Interview with Mike Harris
Mike Harris is a founding member of the WSA and one of its predecessor organization, the Libertarian Workers Group, from New York. Following the WSA Continental Conference last May (see report "Workers Solidarity Alliance Holds Continental Conference" on the ideas & action website), we approached him for an interview, as a founding member, a long-standing anarchist militant and as the current corresponding secretary for the WSA. We began by asking about the conference, and took off from there discussing the anarchist movement, the labor movement, and some historical comparisons between today and the period around when the WSA was founded.
K.S.: Greetings Mike! Hope all is well with you.
M.H.: Greetings Kevin and thank you for wanting to do this interview. Sorry it has taken so long to get off the ground.
Before we begin, let me indicate that I am an elected officer of the WSA. Taking this into account, I will try and answer as an officer and not so much in a personal capacity. Obviously some personal opinion will seep in, but I will try and minimize it. If at some time in the future you’d like to revisit some of the stuff discussed, I’ll be happy to share a more personal perspective on things.
K.S.: This past May the WSA Conference took place. I am curious how you feel about the immediate prospects for our movement.
M.H.: Let me thank you and the others in the Twin Cities for hosting an awesome conference. Those of us from outside your city appreciated the work you all put into making sure things went off without a hitch.
I thought the conference was an important one—one where there was a mix of both new and old members. I think folks inter-acted well enough given that this was our first face-to-face meeting in some years. It was different, of course, when a number of us interacted at, say, the first three Class Struggle Anarchist Conferences (CSAC). At the WSA Conference, I think some of our working rules may have been different and this created, at times, some glitches in moving some of the conversations forward. From this we learn and from this we go forward.
There are actually at least two levels to this question—the internal and the external. Of course both overlap. As some months have passed since May, I think our overall prospects are reasonably good. The internal going forward part will take time and there will be lots of experimentation and tweaking of things we agreed to at the conference. Taking all the baby steps to get there are always hard and always uneven. So in the most immediate sense there’s still work to do.
On the external side of things, WSA continues to consistently gain new members, which is a good thing and indicates that our external reputation and the ideas we promote are positive and will get a fair hearing. Over the past three years we have doubled (plus some) our membership. While this is wonderful, it comes with some very important responsibilities to those new members. An organization, in this case the WSA, can grow and everything looks cool on the books. But if the new members are not well integrated into the organization, the “book numbers” are impressive, but the work, the activities and the life of the WSA becomes less impressive. So we have a lot of work on integrating members and building local branches to do.
K.S.: Maybe you could give some thoughts about the present juncture for the WSA.
M.H.: I think the WSA is still in a process of rebuilding. As you know, WSA had a terrible split in 1999/2000 which nearly destroyed the organization. There’s little need to travel those roads again. Suffice it to say, even in anarchist organizations there will be those who have their own agendas. When those agendas are not met or are questioned, all hell can break loose. So you learn from these lessons, be aware of things and try and move forward in a comradely, organized, coherent and orderly fashion.
Over the past few years many new members have joined WSA, such as yourself, and before you others in the Twin Cities for example. I would say that both waves of new members have been helping to re-lay some of the WSA building blocks. We’ve able to accomplish a lot, but still have a long way to go.
So, at this juncture, lots of progress has been made in rebuilding the WSA. I would also say that during this phase, a hellava lot of good folks have joined, some with more experience than others. But they have all brought some very good things to the table.
K.S.: Maybe you could give some further thoughts about the present juncture for anarchism and for our place in the worker’s movement.
M.H.: Well, let me deal with the first part of the question: where is anarchism today?
Let me say that my main interaction is with the class struggle wing of the anarchist movement.
By class struggle, I don’t simply mean class reductionist…but I’ve been known to be a bit of a “workerist” myself. (Wink, smile, laugh)
I think there are some in WSA who have a better grasp of the theoretical aspects of things better than I. So, this interview will fall flat if I’ve got to get too theoretical. That said, I would say that most of us who consider ourselves class struggle anarchists (including our friends and allies) would say they believe in the intersectional relationship between the struggle against strictly class oppression and other oppressions and exploitations, racial, sexual, gendered and so forth.
The reality is, anarchism is about complete freedom and the inter-connection that freedom can not simply be won on the shopfloor. There are some outside of our general circles who reject the class struggle in toto … and we, of course, see little ground for permanent alliances with those sorts of anarchists.
So those who agree with this perspective, the class struggle anarchists, tend to be an important part of today’s anarchist movement, much more so than when I became an anarchist in the 1970s. This is a wonderful thing and recognition of the importance of class and the class struggle.
I think that many of our CSAC allies are smaller and mainly local groupings. Some come with their own influences and traditions. We are all trying to advance a class struggle anarchist “agenda” (said in the most positive use of the term), each with its own successes, failures or limitations.
