Developing the IWW’s direct unionism politics

Developing the IWW’s direct unionism politics

An article by Juan Conatz replying to some of the Direct Unionism discussion paper responses.

Cleaning out my numerous Google Doc drafts, I found this, which continues the direct unionism debate by taking on most of the responses to the original discussion paper. So I decided to finish it, as most of the written discussion has dropped off.

First off to clear something up, I did not write (not even one word!) the original discussion paper. There seems to sometimes be confusion over that, probably due to the fact I wrote 2 reviews in the Industrial Worker newspaper. Honestly, outside of a few people who later became involved in Recomposition, a former American Wobbly who is now in Solidarity Federation and some folks I associate with the Workers Power column, I don’t know who all wrote the thing. It was a collaborative effort involving a group of Wobblies over a couple year’s time.

Looking back on the discussion paper, I think (the authors would probably agree) it should be seen as an unfinished draft. Further along than a rough draft but not quite a final draft. I don’t view it as a complete program conceived in full agreement. Speaking of ‘direct unionists’ or a ‘direct unionist tendency’, which sometimes happens, is sort of misdirected because it talks of differences and perspectives in terms of factions. This is convenient when speaking in generalizations or to identify commonality, but can also be unnecessarily divisive or destructive. Part of how I interpret direct unionism is not as a sexy self-identifier, but as building a culture of seriously talking about IWW organizing in a way that advances our practice. To put it a bit more clearly, it’s not about being part of a formalized tendency that ‘wins’ out, but about pushing debate in a way where it has organizational ramifications that are discussed and decided upon by membership. Also, another problem of the sexy self-identifier is that it can be more about the term and not about the ideas. I've come across a few Wobs that identify with the term, but then advocate ideas that are basically the opposite of what the paper advocates.

Those ideas the paper advocates, in my opinion are:

1) Anti-contractual, as well as being against National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections and overly relying on Unfair Labor Practices (ULP’s) or using them as an offensive weapon.

2) Being enthusiastically pro-Organizer Training 101, particularly about the replace yourself parts, building more and better organizers and direct action grievances.

3) Being against permanent, full time, paid staff organizers.

4) Seeing value in membership, but emphasizing participation first.

5) Suspicion of formal recognition from the state or bosses.

There’s other stuff that can be taken from the discussion paper, but I think it’s safe to say this is the meat and potatoes of direct unionism.

Anyway, there’s been several different responses and comments related to the discussion paper, and I wanted to reply to parts of some.

The first one comes from a member of Black Orchid Collective. BOC is a small eclectic Marxist-influenced political organization based in Seattle. They write quite frequently and are worth checking out.

In their response, the author expresses agreement with the thrust of the paper, but brings up its lack of political content, made all the more relevant because of their experience as a care provider in a state-run facility.

to win, we need also to challenge the political narratives of the state, debate in the broader ideas about what health, care and disabilities justice means — We won’t be able to win in our little shops, in our expendable jobs, through class struggle narrative alone, on the basis that we are workers. We dont produce lifeless products, which we can abandon at will through class unity. As healthcare workers, our care for our patients and residents play into how we struggle, and how our struggle is perceived. The reason why the liberal state succeeds is because it is able to present itself as the spokesperson for the well-being of elderly people and people with disabilities in healthcare settings. We, the workers, need to break down that state monopoly and claim that role alongside our patients and their families. This is a struggle that is beyond the workplace. It is a battle against the state in the realm of ideas and analysis about healthcare, disabilities justice and the like, questions that cannot simply be answered by direct action on the job, but require study, conversation, debate, discussion etc.

While acknowledging this situation is unique, there are similar questions to much of our other organizing. What it comes down to is that we fight for bread and butter issues, but also have a revolutionary perspective. What is it and how does it transform our views of the jobs we organize at? Take education for example. The school system as it exists is often a horrible place for teachers and students. A radical approach needs to acknowledge and incorporate how the education system deals with, treats and conditions students, as well. Or fast food. I doubt we imagine ‘self-managing’ fast food restaurants or merely wanting the employment there to be better paid. Some have even advocated ‘abolishing restaurants’ altogether. The point is, we should have a wider critique of what that industry represents and the consequences of its existence.

