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Anarchism and the Labor Movement

by Brian Oliver Sheppard Friday, Aug. 09, 2002 at 7:52 PM

The differences between Labor and anrachists need to be understood in order for any successful revolution is to take place

A North American anarchist magazine, Barricada, presented in its Issue 11 the organizational views of some anarchists of the past, including the anti-union views of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani. The series of articles on "anarchist organization" in that issue merit some comments on the relation of workers' groups to the anarchist movement.

Luigi Galleani wrote that the "anarchist movement and the labor movement follow two parallel lines, and it has been geometrically proven that parallel lines never meet." (Galleani's comments were, I noticed, prefaced with a note by the editors that they "disagree strongly with" some of Galleani's ideas.) While no mathemetician would argue with Galleani's geometry, a historian might: the real history of the anarchist and labor movements can not be framed in terms so simple or absolute.

The anarchist and labor movements of the United States - and indeed of many countries throughou the world- have not only often behaved like improper parallel lines and intersected, but at many points have been indistinguishable (Haymarket, many IWW campaigns, etc.). Unlike during the period prior to the Great Depression, however, there exists now a labor movement that is clear and distinct from the anarchist movement, symbolized most potently at anti-corporate globalization protests where organized labor forms one column of marchers while self-identifying anarchists often form a completely separate column. While the anarchists at such protests may hold down jobs they hate, and while the union activists may hate the capitalist State (even if only intuitively), it seems uncommon that the twain meet otherwise in any significant way.

Certainly there is "cross-pollinization" at demonstrations and at organizing meetings and there are other areas of overlap. But the areas of overlap today are much more scarce than they were a hundred years ago, when being a labor agitator meant one was likely either a communist or an anarchist.

The late anarchosyndicalist organizer Sam Dolgoff stated accurately that "[t]he revolutionary libertarian concepts of class-struggle, federalism, direct economic action, local autonomy and mutual aid are all deeply rooted in American labor traditions." Unfortunately these are concepts that, while still consciously endorsed by the anarchist movement, are encountered only rarely in modern day labor.


The modern, active anarchist movement is comprised of mostly younger people that have had little or no experience with unions or workplace campaigns. For them, when you hate your job, you don't organize it - you leave it and get another one. Young anarchists often correctly see the organized labor movement as not radical at all, but as a backwards force embodying the worst kinds of provincialism and political maneuvering. In fact, organized labor's parochial outlook does make it one of the most mainstream forces in the protest movement today. In the past, however, this was not the case.

One can hardly argue with the critical view of younger, non-union anarchists when, for example, commercials appear on TV announcing a "joint partnership" between Ford Motors and the United Auto Workers (UAW) to bring Americans environmentally unfriendly SUVs. Anarchists can likewise point to mainstream labor's horrible history of racism, sexism, and nationalism. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters have a not too undeserved reputation of thuggery, corruption, and macho behavior; they are a "brotherhood" as their name suggests, and many women find this to be alienating when sisterhood is so scarce.

Likewise, the patriotic imagery of flags and eagles that adorn much mainstream union literature make labor organizations extremely suspect in many anarchists' eyes. This sort of imagery reveals the absence of the internationalist perspective that at some points in history was organized labor's hallmark. The internationalist spirit was one of labor's strengths when it was at its most radical in the late 19th century and during World War I. Today, organized labor in the U.S. is dominated by the impassive bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO, which vacillates between cozy "partnership"-type relatonships with corporations on the one hand, and a Buchananite isolationism on the other.

At rallies, organized labor is usually the most conservative of the protest factions in attendance. The leadership of the unions go through all the government channels to get the proper permits and they follow the officially approved marching routes. In short, they usually do almost everything possible to cooperate with the law. After all, police officers are often in unions - as are the prison guards that lock up protesters.


The anarchist movement comes across to many union members as a phenomenon of the post-punk world of youth culture instead of as a cohesive force informed by a history of class struggle. In many cases, the unionists are right: many self-styled anarchists are individualistic rebels who have a hatred of society, plain and simple. There is a vague dislike of "authority" amongst such anarchists and this often manifests itself in bizarre and antisocial forms. Hairstyles, music, dress, and other lifestyle accoutrements of counterculture often alienate blue collar workers, who see the young comrades as unserious thrill-seekers.

The "privileged" background of the modern American anarchist movement has perhaps been exaggerated (especially by authoritarian leftist political parties). Many self-identifying anarchists are street kids who come to the movement from abusive homes and chronic poverty. They live on a day-to-day basis from scavenging and there is little stability in their lives. If they are privileged, they have yet to see how. Others are college students and twentysomething tech workers who are indeed privileged by almost anyone's standards. While many anarchists are Anglo, the racial makeup of the anarchist movement has also been exaggerated by the enemies of anarchism, though indeed the problem of racism is there, as it is in other movements. To many in the labor movement, however, anarchists still represent irresponsible privilege and impractical, pointless troublemaking.

To much of organized labor, anarchists hold nebulous and fantastic ideas. The anti-organizational bias that some anarchists hold runs contrary to organizing principles that unionists see as crucial to effective campaigning. Of course, anarchism has historically posited an organized and even programmatic form of resistance. The problem is that this part is rarely communicated to labor; what labor sees instead are those who vociferously claim to be anarchists but who have little historical knowledge of anarchism (or who act like they don't), and instead take anarchism to mean a free-for-all orgy of chaos and destruction. This is the part of the anarchist movement the media zeroes in on with glee, and so it informs the perception of many, organized labor included.

Unfortunately, many younger anarchists come into the movement with no sense of anarchism's history, and are introduced by way of lifestylism or by way of the misguided rantings of John Zerzan and other primitivists. These primitivists - but Zerzan especially - take advantage of the very real fact that modern business unions are class collaborationist, using this to discourage *any* type of labor organizing. It is often implied by Zerzan and company that labor organizations in workplaces are inherently doomed to become co-opted or simply tools of exploitation in themselves. This is in accord with a certain defeatist strand of postmodernism that asserts that any and all institutions that develop within a hegemonic system are necessarily "corrupted" due to their arising within the confines of that hegemony. ( This could be applied to the primitivist idea itself.)

This sort of conscious misrepresentation by anti-union primitivists and others only widens the rift between modern labor and anarchism, and serves to further divide the radical community at large, weakening it enormously.


One of the most frustrating hurdles for organizers is the poverty of meaningful class analysis that exists in most organizing circles. There is a lack of understanding of what "labor" really is.

What usually happens at large coalition meetings is this: there is a group present that respresents anarchists, a group that represents ecological concerns, a group that is perhaps civil libertarian, and then there is the group that represents organized labor. Labor is a separate group all its own, in this dynamic; it is one issue amongst many other competing issues.

The irony in this is that the anarchists, environmentalists, etc., in attendance may also have jobs, so technically they are "labor" as well. Yet they are not recognized as "labor"; they are defined by their interests outside of their jobs, whereas "labor"activists are defined exactly by their jobs.

"Labor" is almost 80% of the US population. Almost 80% of the populace of the US subsist on wages and salaries. They are employees of some boss or another. Some employees are certainly more privileged than others and there are varying degrees of power and so on (not all of this 80% is the underclass in other words). But if the protest movement represented a cross section of the US population (which it doesn't perfectly), then that would mean that about 80% of all protesters were in fact "labor" in the broader economic sense. In other words, they are viewed by capitalists as a resource in the productive process of capitalism, and as such are expendable tools, useful only inasmuch as they can be exploited.

So why don't protesters organize around the fact that they are indeed workers, that they are tools of capitalist exploitation, the way organized labor has often done?

One reason is of course that protesters have hierarchies of concerns that differ depending upon the sub-/cultural milieu they come from. In working class communities or in union families, job security, health benefits, etc., are emphasized while in some of the youth subcultures that anarchists come from, animal rights, ecological sustainability, and general injustice are emphasized. Unions are exotic organizations that these anarchists are never taught about in school, or hear much of except in movies or history texts. Schools do not teach one anything about starting a union, becoming a labor organizer, etc., the way they teach you business administration or work skills.

Also, many anarchists are completely content with their jobs. They do not "feel exploited," or they "like the boss," and the idea of going through the hassle of trying to organize their workplace seems absurd. These anarchists unfortunately also usually have the conception of anarchism as something that is to be done off the clock, off company time; they view anarchy as more of a hobby that consists of occasional trips to protests, meetings, and so forth. Anarchism exists squarely outside the workplace for these comrades.

Others may be squatters and social drop-outs of varying degrees who have no jobs. However, these squatter types are often very class conscious and realize that just because they do not work, they are not members of the ruling or capitalist class. Such intentional drop outs - and their ability to subsist as dropouts - are largely dependent upon what gains or setbacks labor experiences. Their lot is usually, though not totally, tied in with the lot of labor and so they form a special ancillary unit within the context of labor, whether they like it or not. When labor is weak, their lives are worse off; when labor is strong and militant, their lives are better.

The goal of the revolutionary labor movement has always been the emancipation of labor. This means the emancipation of work; it also means the emancipation from work *as we conceive of it today*. Revolutionary labor has always struggled for a society wherein people choose what sort of work befits them and under what conditions it is undertaken. This has always been tied up in the anarchists' antiauthoritarian project, and is indeed a vital component of it. It is arguably the most important component, as all forms of servitude and slavery in the past have been characterized by how one group of people have been forced to work for another.


The problem with "organized" labor, which is about 15% of the workforce of the US, is precisely *how* it is organized.

With rare exceptions, labor is organized in a very undemocratic and disempowering way. Workers are treated as subscribers to a service, as a source of revenue, for union bureaucrats who must ideologically shepherd their flocks of workers, and who must ensure they remain both willing to pay the salaries of union officials, and willing to cooperate with government and corporate elites.

There is no law, natural or supernatural, that says that workers must always organize in this fashion. The fact that they *are* organized this way is unfortunate, but it indicates nothing about what must always be. The IWW and the early CIO showed how workers can organize in ways that challenge authoritarian capitalist structures and redistribute decision-making power to the working class. Independent unions and concerted workplace actions taken outside the formalizing structure of unions have also shown this. However, this type of organizing is extremely threatning to the interests of capital and thus the State is employed to crush this kind of resistance time and again.

The problem with American organized labor is its leadership. This leadership imposes structures that further complicate the problem. They sell workers out to the Democratic Party (and even sometimes to the Republicans), live off them, and then sell them out to company management. Obviously workers are not always happy with this, as the recent Jeffboat wildcat strikes indicate. There is still a tempestuous spirit of agitation and unrest amongst much of organized labor, but unfortunately the job of AFL-CIO leadership is to quell it and channel it into lawful, productive expression. Workers do not have to accept this.

What is needed, then, is this: the classical ideas and spirit of anarchism infused into the labor movement, and the recognition of the relevance of the plight of labor thrust back into the anarchist movement. I believe that if both the anarchist and labor movements where consistent in their outlook, they would realize that they are not two special interests, existing side by side with different aims, but rather that they are one and the same, and that their goals are each, ultimately, indistinguishable.

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