Autonomous unionism is a weapon: struggles at work and beyond (Base syndicalism at the back of beyond – 2nd part)
When we formed the union in 2014 we had a pretty idealistic view of workers’ struggles and our role in all of this work. These were the years of the Occupy movement, the anti-capitalist revolts in Greece, the anti-establishment struggles in Spain, the Arab Spring, the anti-government revolts in Turkey, the Nuit Debout and general strikes in France and so on. We were strongly influenced by these movements and especially by the elements that distinguished them from previous protests, namely the assemblies representing an attempt to seize public spaces from the control of the state and the logic of capital, and experiments with mass direct democracy. We had developed the conviction that it was enough to gather enough workers in an assembly that was organized on a direct-democratic principle, and from this alone the right tactics of struggle would emerge and radicalism would be born among the participants. Naturally, this was quite naïve and the experience we gained quickly brought us back to reality. Nevertheless, the concrete struggles we participated in showed us not only the limitations of organizing as workers, but also perspectives we had not suspected at the beginning. The struggles of the Piccadilly workers showed us not only the negative impact that managerial hierarchies in the workplace have on workers’ abilities to organize for effective struggle but also the possible trajectories for overcoming them. But beyond the petty tactical issues, the struggles in the early years of the union’s existence have revealed to us ever more clearly the potential that the working class has to overcome the artificial divisions imposed by capitalism and the state and become an engine for radical social change. Assemblies and mass meetings were just one of the tools available to the working class, among many others that we gradually began to discover. Workers have a key role to play in society and their struggles must be seen in this context. Therefore, after the victories of the first stage of the union’s activities, we have focused our efforts on linking workers’ struggles to the broader context of the city, the community and the diversity of social struggles existing beyond the workplace, however scarce they may be in Bulgaria.
Because of the struggles of the Piccadilly workers, and because of the many small victories in the smaller cases of unpaid wages and wrongful dismissals, we have gained some prominence in the city. More and more workers sought us out for advice or solidarity, most having heard about us from their colleagues or friends we had helped before. In one case, we were contacted by workers from an upscale restaurant in the city’s iconic Black Sea Hotel. The boss wanted to lay them off without paying their wages, using the excuse that he was bankrupt. After talking to the angry workers, we immediately mobilized for action. The plan was to act according to the strategy of rising tension that had already been tried many times in the union – first we start with something smaller, such as an article on the internet describing the employer’s arbitrariness, which we circulate in local Facebook groups. Then we start ringing the employer and threatening them that if they don’t pay immediately the union will start a campaign. We then picket (protest outside his business doors) or put posters and stickers around him, or both. Followed by a bigger protest, blocking streets, etc. with the idea being that each subsequent action is bigger than the last. This tactic creates tension with the bosses who see the situation escalating, which (in most cases) makes them pay. In this case, the employer backed down at the first step. After we wrote an article about his wage theft and circulated his name and picture, and the local media shared the news, his image and company suffered. So after just a few days all the money was paid and some of the workers became our members. During this period we also helped workers from a large tour agency in Varna, a worker from one of the local internet providers, etc.
Despite the positive results, almost all the struggles we fought were related to workers who had already lost their livelihoods. They turned to us because they thought they could not fight on their own. The unionization of the workers and the struggles that followed, whether successful or not, were most often an expression of the workers’ collective weakness, not their strength. If they had been strong in the workplace, if solidarity among them had been sufficiently developed, they would have been able to wage and win these struggles without the help of our organization. These types of after-the-fact struggles did not allow us to participate in the process of building solidarity and worker power in the workplaces themselves. Rather, they put us in a situation where we had to fill their lack, through activism. However, in the course of these struggles, some of the workers who actively participated alongside us learned a great deal about the need for solidarity with colleagues and the power of direct action, which we hope they will put into practice in their next workplace.
In addition to purely union struggles, the organization has also been active in a variety of community-oriented initiatives.
Against collector companies
In 2015, we launched a campaign against private debt collection firms that harass debtors of telecom companies, fast credit firms and banks. The campaign consisted of a series of articles against these companies, materials with tips on how to deal with them, poster and sticker campaigns, and the launch of a hotline to receive reports of harassment. The campaign was successful in the sense that we were contacted by hundreds of people, sometimes receiving five or six calls a day. It was also successful in that we helped some of them through advice or legal assistance. But the long-term plan, which was to organise a collective action against these companies, remained unfulfilled because of the individual nature of the cases.