Other parts of this response continue along ‘What is the political content?’ question, which is a valid one. I don’t have the answer for that. When it comes to what is our vision of society ‘post-revolution’, that’s something that needs to be developed more fully. But this is something an organization needs to be careful and concerned about. While such a thing, more fully developed, will help inform the practice in the now, this is something that can distract from real organizing, turning the membership inward, while elevating those who say over those who do. It’s a balancing act.

The last part of this response is on the unemployed.

Another question I have, is the role of the unemployed in relation to the IWW. As we all know, the high unemployment rate in the US right now reflects deeper racial divisions and segregation. A strategy for the working class needs also to include the demands of the unemployed, not simply for political reasons, but also for practical reasons. The precarious, low waged jobs that many of us are in means that our lifestyles and prospects are not that far from those who are unemployed. [...]In building the leadership and consciousness of workers, how do the writers of Direct Unionism think through the relationship between precarious workers and the unemployed?

Another good question, which there probably isn’t an easy answer. In the 1930s, the IWW was involved in various unemployed movements, but I’m not sure of their activity. My question to the author would be, what do you think? One of the few things I’ve heard about this sort of organizing is refusing to work overtime because of the conception of overtime ‘scabbing’ on the unemployed. The desired effect was that refusing to work overtime would lead to people being hired, thus bringing them out of unemployment.

As a direct response to my reviews in the Industrial Worker, Sean G disagrees with both the discussion paper and my favorable opinion of it. While I would love to argue some more about this, Tom L sent a letter to the IW that tackles most of my disagreements with Sean. Chris A and Nate Hawthorne also replied and covered a bunch, too.

Also appearing in the IW was a letter from Staughton Lynd. I was pleased to see that someone who has been so influential on the IWW paying attention to our debates. He says:

I agree with Sean G. that there is nothing inherently sinful about reducing an oral understanding to writing. At the big Westinghouse plant east of Pittsburgh in the 1930s, if the management and the union reached an understanding about a particular matter, it would be written up and posted in the plant. And under Section 301 of the NLRA as amended, such an agreement can be enforced in the courts, and is therefore less likely to be ignored by management.

I find this a bit confusing, because Lynd has been one of the most critical people on the radical left of contractualism. If he didn’t invent the term, he certainly popularized the term within the labor movement. For one, mentioning enforcement of the courts brings up some questions. It is my understanding that Lynd is critical of getting wrapped up in contractualism and labor law, not only because this is the capitalist’s arena, but also because it takes disputes and decisions out of the hands of the rank-and-file. The problem with the example, is that it still would place the union as enforcer of this contract. A contract, to me, presumes a negotiation between the union and management of give and take. But I’m not sure we should be in the business of ‘giving’. Rather, how about the workers come to an agreement about their demands and then engage in the required amount of work disruption to get it? From that point, management has to show their agreement through action and meet the demands, or disruption continues. In my opinion, this sort of ‘job conditioning’ avoids the pitfalls of representation and negotiation that were the seeds of the contractualism we see today. Making negotiation happen through action seems to possibly be a way of doing this. I realize this raises lots of questions about the level of militancy, firings and other topics.

In sort of an extended version of his reply to Sean G on the development of labor law and contractualism, Nate Hawthorne wrote a libcom.org blogpost titled ‘Workers, the state and struggle’. In it, he gets more in depth about why current labor law is the way it is. Where he talks about direct unionism, he echoes the Black Orchid response by saying:

the point is that those of us who are engaged in conversations about the form of workers’ struggles, including so-called direct unionism and other efforts to avoid the traps of collective bargaining and other institutionalized forms of workers’ struggles, we should have further discussion about a few things. One thing I think we should discuss further is the role of explicit, openly revolutionary political perspectives as part of our activity in struggle.

This is also a big part of his piece, ‘Mottos & Watchwords: a discussion of politics and mass organization’, which, as I understand it, being one of the authors of the original discussion paper, was him addressing what he saw as shortcomings of it. As I already stated, I agree that the political content of direct unionism could be developed more, but this task is inseparable from the task of developing the IWW’s political content more. So while, this critique of direct unionism is fair, in some ways, it misses the mark, as neither direct unionism nor the IWW itself is very clear on how practice and vision are related and linked.

