Fighting for Anarcho-syndicalism
Interview with the IWA General Secretary
Comrade, can you tell us about the current situation of the IWA and the struggles of the Sections? We know that there were recently solidarity actions for ZSP, which is fighting in the Post Office.
First thanks to the comrades who showed solidarity. It was very important for us and introduced the concept of international solidarity to some workers for the first time.
Right now in the IWA, we see a lot of work at the base and international work to move forward and bring our ideas and struggle to new areas of the globe. As the IWA is an international organization and is federalist, there is some diversity amongst the organizations. This means that our Sections have different opportunities and challenges and some are on different levels of development. But most are involved in workplace or community struggles.
Some Sections have been regularly confronting workplace problems in areas where other unions have not been active, particularly among precarious workers because this is an area where usually the mainstream unions have no interest. We can see many confrontations in workplaces such as restaurants or cafes, in places such as the UK, Spain, Australia, Poland, Slovakia or Serbia. Some of the Sections, like the Solfed, have had quite successful ongoing campaigns which are well-known and effective and in Australia the comrades have been doing very good work in activating immigrant workers, who normally face many challenges in defending their rights. And ZSP many years ago became the first union in its country to organize in temporary work agencies and fight against the numerous abuses found there.
As I mentioned though, the Sections find themselves in different situations, in different realities. ZSP coordinated a mass mobilization of postal workers last year, with thousands of people in the streets. Maybe in some countries, workers tend to protest more, but in our country, a mass mobilization coordinated outside the mainstream unions on that scale is unheard of. It was the first time and it really frightened both the Post Office and the mainstream unions, which like to keep the workers under control. And the workers talked about a national strike and organized some local „strike” actions – for example, groups of workers calling in sick. But several comrades were fired for this activity.
What happened? Will they be reinstated?
As I said, we in the IWA Sections work in different realities. In some countries, a worker who is fired illegally can gain good compensation, through direct action or legally. In our country, the courts mainly support the interests of capitalism and private property and workers don't have good chances to find justice in courts. When we have a good group of committed people on the ground, they have won through direct action. An example of this was our union of cleaners in Belchatow hospital, who got their jobs back after months of struggle. This was a very unique struggle in Poland that showed the possibilities of direct action but it was also the result of a rare combination of factors. In that situation a group of people lost their jobs at the same time but in the Post Office, these were single people from different cities. Some workers took risks of repression to support these people. In terms of legal rights however, we can tell about our comrade from near Warsaw, who was fired over one year ago and has a court case to be reinstated. It hasn't started yet and received his court date for November this year.
In other words, the legal system defends the bosses and is useless for workers.
Almost useless, yes. For us, this is a huge argument for taking direct action. However, this is still not very popular amongst workers, who are used to the mainstream union models where you pay dues and lawyers and professional activists do everything for you. And this model has destroyed militancy to a large extent.
You mentioned the international work of the IWA. We saw mobilizations in new countries.
Yes. We are very excited about this. At the 2013 Congress we decided to try to make contacts in Asia and this work has borne some fruit. We see new organizations forming and trying to do something and most have already integrated into our International in some way or other. We expect several new organizations to apply to become Sections or Friends at the next Congress. I am very happy about this, because personally I think that the movement has been too Eurocentric.
What difficulties can these comrades have in organizing and how can the IWA support them?
Organizing can be difficult and in some places, there are many repressive barriers. Comrades in Singapore faced repression and in the Phillipines there are laws against working with international organizations. We talk with these people, especially the comrades from the region, from Australia and try to encourage them. In some cases, we cannot speak of support at all in a public way. In others, we can do many things. For example, sometimes comrades ask for books and when they become active or they ask for solidarity actions. Sometimes just moral support is very important for the new comrades, as well as sharing some experiences.
You also mentioned community struggles. There was an interesting presentation in Belgrade last year.
