Structure of present day IWW

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Juan Conatz's picture
Juan Conatz
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Apr 19 2016 03:20
Structure of present day IWW

Thought I would start another thread from this part of a comment from the CNT proposal to reorganize IWA thread. Seems like I've come across weird variations of this over the years on libcom, thought it would be worth clarifying.

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For example, the IWW is a general membership organisation and each individual member gets one vote when voting for the General Executive Board. Consequently, the GEB is not only dominated by members living in America, it is dominated by members living in certain parts of America, like Chicago. So while they may aspire to be 'of the World' they really are of Chicago. So if you live in Chicago, inevitably you'll have greater say and more influence.

Almost all of that is incorrect.

The highest body of the IWW is the annual referendum. The rederendum votes on what the delegate convention passes. Every member gets a ballot to vote. The delegate convention is the second highest body. Branches and unions are represented here through more or less proportional delegate allotments. The convention nominates officers, creates committees, amends the constitution/bylaws etc.

The GEB, the third highest body, is responsible for the union in between delegate conventions, not unlike a secretariat. I assume the GEB has more power than the IWA secretariat but that's just an assumption.

It is centered around the U.S. because of historical reasons but this is changing, as UK membership is almost the same as U.S. There is an ongoing committee to completely change the international structure of the union so it does not revolve around the U.S. so heavily.

The GEB is not based out of Chicago and not one current person who serves on it lives in Chicago. Chicago is where the GHQ is at, which has almost entirely Administrative functions. The General-Secretary Treasurer cannot set policy, change the constitution, expell bodies of the union, etc. They mostly spend their time maintaining membership records, dispersing money, etc.

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Apr 19 2016 03:59

Sorry to step on your toes, comrade.

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Almost all of that is incorrect.

So which tiny part was correct?

Anyway, thanks for the clarification and I would defer to your obviously superior knowledge. I haven't been a member of the IWW since 1977 and the last time I looked at the IWW Constitution I was struck by how little it had changed. Particularly the part about referring to anarchists as 'antipolitical sects'. But I digress.

My central point appears to have been overlooked; proportional representation is premised on the notion that each individual should have one vote. Therefore, if your membership is located mainly in one (or two) countries, then the decision-making power will concentrate in those countries (or locations). This is what the CNT seeks; power proportional to quantity of individual members. The problem for the CNT is the IWA is one section, one vote (regardless of the size).

This does two things; it posits a collective identity (the section) over an individual one (the member), it dissipates and disperses power away from the powerful, where that power is based on quantity of individuals, to the least powerful. Taken together, it acts as a brake on excessive power.

It is much easier to sign up members quickly in order to qualify for more votes than it is to make-up a national section even if it was tiny.

The IWA is a federation, the IWW is not. The IWA method of organisation is far more consistent with the practice of anarcho-syndicalism compared with the IWW (which, to be fair, has never referred itself as anarcho-syndicalist)

The ASF has a membership of seven affiliates each of which get a vote at ASF Congress.

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Apr 19 2016 04:09

I agree that the U.S. dominates the IWW, I think that part is correct.

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Apr 19 2016 04:11
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It is centered around the U.S. because of historical reasons but this is changing, as UK membership is almost the same as U.S. There is an ongoing committee to completely change the international structure of the union so it does not revolve around the U.S. so heavily.

The historical reasons are that despite aspiring to be 'of the world', for the best part of its history the IWW membershiphas been overwhelmingly based in the US.

There has been little or no influence on the make up of the constitution and structure of the IWW from members from countries other than the US.

It's good to hear that there are now almost as many members in the UK as there are in the US but I had no idea that the wobs were losing that many members in the US.

Still, the IWW is, by comparison with the IWA, monocultural and lacking in diversity in global terms

The CNT is proposing a more-or-less general membership organisation along similar lines and will presumably eschew anarcho-syndicalism in favour of a vague reference to revolutionary unionism.

