Debate on 'direct unionism'

Collection of letters, articles and responses mostly from the IWW's Industrial Worker around the 'Direct Unionism' discussion paper.

Previous entries on this debate include:
-Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper
-A response to 'Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper' Parts 1 & 2
-A member of Black Orchid Collective's 'Response to “Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper”'
-Counterpoint: Response To Juan Conatz’s Take On “Direct Unionism”

A Response To A Critique Of “Direct Unionism”

This is a response to FW Sean Gallagher’s letter that appeared on page 8 of the October Industrial Worker.

FW Gallagher writes that in the early 20th century “there was no federally recognized right to organize.” He continues that labor relations today are “in no way comparable to the non-codified nature of industrial relations prevalent in 1905.” While it’s true there was no “federally recognized” right to organize, old AFL unions bloody loved contracts. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) didn’t invent contracts; it only enshrined them.

FW Gallager goes on to say, “The reason for eschewing contracts in our early period emanated from historical circumstances which have not survived to the present day.” I agree with him here: the circumstances have changed; they’ve gotten more pronounced! Before the implementation of the social-democratic labor relations regime, contracts were more likely to be based on raw class power in the workplace. The contract was a way to prevent disruption in the workplace. Under the NLRB, unions often eschew actual workplace conflict and seek to just have a “fair” election—which was the entire goal of the NLRB in the first place!

FW Gallagher then addresses the early IWW’s transient workers, claiming their fate to “rarely [toil] consistently under one company or farmer...negated the role contracts could play.” Besides the fact that we did have a lot of settled industrial workers in the early days, it’s important to recognize that many of the workers we’re currently organizing are basically locally transient, working in high turnover industries like food and service. This is one reason why the seminal IWW principle of “organize the worker, not the job” still makes so much sense today.

It is then suggested that “Direct Unionism” is compatible with “opposition caucuses.” In fact, “Direct Unionism” declares “we are not seeking to function as a reform caucus.” One of our prime dualcarding examples focused on the actions of Wobs in the Canadian postal union, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). One the authors of “Direct Unionism” was one of those Wobs, and his actions in no way included opposition caucuses. Instead he, as “Direct Unionism” advocates, brought IWW tactics to his unionized workmates—mainly through introducing a version of the Organizer Training 101 into his local union branch.

In large parts circumventing the existing union structures, this strategy led to a dramatic increase in militancy and workplace conflict.

FW Gallagher’s letter claims “some of the most militant labor struggles” were “centered on the fight for union recognition.” Trade unions always propagate the belief that the interests of the union and the workers are one in the same. Yet, one needs only to read Martin Glaberman’s “Punching Out” to understand how the institutionalization of the United Auto Workers de-escalated struggle and alienated workers—regardless of whether autoworkers, like Glaberman, thought recognition was a good idea at the time.

Finally, I found this statement both confusing and unsubstantiated: “Under [‘Direct Unionism’], the IWW would be... unprepared for an unexpected struggle like Wisconsin.” How would contracts have benefited the IWW in Wisconsin? If anything, the Wisconsin state government’s actions in negating long-standing contracts demonstrate the folly of relying on contractualism and our supposed “federally recognized right to organize.”

- Tom Levy, London

Originally appeared in the December 2011 Industrial Worker newspaper

A letter from Staughton Lynd concerning 'direct unionism'


I am entering an ongoing conversation about “Direct Unionism” and recognize that I have missed out on earlier episodes. I also am less informed about the early history of the IWW than either Juan Conatz or Sean G. Here are my two cents’ worth of opinions:

1. I agree with FW Conatz that employers almost always want a contract to include no-strike and management rights clauses. The draftspersons of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) went out of their way in Section 13 of the law as originally enacted to rebut the notion that once you had a contract you should no longer need the right to strike. John Sargent, first president of Local 1010, United Steelworkers at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana, was convinced that the local union accomplished more for its members before the local union was recognized as an exclusive bargaining representative and a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement, including a no-strike clause, was negotiated. See his oral history in “Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers” (1982). What happened was that the new CIO national unions, beginning with the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers of America in 1937, gave away the right to strike.

2. 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.

