Is Syndicalism a worker's option today?

Industrial/political options, previously and now

Is Syndicalism a worker's option today?

How might we achieve a more equitable world?
For some, the answer is syndicalism .
When I was a young left activist, I found syndicalism an attractive political idea. The 1971 movie "Joe Hill"celebrated workers hitting back hard at cruel capitalists. The Industrial Workers of the World songbook gave us something socialist to sing until we got to making up our own songs.
An added attraction was that unlike Marxism, basic IWW philosophy did not require too much difficult thought to comprehend. The heady IWW mixture of mass unity and moral indignation followed on quite easily from a standard christian upbringing.
The idea of one big union taking over the means of production and running a democratic workers society was almost like a secular heaven.
It was also just about as remote.
For the syndicalist idea to become a part of real life, a mass syndicalist workers movement is needed. Unfortunately for would be syndicalists of my day, there were not enough takers. In 1971, the New Zealand workers movement was dominated by the Federation of Labour, the State sector unions, the Labour party and half a dozen tiny hard left political parties. On the job worker discontent was usually quickly absorbed by one or other of those repositories. On the odd occasion where it was not, the participants in a dispute usually came to a compromise after a few hours or days. Put it another way, workers of my generation saw no need to create an alternative syndicalist movement.
What they did see the need for was fairly frequent use of a key syndicalist tactic - strike action.
In the early 1970's workers had fewer legal restrictions on their freedom to strike. So, on well organised jobs, it was not uncommon for unionists to strike in support of sacked workers seeking reinstatement, or in support of other workers on strike. At that time there were also significant numbers of political strikes against racism and the threat of nuclear war and other issues. Most of these actions did not last very long, because the blue collar manual workers, who did most of the striking, mostly lived from payday to payday.
While strikes gave a feeling of worthy sacrifice for a greater good, and were an exciting change from daily drudgery, they also hurt. Young families trying to pay off a house and educate their children could not afford too many strikes. Often, industrial action would severely damage family life. As a young person without responsibilities I did not always realise all the negative social implications of strikes.
Employers have enormous resources - control of the paypacket, the right to hire and fire and almost unquestioning backing from the state. If workers are to face down that level of opposition and force the boss to do something the boss doesn't want to do, those workers have to be disciplined enough to stay out the gate and put up picket lines. Real picket lines which physically stop people from passing. Some of those would be line breakers are often strikers former friends. After a strike is over it may take months or years to heal the bad feeling resulting from what took place on the picket line. As older militants can attest, sometimes the healing never happens.

Strikes are a vitally necessary weapon of the working class and as such I am very much in favour of them, but it needs to be recognised they come with a price tag.

Today, strikes are rather out of favour among New Zealand workers. This is partly due to the anti strike culture created by more restrictive industrial laws. I see several other reasons for fewer strikes today.

In the '70's there was a small communist current in the union movement. It was very small, but of some significance. Communist union delegates and officials did not usually initiate strikes but were more likely to encourage them and support them when they got going. ( there was one exception, that being the Socialist Unity Party which sought to control and restrict industrial action) Today there is no communist current in the New Zealand union movement and that has a negative effect on the use of strike action and on workers vision of an alternative socialist society.

The loss of communist ideology in the workers movement has been accompanied by a singular loss of spine in New Zealand labour union ideology. Today, unions make vague generalised public appeals for special consideration of " vulnerable workers". This idiotic formulation not only disempowers and degrades sections of workers who have fought successfully for their own interests in the past. It artificially divides the working class into 'vulnerable' and - presumably - 'not vulnerable'. This attitude also surrenders the area of wage rises to mayors and city councillors to bestow or not bestow a 'living wage' to the deserving poor. However well intentioned, this union office capitulation is a like a cancer to basic working class solidarity.

Today there are fewer big manual blue collar jobs in New Zealand. Having been a union delegate on a big organised site and on several small non union sites I have an idea of the huge difference in culture. Of course white collar workers can and do take industrial action, but I think shared organised physical labour is a more fertile ground for immediate spontaneous expressions of solidarity.

The culture of workers solidarity is not taught in schools, but passed down mostly by example and word of mouth. After the battering of the Employment Contracts Act and the subsequent union rout, we have, to some extent, missed a generation of generalised militant workers culture. Workers can learn the basics of organisation from scratch and do that rapidly when required, but the lost tradition does not help us.

Workers today are more atomized in their daily lives than they have been for many years. Devices such as the laptop, videos, I pod, the internet, the Smartphone and the Playstation are universal, They allow and encourage individuals to find preoccupation and distraction in a self contained world of their own.

The rise of professional sport has created an important new alternative individual escape route for ambitious workers. Sport used to be something played after work, for fun. Now, sport has become work - for a few, it's very well paid employment.A recent survey of school children saw them rate "sports player" as their most favoured future occupation. Winning the Lotto is now not the only way to escape a crap job.

In recent years the ruling class has grown more sophisticated in it's practice of social control. While the state forces all remain intact and ready to shoot where necessary, there is a layer of careful cultivation masking that reality. For example, in the same survey of school children Prime minister John Key was overwhelmingly described as one of the most cool people around. Such a thing would never have been said in our day of Holyoke, Muldoon, or, ( even despite the subsequent mythology, Norman Kirk). Mps used to appear remote; mainly boring pompous old white men in suits who drank too much . Today they are just as rotten, but affect a far more friendly and diverse image. Hey, look, they're just folks like us! There is certainly class hatred of millionaire John Key out there, but it's diluted and deflected by his carefully maintained 'nice ordinary guy' image.

Although it is not on the horrizon, I am sure that there will be a resurgence of workingclass fighting spirit. Capitalism has proved to be a very flexible system, but its internal contradictions do not allow for smooth transition to a civilized society for all to enjoy. Despite modern inventions, inequality is growing steadily.

The form of the next workingclass resurgence will necessarily rise out of modern conditions, which are very different from those of the early 20th century, when syndicalism briefly flourished. Although the basic contradictions of capitalism remain, today's world of work, leisure, social mobility and social expectations has changed quite markedly. That is why events like the rise of the Wobblies - and the Bolsheviks - will not be replicated.


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Don, thanks for this thoughtful piece. I really like the way you've written about the way social conditions shape the forms resistance can take, and that each resistance tactic has its cost to those involved. Too much of the discourse in revolutionist circles these days dictates the "right" way to resist, and treats those costs as evidence of using the "wrong" way.

>> Workers today are more atomized in their daily lives than they have been for many years. Devices such as the laptop, videos, I pod, the internet, the Smartphone and the Playstation are universal, They allow and encourage individuals to find preoccupation and distraction in a self contained world of their own. <<

There is definitely some truth in this, but this is as much about how we use these devices, as anything inherent to how they work. Documentaries can be watched online at home with a DVD player and TV, or they can be used to bring people together in person for a focused discussion. Networked games could be used to train people in nonviolent direct action, just as we've used email lists and sites like this to exchange information and analysis which shapes our activities offline. Online calendars can be used to help people find out about meetings, workshops, protests, hui or other activist events they might not otherwise have known about.

Here in Ōtepoti, people from a number of groups are discussing how a shared activist calendar site could be used to help us avoid schedule clashes between the events of allied or sympathetic groups. This is a great example of how digital technologies can be used to bring us together more often, and more effectively, rather than isolating us.

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