In your opinion, Juan, do you think the IWW will get on board?

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Apr 19 2016 04:26

Agreed. The IWW has almost always been limited to the U.S., with varying and limited membership in Canada, UK, Australia, Germany and Chile.

The U.S. is not really losing members, it has just stayed the same more or less over the past 5 years, although even that is changing, because of the prisoner organizing that is happened. The UK meanwhile, has quadrupled in 5 years.

Both the IWW and IWA are overwhelmingly based in the West with virtually no precence in Asia, Africa and only a very limited precence in Latin America.

I don't think most members of the IWW know anything about the IWA other than the 1930s CNT. Of those that do, its my opinion that we are not very clear at all what is happening with the latest IWA controversy, nor what the CNT is actually proposing.

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Apr 19 2016 04:50
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The U.S. is not really losing members, it has just stayed the same more or less over the past 5 years, although even that is changing, because of the prisoner organizing that is happened. The UK meanwhile, has quadrupled in 5 years.

Yes, I know Juan, I was just being a bit of a smartarse. I'm wary of statements about 'quadrupling' or other quantitative terms. The ASF has more than doubled in the last six months but its still tiny.

Quote:
I don't think most members of the IWW know anything about the IWA other than the 1930s CNT. Of those that do, its my opinion that we are not very clear at all what is happening with the latest IWA controversy, nor what the CNT is actually proposing.

Maybe I can help; the CNT is proposing to do something for which they have no mandate whatsoever - 're-found' the IWA. The justification for this course of action rests on nothing other than their opinions with regard to the IWA. They'll be relying heavily on their great numberrs and magnificent history to defend the indefensible.

Quote:
Both the IWW and IWA are overwhelmingly based in the West with virtually no precence in Asia, Africa and only a very limited precence in Latin America.

Absolutely right, Juan. I think we should do something about this start with a critical examination as to why this has been the case for so long.

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Apr 19 2016 22:29
Juan Conatz wrote:
The U.S. is not really losing members, it has just stayed the same more or less over the past 5 years, although even that is changing, because of the prisoner organizing that is happened. The UK meanwhile, has quadrupled in 5 years.

don't mean to derail the thread, which is interesting, however I wanted to ask about this. Is this true? I mean it's great if it is but it seems very surprising. I remember I was briefly a member of the IWW, probably in 2003/4 and we were told that it had 400 members. Although that to me seemed to be an over-estimate. I mean I'm not aware of everything which goes on, but the IWW here doesn't seem to have much of a public profile, no print publication, the website hasn't had anything posted on it in about 8 months, and I thought its main organised shops split off into the IWGB (and then maybe subsequently UVW)?

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Apr 19 2016 23:37

I can't really speak for them, since I am in Minneapolis, but my impression is that the UK IWW (or 'European Regional Administration' as it is unfortunatly, technically known as) got rid of paper dues payments and switched to reoccurring electronic dues payments, which is one of the main reasons for this 'growth'.

Of course, the danger with this type of system is that you create a large on-paper membership. In the past the Twin Cities IWW was against this (we now allow it) type of dues payments because of this very reason. But on the flipside, being Branch Secretary, I see the inordinate amount of effort put in by volunteer delegates to get paper dues payments. A lot of members fall through the cracks, fall into bad standing, etc. Like currently the branch here hovers around the same amount of members in good standing, but there's that same number that isn't in good standing or are technically 'inactive' but are still connected to the branch in some manner and I would consider still members. I bet that reoccuring electronic dues payments as default would double, maybe even triple the on-paper members in good standing of my branch.

When I was in Madison in 2011 during the big movement there, the branch technically had 60-70 members who paid dues. But this was mostly through automatic electronic payments. The active membership (people who came to meetings, did grunt work, etc) was more like 8-10. In some ways this was bad. It was hard sometimes to gauge our actual capacity. But in other ways it was good. The paper membership's dues allowed us to do things that were vital in a situation where the Capitol was occupied and there were regularly tens of thousands of people in the streets. And then also, some of that paper membership because they are still formally connected with the organization, rotate back in when their lives allow it.

