Analysis and self-reflection (Base syndicalism at the back of beyond – 4th part)
From the beginning of 2020, in Varna, we started a process of analysis of our actions so far as an organisation, from which came a serious criticism of the chosen organisational forms and the strategy for attracting members to the union. The struggles with the nurses, the transport workers and our experience with the City Gallery section were at the heart of this criticism. Not only was the ARC failing to stand up to the yellow unionism tendencies among our friendly unions and newly formed sections, but we ourselves were acting more and more like a yellow union and provider of ‘union services’. At the same time, in an effort to attract new members, we increasingly compromised the union’s political line. The concept of Autonomous Syndicalism (based on the traditions of anarcho-syndicalism) began to be diluted, and the entry into the organisation of dozens of new members, most of them either totally apolitical or drifting towards liberalism and/or nationalism, only added to this process. At the same time, severe conflicts emerged between the two largest sections of the ARC – the one in Sofia and the one in Varna – over issues of nationalism within the organisation. The Sofia organization was turning more and more openly to the right, and our failure as an organization to address these issues led to several people from the Varna section leaving the organization.
These political disagreements were accompanied by personal conflicts, which also contributed to exacerbating the rift within the organization.
Against this background, we had to start discussions about unionisation with the nurses and workers of Neochim.
The proposal to form a joint confederation came more quickly than we had expected. Of course we also wanted to unite in a big general organisation, but we saw this in the future. Our plan for the present was to propose the building of a solidarity network of friendly unions to help each other in their struggles. The solidarity network would have given us the opportunity to act together and help each other without binding ourselves ideologically and organisationally. Coming together ‘on the fly’ without a clear vision for ourselves sounded absurd. But for the other organisations our political considerations were not on the agenda. For the nurses and for the workers of Neochim, this was an important step forward towards creating a nationally significant organisation. Questions about its character, its mode of organisation, its principles and methods of struggle seemed unimportant as long as we supported each other, were in solidarity and were larger. At the same time, the Sofia section of the ARC took an opportunist stance and began to actively agitate for the immediate creation of the new organization in concert with the other two organizations. The Varna section of the ARC and the IT section insisted on not being hasty. It became clear that our organization was divided and we could not formulate a common position on the issue of unification.
On top of that, the leaders of the nurses’ union insisted that we establish the new organization as quickly as possible, lest the big unions find out about the formation of the new organization and try to stop us. This increased the tension even more and eventually at a general meeting of the ARC we decided to join the newly formed confederation – a compromise on the part of the opponents of this decision which was made in order to preserve the integrity of the ARC.
In Varna we decided to try to do the best we could in the limited time we had and we managed to convince the other organisations and the ARC section in Sofia to postpone the incorporation for a few months so that we would have some time to at least try to work out some collective vision for the future federation.
To this end, we initiated a series of discussions to try to converge our positions on the type of trade unionism we want to practice and to try to determine some common direction for the future joint organisation in general.
During the discussions and meetings with the nurses and chemical workers, the democratic structure and class line, which are among the basic principles of autonomous trade unionism, were a priority only for the most active trade unionists of the ARC, and only in the Varna section (and in the IT section). For some of the other members of the union in Varna, as well as for all in Sofia, these issues were seen as unimportant or downright superfluous, and instead the opportunistic line of ‘uniting with the other organisations at any cost and in the quickest way’ was followed. This line of some of the active trade unionists of the ARC, especially of the core in the Sofia section, coincided with the tendencies among the other 2 organisations, who saw little point in discussing organisational and strategic principles, driven above all by the enthusiasm to be ‘united’, ‘in solidarity’ and more. For some of the leadership of these unions, the creation of a common organisation was a step on the road to national representation. For us, its hasty creation was a decisive step towards yellow unionism. When I say ‘us’ I mean the group that formed within the ARC, which was critical of the hasty merger with the other organisations and which tried (and still tries) to defend the principles of autonomous unionism . It includes all those who subsequently left the ARC – the active core of the Varna section, the IT section and some individual members on the ground.
