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(en) Australia, Rebel Worker Vol.31 No.3 (214) - Debate on Boring-From-Within by Mark McGuire
Wed, 22 Aug 2012 15:08:02 +0300
Phil Dickens on Libcom internet discussion board critiques the "boring from within" union
strategy advocated by various left groups. ---- I've written a number of pieces now on
anarchist activity within the trade union movement. In particular, I'd point to Trade
unions, worker militancy, and communism from below, What is anarcho-syndicalism:
revolutionary unionism, Anarcho-syndicalism and the limits of trade unionism, and my most
recent post on Building the rank-and-file. ---- However, these have all focused primarily
on the difference between bottom-up and top-down workers organisation. Here, I'd like to
look at differences in approach between those who advocate mass-led organisation ---- in
particular the notion of "boring-from-within." ---- I was inspired to write on this
subject by a conversation with another rep within my workplace. They aren't, or certainly
don't identify as, an anarchist. However, they have agreed with a lot of the ideas that I
have articulated on workplace organisation -- in particular the need to build from the
ground so that workers as a mass can take control of their own struggles from the union
Where the differences came was in
the attitude to the existing bureaucracy. In particular, to the
executive committees which make decisions on the direction of the union
and its response to decisions made by the bosses, largely in isolation
from the will of the rank-and-file. Agreeing with me that simply putting
different faces into the existing structure was useless, he asked why we
couldn't put people into positions with the specific aim of using them
to change the structure.
As I have already alluded, this idea within the libertarian movement is
called boring-from-within, an idea articulated by the now-defunct
Workers Solidarity Federation of South Africa in Unions and Revolution;
We must do two things if we want the unions to play a revolutionary
role. First, get rid of the union bureaucracy and make sure that the
unions are controlled by the membership. Second, win the union
membership over to Anarchist- Syndicalist ideas.
We must work within the existing unions to achieve these goals. All
unions are workers combat units. Leaving the mainstream unions to form
new "pure" revolutionary unions has serious consequences. It withdraws
militants from the unions, leaving them at the mercy of bureaucrats and
reformists. It isolates militants in tiny splinter unions because the
masses prefer to join large, established unions. Small groups of
revolutionaries working inside established unions can achieve impressive
results. For example, the main French (CGT) and Argentinean (FORA) union
federations were won over to Anarchist-Syndicalism in this way in the
early twentieth century.
At this point, the idea isn't distinct from that prevailing within the
Solidarity Federation in Britain, whose industrial strategy argues that
"workers will still be likely to hold union cards here to avoid splits
in the workplace between union members and non-union members."
However, it is beyond this point where the two strategies differ. Whilst
Solfed argue for building up "an alternative structure to official union
structures that are dominated by full-time bureaucrats," the
boring-from-within approach involved attempting to directly transform
the existing structures in order to democratise and de-bureaucratise the
In its position paper on trade unions, the Irish Workers Solidarity
Movement lays out the strategy for transformation in some detail;
7.3 No WSM member will accept any unelected position that entails having
power over the membership.
7.4 Members elected as shop stewards consider their position as that of
a delegate rather than that of a 'representative' who can act over the
heads of the members.
7.5 When going forward for elective positions we make it clear that we
are not accepting the structure as it now exists. We will fight for more
accountability, mandation, information for members, etc.
7.6.5 UNION DEMOCRACY
(a) We fight to change the role of the full-time officials -- not to
change the individuals who occupy the positions. Their decision-making
powers have to be removed and returned to the rank & file membership.
They should be elected and paid no more than the average wage of the
people they represent. They should only serve for a fixed period of no
more than five years after which they return to ordinary work. The
unions will have to win the demand for jobs to be kept open in order for
this to be realistic.
(b) All officials to be subject to mandation and recall.
(c) We are totally opposed to the ICTU "two tier" picket.
(d) For regular branch and workplace meetings, in working hours where
this is possible.
(e) For direct elections to all committees, conference delegations and
national officerships, subject to mandation and recall.
