Syndicalism and the Welfare State: The SAC’s Historical Compromise

Since my post on the origins of anarcho-syndicalism in the First International, particularly through the debates at the 1869 Basle Congress, I have been posting more contemporary pieces that defend various syndicalist approaches in today’s world, from Alex Kolokotronis’ more reformist call for a “municipalist syndicalism” to Graham Purchase’s advocacy of a “green” anarcho-syndicalism. While I included some pieces in Volumes Two and Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas reinterpreting syndicalist approaches to social change in the post-World War II era, I skipped the reformist turn taken by the Swedish syndicalist federation (Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation Syndikalisterna – Central Organization of Swedish Workers–the SAC), mainly because that belongs more properly in a documentary history of syndicalism, not a documentary history of anarchist ideas. But that doesn’t stop me from posting this excerpt from the SAC’s 1963 pamphlet in which the Swedish syndicalists advocated a more reformist syndicalism that accepted the reality of the post-War welfare state. One of the biggest problems with this approach is that as the Welfare State came under increasing attack starting with the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the early 1980s, people who had advocated working alongside it now faced the dilemma of whether to defend it against neo-liberal attacks, or whether to return to a more radical approach.

Syndicalism in Modern Society

[…] During the [19]40s Syndicalism went into its fourth and present phase. The new orientation has its origin above all in three things. The experiences of the Spanish Civil War, where the Anarohosyndicalist ideas for the first time could be put into practice on a large scale, the changed society and its new problems, foremost the emergence of the Welfare State but also Bolshevism’s push forward, and thirdly the actualization of certain liberal and anarchist lines of thought. Because of the advanced character of the Swedish Social State and the, from the international point of view, relatively strong position of Swedish Syndicalism after Spanish Anarchosyndicalism had been driven into exile after Franco’s victory, the new course has, in the first hand, been marked out in Sweden.

Modern Libertarian Syndicalism has written off the ”class struggle dogma” of the classical Syndìcalists and stresses very strongly its libertarian character. The old thought of a definitive general strike revolution has been abandoned for being, in today’s society, unrealistic and implying totalitarian risks. The development towards a Libertarian Socialist society is thought as an evolutionary process with trade union struggle, opinion making and other direct social activity as pushing means. On the whole, for modern Syndicalists the end plays a considerably lesser part than the direction, and Libertarian Syndicalism is still more undoctrinaire and pragmatic than older Syndicalism.

Although not constituting (as yet anyhow) a new historical phase something should perhaps be added about the youngest generation of Swedish Syndicalists. They have a somewhat broader perspective, and the young Marx, modern ”Revisionism” and British Anarchist and New Left thinking are new sources of inspiration. Having grown up together with the Anti-Colonial Revolution in Asia and Africa the young Syndicalists base their View of the world on the emergence of these new countries. This new generation is mostly to be found in the ideological groups and in the circle around the ”Journal of Libertarian Socialism”, Zenit.

Syndicalism in Today’s Sweden

The principal organization of Swedish Syndicalism is Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation (Central Organization of Swedish Workers) SAC, a Syndicalist trade union movement founded in 1910, organizing all categories of wage and salary earners and having about 20.000 members with its greatest strength among wood- and building-workers. Beside SAC there is a Syndicalist women’s federation and independent ideological and/or propagandistical groups, among others students’ clubs.

The Syndicalist press in Sweden comprises the famous weekly Arbetaren (The Worker), the union organ Industriarbetaren and the ideological and cultural review Zenit.

Internationally, the Swedish Syndicalists cooperate with several Syndicalist and other Libertarian and Socialist organizations all over the world.

The Declaration of Principles of the Central Organization of Swedish Workers (SAC)

1) The Syndicalist movement is emanating from the working class as a safeguard for the interests of the working people and with the purpose of remoulding society into a Libertarian Socialist direction, which implies the greatest possible freedom and economic justice being given to everybody.

2) The world scene is primarily dominated by three systems:
a) The democratic-statist with a mixture of private, state and other collective property together with political democracy and certain rights for individuals and organizations.
b) The statist-totalitarian system, where property as well as power monopoly are entirely in the hands of the state.
e) The politically statist-totalitarian system, where the property monopoly predominantly is in private hands.

3) The SAC is against all these systems but does not equate them. The society which respects the human rights is preferred decidedly. Syndicalism has contributed to the creation of the human liberties and rights which exist in the democratic society and is ready to defend these against the adherents of dictatorship.

4) Where private capitalism is dominating there also exists the private monopoly of supplies of raw materials and of means of production. This monopoly is a bar to continued economic democratization and federative administration. Instead of being objects of speculation for a privileged few the production must, to an equal degree, be put at everybody’s disposal. Thereby the greatest cause for exploitation and economic conflicts between men is removed.