We started to criticise the hasty establishment of the new organisation.
The proposal that was on the table was to create a national confederation – a bureaucratic structure uniting the three organizations with separate leadership, treasury, etc. This was absurd – the nurses’ union had just been formed and did not yet have a clear organisational structure. The ARC was also in the process of forming one after the 2019 congress, but this process was slow and difficult. The only stable organisation in the newly established confederation was the chemical workers’ union, which was, however, present in only one workplace. At a time when we and the nurses were throwing so much effort into building our national organisations, to throw ourselves recklessly into building a new one was a huge mistake. We didn’t have the resources for it.
The only thing this new organization would have brought was additional bureaucratic burden on the already thin foundations of our fledgling national organizations. Not to mention that we didn’t have the human capacity to fill these new institutions with content, and the only way that could happen was for some people to hold multiple positions (as happened when the new confederation eventually became a reality and many of its leadership members had to hold three positions at the same time – for example, as president of their workplace section, national secretary of their organization, and secretary of the new confederation). But the problems are by no means limited to these purely practical considerations. We represent three radically different organisations – an apolitical nurses’ union uniting nurses from across the country, an apolitical small chemical workers’ union uniting workers in one hall of the plant, and our organisation – a union with a revolutionary political line uniting mainly individual service workers (except in 1-2 workplace sections) and left activists with a vision of a new type of trade unionism. Although we have shown over the years that we can act together and help each other with the other two organisations, in order to be able to come together in an effective common structure, a lot of work had to be done to develop a common concept of how the trade union struggle should be waged, the internal organisation, and a common trade union and political vision. We had not yet done this work in our own organisation. As became clear during the discussions on the formation of the NCT and afterwards, we had no common position among the sections in the ARC on what autonomous trade unionism was, what our principles of action were, etc. The huge political differences within the ARC that had already surfaced around the discussions on nationalism erupted again in full force. At this point it was difficult to call ourselves an organisation. In this frenzied period and in the tense atmosphere it created, working to build a political line, a convergence of positions and a common vision of trade unionism both within the ARC and between the ARC and other organisations was simply impossible. However, we tried, but suggesting in-depth discussions on these issues was met as unnecessary stalling and almost an attempt to sabotage the formation process.
So we were gradually marginalised and lost the leading role we had at the beginning – both in the process of creating the new organisation and within ARC. The three organisations merged to form the National Confederation of Labour (NCT) and all those opposed to this line left the organisation, including half of the Varna section, Those of us who left the organisation were the main part of the ARC core over the last 6 years (all of the conflicts and initiatives discussed in this text were the work of people from this core, except for the nurses’ campaign, in which Varna and Sofia were involved on an equal footing). After our departure, nationalist tendencies in the ARC no longer met any resistance and finally dominated the organisation. In this sense, our departure cannot be seen simply as the separation of a group of dissenters, but as the end of the ARC as we had founded the organisation. The ARC was a great initiative and we are all proud of the successes we had in those 6 years of struggle. Unfortunately the organization was built on a weak foundation that collapsed at the first major strategic challenge.
In the previous 3 parts of this text we have traced the main activities we developed as part of the union in chronological order, sparing a more in-depth analysis and sticking to the initiatives organised in Varna or those in which the Varna section had a leading role. Today, when we are no longer part of the ARC, it is important for us to look back and see what we did well and what we failed at. And most importantly, to look for those lessons that will help us in our current and future struggles.
In the context of small conflicts in the private sector, individual or collective, most often over unpaid wages, we had almost 100% effectiveness – we won almost all the fights we fought. Of course, we have to keep in mind the specific context in which these struggles happened – they took place in non-unionized, precarious workplaces where workers had virtually either nothing to lose (it’s easier to change jobs than to fight for your rights) or had already lost it, as the struggles started round after workers were laid off/fired and/or had their wages stolen by bosses.