Today’s class struggle anarchist movement, while numerically greater than in the past and theoretically a bit more sound than in years gone by faces lots of challenges.
Financial and other resources, human power (numbers) and an often inward view and generally not being tightly, efficiently or effectively organized hampers the work. Now, I am not singling any one organization or group out. I think WSA reflects a lot of this as well.
Each organization or group knows – or should know – its own short ends. How I think we can help each other with those short ends is through greater cooperation—cooperation which is less tied to our real or perceived differences, and more tied to cooperative projects.
Towards that end – cooperative projects – there’s been some movement. But this movement tends to get slowed down, for whatever internal or other reasons there may be. But efforts are being made towards greater class struggle anarchist cooperation. I am hopeful that some of this will pay off in time.
Some have argued, both inside and outside the WSA that the only way this — cooperation — can be made real and effective is by all the existing class struggle anarchist organizations and groups to regroup into one larger North American class struggle anarchist coast-to-coast organization. Such a discussion, at this point, hasn’t really taken off. As I said, the seeds for the discussion have been planted by some, but the jury is still out.
As for WSA’s “place in the worker’s movement,” our place is the same as it always has been … making efforts to be part of struggles where we work and within the broader workers movement in general.
Our goal is to introduce into our struggles and the struggles we participate in the ideas of workers self-organization, direct action and, what I call, a functional anarcho-syndicalism … by which I mean making attempts at creating organic libertarian formations that, “deliver the goods.” By “goods,” I don’t simply mean better wages or strictly material items, but “goods” in the broader sense of small and large class victories. Theses fights are not won out of thin air or the waving of a wand … well, not usually, though we are, from time to time, handed victories by a dumb-ass boss or two.
On point, the creation of what I call a functional anarcho-syndicalism can be seen in the work of WSA members in solidarity networks, workers centers, rank-and-file work in reformist unions and by organizing with the IWW. Over the decades, the WSA has really been less interested in what something is called, but much more the content. And within each of the aforementioned formations, our members promote the libertarian worker point of view: self-organization and direct action. Are they always successful, no. Are many out there trying day in and day out, even in the face of repeated and oft time heart wrenching defeats: You betcha.
K.S.: I’m curious, how does the situation look to you in what we’d call the “mainstream labor movement” or organized labor at large, in relation to your above comments (both the question of unions “delivering the goods” and the extent of rank-and-file organizing)?
M.H.: Well, I don’t think we can compare the building of a self-managed alternative workers movement to that of “mainstream labor.” After all, we are trying to build alternatives to the “mainstream.” Our immediate and long term goals and tactics, differ tremendously from the “mainstream.” I would argue that the “mainstream” poses many large obstacles and blocks in the way of radical change.
Today’s US labor movement’s, the official trade unions that is, goal and mission is delivering a different kind of goods for their memberships, strictly material goods, as well as periodic progressive legislation. But the tremendous increase in union headquarters centralization of power, tremendous local union consolidation into mega locals, increased centralized and “template” bargaining, seemingly endless top-down ways in which union structures operate, the increase in partnership deals with corporations, the tremendous amount of membership poaching these past few years and the sucking up to the Democratic Party who simply piss on the feet of workers all the time continues to render the labor movement powerless, ineffective, top down and politically spineless.
Part of any radical workers program inside the unions would absolutely need to push for less centralism, more rank-and-file control, more localism (yet with effective coordination with other locals) and less cozy relations with the bosses. I’ve been involved since the 1970s and time after time after time trade union accommodation and capitulation has brought the working class less and less.
“Job security” through give-backs has brought fast food wages, contingent work and a whole host of exploitative relations. These are not the “goods” we’re seeking, that’s for sure. Aggressive struggle, well, might not win every god-damn struggle, but, hell, at least wage aggressive struggle. Few “mainstream” unions will wage those sorts of fights.
Additionally, as WSA has members in Canada, let me say very few words on their situation. While the Canadian mainstream trade unions are more social democratic in ideology than their American counterparts, their political goals perhaps more socially “advanced” from the US, Canadian workers face the same tough times as we do. The Canadian “mainstream” unions, particularly in the manufacturing and wood sectors has also advanced concessionary programs to try and “save jobs.” To a large degree our comrades to the north have fared little better than we have. Perhaps it took a bit longer for it to take hold, but the need for aggressive class struggle unionism and rank-and-file organization is the same.
K.S.: How does this affect the prospects for class struggle anarchists and the WSA specifically — whether when it comes to organizing or simply putting anarchist ideas out among the rest of the class?