(f) All strikes to be automatically made official as long as they do not
contradict trade union principles.
(g) Support for all disputes, official or unofficial, in pursuit of
higher wages, better conditions, jobs, trade union principles or any
issue in the interest of the class.
(h) For the publication of minutes of all union meetings.
(i) Where revolutionaries can gain enough support to win election to
national officerships in large unions, or indeed small ones, this
support should not be used to merely elect a candidate. Instead it
should be used to fundamentally change the structure of the union in
such a way as to return power to the membership and turn the officers
into administrators and resource people rather than decision makers.
This relates to the strategy argued for by my fellow rep at work. Yes,
we should be organising at a rank-and-file, building mass participation
and forcing a culture shift when it came to decision-making and to
taking action. But why could we not compliment that by trying to put
people into place on the Group and National Executive Committees who
would support this and could help remove any potential barriers that
On the face of it, this is a compelling argument. Building from the
ground, almost from scratch, is not an easy task to contemplate. Surely,
there's no harm in using the existing structures where you can, and
making sure that you have people within them who are willing to step
back from them when the time is ripe to put the new structures into
However, the question here is -- if such a thing is possible -- then why
does it not follow that you can simply replace the existing leadership
with a more militant and "left" one, and see things change that way?
The answer, as those who argue for the above strategy would broadly
agree, is the fundamental nature of the trade union bureaucracy. As the
WSM themselves state, "no matter how radical or left-wing [the
leadership] are at the beginning, their role sucks them into the
business of conciliation." More explicitly, "if they are to have
anything to bargain with at the negotiation table," then " the union
official has to sell the employer labour discipline and freedom from
unofficial strikes as part of its side of the bargain." Hence their role
as "keepers of industrial peace."
Does this change if you enter the role with the specific aim of
supporting rank-and-file organisation and transforming a trade union
into a revolutionary one? To a degree, perhaps. After all, you will be
far more conscious of the pressures that the role will place on you and
arguably better equipped to address them.
However, in practice we see that this awareness doesn't help you to fare
any better. As Joseph Kay wrote in Thinking about unions: association
and representation, "the problem is highlighted by the number of modern
day bureaucratic unions with radical syndicalist origins (of which the
French CGT, founded under large anarchist influence is the most obvious
example)." It was Buenaventura Durruti who rebuked the CNT during the
civil war for seeking to "get the CNT legalised and alleviate the
repression," because "bureaucratisation and subsequent mediation was a
result of taking on a representative role."
JK cites the Direct Action Movement pamphlet Winning the class war;
Of all the areas that the unions seek to have influence in by far the
most important is its dealing with management, for it is from this area
that all their power flows. They must retain the right to negotiate
wages and conditions with management. It is by having the power to
negotiate on behalf of workers that they retain their influence within
the workplace and ultimately attract and retain members. In turn it is
having that control and influence in the workplace that they are of use
to the boss class. The unions offer stability in the workplace, they
channel workers anger, shape and influence their demands and, if need
be, act to police the workforce.
It is for this reason that the CNT now consciously spurn representative
functions, arguing against "giving your 'representatives' the power to
sign and negotiate for you" as "you and only you, are representative.
When you take in your hands your problems, you gain representation."
It is not difficult to see how this works in practice.
If you are a delegate, directly accountable to the membership, it is
very difficult indeed to stray. You are there to voice the demands of
the workers, and their response to offers made, with no capacity for
independent decision making. If you violate that mandate, you can be
By contrast, a representative has been mandated by their election with
decision-making power, and is part of a key body with responsibility for
negotiation in the manner described above. Even if they are put forward
as a candidate by a group to whom they consider themselves answerable,
they cannot be recalled from their seat if they betray that trust, as
such a mechanism doesn't at present exist. Thus, the accountability
rendered by direct democracy almost completely dissipates when it is
used to "bore-from-within" a system of representative democracy.
It could be argued that, in building up the strength of the
rank-and-file at the same time, you create a situation whereby even if
instant recall cannot be enacted the recall will still occur the next
time elections come around. But there are numerous flaws in this logic.
