Union of Egoists

Individual anarchy has often been treated as an interesting idea, but one with little bearing on practical group work.  However, during the late sixties in San Francisco, an individualist anarchist labor union (or “non-union” as it was later called) was organized with features unique in american labor history.

Initially, we were a small group of social workers who revolted against an AFL union, local 400, after repeated instances in which the AFL failed to act on issues.  These issues included firings without pretext with five minutes notice, refusal of the labor council to fund publication of the social services newsletter, DIALOG, and the dismissal of a worker for visiting North Vietnam during personal leave.  This last item precipitated an administrative proposal for an “incompatible activities code,” which would have invaded the private lives of city workers to determine the suitability of their political or personal beliefs.  Launching a mammoth publicity campaign we defeated the initiative.  This was 1966, and almost a decade later this dangerous concept was revived with reference to employee sexual preferences.

By this time we had severed relations with the AFL, establishing an independent Social Services Employees Union (SSEU), complete with small office and printing equipment.  Although we comprised various political tendencies, we all had reservations about having paid officials or any kind of dominating leadership.  After a period of experimentation with acts of defiance—immediately followed by firings—we decided to utilize more subtle methods of dissent that relied upon communication with other workers to generate wide support and avoid martyrdom.

We utilized open and reasoned publicity, direct confrontation with immediate supervisors over specific issues, with self-representation.  We managed to make any supervisor as answerable for his actions as a “subordinate” via wide dissemination of interviews.  Notoriety often left a supervisor vulnerable to power structures above, and it is surprising to see how many lost face in the simplest interview.  Through a series of meetings with department officials, a grievance procedure was implemented and written into the civil service code which allowed any grievant the right to a hearing with three representatives and as many witnesses as necessary to support his/her case.  For any career-minded supervisor, it was more risky to get one’s name in print too often than to tolerate insubordination.  As a result, firings were almost eliminated and many supervisors started to hide in their offices.  The “right” of the supervisor to pass judgement and document the behavior of those supervised simply became the reverse tool of workers.

These ideas were later incorporated into a constitution stating that “SSEU is organized to give workers an opportunity to have some voice in determining the conditions under which they work.  Contrary to a style of operation in which the individual abdicates action and responsibility to a union official, a lawyer, or a politician, SSEU stresses the individual’s participation by collective action in the decision-making processes which govern his life…by helping provide workers with the opportunity to know the policies which govern them and then confront the public bodies which control and administer these policies.  Such an approach necessarily requires openness and the courage to claim responsibility for actions, losses, and victories.  It is also the antithesis of clandestine deals, political compromises and the corruption which characterizes many of the actions of organized labor…members need not gain any union sanction for such actions, nor do their leaflets reflect the opinions of all other workers.  They are expected, however, to take public responsibility for what they publicize and do.  SSEU members generally choose to operate within the sphere of immediate working conditions and problems rather than issues of foreign policy, prison reform, ecology, or other popular hobbies, since most of our experiences have shown that persons can exert the greatest leverage in the situations immediately affecting them.”

After some heated confrontations, we were able to have five representatives at social and civil service commission hearings, again with all incidents reported in leaflets.   Another prerogative of authority was inverted as workers were given the pseudo-rights of administrators.

At this point, when the SSEU methods were achieving their greatest success and membership was high, a number of obstacles were placed in the way of the union’s development.  Local 400, alarmed at the inroads being made by a small independent organization, hired an impressive organizer, Harold Supriano, who had ironically been our catalyst at the time of his North Vietnam excursion.  Another invasion came from the Progressive Labor Party who dispatched a “vanguard” to work at the welfare department and convert SSEU into a conventional union, with membership in the AFL, a “contract” demanding exclusive bargaining power, and mandatory SSEU membership.  Once established, the paid officials of such a group could then lay down a centralized “union line” and direct all union activity.

The “people’s army” did make a number of smart advances, although Harold Supriano, a less serious threat, just faded off into the sunset of North Beach cafes.  Progressive Labor, no such slouchers, within a few months gained control of DIALOG, filling the paper with pro-collective bargaining editorials, sought to institute a rigid editorial policy, which would subject all submitted material to some sort of judgement, rejecting all contrary opinions, and refused to appeal decisions to the membership. After a long and bitter battle their platforms were defeated 2-1, and many either left the department or joined local 400.  The incident eroded much of our strength, but reconfirmed SSEU’s commitment to the absence of paid leadership, and the requirement that the DIALOG editor accept articles from every point of view, and the prohibition of the union’s entering into any contract that would inhibit the freedom of the individual member to join freely with anyone to determine the conditions of his working life.

Later amendments to the constitution included voluntary dues, access to printing equipment by all department employees as long as materials were paid for or replaced, all offices to be voluntary, no mandatory insurance benefits (most SSEU people felt that these items offered by conventional unions were simply recruitment devices, that the employer should be the one to bear any financial costs rather than unions with inflationary dues structures, and that in any case all insurance programs should be entered into by free choice only).

Essentially we were a fraternal collective existing for mutual support on a positive level only; we could not as a group act to forbid any member from doing anything he/she wanted.  This was a complete departure from conventional unions which derive their “power” from their ability to commandeer or discipline membership.  There are precedents in history for such alliances, particularly in pre-hellenic Greece where various artisans and craftsmen comprised independent brotherhoods for defense and support.  These were far more complex and progressive than the later medieval guilds which mainly fixed prices and provided welfare.