5) In industrialized countries with a political democracy the social security of the property-less masses has become greater through the modern social reforms, but at the same time has the power of the state increased by this policy. Through its organizational strength the working-class must see to it that the carrying through of the social security reforms occur in forms favouring self-administration and being under the control of the popular organizations.

6) Syndicalism opposes the nationalization of the economic, social and cultural life. It appeals to all who are opposed to every form of exploitation, to all who do not defend economic or other privileges and who are ready to participate in a struggle for a social order where all Working people have a chance of getting a coresponsibility in the administration of the means of production by adhesion to cooperative producers’ groups, and where every member of society, on the basis of extended forms of communal and regional autonomy gets the opportunity of actively participating in a decentralized social life.

7) Syndicalism fights against every form of dictatorship and declines all authoritarian forms of organization, which by the centralization of the right of decision, create oppressors and oppressed and which render more difficult the development of self-responsibility which is the prerequisite for autonomy. Since one man does not have a natural right to determine over another and since might in itself is not right, there only rest the voluntarily made agreements as a basis for men’s social cooperation.

From this fact the federative form of organization is derived. Therefore, Syndicalism in the first hand directs its energies towards the building up of organizations on a federative basis, within which it is left to each organizational unit to decide their own affairs, which does not imply that the units have a right to act contrarily to commonly made regulations.

This organization is shaped so, that these locally employed in an enterprise form an operation section; the operation sections from all enterprises in the same branch and at the same place form a syndicate, and all syndicates form together in their turn the local federation, which as regards general and common interests form the unit within the central organization. For the furthering of the activity and special interests of the respective industrial groups the syndicates form country-wide federations, according to expediency are brought together into departments. This organization shall be developed with all vital functions in a free socialist society taken into consideration.

8) The SAC does not participate in party politics. Both in the day-to-day struggle and for the creation of a classless social order the direct, economic, social and cultural activity is regarded as the essential. Syndicalism prepares and follows up the social transformation from below with the place of work as point of departure and with a constructive View of the social upbuilding. The SAC, therefore, organizes all workers — wherein technicians and administrators of all kinds also are included — in their character of producers, in a common organization, which beyond the immediate interest struggle aims at the construction of a Syndicalist society.

The members of the SAC have the right outside the movement to participate in the forms of social activity that corresponds to their political, philosophic and religions views on the condition that this activity does not bring them into a state of open hostility to the Syndicalist movement.

9) Syndicalism contributes to a cooperative economy in a socialist meaning and aims at the forming of international federations of producers’ cooperatives as a first step towards the Libertarian Socialism of the future. Syndicalism regards all forms of cooperative activity, even the cooperation of the farmers and the self-employed, which does not exploit other labour or sets aside social solidarity, as a stage in the development towards e society where everybody is liberated from undue economic dependence and where all appropriate forms of mutual aid are coordinated according to federalist principles. Syndicalism also regards the consumers’ cooperation as an applicable means in the struggle against national and international monopolies.

Syndicalism’s order of production implies the complete realization of Industrial Democracy, so as a striving towards this goal the SAC participates, by direct union-industrial measures in every activity aiming at coinfluence of the workers in private, communal, state or consumer-owned enterprises. Syndicalism therefore also intends to give the partial industrial democracy a socialist direction, bearing in mind that the administration of the means of productions shall he overtaken by all employed.

10) State boundaries’ and national administration unite are contrary to the social structure of Syndicalism, which follows the economic life and is, administrationally, nationless. In consequence of that is the state as a representative of nationalism and war the bitterest enemy of Syndicalism. Syndicalism, therefore, combats militarism and regards the anti-militarist propaganda as one of. its most important civilizational tasks. It moreover works for a joint action against militarism and war by the free popular movements. The methods for the anti-military struggle will be determined by the situation prevailing in each special case.

Instead of the existing system of sovereign states Syndicalism aims at international, regional and universal federations, resting upon economic and cultural unions of both geographic and functional character. Autonomy and suitable forms of control in all social fields must make the guarantee for a democratic development within the frame of a common federalist judicial system which overcomes nationalism and makes militarism superfluent.

In this way Syndicalism wants to further a humanistic view of life and a higher civilization in the spirit of freedom and solidarity with the intent at last to reach a brotherly cooperation between all peoples and races of the earth.

