Review of Prairie Struggle Organization’s Combative Unionism Position Paper (Draft)

Prairie Struggle Organization’s recent position paper on Combative Unionism is a welcome contribution to the contemporary discussion on what our intervention and political work should look like in the workers movement and unionism in general. Their argument they lay down is preceded by a humble sentiment that despite their various wins, losses, and so on they still find themselves questioning and experimenting. In this period of relatively low struggle especially within the workplace in North America this is a very open minded approach. I hope this openness to new ideas makes my further comments on their position paper accepted in good faith as a contribution towards clarifying the proposals and analysis they have put forward.

One thing I think could help clarify PSO’s position is making more of a clear distinction between the labor movement and the unions. They state that it is not a strategic issue of if they should support unions but “one of tactics and what can be done under these conditions to promote revolutionary change…not if we should be involved within the labor movement, but how.” As in this example they use these terms many times throughout the paper interchangeably. This is unfortunate since they do spend quite a good while defining different types of unions and workers organizations such as: Lobby Unions (for US readers these are yellow unions, or employers/vertical unions), Business Unions, Combative Unions, Revolutionary Unions, Workers’ Councils and Mobilization Committees. When they use the terms interchangeably it can become confusing, and since they clearly reject Lobby Unions and don’t think Revolutionary Unionism or Workers’ Councils are currently useful methods forward for the time being, the reader is left to assume that when PSO says we should intervene as “combative unionists” in the labor movement, they mean the Business Unions.

To me this just seems like a narrow definition, and it would be beneficial to see the entire workers’ movement along a spectrum from representational to associational organizations. I think in general the piece could benefit from more readability by adjusting for these considerations, or at least not to conflate the two, the labor movement & the unions, especially the business unions in this way. There are some other important reasons, even elaborated by Prairie Struggle themselves, that lead to why this should not be done, namely their analysis that the business unions exert bureaucratic control over working class power.

Prairie Struggle spends quite a lot of time delving into how revolutionary unions like the CGT and the anarcho-syndicalism of Rudolf Rocker lay the foundations for the basic principles of all unionism. These basic considerations are that unions should be: 1) Class organizations that are open to all workers and it is claimed should not be divided by politics, and 2) that they are the vehicle for preparing the complete emancipation of the workers and expropriation of the capitalist class, in short revolutionary gymnastics. From this somehow however they gather that: “Business unions and Combative unions are organizations based on the class interests of the workers. They come to existence by the need of workers to organize on class lines and advance their own interests in opposition to those of the bosses.” Unfortunately for me this does not seem to follow, especially from their own definitions later on, of what such organizations actually are.

For instance regarding Business Unions they say “Despite their rich history of often being sparked by syndicalist tendencies, these unions have now become complacent.” That is that they correctly analyze that these unions used to be workers’ organizations, but now they are not. Prairie Struggle actually make quite a thorough analysis of how the Business Unions are not only accept capitalism but have been integrated into the framework of the State. They state that business unions can be:

“…characterized by the principle of “le partage du gateau” or the sharing of the cake with the boss. They don’t develop class antagonisms, but they do offer services that represent workers and space to fight for better gains and protection in the workplace.”

Thus these organizations that were once controlled by workers have become service organizations that can incidentally benefit workers from time to time having found a business model that has secured “…their status through the development of specific laws mandating the conduct of unions in all matters, including the strike, dues deduction, organizing, and contract enforcement. This legal direction enveloped unions into the pro-capitalist and oppressive framework of the state, making both the bureaucratic centralism of the unions and the new political strategies they adopted permanent and the dominant paradigm.”

How then can can Prairie Struggle Organization see the Business Unions at the same time representative of the principles of workers’ organization put forward by the CGT and anarcho-syndicalism? If at all these tendencies have been drastically weakened over many decades to the point that these syndicalist principles are no longer universally characteristic of their nature. Their concept however of Combative Unionism gets closer to these principles.