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Apr 20 2016 02:10

Membership numbers are always fuzzy. Numbers can rise and fall over time. I never pay much attention to claims other than as an approximation. The figure will always be inflated either slightly or greatly.

Members who have paid their dues but are not greatly involved you could call 'registered members' i.e. the on-paper membership. But how many are active and how do you define active? If a member attends 50% or more of scheduled meetings in a calendar year, you could define them as 'active members'.

The ratio of 'registered members' to 'active members' you could define as the participation rate. If you have at least half of the members attending 50% or more of scheduled meeting in a calendar year, you have a participation rate of 50%

I've noticed that increases in membership do not necessarily have a proportional relationship to the participation rate. Indeed, small units can have higher participation rates than larger units.

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Apr 20 2016 06:15
Steven. wrote:
Juan Conatz wrote:
The U.S. is not really losing members, it has just stayed the same more or less over the past 5 years, although even that is changing, because of the prisoner organizing that is happened. The UK meanwhile, has quadrupled in 5 years.

don't mean to derail the thread, which is interesting, however I wanted to ask about this. Is this true?

Fwiw latest IWW returns (2014) say 750 members, 2010 said 342. Obv these are just snapshots of good-standing members on one day of the year and there could be considerable variation.

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Apr 20 2016 11:10

I feel that the benefits of the automatic dues withdrawal system outweigh the costs. It will contribute to more funds for the union which would allow hist hire staff to help out in organizing drives and maintaining branches etc. The time consuming process of signing up, mailing, and collecting dues now is prohibitive. In the founding period of the IWW, or the decade preceding, Debs complained that the old Trade Unions were obsessed with restrictive and silly 'rights of passage' and other ceremonial features. These he associated with their outdated and thoroughly restrictive character. I feel our current dues setup is similar. It's at best a quirky novelty, but most of the time, just a hassle. I want to start a branch so I can do union work, not so I can trade Pokemon cards.

Though, we'd have to reckon with an administrative apparatus which is meant to channel all activity of the union through one single paid staffer (and some hired office staff, I think? Part-timers?) Call me crazy, but I suspect the "bureaucratic domination ratio" (if it were so simple a function) would still be higher than 1:2000.

grin

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Apr 20 2016 11:36

Surely it's better to have 24 dues-paying members of which only 8 are active than to have 8 dues-paying members who are all active.

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Apr 20 2016 12:30

I also want to add that paying dues is a way for people who are time strapped to contribute. It's interesting because a lot of people refer to dues checkoff as 'bureaucracy' when in reality it eliminates bureaucratic roles. In the hands of an established bureaucratic leadership, it helps them maintain their position, but in general it is not a road to serfdom. If anything, having a paper and pencil cash delegate system is a stifling bureaucracy.

Not accusing anyone here of that position, just saying it's one I've encountered.

no1
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Apr 20 2016 12:37
jef costello wrote:
Surely it's better to have 24 dues-paying members of which only 8 are active than to have 8 dues-paying members who are all active.

At any particular moment obviously yes - but not in the longer term if you want to be a revolutionary union.
If a union becomes dependent on the subs income from passive members, its trajectory is to accumulate an ever larger paper membership, who will want various union representation services to be provided to them in return.

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Apr 20 2016 12:39

In fact, it becomes a massive problem when proportional voting system is in place. Maybe not for any type of your next-door trade union, but for anarchosyndicalist/revolutionary syndicalist type of project for sure.

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Apr 20 2016 12:47

Yeah I think it's more a question of whether paper memberships create a consitutency for would-be representatives to emerge.* You can have mandated delegates, but if someone gets a broad mandate to 'do stuff on our behalf we can't be bothered' then you potentially get a layer of activists with disproportionate influence (who may in turn start proposing they get remunerated for their efforts, and present this as reasonable to those whose mandate they're fulfilling...).

