New Forms of Worker Organization

Immanuel Ness, ed. New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism (Oakland: PM Press, 2014) (Amazon link).

In his foreword to the book, Staughton Lynd describes the official model of unionism in the United States, first pioneered by the company unions under the American Plan (especially by the company union in Gerard Swope’s GM), and then codified into law by the Wagner Act:

  1. Unions compete to become the “exclusive” bargaining representative of a so-called appropriate bargaining unit. The employer has no legal obligation to negotiate with a union made up of a minority of its employees.
  2. When a given union has been “recognized,” the employer becomes the dues collector for the union. Every employee has union dues deducted from his or her paycheck automatically.
  3. The union conceded to the employer as a “management prerogative” the right to make unilateral investment decisions, such as shutting down a particular plant or workplace.
  4. The union deprives its members of the opportunity to contest such decisions by agreeing that there will be no strikes or slowdowns during the duration of the collective bargaining agreement.

In short, the main function of Wagner-style business unions is to enforce labor contracts against their own rank-and-file and “let management manage,” in return for productivity-based wage increases, seniority an a grievance process.

This book is about a different kind of unionism, breaking out all over the world today. “It is horizontal rather than vertical. It relies not on paid union staff but on the workers themselves.”

These kinds of alternative unions, editor Immanuel Ness argues, “are more relevant to today’s workers than institutional and bureaucratic compromises with the capitalist class and state.” The new unions are a revived form of a form of labor organization that was dominant before Wagner and similar labor charters with capitalist states around the world. “…[T]he new workers’ organizations are descendants of the socialist and anarchist labor formations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Some of the new formations have a praxis centered on prefigurative politics, envisioning their action in the workplace as part of a larger fight to transform the entire economy.

The book is made up of a series of case studies of independent and democratic unions — drawing on a variety of autonomist, syndicalist and other ideas, but all “fundamentally opposed to bureaucratic domination, class compromise, and concessions with employers” — in the global North and South.

Au Loong Yu and Bai Ruixue, “Autonomous Workers’ Struggles in Contemporary China.”

In China, industrial strikes — both against official plans for “privatization” and against foreign employers like Honda and other auto companies — have been wildcats, or informal unions organized entirely outside the framework of the state-recognized ACFTU labor federation. Indeed, in some cases strikers have been brutally assaulted by members of the official union.

At the same time, this wave of strikes has had an ameliorative effect on state policy. In the face of such pressure, the ACFTU has increasingly intervened to mediate settlements with significant improvements for workers. And the state itself has introduced genuinely progressive legislation. Like the FDR administration’s support for the Wagner Act, the Chinese state is fundamentally capitalist — but is willing to institute genuine reforms, under pressure from below, in the interest of long-term stability.

Still, Chinese workers find themselves compelled to work outside or against the official framework more often than not. When the ACFTU does intervene to negotiate a settlement, it usually does so only when compelled to when an autonomously organized strike gets too out of control.

Arup Kumar Sen. “The Struggle for Independent Unions in India’s Industrial Belts: Domination, Resistance, and the Maruti Suzuki Autoworkers”

The Maruti Suzuki auto plant at Gurgaon township in the state of Haryana, is made up mostly of temporary workers recruited through outside agencies. In theory the temporary workers can advance to permanent worker status with higher wages, but only a minority actually do. The temporary majority who share rent houses live in the next thing to a company town, with landlords and shop-owners disciplining factory workers under pressure from the company.

Internal factory conditions are highly oppressive, with employment hinging on the signing of “standing orders” that prohibit “slowing down work, singing, gossiping, spreading rumors, or making derogatory statements against the company and management.” Temporary workers work sixteen hour days, with compulsory overtime.

The plant originally had a company union, but starting in 2011 there have been repeated mass strikes associated with attempts to form an independent workers’ union. The strikes have typically resulted either in lockouts or factory occupations, with violence against strikers by state and local police. Their achievements in terms of working conditions and pay have been minimal.

