Developing Workers’ Autonomy: An Anarchist Look At Flying Squads

Article from The North Eastern Anarchist: published Fall/Winter 2003 "Anarchists in the Workplace" issue: via

Also appeared on Infoshop, A-Infos, and at the Anarchist Library, who also published it as an A4 Zine, Interposed PDF for booklet printing


Recently much interest and discussion has been generated by
the emergence of union flying squads in Ontario. Flying squads
-- rapid response networks of workers that can be mobilized for
strike support, demonstrations, direct action and working class
defense of immigrants, poor people, and unemployed workers --
present a potentially significant development in revitalizing
organized labor activism and rank-and-file militancy.

Here are organizations with rank-and-file participation working
to build solidarity across unions and locals and alongside
community groups, engaging in direct action while striving to
democratize their own unions. No wonder then that the
re-appearance of flying squads in Ontario, in a context of halting
resistance to a vicious neoliberal attack, notably among some
sectors of the labor movement, has been cause for much

Militant anti-capitalists of various stripes, recognizing the
crucial roles played by workers within production relations, have
viewed the flying squads as important in the development of
workers' organization against capitalist authority and discipline.
Anarchists, maintaining the necessity of working class
self-organization and autonomy from bureaucratic structures,
have been encouraged by the possible emergence of active
networks of rank-and-file workers bringing collective resources
to defend broad working class interests.

At the same time the struggles over the make up and control or
direction of flying squads has reflected struggles between
rank-and-file members and union bureaucracies more generally.
Most accounts have been so caught up in the excitement
generated by the emergence of the flying squads that they have
not addressed critically the obstacles and difficulties faced by
flying squads as they attempt to build on a truly rank-and-file
basis. Similarly, these hopeful accounts fail to take stock of the
current, diminished, status of the flying squad movement in
Ontario, substituting promise for reality.

Rank-And-File Groups

The flying squad is a rapid response group of members who are
ready to mobilize on short notice to provide direct support for
pickets or actions. It may or may not be a recognized body of
the local. The flying squad structure may consist of little more
than phone lists and meetings but, significantly, should maintain
its autonomy from the local and national union executives.
Generally flying squads should be open only to rank-and-file
members since they must be free to initiate and take actions
that the leadership may not approve of. Some flying squads
refuse even a budget line item so that they are in no way
dependent upon leadership. In Canada, flying squads have
offered crucial support to direct actions around immigration
defense, tenant protection, squatters rights, and welfare support
by mobilizing sizeable numbers of unionists who are prepared
for actions without regard to legality. Flying squads take direct
action to interfere with bosses' abilities to make profits. Not
limited in their scope of action by specific collective agreements
or workplaces, flying squads mobilize for community as well as
workplace defense.

Working groups are generally recognized bodies that are
established to deal with specific areas of need. They step
beyond the limitations of traditional unionism to assist both
members and non-members. Rank-and-file and community
alliances offer one example of how to make the connections
which are crucial to developing militant working class solidarity.
They can bring anti-capitalist activists, community members
and unionists together to work on a day-to-day basis.

Rank-and-file committees and flying squads can become
important parts of struggles over a broad spectrum of issues
affecting working class community life, including those which
the mainstream unions ignore such as housing and
unemployment. They can offer spaces for building bridges
between workers, across unions and industries and between
union and community groups. Autonomous from traditional union
structures and organized around militant non-hierarchical
practices, rank-and-file working groups and flying squads can
provide real opposition to conservatism within the unions as
well. They provide a better approach than the more common
model of the "left caucus" which tries to reform union policy,
usually, again, through resolutions at conventions (Clarke,
2002). The rank-and-file committees actively and directly
challenge the leadership within their own locals and across

Flying squads of various types have long been an important part
of labor militancy internationally. In Britain, community flying
pickets successfully mobilized to defend hospitals in working
class neighborhoods against closure in the 1970s. In India
several farmers' unions recently formed flying squads to
confront officials at purchase centers to ensure that their
demands for proper payment for their crops were satisfied.
Members of the Carpenters Union in southern California, who
were primarily immigrants, many of them undocumented, used
flying squads and direct action effectively during the framers'
strike of 1995.

