a Workers Solidarity Movement position paper

The Trade Unions


1.1 Anarchists know that "the history of all previously existing societies has been the history of class struggle". At every stage in the development of society - from ancient times through fuedalism to the present day - there has been an oppressed class whose labour has created the wealth of society, and a ruling class which controlled that wealth. At almost every stage the oppressed have not accepted their lot without fighting back. There were the slave revolts of Greece and Rome, the peasant risings of the middle ages, the revolutions of the 1600s and 1700s.

1.2 But all these struggles ended with the old parasitic rulers being replaced with a different gang of parasitic rulers. The failure of the oppresed classes to keep control of the revolutions they fought in can be explained by these main factors: (a) the generally low level of wealth in society, (b) the fact that the everyday life of these people did not prepare them to run society.

The majority were illiterate peasants who had no idea what things were like outside their own locality. Their everyday life divided them from each other. Each peasant had to worry about his own plot of land, and hoped to enlarge it. Each craftsman had to worry about his own business, and hoped to enlarge it. To varrying degrees each peasant and craftsman was in competition with his fellows, not united with them. He couldn't think in terms of class.

1.3 The workers who create the wealth under capitalism differ from all previously oppressed classes. Firstly, they create enough wealth to feed and clothe the world and still have plenty to spare for science, culture, luxeries and so on. Secondly, and more importantly, their everyday life prepares them to take over the running of society. Under capitalism we are brought together in large workplaces, into towns and cities. Capitalism makes us co-operate everyday at work. Each person has to do their bit so that the person at the next stage of production can do theirs. In the services it is the same, from the office to the hospital, workers have to co-operate with each other in order to get their jobs done. This means that the modern working class can be a force capable, not only of rebelling against the existing set-up, but of taking over and recreating society in its own interests - and not as in the past merely help a different section of the ruling class in its battles against the more backward sections of that class.

1.4 Why then don't workers use their numbers, their collective power and take over? Mainly because we are told that we are not able to do just that. It is a message hammered into us, from school to the newspapers to the television. We are being constantly told that workers can only follow orders and that is the natural order of things.

1.5 But there is one point, in particular, at which workers no longer feel powerless and at which they see in a much clearer way the reality of class rule. That is when they use their collective power that runs the factories, offices, schools, transport, etc. - to stop them. They can get a glimpse of the potential of their own power.


2.1 From their early beginings back in the 1600s one thing is very clear - for a worker to join a trade union means having to recognise, to some degree, that he or she has different interests from the boss. There is no way to explain the survival of the unions other than the reality that there are different class interests, and workers have understood that to promote their own interests they have to organise on class lines. No amount of conservatism, bureaucracy or backwardness within the unions can obliterate this essential fact. In recent years the nature of work has, for many people, changed considerably with the growth of contract work, working from home etc. Nevertheless, by joining a union people recognise a class interest (us v. them). While this may be different from a class consciousness (which implies a recognition of collective interests, not just an individual against the bosses), the dynamic of belonging to a collective organisation leads to the creation of some level of basic class consciousness.

2.2 Trade unions are not revolutionary organisations. They were formed to defend and improve the lot of workers under capitalism. Trade union struggle is an absolute necessity. In the course of these struggles workers begin to see their potential power, they can be radicalised and can be brought into the revolutionary movement. At times there will be low levels of struggle - whether due to a lack of confidence or to the temporary dominance of 'national interest'/'social partnership' ideas - but the contradiction between bosses' interests and workers' interests will inevitably lead to a return to higher levels of struggle and grassroots organisation.