Things are different with our interventions in the public sector Unlike small private struggles, in large unionised public sector workplaces workers have a lot to lose and the nature of the struggles was quite different, as were their outcomes. Naturally, we achieved quite a bit there too – we made many valuable contacts in some of the most important sectors – health and transport. Thanks to these interventions, we maintain close relationships with dozens of workers across the country who trust us, and who are as willing to participate in solidarity with our initiatives and struggles as we are in theirs. We have been able to learn a great deal about the organization of work in the public sector, the most common problems among public sector workers, and potential trajectories for resistance. But in the end, both the health and transport struggles suffered immediate setbacks, though both can be seen in the long term as still ongoing. The failure in urban transport was due on the one hand to the weak position in which the workers were and the lack of industrial strength, and on the other to the lack of experience in our organisation of waging an effective struggle in the public sector. In the health sector, too, the struggle did not lead to immediate results – neither working conditions were improved nor nurses’ wages increased. There was some increase nationally, but it was planned rather than the result of our actions, and its size was a mockery. Even during the epidemic, the state refused to increase nurses’ salaries, instead offering them one-off bonuses. The only successes were achieved in those hospitals where the nurses’ collective was united and which had the strength to organise strikes and raise their wages. This they did entirely on their own, without us as an organisation helping them organisationally or strategically, except by encouraging them.
In the context of the new nurses’ union, we can mark as a success its very creation, in which we participated actively and whose motive and main driving force was the realization among nurses that yellow unions cannot defend workers, but instead workers must organize themselves into their own fighting unions with which to defend their interests. But its creation was only the first step. Where we failed as an organization is that we failed to help the sisters organize their union as a base union (autonomous, self-organized). Because of their genesis – street protests centered in Sofia – from the beginning the protest leaders in the capital also distinguished themselves as the natural leaders of the union. This is quite an expected and understandable development. But as the national structures of the organisation were built, it emerged as highly centralised and hierarchical, with the leadership centred in Sofia. We made repeated attempts to convince the sisters of the advantages of a democratic way of internal organisation and the principles of basic trade unionism. To this end, we organized a series of union trainings and discussions, both locally and nationally. For some minor organizational issues these had an effect, but overall they did not change the character of the organization, which remained a unionized, centralized organization focused on signing collective bargaining agreements and participating in government committees, which did not even hold a founding national congress. Union positions were simply allocated from above. The reason for this is not in the bad intentions of the leaders, but rather can be sought in the fact that in the grassroots structures most of the sisters have no trade union experience whatsoever, while some of the leaders in Sofia have their experience as trade unionists in the structures of the yellow unions. This experience has proved both invaluable in solving some immediate union problems and dealing with repression of nurses at the grassroots, and harmful in that it has unwittingly carried the practices of the caste unions into the organizational structure and day-to-day activities of the newly formed nursing union.
Although resentment against yellow unions was the main motive for the creation of the new nursing union, it unwittingly took the same type of unionism. And this is a failure not of the nurses, for whom it is quite normal to replicate the only known models, which in Bulgaria are limited to yellow unionism, but of the ARC. For all our claims to be an organisation offering a new type of base unionism, and despite enjoying and still enjoying the full confidence of the workers, we have failed to lead them in that direction. This is due in part to reasons beyond our control, such as the complete absence of any trade union tradition beyond yellow unionism in Bulgaria. But on the other, our failure to act as a united organisation during the campaigns with the workers and especially in the process of unionisation with the other two unions.