3. Where the problem arises, in my opinion, is what it means for a union to be “recognized.” The usual understanding, favored by U.S. labor policy, is that when a union is recognized it becomes the exclusive representative of workers in that bargaining unit. Such recognition puts the union in a position to have management automatically deduct dues from the workers’ paychecks, the so-called “dues check-off.” Workers interviewed in the 1960s and early 1970s who had experienced the self-organization of workers in the 1930s mentioned this most frequently as the reason that “your [watch]dog don’t bark no more.”

I think there is much to be said for the typical European arrangement of many “recognized” unions in the same workplace, as opposed to the idea of a particular union as exclusive representative.

- FW Staughton Lynd

Originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Industrial Worker newspaper

On contracts and the IWW

I’m writing in response to FW Sean Gallagher. I am a member of the Portland IWW branch, which has a number of contracts. Unlike FW Gallagher’s experience, I don’t have as nearly a positive view on the impact and role of contracts in the IWW as he does.

A starting point for me in criticizing contractual organizing is that it absorbs too much time and energy in an environment which we have little expertise in. Research, drafting articles for a contract, and the perpetual back and forth at the bargaining table is both time and labor intensive and often creates a drain on shop-floor activity. This occurs in opposition to the employer’s lawyers, who are better versed in legal language and have the incentive of getting well paid while finding ways to navigate contractual language. We are not lawyers, nor are we well-versed in how to use the language or even read it, let alone argue it across from the table from a lawyer. On a more basic level, it’s tedious and difficult to sustain energy when focusing solely on this approach.

If a contract has been reached, then another series of problems arise. Sustaining motivation and organization can be difficult even with premeditated inoculation around the idea that the struggle is never done even after a contract is signed. Furthermore, a contract becomes stagnant as worker turnover continues during the duration of a contract or worse, new workers may resent elements of the contract that they come into. It is also difficult to agitate workers while under a contract to take action because of the attitude that “we can just wait until the contract is open again,” even if it’s not for another year or more.

Anyone who has had to deal with a laborious and ineffective grievance procedure will also be able to speak to the limits of contracts. The grievance procedures serve as a trap to drain more energy and time from workers when other tactics would likely resolve the issues at hand in a faster way that simultaneously emboldens workers.

Of course bread and butter issues need to be pushed if we’re trying to support workers, but I’ve often seen the “either/or” approach taken in contractual organizing where bread and butter issues get traded for other work conditions. Bread and butter issues in a single shop’s contract, and single shop contracts in general, do not address issues on a larger industrial level. This means that we spend our energy defending a single shop when we could and should be trying to organize on a wider level.

-FW Chris A.

Originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Industrial Worker newspaper

A debate on collective bargaining and the IWW

I write in reply to Fellow Worker Sean Gallager. I thank him and FW Juan Conatz for their replies to the “Direct Unionism” discussion paper. I’m pleased to see this discussion happening in the Industrial Worker and I hope the discussion continues.

I agree with some of what FW Gallagher writes. Due to space limitations I reply now only to a point where I disagree, which is with FW Gallagher’s advocacy of collective bargaining for the IWW. FW Gallagher is right that “ideas only matter to the extent that they correctly reflect historical experience and objective conditions,” so I will discuss some of the history of the capitalist state’s sponsorship of collective bargaining in the United States.

The U.S. government increasingly promoted collective bargaining in the early part of the 20th century. To take one important example: In 1919, economically disruptive disputes escalated between the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and capitalists in the textile industry. In response, the New York governor appointed a state commission aimed at preventing “industrial war” which created “distrust and hostility” between classes. This commission recommended collective bargaining in order to reconcile the union and the employers. As the commission wrote, a “collective bargaining agreement calls for the utmost good faith on both sides to perform (…) every term and condition thereof; whether it refers to shop strikes on the part of the worker, lock-outs on the part of the employers, or the maintenance of its terms as to wages and hours. This Board desires to emphasize this point as fundamental in any contractual relationship.” Contracts require such good faith and, from the point of view of the capitalist state, contracts helped create such good faith.

