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News ::
Voices of Anarchist Union Organizers (english)
07 Oct 2002
Modified: 10 Oct 2002
I asked a few folks to tell me a little about themselves and their views
on organizing for unions. These six people identify as either an anarchist
(with or without adjectives) or as an anti-authoritarian (an anarchist
that doesn't know it yet!). They all work as union organizers or have
worked as union organizers.
Voices of Anarchist Union Organizers

by Duke, Roundhouse Collective (NEFAC-Baltimore)

Anarchists working for big mainstream unions? The AFL-CIA? What the fuck
are they thinking? No doubt they're just cashing in on the backs of the
working class. Fat Cats. Sell-Outs. Labor Aristocrats. The Labor Movement
is the mediator between capitalists and workers. We don't need mediation.
We need a fuckin' Class War. Anyway. If you think the world's that simple,
put down this journal, go to Hot Topics at the mall, and buy yourself a
new shirt with a nice big circle A in the middle of it. Then go start the
class war. Make sure you send us all a post card to let us know how it
turns out.

Of course the problem with this scenario is that it ain't gonna
work, it ain't an anarchist social revolution, and the "masses" ain't
gonna leap up and follow you on to victory. Call it a hunch, but the naive
notion of spontaneous revolution is the biggest fallacy underpinning the
"anarchist movement" in North America. I'll leave it for the big anarchist
theoreticians (snicker) to ponder about the exact appropriate methods to
achieve social transformation.

In the meantime, most folks are doing what they should be doing. Building a movement that transcends mere activism. A
movement that fights racism, patriarchy, and class based society. We need
to be organizing and organizing to win. Our organizing must be imbued with
the belief that capitalism can be overthrown, that racism can be defeated,
and that patriarchy can be demolished. Our strategies must be diverse and
adaptable, but most of all, they must engage all areas of our lives. On
the job and in the neighborhoods! The simple fact is that ya can't have a
class war without the rest of your class. Any other revolutionary praxis
will be tainted with authoritarianism and vanguardism. Why replace one
ruling class with another?

A strong labor movement is a necessary component to building working class strength and power. One component of
many, but important nonetheless. The State and the corporations have
fought tooth 'n' nail to keep workers from organizing successfully.
Workers have fought back, but mostly the bosses have won. They've won to
such an extent that the workers' own organizations have accepted their
diminished role, from revolutionary organ to class mediator. Unions have
become filled with useless functionaries, do-nothing hacks, and ruling
class collaborators. Anarchists abandoned the unions and left them to the
bottom-feeders, we should feel fucking ashamed of that. 'Cause the rank
'n' file are still there, the unorganized workers are still there, and the
unemployed are still there. The bosses are gonna keep on winning and
anarchists are gonna sit around and gloat that unions suck. We need to
take back the unions. We need to be in them agitating for anarchist
ideals: mutual aid, direct action, direct democracy, etc. There also must
be a drive to organize more workers. The more we are organized as a class,
the stronger we will become. That's why I'm an organizer.


I asked a few folks to tell me a little about themselves and their views
on organizing for unions. These six people identify as either an anarchist
(with or without adjectives) or as an anti-authoritarian (an anarchist
that doesn't know it yet!). They all work as union organizers or have
worked as union organizers. Some others declined to participate. The two
main reasons given for choosing not to participate were that people are
too busy to bother or they don't give a shit what the North American
anarchist milieu thinks. From the group that participated, they have been
involved either as rank 'n' file or as an organizer with AFSCME, HERE,


I asked everyone to describe themselves politically and the answers seem
to mirror effectively the general trends in the greater anarchist milieu.
When asked about their political activity outside of the labor movement,
it was equally varied. What also showed is that becoming a union organizer
requires so much devotion of time that most folks' other activities tend
to be in the past or at least toned down a great deal. Organizers
generally work 80+ hours a week. Organizing strips away at a person. They
tend to become single-minded, driven, and disturbingly focused. Otherwise
they don't last.