We forestalled the collective bargaining ordinance for a few years by working with some other minority unions.  But it became apparent that the city wanted workers more effectively organized into one union, or at least a few big ones, so that meetings could be closed for anyone not authorized by a labor corporation or a city corporation.

During 1970 and again 1974 there were city strikes.  The main issue was of course  “collective bargaining,” a tedious litany hailed by cigar smoking union officials in blue silk and ambitious “radicals” in blue denim.  A few nonsensical demands were thrown in as a good smokescreen (none of which were ever granted or even mentioned after the strike) along with a lot of cries of “the brotherhood of labor.”  Local #535 was created.

In one year the entire grievance procedure was overturned, salaries for some groups like electricians and nurses were actually reduced and their memberships turned over as prize captives to the Service Employees International.  Small unions and even some large groups like the California Nurses Association were wiped out.  Even local 535, set up as a dummy group to reattract social workers, was eventually devoured by its mentor, Local 400.

Although television and the press portrayed this farce as some giant war between city labor and management, most AFL people were given easy jobs.  Announcements for strikes were circulated by several department heads who also told those workers who did not want to strike to stay home.  And although 75% of the workers did not want to strike, the division administrator, a local 400 official, refused them access to facilities.  (As you know, during a strike employees are not paid—and civil service workers risk losing their jobs.)

Naturally, we were among the groups opposing the strikes and showing up for work wherever possible.   Although we issued bulletins suggesting on-the-site strikes over specific issues, in the eyes of young and old mystics who honor holy words instead of reality—we were seen as scabs.  Defending ourselves from this taboo epitaph wasted a good deal of time and paper.  A lot of our former activity ceased, even the publication of DIALOG.

The contract agreement finally reached gave exclusive bargaining rights to large city-wide unions with Service Employees International.  It eliminated public hearings at social or civil service commissions and prevented workers from filing complaints on their own initiative.  All grievances had to be screened through one’s majority union and membership or its dues equivalent became mandatory.  The AFL could have a city department fire any worker not complying with this provision.  During this ugly battle I saw police dogs patrol workers’ meeting halls.  A local 250 agent assaulted a friend of mine, and I witnessed dissenters being dragged from a meeting by hired security personnel.  It is a small wonder that even conservative politicians pay homage to our “great labor tradition.”  Management is superfluous with the efficiency of this sort of control.

Without the right to represent ourselves as a minority union, of course we were put out of business.  The experiment was not entirely a failure.  A completely anarchistic organization existed for approximately nine years as an effective union with neither unity or discipline.  We actually operated more efficiently without restraints.  When dues were made voluntary, people offered more; when all members or department workers were given access to our office, nothing was damaged or stolen.  Without harassing other workers who might not agree with all our principles, firings were almost eliminated, salaries increased, and our treasury remained in the black.

Although I personally found the midnight efforts to improve the quality of an essentially boring job dubious, the opportunity to see myths of political labels and rigid organizational trappings dispelled made my own participation worthwhile.  The entire experience was an education in anarchy that could not have been possible through any lecture or periodical.  There were flaws that would have contributed to the group’s eventual demise, even without the AFL.  Meetings were endless; sometimes four nights a week until midnight or later.  The democratic framework necessitated some of this but simple obsession with triviality accounted for a good deal.  Oddly enough too little attention was paid to the collective bargaining threat.  Morale was low after 1970.  To many, selling your body in work bondage to the government as a social worker or teacher was just the only alternative to low-paid clerical work in private industry.  Many of the best activists went on to graduate school; social worker positions afterwards became scarce.  Our directness and honesty often left us vulnerable to organizations like Local 535, who used underground work and alternatives to 9-5 slavery.  It should have been of more importance to anarchists.  And time spent at meetings could have been put to more egoistic and practical ends.

However, this is all hindsight.  The level of comraderie, and the complete freedom of action and speech have utterly spoiled me.  I have not seen the atmosphere of SSEU duplicated in any other organizations—including anarchist ones.  And we won several successful grievances.  One of these eliminated the dress codes, which seems irrelevant to those who think only along macro-political lines—but was important in terms of having sovereignty over one’s own body and expression.  Another was a grievance issued by one worker whose superior wanted him to “ be friendly with all the workers in the unit” and arranged little coffee meetings to instill this sort of “unit spirit.”  The worker thought it absurd and demeaning, and that who he chose to be friendly with was a personal matter unrelated to his actual job.  (Hearing how people today dress “to impress the boss” and read tasteless manuals on effective communication on the job, I sometimes wonder if we are entering a period of mental atrophy.)  And the last successful grievance concerned an eligibility supervisor who became subject to blackmail due to his homosexuality.

Our “non-union” union believed that what happened to an individual during his or her everyday life was of more political significance than classes, creeds, political organizations, or economic systems.  In any given situation there was only the exploited and the exploiter.  For us, Anarchy was neither a theory for mental masturbation nor a religion providing eternal salvation on some future judgement day.  Rather, it was a tool we used to maximize our abilities to withstand those who sought to prevent us from being ourselves.

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