Some Frequently Asked Questions

Some frequently asked questions about WSA and anarcho-syndicalism.

Q: What do you mean by “self-managed unions”?

A: We mean unions run by and for workers themselves — the self-organization of the working class in a new kind of militant labor movement.

Q: Aren’t all unions corrupt and bureaucratic?

A: When we talk about building unions, we don’t mean unions like the national unions of the AFL-CIO which are run by bureaucrats. Even in cases where their leaders are sincere, the top-down structure of those kinds of unions leaves the members out of key decision-making and, at best, defends the lousy deal workers already have. In most cases, they aren’t interested in fighting for worker control of society, rather they are only interested in a few more crumbs off the bosses’ table.

The unions WSA is talking about — self-managed unions — are not top-down, not dominated by bureaucrats, and all decisions are made cooperatively. We aim to develop unionism in the original sense of the word: as workers acting “in union” to do together what they can’t do alone. The purpose of self-managed unionism is not only to get as much out of the bosses as we can, but also to fight for an end to capitalism and towards a free, self-managed society run directly by workers.

Q: What is this “self-managed society” you are for? Is this socialism?

A: Self-management means having a say over decisions that affect you; it means having control over your life. This means people being able to collectively manage the industries they work in; it also means controlling the places you live in. Corporate hierarchies in industry would be dismantled and replaced by workers direct management, through democratic industrial organizations rooted in face-to-face meetings.

To most people in the U.S., “socialism” means the government running things. That is not what we are for.

We say that the assets of the system of social production — land, factory buildings and machinery and so on — would be “owned” by the entire society — meaning that there would be a shared system of control where everyone in the society has a say. But we oppose centralized, top-down planning or state ownership of the economy. Under state control, workers are still dominated by a corporate-style boss hierarchy.

Q: Okay, you’re against state management of the economy. Does this mean you favor a market system?

A: No. Markets tend to encourage people to seek narrow competitive advantage, and generate privileges and inequality. When combined with collective or public ownership of productive assets, a market system would inevitably lead to the entrenchment of a new class of bosses. Workers would remain a subjugated and exploited class. The experience of the “market self-management” created in Yugoslavia in the ’50s shows this.

A market enables people to use things that give them more bargaining power to gain advantages over others. People who have experience at management or marketing, or technical knowledge important to market success could get firms to give them privileges and perks to entice them to work for that firm. At the same time, market competition will atomize ordinary workers and get in the way of them working for the common defense of their conditions.

As workers become increasingly dependent on people with expertise, and management knowledge, they will become increasingly under their control. A kind of class division will begin to emerge, in other words. If someone spends months, day in and day out, working on financial analysis and planning, and someone else just runs machines or sweeps the floor, how could they have an equal influence in making the big decisions? How are the workers going to be able to question decisions if they lack the training and information?

Instead of a market-driven system, or top-down central planning, we believe that there needs to be a comprehensive agenda for production that everyone, the entire community, participates in developing.

Q: What about WSA and students?

A: We believe that self-managed unionism applies as well to schools and other institutions as it does to the workplace (aren’t schools a “workplace” for students?) Students organized into fighting, democratic unions can push forth their demands on the administration and win important gains (more academic freedom, changes in the curriculum, better lunch room food, etc.) until the day when the students, teachers, staff and the community take control and run the school collectively.

Q: What about WSA and social issues?

A: WSA is about much more than organizing around workplace issues. Tenant rent strikes or fights against bus fare increases are also part of the class struggle. Our members are active in such areas as housing struggles, the struggles for abortion rights, for gay and lesbian liberation and more. We fight for complete equality for women and oppose all forms of racism. We believe in a “social” revolution as well as a class one. We organize anywhere working class people are, and around issues important to the society we want to create.

Q: What about the rest of the world?

A: The WSA is what we call “internationalist”. We see ourselves as part of a broader global movement fighting against oppression, both here and abroad, and actively take part in solidarity campaigns with workers in other countries.

