Part 2 of a 2 part reply by a IWW member, to 'Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper', which argues for a network of militants and non-contractual organizing.
Intro & The Early IWW and Contracts
In the Direct Unionist piece, it is split up into three parts. The first part of my response focused on the first part, which mainly concentrates on linking the conception of direct unionism to the IWW's Organizer 101 Training, while giving examples, both historical and contemporary, of groups and organizations which practiced something similar to the conception outlined. The second and third parts get more in depth into considering contracts with employers. Before taking up what the piece has to say, it's worth looking at the subject of contracts within the early IWW.
On the official IWW website, the subject of contracts is taken up in the 'Myths' section1, which is a section on the website that attempts to dispel a number of misconceptions about the union. Myth # 2 is called "The IWW doesn't negotiate contracts with employers". In this, it acknowledges that contracts were shunned in the early days and tries to explain this:
This misconception results from the fact that during the early years of the IWW, union contracts had no legal force in the United States of America. In fact, union contracts did not become federally protected agreements until the passing of the National Labor Relations Act in 1937. Prior to that, many union contracts were attempts by the employing class to limit economic direct action and class based solidarity by unions.
This is a bit dishonest though. Contracts always include attempts to 'limit economic direct action and class based solidarity by unions'. A contract is a written agreement that affected parties attempt to get what they want out of it. By the nature of class struggle, employers want uninterrupted production. U.S. labor law hasn't changed this. Later in the mytch section, it quotes from Fred Thompson's book2that 'Originally the IWW had put no restrictions, except requiring GEB approval'. However, Philip Foner3 describes in 1912, a local in Montana which had its charter revoked over signing a contract. The 1932 constitution4 does state all contracts required GEB approval, and also prohibited contracts that were for specified amounts of time or required notice from workers before making demands on wages, hours or shop conditions.
A 1920 pamphlet5 stated:
It is against the principles of the I.W.W. to sign contracts with employers. When workers sign an agreement not to strike, they sign away the only weapon they possess. Past experience has shown that employers only respect contracts so long as the workers have power to enforce them. When the workers have such power, contracts are unnecessary. When they lack power, contracts are useless, for the employers break them whenever it suits their purpose. . . .
So it's probably safe to say, that while the early IWW didn't explicitly forbid contracts, it structured their acceptance in a way which would be difficult, while seemingly seeing them as undesirable. Why this changed is outside my scope, but it probably had a lot to do with the combination of declining numbers and, at the time, new labor laws such as the National Labor Relations Act ('Wagner Act') of 1935.
While it is certainly interesting to take a look at the past and see how IWWers handled the question of contracts, it's 2011, not 1911. We shouldn't let the ghosts of the past determine what we do in the present, otherwise we'll have no future.
The IWW's Uniqueness
In Part 2, Section 2 (What if workers “want” a contract?') the piece mentions something signifigant and
We note here that in the countries where the IWW is most active—and especially in the US—union density and active organizing has been on the wane for decades. Ironically, this opens up a space for IWWs to present our ideas of unionization to those who may have very little understanding of what a union is and how they are ‘supposed’ to function. In fact, in many instances, IWW organizers may inadvertently give the impetus to a contract campaign by presenting the differences between “us” as the IWW and “them,” the business unions. If IWW methods falter, workers then look to other, contractual, options.
This is mostly correct. The space opened up by declining union density means most workers will only be vaguely familiar with how a union operates, some may not even have this vagueness. So we have a chance to do that defining, and operate in a somewhat ideal way. But I think the reason the piece attributes contract campaigns being taken on (listing differences between us and the mainstream unions, workers wanting 'stabilized' gains) is missing something. I think what probably happens just as much, is that the IWW's radical outlook is downplayed and it is 'marketed' as basically a more militant version of an AFL-CIO union or just a smaller UE. The importance of the preamble gets minimized and the language of the mainstream labor movement is adopted. There are a variety of understandable reasons for this. Among them being a history of red-baiting in the U.S. that can't be paralleled with anywhere else, a tendency for populism inherited from the left, and fear of alienating or scaring co-workers away. Another reason worth exploring is the quite conservative way mainstream unions are, which leads to those with experience in these unions looking at the IWW as appealing. But the appeal is sometimes merely for something more militant than the mainstream unions, which covers a lot of ground, much of it not an area the IWW should be covering. It's something we shouldn't try to do and is, in my opinion, a significant factor in why contract campaigns are chosen in some organizing committees.
The IWW is a revolutionary, anti-capitalist union which advocates for the abolition of the wage system. We have different goals, and so, should have different methods. If one sees ends and means as linked, it doesn't make sense to mimic mainstream union tactics for our end goals. The piece states:
First, let it be said that by encouraging a non-contractual organizing strategy we are, in many ways, putting the building of class power before the protection of bread-and-butter gains.
This is important. We aren't merely trying to improve our conditions, we are trying to also, eliminate these conditions. If an organizing campaign wins higher wages but does not develop our co-workers skills and knowledge, we have failed, overall. We need both and when we organize, we need to consider how what we do will determine both.
The piece describes two shops with campaigns. One won, but lost nearly all its committed organizers. The other lost but gained committed organizers. A win doesn't necessarily mean that our capacity is increased. A loss doesn't necessarily mean disillusion and people drifting away. It's how the campaign is organized that determines these.
Bad Things in Contracts
So, coming from the point of view that the IWW is a revolutionary anti-capitalist union which should be building class power and developing our co-workers organizing skills and commitment, why would contractualism be counter-intuitive to these goals? In Part 3, Section 1 ('What are the pitfalls of contractualism?'), a number of negative things employers almost always want in contracts are listed, they are:
1)No strike clauses
2)Management rights clauses
3)Binding grievance procedures
Let's take the 'no strike clause'. In my opinion, no union, much less a self-professed revolutionary one, should ever agree to this. It is basically a set of handcuffs that restricts our greatest power, the power to disrupt. Yet, this is one of the first things an employer wants in a contract. In fact, it is an already assumed and understood aspect of contract negotiations. 'Management rights' is the same thing. It acknowledges the employer's right on the speed and pace of work and many other workplace issues. If there is a dispute on what these issues are, the way for addressing this (since strike or work stoppages are off the table) would then be 'binding grievance procedures', a disempowering process that leaves your issue in the hands of a steward and member of management. All 3 of these things, which are usually things every employer wants in the contracts, take away our power or individualize our issues, when we should be building our power and collectivizing our issues.
Direct unionism, very purposefully, brings up the question of what exactly the role of the IWW is. Are we just a militant, democratic union? Or are we a militant, democratic, revolutionary anti-capitalist union? And how do our campaigns, strategies, and decisions reflect this? We are small, no doubt about it. But we have always and continue to punch way above our weight. It is time we recognize this and the tactics that make this possible. Part of this is recognizing that contracts may be something that works against our goals, not towards them.
- 1. http://www.iww.org/en/culture/myths/myths1.shtml
- 2. The IWW - Its First Fifty Years, Fred Thompson, pp. 45-6.
- 3. The Industrial Workers of the World: 1905-1917, Philip S. Foner, pg. 137
- 4. http://www.workerseducation.org/crutch/constitution/const1931.html#agreements
- 5. The I.W.W. in the Lumber Industry, James Rowan, http://www.washington.edu/uwired/outreach/cspn/Website/Classroom%20Materials/Curriculum%20Packets/Evergreen%20State/Documents/document%2028.html