Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Molly has recently been the grateful recipient of a pdf copy of the English language version of 'Strike', a review published by the Polish Union of Syndicalists (in Polish-take a deep breath- Zwiazek Syndykalistow Polski-ZSP). It's quite an interesting publication, but unfortunately unavailable over the internet. Get ahold of the ZSP via their website, however, and they could probably forward a copy your way. See also our Links section for more contacts for the ZSP.

Molly has dealt with the question of the Polish anarchosyndicalist unions before, making some mistakes that were corrected by the ZSP comrades. While not "yet" formally part of the AIT-IWA, the anarchosyndicalist International, the ZSP is generally in sympathy with same. Unlike the situation in western Europe the anarchosyndicalists in eastern Europe are generally either AIT members or sympathetic to said organization. In Poland there are two anarchosyndicalist federations, the ZSP and the non-AIT Workers' Initiative. Unlike in countries such as France and Spain the AIT sympathetic group is, as far as Molly can tell, definitely the most dynamic and probably the larger of the two. There may be historical and socioeconomic causes for the difference between eastern and western Europe in terms of the attractiveness of the two models of anarchosyndicalist action held by the two types of organization. What these are Molly is unclear about.

What is clear is that there is a basic difference in western Europe between the AIT and non-AIT groups in relation to one central question. This is the question of the "works' councils" (also known as enterprise councils). This is a system of labour representation that is unfamiliar to us here in North America (and also in Britain- though there was a failed attempt to introduce this system there about a decade ago). Here is North America we are used to basically three forms of workplace unionization ie 1)no union or representation, 2)the closed shop, one workplace, one union or 3)several unions in an enterprise representing different 'crafts" or 'employment categories'. In most of Europe there are what are called 'works councils' for enterprises above a certain number of employees. Since 1994 the EU has been attempting to mandate this sort of system for member states.

The exact form and regulations of these councils differ from country to country in the EU, but they all take the form of workplace elections for employee representation in a given workplace of enterprise. In many cases several different unions with different political perspectives and programs compete for representation on these councils. the powers of these councils also vary. In some cases, as apparently in much of Poland, they are little more than legal window dressing. In others those elected function very much like our familiar shop stewards. In yet other cases the councils function very much as adjuvants of management, allowing for suggestions about minor matters from the workforce but also acting to control said workforce by bureaucratizing workplace disputes. Can we say grievance process on steroids ? In yet other cases the councils do act as brakes on the arbitrary power of management.

The powers and structures of these councils vary, and so does the anarchosyndicalist response to them. In countries such as Spain and France where there are competing visions of what anarchosyndicalism should do the main (perhaps the only real substantive) issue dividing anarchosyndicalists is whether to participate or not in elections to such councils. In the cases of Spain (with the non-AIT CGT and the AIT CNT) and France (with the CNT-AIT France and the CNT-France) the split in anarchosyndicalist ranks has led to a situation where those who do participate in th elections have become the larger and more effective unions, especially in the Spanish case. In the French case the CNT-AIT France is little more than a small propaganda group. In the Spanish case (complicated by other fissures in Spanish anarchosyndicalism- a whole other story) the CNT is a small union that is marginally effective in a few places while the CGT is a national union of major effectiveness and popularity. I do not know enough about the Italian case with its two USIs (both of which bizarrely enough claim the AIT label even though one is quite obviously no such thing) to comment on it. There is also the German case of the FAU where the major anarchosyndicalist union (there is a small IWW presence in Germany) adheres to the AIT, but is quite unorthodox by AIT standards as to what it does.

