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(en) NEA #8 - Anarchist Communists and the Italian 'Base Union' Movement - by Donato Romito (FdCA)

From Northeastern Anarchist <northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com>
Date Sat, 25 Oct 2003 22:29:42 +0200 (CEST)


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Exploring Alternative Forms of Workers’ Organization:
Anarchist Communists and the Italian 'Base Union' Movement
"The unions were born, historically speaking, in the
workplace as a result of precise material needs of the
working masses who made up its membership and under
whose control they operated." - Anarchist Communists
and the Mass Organization (UCAT, 1984)
Since its beginnings, the Italian workers' movement
has expressed two trends: one bureaucratic and tending
towards reformist, the other self-organized and
tendentially more radical or revolutionary. These two
trends have often cohabited within the same mass
organization while at other times they have given rise
to different organizations. In the first decade of the
20th century, the two trends in fact corresponded to
two different labour organizations - the reformist
CGdL and the revolutionary syndicalist USI (a split
from the CGdL), while there were also radical unions
among the railway and marine workers. Anarchist
workers were members of these unions, and even
occupied positions of great responsibility within
them.

During the famous Biennio Rosso ("Two Red Years"),
from 1919 to 1921, which preceded the advent of
fascism, Factory Councils were formed in the occupied
factories, in which anarchist workers played a
determining role. This was the first example in Italy
of grassroots labour organizations in the workplace.

The Fascist regime then instituted its own syndicates,
within which recent historiography has recognized the
role of those ex-USI syndicalists who did not go into
exile, but stayed in Italy at the side of the workers.
It was certainly a difficult choice given the risk of
compromise with the Fascist regime, but it also helped
in the survival of "red" ideas which later led to the
factory revolts of 1938 and the General Strike of
1943.

In the same year, the attempt on the part of
anarchists and radical communists in the
newly-liberated South to build the CGL was smothered
by the government, the Allies and the parties in the
CLN and led to the creation of the CGIL after the war.
In this, the anarchist current was so active that it
was offered the position of general secretary
alongside a communist, a socialist and a catholic. The
offer was rejected.

But there had already begun a progressive distancing
of the Italian anarchist movement from union work and
the attempt at re-constituting the USI failed.

The CGIL then suffered two splits: the catholic area
left in order to create today's CISL which then itself
split, when the non-religious social-democratic part
withdrew to create today's UIL. Only the communist and
socialist areas remained within the CGIL.

The reformist drive which affected the country from
the mid '60s to the early '70s was responsible for a
rebirth of the Factory Councils with different
structural characteristics to those of the '20s, but
basically establishing themselves as organs of
autonomous self-organized workers' power. The first
grassroots labour collectives known as cub ("comitati
unitari di base,” or unitary grassroots committees)
were also founded throughout the country. This
corresponded to the emergence of political formations
to the left of the PCI and of a radical syndicalist
left within the CGIL.

During this decade, the confederal unions,
CGIL-CISL-UIL, were able to re-absorb and defuse the
autonomy of the Factory Councils, but the grassroots,
self-organized syndicalist option had by that stage
reached the point of becoming ingrained on the
collective union memory, thanks to its forms and
content. This is the climate in which the category of
"syndical base" was born, an area which is opposed to
the bureaucracy of management and fed by the ethos and
experiences of struggle and organization from below
and which pervaded Italy throughout the '70s. In the
anarchist movement, only the young anarchist communist
organizations understood what was happening and they
created national structures for the coordination of
anarchist workers.

Many militants entered the confederal unions, which
they considered mass organizations where it was
possible to meet large numbers of workers and where,
through a process of direct democracy, they could work
from a grassroots level towards the defence of the
immediate interests of the class and for the
historical interests of the proletariat.