The SAC, 1963

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Alex Kolokotronis: Municipalist Syndicalism

I always found Murray Bookchin’s perennial critiques of anarcho-syndicalism to be misdirected. It’s not as if there was a burgeoning anarcho-syndicalist movement in the United States that was steering the revolutionary masses in the wrong direction. Bookchin also misrepresented the revolutionary politics of historic anarcho-syndicalist movements, which never narrowly focused on the workplace as the one and only revolutionary arena. The first anarcho-syndicalists, although they referred to themselves as federalists, anarchists, and collectivists, were the anti-authoritarian activists in the First International associated with the anarchist revolutionary, Michael Bakunin. And when they first put forward an anarcho-syndicalist program at the 1869 Basle Congress of the International, they advocated organizing for the revolution through the workers’ autonomous organizations and on a communal (or municipal) basis, a combination of revolutionary trade unions and revolutionary communes that would together provide the basis for a stateless federation of directly democratic associations for production, distribution and consumption in conjunction with more geographically based federations of communes, which together would create a socialist society. Although Bookchin claimed that he did not ignore the importance of working class organizations in achieving an ecological society, his focus on municipal politics and continual sniping at the anarcho-syndicalists left the impression that he did not see class based organizations playing much of a role. 

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a piece by Bookchin advocating “municipal” as opposed to “workers’ control” of the means of production. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this creates serious problems regarding the realization of Bookchin’s social ecological vision of a stateless future without hierarchy and domination in which people live in harmony with themselves and with nature if people, in their capacity as workers, are subject to the authority of the municipal assemblies. I also included a piece by Graham Purchase under the heading “Green Anarcho-Syndicalism,” in which he argued that revolutionary trade unions would have to play a role in the creation of an ecological society, which does not mean giving them a privileged role or power over others.

Alex Kolokotronis takes another approach in his article from Roar magazine, “Municipalist Syndicalism,” which differs significantly from Purchase’s “green anarcho-syndicalism,” primarily in that it is not an anarchist form of municipalism or syndicalism. I’ve reproduced a portion of Kolokotronis’ article below.  Kolokotronis advocates the democratization of existing trade unions, rather than the creation of revolutionary trade unions, which can then provide organizational and financial support for a municipalist political program in multiple locations.

Municipalist Syndicalism

The strength of municipalism lies in its locality, in its attention to the particular — an attention that some of the best unions have and harness. But to offset against at least some pressures, it must also find strength in its multiplicity. That is to say, not just the multiplicity that lies within a given locale, town or city, but the multiplicity that is at the core of notions of confederalism.

I call this type of politics municipalist syndicalism because, although it is socialistic and premised on multi-tendency coalitions, different chief agents will arise in different contexts. In the context of unionized “eds & meds” metropolitan regions, the unionized “new” working class can be that agent. Where will the meetings be held? Who will have resources to establish an effective communications system? Who will do the canvassing (whether for candidates or as part of a participatory process)? Unions can do a substantial part of this work. And in that way, it is syndicalist: unions deploying their self-organized power and resources towards a political end. Yet, it is municipalist in that organized labor’s eyes are turned for more far-reaching transformation. A transformation beyond the point-of-production.

Before this can take place, however, there must be a democratization of unions themselves.

Community-Focused Union Democracy

As I noted in a previous piece for ROAR Magazine, concepts and designs of union democracy have remained quite thin. Participatory budgeting for union dues can be part of a union’s democratized design. I have argued that participatory budgeting can help stimulate class consciousness, serve as a means for worker education (particularly in the area of self-management), and help transform bureaucracy into a collaborative iterative form of administration.

Participatory budgeting also has an intersectional character. It has been a forum for including and empowering immigrants. It has also increasingly become a staple of the Movement for Black Lives. Public Agenda’s research of PB in North America finds that “black residents were overrepresented or represented proportionally to the local census among voter survey respondents.” In an official statement addressed to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Black Youth Project 100 called “for a participatory city budget in which the public has the power to defund the Chicago Police Department and invest those dollars and resources in Black futures by setting a living wage with union representation.”

BYP 100 member Rossanna Mercedes writes that she has “witnessed first hand the organizing power of black people in participatory budgeting.” Mercedes recounts that “formerly incarcerated persons, mostly Black men, organiz[ing] together through a local community based organization and decide how to spend tax dollars in their neighborhoods. Black youth let[ting] their neighbors know about the process by knocking on doors, taking the vote to them to build support for projects they’ve proposed for their communities.” Mercedes goes further, imagining “what we could do with Community Development Block Grants, the billions in federal funding for those of us in low income communities.”

Participatory budgeting for a labor union could potentially help ground and scale this work, and also connect to it. It can be an organizational form that materially connects labor unions to community groups, with the backing and creative leadership of membership. It can create the necessary alliances for a real municipalist program and movement. There can even be cross-union and cross-local participatory budgeting processes, reminiscent of the regional assemblies once held by the Knights of Labor in the nineteenth century.

Unions can even help community groups achieve their targets, by deploying both their fiscal capital as well as social capital. A labor union participatory budgeting process, for example, could include a budget category of external or “community relations.” Union members could propose ideas and craft projects that directly benefit or work together with the larger community.