While some type of rank-and-file organizing, along the lines of
what we now call flying squads, has been a constant in labor
movements, the contemporary flying squads in Ontario are
inspired by the flying pickets that emerged during the CIO
strikes of the 1930s. Flying squads played an important part in
the 1945 UAW strike against Ford in Windsor. That strike,
which won the rights associated with the Rand Formula (union
recognition, dues check off and closed shop) for workers in
Canada, turned when strikers organized an incredible vehicle
picket in which the entire Ford plant was surrounded and shut
down by several rows of vehicles. Flying squads were used
effectively to mobilize people for actions throughout the strike
and to spread information throughout the community.

Not coincidentally, the contemporary flying squads in Ontario
made their reappearance in several Canadian Auto Workers
(CAW) locals in Windsor during the mid-1990s as a
mobilization force for actions against the newly elected
neoliberal provincial government (See Levant, 2003: 20). The
network within the CAW spread during organizing of the
Ontario Days of Action, rotating, city-by-city one-day mass
strikes against the Tories. In the midst of a lengthy strike
against Falconbridge mining, during which picketers were
subjected to ongoing violence by company goons and security
thugs, members of CAW local 598 initiated a regional Northern
Flying Squad to reinforce and defend the lines and step up the
struggle against the company. They helped to organize a
solidarity weekend that brought flying squads from across
Ontario for militant actions against Falconbridge, actions that
many consider to have been the high point of the strike.

My union, CUPE 3903, inspired by the CAW flying squads and
the direct action movements against capitalist globalization,
formed a flying squad three years ago to support OCAP's direct
action casework around immigration defense and welfare
support as well strike solidarity and organizing direct actions
within mass anti-capitalist demonstrations. The flying squad is
currently made up of more than 80 members who are ready to
mobilize on short notice to provide direct support for pickets or
actions. Significantly, the flying squad maintains its autonomy
from the union executive, refusing even a budget line item. 3903
has already made it known that it is willing to do direct action
training and to hold workshops on forming and developing flying

In early September, 2001, OCAP along with the 3903 flying
squad went directly to Pearson International Airport to demand
an end to threats of deportation against three families. Leaflets
were given to passengers alerting them to the situation and a
visit was paid to the Immigration Canada deportation office in
the basement of Terminal One. OCAP demanded and received a
meeting with the airport's Immigration management and gave a
deadline of the end of the business day for management to issue
stays of removal in all three instances. All three deportations
were eventually cancelled. This unusual result, in which the
removal dates were cancelled prior to a Federal Court challenge,
is a testament to the powers of direct action.

It must also be stressed that the presence of flying squads has
been crucial in the success of this and other actions. Clearly
government officials, security and cops respond differently
when confronted with a room packed with workers holding union
flags and banners than when confronted with a smaller numbers
of people that they are willing to dismiss as activists. Through
such actions, the flying squad demonstrates how organizations
of rank-and-file workers can step out of traditional concerns
with the workplace to act in a broadened defense of working
class interests. The expansion of union flying squads, with
autonomy from union bureaucracies, could provide a substantial
response to the state's efforts to isolate immigrants and
refugees from the larger community. The emboldened
aggressiveness of Immigration Canada after September 11
makes such actions in defense of working class people
absolutely crucial.

In addition 3903 is home to vital working groups with real links
to community struggles. In November, 2001, 3903 provided an
office and resources for OCAP to work along with members of
the 3903 Anti-Poverty Working Group. The working group
moves beyond the limitations of traditional unionism to assist
people (members and non-members) experiencing problems
with collection agencies, landlords, bosses and police and to
help anyone having difficulties with welfare or other government
bureaucracies. The new office provides a possibly significant
example of a rank-and-file initiative that forges community
alliances while fighting the local implementation of the global
neoliberal agenda. This type of alliance offers one example of
how to make the connections which are crucial to growing our
movements. Indeed, it brings anti-globalization activists and
unions together to work on a day-to-day basis.

