What can anarchists do to organise within unions in Australia?

In order for anarchists to win the majority of working people over to the ideas of anarchism, it is sensible that they organise and propagandise in the most viable mass political organisations of the class: unions. This is not only because unions provide an immediate platform to conduct these arguments. Unions also provide the most fertile ground to apply anarchist principles in practice and build tangible working class power against the bosses and the state. The workplace is the theatre where the workers themselves produce value for society and for capitalists and therefore have a high degree of power to influence economic and social forces. If engaged with effectively, unions have the unique capacity to be prepared in methods of organisation and production for a socialist society tomorrow, and as the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker described as the ‘practical school of socialism’ today.

Although in abstract this principle may be sensible, in strategic terms engaging with the union movement within the contemporary Australian context presents significant political challenges. These challenges are not only a result of the political position of unions today, but also the lack of coherent anarchist organisation of any form within unions themselves. This limits what I argue should be the goal of anarchist organising within unions: the maximisation of worker autonomy, self-management, and political consciousness. The goal of this bulletin is to outline some of the challenges of organising as an anarchist within Australian unions, and to provide a basic survey for how organised anarchists can overcome them.

There are inherent challenges to engaging with Australian unions

I have already provided a more thorough analysis of the current political situation with regards to unions in the previous Sydney Anarcho-Communist bulletin. Obviously, I do not wish to repeat that argument word for word, or provide a comprehensive or complete analysis of the challenges of engaging with Australian unions as an anarchist. What this section will provide is a brief overview of the challenges touched on in the previous article, with a few additions, and provide the base analysis of understanding the kinds of forces an anarchist is up against when organising within unions.

Just because unions provide fertile terrain to engage with the working class does not mean they encourage worker democracy or autonomy, and therefore support of unions should not be uncritical. Unions, especially in contemporary Australia, are essentially reformist organisations. They earn this title by virtue of their contradictory position: they are both against the interests of the state and capital, insofar as they are accountable to and constituted by their members, but they also have an interest in maintaining capital and the state, in order to protect the interest of an inevitable layer of union bureaucracy. This is no better demonstrated than when the union bureaucracy sold out workers’ power in the 1980s accord between the unions and the government.

What this reformism means is that the political disputes unions engage with are limited from a revolutionary perspective, and will always eventually have to be challenged by its membership against the bureaucracy, whose position can only be sustained with low participation from its members.

Practically, this means slogans employed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) like “Join your union” effectively lend support solely to the union bureaucracy. This type of sloganeering also gives free reign to the service model of unionism. The service model frames unions as providing specific services, such as industrial advice and other personal benefits, rather than engaging workers in any sort of struggle with their employers or political opponents. Although this model of unionism is embraced wholeheartedly by pro-boss unions like the Shopkeepers and Distributors Association (SDA), many unions that supposedly engage in serious worker-centred union nonetheless actively sell union membership through organisers to workers through the use of shopping discounts (Union Shopper), work-journey insurance, and the ‘safety net’ of individual industrial advice. This model of unionism has a pacifying effect on the union membership, who are sold a vision of unionism that has more in common with an insurance company than a political organisation. This both positions the union to be too weak to oppose the boss even if it wanted to, and provides incentives for the union to sell rank-and-file power and shut down radical agitation and organising in exchange for the right to easily sign up passive members. What this indicates is that when organising within a workplace you are likely to encounter resistance not only from the boss (who has a clear and direct reason to prevent you from overthrowing them!), but also in the long term the union bureaucracy. 

The collective nature of direct action makes influencing unions as an individual anarchist limited

Revolutionaries then have a broad range of forces stacked against them if they intend to use unions for revolutionary purposes. What, then, is the utility of engaging with unions as an individual anarchist? As I will discuss in this section, based on the goals and means anarchists have, ultimately very little. This point is not with the aim to discourage action, but to emphasise that engaging in union activity as an individual is not sustainable nor strategic in the long term, and that significant energy must be expended into growing the more specific yet more politically conscious core with which you engage with in these struggles. This section will analyse the limitations of engaging as an individual anarchist a bit further, providing the background for how organised anarchism is capable of overcoming them. To understand the limitations of individual action, I will quickly foray into the general means anarchists have available to influence unions. 