Yes. Comrades from ASI and from Solfed have both become involved in tenants organizing. This is something we've been doing in Poland for a longer time and they wanted us to share our experiences. It is important to know that if you organize and keep at something, you can win things and in our case, we had a huge impact on matters. Of course there are always specifics that can influence the level of your success. Tenants organizing, like workers organizing, is an element of the class struggle where people can organize in a horizontal matter and achieve concrete victories and gains. If approached correctly, such movements can become an integral part of a larger movement for libertarian ideals and community such management. In our case, we think we managed to undermine the ideals of private property which became holy during the anti-socialist transformation.
Are you saying that community organizations can be integrated into the greater struggle?
Yes, that's exactly what I am saying. However, you need to approach things in certain ways and do a lot of work in terms of making these ideas clear. It's not always easy, especially in places where libertarian ideas or ways of organizing are not widespread. One of the problems you can face is that when you deal with a larger community which are drawn by some concrete struggles, not by ideology, you will inevitably be faced by those who want to use different tactics. For example, our tenants' movement is very well-known so it attracts different sorts of people, some with their own ideas for transforming it. We recently had a problem with somebody who wanted to turn it into a more professional service organization but that is not where we wanted to go. A couple of people supported that current though, which showed us that because we were so focused always on winning concrete struggles, we maybe did not do enough talking about ideas with people who joined in. Or maybe we just did not manage to convince them. In any case, we were faced with somebody working towards a model which would produce „experts” who would serve people and save them when what we want is a model where people take charge of their own affairs and act in mutual solidarity with others, avoiding the service organization models and any steps towards professionalization of the movement. We see this type of development to be problematic and, unfortunately, we see it can happen in organizations that start off as anarcho-syndicalist. If an organization is somewhat successful, it can attract people who have slightly different visions and motivations and fall into this model, which is, quite frankly, an easier model to implement than what we are talking about.
This happened in the IWA.
Yes, to some extent. I definitely see that this happened in Spain and led to internal problems and created a drift at the international level.
There was a split in the IWA. Can you say something about it?
This is a very long story and unfortunately one that has been misrepresented a lot. I think some people want to make a very neat and easy-to-understand version of matters, but it's the result of years of developments in different organizations, as well as being the product of the social moods and trends in movements.
Several of the Sections started go cultivate different ideas, especially in terms of tactics and the inner structure of their organizations. The membership of these organizations changed as well. I would say there was a large influence of both people who were interested in class struggle but more flexible on questions of how to run it as well as people with rather different political views. Even part of the anarchists moved to different positions.
Many things went down that eventually led to a split. Here, I might want to address what I hear said from the other side. Things definitely would have been better had they decided to limit themselves to discussing issues with more merit. The organizations that split from the IWA want to present a simplified version of events, where they have no agency. They just repeat that they are big and active and all the rest are not. They use a lot of untrue statements, presenting everybody as if they were pockets of 5-10 people, whose main attributes are placing barriers of some sort on anarcho-syndicalism and „controlling” the others.
There are different organizations in the IWA and it is open for all comrades which want to build anarcho-syndicalist organizations and fight for a libertarian society. It has always been the case that there has been huge diversity in the size and possibilities of the Sections, a couple have challenges with conducting activity. This is unfortunate – but it is a reality of the world we live in. But when we look at matters we see the smallest Section we have actually wants to do concrete things and tries to build itself. It has won some small conflicts already. It also has been very active in the IWA in a positive way, in a way that the larger Sections have not. For example, it tries to develop and encourage sharing of experiences and training in the IWA, to be able to develop the activities of the smaller Sections, which is something that the „big guys” never did. The „big unions” instead, took a stance which I personally find to be very negative, to blame the smaller organizations, stigmatize them and to claim that they shouldn't have a voice or even be in the IWA. This is crap because these smaller Sections usually did the lion's share of the work inside the Federation. Years of logistics, administration, solidarity, translations – all the day-to-day functioning and what some would call the shitwork. So there was always some symbiosis and people could find a place in the collective work. For me, it is an anarchistic concept that people contribute as they can, according to their abilities. Many organizations which are libertarian encourage this. They don't want to become a small cadre of competent people or a group from the centers of activities. Sometimes somebody lives in a place where it is difficult to start some activities, but they support things with all their heart and actively engage and make important contributions.