Chuck: I'm an anarcho-communist, and I believe that unions offer the best
hope of pushing the class struggle and forcing workers to understand that
their interests are not the interests of the boss class. When I was
younger I was involved in what seemed like a never-ending myriad of
anarchists/activist organizations. Since becoming focused on organizing
with workers, I've dropped most of them, with the exception of the
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and NEFAC.

Luet: I'm an anarcho-communist. I'm a member of the Roundhouse Collective
(NEFAC-Baltimore), Black Planet Book Collective, and Baltimore ARA.

Arlene: I'm just a person who really fucking hates everything that
capitalism is built on. I hate authority, money, injustice, etc. Well if I
ever had time for political organization affiliations outside of the labor
movement they would be politically progressive.

Justin: I am opposed to a capitalist economy, and the use of a State to
oppress people. I see no need for nations or borders. I helped to start a
statewide direct action group that worked on mobilization and education
around issues of "corporate globalization " I also helped to start a
collective (Madhatters) that runs an Infoshop and publishes a newspaper,
Hat City Free Press.

Dan: Anti-authoritarian. I haven't had any activity in other political
groups since I started organizing. The work is consuming and I live in a
different city. Before this, I was involved with Food Not Bombs, taught
ESL at a few Latina/o community centers, and was a literacy tutor (1st,
5th, and 6th grades) on Chicago's west and south sides. In college I was
in a few student activist groups. We spent most of our time talking and
not doing anything.

Matt: I am opposed to oppressive power structures and mean people. I try
to struggle against them in my work, my activism and my everyday life,
with hopes of creating a fair, just and peaceful world where all people
have self-determination and are treated with respect and dignity. Right
now I spend most of my activist energy working in the Palestinian
solidarity movement, specifically with SUSTAIN (Stop US Tax-Funded Aid to
Israel Now!) of which I was a founding member in 2000. I am also doing
support work for the International Solidarity movement--a Palestinian led
initiative that brings internationals over to Palestine to do nonviolent
direct action against the Israeli Occupation alongside the Palestinians.


The question that I really wanted to know from everyone was why they
decided to become a union organizer in the first place. Mainstream unions
are not known for welcoming anarchists with open arms. What makes people
give up their lives to a job?

Arlene: It all began when I was a teenager helping my mom out when she'd
clean offices; this motherfucker disrespected my mother in front of me.
Other events like that galvanized me into realizing how fucked up the
system is. So in college I went to a picket line to check it out and found
my "voice." It felt great to scream and be able to do something about
fucked up shit.

Luet: I was raised in a union family and have always supported unions. I
got a job where I was a UAW member and became a rank and file activist. I
learned first hand the importance of an active, militant union in the
community and on a local level. I also learned about union bureaucracy and
the challenges encountered when dealing with it. My experience in the UAW
provided me with a more realistic perspective on how fucked up unions are
and how critically we need to change them.

Justin: Because I believe that when people come together in an organized
fashion, they can begin to gain the power needed to gain basic human
needs. I saw this first hand growing up in a working class family that had
our lives dramatically improved when a "union" job meant a better life. As
I read about history, my view of labor unions as the most effective
instrument for change for the working class was reinforced.

Dan: Idealistic notions of building social change from the ground up via
democratic accountable organizations. I ended up working for a union.

Matt: Despite my (at the time not extremely well informed) critiques of
the mainstream labor movement, I was hoping I would be able to contribute
on some level to raising class-consciousness, organizing workers, and
improving peoples lives.

Chuck: I was working as a non-union painter in Baltimore, making about $11
an hour, with no health insurance for me or my kid. I've been an anarchist
for years, but I started thinking about my dad and my kid. My dad worked
his whole life as a painter and never got anywhere and I hardly knew him
'cause he was always at work. I thought [of my daughter] who was only six
months old. I didn't want her to grow up and see the same things that I
saw, her old man dying to put food on the table. That's when I decided to
organize my co-workers into a union. We lost the campaign, mostly 'cause
the union we organized into was inept. But I worked so hard on the
campaign the union just let me in and got me a union job. After a year or
so in the painters union, IUPAT, I got fed up with its conservative nature
and decided to find a new way that I could build a movement. A way that I
could do more to be a leader in a real working class movement. I hooked up
with [an organizing union] and they offered me a job.