The evidence from western Europe has so far been unequivocal. Choosing to participate in the elections is a much surer way to growth and actual influence on ordinary workers. Neither the Spanish CGT nor the CNT-F has "degenerated", as their critics predicted. An objective look at their actions over the past few decades shows them as consistent advocates of the principles of anarcho-syndicalism. Where they have "deviated" in such matters as advocacy of particular legislation more favourable to ordinary people or in campaigns against "privatization" they have merely bowed to temporary reality, and they have been no more "deviant" in these matters than their "orthodox" critics have been. In a few cases in France branches of the CNT-F have supported leftist parties in elections, but the general organization has remained aloof from party politics as has the Spanish CGT. Over the years the non-AIT unions have been consistent advocates of workers' self management and the eventual goal of a libertarian society, and in Spain the CGT has usually been at least as vociferous as the CNT in advocating the rights of the general worker assemblies over their representatives.

In actual fact the danger of "degenerating" via "reformism" has hardly ever been engraved on the tombstones of many of the organizations that comprised the golden age of syndicalism. The Mexican case may be an exception, and arguments might be made for the pre-WW I French CGT and even the CNT in the Spanish Revolution, but in the vast majority of cases the demise of syndicalist unions was either due to repression or to the precise opposite of "reformism" ie the siren call of revolutionary "efficiency"- Marxism Leninism. This particular Frankenstein is now really and truly buried, at least for another generation, but there is still the question of what seems more important-"revolution or anarchism". The former is not necessarily the only eternal way to the latter.

This tension between "practicality and idealism" was also played out in a different form here in North America in the long standing debate about whether the not-quite-anarchosyndicalist IWW should sign collective agreements. In the end practice rather than theoretical arguments won the day, and the IWW today strives for collective agreements whenever it can. This, of course, is a compromise just as participating in the works council elections in Europe is, but I fail to see how the adoption of this way of acting has made the IWW any less an advocate for its ultimate ideals. Merely a more effective one !!!

I think you can gather where my sympathies lie here. Yet, and it is a big "yet", while the major dangers feared by those who adhere to the AIT may be unlikely there are many minor dangers of which they are accurate critics. My own feeling is that those anarchosyndicalists active in the AIT would be much more effective within the larger non-AIT groups as a safeguard against bureaucracy, and I hope for the unlikely, in the near future, reunification of international anarchosyndicalism. There is also the question of whether the decision to participate in works council elections is always and everywhere the proper decision. I must admit that the Pollish case has raised doubts about this in my mind. There is actually very little in this world that is "right" (both moral and effective) in all places and at all times.

The following items from the Polish ZSP give their case against the works councils in their country, and I find their arguments more cogent and certainly less sectarian than those I have seen from France and Spain. It may be that what the Polish comrades say is generally applicable to the rather artificial works councils in eastern Europe that the EU is encouraging. They might also be applicable to some sort of "leftist scheme" to set up similar so-called reforms in the world outside of western Europe. I can, for instance, see an almost one to one correspondance between what the Polish comrades say and what would be wrong with such "councils" in a Canadian context where some such schemes actually exist as a non-legislative management tool in some enterprises- employee "consultation".

The first article below is reprinted from the Polish review 'Strike' mentioned above. The second, longer and more detailed, is from Laure Akai, an activist within the ZSP. See what you think. What I personally find most attractive in the following is its practical nature, in contrast to the rhetorical campaigns that I have seen in the past from the AIT in France and Spain.
ZSP Against the Campaign
for Works Councils:

ZSP, unlike some other anarchists who campaigned for the introduction of works councils, has repeatedly criticized them for a number of reasons. The most important reason is that they simply have a more limited range of entitlements than unions. All companies employing more than 50 people in Poland now must have either a works council or a union- but workers are much better off having an union.

The government recently amended legislation with a view towards dealing another blow to unions. They are presenting works councils as some freedom of choice- which is rather grotesque given the fact that so many works councils were actually set up without any input from the workers themselves-the bosses simply put their choices in that role, and the heads of such councils do nothing.

Over the last couple of years we have printed several articles about the role of the works councils and produced some simple charts to help people see what the differences between councils and unions really are. Over 10,000 have accessed this chart over the internet.