The economic crisis of the late '70s and the pincer
effect on the mass struggle created by political
terrorism and State repression opened the doors to the
labour defeats of the early '80s, together with an
abandonment of reformist policies by the confederal
unions. In 1984, the movement of the "self-convening
factory councils" tried to revive the expectations of
the "syndical base" regarding questions such as the
autonomy of workplace councils and wages which, thanks
to the CGIL's strategy, had lost their characteristic
of "independent variable" in the productive cycle. It
was the last attempt within the factories to rebel
against the cruel destiny which over 15 years had
transformed the Councils from autonomous agents in the
class struggle into cogs in the machine of the unions.
The structural changes in the productive cycle were by
that stage taking place against the backdrop of a
weakening of workers' organizations in the factories,
in tune with the political choices of the union
bureaucracies outside the factories.

In fact, it was in the state sector, which had avoided
the structural changes affecting the factories, that
the struggle from below was to take off again: there
had already been skirmishes in the areas of transport,
health and education in the late '70s, but 1986 was to
see the explosion of the COBAS in the schools and
railway sectors. Their principal demands were large
pay increases for everyone, an end to wage incentives,
permanent contracts for those on temporary contracts
and union rights for all workers. As these demands
were in direct contrast to those of the confederal
unions, the latter were seen as a counterpart to the
COBAS movement. The "syndical base" awoke again, this
time in sectors which were not a traditional part of
the council tradition, to shake up the union
bureaucracies or try new methods. Soon, in fact, the
widescale disagreement among train drivers with the
confederal unions' policies led to the creation of a
strong new union, the COMU.

The COBAS in the schools created for themselves an
organization of school delegates, later provincial
delegates who participated in the national assembly.
Being a mass movement, they included tens of thousands
of teachers who were already members of unions, and
some who weren't. Also in the schools, the confederal
unions were unable to re-absorb the COBAS who,
however, quickly became bogged down in sterile debate
about whether or not to remain as a mass movement or
to set themselves up as a new union in the sector,
something which led to them almost disappearing
altogether from the scene.

In 1988, we wrote: "Both as a result of the
pulverization of labour structures (in schools as in
the railways) and due to the absence of alternative
proposals, the problematic re-growth of models such as
councilism has forced the movements into an
exasperated "assemblyism" which only serves to favour
political rather than direct representation [...]. So
while recent phases of the social conflicts have seen
a renewed need for the direct involvement of large
sectors of employed workers - which could be described
as a strong drive towards the self-management of the
struggle - there has also been a notable absence of an
organizational model which would be able to respond
satisfactorily to the formation of organisms which can
effectively and definitively break with the
bureaucratic and institutionalised syndicalism of the
confederal unions." (Saverio Craparo, "La democrazia
di base nel movimento dei lavoratori" [Grassroots
Democracy in the Workers' Movements], FdCA 1988)

But by this stage, the banks had burst. The first
anti-strike laws directed against the cobas were
approved with the okay of the confederal unions and
served to deepen the divide. In 1991 there was the
first nationwide strike called by the various cobas
groups from different categories against the Gulf War.
COBAS was no longer a single grassroots organization
or mass movement, but had become synonymous with a
plethora of small union organizations. This was the
moment of the birth of "base syndicalism,” or
grassroots syndicalism, as distinct from confederal
syndicalism. It was a galaxy, composed for the main
part of advanced political militants active in the
world of labor, but was potentially capable of
attracting large radical sectors of the class. During
the first great financial crisis following the war,
the CGIL-CISL-UIL trio were forced into partnership
with the government and the bosses and in the autumn
of 1993 there were violently vociferous protests in
the streets against their leaders. The war on union
representation was now declared and the agreements
signed by these three unions, by which they managed to
obtain an exclusive on the right to represent the
workers, seemed like a bad joke.

1995-2001

These were the years of centre-left government when we
witnessed the absolute submission and complicity of
the confederal unions. The CGIL, above all, stands
accused of throwing open the doors of Italy to
neo-liberalism by supporting and facilitating the
bosses and the centre-left governments without
criticism, with the introduction of reforms and
contracts which only served to worsen the workers'
conditions. The dissention which was widely expressed
in all areas served to strengthen the "base unions" at
a local level, or within certain categories, but there
remained a weakness regarding global representation of
the collective class interests. In recompense, the
cobas also spread to the factories - right to the
heart of the CGIL's union power!! However, the
politico-syndicalist class which was at the root of
the various grassroots syndicalist organizations had
come from different ideological backgrounds and
political choices, and soon this resulted in
competition between the base unions, each trying to
assert their hegemony within a certain sector or among
the few thousand workers that they represented. There
were various futile consultation pacts, there were
cartels which at times included all but at other times
excluded this one or that one; the CGIL (which
supported the war in Kosovo) was systematically
demonized, but there was never any strategy of
dialogue with its members or with its internal
opposition. Grassroots syndicalism set itself up as an
alternative to a CGIL which was no longer viable, not
even for reformism, but in the cobas galaxy everyone
felt they were an alternative to everyone else or
imagined themselves to be a possible pole of reference
for the others. These were the years when the
opportunity was lost to make a great step forward
through a federative pact between the various
organizations.

The Grassroots Syndicalist Organizations

USI: Revived in 1978, it reached a certain consistency
in the '90s, before it split into two (following
disagreement on union practices), with a more
syndicalist, open wing and the more orthodox,
ideological wing. The split was later sanctioned by
the IWA (AIT). USI-AIT today claims a historical
legitimacy as a revolutionary, anarcho-syndicalist
union, which is lost to the collective memory, and
seems to attract workers who have already made a
political choice towards anarchism or libertarianism.
It considers its anti-war activities to be central.
The other USI, excluded from the IWA, is limited more
or less to the city of Rome where it is quite active
through its policy of labour forums. Both
organizations lay claim to the name USI.

CIB Unicobas: This union was born from the cobas
movement in the schools in 1991 and describes itself
as an independent, libertarian union, something which
has been responsible for an appreciable growth over
recent years, particularly in the schools sector. It
makes no ideological claims and has a horizontal
organizational structure. Having been, in the early
'90s, a driving force for the aggregation of base
unions, it is now going through a phase of
self-isolation due to differences with other base
unions who tend to exclude it. It is part of the SIL
network and, together with CGT-Spain, SUD-France and
SUD-Switzerland it is working towards the creation of
a European federation of alternative unions, the
FESAL.

Confederazione COBAS: This is the Cobas that is most
commonly seen in demonstrations and on TV, despite it
only formally becoming a union quite recently. It is
descended from the remains of the school cobas groups
of the '80s and is still strongest in this area. It
presents itself as a political, syndicalist and
cultural entity, which makes it seem something of a
party-union-cultural association. This, in fact, leads
one to suppose that its members share not only a
common labor strategy, but also a political and
ideological line. This characteristic together with
its tendency to want to devour all around it, was
mainly responsible for the failure of the policy of
trying to get "all the cobas into one single union".
It enjoys great political and media support among the
Italian communist left wing, which also serves to make
it much more visible than the other base unions, but
also much more susceptible to the general political
choices of parties such as Rifondazione Comunista or
structures like the Social Forums, one of whose
greatest exponents is in fact the Confederazione COBAS
leader.

CUB: Federated with the RdB (which is strong in the
civil service), the CUB is the largest grassroots
confederation in Italy, with unions in several
different categories. It grew out of a split in the
machinists' sector of the CISL. It has been able to
reach the requisites which enable it to enjoy national
representativity, something which has permitted it to
participate in talks for national work contracts,
while placing itself firmly as an alternative to the
CIGL-CISL-UIL trio. It has a vertical organizational
structure, with paid officers and services for
workers. It employs a distinct syndicalist line, with
no apparent ideological interference.

SLAI COBAS: This union exists above all within certain
large industrial plants where it practices highly
radical policies and is able to win votes and seats in
the union representation elections in the workplace.
It is strongly biased towards the communist left-wing,
but autonomously with respect to the parliamentary
left, which was to result in a split which led to the
birth of the S.in.Cobas. Its original statute foresees
a horizontal structure.