Q: Anarcho-what?

A: Anarcho-syndicalist. Syndicalism is from the word for unionism in the Latin languages. “Anarcho-syndicalism” refers to an anarchist approach to unionism: workers forming and managing their own independent unions in opposition to the bosses, bureaucrats and the State.

We believe that the working class can develop into a revolutionary force. But this process can’t be created by a handful of activists, nor is it likely to occur overnight. So, we don’t assume that the unions or other mass organizations that people would form at the present moment in the USA, even if they were self-managed, would be ideologically “anarchist” or necessarily endorse a complete vision of anti-capitalist revolution.

Through the experience of struggle, working people learn more about the system and how to fight it. When people see a larger and more militant movement, this will encourage them to believe they have the power to remake society.

To emancipate themselves from class oppression, workers need mass organizations they directly control, through which they can create a new, self-managed society. The self-management of organizations we build today foreshadows the future self-management of the society. Anarcho-syndicalism is thus a revolutionary strategy for the creation of a society based on workers self-management.

Q: Is the WSA itself a union? I thought anarcho-syndicalist organizations were unions.

A: No. WSA is not a union but an organization of activists. We advocate self-managed unions so that rank and file folks can control their own workplace struggles. Where AFL-CIO unions exist, we advocate self-managed rank and file organization, independent of the union bureaucrats. We also support efforts to revamp existing unions, to the extent feasible, so they exhibit solidarity in practice and are run in a self-managed way. We also advocate forming self-managed independent unions; for example, in workplaces where AFL-CIO unions do not exist. The idea is to use tactics that will work to

foster the growth of militant unionism self-managed by the rank and file.

Q: I thought anarchists are against leadership. How are you going to overcome the powerful institutions of the present system? Doesn’t that require a highly coordinated movement? And how can we do that without a coordinated leadership of the struggle?

A: We’re not against a coordinated movement. But why can’t working people create their own grassroots forms of coordination? Workers become stronger as they develop links of solidarity and organize themselves independently of the union bureaucrats, politicians and parties, so as to develop broader agreement on aims and a more coordinated struggle. The kinds of hierarchies we find in the national unions of the AFL-CIO, for example, prevent them from being an effective means for ordinary people coordinating their struggles. This problem is not due to simply the “wrong” people being in control and won’t be cured by putting different people at the top.

The AFL-CIO national unions are largely professional cadre organizations beyond the effective control of

the rank and file. For example, each of these unions has the power to impose a dictatorship — called a “trusteeship” — on any wayward local. When push comes to shove, these clauses in union charters are used to squelch a local whose militancy is a threat to the bureaucratic structure. The bureaucrats don’t want a movement that is centered on mass mobilization, since that would bring to center stage the activity of the grassroots. Activities that focus on legalistic bargaining and lobbying with politicians, on the other hand, tends to favor the role of the professional union cadre, who monopolize the specialized knowledge and connections involved in that kind of activity. But the balance of power in society can only be shifted to the advantage of the working class through larger numbers of people being involved, in wider and more militant actions.

A movement that concentrates knowledge and expertise and levers of decision-making in the hands of a minority is not a movement that could lead to ordinary working people gaining control over their lives. The alternative is to have an organized effort to build up knowledge and leadership skills in the rank and file. Things like activist schools or study groups or worker centers can help to create more informed activists, and develop abilities like writing and public speaking and critical thinking in rank and file participants. Responsibilities in organizations can be rotated so that a number of people have the opportunity to “learn the ropes.”

Movements need to have initiative and decisions flowing from the general meetings of the rank and file participants. Unions, rank and file groups, and other community organizations can get together in grassroots conferences to gain agreement on common aims and methods.

We are not opposed to “leadership” in the sense of people taking initiative, doing organizing, putting forward programs and arguing for their viewpoints, in talks, in publications, in the debates within movements. We are not opposed to people taking positions of responsibility, where they are directly accountable, like a shop steward who works the job with her fellow workers. What we are opposed to are top-down hierarchies of professional representatives, as in the AFL-CIO, because this denies self-management to the rank and file.