With state help, the ILGWU won an industry-wide collective bargaining agreement, which the industry association soon violated in 1921. The ILGWU sued and won an injunction against the employers. The New York Supreme Court said it issued this injunction to prevent “the continuance of an industrial impasse.” The Court said that no matter who won the dispute, “such industrial struggles lead to lockouts, strikes and acts of violence” and in the end “the employer and employee, instead of co-operating to promote the success of the industry, become permanently divided into hostile groups, each resentful and suspicious of the other.” Therefore, “it is the duty of the court to (…) compel both parties to await an orderly judicial determination of the controversy.” In other words, the capitalist state began to believe that promoting collective bargaining agreements would help create industrial peace. The role of law is not simply to protect individual capitalists but to bring greater stability to the capitalist system as a whole. (On this point, I encourage fellow workers to read the discussion of the English Factory Acts in chapter 10 of Karl Marx’s “Capital.”)

The state’s role and strategy of promoting stability in the capitalist system by promoting collective bargaining explains U.S. labor legislation created in the 1930s. The 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (hereafter, “Recovery Act”) said “disorganization of industry (...) burdens interstate and foreign commerce, affects the public welfare, and undermines the standards of living of the American people.” The Act argued that one key tool for more efficiently organizing industry under capitalism was to promote collective bargaining agreements. Thus Congress should “remove obstructions to the free flow of interstate and foreign commerce” by “induc[ing] and maintain[ing] united action of labor and management under adequate governmental sanctions and supervision.” The Recovery Act added that contracts would raise wages for workers, “increas[ing] the consumption of industrial and agricultural products by increasing purchasing power” of workers. More money in the pockets of more workers would help stabilize the American economy by providing a larger base of consumers.

The National Labor Relations Act (or the “Wagner Act” named after its sponsor, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner) took up the labor relations provisions of the Recovery Act, adding little except for extra enforcement. Senator Wagner argued before Congress that the Wagner Act was “novel neither in philosophy nor in content. It creates no new substantive rights,” and went on to list various prior examples of workers’ legal right to collective bargaining. The real change with the Wagner Act, he argued, was greater enforcement of rights that the state already recognized workers as having. By providing better enforcement for workers’ right to collective bargaining, he said, the Wagner Act would be more conducive to industrial recovery than the Recovery Act. Wagner said that lack of adequate enforcement in the Recovery Act brought “results equally disastrous to industry and to labor. Last summer it led to a procession of bloody and costly strikes, which in some cases swelled almost to the magnitude of national emergencies.” That is, Wagner argued, it was precisely the lack of collective bargaining that led to the strike wave of 1934.

Wagner identified a second consequence to the lack of enforcement provisions in the Recovery Act. Without collective bargaining, he said, workers “cannot exercise a restraining influence upon the wayward members of their own groups, and they cannot participate in our national endeavor to coordinate production and purchasing power.” Wagner argued that Congress should pass the Wagner Act in order to “stabilize and improve business by laying the foundations for the amity and fair dealing upon which permanent progress must rest.” If Congress didn’t pass the Wagner Act, Wagner predicted that “the whole country will suffer from a new economic decline.”

The Wagner Act’s full title was “An act to diminish the causes of labor disputes burdening or obstructing interstate and foreign commerce, to create a National Labor Relations Board, and for other purposes.” Like the Recovery Act, the Wagner Act’s first priority was to keep the economy flowing as smoothly as possible by reducing labor disputes. The Wagner Act said “denial by employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by employers to accept (…) collective bargaining lead[s] to strikes and other forms of industrial strife or unrest.” Furthermore, “inequality of bargaining power between employees (...) and employers (...) substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry.”

FW Gallagher is right that “ideas only matter to the extent that they correctly reflect historical experience and objective conditions.” “Direct Unionism” is far from perfect, but its criticisms of contractualism are based on analysis of the history of the U.S. government’s embrace of collective bargaining. The U.S. government backed contracts because they believed this would make the capitalist system more stable and resilient. As the Wagner Act said, “protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury (…) and promotes the flow of commerce.” Furthermore, the Act added, collective bargaining would encourage “practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes.” U.S. Congress passed the Wagner Act in 1935. When President Roosevelt signed it, he declared that the Wagner Act was “an important step toward the achievement of just and peaceful labor relations in industry.”

The Preamble to our Constitution states that the IWW’s goal is help our class advance the historic mission of abolishing the wage system and declares that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common. We should hesitate, then, before pursuing strategies which U.S. presidents and senators deliberately encouraged in order to achieve industrial peace within the capitalist system.