One reason for management’s overall success in defeating challenges by independent unions has been their exploitation of resentments between the permanent and temporary workers, as well as those between those employed in the factory and the much larger reserve of temporary workers whose phone numbers management has on file to call on as strike-breakers.

Nevertheless the strike wave of 2011 at the Maruti Suzuki plant was “a landmark event in the history of the Indian labor movement.” It encouraged and strengthened organizing efforts in the production chain, including support from workers “in other Suzuki units and supply chain factories.” This was facilitated by the fact that workers from the auto plant and various supply companies lived in the company dorms, and most workers had friends in other factories or had worked at other factories previously themselves.

The relationship between the Haryani state government and foreign employers like Suzuki is reminiscent of colonial days, when local authorities would resort to brutal force against workers on behalf of investors in the British metropolis.

The overall failure of the independent labor movement seems to stem from its focus on the workplace and on large-scale declared strikes, at the expense both of solidarity with the outside community and direct action on the job.

Shawn Hattingh. “Exploding Anger: Workers’ Struggles and Self-Organization in South Africa’s Mining Industry”

Until 2009, labor struggle by South African mine workers took place largely within the official framework of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). As I have written elsewhere, thanks to the settlement Mandela made with foreign capital to abandon the ANC’s agenda for economic justice as a condition for his release from prison and majority rule, the ANC as ruling party became a component of the apparatus of domination by domestic and transnational capital. High-ranking ANC officials owned mines or stock in mining companies, and the NUM became a de facto company union whose main job was to keep mineworkers in line.

As Hattingh writes, some of the top ANC leadership have “joined the old white capitalists in the ruling class” and “used their positions in the state to amass wealth and power.” “…[A]ll the top ANC-linked Black families — the Mandelas, Thambos, Ramaphosas, Zumas, Moosas, and others — have shares in or sit on the boards of mining companies.”

But beginning in 2009, workers began to resort to wildcat strikes outside the framework of South African labor law and without the authorization of the NUM. By late 2012 sit-ins and wildcat strikes had escalated to include most mines in the country. At Marikana in August, in an incident reminiscent of the Sharpesville Massacre, police gunned down 34 strikers. Despite state restrictions on public gathering, police incursions into neighboring townships and rubber bullet assaults on crowds of demonstrators, in the end the workers’ militancy and self-organization resulted in victory, with major wage increases for rock drillers.

The success at Marikana led to a wave of wildcat strikes at mines nationwide between August and December 2012, coupled with sit-ins and occupations. They achieved significant gains at some plants but not others, and then the strike wave slowed down as workers regrouped for further struggle.

The struggle resumed in March 2013, with strikes in the coal sector shutting down 90% of Exxaro’s coal operations.

Interestingly, Hattingh cites Bakunin’s warnings that a revolutionary strategy based on capturing state power would lead to a new ruling class much like what the ANC became after the overthrow of the Afrikaner regime. Such a statist path would result in continued exploitation “because it did not abolish class power but simply changed the make-up of the ruling class.” By the nature of things, only a few can rule; the majority can never be directly involved in decision-making. As a result, revolutionary leaders entering state power become a new ruling class, because the top-down structure shapes them into one.

The struggle in the South African mining industry, Hattingh says

lays bare the true nature of the state and the role it plays in protecting the ruling class. It is not an unfortunate coincidence that the state, headed by Black nationalists and neoliberals, has been protecting the mines of huge corporations and has been willing to use violence to do so. Rather, that is one of the main functions of the state…: that is what it is designed for. For capitalism to function, and for class rule to be maintained, a state is vital. It is central to protecting and maintaining the very material basis from which the power of the elite is derived.

Erik Forman. “Revolt in Fast Food Nation: The Wobblies Take on Jimmy John’s”

This chapter begins on September 2, 2010 with five workers at a Minneapolis Jimmy John’s confronting their manager with the announcement that they’d formed an IWW local, along with a list of demands. Although normally given to drunken abuse — threats to shoot or stab workers, or statements that “your moma should have had an abortion” — she was extremely quiet during the confrontation, trembling and staring at the floor.