S.in.Cobas: A split from the SLAI guided by
Rifondazione Comunista. It is active above all in
certain factories and in local administration, thanks
also to its parliamentary connections.

Other base unions are active only within certain
categories, for example the Or.S.A. and SULT in the
transport sector and SNaTeR in telecommunications. All
the so-called base unions, with the possible exception
of the USI, found themselves effectively forced to
present candidates at the union elections in the
workplace, with some even obtaining excellent results.
However, there is unfortunately no data available to
allow us to establish if the base union delegates have
been able to practice a proper relationship between
delegate and workers, as one would expect of
anti-bureaucratic syndicalists, in respecting the
mandates they have received from their workmates who
have elected them.

2001-2003

The victory of Berlusconi and his right-wing
government in the elections has, for now at least,
forced the CGIL into taking on again a more combative
role, given that its existence and legitimacy as
Italy's biggest union is at stake. The return to
militancy of the CGIL, with all the weight of its
organization - 5 million members - has clearly placed
a shadow over the grassroots unions who now seem to be
more concerned with distancing themselves from the
CGIL than with looking to build a vast mass movement
against the government. This was dramatically seen on
the occasion of recent strikes this autumn against the
destruction of state pensions, with the aggravating
factor of the appearance of further divisions between
the various base unions.

The Anarchist Communist Strategy

As we have seen:

- class unity has been broken on many occasions;

- representation of the class is today in the hands of
a whole series of unions each claiming the title of
mass workers' organization, be it on the level of
institution or at grassroots level:

- the capacity of the proletariat to organize itself
in Councils seems to have exhausted itself with the
changes in the organization of labour or else been
absorbed by the union bureaucracies; it is perhaps
emerging again today as a mutant, providing the spark
for countless protests against the confederal unions'
line and nursing the alternative and grassroots
unions.

But what about us? For us, mass organizations are the
product of the capacity of the working class to
organize its strength in the clash with capital in any
given historical and socio-economic context
irrespective of sex, religion, geographical origin or
ideology. Consequently, the unity of the mass
organization comes from the ability of its objectives
and its struggles to defend the immediate (and
historical) interests of the proletariat to be widely
shared. Its revolutionary force comes not only and not
so much from the maximalism of its demands of from the
harshness of the struggle, but from its capacity to
function according to a libertarian method of
decision-making and responsibility. These two
characteristics of the mass organization place the
anarchist communists in a situation of continual
confrontation with the authoritarian currents, who -
both as far as objectives and struggles are concerned
(the reformists and the trade unionists) and as far as
control is concerned (the authoritarian communists) -
try to weaken or erase the autonomy of the mass
organization. Anarchist communists know only too well
that unity and revolutionary strength lie in practices
(struggles and organization) and statutes. It is for
this reason that we reject the conception of a mass
organization founded on spontaneism and on ideologism.
The former deprives the class of the possibility to
establish an organization over time and over wide
areas while the latter bases its unity on a shared
ideology, thereby separating the workers and breaking
that unity which is the basis of the defence of class
interests.

We therefore believe that if a mass organization
declares itslf to be anarcho-syndicalist, if it is
composed only of anarchists and is based on a shared
anarchist ideology, it falls within the conception of
ideologism. It is of course a different matter if it
is anarcho-syndicalism that characterizes the forms of
struggle and the internal structure of the mass
organization or its representatives, that is to say if
anarcho-syndicalism is practiced as a
tendency/development/result of the unity and the
revolutionary strength of the mass organization, and
not as a foregoing requirement. An anarcho-syndicalist
mass organization is not the most maximalist one, but
the one which breaks the pattern of reaching
agreements, which creates room for conflict, which
seeks advanced, practicable objectives and which uses
direct democracy in its bargaining.

