Libertarian Degrowth: Anarcho-Syndicalist Paths for a Just Degrowth Transition

Degrowth is composed of various political and economic configurations, which illustrate a plurality of degrowth imaginaries. This plurality of degrowth imaginaries entails diverse strategies and tools. One of such tools are trade unions, with which the degrowth literature has already engaged (Barca & Leonardi, 2018). However, there’s a notable gap in the literature regarding a very unique and different type of trade unionism: anarcho-syndicalism. My thesis attempted to fill this gap and focused on the potential role of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions in the degrowth transition. In particular, it analyzed the engagement with ecosocial transitions of two anarcho-syndicalist trade unions in Catalunya: the Confederació Nacional del Treball (National Confederacy of Work – CNT) and the Confederació General del Treball (General Confederacy of Work – CGT).

Anarcho-syndicalism “differs from the ordinary trade union in that it aims, not only at the gaining of improvements in wages and conditions under the present system, but also at the overthrow of that system and its replacement by the free society” (Woodcock, 1943 p. 1-2). The utopian society that anarcho-syndicalists imagine is called “libertarian communism”. The nature of anarcho-syndicalist unions is to be utopian, but at the same time to be very grounded in day-to-day struggles, which they use to foster solidarity and empowerment among workers, with the ultimate goal of achieving property control and libertarian communism (Rocker, 1938). I decided to call this “the idealist-materialist duality”.

The thesis found that they share a common hatred for capitalism and ecofascism. They also share values and imaginaries: both movement’s utopias (libertarian communism and degrowth) are based on direct democracy, horizontality, communalism, care, etc. And they also share very similar views on the nature of work, which they consider that it should be reduced and distributed, organized to meet the needs of the community, and not be exploitative. Both are against wage labor, and therefore the debate between “employment vs. environment” would become obsolete. Together, anarcho-syndicalism and degrowth can find solutions in which work goes from being polluting, exploitative and unnecessary, to being socially useful and ecologically respectful.

Based on those common grounds, an alliance can materialize. I contend that degrowther should start organizing from within the unions and in the workplace, where workers have the most leverage power. Since there are hundreds of thousands of degrowhters all over the world, if they organize from within the workplace, union power would increase, and thus wide scale degrowth policies would be achieved.

The thesis proved that the involvement of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions in degrowth transformations is shaped by the materialist-idealist duality: their idealist side makes them often aim for degrowth transformations, but their materialist side makes them act defensively whenever workers are disproportionately affected by degrowth.

The thesis found that, from outside the workplace, both the CGT and the CNT were involved in conservationist efforts, such as organizing workers for reforestations efforts, and also opposed the destruction of natural spaces. A remarkable example are the efforts of the CGT in Ruesta, a partially acquired and reconstructed abandoned town, in which it has also undertaken environmental regeneration initiatives, as well as extensive work to rehabilitate the town. Another remarkable example is when the CGT was one of the organizations that imposed the complaints that ended in the closure of the Santa María de Garoña Nuclear Power Plant in 2013. Finally, a perfect example of how union tools can be used in favor of degrowth is when the CGT of Andalusia called a General Strike for Climate on September 25, 2020.

Acting from within the workplace, positive ecosocial transformations were mainly concerned with four different strategic lines. The first, improving conditions in jobs that are important for degrowth, like in the public transport company Bicing (Barcelona), where thanks to striking their salaries were raised by 7.4% and they obtained more vacations, among other improvements, or like the firemen of the private company TRAGSA, which achieved better salaries, better occupational health standards, and stabilization of contracts. The second, increasing the social utility of work, like in TRAGSA, where they also managed to make the service deprivatized and nationalized, in addition to ensuring that older firefighters were freed from being on the front line of fire, resulting in a greater capacity to extinguish fires, or at NISSAN in Martorell (Barcelona), where workers proposed socializing the factory and converting production to electric cars. The third, planning the economy to adjust it to planetary limits, as demonstrated by NISSAN workers, whose economic planification for the socialized factory integrated ecological concerns. The fourth, acting as environmental stewards, like in the water purifying plant La China of Madrid, at Delphi, or in the Cofrentes Nuclear Power Plant, where CGT workers protested against polluting activities at their workplaces.

The thesis also found that unions are one of the best tools to educate the working class about degrowth, above all because they have greater legitimacy in its eyes. To do this, they organize courses and talks, publish training and debate materials, and encourage workers to chat and educate each other on these topics. Furthermore, the thesis also found that anarcho-syndicalists can fight for public education to incorporate these topics in the curriculum.

Their role as defensive actors to ensure workers are not disproportionately affected is also remarkable. For example, at SEAT Martorell the change from producing combustion cars to electric cars decreased labor demand by 30%, so the company laid off 1,330 workers. The CGT promoted protests and strikes, and better lay-off compensation was achieved. Another example is that of Parcs i Jardins (Barcelona), where to adapt the irrigation of public trees to drought restrictions, the City Council unilaterally modified the gardeners’ work schedules so that they also had to work in the afternoon, a decision which is currently facing the opposition of the CGT and the union Intersindical-CSC. Finally, the thesis found that anarcho-syndicalists can ensure that affected workers receive all the vital coverage they need while they are transitioning from one work to another, with tools such as solidarity funds, mutual aid, and some forms of basic income.


This article is a summary of a students Political Ecology master’s thesis. You can find the full text of the thesis in English in The Anarchist Library.

The opinions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect those of R&D, but are those of the author.