Cultural events and initiatives
Alongside the campaigns and labour conflicts, we also initiated numerous cultural events. Every year we organised a workers’ festival in the city centre, at which we screened films on anti-capitalist, social and trade union themes. We hosted trade unionists and revolutionaries from other countries who told us about their struggles. Locally, workers from Piccadilly joined the festival, sharing about their struggles and victories. Local bands played for free to support the cause. Many leftist and anarchist collectives from around the country also participated. With these events, we were able to attract many new members from the left activists, but not workers or casual passers-by.
Another annual initiative of the trade union was the organisation of a march for 1 May as well as 8 March. We also organised events with radical poets and numerous film screenings both at the union club and at various central venues around the city.
At our Congress in 2018 we decided to be more active in the area of migrant labour. In recent years we have seen an increasing trend of migrant workers in our country, mainly from Ukraine and the Russian republics, doing mainly (but not only) seasonal work. But Bulgaria is primarily an exporter of migrants. More Bulgarians work abroad (2.5 million) than in Bulgaria (2.2 million). Migrant labour is the main livelihood for most Bulgarians – both for those working abroad and for their families in Bulgaria, who rely on the monthly remittances sent by them. It is a key sector for the Bulgarian economy, yet those working abroad bring more money into the local economy than all foreign investors combined. So unlike in Western countries where trade unionists and political activists face the problems of language barriers, cultural differences, national divisions and restrictive migrant regimes, here the main problem is how to organise for struggle in the workplace once higher wages abroad are the easier way out for the vast majority of workers.
Our activity in the area of migrant labour has been quite high. We set up a `Migrant Workers Section` which was more of a committee than a trade union section. Through it, we started translating materials concerning labour rights in the European countries where most Bulgarians work – mainly England, Germany and Sweden. We used texts and materials from SolFed, FAU and SAC, as well as others we could dig up from the internet, such as materials published by the affiliated trade unions in the respective countries. Several union workers who work seasonally in the west brought detailed information on working conditions that was very useful to us. We organised training by putting up posters and distributing leaflets around the local employment agencies. We printed a booklet on employment rights which we gave free to departing people who visited our club. In it and in the online materials we produced, we tried to synthesize some of the basics, such as the state-regulated minimum wage and our rights as workers in the respective state, as well as contacts for local unions. The contacts we gave were primarily those of anarcho-syndicalist and base unions, but also those of yellow unions that have good translators from Bulgarian (in Germany, for example, the DGB has several Bulgarians working for the union).
We were actively involved in dozens of conflicts abroad. We were contacted by various Bulgarian workers, mainly from the transport and logistics sector. Most often it was again about unpaid wages or illegal dismissals. In one case, we helped drivers to retrospectively receive money owed by their German employer. In another, Bulgarian workers at XP Logistics’ warehouses near London were fired for laughing during the performance of the English national anthem. We put them in touch with people from the Angry Workers collective who helped them fight back. In a third, where we were helping truck drivers in Sweden (with the help of SAC), we even set up a migrant workers section. Unfortunately it quickly disbanded due to logistical and organisational problems, due to the workers not having enough time and enthusiasm, and because the struggle hit an obstacle.
In 2016, we began publishing a monthly, printed newsletter. In it, we covered the union’s current struggles, essays on strikes and protests around the world, and theoretical texts on anarcho-syndicalism. It was difficult to publish the newsletter every month. The problem was mainly one of distribution, which happened mostly internally – in the syndicate’s clubs, at events and protests we participated in or organised. But if we draw the line at the money and effort wasted on the editorial and design, compared to the number of people it reached, the newsletter was more of an expensive pleasure than a real tool bringing concrete results.
Over the years we have held various initiatives: reading groups, discussion meetings, etc. In 2018, we organised a trade union training together with the workers of the chemical plants in Dimitrovgrad, where, in addition to discussing trade union tactics and the principles of autonomous trade unionism, we also screened a film about the workers of the Thessaloniki factory VIO.ME, who occupied it in 2011 and resumed production under workers’ control. The lectures took the form of a presentation and discussion dealing with the origins of the labour movement and with it the various political currents – anarchism, Marxism and their offshoots. These lectures played an important role in the political education of the newly joined workers and also of some of the `old` members of the trade union.