This is one point – one of several – where we think opinions diverged in the IWA. Quite frankly, the behaviour of the splitters disappointed me tremendously, in terms of the ethical implications. All of a sudden, every Section became a number for them and they actively tried to shame people instead of encouraging. What was also interesting was that it didn't matter for them what you were actually doing and I could see my Section attacked for our ideas, although we are an active union.
The new International is ideologically-based, not based on practice as they would like others to believe. We can say that because we see that they take much smaller and less active organizations (like FORA or others) into their new International. There are some bigger organizations in the IWA than that but that doesn't fit into their narrative which is to present it as if all the active organizations left. I agree that the 3 largest left, but there was not such a big gap between the third largest and the rest. There has been a lot of exaggeration on this matter.
Furthermore, the splitters have no problem with the practices of the IWW, which allows international unions to affiliate with 15 members, a level which most IWA Sections easily surpass. I really don't see why the IWW can have 15-member international affiliates but we should have 150 members, according to the logic of the CNT.
In my opinion, what this shows is that the question of numbers was somewhat of a pretext, some sort of simplified way of thinking, which replaces more thoughtful analysis. There are some differences in the ways of acting, in strategy and goals. This needed to be discussed more in the IWA, but the fact is that when we needed to do this, when things became urgent, some of the active ideological leadership of some Sections were already pushing for another direction and in fact, tended to boycott discussions. They showed little will to discuss and instead tried to impose some sort of domination on all the rest.
Leadership? Can you explain what you mean?
Yes. Ideological leadership is when some people who are usually more charismatic or have certain traits inspire people in one direction or another. On the one hand, this is very normal but as people in libertarian movements know, this can also have very negative effects in terms of the organization and lead to some verticalization. In traditional mass movements, recruiting people is seen as important and sometimes those who are able to gather many people around themselves become the defacto leaders. They begin to have authority of some sort. The effect resembles some of the values of capitalism. They become organizationally valuable as producers and they hold another status. If the greatest value is put on growing and recruiting, then people can be judged as successes and failures according to the standards ambitious people set and this distorts the libertarian ethic. As anarchists, we want everybody to be valued equally as members of society, to contribute according to their abilities and we want to take into account that people have different abilities, all the time encouraging the improvement of oneselves and engagement in developing the collective good.
It seems to me that some organizations experienced the development of small groups of people who managed to get people behind them. Many organizations definitely see this as being of the highest value to the social struggle - after all, if you want to be a mass movement, you need a mass. But several pathologies grew out of this, for example, the treatment of those who were smaller. This was especially stark in the former Spanish section and resulted in many people being forced out or giving up on the organization.
Up or out, like in the corporations.
One thing that some members of my organization used to admire about CNT was that there were activists in unexpected places, that you could go to many small towns and find comrades. But the organization changed rules for affiliations, raising the minimum levels and this worked as a barrier against organizations from smaller towns and cities. We assess this as a negative change.
It was a blow against the movement.
In our organization we really have problems to integrate people in smaller towns and we always want to do more to make it easier for them since they are at a disadvantage, they feel isolated and alone. The same is at the international level, where we want to be open for those who want to try. The IWA opted many times for this direction.
However, it is true that development hasn't been the best in some situations and, throughout the history of the IWA, from the very beginning, there have been organizations that failed to go forward, that fell apart and disappeared. This is unfortunate and we need to think of ways to avoid that, but we suppose that comradely offering of advice and showing examples is more motivating than beating people up.
You said that some Sections were going in another direction. Can you explain what you mean?
I mean either becoming more of a service union or moving into becoming more of workers' representatives than organizations of a truly horizontal nature. Or flirting with some sort of populist positions to make the unions more neutral on some issues, such as political parties or national issues.