The inability to articulate a clear political line is rooted in the organisational weakness of our organisation, determined by its very genesis and development over the years. Despite our active work and the many successes we have achieved, the union has had some problems from the very beginning. Although it was organized as an anarcho-syndicate and we adhered to anarchist symbolism, in reality only 3-4 people out of an average of 30-40 active members of the Varna section, shared anarchist ideas and identified themselves as anarchists. The Varna syndicate included activists from a variety of ideological currents – left communists, Trotskyists, generally leftists, but they were also a minority. Although the most active trade unionists were from the groups listed above, in reality the mass of members were either completely apolitical or inclined towards some of the mainstream ideologies of the moment – nationalism, liberalism, etc. Apoliticism was dominant and all issues of strategic and theoretical nature were discussed in only a very narrow circle, while most members were not interested in them.
From the very beginning of our active organizing, to avoid some of the bad (and wrong) associations that most people make when they hear startling words like anarchism and communism, we decided that we needed something new. So we developed our concept of “Autonomous Syndicalism”. The idea was on the one hand to put the theory and practice of basic syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism, in an acceptable package, and on the other hand to be able to enrich and transform them into something different by embodying our own experience of struggles in the new concept. It was also a good way to iron out the contradictions between the representatives of different revolutionary currents in the syndicate. The idea was that Autonomous Syndicalism could serve as a common platform in which anarchists and other revolutionary leftists could unite around a class line and a self-organized type of syndicalism. So instead of talking about anarcho-syndicalism, we started talking about autonomous syndicalism. This was one of the tools to achieve the main strategic goal we had set ourselves when we created the ARC in 2019 – the building of the organisation. The other two, more important tools for this were our actions on two fronts – recruiting members among politically active people and recruiting members among individual workers and creating workplace sections. On the first strand we quite consciously welcomed people of different political persuasions into the organisation – anarcho-syndicalists, communists, Stalinists, etc . The idea was that in Bulgaria the left is too small to be able to afford sectarianism, while at the same time the arena of class struggle is a place that can unite different tendencies in a common goal and over time, in collaboration within the organization, bring their positions closer together. On the other strand the method was similar – to bring as many workers as possible into the organisation and, once they were inside the organisation, to act to introduce them to the ideas and practice of autonomous trade unionism, to the different political currents within the union and .. in short to politicise them and help them if not to become active trade unionists, at least to understand what we do in the union and why. I think we failed on both counts. Over the last two years we have thrown all our efforts into recruiting new members and creating the infrastructure to ensure that expansion of the organisation, while at the same time almost completely neglecting action towards ideological cohesion and developing a common political vision for the organisation. At the founding congress in 2019 we had decided to work together on theoretical texts that would serve as the ideological basis of the union – a task that was badly needed and which we never fulfilled.
At the same time, in the name of recruiting as many new members as possible, the union’s main tactic has been to disguise the ideologies underlying its foundation in order to “not scare the workers”. This concealment of ideologies, besides being unfair to new members and our friendly organisations, has played a bad joke on the people who share them.
Thus, on the one hand, the union has been filled with people who have no idea what organization they belong to, and on the other hand, this tactic has given power to the dominant ideologies and practices in the state (nationalism, yellow unionism, liberalism) to gradually infiltrate the union. In the end, it turned out not that the new members did not know what organisation they belonged to, but vice versa – politically active people turned out to be members of an essentially apolitical organisation.
Both the new members and that part of the old members who generally did not hold the union to be associated with particular left ideas began to insist that the goal of the union struggle was not some ideology but the effective performance of the day-to-day tasks of the union.
The road to this situation was paved by what in the classical labour movement is called voluntarism and opportunism. Voluntarism is the idea that only with enthusiasm and activism can we create strong class organisations. Opportunism is when politics is abandoned or hidden in exchange for short-term goals such as rapid organizational growth. We based ourselves on the idea that you can build a mass fighting union in a period of low working class activism. To that end, the union accepted anyone who wanted to join, the idea seeming to be that if we could get all these people around us, eventually everything would just sort itself out. This strategy, even in a time of heightened class struggle, would have been risky, and outside of that period it proved disastrous.