2.3 After all, what is anarchism? When we get down to basics, it is workers collectively running a free society. Instead of taking orders from the boss and serving his/her mad rush for profit at any cost, it is about working together for the common good. This doesn't mean that strikers set out with clear anarchist goals in mind. They don't. But collective action is the only way to win a strike - so the logic of the workers' position: collective action in production, collective action in struggle; takes us in an anarchist direction. And once in struggle peoples' ideas can change. They gain confidence, a sense of their ability to take control of their own lives. This is why many workers who go on strike with faith in the "impartiality" of the police or with sexist ideas (to give but two examples) can find these ideas challenged by their experience in struggle. That is why we in the WSM get involved in workers' struggles, though it is not the only reason - we also act from a position of solidarity with other members of our class. It is in struggle that large numbers of people can be won to anarchist politics. As our forerunners in the First International said "the emancipation of the working class can only be brought about by the working class themselves".

2.4 Central to our politics is the position that the working class will lead the fight for anarchism. It is only the self-activity of masses of workers that is capable of mounting an effective challenge to the bosses and their state. The trade union movement is the most important mass movement the working class has built and no matter how progressive or reactionary the attitudes of its members, no matter how conservative they can become, it does not alter the fact that they are the most important mass organisations of the working class. For the WSM, as anarchists, activity within them is an extremely important ongoing activity.


3.1 The unions are dominated by a bureaucracy, a collection of (usually unelected) full-time officials with too much power and undue influence. They are not responsible to the membership except in the most formal way, not in any real sense. They may take the side of their members but the point is that they do not have to. While it may be possible to hold them to account (through motions of censure etc.), they are quite clearly not accountable, they cannot be recalled or removed. Neither can they be forced to act on the instructions of the membership, taking their orders instead from the union executive. They often earn much more than those they represent, sit alongside bosses and the government on commissions, the boards of semi-state companies and other government-appointed committees. . In short they enjoy a lifestyle quite different than that of the people they are supposed to be working for. Most of the newer officials have never even worked in an ordinary job.

They see their union work as a career. More than a few of them change sides and take jobs with the employers' organisations. Their career is that of an arbitrator, a fixer, a concilliator, a negotiator.

3.2 What is important to them is proving their skills as smart negotiators, not pulling out all the stops to win their members' demands. They have narrow sectional interests, they only look after their own patch regardless of the general intertests of workers. These people rarely lead or initiate strikes. Instead they will have you running back and forth to the Labour Relations Commission, Labour Court, Rights Commissioners, the Employer-Labour Conference and every other talking shop they can find. They will negotiate "until the cows come home", and it is all aimed at finding a "reasonable" solution. They see striking as very much a last resort, and condemn - without hesitation - unofficial action (i.e. action that has not been sanctioned by them).

3.3 These people do not usually lead strikes but sometimes will, as when employers are refusing to negotiate or the negotiation procedures are being threatened. Most of the time, however, they will go to almost any length in order to cobble together a deal ....any deal, rather than opt for industrial action.

3.4 These people are not nasty individuals. They behave as they do because they have too much power and are unacountable, in any real way, to their members. Power corrupts, no matter who you are. This behaviour is inevitable, no matter how radical or left-wing they are at the beginning, their role sucks them into the business of concilliation. Furthermore they have to be able to control their members - which usually means stopping them fighting the boss - if they are to have anything to bargain with at the negotiation table. This may sound odd but the point is that the union official has to sell the employer labour discipline and freedom from unofficial strikes as part of its side of the bargain.

3.5 It is self-evident that the more power, initiative and control that lies with the bureaucracy - the less it will lie with the rank & file membership on the shopfloor.

3.6 As a whole, the bureaucracy swings between the position of mediator and that of open defender of the status quo. But as a grouping they can not go over completely to defending the bosses' interests; to some degree they have to respond to their members' demands because they are working in workers' organisations. This is not to imply that all- or even most - trade union officials would necessarily go over to defending the bosses' interests if they could, but the nature of the position inevitably means that they cannot become totally responsive to their members' demands as that would see the end of their role, power and careers. There are individual exceptions to this but, as a collective grouping, this remains the case.

3.7 This bureaucracy, not just because of the individuals in it but because of its objective position in relation to the membership, has to be opposed to workers' self-activity on most occasions. It is, by its nature, authoritarian.