Since anarchists are always complaining about the problems with unions and
union activity and organizers are always complaining that we have no lives
and work all the time, I asked folks what the positive things were that
they got out of union organizing. The answers were all pretty similar and
mirror my own feelings.

Chuck: I've learned a lot of things, but what has changed the most about
me personally for the best, is that I'm no longer scared of the idea of
taking leadership. Too many working class people are afraid of taking
leadership over something. It makes us vulnerable. It means we can mess up
and fail. It means we are the ones that have to answer for our actions, we
have to make decisions. But I've learned that if we don't do it, the boss
wins. We cannot wait for people to come to us, we can't wait for folks to
organize themselves, if we want to win, we have to make it happen and that
means being a leader.

Arlene: Meeting a lot of great workers, organizers, strength and joy from
seeing workers win elections and great contracts.

Luet: You learn more everyday. You meet people every day and help them
change their lives and take a stand. It is so easy to encourage people to
take on larger issues of oppression, racism, sexism and capitalism when
they see that collectively and individually they have power and can make a

Matt: I've been able to talk to workers all day everyday. I have learned
very systematic and efficient ways of organizing large amounts of workers
- skills that could be applied in organizing people elsewhere (including
interpersonal skills). I've been able to organize workers on direct action
models, where both blue and white-collar workers have come together to
take direct action against people in power, and have subsequently realized
that they can achieve things that way. This is a progressive (continually
progressing) consciousness raising experience for them that correlates to
their actions steadily becoming more militant.

Dan: Seeing a worker that was too scared to even open the door on the
first home visit and then march on the boss a month later. You actually
see and win tangible victories: all the elections last year, etc., instead
of talking about what might happen on the off chance that you actually

Justin: Seeing people transform from pieces of a machine to human beings.


This couldn't really be an article about working for mainstream unions
without a little trash talking. It goes without saying that unions today
are pretty fucked up, but I wanted to keep people focused on organizing.
The answers are not too unexpected. Justin and Chuck seem to be coming
from one perspective and the rest from another.

Arlene: The bureaucratic bullshit that goes on. I've seen lost timers who
dedicated themselves to this movement not get paid, or get fired because
they can't organize in good English. Shit like that. Plus the hypocrisy
I've seen in the higher echelons of the organizing department.

Luet: Dealing with the bullshit exploitation of organizers by the union.
Every day you attempt to fight the exploitation of workers by their
employer and it's no different when your employer is a union. I'm not
talking about salary and benefits so much as the basic respect and dignity
which people seem to forget about once they are in the role of management.

Chuck: I'm sure I'll get attacked for this statement, but I've been a
member of two unions now, and I don't see any negative aspects of union
organizing. I think that some unions don't do real organizing, and that is
the problem. Unions that organize top-down or carry out purely electoral
NLRB campaigns, that's a problem because it doesn't challenge the system
and it's not building power. But what I do, I don't see anything negative.

Matt: My (now more informed) critiques of the labor movement are many and
on many levels. Mainstream unions were institutionalized to mediate
between capital and labor and to demobilize revolutionary working class
mobilization. The union that I worked for (before I got fired) uses masses
of expendable contractual labor to do almost all their organizing. This
contractual labor is usually worked between 50-80 hours a week, somewhere
in the middle being the average, not knowing your schedule the day before,
and having no collective input into hours. The campaigns are run largely
in a top down, often authoritarian manner, where organizers have a say in
some things but not in others. [The unions] instill the same [corporate]
feelings into organizers who quickly fail to see the union management as
their adversary, and as the enemy of the working class more generally.
There are exceptions. There are politically conscious, anti-authoritarian
organizers in the labor movement, who do exist within this environment,
being conscious of it, and eventually aiming to overthrow it, but they are
few and far between.