Thus, as the organization grew and as it united with the nurses and chemical plant workers, this problem became even more acute. Our organization was unable to follow a unified and clear political line. This inability was clearly manifested when we had to work to develop a common union line with the nurses’ and chemical workers’ organizations. They are apolitical organizations, and apolitical organizations, because of the lack of a political line of their own, tend to follow the dominant ideologies in society (nationalism, liberalism) and the dominant practices in labour struggles (yellow unionism). Instead of confronting these tendencies as a cohesive organization, and presenting a clear alternative to base unionism, the opposite has happened – we have allowed these tendencies among other organizations to link up with the same tendencies long existing in ours, and become the dominant political line, with autonomous unionism being pushed into a corner.
The hasty establishment of the new confederation was of course not the result of organisational or strategic mistakes alone. All the participants found themselves in the common situation where they all think they are talking about the same thing and are filled with a lot of hope, when in fact they are not talking about the same thing. This can be clearly seen with the confusion of the nationalist ideas and our own.
Of course, we can find fault for this defeat in a multitude of individual and collective mistakes, but the question of organisation stands out clearly before us. On the one hand, we have always been guided by the idea that we need a strong and mass organization to serve as a catalyst for the class struggle as well as for the political and organizational training of the workers. By learning to self-organize and manage our unions, we and other workers are preparing ourselves for the management of our economic sectors and society as a whole. But organization, apart from the enormous administrative costs in terms of labor, time and money, often becomes an end in itself. The expansion of the organization, its strengthening and the attraction of new members inevitably takes an increasingly central role and threatens to shift and distort our focus from the class position that should address the interests (and struggles) of the class as a whole. An example of such a conflict between the class line and the interests of the organization can be discerned in our approach to the nurses’ initiative. We chose a strategy of encouraging the formation of a nurses’ union not because it would move the nurses’ struggle forward, but because it served the interests of our organization and future unionization with the nurses, which could only have happened formally if they had formed a union similar to ours. If we had focused our efforts on helping nurses better organize in their workplaces instead of building a national organization, perhaps it would have made more difference to the struggle and in the long run would have helped workers in the sector get off the rails of caste unionism. Similar considerations have dominated our policy towards our newly established Art Gallery and City Transport sections, with the same results accordingly.
Another significant organisational problem we have faced over the years, and which has come to the fore in full force over the last year, has been our inability to move out of the role of union service providers, particularly in the public sector. In our struggles with the transport workers, we organised all the paperwork around organising a strike, submitting demands, drafting a CBA, setting up sections and so on. Even in cases where we had successes, like setting up the Art Gallery section and signing a collective agreement, in the end we won nothing. This section has been a part of the ARC for almost 3 years now, but our relationship is exactly the same as it would be in a yellow union – they seek us out when they need help with paperwork or writing complains and statements, but hardly get involved in the union’s activities otherwise. This was all the result of the passivity of workers who were used to seeing the union as some higher authority that should solve their problems. But also from our willingness, as an organisation, to step into that role, feeding the illusion that someone else could fight for workers’ interests.
These things make us think, do we even need the traditional trade union structure with all the paperwork and bureaucracy associated with it, when all the successes we have had so far have been related to direct action actions, organising informal meetings and assemblies with workers, industrial action and collective acts of solidarity? Do we need endless union meetings on bureaucratic details instead of discussing strategies and tactics of struggle? Do we need a huge membership that doesn’t understand the principles of autonomous unionism and that uses us as union service providers, no different from the case unions?
These questions, after 6 years of active organizing, also contributed to our decision to leave the ARC and look for new forms of organizing, beyond traditional unionism, that would allow us not to waste time and energy on bureaucracy, but to focus on concrete struggles and the political education of those involved. This critique is not directed at the need for organization, but the opposite. What we seek is the building of a strong class organization capable of working out strategic and political goals and putting them into practice. One that does not replicate the models of yellow unionism, but is focused on building the collective power of workers in their workplaces, on self-organisation and struggle, one which does not compromise its political line for short-term gains, but stands on firm class positions.