Why are trade unions opposing worker self-management?

Trade Unions
Greece
Work
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Front gates of the VIOME factory.

Of course you should become unemployed, like everyone else. What makes you think you’re so different?

Who made the comment above to a group of Greek workers who had successfully fought off the closure of their factory, by occupying and assuming direct democratic control over production? Was it:

  1. The head of the local chamber of commerce?
  2. A former owner of the occupied factory?
  3. Donald Trump, on a rare visit to Greece for a spin-off of the Apprentice?
  4. A representative of the workers’ own trade union?

Somewhat inexplicably, the answer is 4). The comment was a reply from a representative of the Sectoral Union of Chemical Industry Workers of Northern Greece, during a public assembly at the VIOME factory in Thessaloniki. The workers of VIOME – who played host to the Second Euromediterranean Workers’ Economy meeting 28-30 October – had called the assembly to ensure their occupation of the former industrial adhesive factory was grounded in the needs of the neighbourhood.

A crowd shot from the opening panel of the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy meeting.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

Public support for the occupation was strong. Yet the VIOME assemblies continued to feature dissenting voices – from the workers’ own union.

‘Its criticism – which coincides with that of other parts of the left,’ says Theodoros Karyotis of the VIOME solidarity network, ‘is that [worker recuperation] is not a real revolutionary process, because it is about becoming small bosses out of a small capitalist enterprise.’

A VIOME worker puts up a poster for the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

This may seem absurd to anyone who has followed the emergence of the ‘recuperated factory’ movement since its emergence during the Argentine debt crisis of 2001. At the time, thousands of workplaces were abandoned by their owners and hundreds were quickly and militantly recovered by their former staff, who started production again without bosses or managers.

The movement tells the stories of workers who have successfully resisted relegation to capitalism’s ever-growing scrapheap of redundant labour. They have done so through collective occupation and direct democratic control over the means of production. Yet, according to the Sectoral Union of Chemical Industry Workers (among others), these workers just wanted to play boss.

VIOME soap bars for sale at the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy meeting.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

Not just a Greek problem

Karyotis believes the antagonism towards self-management permeating the big Greek trade unions comes from the sway held by Europe’s last remaining explicitly-Stalinist Communist Party. However, the experience at VIOME is not unique to the Greek chemical workers’ union, nor to Greece as a whole.

In Argentina today, only two or three unions will allow any of the 16,000 workers from the country’s 370 recuperated workplaces to join their ranks – even if they were members before they established worker control. In France, where the dynamic has been broadly less-antagonistic, the role of unions during worker occupations is still often limited to non-interference.

Benoit Borrits, of the Association of Self-Management in France, speaks at the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy meeting.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

Sinisa Miličić represents RIS, the Regional Industrial Union, a small Croatian trade union that emerged alongside the worker occupation of an industrial tools factory called ITAS. RIS was created when the traditional Croatian unions pulled their support for the ITAS workers after telling them they should ‘come to terms’ with the factory shutting down and taking their jobs with it.

Miličić sees an inevitability to the fissure between the traditional unions in Croatia and worker self-management. ‘It’s not like [the other unions] don’t want to fight, but they aren’t interested in engaging in any riskier fights,’ he argues. ‘This is for the smaller, newer unions, because we have less bureaucracy.’

RELATED: Still standing or standing still? Jo Lateu considers the state of the unions, and argues that a revival has already begun, from the September edition of New Internationalist magazine taking a special look at trade unions.

Miličić’s diplomatic analysis has not spared RIS from criticism. Its association with the Croatian recovered workplaces has led the union old guard to extend its attacks on the movement to RIS, accusing them of ‘destroying union unity,’ a charge Miličić adamantly denies. ‘We are not affiliated with any umbrella union or any headquarters, but that doesn’t stop us from co-operating with any other unions if we have mutual interests, and we usually do.’

Dragutin Varga, one of the ITAS workers, is less-generous than Miličić in his take on the trade unions’ underwhelming response to self-management. ‘Not only are other unions not going to help, they are trying to destroy us,’ Varga told those gathered in the VIOME warehouse for the Second Euromediterranean Workers’ Economy meeting. After the panel, he added: ‘They are more interested in maintaining union bureaucracy, than in helping the workers.’

The old Filkram-Johnson sign on the roof of the VIOME factory.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

Corruption? Or something more fundamental?

In Bosnia, Emina Busuladzic, a greying militant with an unmistakable fighting spirit, describes the chemical workers union at the DITA detergent factory in Tuzla, as ‘working all this time against the interests of the workers.’