In the first instance, there is the problem of numbers. Even with the
straightforward objective of switching the leadership in PCS, the Left
Unity faction which currently dominates had to build for many years in
order to have the strength to put forward a full slate of candidates.
Within the current structure, a single voice or even a minority voice is
not significant enough to influence the direction of the union -- as in
PCS the rival 4themembers and Independent Left factions currently
Thus, in order to "change the role of the full-time officials" and make
other fundamental changes in how the union is run at the top, you
essentially have to take over the leadership. Not only does this require
an immense amount of time, energy and resources better spent on
rank-and-file organising, but it then puts you in the same position as
any other broad left takeover. It is now you "at the negotiation table"
with responsibility to "sell the employer labour discipline" in
negotiations. The fundamental nature of power structures means that they
do not allow for their own dissolution, and there is little reason to
expect that we will witness anything other than rank-and-file militants
falling prey to bureaucratisation.
More pressingly, if a rank-and-file movement has enough influence as to
sway the election of officers to an executive, why do they need to seize
power of the executive at all?
If there has been a steady effort at organising workplace committees
based on mass participation and direct action, and you have lay reps
taking up the role of delegates, you have already dismantled the
existing power structure at a local level. If this is spread across
enough of a cross section of any given trade union that you can be the
major voice in elections, it is a safe bet that you have already lain
the foundations for building a national federal structure.
Thus, to alter the structure of the union, you simply have to circumvent
it. Rather than wasting the effort of taking over the existing
leadership in parallel with rank-and-file organisation, the
rank-and-file can establish an entirely different structure and vote en
masse to disaffiliate from the reformist union whilst establishing a
revolutionary one. I have over-simplified the idea somewhat, as this is
not a quick process and there would be a significant battle of ideas to
be won, but fundamentally that is the essence of the thing. The
bureaucracy has essentially been jettisoned and the bosses are forced to
deal with a militant rank-and-file rather than officials who will meet
There is a clear precedent for attempts to transform the fundamental
nature of a trade union being akin to alchemy. Down that path, we repeat
mistakes already made and become what we were fighting against. In order
to build a revolutionary union movement which is genuinely led from
below by the rank-and-file, what we need is to build the new structure
within the shell of the old.
Originally posted: July 19, 2011 at Property is Theft
One problem with this critique of "Boring-from-Within" is that it
completely fails to take account of the issue of workers morale and its
ramifications and how the strategic position of different groups of
workers affects the class struggle. In the current situation of low
morale of workers in the Anglo world, unless union officials take action
such as calling mass stop work meetings, most 'workers lack self
confidence to take direct action and hold their own workers assemblies
to consider taking action. It's important to be a bit practical and look
at transitional steps to get this grass roots unionism going such as the
election of more "grass roots friendly" union officials, which would
improve the terrain for organising. They could ensure the union is run
on the basis of workers' assemblies, limited tenure of office for
officials, etc. This was the case with the NSW BLF(Builders Labourers
Federation) in its syndicalist phase in the 60's and early 70 's.(1)
Whilst workers in more strategic industrial sectors via direct action
can influence and raise the morale of workers in less strategic sectors
and encourage them to take direct action. Given their industrial
strength they can also defy repressive industrial legislation. Whilst
also slowing the tempo of the employer offensive via defeating major
employer attacks which are likely to be initially focused in these
sectors and eventually turning the tide. It also has to be taken into
account that strategic sectors, such as transport are likely to be
highly unionised. So the only realistic option is long term pursuit of a
"boring from within" strategy within the bureaucratic "bosses unions".
The critique also does not address the issue of repressive industrial
legislation and state attacks which are likely to smash any newly
emerged anarcho-syndicalist "micro union confederation" based in
non-strategic sectors. The officials of bureaucratic unions no doubt
will also sabotage any move by the grass roots for industrial solidarity
to help fight these attacks.
(1) See "Green Bans, Red Union" by Meredith & Verity Burgmann
* Paper of the,Anarcho-Syndicalist Network
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