Most union members are not a part of unions to achieve specific political goals, but rather for their own self-defence as workers. This is not some deficit on behalf of workers, for if they’re engaged in the union in a democratic way and organise with their colleagues, they are in many ways embodying the solidarity that should form the basis of social organisation in a better world. What this does mean, however, is that often recruiting on a specifically political basis without a connection to concrete struggle is a dead end, as the ideal you are arguing for is disconnected from the immediate interests and needs of the workplace. 

The analysis of late 19th and early 20th Italian Anarchist Errico Malatesta is helpful in dissecting this point. In his 1922 essay “Interests and Ideals”, Malatesta makes the case that, in the context of working within labour unions, although “[personal] interest is conservative, and [anarchist] ideal revolutionary”, the role of an anarchist is to on one hand agitate for the ideal whilst on the other seriously engage with practical and concrete disputes that arise out of particular interests. He writes that anarchists should:

…be the first to take up battle stations… even when it relates to minor battles… They must inspire the workers to ever more ambitious demands and avoid that contemplative, ecstatic, and absolutist state of mind that ultimately leads to inertia and passive waiting for some future paradise… But, in grappling with the battles of today, the anarchists should never lose sight of the future; they must fight the tendency towards accommodation, which is typical of the masses, and those methods of struggle that signify acceptance of the status quo.

This characterisation provides a scaffold for anarchist engagement within unions where not only the goal of anarchism is taken seriously but also everyday and particular concrete struggles.

Fundamentally, this concrete struggle in a workplace is a collective experience, guided by trial, error, and reflection; it cannot be experienced through abstract propaganda or specific concessions in themselves. Instead, it is often described that anarchists participate in these struggles through direct action in order not to concede to their abstract slogans or reformist tendencies. Direct action is perhaps best detailed by French Syndicalist Emile Pouget in his famous essay (aptly titled) “Direct Action”, where he characterises it as the workers taking direct, autonomous, collective means to change their their conditions of work and society in general, without mediating institutions or bureaucracies deciding their fate. The application of this direct worker-oriented strategy by leading anarchists within a workplace leads to a process whereby “a growing minority is formed and grows, its aim to acquire sufficient strength, first, to counter-balance and then to annihilate the forces of exploitation and oppression”. This is expanded in a more concrete way by 20th Century German Syndicalist Rudolf Rocker, who describes direct action as “every method of immediate warfare by the workers against their economic and political oppressors”, the significance of which is “not only [to] afford them a weapon for the enforcement of better living conditions, [but it also] becomes for them a practical school, a university of experience, from which they draw instruction and enlightenment in richest measure”. The primary tool anarchists have, then, is direct and collective action, oriented towards immediate goals but also collective learning learning and reflection. How an anarchist should wield this tool without superseding the interests of other workers is by leading by example and influencing collective struggle in practical scenarios, to build from a minority to a force capable of overcoming the limitations mounted by the capitasts, the state, and bureaucratic institutions.

To return to the practical question of engaging as an individual anarchist, as is the case in many Australian workplaces, the other side of the potential for collective action is the limited ability of individual anarchists to apply direct action with much result. Union bureaucrats will sway and influence debates (if they allow them at all), personal workplace politics can override political considerations, and a strategy of concession can win the day when workers are not won over to interests beyond the immediate demands of the workplace when the bosses pile on the pressure. An individual can easily find themselves isolated or overworked in trying to influence these collective struggles, or sacrifice their principles by attempting to seize influence without the political support of their co-workers (or merely with personal support gained on purely interpersonal grounds), rather than through debate and example. Ultimately, to win serious battles, anarchists organised into caucuses, organisations, or in coordination with other rank-and-file anarchists, will be far more effective. When the battles are serious and the opponents powerful, this effectiveness is vital.

Rank-and-file strategies that inflame the base are ultimately our best weapon

This bulletin has so far tackled the general ways in which anarchists can influence unions in order to provide the ground to show that building organised anarchist consciousness is fundamentally the way forward. This section will more specifically look at what strategies are available for groups of anarchists to use in order to build revolutionary power through unions without conceding to the reformist tendencies of their bureaucracies.

Schmidt and van der Walt in their recent book Black Flame usefully describe three major methods that anarchists have used to shift unions towards anarchist ideas and practice: boring from within, dual unionism, and rank-and-file unionism. Rather than describing all methods in abstract, much can be learned about each strategy by applying them to the conflict between the directly oppositional Shopkeepers and Distributors Association (SDA) and the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) in Australia. The only broad point that I will make is that dual unionism, where a radical union is established in direct opposition to a concessionary union, is an inappropriate strategy for Australia’s current political context. With union density at an all time low, with huge government offences being prepared on even concessionary unions, and with the ideas of anarchism not being widely held within the community, the practical consequence of a dual union would likely to be the intense target of the state and capitalists with little initial power to win over fellow workers to the dual union.