This dimension of a union participatory budgeting process could then flow into a democratized “Bargaining for the Common Good” initiatives (partnerships between labor unions and community-based organization that pursue “broad based campaigns that demand common good solutions to win progressive revenue and advance community fights such as affordable housing, universal pre-k and expanded after school programs, and improved city services, as just a few examples”). Such Common Good Bargaining frameworks would be more thoroughly co-designed, which itself would flow out of experiences of co-design and co-production practiced in project development phase of the labor union participatory budgeting process.

There are other ways that democratic union processes can be designed for intersectional ends. One way of explicitly doing this could be through a participatory mapping process. Here members themselves bring their “local situated knowledges” and “standpoints” to the mapping of a workplace or work-location. For example, a number of public schools in the United States fall short of meeting requirements prescribed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even when accessibility grievances are lodged through unions, such grievances either fall through the union’s bureaucratic cracks or are simply ignored. Participatory mapping processes could be formally linked to what ends up on the bargaining table between unions and employers. Member participation would achieve results by substantively reorienting unions towards intersectional concerns, while also informally pressuring union leadership to act accordingly.

Participatory budgeting and mapping processes within labor unions would also prepare unionized workers to take part in municipal-level participatory budgeting processes. Beyond cultivating trust, this would train union members to operate large-scale participatory budgeting processes in preparation for significant scaling and expansion of participatory democratic processes. Competencies developed within unions would be readily available for transference and scaling at the municipal level. With all of these initiatives being inclusive of non-labor community groups, coalitions would be in place and there would be a backlog of trust-generating experience of having worked together.

Working with this variety of community groups and associations — such as retirees — unions can also streamline the creation of a sector of workers’ controlled enterprises. Soon-to-be retirees hold a stock of businesses that could be converted to democratic employee-ownership. Retiree associations possess networks that could connect those seeking to convert their enterprise with those who can help carry out the conversion. Retirees are also a significant segment of the voting base. Through lending legal and fiscal capacity for converting businesses to democratic employee-ownership (this itself is a tremendous opportunity considering that nearly 25 million workers are employed in businesses susceptible to conversion), soon-to-be-retirees will have found an exit-option.

Municipalist takeover by unions would then enable redeployment of this legal capacity — with greater resourcing, staffing and generalized support. With an autonomous federation of workers’ controlled businesses, democratized unions would have another ally possessing extensive fiscal resources — an ally operating according to socialist relations of production.

A number of unions in eds & meds already see the municipality as a key site of political engagement. In New Haven, a number of current or former UNITE-HERE organizers or officers have been elected to the Board of Alders (effectively, the City Council). There, a coalition of unions and community groups successfully called on Yale University to hire five-hundred residents from communities of color. The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) has run multiple teachers as candidates for the city’s Board of Alders and mayorality. It has also publicly forged ties with community groups, earning the CTU’s reputation for practicing “social movement unionism.” Power is being leveraged in these cities not only for organized labor as it stands, but the city as a whole. Labor unions are already heading this way. The key is imbuing this movement with a democratized form, imperative and character.

DSA as Potential Platform for Municipalist Syndicalism

There is another question: through what inter-union platforms could this be coordinated. One potential organization is Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the fastest growing socialist organization with 25,000 members. Countless members have demonstrated a commitment to an intersectional socialism as well as one focused on the labor movement. As shown by the intersectional character of participatory budgeting and other processes above, municipalist syndicalism gives content to this commitment.

Thus, as DSA turns towards creating a Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC), it would be wise to consider how union democracy can help flow into the construction of a municipalist socialism. Subsection 3 of the priorities resolution states that “DSA is committed to building democratic labor unions that empower and activate their rank-and-file members.” Putting forward a mix of reforms that include union dues participatory budgeting and common good bargaining adds programmatic weight to this statement.

A DSLC that “coordinates chapter-based labor branches” can do so along such lines, on the premise that if democratic socialism is to be implemented on the national level it must be first experimented with within our unions and within our cities. DSLC can help materially articulate a municipalist syndicalism. A socialism in which democratized unions take leadership, by constructing intersecting layers of self-governance and self-management at the municipal and regional level. Democratization of unions — and union capacity deployed-today towards democratization of the workplace — would remake unions into a “bridgehead” to a participatory society.

The seeds of a municipalist program already lie within the labor movement’s capacity. Once planted, the seeds of municipalism can grow from a democratization of the union to a democratization of the city itself — along direct and participatory lines. It is not the only pathway to radical municipalism, but it is the promise of the new working class. It is the promise of socialist-led union democracy in the twenty-first century.

Alexander Kolokotronis

Green Anarcho-Syndicalism