Faceless Resistance, Precarity and union organising - a reply to Andrew Flood


In Issue 1 of the Irish Anarchist Review, Andrew Flood put forward a critique ('Capitalist crisis and union resistance in Ireland') of two of the other articles in the same magazine, my article on Faceless Resistance and James R's interview with Alex Foti. His critique centers around the experience of the radical left in Ireland around workplace organising since the anti-globalisation movement and the experience of workplace activism since the economic crisis. In his article he attacks what he sees as an unbalanced concern with marginal sectors of employment on the part of the radical left since the turn of the century. He argues that the experience of the crisis shows that radical efforts to organise 'precarious' workers do not pay off. Instead, radicals should focus on organising where there is a greater chance of having a serious influence - i.e. within large mainstream trade unions.

There is a lot to admire about Andrew's analysis: primarily, it is based on real experience as a workplace activist and a critical analysis of the last two years of wage cuts and a faltering trade union fightback. Andrew is always one of the first to admit when tactics have failed and call for new ones and as such, his analysis of the failure of the union organised fightback is very useful. However, there are a number of differences I have with the article that I would like to address.

Faceless Resistance and Precarity

Firstly, Andrew seems to misunderstand what Faceless Resistance is and what its applications are. He conflates the ideas of Faceless Resistance (developed in Sweden) with those of precarity and EuroMayday (developed in Italy). This is problematic since the article is an argument against a trend on the radical left towards prioritising organising precarious workers, implying that Faceless Resistance is part of this trend. This simply isn't true. Nowhere does Faceless Resistance prioritise organising workers in one sector or another; it prioritises organising in one's own workplace, wherever that might be. Some of the first reports from Kämpa Tilsammans derived from their experiences in working on a production line in a bread factory and the ideas have been applied in other sectors, such as postal work, healthcare work and railroad maintenance. I have yet to encounter anyone in Sweden who takes Euromayday or organising around 'precarity' seriously as an organising strategy. On the contrary, I have heard multiple people criticise Euromayday's focus on a living wage as coming close to a demand for an Italian version of social democracy.

Faceless Resistance and union organising

Secondly, he seems to take Faceless Resistance as incompatible with organising within a trade union, which is also untrue. Faceless Resistance is essentially a toolkit for organising in a workplace. It promotes developing the informal organisation between workmates (what Kämpa Tilsammans call the workers' collective) as the basis for any successful struggle. Looked at in this way, Faceless Resistance is not necessarily hostile to union organising; indeed, as I wrote in my article, the ideas have been developed and applied to union contexts within the SAC,a Swedish syndicalist union (see for example 'The Basis for a Successful Workplace Struggle' -  or Second Spring of Syndicalism - trade union reorganisation within the SAC ) and by a network of union militants active in mainstream unions called Folkrörelselinje (see Grassroots Unionism in the Workplace for an introduction to their approach ). In SAC's 'The Basis for a Successful Workplace Struggle' for example, it is argued that when syndicalists are working within a workplace, their first focus should not be on getting their colleagues to join the union, but to develop the workers' collective. They say:

Workplace organising should follow these steps:

1. Build a collective based on solidarity and develop a militant spirit
2. Initiate collective action and challenge power structures at work
3. Build a workplace section of the SAC at the job

For them, this approach is fundamental to building a directly democratic union, where power lies with the workers rather than the union hierarchy. Folkrörelselinje also share this goal, but focus on using the structures of the union to develop the solidarity and fighting spirit of the workers' collective.

"Our method and our goal is that people should be active, in movement - that is grassroots unionism! The people should take the decisions and the people should act. The ideas we develop should come out of this movement. The organisation should be set in movement, going from experience to experience, from worker to worker, from members to the elected representatives and back again."

Their experience in workplace organising should be of interest to WSM members involved in union work, as they have developed an approach that takes advantages of the structures and resources of mainstream trade unions, while maintaining a critical distance from the 'union world' that drags power away from workplaces and towards representatives, negotiators and labour courts. Moreover, they are fully aware that the problems in trade union organising are not just caused by 'bad' officials or representatives, but also by the apathy and laziness of shopfloor workers who don't take an active role in the workers' collective.


Another key question relates to priorities. Andrew argues that at base, the question of where to organise is one of return, where does organising effort lead to the most return? He concludes that organising in sectors with already existing unions and where workers have significant structural power (i.e. their work is of crucial importance to the economy as a whole) will likely lead to most return for effort spent. He also argues that general unions rather than craft unions can be useful as they can organise all the workers at a workplace, including outsourced and precarious workers such as cleaners and security guards.

I do not disagree with this assessment but I think the implications of it are somewhat confusing. If we prioritise certain sectors (for example public sector workers) as organising targets, what does this mean for those members who are not working in public sector employment? While I don't have a principled disagreement with anarchists working as full-time organisers for unions, it seems unlikely that at most more than one or two members would be able to secure such positions. Should members not working in such sectors try and get jobs there? This prospect is not very likely given current cutbacks, nor is it a particularly attractive organisational practice.

Whatever the priority of the organisation is, it seems likely that a large number of members will continue to work in non-core sectors. Placing organisational priority on only one sector is likely to result in these members being somewhat disconnected from the question of organising at their own workplace or within their sector as a whole. Recognising the greater structural power of some sectors should not excuse us from trying to find forms of organisation that are effective for our own working conditions. Part of my interest in the modern syndicalist movement in Sweden stems from their success in adapting forms of organisation to the changing features of work. As an example, one can look at the Registry, an organisation of paperless migrant workers in Stockolm that is the most successful section within SAC today  (detailed explanation).

While there is definite utility in looking at organising in a strategic, society wide perspective, we also need to look at how we can make our politics relevant to our everyday realities, be these as unemployed workers, part-time students working at evenings, etc. This perspective is crucial because our current realities are always symptomatic of broader features of social life. If we can come up with concrete forms of action that are able to improve our circumstances, than these will be relevant to many other people in the same situation. Such forms of action might not necessarily involve workplace organising, but could also involve collective action in the broader social sphere such as the fare strike initiative organised by Planka.nu.


This is a reply to the article Capitalist crisis and union resistance in Ireland