That's by no means inevitable, but it's a possibility. 'Paper members' covers a lot though - people who are active in their workplaces but don't make branch meetings, people who just want a conventional service union relationship, people who are on a bit of a break for whatever reason but want to support, people who have long gone but forgot to cancel their direct debit, or in cases of outright fraud, fictional members. I guess it's mostly the 'people wanting a service relationship' (or fake members) that could most likely lead to an emerging layer of representatives as proto-bureaucrats.

At the extremes you could turn a blind eye to this altogether, or boot people who miss two consecutive meetings. Neither seems sensible, but I'm sure there's multiple intermediate positions that could make sense in different contexts.

* Edit: I don't think this necessarily happens by malign intent fwiw. Just look at the caseload of your average shop steward - or perhaps especially that of a diligent left-wing shop steward - to see how well-intentioned activity on members behalves can translate into a fuckload of unpaid work (and potentially desire for remuneration). That doesn't mean you don't have people helping each other out, but professionalisation isn't a 'fix' available to radical orgs imho.

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Apr 20 2016 12:54

Paper membership or not, delegates should still be assigned membership contacts and be responsible for engaging with them, whatever form of payment an organization utilizes. I do think any union worth its salt (ha) is going to have a large layer of paper members. Unions are not cadre groups.

syndicalist
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Apr 20 2016 13:44
Juan Conatz wrote:
Paper membership or not, delegates should still be assigned membership contacts and be responsible for engaging with them, whatever form of payment an organization utilizes. I do think any union worth its salt (ha) is going to have a large layer of paper members. Unions are not cadre groups.

I get what your saying, but this is really only true when you have functioning unions
And even then, there can still be elements (large or small) of "book members".

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Apr 20 2016 14:19

I agree with Juan, that unions fundamentally aren't cadre groups.

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You can have mandated delegates, but if someone gets a broad mandate to 'do stuff on our behalf we can't be bothered' then you potentially get a layer of activists with disproportionate influence

This is exactly the case with the I.W.W. and diy unionism in general *as it currently is*. Those who work for a living don't have the time to do the work. Instead of "paying bureaucrats" to manage the union, they just *reject unionism fully*. Thus, the IWW and others are completely dominated by activist elements, 99% unpaid. The reality is that control of unions is a struggle between workers and those in support of them to define and pursue policy that increases the education and organization of the class, not simply a function of 'structure'.

I'm not sure I understand the derision for 'service'. Certainly we could provide service (guidance through direct action grievance procedures, education, legal support as a last resort, contract negotiations, logistical and administrative support, media editing/management, newsletter printing, etc.) that does not translate into 'bureaucratic control'. Even these services would require paid staff in a real capacity to implement effectively and consistently. There is often a 'slippery slope' argument made by anti-staffers or anti-bureaucrats, that just doesn't hold up. How exactly does paying union administrators or even organizers, necessarily translate into bureaucratic domination of the organization?

But you touch on another point

Quote:
it's more a question of whether paper memberships create a constituency for would-be representatives to emerge.

Indeed, a union *ought* to be a mixed constituency of workers of whatever political stripe. The key is that the union takes the first steps toward pointing them down the line of socialism/communism (as these are the logical results for recognizing the class struggle, a premise necessary to accept in order to wage effective struggle). But there is a real fear that the union will be 'watered down'. People don't trust workers to be susceptible to their ideas? Or do they doubt their own ability to agitate and educate? Or do they doubt the intelligence of workers?

Re votes for paper members: are you referring to the IWA? In general I think dues paying members get the vote whatever their level of participation. Of course, sections in an international are a separate matter, but inside the country, the idea that there is some level of effort that has to be achieved to merit a vote seems extremely dysfunctional.

