sketch notes for “wildcat unionism”

Some sketch notes for a theory and potential article(s) that I’m developing.

As a total side note, I randomly encountered this (and vaguely remember seeing this name before, but hadn’t specifically thought about it right now) and found to be both interesting and some vague radical resonance although completely unrelated to union stuff –

“Wildcat Unionism”

I’m adopting this term as a dual reference to “wildcat strikes” and the black cat/sabot cat. I’m not sure which was created first – the black cat image or the term “wildcat strike” – but both clearly have a certain amount of mutual reference. And both have long held an important place in the labor philosophies of anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and wobblies. “Wildcat” has also been adopted as a name by various anarchist/commie groups, papers, collectives etc., and particular carries connotations of “spontaneity,” “uncontrollability” and varying degrees of hostility to the official trade union apparatus. A notable example being the UK group/paper Wildcat from which the following articles come, which perfectly express the anti-union connotations that are conveyed by the term “wildcat.”

“Good old-fashioned trade unionism”
“Outside and against the unions”

The “wildcat” or sabot cat symbolically represents the anarchist/anarcho-syndicalist/wobbly spirit of “uncontrollable” rank-and-file militancy and direct action. An important thing worth noting is that the IWW is not, and never has been, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. The widespread myth that it is or was at some time or claims that it is “anarchist in all but name” partially reflect that it did appeal to many anarchists who have often been prominent in the union and did in fact take a certain amount of inspiration from anarcho-syndicalist ideas, imagery and organizations like the French CGT… all of which reflects, more importantly, certain shared qualities and attitudes between the IWW and anarcho-syndicalism, which can summed up as an “anarchic style” or what I’m calling here “wildcat unionism.”

Various labels have been deployed in attempts to distinguish the IWW’s brand of unionism from “business unionism,” most prominent no doubt being “solidarity unionism.” Some of the terms refer more to specific strategic or contextual ideas like “minority unionism.” A recent attempt to extrapolate and synthesize the more radical aspects of this brand of unionism into a specific theory of unionism is the “Direct Unionism” document written by several wobblies – – which emphasizes the idea “direct” unmediated workplace militancy and seeks to develop a theory of unmediated “direct unionism” (hence the name). I’m biased because I know some of the authors personally in addition to sharing a lot of political agreement with them, however, I’d highly recommend this document and the various responses to it. I wouldn’t describe myself as a “direct unionist” personally, and I have some disagreements/criticisms of the paper, but I’ll save most of those for another time.

While there is much in common between them and there’s much to be said for “direct unionism,” let me stress that it is not the same thing as what I’m calling “wildcat unionism.” DU is a fairly specific, prescriptive theory. “Wildcat” unionism is more of a loose description of an “anarchic” “style” of unionism, of which DU and similar theories, and anarcho-syndicalism broadly, could maybe described as a prescriptive political expression. Another thought I’ll add is that I’m using the phrase “anarchic” or “wildcat unionism” also with the assumption that it’s a form of unionism, not just any kind of worker militancy, which make it probably outside the bounds of the more anti-syndicalist folks like many insurrectionary anarchists, the UK Wildcat folks etc.. That said there is a lot in common not just ideologically but in their views of the trade unions, between them which is why you find them floating in the same political circles (libcom) and a lot of commonalities between insurrectionary anarchist organizational practices and direct unionist-type practices (and I testify personally that some people I know in the direct unionist-type milieu are either ex-insurrectionaries or folks who have been influenced by/are interested in certain insurrectionary anarchist ideas). You could also describe all of the above as having an “insurrectionary impulse.”

A bunch of articles, some of which were written by some of the authors of “Direct Unionism,” can be found here: This one in particular, written by one of the direct unionism/recomposition folks, gives an example of what I’d call the “insurrectionary impulse” in describing what amounts to a miniature wildcat action by some Canadian postal workers: The author’s purpose in the article is to show how an anti-contractual action actually helped strengthen what had been a defunct contract… however, the author’s larger purpose is to question the usefulness of contracts and show how at best they are only as powerful as the rank and file makes them via direct action, while the contract itself actually encourages self-restraining and mediatory practices within the union. I largely, but not entirely, agree with this argument, but the main point of interest is to highlight an example of one of the DU authors invoking a “spontaneous” incident of “wildcat” behavior (militant action by rank-and-file in violation of the union contract) as a microcosmic example of the author’s idea of what distinguishes reformist/business/mainstream/trade/whatever unionism from the author’s ideal vision of what the IWW and similar revolutionary unions should be.

As a last note, interestingly both “anarcho-syndicalism” and “wobble/wobbling” have been used in some instances as descriptions of militant or wildcat-like activities or forms of unionism. [I gotta go back and find it, but I remember an email report back from a Labor Notes conference in which someone asked a question to a union speaker from Mexico about self-organized militant worker actions or something like that, and he responded along the lines of “Yeah we have a tradition of that in Mexico, it’s called anarcho-syndicalism.” And similarly I’ve read that supposedly in some building trades unions the “wobbling” or “wobble” is used to describe certain types of on-the-job wildcat actions over workplace grievances. As one reference for the latter I recently read that in the IWW pamphlet “Think It Over” by Tim Acott, but I vaguely remember reading it somewhere before too.]

Some notes-to-self for further development of this theory:

– compare with anarcho-syndicalist/IWW advocacy of sabotage and what that meant and relation to the “sabot cat”/wildcat image
– research and provide examples of historical IWW wildcat activity and responses to non-IWW organized wildcat strikes
– provide some more examples from libcom circles, maybe, more for contemporary reference
– provide example of wildcat behavior from business unions, just to complicate things
– distinguish wildcat behavior in the IWW from organizational structure, show ways in which “business-like” formal union administrative structures served to either undermine or strengthen/spread wildcat behavior in the union and the class
– research and compare with French CGT and Spanish CNT for revolutionary syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist unions
– compare with similar phenomena in non-union-specific settings, in particular one example I’m thinking of some stuff from the Makhnovists… guerrilla warfare as a military equivalent? “guerrilla unionism.” quote some stuff about unions and “labor guerrilla warfare” etc..


Also, note, this is potentially a good way of explaining the simultaneous hostility of syndicalists to the trade unions while insisting that they are not “competitors” of the trade unions because they are a “totally different type of organization” blah blah blah. I don’t really care for that stuff but it can be viewed as an expression of a desire to be “something different,” not just your “good old-fashioned trade union” and I’m calling that thing a “wildcat union.” And indeed the debates between syndicalist and anti-syndicalist folks on libcom is typically framed around whether there can be some “other type of union” that isn’t like the trade unions, very few folks in those circles ever attempt to defend the trade unions at all. And then there’s the old semantical debates over whether stuff like the IWW, CNT and so on are “real unions” at all. Basically the anti-syndicalists view all unions as mediating agents of capitalism whereas the syndicalists like to believe it’s possible to have non-mediating forms of unionism. Again “Direct Unionism” and recent stuff from SolFed and more longstanding stuff from the CNT being examples of attempts to be non-mediating unions.


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