Nor are we opposed to the existence of a coordinated movement of activists, trying to influence larger mass movements in certain directions. The WSA is itself an organization of anti-authoritarian activists that exists to help develop the kind of self-managed movements we favor, and in the process to further the influence of our ideas and program in the labor movement and other social movements. But we are opposed to the idea of political organizations aiming at “taking power” through a top-down hierarchy, or monopolizing knowledge and the levers of decision-making in their own hands.

Q: You talk about emancipation from class oppression but you’re against the state. Doesn’t workers self-emancipation require taking power? Doesn’t that mean putting a political leadership into control of a state?

A: Workers self-emancipation does mean that workers, who do not have power now, would take over the running of the economy, dismantle the state hierarchies, and replace the corporate and state structures with self-managing economic and political institutions. Both workers and consumers, as community members, would take control over the decisions that affect them. Creating a new, self-managed society does mean creating new political institutions — institutions for setting the basic rules of society, protecting self-management against fascist gangs, protecting people against murder or rape, settling disputes, and so on.

But we envision this as a grassroots structure of political self-management, direct self-governance, built on grassroots organizations in which the mass of the populace participate, such as neighborhood assemblies and regional congresses and so on. This differs from a state because a state is top-down, is separate from the people, with armed forces that answer to the command of state leaders. The reason that states are separate from the working class is to enable them to protect the interests and power of elites who dominate the working class.

Anarchists in the past have sometimes been confused about this, thinking that nothing would replace the state in a libertarian revolution. But it is not possible to have a society without institutions for the making of basic rules and enforcing these rules. A polity is whatever set of institutions play this role in society. A state is merely a certain kind of polity, a hierarchical polity that supports the interests of dominating classes. To liberate itself from class oppression, the working class must get rid of the state, not to replace it with nothing, which is impossible, but to replace it with a self-managing polity that empowers the mass of the people.

So, yes, the working class must “take power” in that they must create economic and political institutions to enable them to control the society. But it can only be through their own self-managed mass institutions — based on worker assemblies in industries and community assemblies in neighborhoods — that the mass of the populace could be in control. Putting the leaders of some political party into control of a state would not empower the mass of working people. The Marxist-Leninist proposal for “the seizure of state power” is what we call “substitutionist” — the empowerment of the party leaders becomes a substitute for the empowerment of the working class.

The contest for state power — power over a top-down hierarchy — puts emphasis on people who have special skills and connections, articulate speakers, people with privileged backgrounds and educations — these are the people who rise to the top of political parties. The contest for control of a state leads to political solutions that emphasize decision-making and control concentrated into the hands of leadership cadre. Control of a state by a leadership group implies that they give orders, and working people are expected to obey. This is a recipe for creation of a new class of bosses, with the working class continuing to be subjugated and exploited. This is what the various “Communist” revolutions have shown.

Q: But I thought the reason the Spanish anarchists didn’t “take power” in Catalonia in July of 1936, after crushing the military uprising, is that they didn’t believe in “taking power”?

A: The crucial debate occurred in mass meetings of union activists of the CNT, in the region of Catalonia, in July and August of ‘36. The CNT was an anarchist-influenced federation of mass, self-managed unions in which most workers in that region were members.

In those debates, the alternatives considered were

(1) a temporary collaboration with the left political parties (called the “Popular Front”) in government versus

(2) replacing the regional government of Catalonia with a regional assembly of all the mass economic organizations (unions) of the working class, and a Regional Defense Council, responsible to those mass organizations, to run a unified labor militia to fight the fascist Spanish army.

The second of these proposals was advocated by the union delegation from Bajo Llobregat (an area of industrial, working class suburbs south of Barcelona) and supported by Juan Garcia Oliver, a well-known revolutionary within the CNT. Their proposal would have amounted to the “taking of power” by the mass, democratic organizations of the producers — workers and peasants. It is this second proposal that we think they should have carried out. Unfortunately, the CNT opted instead for “temporary” collaboration in the Popular Front government.

