage this process.

A basic problem with the inherited bureaucratic unionism of the AFL-CIO type is that it is a roadblock or barrier to this process. The inherited “international” unions are very far from being a worker controlled movement. To the degree there is democracy, it is at the local level. Some local unions have some democratic vitality and social movement relationships but some don’t even have meetings (like UNITE HERE Local 2 in San Francisco) or are staff-driven state-wide bureaucracies (like various SEIU fiefdoms). The “international unions” are dominated by highly paid executives and are largely beyond the ability of workers to control or participate in effectively. The bureaucratic layer have interests antagonistic to worker interests.

I’m not saying the officials never initiate struggles, which they do at times (as with Fight for 15). I’m saying that the bureaucracy tends to place limits on mass mobilization and disruptive action. They tend to favor compliance with the laws that cage us in. They do this because they want to avoid risks to the institutions that are the basis of their prestige and position. Their position emphasizes their role as negotiators and political operatives. Their ideology of “partnership” with employers favors a restraint on worker challenge to the system. The union bureaucracy is actually self-defeating because their tendency to reduce risk and contain struggle means that union membership will continue to decline.

This means that we need to figure out ways to build mass worker organizations that are not subject to this kind of bureaucratic control.

Since the ’30s American Leninists have almost invariably stuck to a “boring from within” approach. This has taken various forms. Sometimes this means taking jobs as organizers and influencing the bureaucratic machine from within. Others talk about “taking power” in the union apparatus by winning top offices. When Carroll and Richard talk about “challenging the leaders,” this suggests they think the problem is “bad leaders.” But the problem goes much deeper than that.

Since World War 2 unions have been based on a narrow approach where paid officials engage in “collective bargaining” to obtain contracts. These invariably have no-strike clauses, management rights clauses, and often have elaborate stepped grievance procedures that take beefs off the shop floor and into the hands of the professional staff. No-strike clauses limit worker action and bind our hands. Management rights clauses discourage a struggle over control in the workplace. This whole approach simply guarantees control of the union by professional “representatives”.

Very often leftists elected to paid union office have simply become little different than their predecessors over time. As Bob Fitch put it: The unions are like a “roach motel”: “The leftists go in but they don’t come out.”

Going forward, there is not necessarily a single route to a new worker-controlled, solidarity-based union movement. Carroll and Richard seem to mistakenly think I’m simply trying to tout membership in the Industrial Workers of the World. Although I support the organizing efforts of Wobblies in recent years, I’ve never been a member of the IWW. Rather, I’m a member of Workers Solidarity Alliance — an educational and organizing group founded in the early ’80s to promote revolutionary libertarian syndicalism.

Given that less than 7 percent of workers in the private sector are in unions, there is surely plenty of space for organizing new worker controlled unions. In Los Angeles, for example, there are half a million manufacturing workers and only 6 percent are unionized.

Of course there are some important sectors where the AFL-CIO type unions are still entrenched. WSA’s position on organizing in that context is stated in our Where We Stand statement:

“We cannot hope to play a role in many worker struggles…if we remain aloof from them because they take place within the AFL-CIO or Change to Win unions. So long as workers struggles are organized through these unions, we participate in those unions and their struggles.”

But this means participation from the rank-and-file position, not as part of the paid staff.

In the ’80s-90s period some of our members developed independent rank-and-file committees in the context of the New York area garment and textile unions and within SEIU 250 at St. Luke’s hospital in San Francisco. Our members employed at the University of Tennessee succeeded in organizing an independent employees union there. At the time of the Hormel meatpacking strike in the ’80s, we had members working in that industry. Due to widespread disgust at the UFCW “international union”, many meatpacking locals were not paying their “per capita” (dues). We supported the (ultimately unsuccessful) effort of the P-9 strikers to mobilize a “mass split” of packing house local unions from the UFCW.

When revolutionary syndicalists have developed a mass revolutionary union in a particular era and region, that then becomes an important organizing project that many militants may commit themselves to. But in the World War 1 era, which Carroll and Richard discuss, syndicalists in some countries were active in a variety of union organizations, based on diversity of situations.

