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(en) Australia, Anarcho-Syndicalism - Catalyst for Workers' Self Organisation Not Leftist Sect Building

Date Sat, 13 Aug 2005 15:32:45 +0300

With the likely cave-in by the existing bureaucratic ALP affiliated
unionism to the Howard Govt’s major changes to industrial relations
legislation, leading further down the road to its steady obliteration,
the issue of building a direct action, ultra democratic alternative is
an ever more burning issue. The following article explores fundamental
aspects of anarcho-syndicalism as a type of unionism and as an going strategy
being pursued in Australia today in the fight against the employer offensive.
In this article, I will firstly briefly sketch the character of
anarcho-syndicalism in the Australian context.

It involves the spreading of anarchist ideas of action and organization
within the labour movement to establish a new labour movement capable of
eventually achieving the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production.
Involving realising workers’ control of industry and community control
of communities. These ideas include federalism – workers’ unions are
voluntary associations with decision making at regular work place
assemblies and the election of delegates for the coordination of
decision making. These delegates have a limited mandate, are instantly
recallable and have limited tenures of office. In anarcho-syndicalist
unions, full time officials would also be paid at the average wage and
have no executive powers. In sharp contrast to today’s bureaucratic
unionism, characterised by full time officers with high salaries and
other perks, invested with executive powers. These officials also on
occasion disregard the decisions of membership assemblies and are
generally moving to abolish mass meetings in many unions . In 2002, the
executive of the Bus Division of the Rail Tram & Bus Union (RTBU)
disregarded the decision of a bus drivers’ mass meeting in Sydney to
call a 48 hour strike. Whilst, since 2002, the RTBU Bus Division
executive has refused to call any further mass meetings, apparently due
to emergence of an organised rank and file opposition called
“Kickstart” and the death of a key figure of the union officials’
machine who specialised in orchestrating mass meetings. (See State
Transit –Govt. Buses, p 6 in RW Vol.21 No.2 (176) April-May 2002). In
the case of the NSW Railways, mass meetings have been held by the
combined Rail Unions regarding the recent Enterprise Agreement. However,
the officials have ensured that the meetings weren’t stop work meetings
and that it was poorly advertised in key workplaces, ensuring that
militants have been unable to mobilise and that the meetings have been
dominated by the union officials’ ALP machine co-thinkers.

Anarcho-syndicalist unions are also opposed to political parties and
other forms of indirect action ie reliance on Industrial/Arbitration
Commissions. We favour direct action. Forms of action directly
controlled by workers on the job eg the go-slow, work to rule, the
strike, the general strike, etc. However, anarcho-syndicalist unions
are open to all workers to join, without regard to political, religious
or other affiliations. Different tendencies would be free to organise to
argue their case at workers’ assemblies and other forums eg union
journals. Currently and in the past, there has been little allowance for
differing tendencies to debate their differences in union journals or
union meetings. The union journal is normally just a union hierarchy
propaganda sheet, used for advertising themselves for upcoming
elections. Union mass meetings when they did occur, they were generally
highly manipulated by the officials to ensure the rank and file and
opposition factions had inadequate time to express their views. In the
CPSU (Community & Public Sector Union) NSW Centrelink Branch , in one of
the last mass meetings held over a staffing campaign in the late 1990’s,
the officials cleverly strangled the debate and discussion by using the
ploy of a CFMEU (Construction Union) workers solidarity march in the
meeting, to cut off discussion time to a mere few minutes. Whilst the
officials had over an hour to speak.

An interesting example where union officials were inspired by an
anarcho-syndicalist type approach was the NSW Branch of the BLF
(Builders’ Labourers’ Federation) in the late 1960s and early 1970’s.
Free debate and discussion was welcomed at mass meetings.
Anarcho-syndicalist militants were allowed to address mass meetings on
such issues as “workers’ control of industry”. The union officials
recognised mass meeting decisions as executive decisions. (See Green
Bans/Red Union by Verity and Meredith Burgmann).In regard to forms of
direct action, favoured anarcho- syndicalists, the NSW BLF pursued some
of the highest expressions of this form of struggle in the shape of
work-ins on sites. Most importantly on the Opera House site, where
workers’ elected their own foremen. This “work-in” helped inspire a
“workers’ control” movement in many industries in the early 1970’s.

