To the Daring Belongs the Future – Emma Goldman
A new book from PM Press (Oakland, CL) 2014 New Forms of Worker Organization: the syndicalist and autonomist restoration of class struggle unionism (edited by Immanuel Ness) gives some great examples of rank and file , bottom up actions around the world which challenge the mainstream trade union leadership approach (particularly in the rapidly deindustrialising “western world” that seeks deals with supposedly “friendly political parties in exchange for trade union acquiescence to the neo-liberal agenda.
The contributors provide detailed discussion on movements and action in Italy, China, Russia, India, South Africa, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Australia, USA and the United Kingdom. A pretty good attempt at a world-wide approach that highlights the importance of local conditions and internationalism.
The “new forms” of work organisation are actually based ideas and actions associated with the Industrial Workers of the World. Actions that perhaps kicked off around 1895 in Europe and expanded around the world as workers moved and organised. Emma Goldman defined “syndicalism” as a revolutionary philosophy of labour conceived and born in the struggle and experience of workers.” The forms of action are determined by the workers themselves not by union officials outside the workplace. Independence from any political party is central to the approach to organising.
To follow a boring beginning to end path through the collection, this short piece introduces to 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, a strong alternative force, was a part of the reformist way that seems to have been the “euro-communist” way.
The left of the PCI was not convinced and they, along with others were 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 movements were blasted by the state attacks that saw, for example the red brigades, lotta continua repressed. 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). A new movement, the COBAS developed from the late 1980s. The COBAs have been to the forefront of the protest against the austerity path, adopting 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, public transport. The main union movement looks to compromise, COBAs do not.
COBAs structures 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 they 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 it will be discussed again. The author this chapter Steven Manicastri asks if the model be sustainable? We don’t know, but it remains a fierce rejection of the bureaucratic unionism we see elsewhere.