The CNT and the IWA, part 2: The crisis in the IWA as seen from the CNT

A map showing the IWA's presence in Europe. The sections which favor the refoundation proposal are in green, while those who are opposed or undecided are in red.
A map showing the IWA’s presence in Europe. The sections which favor the refoundation proposal are in green, while those who are opposed or undecided are in red.

Continued from Part 1. Originally written by RABIOSO. Translated by Lifelong Wobbly.

Back to the beginning: From the CNT to the IWA

Historically, the IWA never played a relevant role in the history of the workers movement; the only exception, perhaps, was the Spanish Revolution of 1936, in which the CNT played a key role. After its defeat,  the rise of fascism and the second world war brought about the destruction of all of the other sections except one, the Swedish SAC, thanks to Sweden’s neutrality during the war. At first, the SAC stayed true to anarcho-syndicalist principles while the Swedish welfare state was under construction. The loss of members, and a fear of ending up totally marginalized, led the organization to embark on a 180 degree change at its 1942 Congress, in the middle of the war. It formed a part of the machinery of the Swedish welfare state, which supported it financially.

The first step was to accept a role in distributing unemployment funds, like the other unions. They created a fund for this purpose, with the generous  help of the State, which also generously supported the payments. This collaboration, apparently innocuous, has degenerated to the level where they accept police as members and have created a caste of functionaries. A good example of this is Arbetaren, the SAC’s organ, with a distribution of 3,500, which until 2010 had no less than 10 editors on a union salary, thanks to state subsidies, and which ended up criticizing some of the SAC’s own struggles for being  “radical.”[i] To be fair, we should also mention that at its 2009 Congress the SAC radicalized its strategy, but not all the way: the majority of the organization still voted against a ban on cops.

In 1951, the IWA held its 7th Congress, the first after the start of WW2 (the last had been in 1938). At this congress they denounced the SAC’s activities. In 1956, the SAC ceased paying its contributions to the IWA, and in 1959 decided to leave the IWA after an internal referendum. Thus the IWA lost the last union worthy of the name, and became nothing more than a federation of miniscule propaganda groups scattered across the globe, without even the most basic workplace presence. The hardest years of the Cold War were a period of “wandering in the desert” for the anarcho-syndicalist movement, which also suffered various internal splits in the CNT-in-exile, its largest section by far.

The situation changed completely in the 70’s. The economic crisis and the CNT’s resurrection in 1976 cleared the path for the creation of new anarcho-syndicalist organizations: the German FAU, heir of the FAUD, founded in 1976; the Direct Action Movement in the UK (now Solidarity Federation), created in 1979; in 1983 the re-activated USI, the historical Italian section, organized its first congress; and at the end of the 80’s the French CNT-F had its first successes at building a workplace presence. Unfortunately, in a repetition of the myth of Sisyphus, the new organizations suffered similar problems to the ones that the CNT was just beginning to recover from.

A map showing the IWA membership in 20's.
The IWA in the 20’s, the swan song of a movement that would soon become history due to internal conflicts and the rise of fascism and bolshevism.

Return to the workplace, and the internal crises of the CNT-F and USI

First came the French CNT, at the start of the 90’s. After successfully starting a branch at COMATEC, a company involved in cleaning the Paris metro, and winning a strike, the CNT-F participated in the union elections in 1991. They did the same in STES, another workplace where they had created a strong branch. The participation in union elections in Paris and its consequences (subsidies, privileges for a caste of functionaries, etc) led to strong tensions in the heart of the organization, which finally split in November of 1992.

The CNT-F split into the CNT-F/Vignoles (Paris), created in a Congress of February 1993 and favoring participation in union elections; and the CNT-F/Burdeos, created in a Congress of 1993, opposed to participation. The division was stark: while Paris had the majority of the members of the old CNT-F, the majority of the branches went over to Burdeos, reproducing France’s structure, with Paris rising high above the rest of the country.

The biggest consequence of the CNT-F’s rupture was a change to the IWA statutes, eliminating the possibility of having two sections in the same country. This was the first change to the statutes since 1922, which says a lot about the organization’s lack of contact with reality for decades. Finally, the XX IWA Congress (Madrid, 1996) decided to expel Vignoles, and Burdeos became the French section. As far as the union elections go, despite assurances from Vignoles that these were exceptional measures, their 2008 Congress decided to make them one of their main tactics for workplace organizing.

Just as the French section had split over questions of organizing strategy, a similar conflict was brewing in Italy. Once again, the context was the beginning of real industrial activity and the need to define a valid strategy for workplace organizing. And once again, as in Spain and then in France, the debate centered around organizing strategy. In the USI’s case, the discussion centered around relations with other Italian rank-and-file unions, especially the COBAS (Rank-and-File Committees).

In the early ’90’s, after it had succeeded in becoming a real union, a conflict developed between its three wings (pure unionist, anarchist, and anarcho-syndicalist). The first conflict was with the anarchist wing, which left the organization in the mid-‘90’s after a Congress in Prato Cárnico (Udine). After this  a conflict between the two remaining groups developed around how to interpret an agreement made in 1993 about collaborating with other rank-and-file unions. In February of 1995, the majority of participants at a delegate meeting in Bari approved the establishment of “a federative pact with other unions.” The pure unionist sector (centered in Rome) saw this as a green light for fusing with other groups, which would have led to the dissolution of the USI.

When they realized what the pure unionists were planning, the coordinating bodies and the anarcho-syndicalists convoked another delegate meeting, this time in Milan, which reversed the previous agreement. This was the start of an open conflict between the two sections, which chose different paths. The pure unionists of USI-Rome didn’t take long to show signs of authoritarianism, with the same people remaining in coordinating positions, and they didn’t see any problems working with the fascist union HISNAL. Worse still, they refused to stop calling themselves USI-AIT, leading to confusion which they took advantage of to sabotage any strikes from the anarcho-syndicalist side. Italian law requires unions to communicate strikes to the government if they are to be valid – every time the anarcho-syndicalists called a strike, the pure unionists sent a letter to the government calling it off. At the same time, in 1995 the anarcho-syndicalists reunited with the anarchists who had recently left, and this unified group began calling itself USI-Prato Cárnico or just simply USI-AIT.

The conflicts in the CNT-F and the USI reached their high point in 1995-1996, which made the 1996 IWA Congress fundamental to the future of the organization. Both conflicts were resolved internally by the USI-Rome leaving voluntarily, and by recognizing the CNT-F/Burdeos as the French section. Sadly, the Congress took place in a very emotionally charged atmosphere. This marked the future of the IWA, which began a stage marked by conflicts and internal struggles.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentices

The 1996 Congress, which should have been the start of the IWA’s resurrection, ended up as the starting point for a hellish internal dynamic, and the CNT played a key role. The first step had been taken in the 1984 IWA Congress (Madrid), which approved a motion brought by the CNT – which had just suffered its worst-ever split – that prohibited the IWA sections from having any contact with the SAC. This was because SAC had given financial support to the split group (the future CGT).[ii] The agreement prohibited any “official” contacts, but permitted “unofficial” contacts, opening a dangerous space for interpretation.

The important thing about this agreement is the mental state which it reflects. After suffering splits in its biggest sections, the IWA ended up trusting nobody, like a wounded animal. Trust, the basis of federalism, was replaced by surveillance over member sections and the threat of punishment whenever it seemed useful. An agreement made in the following Congress (Granada, 2000) extended this logic by prohibiting sections from maintaining contacts with organizations in other countries without the approval of the local section, a logic that was more feudal than federal, and which would have important consequences. One important detail to remember is that this agreement was proposed by the NSF, the Norwegian section, which has no workplace presence.

Another important change that began in the 1996 Congress is that “Friends of the IWA” groups, which until then had only been able to participate in meetings by expressing their opinion, began to submit proposals and participate in voting. These groups, dedicated to propaganda and without any union activity, are tend to more dogmatic postures due to their lack of workplace presence. They have a similar mentality to their twins, organizations without union activity but which have nevertheless managed to become members of the IWA, as well as the sections which in the past were real unions but which today are mere fossils without any workplace presence.

Since the IWA makes decisions through voting, and each section has one vote, these phantom unions and groups, closer to the past and the history books than to the reality of workplace struggles, dominate the decision making in practice.

After the crises of the USI and the CNT-F, the ‘90’s saw several other truly surrealist events. One of these was the crisis in the WSA, the section in the US, in which a new local section (Minnesota), created in 1999, dedicated itself to expelling the “lifelong” members, changing the name of the organization and, finally, leaving the IWA at the start of 2002, complaining about its “lack of solidarity,” disappearing shortly thereafter.[iii] After it left, the old members of the IWA in the US reorganized as the WSA and asked to be recognized as a section, which the IWA Secretariat (in Granada) refused. They were then rejected at the IWA congress in 2004, despite the support of the FAU and the USI.

A similar event happened with the Czech section, admitted in the 1996 Congress. Despite its name (Anarcho-syndicalist Federation – FSA), this section was more of an anarchist federation than an anarcho-syndicalist union, as the USI complained in 2005. The FSA focused on attacking the USI and the FAU, two of the biggest IWA sections, while it lacked even the most basic workplace activity. In its 2004 Congress the FSA changed its name to reflect reality, becoming the Federation of Anarchist Groups, and finally in 2007 it voluntarily left the IWA.

Against the USI and the FAU

After the splits in the CNT-F and the USI, a witch hunt broke out inside the IWA. One of its victims was the USI, thanks to its participation in a union representation body (the RSU – Reppresentazione Sindicale Unitaria). After 2002, this became a chief topic in IWA discussions, and there was a growing clamor to expel the USI in the name of a supposed “orthodoxy.”  The fact that the Russian and Czech sections were most vocal for expulsion, while having no workplace presence, led the USI in 2005 to denounce the disastrous consequences of accepting anarchist groups as IWA sections. The discussion about the USI’s participation in the RSU ended after the Manchester Congress (2006), where the majority accepted that it was in line with the IWA statutes. Around this time, the Czech FSA abandoned the organization and became the anarchist federation that it had always been.