- Nate Hawthorne

Originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Industrial Worker newspaper

Direct unionism in practice: undermining service industry barriers to worker solidarity

This response is primarily written with the intention of facilitating an introduction to Direct Unionism for service workers who are very new to labour. We hope to participate in the DU discussion, and share with those interested how we have been affected by these conversations and also how we are practicing and implementing these ideas.

Direct Unionism in Practice: Undermining Service Industry Barriers to Worker Solidarity

Disclaimer: Our intentions for posting this response to the conversations on Direct Unionism vary greatly in terms of purpose. In crafting this reflection and response, we have also considered where we could put it to the most relevant use, and so have prepared it for many different readers. This response is primarily written with the intention of facilitating an introduction to Direct Unionism for service workers who are very new to labour. Many sections of our essay may seem redundant to many labour activists and we apologize, but hope to encourage other locally contextualized struggles through Direct Unionism. We hope to participate in the DU discussion, and share with those interested how we have been affected by these conversations and also how we are practicing and implementing these ideas. We would like to thank all participants in the Direct Unionism conversation and, also, offer our analysis based on our work in Vancouver, BC.
Last fall, we were invited to the Vancouver District Labour Council youth meeting to hear a friend give a talk about the importance of mobilization, direct action, and the dissolving right to strike for all workers. From the point of view of the only “unorganized” youth worker/organizer sitting in on the discussion, it became distinctly clear that the issue of building a “culture of resistance” was a huge part of even the “recognized” labour institutions. The meeting left the impression that even the organized workers were less radicalized than the unorganized. BC Labour’s bleak future lay in the hands of the Youth Leaders around the table representing all of BC’s major unions. We learned that from our shared experiences even the organized worker of today shares little critical analysis of class and power, nor of their union bureaucracy; they express that they are simply frustrated and trying to scrape by.

The value of the union is evident to some of these member/workers -- in terms of the dollar value for which their labour is exchanged, or by their own sense of entitlement above unorganized workers [or, more bluntly, their sense of worth as measured against the ‘un-organizable’ or transient worker; their “middle class” security blanket – which is often a self-delusion, akin to ‘false consciousness’, having been beaten into them]. The working person who cannot or desires not to pursue the credentials or lifestyle required to fit into the trades/industries which are jurisdictionally organized by unions, or who rejects the corruption, politicking, and social/fiscal investment in the status quo of the ‘Labour Movement’, finds themselves battling as a ‘one man army’ and may radicalize along individualist lines. To offer this person a ‘collectivist’ approach, instead of a ‘solidarity of the autonomous’ approach, is to replicate the mechanism they reject. This is a strong argument against a contracts-bases strategy, which provides room for negotiation only within boundaries that are neither agreed upon nor seen by the working person on the shop floor; direct action responses to individual issues, when and where they happen, negate bargaining on particulars.

The follow up discussions on the “Direct Unionism” essay put out last year has provided us with a working definition of Direct Unionism and the basic elements of direct action in the workplace. These actions orchestrated by workers at their sites have a name: but now what? The previous responses while generally in favour of direct unionism, focus on contracts and memberships and leave out some of the most important elements in the essay in terms of potential actions and worker solidarity. We like what Tom Levy reinforces about “organizing the worker, not the job,” as it allows adaptation to the flexible, mobile, reality of service workers in general. It seems like the only feasible option in terms of speaking to the reality of these workers, which in most cases is substandard. The glove fits.


The majority of unorganized workers do not want to affiliate with a union, as they have witnessed first hand the societal backlash of protected workers (in Canada, the governments continually bust out “back to work” legislation and the media persists in undermining the integrity of the workers and their causes,) and many are effected by the stigmatization of labour organizing initiatives. They are swayed towards “meritocracy,” and defend those institutionalized barriers that keep them in precarious positions. Their class-consciousness is situated in inertia, not in action. On the rare occasion that workers are introduced to the possibility of a “Union,” they are provoked and mislead by their employers, peers and sometimes even the union itself. Zealous Union Reps often leave out important information and focus only on card signing, playing into these stereotypes concerning institutionalized bureau-crazy. With all of this in mind, we believe it is important to work autonomously, to develop and accentuate ideas and actions instead. As workers and organizers we have to start reaching out to workers and focus on what we have in common within/between iindustries.