As the Black Orchid response makes clear, there are organizing situations which necessitate a wider vision. But also, as Nate argues in ‘Navigating negotiations’, without this wider vision, we’re in danger of just kickstarting the existing institutions that aim to simply make a ‘better capitalism’ to work for us. One of the reasons alternative unionism arises, and this includes solidarity unionism as well as direct unionism, is that the current scheme isn’t working. Not even in the narrow parameters that it is meant for. When this happens, alternatives arise. This sometimes gets the current scheme to start working, which will attempt to incorporate these alternatives. Incorporation is inevitable unless the alternative has a vision beyond that scheme.

Moving on from Nate, the next response comes from IWW members in Vancouver. ‘Direct unionism in practice: undermining service industry barriers to worker solidarity’ gets a bit more specific than some of the other responses, describing both Canadian labor law and the service industry.

Not being Canadian, there’s not much for me to say on the labor law bit, but there’s a lot to agree with here. The recognition that there are things we do at work daily to deal or even resist the imposition of wage labor is an important thing. These ‘informal work groups’ should be the basis of our organizing, and are the key to many campaigns.

The last sentence of this article has really stuck with me. It says:

Without the basic infrastructure to carry out these direct actions and the willingness of IWW organizer’s to let go of the organizing based on site/contracting, the IWW is irrelevant; it becomes simply a club in which to wax poetic about the ideals and dreams of a liberated working class.

To me, this means that even if we wanted to, the IWW can not be a regular reformist union based on collective bargaining contracts. This isn’t the basis for our potential power and will not succeed as a strategy.

I do have some concerns about what is written about affiliation (which I assume means membership). Deemphasizing membership too much can lead to our co-workers not taking what we’re doing seriously and impede the identification of the union as the vehicle for what we need and what we’re doing.

This gets us to the most recent response to the discussion paper, by fellow Twin Cities IWW member John O’Reilly. On the topic of formal membership and building a union he says:

The union form, the IWW version of the union form at least, is important. We need to build formal organization and we need to be able to use that to build an IWW identity. A union as the IWW practices it is a group of workers coming together to represent their interests and act against the boss’s interests today and in doing so building a fight against the boss class’s interests tomorrow. By building the union, we push our message throughout the class and have a flag that we can point to and say “See, this is what the union does.”

I agree with this. Despite the often negative connotations with the word ‘union’, it’s something we have to redefine ourselves. That possibility exists now because as much as there are many bad things associated with the word, there are many people (most people in fact) with little experience with unions.

The various conversations that have branched out from direct unionism have been valuable for me personally, and in my opinion, have been much needed in the IWW. There’s much more to say, and much more to experiment with, and I hope we continue to do both.

Originally posted: March 6, 2013 at Recomposition

Comments

Chilli Sauce
Mar 7 2013 08:56

This is good and, FWIW, Juan I consider you an honorary author of Direct Unionism. wink

Two quick things:

(1) On membership, this was one of two areas where the authors had to reach some compromise language in the original draft (as it was released, I think it's far short of a final draft). The other was recognition through non-legal means. Interestingly, the best critiques I've read of Direct Unionism have picked up on these tensions.

(2) On politics, the piece sort of assumed a set of (political) principles but was primary focused on practicalities. The working title was "Organizing Without Contracts". While a decicion to not pursue a contractualist approach certainly has political implications, our concern was to present some practical ideas to what non-contractual workplace organising could look like.

I don't think every article could or should be a catch-all. I don't think adding sections on post-revolutionary social organisation or how the IWW will relate to the unemployed and the racial and social aspects of unemployment would have helped us achieve the goals of the piece.

Finally, I'm also glad you picked up on the contradictions in Lynd's feedback. I too was really happy to hear he was going to weigh in, but found his contribution rather surprising if not dissapointing.

Anyway, thanks again for writing this.

syndicalist
Mar 7 2013 17:48

Gonna email it to myself to read gril.

This caught me as it was eye level at the end:

Quote:
Despite the often negative connotations with the word ‘union’, it’s something we have to redefine ourselves. That possibility exists now because as much as there are many bad things associated with the word, there are many people (most people in fact) with little experience with unions.

I'm not sure if you're saying that because of the DU paper that we now have such possibilities or not. Pardon me if that's not what you're saying.

Dunno, the one long time ago learned lesson is that it is always our role to define what we mean by unionism. That even in the harshest of debates, with coworkers and others, our unionist vision should be at the core of the discussion. Perhaps in the IWW the DU paper gives active Wobs an opening to discuss the specific vision within the iww. coo wit dat.