Contrary to Carroll and Richard, there were revolutionary syndicalists in Italian unions in 1919-20 other than the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI). In the Turin branch of the FIOM metal workers union, the syndicalists of the Turin Libertarian Group worked in alliance with Antonio Gramsci’s Marxist-syndicalist branch of the Socialist Party. They built a mass movement independent of FIOM through general assemblies and elected shop stewards. Eventually this movement took over the 40,000-member FIOM branch in Turin and re-structured it so that the shop stewards councils were the union. At that time Mauritzio Garino, a member of the Turin Libertarian Group, was elected secretary of the FIOM branch.

As Gwyn Williams documents in Proletarian Order, the syndicalists were very much a factor in the mass factory occupations in Italy in 1920.

The FIOM was competing for members with USI which had 30,000 members in its metal workers union. The FIOM was pushing its demands through a slowdown. The syndicalists demanded that this be transformed into a factory takeover if the employers attempted a lockout. So the FIOM leaders were pushed into a major confrontation due to syndicalist pressure. Moreover, the occupations were supported by the railway union, which was under revolutionary syndicalist leadership. The bureaucrats of the Socialist Party’s CGL did everything they could to back down the confrontation, to avoid the revolutionary transformation the syndicalists were pushing for.

During the World War 1 era in the USA, the IWW was an important organizing project, but syndicalist influence was present in other organizations. The left-wing of the Socialist Party was largely syndicalist in sympathies. At the time of the Seattle general strike in 1919, many left wing socialists were active in the AFL unions. As Harvey O’Connor points out in Revolution in Seattle, support for the idea of workers managing the industries was widespread.

The new Amalgamated Clothing Workers union was influenced by the syndicalism of many worker militants in that period.  Thus the union adopted some elements of a syndicalist program, favoring worker management of industry. This led the Italian Syndicalist Federation — a group of influential organizers such as Carlo Tresca and Joe Ettor — to switch from the IWW to the ACWA. This also shows that Richard and Carroll are wrong in assuming that syndicalists in that period were only involved in building IWW unions.

But in the mid-’20s the officials of ACWA decided to take a more conciliatory line towards employers. They proceeded to ruthlessly expel syndicalists and Communists. This shows very well the reason why grassroots democratic control of a union is crucial if it is going to be a vehicle of worker struggle.

“Boring from within” practiced in USA by syndicalists and Communists in that era failed to work out a solution to that problem.

By the early ’30s both the IWW and the Communists were subjecting the AFL top down unions to severe criticism. This helped to encourage a massive wave of new independent unions in 1933 to 1934. According to some estimates, there were 200,000 workers in independents organized by socialists and syndicalists and 150,000 workers in the Communist revolutionary unions of the Trade Union Unity League. Much of the mass upsurge of the early ’30s thus took shape outside the control of the AFL bureaucrats. There was a real possibility for the emergence of a radical union federation to the left of the AFL. The creation of the CIO by Lewis and Hillman was a kind of containment operation. They set up CIO “internationals” with the usual AFL-style top down constitutions. But it took some time to contain the disruptive worker self-activity within a bureaucratic union framework.

The phrase “anarcho-syndicalism” actually originated in Russia. That’s because many anarchists in the Russian revolution were anti-syndicalists who adhered to an insurrectionary anarchist concept of “propaganda by the deed.” In practice they tended to engage in small group expropriations, with the hope that this would lead “spontaneously” to the masses doing likewise. So the syndicalist anarchists, who rejected that approach, formed themselves into a separate political organization, Confederation of Russian Anarcho-Syndicalists (KRAS). KRAS was not a union but an organizing and publishing group. Their militants were active in various areas of democratic worker organizing such as the Petrograd factory committee movement and the grassroots soviet in Kronstadt. They also gained control of the Moscow sections of the Menshevik-created railway and baker’s unions (as Emma Goldman describes in My Disillusionment in Russia).

In libertarian socialist circles, this practice is called “dual organizationalism”. This is the view that it is often useful to put together an organization of conscious revolutionary activists to assist in building mass organizations and in doing work of popular education.

There are a number of possibilities or avenues today for working towards worker-controlled, solidarity-based unionism in USA: new independent worker-controlled unions (IWW or not), independent worker committees or networks in unorganized workplaces or where the AFL-CIO type unions are entrenched, radical re-reorientation of existing local unions where existing democracy makes this feasible.