We always have to take into account that some directions represent the path of least resistance. In union organizing, the situation can be very different in different places, but I can definitely talk about my own organization. We are a horizontal union of direct action and we are the only one of a kind in our country. People are used to having an energetic union organizer that pushes them, tells them what to do or actually just makes the decisions. Sometimes, they are happy not to take any responsibility themselves. For example, it's typical, even in some unions that think of themselves as more „alternative”, that there is a single union representative that goes and talks to the boss and the actual membership of the union is secret. The workers feel safe maybe, because the bosses don't single them out as „trouble-makers”. Sometimes the bosses fire their representatives, if those people seem like they will actually fight instead of just helping the bosses to manage the workers and keep them from taking more radical action. In our organization, we prefer to go all together to the boss, as a group. Some of our comrades in the IWA were even surprised to see that usually we don't send 1 or 2 people to talk nicely to the boss, but everybody goes together and the discussions are not so nice. When this has happened, it has always been effective, 100% of the time in fact. Despite this, most workers in Poland are afraid and thus choose a service union where they can pay their dues and where they are not necessarily expected to take responsibilities, do things or take risks. If we wanted to be that union, we could. But we want to be something else, even if it is so hard to achieve. We know that if we work differently, if we just go and sign people up and tell ourselves that this is going forward in the revolution, then we could do this and we'd be a number of times more people, but it's partly an illusion. These sorts of organizations usually go in the direction of professionalization, because where you don't rotate tasks, where you don't really have an active base, that is bound to happen.
The CNT-AIT criticized these trends in the CNT. Was it elsewhere in the International?
Some parts of it that split no longer see problems with this and in their new international project, the issue of paid officers is seen differently. They would argue that, because they are bigger, it is necessary. This is debatable. But that issue is the tip of the iceberg. There are many others, such as whether or not the unions function inside the legal framework of the state, where the state imposes strict limits of union activity, for example, the right to strike. In our country this is a huge issue because the legal strike mechanism was created to make it very difficult to strike according to the law. ZSP has said openly, many times, that we refuse this law. We have had a few wildcat strikes and won them all. However we saw segments in the former IWA Sections, who have split, which showed a preference for legalized union structures in the workplace and organizations which get involved in collaborative structures at work which undermine the struggles. An example is FAU which had in its statutes that they should not participate in works councils. But then there were more and more people in them. They justified this as being part of „working in the real world” and were very defensive about this topic, even though they were only asked once about it.
How widespread is that?
I don't know now. We went to the Solfed conference, maybe 4-5 years ago and the comrades asked a guest from FAU about it then. There was 8 or 9 such cases.
Back to what I wanted to say - the narrative about the IWA which the splitters have tended to present is that small Sections „forced” them to do this or that, but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. For example, with attitudes towards work councils and collaborationist schemes which the IWA rejected. This issue actually split 3 organizations that were in the IWA: the CNTs of Spain and France and USI of Italy. The IWA was forced to take positions and this led people to take stances. The FAU in Germany incorporated this position in its statutes but later, they changed and considered this was like a necessary compromise of „real union work”.
Even though I think a lot of people disagree with these tactics and most did not use them in their Sections, there was no real invigilation in this point. I know how discussions went with one guy from the work councils since we had him at an IWA Conference and he was even my guest at home. Personally, I don't agree with this and neither does my Section. But we do real union work and we always want to hear people out if they think they need to use another tactic, to know the circumstances.
That said, there sometimes can be a fine line regarding tactics. You can begin to smell a turn when tactics that were once considered undesirable become normalized and how discussions on these matters are treated. Our former comrade I referred to was very calm and could discuss, but unfortunately, some became big proponents of flexible tactics. Some became hostile to any that criticized these, even in the frame of comradely discussion. In my experience, those who initiated split moves often were the most hostile of the bunch.
We could observe these tendencies in Spain.
It was the same tendency, whether in Spain or Germany. Success for them means big, success means having unions which are recognized in the workplaces, in a legal way, but this is sometimes regardless of whether they are acting no different than a mainstream union.