Delegates: Couldn't a membership outreach and intake committee handle the same? This is of course assuming stewards exist (which, practically, they do not in the current IWW) who would be direct, practical points of contact for the union at work.

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Apr 20 2016 14:31

I disagree pretty much with everything that Pennoid has to say about staff, dues checkoff, contracts, paid organizers etc. but I agree with what he had to say about level of involvement and voting. The notion that there is some arbitrary level of active involvement to be reached before someone gets to participate in the democratic functions of a union seems like small sect-like talk. I don't understand this.

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Apr 20 2016 14:32
Pennoid wrote:
There is often a 'slippery slope' argument made by anti-staffers or anti-bureaucrats, that just doesn't hold up. How exactly does paying union administrators or even organizers, necessarily translate into bureaucratic domination of the organization?

It's not really a slippery slope argument because it's mechanistic (i.e. it suggests mechanisms by which bureaucracies emerge to explain the the fact this has repeatedly happened even to radical unions). The point is it's not inevitable, but to put countermeasures in place you need to recognise the mechanisms. Radical unions have things like term limits, bars on political party members holding office, limits/bans on waged staff, quoracy rules etc to block that process of forming a layer with separate interests to the rank-and-file. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all rulebook fix, but I think putting the burden of proof on advocates of e.g. creating a paid position to argue the case on a case-by-case basis is sensible.

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Apr 20 2016 15:17

Maybe I'm missing it, but what exactly are the mechanisms that certify the rule of a bureaucratic clique? iirc, in spite of the UAW's fairly bureaucratic political sympathies from the first, there was a fierce post war struggle for control of the organization (which failed, don't get me wrong). On the other hand, there are unions which have used paid staff, and signed contracts, which are democratic to the core, with member determined policy (UE), elected working officers (that is shopfloor workers as national officers, like the MESA) from the same period. What determined their courses? Bureaucratic rule does not descend from the *existence of bureaucrats* but from political choices and struggles which lead to their rule, over the membership. So I agree that the tendency toward the development of bureaucracy is inevitable under capitalism. I even agree that banning paid staff eliminates the threat of rule of a bureaucracy over a membership: indeed, it removes the threat of having a membership altogether! In all seriousness, though, while the tendency for bureaucracy to moderate the conflict between workers and bosses is real, I do think 'radicals' throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting paid staff. This was not the policy of the MESA, the IWW or the UE each of which were, whatever you think of their *politics* democratic unions. What I think it needs to be clearly separated from, as a first step, is *paid national officers*.

I guess that's partly what I'm doing, trying to make the case:

For example, I think a simple way of beginning to approach the problem is to suggest that any staff employed by the IWW, are indeed employed by the membership, and submitted to the execution of policy determined by that membership. Of course this implies that the IWW develop clearer and more precise policy setting mechanisms and practices. To my knowledge these do not exist, as the current ODB is a passive body, correct? That is, it does not carry out or implement policy set at convention? Perhaps it would be *able* to. That would have a great effect on the union, I think. My understanding is that the standing policy in the IWW is for individual branches to engage in up-start unionism, and network with other branches who by chance happen to be interested in or engaging in the same industry etc.

Certainly, most unions have bureaucratic leadership; small cliques of constantly re-elected leadership, who are handsomely compensated. That is an extreme deviation from the suggestion that we employ secretaries, or web admins, or again, organizers, at a living wage. In fact, this same group of people (low level staff) in failing unions finding themselves increasingly without work. So how, are they acting in their own interests? Perhaps they're not class conscious bureaucrats? (ZING!)

That said, I agree with the need for the countermeasures, I mostly just feel that without some paid staff to provide baseline administration (in a consistent and reliable fashion) and help reaching larger groups of workers, we will remain a sect. So I'm trying to make the case for those staff which secure the foundations upon which workers can engage in union activity effectively and win, consolidate wins, and establish genuine locals or branches.

