Discussion: Anarchist Shop Experiences

By Mike Harris, Libertarian Workers Group

“ideas & action”   Summer, 1982

In this article I want to begin a discussion of my activities in
District 65-UAW. This contribution is based solely on my own
experiences and does not reflect the other activities of the
Libertarian Workers Group in various workplaces or unions. In future,
contributions the LWG hopes to summarize our other activities and we
encourage others to do the same. I hope that we can all learn from
each others successes and failures and therefore see this contribution
as the beginning of a fruitful discussion that would eventually lead
to a more coherent strategy of making anarchism a viable part of the
contemporary workers’ movement.”  …

[In discussing my role as an individual militant I observed]

“I also found that we become what the Spanish comrades call
‘influential militants.’ There is no contradiction in being an
anarchist and having influence as long as one doesn’t loose touch with
basic anarchist principles. In most cases such a role is thrust upon
us. We aren’t vanguardists in the sense of seeking power. We should,
however, see the need to help influence events and consciousness in a
more libertarian manner. Being a trusted and respected person is
important and a clear recognition that there is an acceptance or
tolerance of some of our ideas and that we are catalysts in developing

[The question of whether or not to participate in organizing into
reformist trade unions is as old as the radical labor movement. During
this time, most of us believed that it was better to organize into a
progressive reformist union rather than the IWW. The IWW of the late
1970s and early 1980s were not the same as the IWW of today. Local
Branches  were small and terribly weak and mainly historical debating
societies or folk music emsambos. Trying to organize an independent
union was not something we thought doable at that juncture. We
ourselves were small (maybe 10 members), dispersed in a number of
different shops or schools, young (20’s) and without any significant
resources—aside from fire in our bellies and enthusiasm.

Given this recognition, we agreed to concentrate focus and work within
District 65-UAW. Some of us already had experiences with District 65
and it was as progressive a reformist union we would find in the NY
Metro area.

Recognizing the “inherent problems of organizing into a trade union,
but also viewed such activity apart of our overall shopfloor
activities” I was involved in an unorganized book warehouse. Comment:
trade unions throughout this period organized in top-down ways. I
recognize today that some reformist trade unions incorporate
rank-and-filers in organizing and beyond].

“Organize into existing unions?

“While it is true that union organization is a form of
self-organization, there are problems with this, particularly from an
anarchist perspective. In this situation, as well as others, most of
the workers viewed the organizer and ‘influential militants’ as the
experts, those who would win the struggle for a union shop and
contract, not themselves. There was a
mentality of ‘looking up to others’, a mentality that is
understandable in a top-down society, but unacceptable nevertheless.
In this regard I tried to point out the real power of working class
self-organization and self-activitiy, based on our own shop
experiences, personal relationships [with each other in the shop] and
the way we view unions and political structures.

“Newsletters and Action Committees

In the years 1979-80 the LWG saw an opening for group activity in the
printing and publishing trades. Two members of the LWG were working in
this area (I was working in a book warehouse) and had a number of
contacts and were seriously discussing the idea of issuing a
newsletter called “Hot Type”. As a group, we viewed activities in the
printing and publishing trades as a way of making contact with other
working class militants. It would have been through the medium of “Hot
Type” that the LWG would raise political issues and relate them to our
respective unions and workplaces, as well as a means to developing
autonomous organizations within our respective unions. We saw the
creation of such a newsletter as an extension effort to present a
class analysis and propagate anarcho-syndicalist ideas.

“Although the project was still-born, it’s important to note that the
LWG has always viewed individual shop activities as connected to a
broader picture. We hope to develop decentralized and autonomous
organizations, which would be forums for debate, discussion and action
within the working class. It is through these organizations and
newsletters that we hope to reach workers where we have an organic
link. It’s important for us to always broaden our contacts with others
in the same industry, craft or profession and thus develop networks of

“I was ultimately fired from the book warehouse-on a trumped up
excuse. … Immediately after being fired from ERS I went to work in a
65 shop across the highway (The details of shop life and the problems
we faced with the union are described i the September 1981 issue of On
The Line). In this new job I was able to play a valuable role in
pulling together the seething anger that some of the workers had
against the boss and the class collaboration of the [shop]steward. …

“Unfortunately, I was too open and too militant too fast and was fired
before making sonority. Thus a lesson learned – we have to be patient
and view shop work as a long process, not just posturing as a super

“Presently I’m employed in a textile warehouse. My shop is not a
typical shop in District 65’s New York Textile Local. The shop has a
long history of rank-and-file militancy and there is a high proportion
of active union members. …

“A number of issues have provided an opening for discussing politics
from an anarcho-syndicalist perspective-the plight of Haitian refugees
in the U.S., my support for the Haitian revolutionary struggle, the
events in El Salvador and Poland, and the PATCO [air traffic
controllers] strike. In turn, I am well liked by my Haitian
co-workers, who are my strongest supporters for shop-steward. My
involvement in this situation can only help the LWG’s work with the
Haitian Workers’ Association.

“I might note that I distribute On The Line, Strike! and LWG leaflets
to some of my co-workers (as well as to some workers in other shops in
the building). In this regard, it is important to develop a more
frequent press and for the movement in general to develop more shop
oriented newsletters. … What will be needed in the months ahead is a
rank-and-file industry-wide newsletter that will develop the kind of
contacts Textile Local (and for that matter, all 65 needle trades
locals) membership will need in upcoming contract negotiations and the
period beyond.

[In the 21st century, some will think that the below question
shouldn’t be a question at all. At the time that this article was
written, it was a serious question. One that was hotly debated by
anarchists. Often times shop stewards were not elected positions, they
were appointed. The stewards  repesented the political power structure
of the union, often times a corrupt local union hack. Unelected
stewards many times represented an older group of (mainly) white
workers, not in tune with the needs of their people of color
co-workers. I suspect this could also be a question today where
there’s no direct election of shop stewards.]