The same is true for revolutionary syndicalism. If a
revolutionary syndicalist mass organization is just
that by reason of its members being ideologically
revolutionary, then it does not matter which
anti-capitalist ideology they believe in and if
revolutionary syndicalism is an a priori component of
this mass organization, then we fall back once again
into ideologism. The revolutionary level should not be
measured by the revolutionary beliefs of the members,
by the maximalism of its platform, by the harshness of
its forms of struggle. It should refer to the capacity
of the mass organization to represent a credible
reference point for the workers - revolutionary or
otherwise - in the defence of their interests.

Without the history behind it of anarcho-syndicalism
and revolutionary syndicalism, Italian grassroots
syndicalism remains trapped between the radicalism of
its platforms and the need for bargaining, between its
criticism of bureaucratism and the inevitable
formation of a leadership class - but always providing
each tiny union survives.

We anarchist communists place ourselves wherever the
class consciousness organizes itself in any given
historical period, in the forms laid out by the social
conflict and the subjectivity of the workers. We do
not have any pre-defined boxes nor do we follow any
particular form of syndicalism: the FORA in Argentina
and the Spanish CNT, the IWW and the USI from the '10s
to the '20s - can all provide useful teachings, as can
the French Labour Exchanges, the anarchist elements of
the Italian CGdL in the '10s and '20s and the CGIL in
the fifties.

However, over and above the defined mass
organizations, we must carefully watch the forms of
self-organization of the working class in the
workplaces and in the community because that is where
the mass organizations are built. There, where
anarchist union activists are on the inside of that
organized expression of the working class, encouraging
its growth. We also observe the evolution of
capitalism and the working class answer to it, so that
the ideas of the anarchist communists, developed
within our specific political organizations, can
become a leadership of ideas in the definition of the
objectives and forms of struggle within the mass
organization or organization in which they are
members.

This is what unites us as anarchist communists. This
is what unites me with other members of my
organization who are members of a different union than
mine. If, instead, we had to do all this from the
starting point of the union we were members of or
through a particular form of syndicalism, we might
perhaps be reduced only to being a limited
coordinating group of union activists seeking to
protect our own little union.

We choose the workers over any particular union. We
choose the unity of the workers over any particular
union. We support the struggles of the workers for the
defence of their interests, irrespective of the form
or union involved or of the type of syndicalism
involved, provided it can lead to an improvement in
the living conditions of the proletariat, and to the
creation of freer spaces within society. And if, in
these struggles and/or unions, we are able to bring
our ideas, to influence through our ideas, we will
have contributed to strengthening the autonomy of the
workers and promoting the role of class-struggle
anarchism. In other words, we will have engaged in
real revolutionary syndicalism, real
anarcho-syndicalism, real libertarian syndicalism,
real... syndicalism.

It is the material situation of labour which
determines the organizational possibilities of one
union over another, rather than our revolutionary
wishes. It is the actual condition of the
relationships of power which widen the possibilities
of radical syndicalism with a libertarian praxis,
rather than our simply being anarchists.

We are materialists, after all, aren't we? Well then,
let the advanced elements and sectors of the working
class who are part of the internal opposition in the
CGIL or in the many alternative unions be seen as an
objective fact. Whether we like it or not. A strategy
can be built on what is possible and not only on what
is right. But radical syndicalism based on a
libertarian praxis cannot be achieved with the
following three elements:

- autonomy from party and political domination;

- unity of the workers, reached through the definition
of a general platform of radical syndicalism wherever
and however it appears; unity of objectives and
methods of struggle;

- revolutionary strength, through libertarian praxis
in the internal organization of whatever type of
union; this applies equally both when developing the
general platform and during the phase of bargaining.

The Syndicalist Tactics of Anarchist Communists

The highest level of exploitation and confrontation is
found in the workplace and in the various sectors:
this is where we need to rebuild the unity of
interests between workers with different types of work
contract and take back the right of decentralized
bargaining, safeguard the right to health, manage
working hours in order to be able to manage our lives,
separate wages from productivity and reject the
blackmail of overtime. Coordinating groups composed of
rsu delegates from the various sectors, workers on
permanent contracts and temporary contracts and
migrants could represent sound forms of cooperation,
unity and struggle.