Trade unionists from our organisation were among the active initiators of several local environmental protests against property developers in Varna. We were also involved in national level eco-protests in 2017 and 2018. We also participated as speakers in two environmental conferences where we raised the issue of the relationship between workers’ struggles and ecology. One of the examples we gave was about the strike at the Obrochishte manganese mine mentioned above. The miners then brought out information about the private company running the mine, which made it clear that the management was pouring tons of poison into the nearby river. This led to an environmental disaster across the whole region. We also discussed the attempts of the government and employers to oppose environmental causes against workers’ interests. In many places workers are siding with the employers, that is, against environmental initiatives, mostly under threat of job losses. At the same time, many green activists in Bulgaria are completely unconcerned about the social impact of their policies, which further alienates workers. This is particularly true of the Green Party, which, unlike most similar parties in Europe, openly positions itself on the right.
In addition to the environmental protests, in this period we were actively involved in the two larger social ones. In Varna, they were more like the discontent against the 2013 electricity price hike – class-crossing protests with predominantly working-class participation, as opposed to the anti-corruption protests in the capital, which were also cross class but with more prominent participation of small businessmen and the professional classes, mostly lawyers. Social discontent against the fuel price hikes in 2018 quickly turned into demands for more comprehensive social reforms – wage increases, price cuts on necessities and nationalisation. At the second larger protest of this type, we managed to take the `helm`, initiating a meeting of the representatives of the different groups (motorcycle clubs, the BSP youth organization, the organization of mothers of children with disabilities, students, etc.). At the meeting we managed to direct the protest demands in a more social direction and to counter some nationalistic tendencies. By achieving this influence we realized that we had become an organization of local importance, a factor in the social life of the city.
The union’s membership also grew, though those joining were either individual workers (signing up after solving personal or small-collective cases, like the one at the restaurant) or left activists joining to help the cause. But that soon changed.
After a union member worked briefly at the City Art Gallery, a dozen workers decided to form a section of the ARS. It was also our first workplace section. We began to grow significantly. A little later we also created an IT section, which was joined by programmers from different cities, most of them members of the Bulgarian Anarchist Federation (FAB). The growth of the union and the many victories gave us confidence that we were on the right track, but also confronted us with a number of organizational problems. Politically, what our anarcho-syndicalism expressed itself in was opposition to reformism, to political parties and to participation in elections. Instead, we relied on workers’ self-organisation, class struggle and revolution as the only means of abolishing capitalist exploitation and state oppression. Tactically, this translated into direct action and direct democracy within the organisation. The trade union is run by the workers who are members on the principle of one man, one vote. Our long-term aim was to create an organisation that was capable not only of waging struggles in the workplace, but also of linking these struggles to wider social issues, that is, of politicising them. The goal, in other words, was to unite these fragmented struggles into a common, revolutionary struggle against the system. Today, we still defend these positions, but – then and now – we see them as woefully inadequate to lead an effective trade union struggle from a principled class position. Up to that point, the organisation had been working in a very chaotic way, and despite the many new people, we had still not managed to break out of the framework of the “friends group”. The sections functioned through weekly meetings which were supposedly democratic and anyone could participate, but in reality decisions were made by one or two of the active trade unionists. Most of the organisational work was also done by a few who overworked themselves. There was no common political line or strategy at national level, and in some sections even at local level. There were also no democratic institutions, apart from the good intentions of the leaders to `work anarchistically`. Above and below during this period (2018-2019), the more concrete dimensions of class struggle and the building of an authentic workers’ organisation crystallised before us. This was helped by our experience of previous struggles, as well as the entry into the organisation of several people with serious experience of base unionism from different countries in Europe and the Middle East. We have thus outlined some of the most important principles of our organisation:
- Overcoming occupational divisions (creating enterprise-wide unions rather than separate ones for each occupation);
- A strict class line, expressed in fighting for all workers, not just for the members of our sections;
- Democratic structure. Bottom-up decision-making, with each member having an equal vote with all others, and the main body being the union section meeting;
- Direct action and power building in the workplace, rather than negotiations and collective agreements.
Building on our strong class positions has taken the union to the next level, both organizationally and politically. But alongside this, many of the structural problems within the union, political differences and organisational impediments had crystallised, which we will hint at in the next part of the article, but will look at in more detail in the last.