Jimmy John’s is a company on the same model as Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby, owned by an odious right-wing troglodyte who donates heavily to Joe Arpaio and tells management trainees at “Jimmy School” that he doesn’t “want anyone named Jamal or Tyrone running one of my stores,” and that they should always put a “pretty girl” on the register.

Forman does a brilliant job describing the motivation behind the supposedly “progressive” National Labor Relations Act. It was, he says, “passed in response to a series of insurrectionary strikes in 1934,” with the intention of avoiding such

“obstructions to the free flow of commerce” by removing class struggle from the shop floors and streets and confining it to offices and courtrooms. Under the government-run procedure, the bare-knuckled confrontations that had previously forced bosses to negotiate would be replaced by workplace-based elections for union recognition supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Union organizing was to become a “gentleman’s game.”

This amounted, Forman says, to the labor movement “trad[ing] its birthright for a mess of pottage.” Bosses were willing to negotiate with NLRB unions so long as they were backed by the threat of mass action as a last resort. But as workers got used to the business unions’ bureaucratic regime, “the fighting capacity of the unions atrophied.” The result, after big business decided the New Deal labor accord was no longer in its interest, was a ruthless wave of union-busting which labor was no longer able to fight within the NLRB regime.

The response, Forman continues, was a renewed interest in solidarity unionism, with an increasing number of activists “looking outside the mainstream for a source of union renewal” and specifically back to the radical methods used before the Wagner Act. This was reflected, among other things, in an attempt to rebuild the IWW [212]

The IWW gained notoriety with a Starbucks organizing campaign in New York. When an attempt at conventional NLRB certification failed at one Starbucks in the case of the usual management union-busting tactics, the workers didn’t throw in the towel as usual. They ignored the NLRB and instead resorted to direct action without bothering to certify their union.

Solidarity unionism doesn’t require union recognition or even a majority in the workplace. Rather than winning elections, it focuses on direct action on the shop floor, waging “a guerrilla war of small-scale actions against the boss over shop-level issues.”

In February 2007 a Wobbly organizer named Mike Wilkowicz began trying to organize the seven Jimmy John’s restaurants in the Minneapolis area — which led to the vignette at the beginning of the chapter. After a series of meetings with local Jimmy John’s workers to build up a union base, they staged their first action. Six JJ’s workers and five friends from the IWW met on the front porch of a woman fired from one of the stores for being absent too much with strep throat. The next day they and their friends flooded the store’s phone lines with complaints about the firing, “shutting down the store’s delivery operation during the busiest part of the day.” Next, the five committee members entered the shop and demanded to see the boss, and presented their demands in front of coworkers.

From there they staged confrontations at store after store, getting a boss to approve their schedule demands at one and actually getting the boss fired for sexual harassment at another.

By June 2010, 49 JJ’s workers out of 180 in the Minneapolis area had IWW cards. From there they went on to a petition drive that got eighty signatures. Having “built an organization that coul wage a guerrilla class war reaching every store in the area,” the IWW readied for battle. On the Thursday before Labor Day, Wobblies in every store in the area stopped work and presented their demands to management. In one store the manager actually ran from the union members, while in another the boss just “spent the next hour in a panic, pacing around the store, screaming, ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!'” At 4:00 that afternoon fifteen Wobblies marched into the main store to demand negotiation with the Mulligan family who owned all the Minneapolis stores, but they had fled the premises. So the Wobs escalated it to the next level with a mass picket by more than a hundred IWW members and supporters at the main store to shut down the evening rush after the Twins game.

Despite a tough-talking press conference by the Mulligans, store managers immediately began giving raises from a quarter to $2 an hour, previously unheard of in the company, and did not fire a single worker for participating in the strikes.

The IWW followed up with a roving bicycle picket travelling from store to store, and a block party that shut down the Calhoun Square JJ’s at the height of the Saturday night club business.