I don't want to imply that legal, representative unions can't be better or worse. It just seems that our organizing models should be different, more diverse and not be based solely on this form of organizing. There are actually lots of dangers of moving into representative unionism.
The unions that left IWA sometimes claimed that it interfered in the Sections' development.
How? If most of the IWA rejected work councils, then how did the use of them develop? Obviously the Sections developed according to their own practices, not according to any IWA guideline. I never really saw this. If we have comrades who haven't developed practice so much, it has no influence on whether we develop our practice locally.
What did the IWA decide about the CNT? What happened and what is your opinion?
I'd like to stop calling that organization „CNT”. It can be confusing. When there were splits in the IWA, we spoke about the organizations later using some demonination and I will refer to what you are talking about as CNT-R, to distinguish it from CNT-AIT. The IWA decided that this organization, currently headquartered in Bilbao, could no longer be its Spanish Section and that the CNT-AIT was. It is, for us, the continuation of CNT-AIT.
The situation inside that organization, during its last years in the IWA was very complicated. It is very hard to give a good picture in a few words. But there are various articles about their turn.
There started to be some problems with how it perceived the IWA, starting from the XXIV Congress. The Sections rejected their proposals three times and ultimately decided to think of ways to develop the International without excluding smaller organizations and in a way we could encourage new organizations to develop. This will take time and frankly, we've been undermined by this split, but there is widescale consensus that this is a more positive plan on the whole.
They kept returning with the proposals, even after they were rejected.
Yes. It was a wedge issue and, in my opinion, pushing it caused a rupture. But this was only one issue. Unfortunately, speaking about it didn't move the most adamant proponents of these ideas. I personally spoke many, many hours with people who are now out of the IWA, about their ideas and what they would like to change in the IWA. As somebody who is involved in concrete organizing, in the workplace, in the community and in the organization, I am interested in the IWA being an active organization which is relevant to the working class but which also expresses clear ideas and builds in a way which does not sidetrack us from our ultimate goals. At first, I thought that their ideas were mainly to encourage the reformation of the IWA in this direction but that they were going the wrong way about it. Then, starting in 2010 already, I started to see another face of that organization.
In 2010 the executives started to attack the IWA.
The story can get very long, but yes. I am afraid I cannot tell everything briefly. But I did want to point out that despite these things, we in the IWA displayed a high level of solidarity with the work conflicts in Spain. I think I myself must have organized at least a dozen solidarity actions for a union that later declared the IWA useless.
A few unions of the CNT-R it turns out were going in a different direction and really did problematic things. Mostly, as it turns out, to other comrades in Spain.
We feel that between the CNT X Congress (2010) and the IWA XXV Congress (2013), the former Spanish Section had some real problems. Prior to the Congress we had heard about various problems in the organization, but of course we just wished all comrades well, that they could settle these matters and get the organization back on track. Maybe we didn't want to give up. We thought that actually, in the time before that Congress, the IWA had started to move forward, in several ways. Better coordination, more actions and workplace activity. We thought this in spite of the problems because we felt that solidarity could overcome this.
There were already serious problems in Spain but probably comrades also thought they could be overcome.
The Congress showed us that some Sections wanted to split the IWA and one of the main factors was the direction of the CNT. We saw a very divided organization, with part of it trying to take over the IWA and another part of it (actually quite numerous at the Congress), applauding the IWA delegates as they explained their positions.
We also saw the harrassment and mobbing some people faced, which for us was unacceptable, especially at an IWA Congress. After the first day of the Congress, while most of the IWA ate together in one place, the FAU delegates were in another trying to discuss a split with some CNT and USI delegates. The writing was on the wall and the situation seriously deteriorated from there.
We were elected the Secretariat at that Congress and we saw how this situation would affect our work, although we tried to get on with the task we were mandated to do.
