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The Political Economy of Syndicalism

Syndicalism is an economic philosophy that promotes the control of the economy by labor unions. The name syndicalism comes from the French word for labor union, syndicat. Although Syndicalism advocates the control of production units by the workers it does not, as is the case for socialism, advocate the central control of the economy. Instead Syndicalism advocates the operation of a production unit for the benefit of the workers of that production unit. This means that the workers sell or barter the production of their unit for the output of the other production units.

Although not as well known as the socialist movement Syndicalism has had a notable role historically. In the western United States the IWW, the International Workers of the World, were influential in the mines and were perceived as a definite danger to owner control of the mines. There were laws passed in some western states for the suppression of criminal syndicalism.

Probably Syndicalism was politically most significant in Spain. During the 1920's one labor leader managed to merge the separate anarchist movement with the syndicalist movement to create anarcho-syndicalism. The anarcho-syndicalists were never close to gaining power but they could not be dismissed entirely in Spanish politics.

Syndicalism and anarch-syndicalism of course migrated to Latin America, not only from Spain but also from Italy and Portugal, but they were even less significant in Latin America than they were in Europe. They probably had an impact only through the fear that authorities had that they might become influential in the labor unions that were an important element of corporatist states.

Labor unions were an important factor in revolutionary Bolivia but the ideological affiliation of the unions was complicated. The Movement of National Revolution (MNR) initially had a corporatist (fascist) orientation but after an unsuccessful period of rule the leaders jettisoned the fascist elements of the party and allied itself with Trotskyite communist labor organizations. The Trotskyites were considered acceptable because they were enemies of the Stalinist communists. The Trotskyites probably were reasonably close to syndicalism in their ideology, as George Orwell discovered during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's.

In modern times not much is heard of Syndicalism, however the economic system in Germany might be considered to have some syndicalist elements. After World War II the new German leaders in West Germany in soliciting support for the return to a market economy offered the working class the institution of codetermination in return for their acceptance of the elimination of wage, price and rent controls. Codetermination meant that one half of the members of the boards of directors of major corporations would be appointed by the labor unions of the company workers. This worked out well for the West German economy because the labor unions sold the workers on the need to moderate wage demands while German industry was recovering. German had much less incidence of labor strikes than did the United Kingdom. Consequentally German industry boomed and when the recovery was complete the labor unions with 50 percent control of the boards of directors of the companies found it easy to get increases in wage and other benefits such as vacation time. Now the German workers are highest paid workers in the world.

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