4.1 The response of many on the left is that we have to elect and/or appoint 'better' officials. They see the problem primarily in terms of the individuals who hold the posts. This stems from their conception of "socialism" as some sort of giant state enterprise bureaucracy where things are done "for the workers". Workers' self-activity occupys no leading role in their scheme of things, just as real workers' control is not part of their plan for a "socialist" society. Their ideas are rooted in an authoritarian view of the world.

4.2 A problem which, from time to time, has manifested itself in other countries is the view that workers should leave the unions and destroy them; that no permenant organisation of workers under capitalism can avoid becoming totally integrated into the state and a tool in the hands of the bosses. The people who promote this nonsense claim that the unions are holding workers back from making a revolution ....now! As these people claim to have made a serious and scientific study of the needs of workers under capitalism, the forces required for a revolution and the way in which workers gain the confidence and political will to change society - we are very easy on them when we dismiss their position as childish, infantile and ultra-leftist.

4.3 A third position we come across is that of breaking away and forming new unions. The effect of this is to take the minority of combative and radical workers out of the old union, leaving it totally at the mercy of the bureaucracy whose antics had provoked the split. We urge those workers to remain and fight within the union, to win over the membership - not to leave them without a combative focus.

Breakaway unions offer no alternative in the long run as the problems that led to their formation will develop in the new union. Ireland's labour history is littered with examples of this. The ITGWU and FWUI (which merged to form SIPTU), and the National Bus and Railworkers Union Union, to name but a few of the main unions, were all born as "left" breakaways.

While we refuse to advocate breakaways, except possibly in the most exceptional cases, we ultimately stand for the right of workers to make the decision themselves.


5.1 Syndicalism, and especially anarcho-syndicalism, has been an important current in many countries - particularly in Southern Europe and Latin America. Its basic ideas revolve around organising all workers into the "one big union", keeping control in the hands of the rank & file, and opposing all attempts to create a bureaucracy of unaccountable full-time officials. Unlike other unions their belief is that the union can be used not only to win reforms from the bosses but also to overthrow the capitalist system. They hold that most workers are not revolutionaries because the structure of their unions is such that it takes the initiative away from the rank & file. Their alternative is to organise all workers into the "one big union" in preparation for the revolutionary general strike. They see the biggest problem in the structure of the existing unions rather than in the ideas that tie workers to authoritarian, capitalist views of the world.

5.2 Syndicalism in itself does not create a revolutionary political organisation. It creates industrial unions. It is a-political, arguing all that is necessary to make the revolution is for the workers to sieze the factories and the land. After that it believes that the state and all the other institutions of the ruling class will come toppling down. They do not accept that the working class must take political power. For them all power has to be immediately abolished on day one of the revolution.

5.3 Because syndicalist organisation is the union, it organises all workers regardless of their politics. Historically many workers have joined, not because they were anarchists, but because the syndicalist union was the most militant and got the best results. Because of this tendencies always appeared that were reformist.

5.4 Syndicalists are quite correct to emphasise the centrality of organising workers in the workplace. Critics who reject syndicalism on the grounds that allegely it cannot organise those outside the workplace are wrong. Taking the example of anarcho-syndicalism in Spain it is clear that they could and did organise throughout the entire working class as was evidenced by the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth, the 'Mujeras Libres' (Free Women), and the neighbourhood organisations.

5.5 The limits of syndicalism is rooted in its view of why workers are tied to capitalism, and its view of what is necessary to make the revolution. Spain in 1936/7 represented the highest point in anarcho-syndicalist organisation and achievement. Because of their a-politicism they were unable to develop a programme for workers' power, to wage a political battle against other currents in the workers' movement (such as reformism and Stalinism), and to give a lead to the entire class by fighting for complete workers' power.

Instead they got sucked into support for the Popular Front government, which in turn led to their silence and complicity when the Republican state moved against the collectives and militias. The minority in the CNT, organised around the Friends of Durruti, was expelled when they issued a proclamation calling for the workers to take absolute power (i.e. that they should refuse to share power with the bosses or the authoritarian parties).