This is not to say that we are not critical of many unions or that we don't see limitations to legal unionism. In fact we encourage people to work outside of legal unionism as much as possible. But when it comes to the practical issues of deciding certain things at work, and since workers are forced to have some sort of representation, we think they should choose the type that actually can do things such as agree on work schedules,etc.,etc..

Besides this we are extremely critical of hierarchical unionism where the rank and file are excluded from making decisions and negotiations and deals are made by union bosses. We are still trying to popularize the ideas behind KFP, the non-hierarchical union that we founded. But too many people want somebody to do everything for them; there is still a big gap between the mentality of the average worker in Warsaw and the anarchist ones. But we insist on rank and file unionism, not bureaucracy, not authoritarian leadership and vanguardism.

This is one of our campaigns, and the struggle for radical unions and union democracy continues.
Work Councils : Pacifiers of the Workers:
As new legislation comes on works councils comes into force in Poland, it becomes more urgent to dispel the myths of the councils and expose how they are promoted by entrepreneurs and the state to further weaken the work force's bargaining power.

For years in Poland (a certain for decades elsewhere), workers have had to contend with the compromising attitudes of many unions, especially of those acting through agents of "social partnership". Yet in comparison to the work councils scheme introduced a few years ago in Poland, workers have many more opportunities when forming unions. The work councils scheme offer them practically nothing.

Many unions act in fact as a ventilation valve with their leadership acting to quash rebellion and keep all action within a legal framework. All unions are confined by law into bargaining and strike procedures designed to discourage worker direct action - yet there is resistance to these laws, evidenced by the large number of cases of repression connected with "illegal strikes". The degree of class collaboration, hierarchical leadership and other unfortunate aspects of mainstream unionism does vary. The (legal) option to even hold a strike at all is a right often exercised in this country, despite growing efforts to make such strikes more and more difficult. This is one reason why the state and employers prefer to promote forms of worker representation with even fewer legal rights and which will work in isolation, not in nationwide structures. *

(*The exception in terms of structure would be councils in a European Works Council Scheme.)

The state promoted the idea of work councils claiming that all workers should have representation on the job. Therefore, if there were no unions at the workplace and more than 50 people were employed there, a work council could be set up. (This was supposed to be a mandatory procedure, but due to unclear wording in the law, this may be interpreted differently. There is no clarification given.)

The councils were often set up by the employers themselves. If there was a union functioning in the workplace, they could assign union reps to the council. Some unions thus set up councils so that they would be sure to keep control of worker representation. However this was ruled by the Supreme Court as being "unconstitutional" as a result of a campaign against unionists. The legislation was amended.

The bosses have no interest in any real worker representation or in dealing with demands on a regular basis, therefore they prefer bodies with fewer rights and hope that workers, once convinced that they are "represented", will see no need to join unions. But a quick look at the rights of the councils vs. the rights of unions shows the difference.
Work councils may:
- Have access to information about the activity and economic situation of the employer and any changes that may occur in them.
- Have access to the state and structure of employment and any changes predicted regarding this or any actions with an aim to maintaining the level of employment.
- Be informed of activities which may cause changes in the organization of work or employment.- Consult on the state and structure of employment or activities which may cause changes in the organization of work.
Unions can:
- Consult and give an opinion on any terminations
- Negotiate severance and redundancy packages
- Negotiate pay, work conditions, collective agreements
- Negotiate accounting periods
- Negotiate which work requires extra safety measures or needs to be paid extra for safety reasons
- Organize drinks and meals for workers in certain positions
- Protest unfair dismissals and disciplinary fines
- Negotiate work and vacation schedules
- Oversee the social funds and control how money is spent
- Send a unionist on a delegation or to do union business during working hours and have a union representative at the workplace, employed full-time only on union work,if a union represents over 150 employees
- Obtain space at the work place for carrying out union activity (ie a union office)
- Collect dues
- Go into collective bargaining
- Hold a strike
- Collect strike funds, hire and provide legal council
- Organize workers into various industrial, regional and national branch organizations
- Negotiate work conditions throughout a sector, nationwide in a given company
- Provide support on a larger scale in case of conflict / strike
- Negotiate the terms of privatization

In addition, union reps are protected against discrimination or termination related to performing their functions (although in practice bosses frame them for other infractions to get rid of them anyway).