Within the community, it is the task of anarchist
communists to build spaces and situations where we can
promote relationships and develop syndicalist theory
irrespective of union or party membership. This is
where we can see the richness of the various union
experiences, of self-managed organizations and unions,
of those activists who pursue certain struggles (both
partial and more general) upon which we can federate
the workers from different unions. Chambers of Labor
connecting the various unions, popular labor forums,
regional co-ordinating groups of grassroots unions -
these can all be places where we can work towards the
effective defence of the class interests of all
workers and migrants.

On a national level, it falls to anarchist union
activists to ensure that it is possible to federate
class sectors, union activists and the various
grassroots unions on a platform within unavailable
objectives and principles regarding wages, work hours,
rights, services and union democracy.

It was for this reason that the FdCA launched an
Appeal to Anarchist and Libertarian Union Activists in
2001, irrespective of the union they were members of,
which sought to co-ordinate their action (with full
regard for the libertarian praxis of free agreement),
and to "[...] enable the general union action in the
wider struggle to become more efficient, to rebuild
the unity of workers, to re-establish class
solidarity, to regain union democracy and autonomy
with the aim of a more egalitarian, more libertarian
society" (from the "Appeal to Anarchist and
Libertarian Union Activists", FdCA 2001).

===============

Index of Acronyms:

- COBAS: COmitato di BASe (Base Committee) - CGdL:
Confederazione Generale del Lavoro (General Labour
Confederation) - USI: Unione Sindacale Italiana
(Italian Syndical Union) - CGL: Confederazione
Generale Lavoratori (General Confeferation of Workers)
- CLN: Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (National
Liberation Committee) - CGIL: Confederazione Generale
Italiana del Lavoro (General Italian Confederation of
Labour) - CISL: Confederazione Italiana Sindacale dei
Lavoratori (Italian Syndical Workers' Confederation) -
UIL: Unione Italiana Lavoratori (Italian Union of
Workers) - COMU: COordinamento Macchinisti Uniti
(Co-ordination of United Engine Drivers) - CIB
UNICOBAS: Confederazione Italiana di Base UNIcobas
(Italian Base Confederation Unicobas) - CUB:
Confederazione Unitaria di Base (Unitary Base
Confederation) - RdB: Rappresentanze Sindacali di Base
(Base Syndical Representation) - SLAI Cobas: Sindacato
Lavoratori Auto-organizzato Intercategoriale
(Self-organized Inter-category Syndicate of Workers) -
S.in.Cobas: Sindacato Intercategoriale Cobas
(Inter-category Syndicate) - FULT: Federazione
Unitaria Lavoratori Trasporti (Unitary Federation of
Transport Workers) - SNATER: Sindacato NAzionale
TElecomunicazioni (National Telecommunications
Syndicate)

===============

Special thanks to Nestor McNab (FdCA) for the English
translation of this essay.

===============

Donato Romito is a member of the National Secretariat
of the Federazione dei Communisti Anarchici
(http://www.fdca.it), lives and works in Pesaro, in
the Marches region of Italy. He is an elected union
delegate in the school where he teaches and is a
member of the grassroots union Unicobas. He
participates in the activities of workers'
associations and in coordinating groups between
various grassroots unions in the town and region where
he lives.

===============

This essay is from the forth-coming issue of The
Northeastern Anarchist (#8, Fall/Winter 2003), which
will be out by November 1st. The theme this issue is
'Anarchists in the Workplace' with essays focussing on
class war strategies and analysis for anarchists that
go beyond orthodox syndicalism... Anarcho-communist
approaches to labor organizing, strike solidarity,
workers autonomy, base unionism, flying squads, and
much more!

ORDERING INFORMATION:

To order a copy, please send $5ppd ($6 international).
For distribution, bundle orders are $3 per copy for
three or more copies, and $2.50 per copy for ten or
more.

Checks or money orders can be made out to
"Northeastern Anarchist" and sent to:

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northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com


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