Justin: It is very difficult work and I have seen many good organizers
blame the institution of "union Bureaucracy and Hierarchy" when they were
experiencing difficulties, or when the job was becoming monotonous. It is
most difficult to continue to try and inspire, motivate and organize
workers, when nearly every aspect of American society is opposed to the
collective power and community that you are advocating. That becomes even
more difficult when the movement itself is divided.

Dan: Rarely is anything really built from the ground up. Absurd directives
from the top. No communication between different departments of the union.
Micro-management. The fuckin' bureaucracy.


Most people think that it's difficult to work for a union and maintain
anarchist principles. To put it bluntly, how can we integrate anarchist
beliefs with our work in the labor bureaucracy? The answers appear much
simpler than one would think.

Luet: I try very hard to allow people to make decisions for themselves
while educating them on what possible courses of action they can take. It
can be very hard to promote non-authoritarian based decision making at the
membership level when as an organizer you are constantly forced to deal
with top down decision making from the international level. It's also
difficult to institute non-authoritarian decision-making processes when
working in a hierarchical system. But you have to try.

Chuck: I get asked this a lot, but it's mostly by people that don't
understand how unions work. I don't deal with a labor bureaucracy. I know
there are labor bureaucrats out there, and there are, I'm sure, some in my
union. But the truth is that I don't have to deal with it. I work with a
team of dedicated organizers who want to build a movement. I don't have
someone telling me I can do this and can't do that. There is a team of us
that decides how to build a movement and sometimes we decide not to do
militant or radical stuff and sometimes we do. It all depends on what we
believe will help us win in the long run, not just what feels right doing.

Justin: My belief in workers to determine their destiny within the union
bureaucracy helps me to stay focused on my job. Being able to advocate
direct action and organized resistance on a daily basis is amazing. I do
not let philosophical "lines" or concepts of what I may think is proper
structure of leadership or decision making take priority over winning
gains for workers. The workers I have met are more interested in wage
increases and gaining power on the job, than consensus decision-making or
Bakunin. To me Anarchist principles are more about confronting the power
of the state and capitalism, than process and hierarchy. As an organizer I
am constantly building resistance to the state and capitalism through
activity. Workers empower themselves through a process of resisting and
seeing it work.

Dan: I try to organize by giving the campaign to the workers, or at least
as much of they campaign as they want, and pushing them to run it and make
major strategic decisions themselves. There's a world of difference
between an organizer driven [representational] campaign and a [hot shop]
campaign of motivated leaders.

Matt: You have to organize workers into strong democratic unions on direct
action models and try to help them build strong locals, eventually
inoculating them (and politicizing them) about the role of the
international, and advising them on how to remain largely independent from
the international (and eventually on how to get more and more radical).
The workers should run their own local, their own meetings, and be
planning their own actions, and the goal is to help them get to that
point. Right now we need to organize as many workers as possible on direct
action models with democratic decision making procedures and in the
process do as much political education as possible, with a total focus on
worker empowerment.

Arlene: I try and get people to think on a more critical level, in
questioning the system they work in, fueling their issues so that they
realize you don't have to accept the way things are.


This is a bit of a touchy subject for me. At one point I believed that
anarchists should be leading the charge at reclaiming the unions and
organizing workers. We started the fuckin' labor movement, we're
responsible for all of its militant victories, and did the basic ground
work to build the largest working class movement on this continent. Then
we allowed it to be corrupted. Why shouldn't we take it back and work to
rebuild it the right way? This time we could be smart enough not to give
in to the bureaucrats. Right? Well, maybe. I've changed my mind somewhat
over time. The bulk of the anarchist movement is already doing really
productive work in other areas and the rest are too lazy and self-centered
to be able to dedicate themselves to the extreme it takes to be an
organizer in an organizing union. Besides, nowadays anarchist work-place
agitation means stealing a slurpy from your job at 7-11, not throwing
bombs for the eight-hour day. Well, regardless of my opinions, I asked
everyone to give advice to anarchists thinking about becoming union

Arlene: Really fucking think about it because there will be a lot of
compromise on some level, a degree of being jaded comes into play, you
have to think about how much or if you can take the bullshit because it is
difficult. When I remember how I first started, shit I thought the labor
movement was the last bastion of social change possible. Now I realize
that you have to organize people within the "movement". So I just focus on
the workers, because if not, the internal politics can really fuck me up
because I get disgusted, angry, etc.

