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.

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