M.H.: If the question is just limited to working in the confines of the trade unions, well, I suspect we are somewhat limited. By which I mean if one was doing independent unionism, IWW or otherwise, you have much more free reign in how you can organize, develop structure, a program and internal education.
Within the “mainstream” there are many considerations and several levels in which organizational prowess and skip come into play. You got to fight the boss on the one hand. On the other there’s a different level of concern regarding trade union structure and trade union bureaucrats. There’s the question of how to maintain ones independence, build rank-and-filism on the “shop floor” (used loosely) while not seeming to be seen as “aloof” or “abstentionist” on all matters in the eyes and minds of co-workers who may not be as “politically” conscious as you.
As an anarchist, as a former shop floor factory worker and as union staffer (in “progressive” unions), I am convinced that the best work we can do is “on the shop floor.” That is, by trying to build a base where we work. To try and build, what we used to call, industrial networks, workplace networks, within the same union….and across unions with workers of similar occupations. I feel this way whether it is in an organized or unorganized workplace.
Another question, a big question, that needs to be addressed is that of contingent and temp workers. There must be ways to organize those sorts of workers. But this is a topic for another time.
As a general answer, I think class struggle anarchists are in a better place at this time in my years of involvement to try and organically build self-managed forms of struggle. I think the work that a number of comrades are doing in the IWW is wonderful. The comrades doing solidarity work around issues of housing and wage theft is also good and important. What we have now more than ever is numbers. We need to figure out the best way to use those numbers in an effective and coordinated way. This, I think, will be the hard part since there is no “one way” to go about this. The push and pull of diverse situations and even organizational challenges are real and, at times, problematic.
Workplace and community organizing can be done anarchistically, yet how does one specifically organize ideologically within those struggles, workplaces, communities and so forth? I’ve yet to figure that fully out myself, but I suspect the blend of how you help to self-organize, how you build confidence, how you, as I said earlier, introduce as I call a “functional anarcho-syndicalism” into the scene. This may help with slowly helping with the process of building class consciousness and a desire to develop a framework for co-workers to become interested in the ideology which drives your methodology.
Finally, in an “ideal” situation the ideological organization has a role as educator, as propagandist and promoter of solidarity. A place where the member can discuss the problems of the day, the problems of the world and a place where comradeship and theoretical development are key components in helping, nurturing and aiding the individual militant.
K.S.: So, as a follow up to that, tell me a bit more about where you see rank-and-filist “shop floor” organizing today as compared to back when you were a shop floor organizer.
M.H.: Funny, we’d never use organizer to describe ourselves. An organizer to us, back then, was a paid staff person. Someone on the union payroll. We used the term “militant” to describe ourselves and others in similar spots. Funny how the language has changed. Now an “organizer” is a “militant” and a militant is a political hack. What an upside down world we live in (laughs loudly and gives cheshire cat grin).
Anyway, to the question. I think it’s hard to compare the world of the 1970s to the world of the 2010s on some levels. For the most part it was a world with significant industries, you know, we used to actually make things. It was a world where many of us actually worked on “shop floors.” It was also the end of a “benevolent” capitalism, one that “made deals” to keep “their workers” happy.
Globalization and emerging economies soon led to significant attacks on workers. The first of the many rounds of “give-backs” (starting with autoworkers at Chrysler) and tremendous de-industrialization was underway.
When I first started getting active, like 25-30% of blue collar work was “organized”. In the NY Metro area near one-half of private and public workers belonged to a union…..Now the unions often sucked, many were outright corrupt and damn near all were tremendously top-heavy, bureaucratic and plain ole stodgy. Some were real havens of grandfather-to-father-to-son set-ups within the hierarchy and, definitely often times on the shopfloor.
It was also a time when memories of the very frequent “wildcat” movements of a few years before were still warm, not toastie hot, but fresh enough where they still occurred and were enough to make us point to them (and the workers self-organization within them) as examples of the sort of direct action, self-managed activities workers should engage in.
In terms of “nuts-n-bolts” organizing, while the work environment has changed, while the nature of work itself has changed, I think the basics are still fundamentally the same. Our ability to deliver for ourselves comes from our ability to self-organize ourselves and to do this in ways that are non-hierarchical and auto-democratic (as opposed to autocratic). The Wobblies have a saying: “Direct Action Gets the Goods” and more often than not this is true. So, we have always been and will always be for direct action (for ourselves and by ourselves) as opposed to indirect action (by a union rep.).
One difference may be the use of what some call “non-governmental organizations” as workers advocates. I don’t really recall those sorts of organizations being around or not to the extent as they seem to be around today. Back then, there were advocacy groups like the Black Lung Association in mining for example. Of course, many marxian political groups had their labor caucuses….some were outright party dominated groups, some not. But the advent of major advocacy groups came along closer to the 1980s as the maoist oriented “new communist movement” fell apart.