The FAU, which had opposed the separatist and emotional dynamic from the start, quickly became the punching bag. It refused to see the IWA become a mere forum for debate, without any contact with social struggles, and so it confronted the sterile line promoted by groups without any union activity. At the same time, it never ceased to defend its freedom of action as an organization, rejecting the paranoid line that preferred to see reformist conspiracies against the IWA in every corner. It shouldn’t come as a shock, then, that the most orthodox sector saw the FAU as its main enemy to beat on.

The Spanish section played a shameful role in all of this during José Luis Garcia Rua’s mandate as the IWA general secretary (a post which he’d also held for the CNT).[iv] It was the CNT which asked for the FAU’s expulsion, and due to the CNT’s pressure an agreement was reached giving the secretary executive powers to expel the FAU for the slightest infractions. The supposed conspiracies to create “parallel internationals” have all turned out in time to be hallucinations, divorced from reality, but the agreements preventing sections from working with other groups are still hanging like the sword of Damocles.

For its part, the FAU began discussing whether it would even remain in the IWA after the 1996 Congress. However, the two referendums on the subject (in 2001 and 2005) didn’t reach the majority that the statutes required. The second and last of these took place after the Granada Congress in 2004, which gave the IWA secretary the right to expel the FAU. Although the majority were in favor of leaving, some well-respected members (in Hamburg) announced that they would leave the FAU if that happened, which ended up tipping the scale to stay.

Beginning of the end for a dark age? Participants in the FAU Congress of May 2016, which applauded (textually) the CNT and USI's initiative to refound the IWA.
Beginning of the end for a dark age? Participants in the FAU Congress of May 2016, which applauded (textually) the CNT and USI’s initiative to refound the IWA.

Beginning of the end, or end of the beginning?

It’s one of those ironies of history that the CNT is now confronting the IWA over the application of the 2004 agreement – which the CNT had proposed – allowing the secretary to expel the FAU. The current secretariat, in the hands of a miniscule and recently created section that is opposed to the FAU, has decided to use the executive power that it never would have had if the IWA had remained true to federalist principles.

Of course, this isn’t the only reason – this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. There are others: the Polish secretariat refuses to give access to the bank accounts and email to the sub-secretariat named at the last IWA Congress (in Lisbon), which is in the CNT and has been waiting for over a year; the secretariat allowed groups which had been de-federated from the CNT to participate in that same Congress; and the secretariat is demanding that the CNT pay its contributions (which represent 80% of the IWA’s budget) immediately, when it has asked for more time due to having an unexpected bill for 500,000 euros related to an accident.[v]

However, the main reason for the radical change in the CNT’s posture is the internal change since the Cordoba Congress, which put an end to the power of the pseudo-unions. It was logical for the CNT to propose the same in the IWA, but failure was inevitable due to the power of the pseudo-sections: 30 in Poland, 15 in Serbia, 10 in Slovakia, 5 in Russia… with one vote each, the same as the entire CNT. Recognizing that the IWA as it is currently configured is a failed project, the CNT has launched a project to reorganize it, which was immediately supported by the USI and applauded by the FAU. If the only real section left – SolFed in the UK – decides to support this project, the current IWA would become an empty shell in the hands of the Polish ZSP, centered in Eastern Europe, dedicated to promoting splits, as the current secretary is already doing with the CNT.[vi]


[i] I met some members of the “radical” section of the SAC around 2007 and this fits with what they said at the same time. They even had a newspaper called Motarbetaren, “The un-worker”, which was named both as a critique of work and a jab at the paper. More information on the SAC’s “radical” wing can be found here. The Twin Cities IWW also hosted a talk from a long-time SAC member in 2013, who confirmed these problems as well as the SAC’s trajectory of recovering its radical traditions. This and all other endnotes are by the translator.

[ii] I have heard that the SAC at the time offered financial support to both sides, but only the split group accepted it.

[iii] There is a large IWW presence in Minnesota, but as far as I know, nobody has ever come across the people behind this. A great example of a “phantom union.”

[iv] Garcia Rua is sometimes called “the lion of Granada” for his machinations in defense of “orthodoxy” and his viciousness. His protégés are among the tiny group calling the current CNT “reformist” and which may try to split (with the encouragement of the IWA secretary).

[v] The accident happened at the run-down hall of one of the pseudo-unions, who did not insure it because they were too anarchist. The liability ended up falling on the CNT as a whole. This pseudo-union is now part of the “orthodox” group that calls the current CNT “reformist.”

[vi] The IWA held a Congress on the weekend after the Bilbao meeting. The press release already speaks of trying to start new groups in Spain, Italy, and Germany, and states that at the next Congress “the CNT-AIT will be represented by those continuing in its legacy.” [Note: an earlier version of this footnote referred to a vote, but was based on unconfirmed information. This footnote has been edited to reflect that.]

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