Building the IWW’s program: from workplace grievances to worker control

Joel Schwartz goes over some issues the IWW could use to advance its contract-less organizing.

There are two general categories of activity for our union. One is organizational activity and the other is programmatic activity. These two exist in a closely interwoven, and one could say dialectical, relationship.

By organizational activity I mean creating organizational structures, recruiting members, holding meetings, dealing with finances and the like. I include both organizational activities as a branch and organizational activities on the job.

By programmatic activities I mean those things that we use our organization for: winning demands from the boss; supporting the strikes and struggles of other workers; and abolishing the wage system.

Each type of activity is dependent on the other. Without an organization, no programmatic activity can be carried out. The larger, stronger, more cohesive the organization, the more it can potentially accomplish. On the other hand, maintaining an organization is impossible without programmatic purpose. If an organization doesn’t accomplish anything members will eventually fall away and the organization will dissipate. Growth in each area of activity needs growth in the other.

I think that we need to “grow” our programmatic activities. I think that we need to go beyond addressing workplace issues like arbitrary firings, sexual harassment and low wages. These issues can serve to motivate initial organizing drives, but I believe we need something more in order to sustain contract-less organizing over the longer term. After all, those are the types of issues that the business unions address through contract-based organizing. If we want to sustain a more radical vision, it has to be reflected in our program as well as our organization.

We should explicitly start to analyze how to build the bridge between addressing workplace grievances and the actual abolition of the wage system. Then we need to figure out how start walking across that bridge. In general, that bridge will be built from things that increase our power and control as a collective expression of the working class.

A few examples occur to me, but it will take a collective and concerted effort to figure this out. One idea is to make your local area a scab-free zone. Approach this with the use of propaganda, such as postering, flyering and posting videos on Youtube; declaring a scab-free zone; and educating about the evils of scabbing. Then, back it up—organize a disciplined force to keep scabs out of a struck workplace, with or without the consent of the striking union.

Another idea is to try to gain control over hiring at our workplaces. This is not such a far-fetched idea when you think about the practice in some trades of hiring out of the union hall. We may want to switch that up and take control of hiring from the shop floor rather than the union hall. We could think about ways to make this happen.

A third possibility is to increase the links between the work we do and those affected by our work, and look to control our work’s outcomes and purpose. For example, in my job in the welfare system, I have sometimes connected with the Welfare Rights Committee to try to affect welfare legislation. I could try to broaden that and organize coworkers into the effort. In education, connections could be made between educators and parents to start to redesign the education we deliver. A plan already under way in the Twin Cities, Minn.—to provide support to substitute teachers—is a step in this direction.

These specific ideas may or may not have merit in themselves, but they start to give the idea. If we aim to abolish the wage system, we have to start to figure out the steps to get there. We have ideas about a general strike, but there’s a gulf between where we are and a general strike, and a gulf again between a general strike and actually abolishing the wage system.

One never knows for sure what is possible or what might be effective in the current moment. History will tell, but we can’t wait for the backward vision of history. We need to develop a plan to move forward programmatically, as well as organizationally.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2012)