Chilli Sauce
Mar 7 2013 20:12
Quote:
coo wit dat.

Syndicalist, I'm upping you just for being down with the kids wink

syndicalist
Mar 8 2013 02:43
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Quote:
coo wit dat.

Syndicalist, I'm upping you just for being down with the kids ;)

Well...it's about as close to an anarcho-syndicalist perspective and why not support it?
I'm not sure how practical all of it is, but that's the beauty, isn't it? The challenge of
trying to take ideas and put them into practice.

Nate
Mar 8 2013 07:44

I like this piece Juan, thanks for writing it. I'm curious what you and Chili and others see as the open questions or whatever to still pursue with this. I know for me helping write it was super thought provoking. (I hope I've said this before publicly - Chili is the person who really made the paper happen. He did a lot of the writing and pretty much all of the coordination in terms of getting people to write stuff and respond and so on. I'm really grateful for that because I got so much out of it.) When we first were working on it I tended to de-emphasize political ideology and came out of it being like "ideology is way more important than I thought!" I don't think this is a failing of the discussion paper as much as that I think that discussion in the IWW should deal with the stuff in the paper but more stuff too. I really like how you put it: "the political content of direct unionism could be developed more (...) this task is inseparable from the task of developing the IWW’s political content more (...) neither direct unionism nor the IWW itself is very clear on how practice and vision are related and linked." I wish I had just written that instead of whatever I said before.

I wanted to add that I've found SolFed's Fighting For Ourselves very thought provoking and powerful for this stuff, in terms of helping me think about the political content of direct unionism and developing the IWW's politics further. Both the analysis (especially the stuff on association and representation) and the social vision (what kind of world we want etc). I also wanted to add that since we wrote the discussion paper it seems like there are more examples of nonrevolutionary unions experimenting with the sorts of things that the discussion paper calls for/approves of. I don't think that's a matter of us having influence, I think it's that those unions have changed. But I think this also speaks to the need to push on some of the political questions, developing the content and so on. I think that's a high quality problem too.

syndicalist wrote:
I'm not sure if you're saying that because of the DU paper that we now have such possibilities or not.

I can't speak for Juan (though if I could I'd make him say how handsome and charming I am) but that's not how I read his comment, and I would definitely disagree that the DU paper had anything like that influence.

syndicalist wrote:
gril

you just made my day.

Chilli Sauce
Mar 8 2013 08:32

Thanks Nate. However, I'm gonna pass credit right on back to you. It was you that actually got this thing public, cleaning it up for publication and actually getting it published.

Quote:
I know for me helping write it was super thought provoking

I did want to specifically agree with you on this point: the process of writing DU was super-clarifying for me in terms of politics and an organising strategy (as if if the two can be seperated!) And although if we re-wrote it, I think I'd frame the argument differently (a political choice, no doubt) to include concepts like 'representational', 'associational' and 'mediation'.

DU isn't a perfect or complete argument, but I do hope it's helped other to have some of those same sort of clarifying conversation.

I don't think the paper can take credit for these new experiments happening in English-speaking revolutionary unionist currents, but I do think it helps to situate and maybe provide some common terminology to understand them.

syndicalist
Mar 8 2013 15:21

Just to pick up on something. More out of curiosity then anything else.

Nate, does "ideology" always have to be presented in "rhetorical" terms (use of a certain language) or terms). Or can it not be basis from which approaches the concepts and forms and then transmitting same without the rhetoric? I know that folks that I've associated with for years (all anarcho-syndicalists) have tried to steer clear of the ideological rhetoric, while trying to present "the ideology" in the content of the presentation. Not sure that make sense, am a shitty writer, perhaps you catch my drift.

syndicalist
Mar 8 2013 15:36
Quote:
Also appearing in the IW was a letter from Staughton Lynd. I was pleased to see that someone who has been so influential on the IWW paying attention to our debates. He says:

I agree with Sean G. that there is nothing inherently sinful about reducing an oral understanding to writing. At the big Westinghouse plant east of Pittsburgh in the 1930s, if the management and the union reached an understanding about a particular matter, it would be written up and posted in the plant. And under Section 301 of the NLRA as amended, such an agreement can be enforced in the courts, and is therefore less likely to be ignored by management.

