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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A brief history of Syndicalism (part 1)

It started in France

The Confédération générale du travail, formed in 1895 in France, is widely regarded as the grandfather of the syndicalist movement.  Within its ranks socialists alienated by party politics, radical republicans and anarchists joined forces to forge a new movement; revolutionary syndicalism.  In a short space of time syndicalist ideas came to dominate the CGT, at the time the only sizeable union in France.

This dominance was reflected by the Charte d’Amiens, a declaration of syndicalist principles adopted by the confederation in 1906.  It asserted the political independence of the CGT from all parties:

as far as it concerns individuals, the Congress asserts the complete freedom for union member to participate — outside of his corporate grouping — in those forms of struggle that correspond to his philosophical or political concepts, limiting itself to asking him in exchange to not introduce into the union the opinions he professes outside it.

Around this time the CGT was at the centre of the campaign for the eight hour day in France.  This campaign provoked much industrial unrest and triggered the spectacle of a “socialist” parliamentarian (and erstwhile proponent of the general strike!) ordering troops to fire on strikers.  The CGT used tactics pioneered in the  early days by leaders such as Émile Pouget who advocated the use of sabotage to aid strikes and stop scabs.

The true strength of the CGT however lay not in such tactics but in the solid basis it had within working class communities.  This strength flowed from organs known as the Bourse du Travail which brought together unionists in a given town to provide services for the working people which the state did not.  This encouraged workers to socialise together around the union and rendered it a powerful social institution.

The syndicalist’s dominance of the CGT ended with the beginning of world war one.  The anarchist Leon Jouhaux and his supporters on the union’s executive lined the union up with the French state in the infamous union sacrée.  Syndicalists throughout the CGT attempted to reverse the betrayal, opposing it on the executive and attempting to call a congress to deal with the matter, however they were outmanoeuvred.

After the war and in the wake of the Russian revolution the syndicalists attempted to regain hegemony within the CGT.  They formed the Comités syndicalistes révolutionnaires and by the end of 1921 had succeeded in winning almost half of the CGT back to revolutionary syndicalism.  It was at this point however that pressure both from those wanting to join the communist Profintern and the anarchists combined to force a split, the revolutionary syndicalists forming the Confédération générale du travail unitaire.

Eventually in 1936 the CGTU and CGT merged, however by this time syndicalist influence had waned, replaced largely by the stalinism of the Parti communiste français.  After further splintering of the trade union movement later in the century, the CGT is still to this day the largest union in France.  On paper it is still committed to the Charte d’Amiens and a refounded Comités syndicalistes révolutionnaires works within its ranks to once again win it to revolutionary syndicalism.

Syndicalism spreads to Britain

In the UK the syndicalist movement was kick started in 1910 by veteran trade unionist and socialist Tom Mann, who had visited France and was impressed by the model of the CGT.  Much like the revolutionaries in France he adopted the approach of working within the existing unions, forming the Industrial Syndicalist Education League to propagandise for syndicalism.

The victorious Liverpool transport strike of 1911

During this time Mann lead the successful 1911 Liverpool transport strike.  After the strike he was imprisoned for having published a leaflet during the course of the strike urging troops not to fire on strikers.  This imprisonment brought him and the fledgling ISEL great attention and the ISEL’s newspaper The Syndicalist reached a circulation of 20,000.

A broader syndicalist movement out with the ISEL also flourished after Mann’s imprisonment. In 1912 the Miner’s next step, a pamphlet arguing that the miners must go beyond nationalisation and argue for workers control of their workplaces appeared in the coalfields of south wales. The Daily Herald, a distant ancestor of todays Sun was also founded in 1912, the paper was hugely sympathetic to the syndicalists and its readers groups up and down the country became hives of syndicalist debate and practice.

Sadly in spite of this strong movement the ISEL came to a premature end in the 1913-14, when the organisation was seized by “dual unionists” who favoured splitting from the existing labour movement to set up new unions.  Though this was the end of the UK’s primary syndicalist organisation its influence was felt in coming decades, as the syndicalist influenced Socialist Labour Party helped organise munition worker strikes during the first world war, leading to the formation of workers committees across the country and the famous “red clydeside” period.

Syndicalist inspired politics also found a home in the early british communist party, many former members of the ISELincluding Mann filling its ranks and working within its “minority movement” within the TUC unions.

Part two is available here.

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

Socialist sounds

Podcasts are to radio what BitTorrent and iPlayer are to television.  Allowing the user to select only the content that interests them, to listen to at a time of their choosing makes them infinitely more convenient than tuning in and hoping there’s something good on. Nowadays smartphones (such as my own warranty-voided custom-firmwared HTC) are capable of automatically downloading the latest podcasts without any user interaction, queuing them up ready to listen whenever they are wanted.

Whilst its this level of convenience that makes podcasts radio-killers, for socialists there is a far more interesting aspect of this new media to examine.  As with much internet-based content, the barrier to produce a podcast is far lower than producing a radio show.  There’s no licence, no studio hire,  all you need are some ideas and a half-decent microphone.  This renders podcasts a far more democratic medium than radio, allowing alternative viewpoints to come to the fore, free from domination by state or company owned media machines.

Thanks to this democracy my 30 minute bus ride to work, normally dead time, has been transformed into a productive learning experience.  I’ve listed below some of the podcasts that typically make up this experience, with mini-reviews for each in case you fancy trying one.

RadioLabour

Out of all the podcasts I listen to, Radio Labour seems the most similar to a traditional radio format.  Uploaded 5 days a week each 10 minute episode relays some of the major trade union news stories from around the world with a traditional radio-news style delivery.  Typically the host does not venture beyond news items and into analysis or truly probing interviews, but this is understandable given the various trade union sponsorships the show has, it cant be seen as taking sides within the union movement. 

Summary: Think of it as LabourStart in podcast form.

This podcast sets as its goal the bringing together of the Free software and labour movements.  As a Linux-using shop steward its  a project I can fully get behind, unions are amongst the worst culprits when it comes to spending money on software when there are free and often superior alternatives.  Episodes of Cyberunions have so far covered a wide range of topics including open source social networking and the need to organise technology workers.  The hosts are typically very honest about their own experiences with Free software, positive and negative and coming from different sides of the world from each other means they frequently provide insights into the ways unions operate differently in different countries (the downside to this internationalism is American cohost’s pronunciation of “Diaspora” which makes me wince, the small-minded xenophobe that I am).

Summary: Accessibly presented information on Free software aimed at trade unionists


A more infrequent podcast, CLB’s offering none the less provides some hugely interesting insights into the world of trade unionism and labour struggles within China.  The hosts have a seemingly huge depth of knowledge and a very relaxed yet professional podcasting style which makes this one of the most listenable podcasts I subscribe to.  Each episode tends to tackle a different topic though the major Chinese labour news stories of the day are always covered.

Summary: Professional and informative, an excellent source of information on labour struggles in China.

And the rest

The above podcasts are entirely labour movement orientated because I generally find most political podcasts too unfocussed and moralistic for my tastes, the only ones I occasionally listen to are those put out by the WSM, specifically I would recommend this recoding of a talk on the history of Syndicalism in Ireland.  I also occasionally  find time to listen to some podcasts completely unrelated to my politics, the highlights of which have to be the professional and funny GameSpot UK podcast and the fascinating and well-researched History of Rome podacst.

Podcasts are a fantastic resource for learning or catching up on news, and the left already has some good offerings.  We can do a lot better though, and hopefully as the left slowly catches up with the technology we will see more and more quality left wing/labour movement podcasts.