5.6 The CNT believed that when the workers took over the means of production and distribution this would lead to "the liquidation of the bourgeois state which would die of asphyxiation". History teaches us different. In a situation of dual power it is very necessary to smash the state.

5.7 In contrast to this the Friends of Durruti were clear that "to beat Franco we need to crush the bourgeoisie and its Stalinist and Socialist allies. The capitalist state must be destroyed totally and there must be installed workers' power depending on rank & file committees. A-political anarchism has failed". The political confusion of the CNT leadership was such that they attacked the idea of the workers siezing power as "evil" and leading to an "anarchist dictatorship".

5.8 The syndicalist movement, organised in the International Workers Association and outside it, refuses to admit the CNT was wrong to "postpone" the revolution and enter the government. They attempt to explain away this whole episode as being due to "exceptional circumstances" that "will not occur again". Because they refuse to admit that a mistake of historic proportions was made, they are doomed to repeat it (should they get a chance).

5.9 We recognise that the syndicalist unions, where they still exist, are far more progressive than any other union. But the anarchist-communist organisation will organise within its ranks and everywhere else workers are organised. We will not liquidate our specific politics and organisation into the a-politicism of syndicalism.

5.10 We recognise that the union structures we argue for are essentially the same as those that syndicalists argue for.  In the context of union structures syndicalism thus provides both historical and current examples that demonstrate to fellow workers that such methods of organisation not only work but bring results



6.1 In Ireland, as in many other countries, there are formal links between social-democratic (in some countries nationalist or liberal) Parties and the unions. The largest general unions in Ireland are affiliated to the Irish Labour Party. Far from providing a "political voice" or "weapon" for workers it helps to disarm them politically. In the unions; where we have real, if unused, strength; the bureaucrats can argue against taking up issues outside the workplace on the grounds that "that is what the Labour Party is there for". Political affiliation attempts to put the political struggles of workers under the control of professional 'representative' politicians. It aids passivity.

6.2 In Ireland the Labour Party does not even enjoy the electoral support of most trade unionists. Properly speaking it is not the Party of the unions - it is the Party of the union bureaucracy, and increasingly seeks to weaken even that connection

6.3 We support the concept of a political levy but urge the unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. Instead we seek to mobilise the strength of the unions to take direct action on political issues. The first step towards this is the raising of political issues at section and branch level through arguing for sponsorship of specific demonstrations, for the passing of resolutions on issues such as combating racism and giving support to other workers in struggle. All such resolutions should be linked to some action, no matter how minimal it may be at the beginning.


7.1 Our perspectives for activity within the unions are centred on encouraging workers themselves to take up the fight against the bosses, state interference and the TU bureaucracy. Our most important area of activity is on the shopfloor.

7.2 We encourage 100% union membership and all WSM members are members of their appropriate trade union. When members take up employment in non-union jobs, they are expected to join an appropriate trade union. However, depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary for some considerable time for this person to remain a secret/ "sleeper" member. The process of unionisation of non-union workplaces is extremely varied and complex. In some cases an immediate organising drive can unionise a workplace, in others it is only when a specific issue arises that workers begin to become receptive to unionisation, in yet others it will be the product of slow and undramatic work aimed at convincing people in ones and twos. The WSM members on a particular job are best placed to decide what strategy is most useful in their workplace."

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 The following points serve as guidelines for our day-to-day activity and link it to our goal of anarchism, because of the method that lies behind them.


(a) Opposition to centralised wage bargaining. Defence of free collective bargaining.

(b) Encouragement of joint claims and action across union and craft divides.

(c) For cash claims, in preference to percentage ones, on the basic with no strings attached.

(d) For opposition to Īsocial partnershipā, which not only holds down wages but also reduces membership participation in union affairs and promotes the lie that there can be an equal partnership between workers and their bosses & rulers

(e) For a national minimum wage set as a % of the national average industrial wage..