At our local IWW (INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD) meetings, we talk in depth about the realities of what we as a branch can offer workers here in BC and specifically how we can offer protection. We realize that without having the financial and institutional backing a larger union in BC might have, we don’t have much to offer workers in terms of protection. It became obvious after much discussion that it would be more beneficial to find a group that cannot be represented by a bigger Union in the first place. An industry where coping mechanisms are used day to day already to facilitate Direct Unionism, and where workers already have a sense of the industry issues and setbacks. We unanimously decided that we put all of our energy into building awareness amongst the workers in the service industry in order to provide them with viable strategies accessible within our community, to fight bosses and self-organize.

This means spreading awareness across the board, creating relationships outside of work between coworkers, sharing stories, identifying industry issues, and limits, and how they can use their combined experience to make their Direct Unionism the most effective.

Especially now, at a time when in Canada, the service industry is the largest growing but yet remains the least protected. It might be time to focus on the dynamics of the service industry and what is allowable in terms of getting through to employees and being able to illustrate to them, through small possible actions that there is power in numbers. In order for this to work entirely, the IWW may need to prioritize and adapt to these immediate needs.

As organizers working mainly in coffee shop settings, it became apparent that a lot of these ideas are already manifested day to day as coping mechanisms for workers on these sites. Most of these workers don't even know they are participating in direct action or direct unionism. There is room here, we believe, to reclaim workers sense of solidarity by pointing out to them how they already do it; as a movement we could be honing in on this direct action and reclaim it as direct unionism. The only option is to promote dialogue, in a manner resembling what we are collectively doing here, in response to the original article and the responses of others before us – but in the embodiment of the ideas, opening a conversation of direct actions and working with what we have. We could be highlighting what workers are already doing as a form of survival and framing it as a tool they can use to get direct results that effect them positively. These are skills they can access and take with them from job site to job site. The workers identify as “transient,” and understand the realities of the service industry, but they usually don’t fight to influence these realities.

In regions where the local labour regulators do not recognize any IWW ‘bargaining units’, (i.e. no card-signing threshold has been met and filed with the authorities; no legal negotiations between the employer and their ‘representative body’ have taken place to secure a contract) it becomes obvious the issue isn’t whether we should debate card signing relevance, but instead really think about what is needed. If the IWW is not recognized as a body with power, by either the average worker or the boss who should fear it, we need to undertake local issues-based organizing and use these examples to build this network from nothing. It is important to recognize all groups in the community that can participate in this network in different ways.

As a small unit, we have started a campaign, distributing pamphlets and visiting work sites, coffee shops especially, focusing completely on worker options and examples within our city in terms of fighting bosses. Giving a name to the work of the employees who do actions at their worksites has been really useful. “Direct Unionism” has been received with much excitement, as many workers feel that their actions day to day in terms of solidarity, are recognized. This gives their actions meaning and context, and a foundation for story-sharing and further actions.

Many workers don’t hear positive stories about coworkers fighting the bosses, and many wouldn’t attempt to take action because of the powerlessness imposed by the corporate environment, or other coworkers. It only takes one bad exchange with a boss, and one trip to the Employee Standards Branch for a worker to know that going that route is bleak. The service industry worker, already marginalized in so many ways, also has to take the time to build a case against their employer and wait for many months just to hear that their case was missing some vital element, or that the employer submitted more winning evidence to counter their arguments.

We need to build an infrastructure and working relationship with groups in our communities who are sympathetic to our cause, and we need to have a better understanding of local labour law, so we can work around, navigate the bias. We can provoke members of larger unions to hold their heads higher and speak louder from within the Labour hegemony in order to break down the divisions that stifle solidarity.


IWW members on the Island put together a pamphlet of just this, BC Worker's Rights. To help workers in BC access the info available to them in the Employee Standard Branch In the “Standing up for Ourselves” section of the pamphlet, the IWW Vancouver Island touches on methods workers can use in order to achieve fair treatment, but on the whole leaves out the potential to implement direct unionism. We view this pamphlet as one of the first stages of what is necessary as put forth by the DU paper in starting the direct unionism campaign in terms of identifying the local issues and restrictions. It must be considered that many service industry workers will not go through the Employee Standards Branch because of the precariousness of their positions as service industry workers.