Unfortunately, Mike Wilkowicz made the mistake of supporting an NLRB certification drive and persuaded a majority to go along with him, against the strenuous objections of those who preferred to ignore Wagner Act rules and stick to direct action. The Wobblies having agreed to play by rules made for the bosses, JJ’s immediately kicked in with the standard corporate union-busting playbook of anti-union meetings, red-baiting propaganda, lies (like promises, illegal under the Wagner Act, that things would get better if the union was voted down) and intimidation. The IWW lost the certification vote by a margin of two votes (87-85).

After the loss the IWW resumed its original model of direct action. Sentiment on the shop floor again began shifting against management; many of the 87 anti-union voters had been motivated by management promises of better conditions if the union was defeated, and became disgruntled when they found out it had been a lie.

The first post-election initiative was the Sick Day Campaign — a demand that workers not be fired for calling in sick, and that the company institute paid sick leave so that workers would not have to choose between working while sick and being unable to pay their bills. IWW members confronted Rob Milligan with the demand every time they saw him; when two more workers were fired for calling in, the Wobblies began a public propaganda campaign (open-mouth sabotage) directed at customers, informing them of the likelihood their sandwiches might have been made by a sick worker.

After the company fired six core organizers of the Sick Day Campaign, the union won a limited victory a year later when the NLRB found the complaint “had merit” and forced their reinstatement with back pay.

Since then the situation has remained more or less stable, with the union continuing to build solidarity and social capital through direct action to protect fellow workers against firings, confront abusive bosses, etc.


In the chapter on Jimmy Johns, the owner told workers he wasn’t legally obligated to negotiate with a union that hadn’t jumped through all the NLRB’s certification hurdles. That’s quite true.

But before the Wagner Act, employers weren’t obligated to negotiate either. Instead, unions resorted to a wide range of tactics aimed at making the employer want to negotiate. And these tactics were of course prohibited to unions certified under the terms of Wagner, which was passed precisely to prevent such devilishly effective methods from ever being used again.

Since then, employers have decided the New Deal labor accord no longer serves their interests. They have instead shifted to a labor model based on union-busting, offshoring and precarious labor (part-timers and temporary workers). Outside of a handful of dying industries, the New Deal model is increasingly irrelevant to today’s workers.

But the pre-Wagner model is becoming quite relevant. It includes such things as minority unionism (in which a minority of workers acts as a union without certification, as the Jimmy Johns workers did), which former IWW Secretary-Treasurer Alexis Buss wrote extensively about in her “Minority Report” columns. It includes the forms of on-the-job direct action described in the pamphlet “How to Fire Your Boss [PDF]” (all of which are prohibited during the duration of union contracts under the Wagner model): slowdowns, sick-ins, random unannounced one-day wildcat strikes, working to rule, “good work” strikes and (perhaps most relevant) “open mouth sabotage,” which is simply public whistleblowing about internal working conditions and the kinds of shoddy goods and services that result from management policy.

At the same time the increase in project-based rather than workplace-based labor (software, the building trades, apparel, etc.), and the increasing use of temps and other forms of precarious labor, forms of labor organization based primarily on social organization outside the workplace are also rising in significance. These include movements like the various anti-Walmart labor movements and the Coalition of Imolakee Workers that focus on informational and public pressure campaigns. They also include corporate campaigns in alliance with local community activist and social justice organizations, progressive churches, and the like. And they include revived guilds and working class mutuals for pooling costs, risks and income, insuring against sickness and unemployment, providing strike funds, certifying training, providing legal aid, and all the other kinds of working class solidarity outside the workplace described by E.P. Thompson and Pyotr Kropotkin that were crowded out or actively suppressed under the 20th century corporate-state model.

This book really doesn’t deal with the latter possibility much at all, which is a shame (although in fairness it only purports to be a book on syndicalist and autonomist unions). Still, it’s a good read and includes a lot of material relevant to workers in the Western customer service industries and in offshored sweatshops in the Third World, both of which have proliferated under neoliberalism.

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