According to Prairie Struggle, Combative Unionism, and idea they acquired from the Quebec student movement, is derived from the practice of four key principles: a working class orientation (class unionism), direct democracy (i.e. for the workers by the workers), combativity (direct militant struggle), and autonomy (rejection of reformist, statist, and partyist solutions). Whereas the business unions are bureaucratic, serviced oriented, and integrated into the State, Combative Unions are “based and regrouped on the parameters of class, these unions draw a clear line between themselves and the boss.” They state that the executive committees must be accountable to the general assemblies of these unions. That such an executive acts “merely as a tool to execute the decisions of the membership, and this is not to be stigmatized and opposed as many do. On the contrary, democratic leadership should be shared and held accountable.” However this hasn’t always been the case though it is certainly a prefered anarchist core principle. One example of this in the context of Combative Unionism has been the executive of CLASSE during the movement of 2012 facing a militant base often opposed to it’s decisions. This leaves me wondering what is more important to the concept of Combative Unionism the base or the leadership? Is such a leadership executive needed? Probably, but I fail to understand how keeping combative unionism apolitical, will help towards keeping these executives accountable. There needs to be a lively political culture within the rank and file to keep the political pressure and connection of the executives to the ideas of the membership.

A significant difference PSO says is that the combative unions in the student movement as compared to the workers’ movement in Canada have often abstained from party politics. Unfortunately I am unsure if this is necessarily so, and would seek clarification about autonomy from party politics within the student combative unions, because it is my understanding that much of the movement got side tracked towards the end of Summer 2012 with support for Quebec Solidaire and pushing for electoral victories for other parties. Prairie Struggle however does take the position that traditional “partisan engagement dilutes our struggle and therefore, we agree with the autonomy put forth by the student movement.” This is a good core anarchistic principle to put forward, and the traditional principle put forward by anarcho-syndicalists, revolutionary unionists, and anarchist communists. It is just unclear if it is as defining a characteristic of combative unionism as PSO seem to argue.

Prairie Struggle’s analysis of revolutionary unions also does not make much sense to me, considering what seems to be their association of the business unions as being the labor movement. For instance they say they recognize revolutionary unions as constituting a major amelioration of the current problems related to unions, and that they are allies with these organizations and “fight alongside them in the struggle for worker control.” Yet why then are these unions not also worth fighting and working within? Why abstain from participation in organizations that are helping develop the fight back? Their answer to this question:

“We disagree that the creation of such revolutionary unions from scratch in this current state of affairs of North America is the most effective direction. We share the need to establish a growing combative revolutionary union movement but disagree that this can happen outside the current labour movement and its unions. Our “ends” are the same but strategy is our point of disagreement.”
This seems to be contradictory in logic to me, why is it not strategic to support these now as one contributing force, to the recomposition of the workers movement? They put an emphasis that they think these unions alone can not be effective without them participating with the current labor movement, i.e. in their analysis the business unions. But which revolutionary unions in North America, certainly not the IWW, have positions against dual carding in unions other than revolutionary unions? Another criticism of revolutionary unionism is the prospect of starting such unions from scratch. This is perplexing to me, but I must admit I do not know the situation in the prairies/Canada, but it seems to me that PSO is arguing to start new combative unions where possible from scratch, while revolutionary unions already exist, like the IWW in Edmonton just north of the PSO comrades. Why not start with a fusion of a combative and revolutionary approach, that sees the need to dual card within the business unions when applicable?

PSO also say that historically the business unions belong to the workers and many of their members still see them that way. Yet on the other hand they state that these organizations are clearly not controlled by the workers, but by bureaucrats and have been integrated into the State. They argue that some members still see these unions as theirs, but I wonder if because of dual consciousness many workers also have an understanding that they really are not theirs and can see that there isn’t much leeway for taking back control. Certainly the comrades of the PSO see this, which is why they argue for combative unionism, but I can not see how this is an argument against forming revolutionary unions. PSO however is strong in insisting that it is through the struggle that these tensions will change with class antagonism and radicalization likely to develop.

Another point of confusion for me was their argument against so called Workers’ Councils. This argument seems to be in abstract, and possibly informed by local positions of contemporary self-described council communists that I am not as privy to. From their description of such organizations it seems to be a broad term to encompass such things as direct action grievance focused solidarity networks, various workers’ resistance committees, workers’ centers and so on, not the historical entities known as Soviets or Rate. My concerns with this section is that it does not describe very fully what the positions historically or contemporarily of such council communists are other than them seeing a need to organize precarious workers. Like with revolutionary unionism I do not understand why these types of organizations should not be considered a strategic place to be if possible as part of the fighting section of the workers movement that is experimenting with new ideas and methods.