Some of the highest expressions of workers’ control style, direct
action influenced by anarcho-syndicalists since the 1990’s in Australia
are the workers control action by trammies in Melbourne on January 1st
1990 and the emergence of “Drivers for Affirmative Action”(DAAG) in the
NSW Railways in early 2004. In regard to the trammies’ action which
involved their running of the tramways without their bosses until the
bosses cut the power off, the trammies developed their own rosters with
the help of “gunzels”, people interested in tramways operations as a
hobby and issued their own tickets. These ultra militant features were
encouraged by the militant traditions of public transport workers in
Victoria eg it was the focus of the 1969 General Strike against the
Arbitration Court Penal Provisions and the Atlantean Buses introduction
and the influence of the Victorian Sparks Magazine. During the
subsequent occupation of the tram depots, anarcho-syndicalist were
active helping set up passenger support groups and decentralised strike
funds. The funds collected by the officials for the “official”
centralised strike fund were not passed onto the workers during the
course of the dispute, most notoriously funds collected from a
“Tramathon” on 3CR. (See “Anarcho-Syndicalism in Practice” Ed. M. McGuire.)

DAAG emerged in early 2004 as a “work to rule” campaign by most City
Rail Train Drivers and was independent of the union hierarchy. The NSW
Sparks magazine which is read by many train drivers was influential in
regard to the anti-bureaucratic nature of the movement and its direct
action orientation. The Sparks Train Drivers’ Division was also active
in the campaign which was successful in winning large bonuses for the
train drivers. Due to the Train Drivers’ lack of self confidence, the
movement remained “informal” and “underground”, without the development
of delegate coordinative structures and the crystallisation of a new
anarcho-syndicalist style union. (See NSW Train Drivers’ News, page 6
in RW Vol.23 No.1 (184) April-May 2004).

Another aspect of anarcho-syndicalism is “Industrial Unionism”.
Involving unions organising and uniting workers regardless of trade or
skill in the same industry in the same union to facilitate more
effective industrial action. With this form of organising,
anarcho-syndicalists have an eye toward the eventual workers’ seizure of
industries. Industrial union committees on various scales would become
in a revolutionary situation, the coordinating committees of various
phases and components in industries.

Associated with the existing ALP associated bureaucratic union movement,
there has been a “merger” process which has increased in tempo in the
1980’s and 1990’s, which has resulted in approximations of industrial
unions. A most significant example is the RTBU. However, rather than
being an authentic industrial union, it has merely involved the merging
of the different bureaucracies of public transport unions. The members
are effectively in different unions without any coordinated action eg
between Rail and Bus Divisions. The merger of the different unions to
form the RTBU had nothing to do with forging a more effective weapon in
the class struggle, but a ploy to maintain the funding of the union
bureaucracy hard hit by sell outs of members to privatisation and staff
cuts, and no doubt power politics in the ALP.

A most critical aspect of anarcho-syndicalism is workers self education
and the associated formation of union halls and workers’ self education
courses, particularly to prepare workers for the day to day class
struggle and the eventual takeover of the running industry. In contrast
to bureaucratic unions, whose head quarters are very much union boss
lairs and what courses held there are very much informed by the mystique
of negotiations and industrial legislation. However, it must be
understood that for workers to participate in the self education process
associated with anarcho-syndicalist unions, important victories in the
class struggle such as a reduction in the intensity of the speed up and
a reduction in hours worked per day would need to be won, to encourage
workers to attend courses at union halls after work, etc. The
establishment of workers control of industries and this self education
process with the reshaping of educational institutions at various levels
from transmission belts of bourgeois ideology and producers of
technicians/managers to reproduce the capitalist set-up would be
associated with a reshaping of the forces of production – the
development of new technologies which would enrich workers’ skills and
control of the production process and move away from predominance of an
elite of technicians and engineers in the processes of design, planning
and coordination in industries. With the abolition of the profit motive,
industries under workers control could produce according to community
need and environmental considerations.

Two crucial interrelated aspects of anarcho-syndicalism are
anti-militarism and internationalism. As anarcho-syndicalist unions
prepare workers to establish control of industry, they prepare workers
to combat the armed might of the state which one day may be deployed in
the shape of marshal law or a military coup. This activity involves the
organization of the workers in uniform and the generalisation of an
antimilitarist movement in the armed forces and the establishment of a
workers’ militia with appropriate training and the acquisition of
weaponry. Armed forces based on militia systems already exist, such as
in Switzerland, where its members take weaponry such as machine guns
home with them. Consequently, militias have a very high rate of
mobilisation in comparison to conventional armies and would play a
critical role in helping counter military coups. The absence of such a
well established militia system was an important contribution to the
inability of the workers movement in Spain in July 1936 to completely
defeat Franco’s coup.