“Run for steward?

The question of whether anarchists should run for steward is a sticky
one. I believe that one must weigh the pros and cons before deciding
whether to run. Some questions in my mind are: 1) As steward, is it
possible to maintain one’s political identity and independences as
well as being associated with the union? 2) Would one be forced to act
as the enforcer for union policies or agreements with an employer even
when you personally disagree with them? 3) How militant can one be in
the shop without risking the loss of support? 4) What political
activities can be taken as a steward? Can the steward’s position be
used to do more “advanced” political work in the local and industry?
5) How does this change one’s relationship with co-workers?

“Though I feel these questions need to be addressed, I think that we,
as anarchists in the workplace, need to address them collectively.
There can be no one answer to the question of running for steward
because of the variety of shop conditions and union structures. I
believe that each situation presents us with different objective and
subjective problems. The question that we can all address is -what can
we effectively do to present our ideas and develop militant action and
organizational forms to reach libertarian goals?

“In my present situation I believe it’s tactically alright to run for steward. …

Mass organization vs. ideological organization

It is the LWG’s hope that we can develop or initiate and organization
that would be open to all militant workers who seek to develop
policies and tactics that suit their needs and aspirations. It is from
this perspective we’ve initiated the Needle Trades Workers Action
Committee. The role of NTWAC should be defined as an informal body
that—in the opening stages—seeks to discuss the various problems
within our shops and locals. From there we would like to see NTWAC
help to coordinate and develop actions and a program that will meet
the needs of the rank and file. It is also important that the NTWAC
remain independent of the leadership of the union. For the present we
see NTWAC as part of a movement to revitalize the militant traditions
and build towards a position of strength to fight the bosses and the
union to act as a pressure group within the various locals. We don’t
view NTWAC as an electoral caucus or even as a caucus at all. We hope
to be an action committee, one that raises the most proposals and
fights in the interests of the ranks. Being an open and non-sectarian
committee, the choice to run a slate for any of a number of official
positions will be determined in an open and democratic way. However,
as anarcho-syndicalists, we are critical of such a position.

If other libertarians are engaged in this type of activity, it is
important to distinguish this type of activity between an ideological
organization and a mass organization. The LWG views NTWAC (or any
other committee we initiate) as a mass democratic body, one, as I
noted before, that is open to all. Within NTWAC, there will be various
viewpoints on the union and politics and the nature of the struggle.
Different people have distinct concepts of what NTWAC should be.
Therefore, various tendencies will develop. This fact of diversity of
point of view, and the discussions that will ensue, is healthy, and
should be encouraged.  Naturally, we intend to discuss our ideas and
put forth our own militant platform within the context of these
discussions. Thus, we aren’t vanguardist because we refuse to impose a
pre-determined line that NTWAC must follow. Instead, our politics will
be accepted or rejected on their own merits.”

“The ‘ideological organization’, in this case, would be our own
‘fraction’ within the mass organization. This fraction would attempt
to help develop the mass organization in its form and perspectives
along anarcho-syndicalist lines. We will have our own positions and
will argue for them. In this way we will also hope to recruit people
into our tendency and, hopefully, into the LWG. The LWG is an
ideological organization because it is a group with a specific
ideology – one that is composed soley of those who agree with
anarcho-syndicalism and are prepared to work towards those goals.

While our shop activities may enable us to increase the influence of
the LWG and to recruit new members, yet that isn’t the most important
goal. What is important is to spread the ideal, to begin to develop
the basis for a rank and file movement within and independent of
[District] 65, and to begin to recreate the anarcho-syndicalist spirit
of the workers’ movement. Our goal as revolutionaries shouldn’t be to
group-build the way the vanguardists would part build. Rather, we
should attempt to build a movement of class conscious workers in which
the LWG … would be simply a catalyst in the development of
revolutionary class struggle politics.

Some Suggestions

I would like to end this article with some suggestions for
libertarians engaged in workplace activities:

1)  The development of a shopfloor or industry-wide press is
essential. If this is not yet possible, we can initiate
industry-defined columns in
[the class struggle anarchist newspaper] STRIKE!, though such columns
would not have the same impact as distinct newsletters.
Whatever sort of literature we develop, it should be jargon-free and
easily readable and graphically appealing.

2)  Another possibility is mini-pamphlets pertaining to a particular
industry or union or particular problem, strike, etc.  Also
mini-pamphlets that deal with a particular tactical or organizational
question. (… I am working with a telephone lineman on reprinting the
‘Open Road’ article on the B.C. Telephone occupation).

3)  Also, mini-pamphlets pertaining to topical political and social
questions; or a discussion of what your particular industry, craft or
profession might look like under workers’ self-management. Also, we
need introductory materials that might explain anarcho-syndicalism for

4)       The development of informal “rap groups” within the shop, the
local or across union/industry lines. This will help to develop
support networks and help in exchanging important information and can
lead to the development of more permanent rank and file groups or

5)   The development of anarcho-syndcalist ‘fractions’ or ‘affinity
groups’ in a particular shop or union local. These fractions are
needed for mutual aid and support and help in developing coherent
policies and tactics for concerted activities in a particular place.

Needless to say, this article is not intended to be the definitive
piece on anarchist shop work. I’ve merely made an attempt at sharing
my own experiences with other comrades. If I haven’t gone deep enough
into a particular topic, that should only encourage others to discuss
the issue more fully. If I’ve been able to provoke others into
thinking, comparing notes and writing down their own experiences, then
I’ve accomplished a lot.”


  1. One day I need to finish transcribing this article. But also write a retrospective after all these years, experiences and adjustments of views.

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