In the end of the section of Combative Unionism explaining various forms of organization PSO that many revolutionary unionists and council communists already practice combative unionism, in trying to create a revolutionary labor movement out of the old labor institutions, but that their critiques are those who only practice these as “pure traditions.” To me this just seems really contradictory, with the implication being that there are abstentionist revolutionary unionists and council communists, while PSO argue only for combative unionism within the current business unions as the way forward. Why not practice combative and direct struggle throughout all the various organizations of the labor movement? Shouldn’t we organize where all workers are at?

Considering all of their criticisms of revolutionary unions and workers’ councils especially about starting organizations from scratch I got rather confused by their approach to Combative Unionism in places where it does not yet already exist. Their vehicle for organizing that they put forward is the workers’ mobilization committees. As they say “these mobilization committees organize outside the current union structures knowing fully that the business unions they face exist to oppose any radical change to business as usual.” Regarding the Business Unions they also say that they “now more frequently resemble social clubs and political parties than organizations that fight to defend student and worker rights.” This is again another example of how PSO recognize the business unions as institutions that protect the status quo, and why I do not understand how they can think these are workers’ organizations.

However it is very encouraging that PSO see the workers’ mobilization committees as what combative unionists should use to undermine the bureaucracy of the business unions and lobbyist unions. This is a position I certainly support and believe any other revolutionary unionist or council communist would also support. The workers’ struggle committees, or mobilization committees as PSO call them are certainly a very important organization to develop in any fight. However I do not understand how these are both outside and within the business unions, and how they lay the “basis for radical change within the unions” like PSO say. If these Business Unions are more like the Parties and both operate within the framework of the state, might it not be better to fully promote the autonomy of such workers’ mobilization committees and other mass organizations controlled by the base of the workers?

Prairie Struggle’s understanding of the role of these committees also seems little different from what revolutionary unionists and council communists propose for those who dual card or are in a situation where a Business Union is in a workplace, I’ll quote them at length:

“The mobilization committees attack union bureaucracy little by little. They mobilize the grassroots for general assemblies, putting in place an alternative media, proposing changes to the union constitutions in order to make the executives more accountable and mobilizing within non-combative unions along side the combative unions during strikes and actions. The mobilization committee is key in undermining the bureaucracy and moderates who has hold on the union. They wage a war upon the apparatus of disinformation and expose the corruption and co-option taking place. It prepares the terrain for an eventual takeover of the union by its membership.”

However on this last point I can not understand if again PSO contradict themselves. They seem to see not much hope for taking over Business Unions as seen here:

“In business unions with militants actively mobilizing towards combative strategies, this level of engagement is next to useless. The constitution and bylaws that give power to bureaucrats, reformists, and national/international affiliations are still in place, and they will use tools afforded to them to isolate radical executive members. This is why we only advocate fighting for leadership in an already combative union, to sustain its democratic nature. In business unions, some militants may advocate this strategy as an act of desperation. This isn’t necessarily a useless strategy. However, when these documents cannot be challenged from the membership level, and when a well organized, radicalized membership is being successfully oppressed by those wielding institutionalized power, the solution may be found with more ease in separating the radical membership from the union altogether, and building a new organization. This is where we see intersectionality between combative unionism, and revolutionary unionism.”

So for all the talk about working for a combative rank and file movement within the Business nions, they pretty much see the ability to take them over as futile, and that this is a place of intersection between their approach and revolutionary unionism. This begs the question for me again why they do not combine these principles into a combative revolutionary unionist approach?

I understand that so far most of this review has been critique and confusion with lack of clarity in PSO’s paper but I think most clearly they put forward their position in this line:

“By organizing outside the union structure, the active minority use these…principles to organize within the membership so that the rank and file can progressively gain control of their union, and defend the interest of the rank and file.”

It seems here then that they are not for capturing or working within the bureaucratic structures of the business unions, but outside them with the rank and file membership, to build independent and combative workers, via autonomous workers’ mobilization committees. They say boring within is not useless, but practically next to useless and if powerful enough these organizations should break off and become new combative or revolutionary unions.