(a)  Because the economic cycle of capitalism sees each boom followed by a slump, mass unemployment is a recurring threat.  It cannot be eradicated while capitalism exists but we can fight back against the bossesā desire to make us pay for their crisis.

(b) Opposition to all job losses through strikes and occupations backed up by the greatest possible solidarity action throughout the TU movement.

(c) That all closures be met by the demand for continued employment with no reduction in pay, or worsening of conditions or union rights. We are not concerned whether this is done by bringing in a new owner or by nationalisation.

(d) We point out that nationalisation is not a cure-all, and that state ownership brings us not one inch nearer to socialism.

(e) Opposition to all productivity deals that involve job losses.

(f) Opposition to 'natural wastage' of jobs, forced early retirement.

(g) Full membership rights in the unions for unemployed workers, for unemployed sections within the branches.

(h) Where possible, organisations of the unemployed should be set up. These should keep in close contact with those still in work by helping on picket lines and building links with the unions. They should also aim for closer links with bona-fide tenants' and residents' associations. While unemployed organisations which concentrate on service provision fulfil a useful role, what is needed is a fighting unemployed movement which will take up the political fight for jobs, decent social welfare payments etc.

(i) For trade union support for the demands of the unemployed, e.g. providing facilities, refusing to cut off services such as electricity and gas, etc.

(j) For putting pressure on the state to inject money into industry that is both labour intensive and socially useful. For a programme of public works paying union rates. For a crash programme of housebuilding using direct labour employed by the local authorities.

(k) For unionisation of people on schemes, for TU rates of pay.

(l) We reject the idea that unemployed people should be thankful for any 'job' they are offered. We call for decent jobs - ones that are well paid and socially useful.


(a) Opposition to all laws restricting the right to strike, and all laws which seek to interfere in the internal affairs of the unions. Opposition to "union bashing". For the scrapping of the anti-union provisions of the Industrial Relations Act.

(b) We are opposed to schemes for "worker directors" and "workers participation". They are a confidence trick to deny the reality of class rule by the bosses, as are employee share schemes. Workers' interests are opposed to the interests of the bosses.

(c) When possible, we encourage workers not to use the Labour Court and other supposedly "impartial" institutions. Instead we call for solidarity action.

(d) We argue for the withdrawal of the ICTU representatives from the Employer-Labour Conference, the N.I. Police Authority, state and semi-state boards. We are against participation in all bodies that try to destroy the independance of the unions by involving them in "social partnership".

(e) We are against the "sweetheart deals" negotiated by some unions and the Industrial Development Board/Enterprise Ireland which grant negotiation rights to a single union without the agreement of the workforce. We stand for the right of workers to join the union of their choice.


(a) For positive encouragement of women, younger members and immigrants to participate in the unions, and to take lay office.

(b) We are against the concept of "reserved places" on union committees for women. It is undemocratic and tokenistic. The real alternative for the unions to seriously take up womens' isssues.

(c) For equal rights and benefits for all members regardless of sex, age or whether they are full-time or part-time workers.

(d) For six months paid maternity/paternity leave.

(e) Opposition to the use of maternity leave as a disentitlement to pay related benefit.

(f) In order to enable women to attend union meetings we call for childcare provision at the expense of the union.

(g) To defend womens' right to work we call for childcare provision at the expense of the bosses, and under the supervision of the workers using it.

(h) For 'flexitime' arrangements where workers with children desire it.

(i) To commit the unions to support a woman's right to control her own fertility, including the right to avail of abortion, and to give moral and material support to campaigns seeking to achieve this end.


(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 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.


8.1 The rank and file movement is that movement within the unions of militant workers who are prepared to fight independantly of the bureaucracy, and against it when necessary.

8.2 The form it has taken in Ireland has been that of combative shop steward committees, inter-factory committees, and groupings of activists within particular unions and/or trades.