Bureaucracy Against The Flying Squads

The national and local executives of some unions in which flying
squads have emerged have clearly shown concern about this
development. This has played out particularly badly within the

During the summer of 2001, people in cities, reserves and towns
throughout Ontario were gearing up for a campaign of economic
disruption which would directly confront and interfere with the
political programs and economic practices of the government
and their corporate backers. This effort suffered something of a
setback when the CAW leadership decided to withdraw support
from the campaign in June. The decision came following a mock
eviction of the Finance Minister from his constituency office by
OCAP, students and members of CAW and CUPE flying
squads. The National President of the CAW, Buzz Hargrove,
was so upset by the action that he agreed to meet with the
Labor Minister to discuss union support of OCAP. In an
inexplicable act of collaboration, Hargrove sat down to establish
union policy with the man who had only months before
introduced legislation gutting the Employment Standards Act
and extending the legal workweek from 44 to 62 hours.

Significantly, not only did Hargrove cut OCAP's largest source
of funding, but he also clamped down on the CAW flying squads
which were only beginning to grow. CAW flying squads were
brought under control of the National by requiring approval of
the National or of local presidents prior to any action. The
National even tried to prohibit use of CAW shirts, hats and
banners at actions not sanctioned by the National. Thus the
CAW leadership cynically used the excuse of the eviction to
camp down on a rank-and-file movement that it saw as a
possible threat to its authority. The strangling of the flying
squads by the bureaucrats may be one of the sharpest blows
rank-and-file activists have suffered recently and will deeply
hurt fightback efforts in Ontario.

These actions effectively derailed actions in major industrial
centers like Windsor, where activists, recognizing the
vulnerability of just-in-time production in Windsor and Detroit,
had initially planned to blockade the Ambassador Bridge, the
main U.S.-Canada node in the NAFTA-superhighway. Stopping
traffic on the bridge for even a short period of time would have
caused millions of dollars in damages because of the reliance on
just-in-time production in the factories on both sides of the
border. This possibility was not lost on Hargrove, who let it slip
during a meeting with representatives of OCAP Allies when he
angrily voiced his concern that in Windsor some members were
talking about shutting down production at "our plants."

At this point it seems that the CAW bureaucracy's clampdown
on the flying squads is complete. At a panel discussion on
creative tactics that I took part in at this year's Labor Notes
conference, Michelle Dubiel, a CAW "Ontario Chapter" flying
squad representative, stated with great satisfaction that
marshals had finally been instituted in the CAW flying squads.
Dubiel noted that there had been much discussion and some
resistance to this but happily concluded that members were
eventually brought to see the necessity of marshals.

The impact of this takeover of the flying squads has been lethal
in some areas. A comrade in Sudbury recently told me that the
northern flying squads were virtually extinct. Similarly the
rank-and-file, cross-local flying squad in Windsor has not been
able to get off the ground.

Leninist Reformism: Flying Squads As Left Opposition

Some Leninists and their Trotskyist sidekicks have viewed the
flying squads primarily as a means of union reform, a companion
piece of the left caucus' loyal opposition to the union leadership.
A prime example of this approach is expressed by Alex Levant,
(who has put much work into building my union's flying squad
and is currently a vice president in the local), in a recent article
in 'New Socialist' magazine (March/April, 2003).

Levant poses the problem for rank-and-file activism largely as
one of "conservative leaders who practice 'business unionism'"
(Levant, 2003: 22). Levant (2003: 22) suggests that flying
squads "pose a threat to such union leaders' positions by
fostering membership activism, which bolsters left opposition
currents in these unions." Business unionism, far from being a
preference of specific leaders, however, is a structured
relationship, legally and organizationally, within unions and
between unions and bosses. Levant (2003: 22) is correct to
suggest that such locals "contribute to the crisis of
working-class self-organization by discouraging members'
self-activity", but this crisis will not be overcome by replacing
conservative leaders with leftist ones. Nor should we accept
that social unionism is not still a form of business unionism.
This is shown clearly in the case of the CAW, which has long
practiced "social unionism."

Taking the left opposition perspective, Levant is unable or
unwilling to openly or directly criticize bureaucrats in the CAW
for their ongoing efforts to control that union's flying squads. In
his article Levant quotes CAW representative Steve Watson
approvingly while making no mention of his role in the CAW
breaking of the rank-and-file aspects of the flying squads.
Notably, at the above-mentioned anti-deportation action at the
airport, it was Watson who intervened at the last minute to keep
CAW flying squads from participating, even though many
workers at the airport are CAW members, and could have
played an important part in stopping the deportation.