Many of these folks formed community or people of color “progressive” associations, etc. I guess they probably helped to spurn on many of the “n.g.o.” type organizations we see today.
I think I’ve wandered a bit here, sorry.
One last point I’d like to make on this. Often times trade unions will engage in what I call “controlled militancy.” Controlled militancy is a funny thing. One needs only to turn the labor history pages back a decade plus to get a sense of how militancy can be used and manipulated. The northern CA dry wall workers fight is a good example of worker initiative gradually subsumed by the Carpenters union bureaucracy. The origins of “Jobs with Justice” and “Justice for Janitors” go back to the waging of militancy, grass roots, rank-and-file mobilizations and campaigns. But they were controlled campaigns and organizational forms. In both instances they were initiated by union hierarchies who were on the defensive (CWA with AT&T) or seeking to regain members in a growing sector (and one SEIU ceded to the bosses for years). So even bureaucratic ceding to militancy can be a crafty aspect in the toolbox of hierarchical trade union control.
Often time radicals get fooled by this “controlled militancy”. They see militant actions being taken by a union and think that union is a militant, rank-and-file union. Well, if the actions are controlled from above or directed by staff with rank-and-filers being mere actors on the stage, that is problematic.
In some cases “controlled militancy” can lead to a certain awaking by those participating. Yet without a strong, engaged and vigilant membership, “controlled militancy” is rolled out every few years around contract time. Or dusted off and pulled out of the attic for a campaign or, after years of servitude and decline, pulled out to regain the “market share” that the union fritted away over the decades.
While I applaud acts of militancy, the acts alone, not controlled by the actors themselves do not advance workplace control or self-organization in any meaningful way.
K.S.: What do you think is the condition of the ‘self-managed alternative workers movement’ — again, whether in terms of “delivering the goods” or simply the extent of self-organization (even if unsuccessful).
M.H.: Hmmm…. there’s not much of a mass organized alternative workers movement to speak of. There are probably lots of different efforts at “self-organization” and they can come in many forms —- there are always, always, the informal work groups which, I believe, Stan Weir* has actually written about. Other forms can be actual rank-and-file insurgences in existing unions….but here you can also have those insurgents who seek changing union leadership — not building workers control on the “shop floor”…… The same can be said for some of the workers centers.
Workers centers can be places where unorganized (and mis-organized) workers from various workplaces come together to network, seek information and take action. In Spain, with a strong history of anarchist oriented unionism (“anarcho-syndicalism”) there exists what the Spaniards call “ateneos.” These are commonly storefront community centers. The ateneos were centers for debates, cultural activities and union organizing and worker advocacy and solidarity. In the best of situations, like the Lansing Workers Center, for example, the center will be by, for and controlled by workers. In many other instances, these centers are merely social service agencies doing good advocacy work, but not building workers self-empowerment and organization.
I would also add the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to being a part of the alternative workers movement. The IWW believes in direct action unionism and has many good folks trying to put that into practice. With the slippage of the “old economy” and the advent of “new economy,” the IWW — and independent self-managed unionism in general–is probably in the best position it has been in my lifetime to actually organize on its program. While I am not a member of the IWW, I think the IWW is an important part in building an alternative workers movement. And I salute those younger workers who are in the trenches advocating the cause of direct action unionism.
K.S.: What can be said about the WSA (or other groups for that matter) in all of this?
M.H.: Well, I really can’t answer for anyone but the WSA….and even here my answer is in a personal capacity. That said, the WSA has been around for better than 25 years now. Throughout that time period we have taken a position — both in the theoretical and practical sense — of advocating for and being engaged in what we used to call a “pluralistic” strategy. Some now call it an “inside/out” strategy. That is working inside the reformist trade unions and outside them, organizing independently of them. Our goal has never been to capture the trade union structures, rather, we just believe you need to be in the fight in your workplace. And, much more so in the past, the fights took place with your union or, sometimes more significantly within your union.
Ideally the WSA should be a place where ideas, strategies and tactics can be shared. Where educational and other informative materials can be prepared and shared by worker militants. The organization can play important solidarity roles as well. The organization can also be one where connections between similar anarchist workers from across the globe or across the continent can practice solidarity, share information and, perhaps, develop common activities.
Right now WSA tries to do many of the things I’ve described. Yet we have a ways to go to have all cylinders burning, pumping and firing the way we ideally would like. With some more effort, with renewed vigor and lots of elbow grease maybe we will accomplish some modest goals …. or more.
I hope there’s been something of interest in this interview.
Thanks for the interest and the time to share some perspectives on things.
* “Singlejack Solidarity” Chapter VI. Primary Work Groups