It is clear from this list that the role of work councils is limited in comparison with unions. In addition, it should be noted that unions may include regulations in their statutes which allow the rank and file more democratic control over the union and their representatives than they could have with the councils.

For example, in a union, certain decisions could require a vote of all local union members or the decision of a local branch meeting. This depends of the statute of the union and the amount of rank-and-file democracy it implements. However, work council reps make decisions themselves and have no legal requirement to consult with the workers.

The representatives of the work councils, which is funded by the boss, decides wth the boss how information is to be obtained and how they will be informed. If the workers do not agree with the boss on how elections to the work councils should be held, the boss is allowed to decide that. In practice, many work councils have been set up by the bosses.

If 50% of the eligible work force does not vote in the work council elections, a new election can be held 30 days later which will be valid no matter how many people take part in it. Thus a work council can be elected by even one person, if for some reason people don't vote. The term of the representatives is 4 years long.

The work council representatives, not the workers, decide on how they will work and who their chairperson will be.

Besides these problems related to lack of worker control over the councils, there is a problem even with the limited rights the work councils are purported to have. It is clear that the main right the councils have is to obtaining "information". Yet the act on works councils clearly states that the boss does not have to supply any information that it considers a commercial secret. And in Poland, the definition of "commerical secret" is vaguely defined and usually interpreted very broadly. Thus employers usually maintain that information on the value of some contracts, on salaries and even the profits of a company are commerical secrets.

An employer may also refuse to give information if this would "act to the detriment of the company's best interests".

In practice, work councils that want information often have to go to court to get it. There have been dozens of cases already since the introduction of work councils in 1996.

(It should be noted that court proceedings are long in Poland and cases can take many months before even getting to court. )

So what is it that the councils are entitled to get information on? Well, they can find out if the company is planning on conducting group dismissals - but there is nothing they can do about it. (They are not entitled to know about individual dismissals, unlike unions.)

Unions also have bullshit legal entitlements. For example, they may not agree that a worker be fired and the bosses can do it anyway. However, where unions are more independent of the bosses and have a stronger class character and idea of workers solidarity, they have a much wider scope for action.

The councils are clearly being promoted as part of a more pernicious social policy which is common around Europe. The cheerleaders of "social consultation" schemes try to convince working people of all the legal rights they have as a deradicalizing measure to obfuscate the reality of the class struggle. The councils narrow down the relation between workers and employers and discourage independent worker organization.

We call on workers not to be taken in by either the false consulatative nature of the councils, nor the class collaborationist and hierarchical unions. We need to foster a more critical rejection of the process of social partnership, which always is used to bolster the logic of capitalism.

Class consciousness is quite low in Poland these days, but work conditions are so poor for so many that, despite this, tens of thousands of people strike each year to win some improvements to their material conditions. We believe that ultimately, this is accomplished mainly through a high degree of self-organization or through radical workers' action. In the current situation, many workers lack tactics and the will for effective mass action. Thus the state attack on unions, realized through legislative means and unfavourable court decisions attacking organized labour, threatens to further weaken the unions, but does not mean that their weakening will open new opportunities for worker radicalism. Rather, the rechanneling of the workforce into councils only promises further deradicalization. In such a situation, we generally prefer unions to councils although we do are not fooled by the efforts of some unions to reorganize unionism in Poland into the playing field of a few giant central organizations. These organizations have already proven that, instead of providing increased "bargaining power" as they claim, they tend to concentrate power in the hands of the most moderate.

Radicalization will be a difficult road, but one best accomplished through the collective efforts of the rank-and-file, not through the bureaucrats and class collaborators.

No comments: