The contract as a tactic

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)

Comments

Juan Conatz
Dec 6 2013 03:17

I basically completely disagree with this, but think this might be the most coherent justification for this goal I've seen. Pro-contractualism has essentially no radical historical lineage, unlike say, solidarity unionism or direct unionism, both of which are based on experiences (historical and contemporary) and explained that way. Pro-contract people really don't have that because they're a more electectic group of people. They include everyone from Trotskyists, bread and butter unionists, anarchists from political organizations, those from activist backgrounds, etc.

So, I guess some scattered, bullet point style things about this article...

-I don't believe it's true that "there was a legal structure for unions to win legal recognition against the employers’ wishes". If he means during the historical IWW's heyday there weren't a New Deal era nationwide labor laws, that's of course true, but this didn't mean there were legal structures. The IWW website also presents the contract question in these terms, and it isn't an adequte explanation at all. From what little I know, the New Deal era laws were basically institutionalization of various state and local level laws or AFL experimentation, some of which go back to the IWW's historical heyday.

-Saying Lawrence fell apart because there was no contract really flattens out the situation, and in any case, means the Philly docks shouldn't have existed because for a while it was a no contract situation and they maintained for a while.

-This article does what a lot of pro-contract 'pragmatists' do, set up the discussion framework as 'contracts VS all out revolution'. It's pretty obvious that this is a silly dichotomy.

-Also sets up objections to contractualism as ideological, while their perspective is presented as common sense, however, their perspective is ideological as well (if not more so).

-I'm surprised to see the grievence procedure listed as something that's postive. This has been critiqued at least since the 1950s with Glaberman. And pretty much every dual-card Wobbly I know has said how disempowering and often useless this procedure is. It's one of the absolute worst things about contracts, taking issues off the shopfloor and into a legalistic mess with representatives.

syndicalist
Dec 6 2013 03:56

Well, I guess both the article and Juan's notes express two very profound and fundamental perspectives in the IWW. Why do you figure such a wide gap in approach in a revolutionary industrial union?

Juan Conatz
Dec 6 2013 05:34

I actually don't think pro-contractualism is an actual thought-out perspective in the IWW but instead is something that comes up because alternative models are incomplete or haven't 'proven' themselves by the criteria some have. But these differences are also reflected in the European syndicalist unions, as well, as numerous political organizations.

syndicalist
Dec 6 2013 14:49

Juan:

Quote:
But these differences are also reflected in the European syndicalist unions, as well, as numerous political organizations.

Absolutely and I am always interested how the clashes of ideas and practices play themselves out, get resolved and so forth. Oft times folks look at the growth in membership numbers as an indicator in the growing acceptance of revolutionary ideas, in the case of syndicalist, industrial unionist, specific anarchist organizations. And this -- acceptance of revolutionary ideas -- is not always the case.

Sometimes certain practices become the norm without being a thought out strategy.

Over the recent couple of decades we have seen the popularity in the Red and Black flag , the IWW red flag and so forth. Yet within the organizations flying those flags, the sort of practice often times varies from what the "ideological" colors the flags fly. And I say this across the board.

Scribbler2099
Dec 30 2013 16:17

So I'm the author of the piece in question, and I was hoping it would stir up some debate and conversation both in the union and in the broader labor / anti-capitalist movement. I don't want to post so much to 'defend' the piece or to get into any sort of e-fight about it, but I do want to clarify points that may be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Juan Conatz said, "-Saying Lawrence fell apart because there was no contract really flattens out the situation, and in any case, means the Philly docks shouldn't have existed because for a while it was a no contract situation and they maintained for a while."

I don't think my piece argued that Lawrence fell apart because there was no contract, rather it said that without a contract, unions had to rely on their organizational strength, which in Lawrence was crushed. A contract might have at least let the union keep a toe in the door to continue to organize until they were strong enough again to continue the fight.

"-This article does what a lot of pro-contract 'pragmatists' do, set up the discussion framework as 'contracts VS all out revolution'. It's pretty obvious that this is a silly dichotomy."

I agree it is a silly dichotomy, and I don't think this article does set the framework as 'contracts vs all out revolution' any more than setting any tactic up against 'all out revolution.' I argued that a contract should be viewed as one other tool in the toolbox, to be used at times, to be put aside at others, just like a strike, picket, newspaper, blog, etc. The problem is when we elevate such tactics to be ends in and of themselves, sacrificing our long term organizing goals in order to have a dramatic show-down, or a peaceful resolution.

"-Also sets up objections to contractualism as ideological, while their perspective is presented as common sense, however, their perspective is ideological as well (if not more so)."