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Apr 20 2016 15:18

The other thing to think about is whether it is easier for someone to leave the organization or to stay in it. What is their default option and which one takes effort on their part?

With paper dues the member has to make an effort every month to stay caught up. Even if that just means responding to phone calls from a delegate or scheduling a time to meet. If the member does nothing they stop being a member.

With other systems it could be the opposite, the 'default' is that someone stays a member until they make a choice to tell someone that they are quitting.

Monthly paper dues can make sense in a context of job control (eg the Philly dockworkers who issued a new button with each month's dues so that a work crew could immediately identify someone who hadn't paid up and stop work until that was resolved) but I don't think it makes sense for a disparate group of people who almost never see each other on a daily basis.

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Apr 20 2016 16:02

How many Gmbs over the years have basically been composed of "book members"?
What are the active numbers in job shops? The point is not to desparage, but to sumy say the whole question if "book members" or "paper members" can have many sides or reasons. I'm not encouraging the practice, just saying I've seen enough of it to know that no one is immune to it. And sometimes, with locals or branches of older or retired members there's a whe other dynamic
I'm old enough to remember joining the IWW in the early 1970s where a majority were book members. Or the many exiled communities of Cntistas who belong out if loyalitu to the cause and ideals, but weren't so active. Anyway, I'm not a big believer in things being black and white

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Apr 20 2016 16:03
Pennoid wrote:
Maybe I'm missing it, but what exactly are the mechanisms that certify the rule of a bureaucratic clique?

Usually some combination of a separation between an activist and rank-and-file layer, creation of waged positions for the former, (usually) gradual shift in locus of decision-making from the rank-and-file to the professionals, at some point setting up a positive feedback effect between increased expenditure and need for increased dues and risk aversion to protect those revenues.1 Typically the first generation are seasoned and respected activists and may or may not 'sell-out', but once incentive structures are in place to make a living off the movement all sorts of careerists will be attracted.

There's various other mechanisms and obviously the specifics vary between organisations. e.g. iirc various delegates in the Italian Hot Autumn were sort of 'stranded' when the assembly movement that mandated them ebbed... some were absorbed into trade union bureaucracies, others became active in base unions, so nothing inevitable here again.

Any moderately sized union is going to have members with a range of activity and participation at any given point, I don't think that automatically creates a bureaucracy or the mechanisms for bureaucratic rule. But the more you create a separate set of interests (e.g. people whose livelihood is a wage from the union), the more likely it is some of them start acting to secure those interests. Like I say there's various rulebook style obstacles you can throw up to that, and arguably as or more important is the culture you develop around holding each other accountable, self-educating to better rotate responsibilities, develop new leaders (in the sense of people willing to take the initiative, or take on responsibilities etc), which might not be written down anywhere, or even possible to codify, but has a big impact on the way an organisation develops.

edit: none of this is a swipe at the wobs btw, I'm basically a paper member of SF atm, everyone's going to go through periods of relative activity and inactivity, and it doesn't make sense to kick people out of a union when e.g. they have a kid or start an evening class and stop coming to meetings. i think these are generic problems faced by radical unionists of all stripes: there's clearly defined models for how to run a bureaucratic, legalistic trade union, but the models of largescale radical unions are of limited relevance today so we have to feel our way to develop appropriate methods.

  • 1. The case of John Turner quoted here is a good example of that kind of positive feedback.
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Apr 20 2016 22:59

I don't think bureaucratic degeneration is inevitable in a union. But avoiding it does require some conscious practices & rules & is helped by certain circumstances.

in the 1880s & early 1890s AFL was still pretty grassroots. They didn't do "collective bargaining". the union assemblies decided on what the wage rate & rules should be then the elected delegates led tramping committees around to workplaces & signed people up, called people out on strike, tried to get the employers to accept the union wage rates & rules. Crafts would often engage in sympathy strikes to support each other. But the delegates, who were often socialists or anarchists, often got fired. They were the most committed and knowledgeable so people didn't want to lose them, so they started hiring them. Start of the business agent system. But as time went on this led to a pattern of dependency. BAs could get people jobs, play favorites in terms of who they'd help out, to maintain a circle of cronies to vote to keep them in office.

