What is syndicalism?

Syndicalism is the belief that workers should run their own workplaces some that they may be administered effectively and democratically.  Through this workplace control, exercised nationally via labour unions, workers could wield democratic control over the whole economy.  Labour unions are key to this idea as they have the potential to organise and socialise large numbers of workers together, on the basis of fighting for their collective interests and to increase their collective power in the workplace.

But as syndicalists would be the first to admit that the labour unions of today are not up to the lofty task of winning democratic control over the economy.  Consequently syndicalists propose numerous ideas for building unions to the point where they can take power in workplaces.

Syndicalism as a form of socialism has always emphasised the importance of the “economic” that is the bread and butter workplace demands of pay and conditions, over the “political”, the battles of ideologies and party politics.  This is because we observe the politics can be a hugely destructive force and tying a labour union to a particular political creed is likely to lead to the exclusion of those who are not adherents of said creed.

That said clearly socialism is a “political” concept, but ultimately this political conclusion flows naturally from the strengthening of unions and workers being exposed through struggle to the class nature of society and their own collective power.

Syndicalism is also associated with militant action, with syndicalists playing key roles in major strikes, for example during the great unrest period before the first world war.  However, syndicalists willingness to use militancy to gain results is not an aesthetic preference, militancy for militancy sake can be destructive, it is important to apply militancy only when it is the best strategy to win.

Another key concept often associated with syndicalism is industrial unionism, though it is worth noting that historically there have been some syndicalists who have rejected industrial unionism.

Industrial unionism is where unions structure themselves around the supply chains of industries.  For example this might mean that retail workers in a shop would be in the same union as the workers in the distribution centre and the farmers growing the food.  This means that when the retail workers strike they are more likely to incur solidarity from their fellow union members elsewhere in the supply chain and so stand a much greater chance in being able to shut the entire proccess down and render scabs useless.

In contrast to this approach stands the tradition of craft unionism, where workers are broken up not on the basis of their industry but on what trade or craft that worker practices.  This approach has proved hugely damaging, frequently pitting “skilled” against “unskilled” workers in battles for relative privilege rather than uniting workers in a way that renders them powerful.

This divisive form of unionism is still in evidence today with the most prominent example in the UK being the education sector.  In a typical university there will be at least four different unions, one for the janitors, one for the cleaners, one for the technicians and one for the lecturers (who couldn’t possibly let the smelly little plebs into their union).  This concretely weakens the power of even the more privileged lecturers as should they strike they cannot count on the janitors to strike with them, a move which would force most buildings on a campus to close completely.

Clearly, ideas like industrial unionism and syndicalism are as relevant today as in the heyday 100 years ago.  In order to understand how we can best apply syndicalist ideas today, we ought to look at how syndicalist have fared historically, this will be the subject of my next post.

This post was originally part of an educational presentation entitled “Syndicalism then & now” I made for Liberty & Solidarity, I intend to post a couple of other posts adapted from other portions of this presentation on the history of syndicalism internationally and what a new, up-to-date form of syndicalism might look like.

Strength in the union

Unionists from the CNT during the Spanish civil war

Unions have forever been a socialists friend, often at the centre of exciting periods of revolutionary activity such as Red Clydeside or the Spanish revolution.  However today’s unions seem a far cry from the revolutionary militancy of yesteryear and so it is worth asking the question, why should socialists and radicals today care about unions?

One reason to care is numbers.  At 6.5 million members the trade union movement is the largest organised body of the working class in existence.  What’s more the trade unions constituency incorporates nearly the entirety of our class, as being a worker is an experience, unlike going to university for example, which almost all of us will share.  Now clearly size alone wont cut, after all the largest political party is the labour party and most of the socialist left is to be found (quite rightly) outside of it, but the sheer capacity of the unions must be acknowledged.

This capacity is at its greatest when trade unions mobilise their members collectively to improve their lot.  Such a mass experience of collective action, and hopefully a collective victory can not only serve as the basis for further strengthening the organisation and power of our class but also carries within it the seeds of our new society.

If or future society is to be a collective, socialistic one, it should follow that bringing it about must also be a collective effort.  Were socialism to be installed by coup or some other individualistic, minority-based strategy then you would expect to find any new collective structures swiftly being corrupted or abandoned as has been borne out by various historical examples.  This is partly because people are creatures of habit, and are not very good at going outside their comfort zones.   If people have not been socialised into collective ways of working, if they have not experienced for themselves the possible pitfalls such as corruption and how best to deal with them, then it would seem that any collective experiment is doomed to failure.  Consequently it would seem that the processes of attaining socialism must in itself be collective and socialistic, building the new world in the shell of the old.

Trade unions can serve to facilitate this collectivism but they can also play an important role in the building process.  A revolutionary change in society, especially one involving massive numbers of people is difficult to pull off.  It needs organisation and the self-confidence of all those involved.  Through building up organisational size and capacity through small victories, increasing the confidence of the members and the reputation of the union bit by bit we have the potential to create powerful fighting machines, just like the unions of yesteryear.

Sadly as we all know unions are presently ill-suited to this task.  Density is in decline and the sort of union activity that builds confidence and wins victories is seemingly rare.  What’s more large sections of the population, especially young casualised workers have never had any experience of trade unionism.  Clearly these workers need to be organised, need to be part of our collective solution to the problems of capitalism, and so the question is then, how is this best achieved?

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn addresses striking IWW silk workers

Ultimately this is a tactical decision.  Some, such as the IWW, advocate setting up new radical labour unions and this approach has met with a limited degree of success, for example organising Starbucks workers.  Other socialists, noting the huge capacity of the existing movement, feel its better to intervene within those unions that exist and argue for them to extend unionisation to those whom it is presently unavailable.

There are arguments for either approach, what is clear is that one way or another collective action and organisation must be extended to the entirety of the working class.  This is why as a socialist I have been drawn towards syndicalism, with its focus on the potential of labour unions as transformative agents in society.  But whichever socialist creed you adhere to we should acknowledge that unions, though frequently inadequate and inaccessible, have the potential to play a huge role in changing society for the better.