Solidarity Networks: Innovations, recomposition, and questions

seasol mosaic (1)-editorial by SN Nappalos. The  development of Solidarity Networks, based largely to our knowledge on the example of Seattle Solidarity Network, has led to experiments and debate not only in the US, but internationally as well. At its simplest, a solidarity network is a grouping that uses direct action to sway fights of individuals and groups typically of workers and tenants. Different from traditional union organizing, Seattle Solidarity Network (also known as Seasol) began by bringing together a milieu willing to mobilize to support issues working class people have independent of where they work or live. This includes fighting in situations where a union is already there (as was the case with an SEIU shop), where it is a lone individual, or more recently amongst groups of tenants and workers. A thorough discussion of these experiences would be long indeed. Here we provide some of the main points of discussion and pieces looking at solidarity networks to keep those in circulation, and for us to learn as we carry forward.

There are many strengths to this approach that speak to the reality for organizing in today’s environment. Solidarity Networks allow revolutionaries to start from small groups, take on public struggles, and expand outward growing and developing through conflicts. Most solidarity networks take on issues like wage and deposit theft, things which effect people who have already moved on thereby lowering the potential losses and problems normally encountered when you are organizing where you live (and could be thrown out) or work (and could become newly unemployed). They take people who might otherwise not be in a good position to organize, and allow them to participate and learn from struggles. It uses the city as the field of action and the totality of working class life as its target. In an era of increasingly fluid labor forces, declining living standards, isolation, and alienation of workers from politics in general, solidarity networks offer some potential directions for creating workable solutions coming from revolutionary politics.

This current began near the end of the 2000s. Seasol grew from committed radicals of the IWW seeking to experiment with models they had seen from other struggles in the US and Canada, but made coherent in their city. The strongest aspect of this experiment was its ability to take the methods of IWWs and others and apply them to a shifted tactical orientation centered on the analysis of targeting working class life and defining the people fighting as a new protagonist. This began following, whether consciously or not, other experiments within the IWW of the time with branches like Portland, Philadelphia, Chicago, and the Bay Area having had a string of successes in organizing fast mobile actions amongst restaurant, construction, couriers, and retail workers around similar grievances. While Seasol’s work did not differ greatly  from what others were doing at the time, their conception and framework did, and that likely lead to the excitement and rapid expansion of the model in the immediate years that followed.

vansol-cover1The accessibility and ability to adapt to conditions of small dispersed radicals was helped by their posters, guides, and frequent publications of fights. Their materials and media are often aesthetically pleasing, and show a willingness to try out different formats such as creative short video. Solnets, as they became called, spread from the US to the UK, Canada, Australia, and influenced others elsewhere. Solnets demonstrated capable tactics for revolutionaries organizing against gross transgressions in wages and housing, and demonstrated their capacity to win specifically around wage and deposit theft. Indeed in the materials of solnets, winning and demonstrable victories are continually emphasized as central to their conception.

Early wins built capacity that led to a layer of committed solnet radicals, but also more challenging fights and slowing growth outside of Seattle. Many solnets faced difficulties outside the world of Seattle, where a large labor left could be counted on to carry things forward. In areas with a distinct political landscape, victories were not so easily obtained, and holding together a solidarity network proved challenging for some. Likewise Seasol itself faced the ire of the institutional left and right as it took on bigger targets who had alliances such as SEIU, nonprofits, and local politicians. Seasol organizers fought on in key fights in spite of media slander, violence, and intimidation. Likewise, the rise of the crisis led to a shifted political terrain, one which caught many including the solnets off guard.

wholefoodsDebates around the solnet model have moved in many directions, but seem to concentrate on how the radical politics of solnet coalesce and grow into a tendency of consistent activity within working class life. The basic logic is layed out in Seasol’s guide to building a solidarity network. Using this model in Iowa City led one organizer, Ryan Spourgitis, to see the tension between a role of servicing contacts and the intended strategy of organizing. Similar issues were raised by organizers in Houston from Unity & Struggle who helped build the Southwest Defense Network. In both scenarios the environment differed greatly from Seattle. Likewise the challenges, positive and negative, of Occupy and attitudes within the crisis rattled the step-by-step motion of early solnet examples. At a January 2013 presentation on Seattle Solidarity by David, one of the core organizers, he indicated a recognition of the dual challenges raised by the above authors. First, he identified difficulty in using short often individual fights for recruiting, retaining, and developing organizers out of the work (versus servicing workers and relying on activists). Connecting the politics of seasol to those involved in the fights proved a tough issue to tackle, though one Seasol was aware of and working on. Second he raised that Occupy had provided a counterweight to his thinking around building movement somewhat linearly, and expressed a desire to have adapted better to those shifts and the need for new experiments to have a more dynamic approach to struggles. Miami Autonomy and Solidarity republished the thoughts of one of the audience members here.