So far I have only talked mostly about Combative Unionism’s position on the workplace. They however do address other struggles, which they consider “marginal” struggles. While a rejection of lifestylism seems appropriate there is an uneasy tension in discussing that we need to move beyond “marginal” struggles, i.e. organizing “marginal” sectors of the class, i.e. women, people of color, etc. They may constitute officially according to bourgeois norms as minorities, yet they are actually the majority of the class in North America. In fact the move to want to go beyond and organize those outside, comes off borderline class reductionist, and like PSO is saying we should organize white men. I doubt this is their intention but I’d like to suggest they find better ways to address these issues to not be misunderstood in this way.

Interestingly however PSO put forward that the principles they describe that characterize Combative Unionism could be used to organize other struggles, which is something I fully support. On this they say:

“Organizing under the principles of direct democracy, combativity, autonomy and solidarity bring about the necessary framework needed to lead battles within our respective communities. From antifascist organizations, cop watch’s, anti-gentrification committees, immigrant rights networks, neighborhood defense committees and many more, mobilization committees working under these principles can initiate struggles beyond the shop floors on issues that may not be related to labour at all.”

The important thing is to recognize that these are working class struggles. Their analysis of co-ops and self-management of alternative institutions also appears to me to be very strong:

“However, we stress that alone this [a strategy of developing alternative institutions] does not constitute a strategy for revolutionary change and the overthrow of capitalism. Its subjects do not substitute capitalism peacefully. It must be integrated within a program that holds the tools to fight recuperation, appeasement and repressions.”

Overall they sum up the basics of their total position here:

“As anarchists, we are an active minority within our workplaces, schools and neighborhoods. However, it is not enough that we as individuals put our efforts into legitimate social struggles. In order to be effective in the various areas of struggle, we see the organization as a place for anarchists to organize the active minority with the objective to radicalize mass movements and popular struggles where they exist, or agitate for the creation of such popular movements. In doing so we have the potential to combat authoritarianism and reformist tendencies giving way to the maximum political potential of revolutionary anarchist-communist ideas within the working class.”

For these reasons and those stated above through this review if this is their strategy I would like to know why they do not focus their efforts as an active minority to be one more specifically focused on becoming an revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist union initiative or anarchist communist workers organization. Such organizations have historically had a strategy of building autonomous and militant mobilization committees that work outside and inside the business unions to form an overall revolutionary combative union movement.

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3 Responses to Review of Prairie Struggle Organization’s Combative Unionism Position Paper (Draft)

  1. Pingback: Review of Prairie Struggle Organization’s Combative Unionism Position Paper (Draft) | Research Material

  2. Black&Red says:

    Thank you for this review! True critique is one of the greatest compliments one can be paid, that is, that PSO’s position paper is worth your time to truly analyze. This review has the potential to spark a lively conversation/debate on the ideas put forth in PSO’s position paper, and I hope that’s what happens. I live in Ecuador, and after the position paper was featured on Anarkismo, I overheard people on the street discussing it. Amazing.

  3. Binh says:

    I think you raise some good, critical points about a group/paper I’m not familiar with. I especially like the point that the unions are not the sum total of the working class or of the working-class movement. I vehemently disagree with the notion that, “these unions [sellout unions, business unions, yellow dog unions] used to be workers’ organizations, but now they are not,” especially if this analysis is based on the fact that these unions “not only accept capitalism but have been integrated into the framework of the State.” Well, 99% (or close to it) of the working class “accepts” capitalism right now and the state. Why would we expect organizations based on this class to adhere to different precepts?

    This points to the elephant in the room: the class struggle itself in the West at this time is not revolutionary, in its aims, scope, scale, or intensity, regardless of whether this or that fight is led by anarchist-communists, communist-anarchists, “Leninists,” Trots, union bureaucrats, or a loose alliance of unions, non-profits, and religious/community leaders (like the $15/hr thing in the fast food industry or OurWalmart). This is the reality that revolutionaries cannot escape by forming dual unions (like I.W.W.) or dual parties (like the toy Bolsheviks) and that needs to be dealt with and engaged. (I’m still struggling with the strategic implications of this myself.)

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