Being opposed to some contracts, or to the use of contracts in certain situations, is a perspective that I share. Is it ideological? Sure, everything is ideological. Being opposed to any and all contracts is ideological as well, and it's a view that I think is a knee-jerk 'leftier-than-thou' reaction and I don't think it benefits long-term organizing. Sometimes the best route to take to where we're going is snowed in, and we have to take the route that will get us there.

"-I'm surprised to see the grievence procedure listed as something that's postive. This has been critiqued at least since the 1950s with Glaberman. And pretty much every dual-card Wobbly I know has said how disempowering and often useless this procedure is. It's one of the absolute worst things about contracts, taking issues off the shopfloor and into a legalistic mess with representatives."

Once again, the grievance procedure is a tactic that makes sense at times, and doesn't at others. Just becuase other unions use it to 'quietly resolve' issues with management, doesn't mean that we should. We can publicize grievances, use the legal protection provided by them to fuck with the boss, and encourage union workers to 'take control' of the grievance, so they are the ones telling the boss what they did wrong and how they need to act in the future.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 30 2013 20:15
Quote:
Once again, the grievance procedure is a tactic that makes sense at times, and doesn't at others.

The thing is though - and this is a response to a thread of thought that seems to run through your most recent post - once your union has signed a contract, you've limited your ability to use certain tactics. You've effectively given the bosses extra leverage that can be used against the workforce when a contract is signed. If you want tactical scope, the worst thing you can do is sign a contract.

Quote:
A contract might have at least let the union keep a toe in the door to continue to organize until they were strong enough again to continue the fight.

Paths to hell, good intentions and all that. If a union doesn't have the organisational strength to avoid being crushed I really doubt if a contract is somehow going to keep the bosses at bay - especially given the fact that contracts move the class struggle terrain from the shop floor to the legal arena, where the bosses have a stronger hand by default.

And, to be blunt, revolutionary union organising needs to done with the reality in mind that without organisational strength, it's inevitable that the bosses will come after us. If there's a union that management doesn't try to crush when it has the power to do so, that's an indictment of the union and nothing more.

Scribbler2099
Jan 1 2014 19:47

@Chilli Sauce - "once your union has signed a contract, you've limited your ability to use certain tactics" I don't necessarily agree. Many unions do limit themselves, but ultimately, that's a decision they make regardless of the paper signed.

"If a union doesn't have the organisational strength to avoid being crushed I really doubt if a contract is somehow going to keep the bosses at bay" That's a fair point, organization needs to be the top priority, I am arguing that at times a contract can play a part in organizing, but ultimately, without organization, no tactic - whether it be a contract, a picket, or a strike, will succeed.

Chilli Sauce
Jan 2 2014 10:53
Scribbler2099 wrote:
@Chilli Sauce - "once your union has signed a contract, you've limited your ability to use certain tactics" I don't necessarily agree. Many unions do limit themselves, but ultimately, that's a decision they make regardless of the paper signed.

Yeah, but it's a paper signed that locks you into a state-regulated system of labor law designed to, at best, encourage labor peace. By securing a contract, it obligates the union (and it's members) to follow certain laws and makes the contract open to judicial review.

And it's true that the state can do this sort of things to workers outside of a union contract, but by having a contract we hand over that extra lever of control to the bosses.

And, to be honest mate, I don't think you've adequately described how the IWW could limit the damage done by signing a contract - nevermind the fact that a contractual strategy/tactic fundamentally changes the role of the union in the workplace. Likewise, I don't think you've shown how contracts can support organising - other than basically asserting it and using a not very analogous 100-year old example.

Myself, I was involved in writing Direct Unionism and, very importantly, some of the strongest anti-contract voices came from those FWs who'd been involved in NLRB campaigns. If we're going to look at examples, that's a far better place to start.

klas batalo
Jan 2 2014 21:28
Quote:
I argued that a contract should be viewed as one other tool in the toolbox.

Ya know, this is what they say about participation in electoralism, and the State as well. Party communism and all that. This is always brought out, but in most American contexts in a sorta "OMG diversity of tactics!!! geeze" type of way...it's annoying. Revolutionary unionism stakes out a different course I'm afraid...

anyway best way to actually have diversity of tactics and break contracts is to not sign them in the first place. to go on with my statist analogy, the best way to wither the state is to actively wither it, not build it just in alternate form. your idea seems to be to "wobblify" contracts (by saying we just wont actually service them)...i just don't think that is realistically possible, contracts will transform how we organize our people, just like how participation in the State transforms people...contracts are contractualism.