8.3 Such a movement arises when workers go into struggle and are attacked not only by the boss but also by their own union officials. It requires the confidence to fight on both these fronts, and to be generalised to the degree where it can appeal for solidarity action over the heads of the bureaucrats.

8.4 In the case of building around a programme or list of demands, it should be broad enough to attract workers who are militant but would not see themselves as having a particular political outlook. The basis for building is (as a general guide): 1. for union democracy, 2. for equality in the workplace and in the union, 3. against wage restraint, 4. for a fight for jobs, 5. support for strikes.

8.5 Within the rank & file movement we fight for our politics, we never hide them. But we do not want to take over, the movement should be independant of any one political organisation. While we seek to convince as many workers as possible of the need for anarchism, we do not do this in an opportunist manner at the expense of the growth of the movement. It should never be made a front belonging to the revolutionary organisation. Its role is to provide a focus for workers moving to the left and wanting to fight. Point 8.6 "Rank-and-file movements usually come about as a result of struggle - when workers see that the union leadership is an impediment to that struggle. They cannot be willed into existence. The establishment of solidarity networks can in the meantime draw people together on a limited agenda where issues of democracy, strategies for the future etc. can be discussed. We seek to build solidarity networks where possible, as the first step towards the building of rank-and-file movements


9.1 In line with our recognition of the need for solidarity the WSM, within the bounds of its resources, offers to aid workers in dispute. In this we do not seek to "provide a service" but to encourage self-activity among the strikers. We push them to pressurise the union into providing material help. Only when this is not forthcoming do we provide leaflets, etc. We will put our organisation at their disposal in terms of help with fundraising, collections, publicity, contacts for blacking and other solidarity actions - but we do it WITH the strikers, not FOR them.

9.2 Our most immediate aim in any strike is to win a victory. But it is not our sole aim. We are political militants and not just good trade unionists, we argue our politics. We seek to win support for our politics, we seek to win members to our organisation.

9.3 Where groups of workers on strike seek the establishment of a strike support group we will do all we can, given our limited resources, to assist the establishment and success of such a support group. However, within the strike support group, we will insist that the strikers themselves maintain control and we will work to ensure that the strikers' confidence in their ability to act for themselves is increased. We will argue strongly against the support group becoming a substitute for activity within the union concerned - activity which should place demands on the union structures to fight with and for the strikers. We will work to ensure that the support group does not do things "for" the strikers but instead gives advice and assistance in terms of helping the strikers to fight for themselves.

Where possible, at the conclusion to a strike we will encourage the strikers to compile a short article/pamphlet detailing their experiences. Such articles/pamphlets would serve as a "memory bank" and would prove useful to future strikers who find themselves fighting the same battles.


10.1 When we say we are in favour of 100% trade unionism we mean just that. A fighting union will gain the support of the vast majority of workers. But there will be that small minority, from whose ranks hardline parasites and scabs appear, who will refuse to join. As they automatically benefit from every claim the union wins they should not be allowed to opt out of the struggle for it. Where the majority of the workforce decide they want a closed shop agreement we support them. However we do not support single union agreements that are forced on workers from above. The important thing is that everyone is in a bona-fide union, it is less important which union they join.


11.1 Trade unions will not become revolutionary organisations, they were never set up to be that. However from within trade union struggle will arise the embryo of the workers' councils of the future. The early beginnings of this are seen wherever workers create their own rank & file organisation (without mediation or "all-knowing" leaders) to pursue their class interests.

11.2 Towards this end we push as hard as we can for independance from the control of the bureaucracy.

11.3 The role of the WSM within these struggles is to unify the different sectional struggles into an awareness of the overall struggle between the classes; to act as a "collective memory" for the movement (i.e. able to explain the lessons of past struggles); to take on the politics of reformism and Leninism within the movement; to explain and popularise the anarchist-communist idea. Essentially our role is that of a "leadership of ideas" - as opposed to a leadership of elitist individuals.

Amended August 2001