The switch to "collective bargaining" was another shift that favored power in hands of officials & BAs, who did the negotiations. The thing is, they never did anything to train people in how to do these things....organize, speak publically, negotiate. the dependency relation was to their advantage. With many areas of work being very precarious many of the AFL unions set up hiring halls, which provided yet another avenue for favoritism by officials, who could control access to the jobs.

so you can see why certain kinds of techniques developed for avoiding this route to a labor fiefdom. things like term limits, worker schools or storefront social centers to study social theory, learn public speaking, how to organize, etc. to train militants. also rank and file negotiating committees. elected unpaid shop steward committees.

in early 1900s once worker militancy had developed to point labor struggles & strikes were becoming more common, sophisticated employers favored dealing with "responsible" labor leaders who could promise "labor peace" via no strike contracts, and direct negotiation of contracts not with workers but paid officials.

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Apr 22 2016 16:41

I think we might disagree in detail Joseph. The emerging bureaucracy did not act in naked self interest. At every turn they presented a host of political justifications, and fought to dominate and garner support for those positions. Of course, those positions are difficult to deal with outside the historical moment. I think a great deal of nuance and accuracy is lost with the whole-cloth rejection of 'bureaucracy' without reference to these political debates which can often mirror our own. It seems like the result of anarchism's debt to classical liberal language amplified by cold war derision for third world Bonapartism, which sees in all things the extension of stifiling bureaucracies crushing the free spirit of the common working person (Cue Rocker and Dwight MacDonald).

But,for all the anarchists turned bureaucrats, there are those salaried socialists and anarchists, etc who remained committed to communist/anarchist politics. I guess, again, I'm trying to emphasize two points

1) paying skilled workers for their work for the union just seems like good sense (but needs to be executed with an eye towards possibilities for corruption, sure)

2) 'bureaucratic creep' is not simply a 'technical' problem, or resultant simply from the *existence of paid staff* but from structural and ultimately political imperatives which elevate the decision making power to those bureaucrats.

Bureaucrats who did want to advance their own interests over the rank and file would have to struggle against them in order to change the organization in order to do so. But I want to emphasize that I'm not advocating we elect national officers and pay them 300k a year in the IWW. I'm just saying we need administrative staff, editing staff, and even organizing staff.

I feel like I'm repeating though so I'll back off now

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Apr 22 2016 18:33

I'm not really saying ruthless bureaucrats manipulate or struggle against the rank-and-file to gain control. They might, but I don't think that's typical. I'm more concerned with how a union can become bureaucratised as an unintended consequence of other choices, each often reasonable enough taken in isolation.

So something like paying skilled workers. I wouldn't necessarily oppose this (e.g. paying some professionals to redesign a website, or a publication, if those skills weren't available from volunteers, or if the volunteers had to forego paid work to do work for the union). I'd be more skeptical of ongoing salaried work and the union becoming an employer, though I agree that paying someone to do the admin doesn't automatically give them control.

But if the skills you're paying for create a reliance on a layer of specialists, I think that may fall foul of the 'meaningful action for revolutionaries' rule of thumb, and may over time lead to a divergence of interests, etc. Doesn't rule out e.g. a fixed-term stipend for sending some unemployed members to help an organising drive or a big struggle kicking off or whatever though, where that kind of risk is minimal (I think wobs did this with Madison?). Or if part of what you pay for is to train a bunch of replacements, with the work being fixed term, maybe paying for the work could be a way to diffuse those skills throughout the membership, actually reducing reliance on paid experts?