Perhaps the only situation where dual unionism could have been appropriate would have been to combat the SDA, whose close ties to the bosses and undemocratic format unsuitable for rank-and-file activity. However, with the establishment of the RAFFWU in 2016, intended as a direct left wing alternative to the SDA, splitting the terrain even further would likely give more opportunity for the SDA to split its opponents rather than providing opportunities to build organisation on the shop floor.

The establishment of RAFFWU instead presents an opportunity for a strategy of boring from within. Boring from within is a strategy wherein anarchists enter into non-radical unions in order to reform them towards radical politics. The RAFFWU is highly susceptible to such a strategy as it is small, and therefore has a limited bureaucracy that is pliable through grassroots pressure. It’s also a union with much potential, as it often covers young, underpaid, and precarious workers. This bureaucratic weakness provides the opportunity for even a small caucus of organised anarchists can influence the broad movement of the union easily, encouraging direct action in other workplaces and winning over a significant section of workers to the ideas of anarchism. I will however preface this by saying that the risk this strategy holds is that it puts undue focus on influencing the union bureaucracy, rather than strengthening the hand of rank and file workers.

However, the particular utility of the boring from within strategy in the case of RAFFWU conversely demonstrates why a rank-and-file strategy is more appropriate for the majority of unions within Australia. As I described earlier in this bulletin, most major unions, such as the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), the United Workers Union (UWU), or the Australian Services Union (ASU), have large and self-interested bureaucracies to suppress a boring from within strategy, or draw anarchists into protracted battles over leadership positions to distract from the real work of building worker power. Conversely, the size of the union is roughly correlated to the size of the base of workers it represents, meaning that although a boring strategy would counter more resistance, and rank and file strategy that builds campaigns and wins concrete disputes within the workplace has far more potential to build autonomy and consciousness in the workplace. A rank and file strategy focuses on developing grassroots, worker-led campaigns around issues that inflame the base and direct them towards more radical politics, bypassing the union bureaucracy when it stands in the way and using it as a tool when it follows the movement’s lead. In this case, developing and supporting worker-led campaigns is the key to influencing and wielding the power of the union, whilst still remaining a great distance from its reformist bureaucracy.

In the long term, organisation is the only way to make particular struggles count

The principles I’ve used to assess the utility of these strategies is worth restating: what strategies generate the maximisation of worker autonomy, self-management, and political consciousness? What makes any of these strategies viable to develop a society without wage labour and the bosses is that it allows for the workers themselves to direct their own struggles and find their own freedom? Struggle that does not move us to that goal, where workers strike against the capitalists and the state and build a new society based on human need and solidarity rather than profit, will ultimately be a dead end. We will always be better equipped to win that struggle if we are organised, practically and theoretically, within unions and outside of them, and therefore we should be constantly striving towards greater organisation.

Revolutionary opportunity can strike at any moment and workers must be organised to seize the opportunity. There is no better time to lay the groundwork for a better world, either by organising with other rank-and-file members of your union, developing radical caucus’, or by coordinating with comrades like those within the Sydney Anarcho-Communists. Worker power is key to a world where people decide their fate for themselves – let’s not let the state, the bosses, or the bureaucrats take it from us.

Further Reading.

  • “Part 2: Strategy and Tactics” in Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmit (2009). Warning: Michael Schmit, the co-author of this book, has later expressed nationalist-supremicist style views in an attempt to synthasise a form of “nationalist anarchism”. Although there is no evidence that these positions influence the arguments within this book, it’s important to approach the text critically.
  • “Chapter 4: The Objectives of Anarchosyndicalism” and “Chapter 5: The Methods of Anarchosyndicalism” in Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice, Rudolf Rocker (1938).
  • “Interests and Ideals” in The Method of Freedom, Errico Malatesta (1922). The entire book is worth reading, but for some choice articles, see: “Anarchy”, “The General Strike and the Revolution”, “Organization” “In Relation to Strikes”, “The Workers’ New International”, “The Two Routes: Reform or Revolution? Freedom or Dictatorship?”, and “Gradualism”.
  • “Direct Action”, Emile Pouget (1910).