I find this a bit confusing, because Lynd has been one of the most critical people on the radical left of contractualism. If he didn’t invent the term, he certainly popularized the term within the labor movement. For one, mentioning enforcement of the courts brings up some questions. It is my understanding that Lynd is critical of getting wrapped up in contractualism and labor law, not only because this is the capitalist’s arena, but also because it takes disputes and decisions out of the hands of the rank-and-file.

I think there are two parts to this. What workers have forced the boss to agree to and having it posted. The second the legal coverage. I'll leave the latter aside for now. Because I don't see having posted a what was agreed to posted on a bulletin board as contractualism. And, in IWW shops, as i understand it, this was also practiced. I guess I have a hard time with there being
a feeling that anything that is written is a contract in the sense of being a collective agreement based on what now has become collective agreements with no strike clauses, management rights, etc., etc. I dunno know, it's like not taking minutes at a meeting and then having to rely on what folks thought they said or agreed to.

Chilli Sauce
Mar 8 2013 19:42
syndicalist wrote:
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Quote:
coo wit dat.

Syndicalist, I'm upping you just for being down with the kids ;)

Well...it's about as close to an anarcho-syndicalist perspective and why not support it?
I'm not sure how practical all of it is, but that's the beauty, isn't it? The challenge of
trying to take ideas and put them into practice.

Oh yeah, I wanted to clarify this, I meant down with the kids for being coo with dat. Although I'm glad you like liked DU, too. wink

Nate
Mar 9 2013 04:15
syndicalist wrote:
Just to pick up on something. More out of curiosity then anything else.

Nate, does "ideology" always have to be presented in "rhetorical" terms (use of a certain language) or terms). Or can it not be basis from which approaches the concepts and forms and then transmitting same without the rhetoric? I know that folks that I've associated with for years (all anarcho-syndicalists) have tried to steer clear of the ideological rhetoric, while trying to present "the ideology" in the content of the presentation. Not sure that make sense, am a shitty writer, perhaps you catch my drift.

I think I get you. What'd be your answer to this, Syndicalist? I guess I would say no, the ideas don't require the terms, but for some stuff the terms may be the best ways to convey the ideas?
I'm not totally sure here, except to say that I think it's really important that we try to avoid impenetrable specialist conversations when possible, and if such conversations do seem important to have then we should have stuff in place to help people learn to understand and feel comfortable to speak in those conversations. (I know I for one learned a ton from Fighting For Ourselves about anarchist history - people throw around references to the CNT and FAI etc, stuff I'd always meant to learn about but which I'd never gotten around to and have always been a bit intimidated to dig into.)

syndicalist
Mar 8 2013 22:04

Thanks Nate. I guess my analogy with language would be to what you say
about trying to "avoid impenetrable specialist conversations when possible".
That is, we can promote ideas with a minimum of "in-house" and "specialist"
language in our public literature.

For sure internal conversations, internal education can and should be more specialized.
I was referring more to external stuff.

Juan Conatz
Mar 25 2013 15:06
syndicalist wrote:
I'm not sure if you're saying that because of the DU paper that we now have such possibilities or not. Pardon me if that's not what you're saying.

Nah, I'm saying because of a lack of experience with unions, we have an oppurtunity to define unionism as we like, as opposed to previous eras where unionism was more defined because of peoples experiences with them being more common.

syndicalist
Mar 26 2013 12:20
Juan Conatz wrote:
syndicalist wrote:
I'm not sure if you're saying that because of the DU paper that we now have such possibilities or not. Pardon me if that's not what you're saying.

Nah, I'm saying because of a lack of experience with unions, we have an oppurtunity to define unionism as we like, as opposed to previous eras where unionism was more defined because of peoples experiences with them being more common.

Fair enough, in large measure.

Juan Conatz
Mar 31 2013 16:55
Nate wrote:
I also wanted to add that since we wrote the discussion paper it seems like there are more examples of nonrevolutionary unions experimenting with the sorts of things that the discussion paper calls for/approves of. I don't think that's a matter of us having influence, I think it's that those unions have changed. But I think this also speaks to the need to push on some of the political questions, developing the content and so on. I think that's a high quality problem too

Exactly. Even since I wrote this last fall, there's been more examples. That's going to be something we're going to have to relate to