Anarchism and the Labor Movement

In honor of May Day, I decided to write something about how labor interests relate to anarchism. Traditionally, of course, the labor movement has been associated with, variously, anarchism and communism and various other flavors of socialism. But I think only anarchism can give the working class what they really want. Conversely, I think that the labor movement has been tainted, unfairly, in the eyes of many individualists by its forays into more statist varieties. If you’re truly an individualist radical, you should be down with the liberation of the laborer, because that’s where the rubber really meets the road. It is not labor who has given us the the sort of statism that we suffer under today, but capital, in collusion with the state and the trade union “labor monopolists”.

Historically, in America, it makes sense to look at two strains of labor agitation, industrial unionism and trade unionism, originally called craft unionism. A lot of the features of craft unionism are inherently statist and monopolist. They have often been called “capitalist unions” by the more radical industrial unionists, notably Big Bill Haywood, leader of the IWW. The craft unions were organized around skilled trades, carried what would be prohibitive fees for an unskilled worker, and often would not admit someone without some sort of waiting period and/or various proofs and trials, creating a sort of “labor monopoly”. The craft unions are the ones that led the focus on getting the state to pass laws protecting labor, and in fact, this was their primary criticism of the industrial unions, that by not involving themselves with the state, they were essentially ineffective.

The craft unions were, while not loved by big business, the part of the labor movement that big business was willing to compromise with in the crafting of the regulatory state-capitalism of the 1900s. This was acknowleged as such by the General Managers Association: “We can handle the railway brotherhoods, but we cannot handle the A.R.U…. We cannot handle Debs. We have got to wipe him out.” The ARU was an industrial union of railroad workers organized by Eugene Debs. The ARU strike was broken by the Federal Government.

The industrial unions on the other hand were organized around entire industries at first, such as the Western Federation of Miners. Their dues were minimal, and often set on a sliding scale, and they admitted basically anyone who worked in a particular industry. The industrial unions found themselves in a conflict with the trade unions, who would essentially “scab around” their strikes and other direct actions. To a large extent, the early industrial unions had a history of failure because of sabotage by the craft unions working with Big Business, and when they were initially successful, by direct government intervention in strikes.

Eventually the IWW was formed as “One Big Union” which would take on anyone who worked for wages. The IWW’s rhetoric often sounded to modern ears much like communist rhetoric, but in practice, it was essentially an anarchist organization. Some IWW members were openly “anarchists”, but even the ones that weren’t, were opposed to “parliamentary socialism” – i.e. social democratism. They did not press for government intervention on their behalf, and they believed that if the government did pass laws favorable to labor, it would be only in response to direct action. This is basically the Spoonerian idea that the government is at best irrelevant to human action. (Such laws of course would be rarely, if ever enforced.) When they were striking, they would actually set up small shops to sell goods and services to their members, because the shops in town blackballed them. And when Eugene Debs gave up industrial unionism to become a political Socialist, he was roundly criticized by the Industrial Unions.

“…[Debs] had left them without a fighting industrial union and forced them to enter the scab craft movements after he changed the ARU to a political movement…” – The IWW: Its First Seventy Years

One objection that many market anarchists have toward unions is that they essentially survive on violently preventing “scabbery”. But if that were really the case for industrial unions, the trade unions could not have sabotaged the early industrial union movement such as they did. But consider also, that the businessmen used Pinkertons (the early equivalent of say, Blackwater) and direct government intervention to break strikes. Then consider that from the laborer’s point of view, the property they worked on was truly homesteaded by them, not some abstract joint-stock company that “claimed” the land out of nowhere.  But the IWW’s main weapon, after a while, was actually sabotage. This is where the familiar image of the Sab Cat or Sabotabby came from. Worker sabotage actually does not break any libertarian theory of implicit contract. The boss and the worker, unless put in writing, owe each other nothing. If the boss wants to fire someone they can, if the worker wants to spend his time doing anything but work, he can. The bosses were deathly afraid of sabotage because it was very hard to discover, and very hard to fight, unlike a strike which was visible, obvious and could bring in direct government intervention. As Ayn Rand said, interestingly enough, “You can’t force a mind”.

A lot of the features of “Unions” that libertarians and market anarchists object to are actually features of one form of unionism which was used by state capitalism to co-opt and undermine the other, more anarchistic and liberty-minded form of unionism, which was eventually destroyed (or at least attenuated into ineffectualism) by our least-favorite president, Woodrow Wilson (he of the signing of the Federal Reserve Act) during the “Red Scare” of the 1910s. He used his vast wartime powers to imprision most of the leadership of the industrial unions on grounds of sedition and/or undermining the war effort.

In some ways, if you see Trade Unions as labor’s form of monopolistic capitalism, then the Industrial Unions were labor’s form of agorist organization. Completely unofficial, unrecognized and spontaneously organized in order to gain back the portion of their labor that under a free market (where all property would have to be homesteaded) would rightfully be theirs.

Wages, essentially, are a factor of the supply of labor in relation to the supply of capital.  The more capital there is looking for labor to work with it, the more valuable labor is relative to capital.  In a free market, capital could not be monopolized and would accumulate broadly and rapidly, thus increasing the workers share of the product continally, asymptotically toward about say 95% or so, depending on external factors, and the “entrepreneur’s wage”. 

Under statism, most actions performed by the state seek to reduce the overall capital outside of the hands of the “insiders”, thus making the remaining capital in the hands of the insiders more valuable, and suppressing wage rates.  This is true in a social democracy as well, only there is a “floor” placed on this wage suppression, and trade unions have more power.  But it doesn’t change the scarcity of capital in relation to labor, it may be better to some extent than a liberal democracy for laborers, but it is no worker’s paradise, as long as private capital exists alongside statism.

If the state nationalizes an industry, then things become worse in the long run for the laborer, because you can’t get blood from a stone.  A government worker will do well in a largely capitalist system, because their wages will be high relative to other workers, and there is enough wealth produced outside of the government to absorb and give to the government workers.  But as wealth creation declines overall, there is less and less for the government worker to absorb.  Of course the higher ups will keep on taking a nice piece for themselves as long as they can, so you end up with a labor heirarchy and direct, violent exploitation of the lower classes worse than anything under a liberal democracy.

The only path for labor as a whole to get what they really want is anarchism, that is, an end to violently imposed oligopoly.  And the industrial unionist movement understood this, if not in so many words, back in the late 1800s.  We anarchists, especially market anarchists, are their philosophical descendants.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory