To the Daring Belongs the Future

To the Daring Belongs the Future – Emma Goldman

new forms cover

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.

 Emma Goldman

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.


History of Trades Hall

History of Trades HallThe Sydney Trades Hall building is a physical reminder of the history and tradition of the Trade Union movement in New South Wales, as well as a chronicler of the social and socio-economic history of the city. Construction began in 1888, just 100 years after the arrival of the first European settlers, with the laying of the foundation stone by Lord Carrington. However, another 28 years were to pass before the building was completed and stage five of the construction process officially signed off. 

The building, which today is often referred to as the birthplace of the Trade Union Movement in New South Wales, still evokes strong and passionate feelings from those who once worked within its walls. “The Hall” was all things to all people – from being a meeting place for various associations and unions early in its life, to its subsequent role as provider of office space for unions, artists and professionals in the 1990s, and now, once again, the corporate headquarters for Unions NSW.

       History of Trades Hall Part 1        History of Trades Hall Part 2       History of Trades Hall Part 3

Your Labour, Their Labour Power: the right to useful work

 book coverLucas Aerospace has done well out of the many wars and other “conflicts” that the British government and others have been involved with. As one of Britain's largest arms manufacturers, with weapons production in the UK and globally, they were no doubt pleased to see the British government deplete their inventories so that they could develop some new products. Through the 1970s the workers at most of Lucas Aerospace's British plants were agitating, proposing and planning for some socially useful new products to replace the Weapons of Mass Destruction the company relies upon still for its profits.

The Right To Useful Work has been a cry for workers since the 1600s. Peter Linebaugh shows how weavers led the opposition to management introduction of new technologies in Britain in the late 1600s, and one of their number, John Mason "looked to a time when men would not 'labour and toyl day and maintain others that idleness'. Karl Marx, of course, expressed it passionately: 'Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.

William Morris, Socialist, designer, agitator, writer and much more, put the case most famously in a paper delivered in 1884, and later published by the Socialist League. "Useful Work versus Useless Toil" sums up what many workers feel about the products they work on or are made redundant by. As Morris put it, "there is some labour which is so far from being a blessing that it is a curse; that it would be better for the community and for the worker if the latter were to fold his hands and refuse to work". That is what some at Lucas were feeling, but it is very hard in our society to do that as your very life depends on toiling on. The actions by the Combined Committees of Lucas Aerospace were prompted by the threat of mass redundancies as Lucas sought to move offshore.

Lithgow State Mine Banner exhibit

Banners return to Lithgow

Lithgow State Mine Bathhouse

Over the past 5 years Sydney Trades Hall has developed an excellent relationship with the Lithgow State Mine Museum, particularly through the work of Ray Christison from Lithgow, a heritage expert and keen secretary of the Mine Museum. The museum itself has an excellent display in the old Mine Managers office, as well as much mine equipment from various eras, and a new pithead funded by the Mineworkers Trust (CFMEU Mining a keen supporter). The old bathhouse is a magnificent "shed" and its interior is an excellent spot to display the banners in all their glory. The museum has a website here:

The exhibit is up until at least October 2014

banners lithgow

Sweden: community and unionism

Sweden can be an inspiration to labour movements the world over, as it has had community unionism for over 100 years, creating a vibrant caring society, rather than a "productive" lean economy.

Sweden in the second part of the 19th century: a country of mass poverty, a country of mass emigration, still on the threshold of industrialisation. The enormous migration into the cities has just started. The natural resources are still underdeveloped.

 1899 Swedish May Day celebration

The first socialist forerunners had made themselves heard, the flow of ideas from the continent had reached our border

Less than one hundred years later: a modern industrial state, one of the richest in the world. A modern welfare state with a far reaching social security system, schools for everyone, exceptionally low unemployment despite fluctuations in the world economy, a people owning more cars, more telephones, more colour television sets than most, a people who travel more than perhaps any other people.

Two pictures. Two worlds. But the leap from one to the other is short.

Object of the Week: Samuel Rawlins and the Gasworks

Samuel Rawlins and the Gasworks

rawlins certificate


 Samuel Rawlins was the founder of the Gas Employees Union, and remained involved with the union from the 1880s when it was founded at Mortlake (the first gasworks in Sydney) for 60 years


His family donated to the Trades Hall this certificate, as well as a large collection of photographs of the union executive and early union members on site. Trades Hall holds these banners. There are also many letters from the union executive and union members thanking him for his assistance in lots of situations over the years. He was a big part of federating the union as well.