I do think this is worth talking through. I don't think I'm just repeating anarchist (or classical liberal) received wisdom. It's more I think radical unionists have to reckon with the fact that empirically, combative, grassroots, member-controlled unions are pretty rare, and historically many of those which have existed have developed into the kind of corporate collaborationist unions 'behind the backs' of their members so to speak. It may be that anarchists sometimes bend the stick too far the other way, I'm open to that argument. But I do think the burden of proof being with advocates of paid staff is a sensible starting point.

On a slightly different note, when you look at historic, large-scale radical unions (heyday IWW, CNT, FAUD...), they had large fluctuations in membership reflecting struggles/repression/the wider political climate etc. Maybe the consequence of being a genuine component of working class struggle is more dependence on the ebbs and flows of that struggle. (Ofc effective unions, even small ones, don't just react to struggles, but catalyse them, thus contributing to the overall levels struggle, e.g. big examples being the IWW at Lawrence or the CNT's 'revolutionary gymnastics').

Maybe we should accept this dynamic is somewhat inevitable. While still ofc wanting to grow, build capacity, through the upsurges and the downswings, it's never going to be linear, so maybe the union should be set up to ebb and flow a bit too. So volunteers or fixed-term stipends rather than permanent salaried staff, capacity to act as a vehicle for upsurges in militancy (either as inflows of members, or through organising assemblies, etc), without building structures that won't be able to be maintained (or even needed) a few months or years later. Maybe radical unions need to be flexible enough to shift form in different phases of struggle: what it takes to sustain a rolling strike movement may be quite different to what it takes to regroup workers after a series of crushing defeats (or where most of us are now: to support small groups of workers in everyday organising work and localised struggles).

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OliverTwister
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Apr 22 2016 19:45

The IWW in it's heyday had every member of the Executive Board on salary, and they hired other organizers for various campaigns. Plus delegates were paid a portion of the dues from each person they signed up, there were paid editors, etc.

The CNT at its height also had multiple paid staff.

IMO one of the crucial things is not whether or not some people are paid - it is how does the union collect finances and who chooses what are done with them?

There is a historical tendency for unions to be made financially autonomous from workers. That is not the only way a bureaucracy develops, but it is a major way that the bureaucracy structurally reinforces itself. This tendency is a result of common action on the part of employers, the state, and the nascent union bureaucrats themselves.

In North America this looks like the combination of the union shop clause (mandatory membership), dues check off, and exclusive representation. Those elements were all already present in the exclusionary methods of the AFL (which craft unions organized to defend themselves against the encroachments of the Knights of Labor) and they were codified with the NLRA in 1935. This means that once a union wins recognition as an exclusive bargaining agent, and signs a contract with closed shop and dues check off clauses, the bureaucracy is guaranteed an income regardless of the will of the workers.

In continental Europe, Spain being a prime example, this looks like subsidies to unions directly from the state and employers. So Staughton Lynd can be happy because the membership is voluntary, but the bureaucracy is still guaranteed that most of its income is independent of the will of the workers.

On the other hand, if you have to convince workers to pay every month, you have to show them that the union is worth it. That makes whatever bureaucracy might exist much more responsive.

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Joseph Kay
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Apr 22 2016 20:03

How centralised were the resources of the heyday IWW? Like could the Executive Board turn off resources or were branches practically quite autonomous? I guess if you centralise admin but decentralise resources, that helps keep control at branch level.

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OliverTwister
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Apr 22 2016 20:21
Joseph Kay wrote:
How centralised were the resources of the heyday IWW? Like could the Executive Board turn off resources or were branches practically quite autonomous? I guess if you centralise admin but decentralise resources, that helps keep control at branch level.

It was an ongoing tension. The split in 1924 was led by the "centralists" on the one hand vs the "decentralists" on the other. But the decentralists just wanted very centralized industrial unions, without a strong central body between them.

I don't think there was ever any big emphasis on decentralism to the level of individual branches. If anything, one of the more reactionary (and dominant) trends in American labor has been to constantly promote the autonomy of individual locals, especially with craft unions.