We could see that the situation inside the CNT was getting worse, despite the claims that it was growing, thus getting better. It became very clear that to pull off the transformation of the organization, the reformist faction of CNT, for lack of a better word, would need to conduct more purges and at this point, threats of expulsions came very frequently. It was seen as some sort of interference to ask about this and it caused many practical issues. For example that comrades of the IWA did not always know who was in, who was out and why.
Not everybody knew about these things – only people with some personal contacts to comrades. That's because the official IWA communication is what it sent by the Secretaries of the organizations which is supposed to avoid abuse, but doesn't alway work that way. I know at least one situation from IWA history in which a Secretary was acting in an anti-statutory way and people became estranged from the IWA because they could not communicate with it.
We started to have a big problem with communication, since we had successive Secretaries in Spain which were in the R-faction and at the time of the XXV Congress, there was a huge problem with Spain's executive. Dues to the IWA were not received and there were always stranges responses as to when they'd be paid. We had just decided new procedures in the IWA which meant that the Section's disaffiliation should be considered if they didn't pay. During personal talks with comrades, I asked what is happening and the answer was shocking. Comrades of course had paid their dues, but they had no idea what was happening because of the inability to get financial reports. Since the Secretariat of the CNT was not doing what it was mandated to do, unions of the CNT started taking it upon themselves to write to the IWA to get confirmation that their dues were not being paid and information about how long this had been going on.
Since this money was misappropriated, and reporting was incorrect, comrades tried to recall these people, but without success. Only after some time and a lot checking and pressure, it was officially recognized that the executive had been stealing the money of the workers.
In any organization problems can happen – but the important thing is how we handle them and make sure they don't happen again. From what I know, this was a very serious breach since the R-faction has been involved in a number of such incidents and the rank and file members have been usually discouraged from demanding resolutions. For example, the unions of Andalucia that exposed corruption wound up outside and later, the Regional attempted to disaffiliate those who still held actions together with them. It is very hard not to have an opinion on this. As one of the CNT-AIT comrades says, there has to be some time where you draw the line. But if you keep drawing the line further and further away, you don't even see the line any more.
A comrade from CNT-AIT recently said that those people, it seems, are trying to destroy anarcho-syndicalism. I said that they can't do it, if people don't let them. Because this is a strong idea that we have in our minds and hearts and we need to fight for it.
When I talk about fighting for anarcho-syndicalism, I mean that this has to be done on various levels. First, if we are serious, let's be serious. We have to have committed organizations. This means effort, this means better organization. We are fighting for our ideals, so we need other people to see people organizing with some effect. People will believe in our ideas more when they see others who live by them and when they can see practical effects. This is really an area where we can all improve and I hope it will happen.
The other thing is that always we have to avoid the temptation to just use the same methods as others or to let their practices creep in. I suppose some people whose organizations are more vertical than they should be and see this try to convince themselves that it will get better, but they can find themselves in a much worse situation. Just like the Marxists tried to convince workers that the State will wither away, some of the leaders of the syndicalist unions think that, after a while, the workers will learn and the committees will wither away. But people have to be active from the beginning. The committees, executives and professionals are not gonna wither away.
Two more questions comrade. First, the current lawsuits which were brought against some of the CNT-AIT unions.
This is disgraceful and an example of the ethical bankruptcy of the executives of CNT-R, the very content of the suits. There will be a separate text on this matter.
The CNT-R is taking part in the formation of a new International. What do you think about it?
I wouldn't want to belong to it, so I am glad I have a choice. There are now a few internationals to choose from and, as it turns out, some of the members or perspective members of this new organization are already in more than one. The way I see it is that there are folks who join all sorts of different things, seeing it as a way to have more contacts, without any deeper thoughts about it. If that doesn't bother anybody, fine – but then it should raise questions why they didn't just merge this initiative with the Red and Black Coordination.
Personally I don't like how they refer to the IWA and see they are already trying to take over some things we were doing so there can be some issues in the future. But this is not the first international structure around and the others didn't exactly blossom. I think we should spend less time thinking about this and more time getting ourselves in shape. However, if this new international wants to imply it is the IWA, this would be another story and would have to be treated in one way or another.