When they do try to take action (which takes a bigger toll on the individual in the long run) they are often unsuccessful at receiving remuneration. This speaks to the lack of faith in the system (whether big Union or otherwise) and fits well with the autonomous nature of direct unionism.

In BC, the labour law is divided cleanly; there are completely separate employment Acts that deal with workers, dependent on whether or not they are members of a union. This presents a difficult challenge to the IWWer who wishes to form a bargaining unit within a specific worksite: the moment their certification is complete, the entire game changes. They will find themselves with a new set of laws to learn, a new set of power bureaucracies to deal with, and importantly, a new division between these workers and their comrades in the IWW who are not in the bargaining unit. It means they have more privilege and are also more constrained under the law than their unorganized colleagues, making solidarity actions tricky to pull off.

While the legal processes of union certification play out (from the date the IWW would file the cards, above threshold, at the Labour Board, through scheduling, holding, debating on and finally counting the votes, and thence throughout bargaining the first Collective Agreement) “a trade union or person affected by the application must not declare or engage in a strike”[BC Employment Standards Act 32:1]. Any intentional decrease in productivity can be legally considered a ‘strike’ action, or in the very least can be debated in a court or arbitration as enacting ‘bad faith’. In the event that a group of workers wished to sever their IWW agreement with the boss and dissolve the union (or, bring it back underground using a new name), the law requires they pay $10,000 to de-certify – and these funds must be proven to derive from the workers themselves, not the employer or other body.

All of this should serve as a caveat to IWW organizers seeking legitimacy from the established legal system. We, especially as the most transient and vulnerable workers, should recognize that the deck is stacked against us, and question the impulse to ‘play the hand we’re dealt’ – why play that game at all, when we can freely choose to play a different one, and see the results on the faces of our coworkers.

The reality as a service industry worker is very concerning. Unfortunately through legislation and many other barriers, the means to form a union is almost impossible. We feel the laws and regulations around forming a union and working as a service worker are incompatible in BC. The nature of the service industry (being flexible, having high turnover, notorious for low wages,etc) cannot stand up to the rigid qualifications for joining a labour union. When the circumstances do line up, which can only be for a short period of time, many of the employees are bullied, and alienated or just aren’t in a position to tough it out and inevitably something goes wrong.

Also, if you have a small unit, and this is often the case in service industry work, the recognized Unions won’t even work with you because the success rate is so low. Tom Levy also mentions this in their response, that “many of the workers we’re currently organizing are basically locally transient.” This makes it clear that it is not possible for everyone to form a union in this industry. One source from a bigger Union here in BC laid out the reality that “the de-certification rate is in the 70% range when it comes to units with less than 15 - 20 people, and they are not willing to work with smaller units, unless these units can guarantee....[success and longevity of union membership]”. The requirements are not feasible within the service industry, as the service industry was designed and has evolved in relation to a labour climate shaped predominantly by industrial trade unions of middle-class, white men; the service industry has been historically (and continues to be) regarded by many blue-collar and ‘professional’ union members as “unskilled” work, done by persons with whom they hold no affinity nor solidarity. This lack of inter-industry respect has meant less institutional and popular support for the struggles of precarious workers and their exclusion from participation within ‘Big Labour’ has allowed many legal loopholes and unfair industry ‘norms’ to become well established.

When you ask a coffee shop worker where they worked before their current job, they will probably tell you they worked at some other coffee shop, for another owner, and so on and so on. It is part of the coffee shop worker culture to hop from shop to shop. We want to agree with Chris A. about the importance of “addressing issues on a larger industrial level,” we see a potential here to win cases and set examples in order to create a worker network where workers take their experiences to the next site and tolerate less and less abuse from the bosses each time. Where they can use the tools available in the community to build solidarity and call out the bosses.

It is crucial that we build up a generation of resisters who understand their rights in the work place, who value the basics of workplace organizing as an ongoing, all-hands-on-deck exercise, and who will provide a re-educating example to dissatisfied union members. 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.

On 'direct unionism'

John O'Reilly reviews some of the perspectives laid out in the 'direct unionism' discussion paper.

