Book review: New Forms of Worker Organization – The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism

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

Edited by Immanuel Ness
Published by PM Press
Image taken from the publishers, PM Press

The title and subject matter advertise themselves. The editor, Immanuel Ness, previously did a book on self-management factory councils as co-editor – both subjects could hardly be more grounded in emancipatory anti-capitalist activism by the very people most exploited by it. And then there is the forward by Staughton Lynd, all of which make it an easy sale. Nevertheless, I was kind of sceptical. It looked like the authors are researchers rather than union activists writing about their own struggles. And although the chapter layout tries to present a global reach by splitting the book into chapters on case studies from the Global South and then from the Global North, the latter looks it it is more or less confined to the Anglo-Saxon world – aside from one Chapter on Sweden’s SAC, the rest come from the US, UK, Australia, and the US again.

I started reading the Introductory Chapter, which starts by arguing that capitalism and labour struggles around the world today have more in common to 1910s and 1930s USA than any other heyday, and so he proceeded to sketch a history of the IWW, and competing ideas around autonomist and syndicalist unions. Not only is this most likely the other way around (i.e. He knows about subject X, therefore he frames the intro to make subject X relevant) but the whole thing seemed horribly Western-centric and Modernist – implying that the 3rd World has to develop out of poverty through catching up and emulating the 1st World in everything they do, even in how they do anti-capitalism. After reading the next two theoretical chapters on the Autnomia Operaia movement in Italy in the 1970s and on contemporary China, I was left with a thorough idea about about what the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base did not look like, but no idea what they did look like, and I understood all about the historical causes of the Tonghua Antiprivatisation Struggle, but nothing about the struggle itself. The whole thing just seemed opportunistic on part of a US academic and his network who wanted to make their areas of expertise appear relevant to real-world grassroots struggles.

I had previously read Ours to Master and to Own, a book which claims to be accessible and of interest to the Working Class, but in reality sticks rigidly to the form of academic writing, complete with theoretical framework sections, laborious citations, dry reporting style and cross-sectional researcher positionality, all of which serve to allow authors to convince other authors how much they know but just obstruct ordinary readers. (although, there is a lot to be said for that book, but that is for a different review). But then at some point I started to read the Chapter on mineworkers struggles in South Africa, written in a narrative style and searching for lessons to answer those dilemmas that the author as an activist is confronted with. And then there was revolutionary labour and community unionist struggles in Colombia and self-organised subway workers union starting to understand their power to cripple capital accumulation across all of Buenes Aires when they withdraw their collective labour. Both chapters written by people close to the struggle, and in the case of the Colombian Chapter, composed largely of threads of emails which tell the story as it unfolds in the words of union members and their supporters.

And it just got better from there. Chapters from Sweden and the UK tell enthralling stories of the 100 year history of Sweden’s syndicalist union and of the struggles, strikes, solidarity and splits amoung self-organised immigrant cleaners in the UK who set up an IWW local. But the keynote Chapter for me is that of Erik Forman, recounting his story of attempts to get their IWW union recognised in a chain of fast-food franchise restaurants in Minneapolis. This is the best Chapter, not only because the author is the closest to the struggle (working in the restaurant and one of the main initiators of the formation of the union) but moreso because it is written in a gripping, engaging style and because the adrenaline-filling episodes are interspersed with the author drawing on historical examples of union organising, his understanding of capitalism and the problems with mainstream unions and the challenges and dilemmas faced by alternative solidarity unions such as his.

With these case-focussed chapters taken in, the more theory-oriented ones on Australia, Italy, and the US, become much more relevant. I think I will go back and read them again to get a better idea of autonomist theory: how the Working Class rather than Capital can – and should – set the pace of capitalist crisis and why this insight is important. As a whole, what I have taken from this book is the suggestion that while the decline in union membership over the last two decades is usually lamented by the left, this might actually present an opportunity to relaunch a dormant class war as people confronting their circumstances are no longer channelled into impotent bureaucracies (and incidentally, the recent unionising and (by definition) wildcat strikes by uber and deliveroo workers (‘contractors’) in London seems to confirm this: they managed to organise strikes in under 24 hours in part because there was no official union on account of them not being legally employed). Also, most importantly, at a time when the capitalist class look they have won the battle ideas and weathered their worst crisis in history, this book shows (not argues) that the struggle for democratic control over the means of production is still as relevant as it ever was. In short, I thoroughly recommend this book, but maybe start with the middle chapters instead of the early ones.