  1. The National Organizers Workshop of the AFL-CIO presented a distinct menu of strategy and tactics in Washington, D.C. on March 6 and 7th. Union organizers joined with community organizers in workshops to share experiences and develop a mutuality that has clearly been missing over the past decades. Issues such as mass incarceration and immigration were put on the table. There was an overarching theme of unity. This collection of AFL-CIO unions has clearly paid the cost for the focus on government employees. The reputation of unions collaborating with the NSA, promoting super-max prisons, covering up militarization of police and facilitating repression has cost the AFL-CIO.

    Several Wobblies attended the Workshop, including myself. The weak spot in the weekend was that it was conducted in an atmosphere where one could almost believe that there was no presence of the AFL-CIO in the implementation of the Surveillance State. When panelists were challenged for facilitating the growth of super-max prisons, the panelists simply shrugged and weakly asserted that there was little they could do with such unions. This comes from the same AFL-CIO that found ways to purge unions and leaders in the fifties for being too radical.

    At one workshop, one of the panelists brought up the efforts of steelworkers in Pittsburgh to buy out a local mill shutting down. “The only thing we lacked was capital.” Indeed. Funny, how that works. The panelist was reminded of how other locals stayed out of the project and failed to demonstrate a mutual defense of steel jobs through a concerted regional job action against the closings. Instead, now we find USW locals promoting steel jobs by promoting government contracts for Keystone XL and fracking at the expense of the same communities their left-hand is supposedly promoting at the Workshop.

    Labor Day in Pittsburgh last year showed a massive display of thousands of union workers. Much like the Workshop, this demonstration is expressive of the current discontent in the marginalization of workers and the simmering anger of our communities. The UPMC organizing drive, also in Pittsburgh and the Labor Day demonstration present the face of the AFL-CIO as engaged in organizing the unorganized and uniting a broad spectrum into a social movement opposed to capitalism. But, the fundamentals remain unaddressed. Teachers continue to be harassed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Killer cops continue to demonstrate their immunity from accountability. Even among governmental workers, there continues to be a downslide in representation from 2004-2014, from 36.4% down to 35.7 % in 2014. Meanwhile, telecommunication workers in unions have gone from 22.4% of the workforce in 2004 down to 14.8% in 2014. [Bureau of Labor Statistics]

    The question becomes: “What is the road forward?” Craft unions of the AF of L have been here a long time, working to minimize the influence of unskilled workers. The CIO developed a core of industrial unions but turned right around and kicked out militant unions to maintain their positions. We’ve seen rank-and-file organizations subjected to repression and a rank-and-file leader, like Jock Yablonski, murdered by UMWA President Tony Boyle. Today we see union leaders, like the UAW, negotiating away their contracts in the hope of keeping plants open. We see USW working as salesmen for US Steel. We see AFSCME promote the prison-industrial complex.

    What’s a Wobbly to do? We are a lone voice right now. We want no collaboration with the state. The state that “disappeared” 43 student teachers in Mexico. The state that locks up over 2 million because they can’t give them jobs. The state that raided the IWW for opposing World War I. We cannot negotiate with our own unions if they are to defend our living standards and our vision for a better life. They must be with us and show it.

    The National Organizers Workshop was a good idea. It is a recognition that things cannot go on as before. But it denies what is obvious, that what we lack are leaders more willing to fight than they are to compromise away our rights. Students have joined with teachers in opposing standardized testing. Prison employees have opposed the brainwashing techniques of “cognitive restructuring” where access to basic life necessities are subjected to meeting required obedience standards and super-max prisons isolate prisoners from the world. And many have refused to be complicit in violations of fundamental human rights. The militarization of AFL-CIO unions needs to be confronted. Workers have no stake in a police state. There are no jobs worth the crimes. Therein lies the new strategy.

  2. Comrade Martin, I’m not exactly sure what you are saying?

    “what we lack are leaders more willing to fight than they are to compromise away our rights”

    Are you suggesting that new leadership of the AFL-CIO, CTW needs to be changed and a militant workers movement will appear?

    Not clear what you mean by this? Strategy for change?- “The militarization of AFL-CIO unions needs to be confronted. Workers have no stake in a police state. There are no jobs worth the crimes. Therein lies the new strategy.”

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