For any revolutionary break through in one country or industrial action
in many industries to be successful, the industrial solidarity of
workers in other countries is vital. Its become particularly important
with the new strategies and technologies of international capital in the
shape of containerisation, world car projects, multinational companies
out sourcing jobs and functions in the 3rd world to take advantage of
low wages such as the outsourcing of call centre jobs to India.

In the case of the outbreak of imperialist wars, a most effective weapon
to combat it lies in coordinated workers’ industrial action. In the case
of the recent Iraq war and invasion, protest spectacles involving
hundreds of thousands of people in various Australian cities proved
ineffectual in countering it. However, the internationally coordinated
action by transport workers strangling supplies would have dealt a heavy
blow to the affair.

The Germination of Catalysts

I want to now look at the role of anarcho-syndicalists as catalysts for
workers’ self organization. We are certainly a long way from the
emergence of mass anarcho-syndicalist unionism, which I have described.
The role of anarcho-syndicalists today is very much about assisting
changes within the grass roots of the workers’ movement. It involves
assisting the networking of grass roots activists/militants, assisting
the raising of morale, helping create forums where information can be
shared, debates on issues held and analyses presented and generally
encouraging a “scientific climate” where the widest freedom of
discussion occurs and diverse lines of research are encouraged. In such
a framework, a strategy can be adopted which best takes account of
limited personnel and resources involving prioritising work in
industries of strategic importance. In this way the tide of the employer
offensive can be turned. Currently in Australia today, most
anarcho-syndicalists focus on grass roots activity in transport
industries and the associated production and distribution of the rank
and file transport workers’ publication “Sparks”.

Why Transport?

This emphasis stems from its key role in the operation of diverse
industries in the capitalist economy. It is particularly critical in
regard to the new strategies of contemporary capitalism such as “just in
time” involving limited supplies at factories, “lean” and the
international organization of the production of goods such as the world
car project with multinational company subsidies in different countries
specialising in producing different components. With the control of
transport industries such as trucking it would be possible to greatly
assist syndicalist union organising drives at busy times such as at Xmas
through cutting off supplies to factories and department stores. Big
victories won by transport would be important in raising the morale and
inspire militants in other sectors to take action and pursue claims.
The emergence of DAAG in early 2004 inspired train guard militants to
follow suit. However, these moves were sabotaged by the union hierarchy
which moved rapidly against the rebels.

We must also take into account historical precedents such as the “COBAS”
or grass roots committees in Italy during the 1980’s. It’s major focus
was in public transport and led to a wave of direct action in public
sector industry, culminating in the emergence of a multiplicity of
independent unions. (See “The Cobas” by David Brown) Another important
precedent, is the public sector strike waves in France in late 1986 and
early 1987 and December 1995. These strike waves radiated from the
railways and were characterised by ultra democratic forms in the shape
of “coordinating committees of delegates”. (See “France’s Hot December”
by C.Harman in International Socialism p47 Spring 1996)

In regard to the magazine “Sparks” which was launched in NSW in early
1990 and has been published on a regular basis since then and is widely
distributed in RailCorp, State Transit buses and private bus companies.
Its role is not about “building” or “recruiting” for the
“Anarcho-Syndicalist Party, but assisting grass roots direct action and
self organization. Particularly assisting with the raising of morale
amongst the grass roots and countering management and union hierarchy
propaganda and countering/exposing their nefarious plans and the role of
their stooges. Evidence of its effectiveness and positive role amongst
the grass roots on the job is supplied by several episodes of
industrial action/campaigns by rail and bus workers since the 1990’s.

Bus & Rail Workers’ Struggles in NSW

In Dec. 1997, there was an outbreak of major wild cat strikes at Central
Station in Sydney. These actions by station assistants stemming from
management frame-ups of workers for the sack was part of an intensified
speedup/staff reduction drive. Police were called in to escort from the
job, framed up workers, resulting in a spontaneous outbreak of
industrial action by hundreds of workers. The next day the Rightwing ALP
RTBU hierarchy appealed to its ALP “comrades” in signals to stop the
trains for several hours at the morning peak for the holding of union
meeting to get the station staff back to work. Normally signals are not
so inclined to take solidarity action with other rail grades, due to the
predominance of “management co-thinkers” in their ranks. The mainstream
media completely blacked out this industrial action apparently due to a
secret deal between media bosses and the NSW Govt in regard to the
upcoming Olympics. Sparks was able to breach this blackout and spread
the news of the action to other public transport workers.

This action was particularly significant as it breached a “dispute
settling procedure” with an associated industrial allowance of several
thousand dollars per annum, which had been introduced by the Wran ALP
Govt. which effectively eliminated most industrial action. The NSW Labor
Council (Now Unions NSW) would be given warning of any action, intervene
and squash the dispute. In March 1998, wild cat action broke out at
Waverley bus depot and other STA bus depots of the Nth Shore where many
drivers are regular Sparks readers over issues related to the Sydney
Harbour Bridge raised in Sparks and different issues in regard to Waverley.