Juan Conatz
Jan 3 2014 02:24

I wrote a reply to this in this month's Industrial Worker. It's mostly an expanded version of my first comment above. http://libcom.org/library/contractualism-should-be-avoided

prec@riat
Jan 21 2014 07:14

Juan is correct; Scribbles is on the wrong track.
A contract is not a 'tool' or a 'tactic' of class struggle, it is a codification/ a peace agreement.
In that regard. like Klas mentioned, it is similar to laws. ...
Generally laws are dictated (when not by force) by representation and negotiation (which the IWW is opposed to, or seeks to minimize in stressing collective self-activity), sometimes laws (or contracts) codify a high water mark in struggle however the enforcement of such laws (or contracts) that are of benefit to our class still requires our active organization (see for example: our weak class organization and the erosion of the 'bill of rights'/ habeas corpus/ etc.). IMHO those who prize laws and contracts as an end goal or think of such things as tools or tactics (rather than codifications of defeat/ recuperation of partial victory) generally mean it's will be a useful tool or tactic for whichever individuals will become professional negotiators and representatives rather than activists and organizers.

Red.Ink
Jan 21 2014 08:58

I work in a trade union shop. We have a standard contract and things go with the ebb and flow. I agree with Scribs that the contract is a tactic, even if it is a "bad" one.

My shop has seen a lot in the past 10 years, good wage increases followed by slashing of wages and two-tier contracts. Most of the membership is uneducated in general and specifically ignorant about labor unionism, even in the simon simple form. But the workers have good instincts, for example a wildcat began after it was learned there was a backroom deal for one department to stay stagnant when everyone else gave up 10 percent. In their disorganization they gave it up fairly quickly, by the time I got to work at night the action was long gone.

This set off a chain of events where the workers have become more militant in general. The contract process proved bankrupt, and we started settling things on our own. Especially the 2nd tier workers. Marches on the boss are an accepted fact of life now. Most of the time it is to uphold a contractual guarantee, something that otherwise would be ignored without collective action. I participated in the last set of negotiations just to keep the committee democratic, to record the negotiations and to be a thorn in the side of the bosses and union brass. I filed the first grievance in the history of the company recently and even though it caused a shitstorm and my steward was pissed, management capitulated because they knew it represented the popular will.

During this time I have laid low as an organizer in order to not only learn the trade but also build my contacts and leaders for future organizing. The only defense I have without "outing" myself as a wob or radical is the trade union structure. On more than one occasion my job has been saved by the intervention of a steward. Also, by playing the contract game correctly it can be used as an educational tool for the workers. Looking forward to building independent committees that do not follow no strike and other anti-worker clauses, 7 years ago this was impossible because the level of struggle wasn't there.

I see contracts as less than most people make them out to be. I wish they were much shorter and focused on basic terms - wages and hours and benefits mostly. In this form they could be more palatable, instead of being such weighty documents. But no goal is attainable without the use or threat of direct action.I am not holding my breath for this day that the material conditions of workers will improve without direct negotiation with the employers that ends in an agreement.

We work through lunch at our shop, as is industry practice and is stated in the contract. But at another shop (closed now), the workers would shut down a machine if even one person didn't get their lunch. "If you can't get someone to cover for one, we all will eat together". And when the going got tough, they would intermittent strike. Since there was a 7 1/2 hour workday (paid work through lunch), they would shut down with 1/2 an hour left in the shift. This caused at least 1.5 hours downtime per shift since the machine takes a while to get running again, and the lack of communication between shifts makes it even more difficult. These workers knew their contract and the power of direct action. They won every time. The company didn't take anyone to court to uphold the contract since the workers were following it and the union gave its full support to the workers in the shop. The plant was eventually closed but we got some of the workers at our shop now...

In general I am unimpressed with "direct unionism" and most of the IWW posturing against contracts. I want to see some of these ideas come to fruition and carry some water before I take them seriously, but for now it seems like we are making things deliberately difficult for ourselves and new organizing. I wish it was Goldfield all over again and I can post "LAW" with my demands outside of work but this is 2014 and we are operating in a different paradigm.

prec@riat
Jan 21 2014 10:17

Ink,
Perhaps this is semantic, but still... a contract is not a tactic, it is a treaty.
your post goes on to mention many tactics (wildcat, slowdown, mild sabotage, etc.) that you use to enforce an existing treaty (a contract).

Chilli Sauce
Jan 21 2014 12:12
Quote:
The contract process proved bankrupt, and we started settling things on our own. Especially the 2nd tier workers. Marches on the boss are an accepted fact of life now. Most of the time it is to uphold a contractual guarantee, something that otherwise would be ignored without collective action.

To me, this does not seem like an argument for contracts at all - just the opposite in fact.

Quote:
In general I am unimpressed with "direct unionism" and most of the IWW posturing against contracts. I want to see some of these ideas come to fruition and carry some water before I take them seriously...

You could say the same thing about IWW contracts, no?

billz
Mar 21 2014 14:35

I am glad this debate is happening. I tend to think both sides make valid points but I tend to side more with the contract as a tactic aspect. The union as a whole is generally weak now and I think maintaining footholds and gaining new ground in new workplaces should come first, with contracts done right, because i think we stagnate without them.