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Immanuel Ness (ed.): New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism.

Immanuel Ness (ed.)

New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism.

PM Press, Oakland, CA:, 2014, 319 pp., $39.95.

This new book gives some great examples of rank and file, bottom-up actions that challenge the mainstream trade union leadership approach of seeking deals with supposedly 'friendly' political parties in exchange for acquiescence to the neo-liberal agenda. The contributors provide detailed discussion on movements and actions in Italy, China, Russia, India, South Africa, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Australia, USA and the United Kingdom, thus demonstrating an internationalist approach that highlights the importance of local conditions.

The basis of autonomism was the syndicalist movement and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) from 1895. Emma Goldman defined syndicalism as organisation that advocated at revolutionary philosophy of labour the actual struggle and experience of the workers themselves'. Ness, in his introduction to the book, outlines the approach:

* all forms of action are advanced by the workers themselves, not by union officials;

* there is total opposition to all collaboration with management;

* independence from any political party;

* a culture of solidarity on the job and with the local community;

* workers exhibit total solidarity and unity, e.g. through wearing badges or hats displaying their allegiance;

* the strike is a principal strategy;

* seizing control over production is a goal;

* there is opposition to any collective bargaining that cedes the capacity for direct action.

The book introduces the new forms by discussing the Italian autonomista groups, known as Operaismo. They had their origins in the 1960s when the worldwide upheavals were challenging political parties of the left and right. In Italy the Christian Democrats had dominated since the end of World War II, but the national trade union bodies, such as the CGIL, were pushed into activism by a groundswell. The Christian Democrats sought to include the socialists in government as a way of holding down dissent. The Communist Party (PCI), a strong alternative force, was a part of the reformist way that developed into 'euro-communism'.

The left of the PCI was not convinced by this approach and it, along with others, was the basis of Operaismo, now COBAs (Confederarazione dei Comitati di Base). These workerist movements were autonomous, unaffiliated with any of the political parties. The early version of the movement was attacked by the state. Anarchist formations were in particular the object of state repression, as documented savagely by Dario Fo and Franca Rame (see the dramas Can t Pay, We Won t Pay; and Accidental Death of an Anarchist). The new movement, the COBAS, developed from the late 1980s and, more recently, have been to the forefront of protests against the austerity path. They have adopted the Brecht line: 'It is more criminal to found a bank than to rob it.' Sectoral COBAs have been developed in defence of public education and public transport. Whereas the main union movement looks to compromise, COBAs do not.

COBAs aim to maintain maximum democratic practice, not the practice of parliamentary democracy. Paid directors are not permitted to vote. Funding is always an issue, but COBAs seek contributions from members of 0.5% of monthly salaries. They have been able to establish an international relief body, Azimut. They have monthly meetings and no overarching bosses. Committees 'rule', always via mass meetings. Decisions require 75% agreement: if agreement is not reached, the matter is discussed again. Steven Manicastri's chapter on these issues asks if the model is sustainable. We don't yet know, but it remains a fierce rejection of the bureaucratic unionism that we see elsewhere.

Meanwhile, trade unions in Australia have seen membership levels plummet to below 20%, under governments ostensibly of the left and the right. The clear messages are that politics of the representative democracy type is no guarantee of workers' rights, and that workers need to act for themselves to ensure safety and decent work by controlling their workplaces.

Tom Mann, a founder of the Independent Labour Party in the UK, came to Australia and New Zealand at the turn of the 20th century to examine the 'new province of law and order'. He went back to the UK after the 1909 Broken Hill Lockout convinced him that the arbitration system was not a path to a workers paradise, as employers defied the Arbitration Court with impunity. Syndicalism (he edited the Industrial Syndicalist) became his organising method and it resulted in the newly formed transport workers union winning the Liverpool transport strike. The smashing of the IWW around the world came after this, with the authorities (in particular Billy Hughes in Australia and governments in the UK and the USA) using 'national security' scares as a way of winding back challenges to the capitalist order.

The book is well worth reading for its inspiring accounts of 'ordinary people acting in extraordinary ways and as a source of ideas of what we might do. The Australian chapter, Doing without the boss: Workers' Control Experiments in Australia in the 1970s, written by Verity Burgmann, Ray Jureidini and Meredith Burgmann, emphasises how these ideas have played a role, theoretical or otherwise, in various disputes in Australia. The Whyalla Glove Factory Co-operative (Miscellaneous Workers Union), the Sydney Opera House Work-in (Builders Labourers' Federation) and the Nymboida Coal Mine occupation (United Mineworkers Union) illustrate how the 'taste of power' in the workplace can transform labour processes and human dignity.
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Author:Towart, Neale
Publication:Journal of Australian Political Economy
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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