Similarly, while Levant is rightly critical of the Ontario
Federation of Labor Solidarity Network, which required
permission of the OFL bureaucracy to undertake any action, he
has been less critical of similar developments within our own
flying squad. At a meeting in July 2003 it was determined that
the flying squad would be coordinated by no more than 3
members who have a number of responsibilities including,
crucially, the responsibilities of maintaining the membership list
and calling and organizing the flying squad's actions. Ideally all
members should have access to the membership list and be able
to initiate calls for actions. Creating coordinator positions with
this authority is a troubling and potentially dangerous
development. During an earlier meeting where the coordinator
structure was challenged by members who favored getting the
lists to every member and canceling the coordinator positions,
several members who take the Trotskyist approach and
supported the coordinator structure walked out, purposefully
blowing quorum just before the vote.

I do agree with Levant that the flying squads have a tremendous
potential in building rank-and-file militancy and
self-organization. However, that potential can only be met if
autonomy from the leadership is established and defended with
vigilance. Flying squads do NOT "work best" when they
"respect" the roles of the leadership as Levant advocates.
Flying squads work best when they understand the roles the
leadership plays, including the role of taming and reigning in
members' self-organizing initiatives.

Notes On The Buearucracy

For all of their potential power, the trade unions are restricted
by a leadership that cannot allow decisive force to be
unleashed. To understand the difficulties facing rank-and-file
resistance we must understand the roles and structures of
leadership beyond a focus on conservative or progressive union
leaders. In Ontario, during the 1930 and 1940s waves of union
organizing, wildcat strikes and occupations pressed a tactical
retreat on the bosses and their state, leading to the extension of
new rights to workers' organizations.

In place of open class war, a process of limited and uneven
concession granting was established. This truce had the effect
of regulating and compartmentalizing workplace struggles to
keep them below the level of serious disruption. Each industry,
workplace or section of workers was viewed as having its own
issues to attend to or, indeed, to bargain over. A new layer of
union functionary emerged to broker and execute this deal.
These union executives needed to placate membership with
regulated contract gains while simultaneously ensuring labor
force stability and an environment conducive to accumulation
for the bosses. Negotiation is presented as a reasonable and
effective solution to most problems. Bureaucrats strive to get
the best possible deal for labor power rather than attack or end
the overall system of exploitation. Emphasis is placed on
bargaining power within the capitalist labor market.

Strike action became a last resort to be deployed only under
very limited and legally defined conditions. Wildcat strikes and
varieties of worker-initiated shopfloor actions are negotiated
away and prohibited within contracts. Workers who engage in
such actions are open to sanction, a point the union leadership
often reinforces within the membership.

While limited outbursts were permitted, leaders were obliged to
police the deal and restore order in the ranks of the workers
when the bosses deemed necessary. Bosses are not going to
negotiate with people who can't or won't deliver what is agreed
to. The bureaucracy developed centralized structures and
methods of control and direction which fit its role and function.
In times of mobilization the union leaders, rather than helping to
overcome hesitation, view those who are mobilizing as a threat
to be isolated or stopped entirely. Critically, all of this is related
to structural pressures on the union leadership based on their
role within capitalist relations of production rather than on
personal characteristics or perspectives as the left reformists
would have it.

At times bureaucrats will call on the services of left militants
when a show of strength is tactically advantageous only to
abandon, isolate or purge them when things have gone as far as
the leadership deems necessary. This is a crucial lesson that
must be kept in mind when we consider flying squads with
marshals under the direction of national and local executives.
Militant activists must reject the role of "left critics" of the
bureaucracy, refuse the terms of the compromise with the
bosses and directly challenge those who seek to enforce it. It is
necessary to build a rank-and-file rebellion in the unions that
actually works to break the hold of the bureaucracy.

Conclusion: Rank-And-File Autonomy

Real rank-and-file autonomy means being prepared and willing
to fight independently of the bureaucracy and against it when
required. As anarchists we must be upfront, open and direct
about confronting the bureaucrats and conservatives within our
unions. We should not put any gloss on efforts to contain
rank-and-file militancy or excuse it for any reason. We must
contest reformist and Leninist approaches to rank-and-file
movements which would position them as conscientious
pressure groups.

None of this is meant to imply that the leadership is holding
back an otherwise radical membership. That is romantic
silliness. Rather, the point is that developing militancy within
union movements requires a clear recognition of the necessity
for developing experiences of effective struggle that go beyond
what the bosses or governments would permit and, at the same
time, viewing honestly how the current unions leadership
impedes this.