On the other side of the coin, positive experiences with solnets and its perceived superiority over the rest of the, often alienated and stagnant, left led some of its members to raise it as a challenge to others. Walter Winslow wrote a long reflection piece on Seattle Solidarity’s experience, which included critiques of the labor movement and a rejection of the IWW. The author places Seasol in the tradition of anarchosyndicalism, and considers its tactics and model as part of anarchosyndicalism’s capacity to adapt revolutionary action to varying conditions that generalize struggles and conditions of the class to pit a working class protagonism against the power of the ruling class and its society as a whole.

seasol-in-glasgow2These discussions and experiences raise a number of important issues for all organizing in working class neighborhoods and workplaces today, whatever position one takes. A good part of the rapid success of solnets came from the way they packaged their model and the excitement and novelty around it. While a strength, this factor may also have contributed to frustrated hopes and the decline in solnets facing difficult odds in a tough political environment by no fault of anyone’s. Built upon a core of committed organizers armed with revolutionary ideas and values, a hallmark of anarchosyndicalist practice, solnets show the centrality of returning working class life to the heart of politics. The role of those militants, their relationship to those they organize, and how politics plays a role are here controversial as everywhere. On one hand, solnets play the role of networks of militants acting within workplaces and neighborhoods, but with a distinct role and organization. Such practice is similar to ideas I have clumsily called intermediate levels of struggle and more distantly anarchist and communist projects grouping revolutionary workers within broader formations like assemblies, councils, and syndicates. On the other hand solnets sometimes appear to be more general bodies without overt political commitments, an approach to combative social organization generated by anarchists but avoiding its politics. In general they seem to straddle those lines, finding difficulty recruiting and radicalizing workers, and yet not overtly consolidating around their revolutionary politics as a network. These tensions are not unique to solnets, but form some of the most basic issues for all trying to do similar work today in an environment of fragmented populations, a lack of a social force intervening in struggle, and political isolation. This is a natural position given our times, and reflects similar dynamics to other groups even if from a different starting point. Such debates within the IWW led to some of us placing politics at the center of our organizing rather than  as an outside or merely implied aspect of organizing. Writings by Recomposition contributors such as Juan ConatzNate Hawthorne, or my own emphasize the political nature of all struggle and the need for explicit and concrete political content within. More recently the Wobblyism group have worked to create a method and theorizing around their own practices within longer term workplace revolutionary organizing.

Lastly, Solnets move towards geography away from staking particular turf (like individual shops or tenements) has been an asset for growth, but also led to difficulties in sustaining activity and militants. After initial successes, solnets in attempting to go further by grappling with longer term organizing and fights saw similar difficulties to others.

There is little reason to think it would be otherwise. Many seek out organizational, theoretical, or tactical solutions for the basic problem of inactivity and defeat of the class. This is a mistake today common on the left. In reality however there is more to a willingness to fight and build new power than only our own actions. While not excusing the incompetence of the left in abandoning working class life as the primary field of politics, we should not go to the other extreme and believe that a technical approach to organizing can overcome the real barriers to a revolutionary movement independent of the right environment, though I do not think solnet people are making this error necessarily either. This is something that the IWW and anarchosyndicalists have had to learn repeatedly in history, but also in the past 20 years of experimentation in the US and Canada. In the protracted fights and organizing of the IWW we have seen both the transformative power of struggle to make revolutionaries out of participants, and the weight of society to hold back revolutionary initiatives in normal times. Today this may be changing to our benefit as people begin to fight back, change their thinking, and become more open to alternatives. Still, we should not lose sight of our primary role, which is not only to catalyze struggles, but also to bring alive revolutionary politics inside of them. The experiences of solnets provide a fertile ground for assessing that, and questioning how revolutionary anarchism can be deepened in such fights.