In Sept. 1999, a massive state wide lightning one day rail strike swept
NSW, which was also in breach of the dispute settling procedure. No 72
hours notice of the action was given. It was called by the union
hierarchy to prevent a rank and file controlled campaign by station
assistants to oppose the pre-privatisation restructuring of the City
Rail station network, called “Customer Service Management”, creating
the basis for selling groups of stations off as franchises and alienate
commuters from supporting industrial action by rail workers during the
upcoming Olympics. The union officials had lost control of a mass
meeting to militants called on the CSM issue. Sparks appears to have
assisted the agitation of militants at the meeting via its exposure of
union officials who collaborate with management and assisting militants
in presenting a critique of CSM. In the lead up to CSM plan, notices had
appeared throughout the railways threatening disciplinary action for
those who “distribute unauthorised publications”. Obviously aimed at
countering the agitation via leafleting of militants. However, the
Sparks network was able to assist the militants’ agitation and out
manoeuvre the bosses tactic.

This major industrial action formed a peak of a public sector strike
wave in the week before the annual ALP State Conference involving
nurses, rail workers and council workers. The union hierarchy used this
industrial action to exert pressure on the Carr Govt. regarding its
participation in consultation committees to replace the dispute settling
procedure established by the Wran Govt. Other important ramifications of
the anti CSM campaign and industrial action was the dropping of the full
scale introduction of CSM which take advantage of special conditions
during the Olympics period for its implementation. However, management
with union hierarchy support were able to introduce 12hr shifts widely
amongst station staff with a subsequent enterprise agreement which has
greatly disorganised militants activity. Whilst some minor CSM
components were introduced. However, the moves toward the privatisation
of the NSW Railways were definitely significantly slowed and
consequently similar moves in other Govt. owned industries.

In 2002, the Sparks network assisted militant bus drivers to distribute
leaflets at mass meetings of the Bus Division of the RTBU to oppose an
enterprise agreement which included a clause, termed “Transmission of
Business” which gives the green light to privatisation. Subsequently the
Sparks network assisted the networking of drivers from 4-5 depots to
form a rank and file movement. The first such grouping in the buses for
over 20 years.

In February 2004, DAAG emerged in the railways. As mentioned this
movement achieved an important victory with its “work to rule” direct
action campaign. Prior to its emergence, militant train drivers were
successful at Xmas 2003 in preventing the closure of the First Aid Room
at Central, and so saving the job of a key militant, which was exposed
in Sparks with threats of industrial action. DAAG greatly frightened the
rail and union bosses. As in the past, they could prevent any such
action via the manipulation of train drivers’ union meetings by secret
ALP caucuses.

Left Sect Infestations

In contrast, to this activity, Left Sects of different stripes are
particularly characterised by their “existential orientation” – existing
for their own sake. Often very active, but irrelevant to significantly
affecting the class struggle or combating the employer offensive. Their
major thrust being recruitment of new members particularly amongst
students/new middle class elements. Particularly to help finance micro
bureaucracies of full time officials. Rather than encouraging a
scientific climate at their public meetings, they normally resort to
manipulative techniques to transform these gatherings into party
recruitment venues. Whilst, members reading is severely restricted to
orthodox texts. This recruitment agenda leads these groups into having
all sorts of wild pretensions – that they can solve every issue under
the sun and so engage in a totally opportunistic merry go round of
campaigns on diverse issues and peddle the dangerous and divisive
“identity politics” so attractive to the leftist student/middle class
subculture. However, the mainly young middle class/student sect zealots
find a certain unwholesome emotional nourishment in these pseudo
families/tribes and a refuge from the alienation/atomisation of
capitalist society.

In conclusion, this “sect” orientation precludes such leftist groupings
from developing the appropriate strategies and sustained long term
programs of work necessary to assist grass roots self
organization/direct action in strategic industries, which contemporary
anarcho-syndicalists via the Sparks project as outlined above, are


From: Rebel Worker <rebel_worker-A-yahoo.com.au>
From Rebel Worker Vol.23 No.3 (189) Aug.-Sept. 2005, paper of the
Anarcho-Syndicalist Network. Address: PO Box 92 Broadway 2007 NSW
Australia, E-mail rworker@chaos.apana.org.au

Web Page www.rebelworker.org <http://www.rebelworker.org/ Subs: $12
per annum in Australia $25 Airmail Overseas.

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