Rank-and-file movements offer a space for radicalizing workers
to come together and focus our energies. When people engage
in struggles, whether strikes or demonstrations against
neoliberalism, we develop at least some sense of collective
power, confidence and an experience of doing things differently.
This can encourage an openness to more radical ideas and
practices with which to address to problems we find ourselves
facing. Mainstream unions, even where some resources are
given to political education, are generally not going to present
and develop radical alternatives. Certainly the leadership of
mainstream unions cannot be expected to do so. As anarchist
workers this is one area in which we can and should be active.
Putting forward radical alternatives, agitating for those
alternatives and working to make them real should be part of the
work we do within rank-and-file networks.

These are merely first steps in a long process of building
rank-and-file opposition. They are initiatives for working class
self-activity that should not be limited to being a democratic
complement to the bureaucracy. We need to think beyond this to
see something more in the emergence and growth of
autonomous rank-and-file networks. The need to build a
resistance that includes rank-and-file unionists, non-organized
workers, non-status workers and migrants is critical.

The capitalist offensives of the last decade in Ontario have
broken down working-class organization and resistance.
Dismantling employment standards, freezing the minimum
wage, eliminating rent controls and deepening cuts to social
assistance for unemployed workers have made life more
precarious for broadening sections of the working class.

This situation is not just a matter for deep humanitarian concern
but a serious warning to the workers' movement. If the working
class is reaching such a level of polarization and a section of it
is experiencing such misery and privation, we are in a
profoundly dangerous situation.

The working class is potentially a force for moving struggles
beyond rebellion to fundamentally transform social relations and
actually create society anew. This force must, however, break
down many of the constraints and limitations that keep its
development from realizing this anti-capitalist potential.
Currently unions are largely defensive organizations geared to
protect and improve workers' wages and conditions of work.
They are not revolutionary, or even radical, organizations. At the
same time, radical movements do emerge within existing unions.

Many workers are becoming tired of engaging in struggle only to
find themselves under attack, not only by the boss, but by the
officials of their own unions. The questionable actions of the
OFL, especially during last year's Tory convention when the
OFL organized a separate action and then left the scene when
activists were attacked by police, have convinced some
grassroots activists and rank-and-file workers alike of the need
to make end runs around the unions officialdom and develop real
alliances. Certainly this is a healthy development, one which
anarchists must take seriously. This means meeting with
rank-and-file workers and having serious discussions about
what sort of assistance anti-capitalist movements can offer in
their struggles against conservative leadership, policies and
structures in their own unions.

Too often the measure of labor involvement in coalitions in
Ontario has been the amount of money given to a campaign, the
forcefulness of rhetoric from high profile leaders, or the winning
of a motion at this or that convention. The only way that any
sort of credible resistance movement is going to be forged in
Ontario, however, is through a redoubling of efforts to make
connections between grassroots community groups and
rank-and-file workers. Indeed direct action workshops are
something anarchist activists can and should offer. We should
also be ready to provide picket support, help build flying squads
or industrial unions among unorganized workers, as the
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) have done among
squeegee workers in Vancouver and involve ourselves in the
creation of joint union-community anti-racism and anti-poverty
working groups. Anarchist workers must play an active part in
building truly rank-and-file flying squads and working groups
whether we are in a union, in unorganized workplaces, or



Clarke, John. 2002. The Labor Bureaucracy and the Fight
Against the Ontario Tories. Unpublished Manuscript.

Neill, Monty. 2001. "Rethinking Class Composition Analysis in
Light of the Zapatistas." In Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local
and Global Struggles of the Fourth World War, edited by
Midnight Notes. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, p.119-143.


Jeff Shantz is a member of the Canadian Union of Public
Employees local 3903, the Industrial Workers of the World
(IWW), and Punching Out Collective (NEFAC-Toronto).


This essay is from the newest issue of The Northeastern
Anarchist. The theme this issue is 'Anarchists in the
Workplace' with essays focussing on class war strategies and
analysis for anarchists that go beyond orthodox syndicalism...
Anarcho-communist approaches to labor organizing, strike
solidarity, workers autonomy, base unionism, flying squads, and
much more!