A new pamphlet called Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper, written by some IWW members, has stirred much discussion in the past months. I agree with much of the paper and find the majority of it a useful way of pushing forward thoughts about what the union does and how it can do better today. I think any serious piece of writing put out by IWW members about our methods and ideas is an important contribution to our organizing culture and am excited that there’s been so much response to this piece. I have a few disagreements of the pamphlet that I believe are worth laying out. I will not dwell on my agreement with the pamphlet, but instead will pose some respectful criticism about ways in which I think it could be improved.

First, to summarize their basic argument: The authors criticize several practices or ideas among some IWW members. Their primary critique is against the contract as the end goal of an IWW campaign. The contract, the authors argue, not only is not enough of a goal because it leads to the constant headache of stagnant shops, but on a political level it actively slows down class struggle by functioning as a compromise between labor and capital. The compromise embodied in the contract promotes social peace not struggle. Obtaining and servicing a contract pushes a union away from shop floor struggle and towards workplace contractualism. They also find a useful way of dealing with the
question "What if the membership wants a contract in a democratic organization?" by effectively arguing that if the membership wants that, we've failed in our job as good organizers no matter what the outcome.

The authors counterpose to this contractual approach a union focused on struggle, on building fights, wins and losses, and keeping organization democratic yet smart. They spell out an articulate and compelling perspective on what the IWW should be doing. We should be a union of militant workers, engaged in the direct work of building the class struggle and always upping our peoples' level of consciousness, experience, and dedication to the class. In two key details their critique is mistaken though: their lack of concern for organizational form and their dichotomy between contracts and non-recognition.

The authors write that they are not terribly concerned with the form in which workplace struggle takes. They say: "We try not to overemphasize formalism (...) we don’t judge a struggle simply on its particular form—be it the union form, the workplace assembly form, or a “workers council” form." This is a mistake, and it's spelled out concretely throughout a section titled Are We Trying to Build A "Union"? For the direct unionists, the answer seems to be "not necessarily." I disagree. 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." Anecdotally, people working in fast food and restaurants in the Twin Cities know that there’s a union for them because of the IWW’s campaign at the Jimmy John’s sandwich shops here. Without the union form, these workers would not still be talking about these possibilities in a concrete way because there would be no organization for them to plug into. Having a clear organization is important because it allows us to build a strong union identity through our culture of solidarity and allow other groups of workers to see our vision in practice and step closer to us.

The organization is not, or at least should not, be a "union of militants" as the paper seems to suggest, but instead a "union of militant workers." By that I mean that the IWW should not be an organization of highly developed cadre organizers who stir up struggle at work, but should be a formal union made of workers with different levels of consciousness and organizing ability that is always pushing to develop our members. There will always be people with different levels of experience and consciousness and by embracing the union form, we can draw in workers from wherever they are at and develop them upwards as revolutionaries. After all, if we’re serious about revolutionary struggle, we need to build our organizational ability widely through the class struggle, as early IWW organizers suggested that revolutionary industrial unionism should train us to run the economy after a revolution. By building the union, by bringing in workers and having experiences of struggle with them, we have spaces for bringing up workers and building them into organizers and revolutionaries.

The direct unionists call for “a need for organization,” but don’t adequately explain what organization means. If we don't pay enough attention to organization, our analysis of how to act gets fuzzy and we can make mistakes that neither build the class struggle nor make our lives any better. We act united and public because that's how we have power. We should carry a revolutionary unionist banner and act in a revolutionary unionist way. If not, then what leadership can we provide? Being clear about what it is we are and what we're doing is an important part of organizing. How many times have we explained the politics of the IWW to someone in a one-on-one and heard “Wow, the IWW believes in something! That’s inspiring!” The truth is that like it or not, workers look to organizers and militants for ideas. By raising the banner of the IWW and building ourselves as a formal, revolutionary union, we make it easier to join the organization by building an IWW identity through culture and organizing, and make it easier to develop our members internally by intentionally thinking as an organization about membership development.

The second main mistake of the direct unionist perspective is their confusion of recognition and contractualism as the same thing. Here it's worth quoting the piece at length:

"[We’d] like to note that direct unionism does not reject recognition from the boss. It only rejects ‘official’ recognition and the legalistic methods (contracts, labor board elections, union registration) used to do so. This pamphlet intentionally stresses the ‘here and now’, but if we reach a point where the IWW is a majority presence in a shop, recognition won’t go much further than there being a recognized IWW delegate who is management’s “first point of call” when it come to shop conditions."