Luet: Do it. When you effectively organize workers to take control of
their working lives they can go on to take control of their unions and
create radical change. There is nothing like a good fight with the boss to
radicalize the working class by opening their eyes to systematic

Justin: Do not come into a movement and culture of working class people
with some textbook notion of how the working class should make decisions
and see the world. Do not compare yourself to the workers you are
organizing. This is not about you. Leave individualist politics at home.
This is not about your right to look how you want. This is about winning
justice for workers. Do keep your core principles. Spend at least a year
in a learning mode. Stick with it. Organizing a large amount of workers
along militant tactics and critique is one of the most effective ways to
begin changing the political landscape in America.

Dan: Don't get frustrated with the bureaucracy; focus on the workers, not
the union. Make several cynical, sarcastic remarks about the union

Matt: If you're going to try to do this, you need intense psychological
preparation. Your reasons for organizing should be to create revolutionary
class-consciousness, organize workers on direct action models in
democratic unions, and eventually for the workers to overthrow the union
bureaucracy and take it over. Your goal should be entirely subversive and
you should never let this slip your mind.

Chuck: I'd tell them they should only do it if they like talking to
working class people, if they like working as part of team, if they want
to learn and get pushed, and if they are truly dedicated to the long-term
struggle. Building a union is not like summit hopping; it is something you
should do for the rest of your life. You should learn and grow and become
a leader. The labor movement doesn't need more activists. It needs real
working class leaders that can take on a fight against capitalism and win.


As a reader you should be a little wary of the answers here. I asked
everyone what the labor movement is doing right. You should know that all
of these organizers work for unions that have committed to doing new
organizing. This is a small minority of unions. The bulk of the labor
movement is still playing sit 'n' spin with itself, watching worker power
evaporate, and holding on to the last of their dwindling membership.

Luet: The declining numbers of union represented workers in this country
is finally beginning to hit home with some union bureaucrats. The only way
that unions will be able to survive and be effective is to expand, which
means they must organize new workers. It's no longer acceptable to just
sit back, service the existing membership, and count your days to
retirement. I feel that organizing is critical for the long-term success
of the labor movement; however, larger numbers does not mean better unions
or radical change. Unions need to act as a tool to educate, agitate and
empower the working class. Organizing more workers is a step in that

Chuck: I think that the labor movement is a behemoth and you can't speak
for it as a single entity. [My union] is engaging in massive amounts of
ground up organizing all around the country and not only are we
challenging the bosses, but also the laws governing workers. [Our] policy
is to not use the NLRB. Around the country we fight bosses for agreements
called Card Check Neutrality, which means that the boss has given up and
the workers can join the union without fear of being fired or harassed.
The idea being that after enough victories it will be standard in the
industry to organize this way. It's a long-term victory, but that's the
way we have to think about it. Also doing cold shop organizing, that means
picking strategic targets, coming up with a plan and sticking to it till
we win. But what I'm most proud of is [our] nation wide drive with
Immigrant Amnesty. I think this is the next civil rights struggle that
could and will be just as big as the sixties.

Arlene: Organizing.

Justin: Organizing new workers. Organizing Immigrant workers

Dan: Committing more resources to organizing.

Matt: Hiring organizers [and] using a direct action model to organize


All right. Everyone knows that unions have some major problems. It would
take too long to list 'em all and they have little to do with an
organizer's perspective. We are often uni-dimensional animals. The phrase
"organize or die" is a deeply held belief. What will die if we don't
organize, is the chance at a social revolution. So what do anarchist union
organizers think the labor movement is doing wrong?

Arlene: Not organizing enough.

