A brief history of Syndicalism (part 2)

Meanwhile, stateside

Whilst never explicitly syndicalist the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905 in Chicago, clearly had a lot in common with their syndicalist comrades elsewhere around the globe.   The primary instigator in this new union was the Western Federation of Miners, a highly militant industrial union. The WFM sought an alliance with various socialist organisations and smaller unions to create a national union body outside of the craft-focussed American Federation of Labour.  The AFL represented craft-unionism par excellence, its member bodies being forcibly split along craft lines on pain of expulsion.

In contrast to this divisive stance the IWW not only advocated industrial unionism but that there should be one union for the whole of the working class.  After all, they all ultimately had the same interests.  Somewhat optimistically the IWW saw itself as the basis for this One Big Union and this positioning often lead to an antagonistic relationship with the far larger AFL.

In spite of its isolation from the mainstream of the labour movement the IWW mounted many inspiring organising campaigns, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the Lawrence textile strike.  Over 20,000 workers walked out on strike and chose the IWW as their union.  The strike was ultimately won and elevated the IWW to the status of household name.

Sadly, in spite of its new national profile, the IWW failed to consolidate its success and within a couple of years the IWW was back to a token presence in Lawrence.  This pattern was seemingly replicated across many IWW organising drives, with the organisation continually struggling to maintain a stable membership, even though it managed to win many spectacular victories.

The sole exception to this trend proved to be the Marine Transport Workers union, based on the docks in Philadelphia.  This union was to prove stable and lasted for a good 10 years before a large section left the IWW as the result of a political split within the organisation.

Sadly, said split was not an isolated incidence, the IWW suffered numerous damaging splits throughout its history.  The first of these was at its second conference in 1906!  The IWW managed to grow in spite of both these splits and of brutal oppression, up until around 1923, where yet another split acted as a catalyst for a decline from which the union has never recovered.

One of the most interesting splits from the IWW was that lead by William Z Foster, who in 1912 formed the Syndicalist League of North America.  The league’s inspiration had come from the CGT in France and Foster was convinced that as in France syndicalist should work within the mainstream trade unions.  In the years after he left the IWW Foster found himself the leader of the spectacular “great steel strike”, involving over 100,000 steel workers.  Though the SLNA did not outlast the first world war Foster continued his work within the AFL through the Trade Union Education League which was associated with the newly founded Communist Party.   Sadly as happened in Britain and France the cancer of Stalinism slowly replaced syndicalism within the left of the trade union movement. The Comintern eventually forced the TUEL to split from the AFL, resulting in a swift deterioration in the organisation.

And everywhere else…

Syndicalism however wasnt confied to France, Britain and the USA.  There are plenty of other important syndicalist unions, such as the USI in Italy who’s activists were instrumental in the famous workplace occupation and factory committee movement.  The most well known syndicalist union is probably the famously anarchist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo whose millions of members fought Franco’s fascists in the Spanish civil war.  What many don’t know however is that the CNT for much of its life was not an anarchist union, it was a syndicalist union along the lines of the CGT or IWW.

Irish Transport and General Workers Union is another great example of the importance of building unions as social insitutions.  The ITGWU in its heyday was the most powerful union in Ireland and bought over a country estate outside Dublin for use for union picnics and other social activities.  The union’s syndicalist influence clearly derives from the likes of James Conolly who was one of its key organisers and who previously worked for the IWW in the United States.

Syndicalists today can learn a great deal from all of these unions. Whether its the importance of the union as a deeply rooted social institution or the need for membership stability there are clearly lessons to be learned.  Whilst I don’t presently feel qualified to discuss Syndiclaism outside of France, Britain and the US hopefully this small snapshot will prove useful, I intend to add to it with further national examples as I read more.

Read part one here.

This post was originally part of an educational presentation entitled “Syndicalism then & now” I made for Liberty & Solidarity.

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2 responses to “A brief history of Syndicalism (part 2)

  1. Either its syndicates or its unions,and as an anarchist syndicates sound better,unions leave a lot of room for corruption,control etc

  2. I’m not familiar with exactly what you mean by syndicates? Obviously the root of “syndicalist” is in the syndicates, but these were essentially unions? I agree corruption is an important element to counter, and it certainly can take hold of unions, but I’m not sure how any large organisation that has access to finance can completely avoid corruption?

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