The direct unionists argue that that recognition is a possibility in the distant future, but in the short term most recognition is simply contractualism and should be avoided. It’s worth noting that the direct unionists effectively demolish contractualism as an IWW strategy throughout the piece, a critique that I share. They argue though that we can get contracts and get sucked into the negative aspects associated with them, or we can act directly as a group of workers using direct action and avoid all those pitfalls. But the question of recognition is not a distant one, in fact it’s a major feature in most of our current workplace campaigns.

In all the IWW union fights that I have participated in or interacted in, the question of recognition and legitimacy have been reoccurring themes, sometimes explicit and sometimes implied. The bosses sometimes attempt to delegitimize the union by arguing that a direct action approach is not a union approach. This can play out many ways, but most often plays out by the boss saying “If they say they’re a union, then they should file for an election.” Here the boss is trying to put the question of the union’s legitimacy at the workplace often as part of an attempt to third-party the union. We can respond by filing an election, something which the direct unionists and I would oppose for reasons they lay out in the pamphlet, or we can stubbornly continue to push for only direct action, not being able to answer our coworkers’ question of why we won’t file. Under the current conditions of labor law and class consciousness, simply telling a coworker that an election is a bad idea politically is not an effective answer, because the IWW and the labor movement does not possess the cultural and ideological power that we would need for most people to accept our answers without seeing it for themselves. A fellow worker said to me that he thought all new branches run end up running at least one contract campaign for this very reason.

The question of legitimacy is thus a power factor in our union fights. I disagree with the contractual approach but also think that the direct unionists’ answer is also weak. Only relying on direct action leads us to question the reasons for going public with the union in the first place, which leads us to ask why we should organize a union at all and not stick to informal work groups, something the direct unionists say they oppose. We need to find a way to find an answer to the question of the union’s legitimacy and I think we can find it in the example which the direct unionists use to argue for non-contractualism, that of Philadelphia’s Local 8, the IWW’s longshoreman’s union in the 1910’s and 20’s.

The direct unionists say “It [Local 8] established ‘worker control’ on the Philadelphia docks while balancing bread-and-butter concerns with radical, non-contractual principles. To achieve this Philadelphia’s longshore workers would strike any pier in which a shipper tried to bring in non-union labor to unload cargo.” What the direct unionists don’t include here though is that through a strong organizing campaign that took years to fight Local 8 was recognized by the shipper’s organization as the legitimate representative of longshoremen in Philadelphia. The IWW had a hiring hall which the shipping companies used to get workers, much like modern longshoring unions do. Also workers believed that the IWW was their legitimate representative and would refuse to work with longshoremen who were not paid up or would not wear union buttons. In short, through a vigorous campaign of direct action, the IWW fought for and received formal recognition outside of a contractual framework. (Refer to Peter Cole’s Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia for support for this section)

The direct unionists could be throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. Even if we find contractualism a mistake for revolutionary unionism, we need to note that there are different kinds of recognition and that the question of legitimacy cannot be solved simply by hoping that workers will see the union as legitimate by practicing direct action. Capitalist ideology is pervasive and we need to face the fact that today given a choice between pure direct actionism and a contract which recognizes the union, workers will often opt for a contract because it makes the union seem like a legitimate force in the work place. The IWW needs to fight to find ways that deal with the problem of legitimacy that do not give up our tools of direct action, but rather make them part of the culture of work.

Much of the Direct Unionism pamphlet correctly exposes and argues against approaches that would make it more difficult to develop a fully worked-out model of revolutionary unionism. “Business unionism with red flags” remains an important idea to consider and struggle against within our own organizing and organization. It is not simply enough to declare that we are revolutionaries and that it follows that everything we do is revolutionary. We need an organizing practice which matches up to our vision and values about the unionism we would like to see. In developing that practice though, we must carefully interrogate the practices that we think are associated with business unionism and ask ourselves the same questions we ask ourselves. Just because some organizations declare themselves to be business unionists does not mean that everything that follows is inherently business unionist. Reformism has the same problems of praxis that revolutionary unionism has and we should be able to correctly analyze what the “best practices” are and use them to our class’s advantage.

Originally appeared: March 3, 2012 at Thoughts on the Struggle

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 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