One might argue that this attitude was the result of old fashioned corruption, rather than any particular aversion to worker self-management. At DITA, the union reportedly began undermining workers’ interests, encouraging them to accept unfair deals from management, long before the start of the occupation.

Emina Busuladzic of the DITA recuperated detergent factory in Bosnia, outside the VIOME factory.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

However, the institutionalised nature of many negotiations between established trade unions and big employers often blur the lines between explicit corruption and an ever-reductive sense of ‘realism’ that leads to poorer and poorer deals for workers. This blinkered ‘realism’ may also play a part in the broader union antagonism towards worker self-management. Highly-institutionalised union bureaucrats may simply be unable to imagine any victory that transcends slightly-better redundancy packages.

However, motivations aside, when militant Busuladzic replaced the old president of the local union striking committee, even the pretext of support from the union head office quickly evaporated. As in each of the other factories, the workers were left to fend for themselves.

What is the role of a union if there is no boss?

Some of the stories of trade union antagonism that emerged during the Workers Economy gathering may be reduced to corruption, plain and simple. However, some have suggested a more profound split in labour politics exposed by the movement towards self-management.

‘Without bosses, without capital, what is the union’s meaning?’ asks Andres Ruggeri, a social anthropologist from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. ‘[The unions] can’t resolve this question and so have nothing to do with the [recuperated] co-operatives.’

Ruggeri has been studying the phenomenon of worker occupations and self-management since 2002 and sees these situations as indicative of a significant issue within the trade union movement. ‘The world is changing, capitalism is changing, and there is a global situation where most workers are without bosses. It’s not self-management, it’s informal, precarious, but in this shift, the unions are absent,’ Ruggeri asserts with visible dismay. To him, the lack of union support for worker recuperations is part of the lack of union support for various forms of precarious labour in the 21st century: It doesn’t fit their organizing model.

A VIOME worker asks a question of a panel at the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy meeting.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

A new kind of union?

Yet there are still signs that this combination of absence and antagonism need not remain the defining traits of the trade union-occupied workplace relationship. At the gathering in Greece, Dragutin Varga from ITAS and Sinisa Miličić from RIS in Croatia, spoke together about a more constructive relationship that could support workers organizing beyond the realms of collective bargaining.

Miličić outlined several reasons why his union has been able to play a constructive role in supporting both ITAS and a worker-recovered bus company, Varaždin, in their respective struggles for self-management. For one, RIS is regional, rather than profession based, allowing it to transcend some of the cliques that have emerged around the other Croatian unions. Additionally, it has chosen not to affiliate with any of the larger unions, bucking the trend in most countries to ‘pick a national team’ and curb its own activities according to (often more conservative) dictates from on high.

'The role of the union is increasing participation of workers in decision making processes'

Though other unions are typically organized around a limited form of democratic centralism, RIS follows the examples of the self-managed workplaces it represents and makes decisions via regular assemblies with its seven affiliated companies, which represent 700 workers in the region. This hints at a simple, but radical reformulation of the role of the union, which goes some way to answering Andres Ruggeri’s open question about what a union might actually do in a situation where there are no bosses to fight.

‘The role of the union is increasing participation of workers in decision making processes,’ Miličić told participants at the VIOME warehouse. To do so, RIS supported the development of shop floor commissions at ITAS, among a series of collaborative projects that aim to ensure that power remains decentralised amongst the workforce and involves all members in a meaningful way.

Another encouraging development came from the Thessaloniki gathering itself. Members from at least eight occupied workplaces backed a proposal to create a pan-European self-management network. The network would provide a mix of financial and non-monetary support for workers attempting to establish democratic control of their workplaces, backed by the more established co-operatives.

Yves Baroni, of the SCOP-TI recuperated tea factory in Marseille, speaks at the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy meeting.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

Are unions making themselves redundant?

At the Workers’ Economy gathering it became clear that trade unions in almost every country experiencing movements for self-management have actively mobilised against the workers pioneering this constructive and successful response to working class exploitation. ‘Not present and unsupportive, [rather than actively antagonistic,] is the best we can expect from the main trade unions in Greece,’ Karyotis says with a sigh, expressing a sentiment echoed by other countries’ delegates as well.

If the pan-European solidarity network can be realised and the RIS organizing model emerging in Croatia replicated locally in other countries, they may go some way to addressing the gaps in worker solidarity left by the absence of the unions. This may well enable the greater spread of self-managed workplaces in Europe and if it does, a serious question is raised: will it be the old unions – rather than the workers who’ve refused to accept unemployment – that will find themselves made redundant in the times ahead?

Correction: a previous version of this article referred to the RIS as a Serbian trade union and to its representative Sinisa Miličić as Serbian. In fact, both are Croatian. The article was corrected on 13 November 2016.