Justin: Wasting money. Not trying new ways of organizing new industries

Luet: I think that historically unions have put too much of their
resources in servicing their membership and buying politicians. By
focusing on and implementing this type of hierarchical model you create a
passive membership, not the active, militant membership necessary for

Matt: It's using corporate-unions to profit at the expense of workers and
not putting enough of the union budget into organizing. [It's] not letting
workers have enough control over the actions and the union.

Chuck: I don't know how to answer for all unions, but what I think is
glaringly clear is that unions aren't training leaders. I know the common
thing is to say that we're not militant enough or aren't democratic
enough, but none of the matters if we aren't training people to lead
workers. Too many unions look at organizers as cogs in a wheel, instead of
the future leaders of the union. We need to train workers to be shop
stewards, stewards to be organizers and organizers to be union leaders.
Most unions don't do it, they either have workers become leaders with no
real training or they have college kids become organizers and don't train
them. They are perfectly happy to have their organizers stay for a year,
two or three, but not be in it for the long haul. I think that is the
biggest problem. We're in a marathon here, not a sprint.

Dan: This whole organizing commitment is more of a palace revolution than
an actual commitment. Staff driven unions with not much accountability to
the rank and file. Running organizers into the ground.


To wrap this up, I thought I'd give the organizers a chance to share what
they would like people to know about their experiences working in the
mainstream labor movement. It's difficult to express why folks do this,
especially to someone who is on the outside.

Dan: Be open to different ways of organizing workers. If you don't learn
everyday (at least for the first couple of years), you're doing something
wrong. Any amount of bullshit is worth it when you see the look on a
worker's face after they marched on the boss. They move from thinking
about getting fired to thinking about their co-workers. Sometimes you can
see the consciousness in their eyes afterwards.

Matt: It was a demoralizing experience, I had little support, and since
I'm the type of person who is not impressed or intimidated by people in
power positions, and didn't fall for the managements line of us all being
on the same team, I talked back and called the management out on
exploitation among other things in a staff meeting in front of everyone,
and got fired for it the next day.

Justin: It's not about me.

Arlene: You know what, it's worth it. All the bullshit, all the internal
politics. Every time you see workers win it's worth it.

Chuck: I'd like people to know that the labor movement is like any other
working class movement, it is full of problems, but it is also full of
wonderful folks that want to fix them. Sometimes we don't know how,
sometimes we can't make it happen, but there are many, many dedicated
people that are making things happen. Twenty years from now I know I'm
gonna be proud of the union that I built, and hopefully fifty years from
now I'll have trained enough capable people that I'll be able to leave it
in good hands and closer to the revolution than when I found it.

Luet: All the bullshit is worth it when you see a group of workers march
on their boss and the boss is cowering in their office with the door


The Northeastern Anarchist #5 (Fall/Winter 2002) Magazine of the
Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC)

Single copies are $5ppd ($6 international). Subscriptions are $15ppd for
four issues ($18 international). For distribution, bundle orders are $3
per copy for three or more copies, and $2.50 per copy for ten or more.
Checks or money orders can be made out to "Northeastern Anarchist" and
sent to:

Northeastern Anarchist PO Box 230685 Boston, MA 02123, USA email:
northeastern_anarchist (at)

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who cares? (english)
08 Oct 2002
anarchists are dirty stink-freaks

unions are corrupt special interests

anarchists + unions = dirty corrupt special interest stink-freaks
I Love Morons (english)
09 Oct 2002
Ha! Ha! Ha! That is quite possibly the most clever comment I have ever seen. Really. You should be proud to have such clever remarks at your disposal. Dirty stink-freaks? Man, what are you like 8 or something?
I'm sure you do (english)
10 Oct 2002
I'm sure you do love morons since you apparently are one. All unions do is steal money from regular working people and anarchists, if they want to be taken seriously at all, should try taking showers.
Okay... (english)
10 Oct 2002
I don't know. I am an anarchist and I smell great. Shower everday, thank you very much. Even wear deoderant. Most other serious anarchists that I know do the same. Also, unions vary, y'know. From revolutionary, syndicalist unions to reactionary, bureaucratic ones. Kind of hard to write them all off so easily without sounding completely ignorant.