Some of the anarchists present in those meetings of the CNT of Catalonia in July of ‘36 voted against creating a Regional Defense Council run by the unions because of opposition to “taking power.” It is likely that this was based on a confusion that has often existed in the thinking of anarchists, where any polity — institutions through which a society’s basic rules are decided and enforced — must be a state.

But the working class cannot emancipate itself except by creating mass, self-managing political and economic institutions through which the populace can control the society. The creation of the collectives by the CNT workers who seized thousands of workplaces in Spain shows that they understood this. But they needed to create a similar grassroots political institution to unify and coordinate their power over Spain’s direction. It was to Juan Garcia Oliver’s great credit that he clearly saw the crucial importance of replacing the government in Catalonia with a working class-controlled, grassroots polity.

Engaged in a life-or-death struggle, the mass of workers in Catalonia knew that unity of the workers in the various unions was crucial. There were only two ways that unity could have been achieved:

(1) the CNT could invite the various unions to help form a grassroots political structure controlled by the working class mass organizations, to replace the government — or else

(2) they would be forced to go along with the Popular Front strategy, based on a top-down unity of political leaders in the state.

The actual debates in the CNT of Catalonia in July of 1936 suggest that most voted for temporary collaboration with the Popular Front government, not because of an ideological opposition to the working class “taking power,” but due to their hope that maintaining a semblance of Republican legality would persuade the central government, controlled by the Popular Front parties, to give them some of Spain’s gold reserves to buy weapons and materials for the labor militia. But the central government was well aware that the revolutionary mass movement were the main social power in Catalonia and were reluctant to help build up a revolutionary working class militia, led by anarchists.

The CNT collaboration with the Popular Front government, whose leaders mostly opposed direct workers power, led to replacing the working class-controlled labor militia with a top-down, state-controlled army in which the Spanish Communist Party eventually gained most of the officer positions. The CNT government collaboration thus played into the hands of the Stalinists, who aimed at gaining hegemony over Spanish society by gaining control over the predominant armed force. Because the majority of rank and file soldiers in the anti-fascist army were members of the CNT, who hoped for a future based on workers self-management, the consolidation of a top-down Stalinist officer caste generated widespread demoralization in the “People’s Army.” This contributed to the defeat of the anti-fascist side in the Civil War.

In September of 1936 a nationl CNT convention did propose the formation of a National Defense Council run by the unions, to replace the national government, and Regional Defense Councils also. And a Regional Defense Council, controlled by the CNT, was set up in the region of Aragon controlled by the labor militia. But by failing to carry this out in the major region where they were strongest — Catalonia — they weakened their bargaining power in trying to get the other main union organization, the Socialist UGT, to go along at the national level. This proposal for a National Defense Council controlled by the mass worker organizations was taken up later in the Civil War by the Friends of Durruti Group.

Q: Okay, I think I agree with you. But why should I join WSA? Maybe I can just continue to advocate these ideas on my own.

A: If activists work together, coordinating on campaigns or projects, we can accomplish more than if everyone acts in isolation. Some kinds of projects like publishing require pooling resources. A number of people pulling together in the same direction is likely to have more influence for our ideas. We need this kind of organized influence to win the arguments within the working class on what direction to pursue. An organization of anti-authoritarian activists can provide a comprehensive anti-capitalist vision which we are not as likely to get from mass organizations like unions, which tend to focus on immediate struggles and typically bring together people with a variety of viewpoints.

Q: Do I have to be a “worker” to join WSA? Do I have to belong to a union?

A: Membership in our organization is open to students, homemakers, unemployed, retired and self-employed people as members. What job we have is not what unites us, but rather that we all identify as part of the same class and work together to change society. Nor do you need to belong to a union. All that’s required is a belief in and dedication to the principles the WSA stands for.

For more information, contact the W.S.A. Corresponding Secretary: