The contract as a tactic

An article from the Industrial Worker newspaper advocating formal, written contracts with employers as a goal for IWW campaigns. We do not agree with this article but reproduce for reference.

The legacy of the IWW is one without labor contracts. In the era before there was a legal structure for unions to win legal recognition against the employers’ wishes, unions either made sweetheart deals with the boss or maintained standards through their own organizational strength. The IWW chose to eschew collaboration with the boss and focus on organizing workers. It was a strategy that worked in some cases, allowing us to improve standards in mining and logging towns, but it also cost us in places like Lawrence, Mass., where, despite a large and militant strike, without a contract the work remained one of low wages and sweatshop conditions.

Many people believe that the IWW is ideologically opposed to contracts or does not have any. Actually, today the union has several contracts that cover workers at domestic violence call centers, a recycling plant, the staff at a United Auto Workers local, and retail locations.

I would like to argue that contracts, like other tactics such as strikes, pickets, boycotts, slow-downs, press conferences, teach-ins, etc., can be used as part of long-term campaigns to raise the standards of living for workers, raise the ability of workers to have a say and control in their workplace, and act as a publicity piece to promote the IWW’s brand of direct and democratic unionism. Contracts can be especially useful in high-turnover industries, where they can lock in basic pro-worker conditions regardless of turnover and make it easier for the union to talk to new workers and raise their class consciousness.

Many other unions treat contracts as an end. Their primary goal is to achieve a contract with a company where there was none before. This can lead them to agree to sweetheart deals with the company without engaging workers, or to organize workers with a limited and narrow goal of what they can achieve.

One of the IWW’s goals is worker control of the economy. When we get there, we won’t need business owners with whom to have contracts. However, we don’t have the strength or organizational capacity to completely do away with the capitalist class today. We have to wage battles that grow the working class’ understanding and acceptance of our ability to do more than just be cogs in someone else’s machine.

While other unions see the signing of a contact as something that guarantees labor peace for the employer, we must see the signing of a contract not as an end to struggle, but a beginning. We will still have to struggle to enforce the pro-worker provisions of the contract, we will have to work to undermine any provisions of the contract that give the boss power, and we will have to work to organize workers in the shop covered by the contract to continue to fight for better conditions and more worker control. We will also have to spread propaganda among workers in other shops to encourage them to organize for their own improvements in conditions and achieve worker control.

A contract fight can be a framework for discussing what workers want their jobs and workplace to be, starting with surveying workers and discussing what they do and do not like about their work conditions, and then bringing those demands to bargaining while mobilizing and flexing the workers’ strength until a contract is won. We can repeat the process, continuing to discuss what was achieved and codified in a contract and what needs to still be done.

Workers must own the contract campaign process: they must elect their bargaining representatives, receive and be engaged with negotiation updates, take action to pressure the boss on specific demands, and have the final vote on whether to accept the contract and for how long.

There may be some back and forth. The union can rank its issues for negotiating what is required to even consider the contract and what is completely unacceptable, but the union can also rank some of the less black-and-white issues to know better what can be negotiated and on what they need to stand firm. The union can break its issues into different categories to consider as well: wages, work conditions, training, benefits, grievance procedures, and organizing and mobilizing tactics.

While some have an all-or-nothing mentality, I think that it makes more sense for workers to take what they can get now and use those expanded resources to fight for even more.

A contract will not likely codify our absolute victory over the capitalist class, and at times it could be a distraction, but so can many other tactics when they are elevated to the level of strategy. Striking for the sake of going on strike won’t help us achieve our goals any more than will bargaining for the sake of a contract. The product of contract negotiations will essentially specify the current balance of forces between the boss and the union.

Some may say that by agreeing to a labor contract with an employer the union is collaborating with the boss, conceding defeat in the class struggle, or agreeing to a ceasefire between workers and the boss. I don’t think so, at least not any more so than is going on strike for a specific demand such as a pay raise or to pressure the boss to rehire illegally fired workers. Further, most union contracts have a variety of rules, such as grievance procedures, that boost workers’ ability to challenge the boss’s authority. Enforcement of these provisions is often an important way for unions to engage workers, keep them organizing, and to highlight the ways in which the boss is trying to rob workers of their rights and dignity.

Other opponents of labor contracts argue that a contract limits the union and the specific tactics it is allowed to use. Many unions, for example, agree to no-strike clauses in contracts for the duration of the contract. I don’t think that a contract necessarily has to give up any tactics that the union wants to hold on to. A contract will only limit the union to the extent that we allow it to or allow the boss to limit us. At the end of the day, we don’t have to agree to anything that we don’t want to.

If the employer violates a part of the agreement, we won’t necessarily be expected to not respond in kind. Further, contracts expire. A two- or three-yearlong contract can give us the opportunity to regroup our strength, gather our forces, outline a new battle strategy, organize around it, and prepare for a new contract fight with the intentions of expanding workers’ power. Also, it takes time to organize around issues and convince all the workers at a shop to take a particular action on a particular point. Sometimes it might make sense for the union, understanding that it may not be able to organize workers, to commit to “X,” “Y” or “Z” tactic within a certain period of time, and to agree to give up such a tactic in a contract, until such a time that the union is capable of deploying it.

Workers may not be able to win everything they want with the first contract, but they can use what they do get to provide some sense of stability. In many ways, if workplace conditions are a building, organizing is the scaffolding for that building and a labor contract is the blueprint. Once the building is up, we can always remodel it, and when the time comes, we can tear it down and build a new structure. But when we do, we’ll have had the experience of building before to learn from and go off of.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2013)