Contracts are not a tool, they’re a trap

Scott Nappalos' reply to 'The contract as a tactic', which appeared in the December 2013 Industrial Worker.

In the December 2013 Industrial Worker an article defending contracts for the IWW appeared (“The Contract As A Tactic,” page 4). The author pointed out the union’s historic hostility to contracts (the General Executive Board [GEB] even expelled a group of workers who signed a contract in the union’s early history), but he missed the reasons for the opposition. The article is useful though because it highlights one of the main issues for the IWW today: what our role is as revolutionaries trying to work around the breadth of working-class life.

I came of age politically in the Portland IWW, the branch that held and still holds the majority of contract campaigns in the whole union. Since then, I have participated in contract shops, a strike, and a few negotiations as a business union member in a handful of unions and with the IWW. For a time I was one of the organizers in the Social Service Industrial Union Branch (IUB), the largest in Portland with 150 people, of which the three contract shops were a tiny section. While historically the IWW had opposed contracts, it was our recent history with them that helped develop our own critique.

When I became a member of the Social Service IUB 650, there were only two members in good standing from the three shops a short time after winning the initial fights. We had contracts, but the workers in two of the shops were actively hostile to the union. They openly told us they wanted nothing to do with us, and that they thought the union was wrong for their work. Our main contact who worked at one of two contact shops under the same company, a capable organizer named Sarah Bishop, ended up tragically dying in an accident while hiking. This left us without any members in those shops for a long time. The third shop went the same direction shortly thereafter. Conditions were bad in the shops, having the IWW only on paper.

Other cities do not do much better. The Bay Area General Membership Branch (GMB) has had contract shops for decades, and while they maintain members in good standing and have done excellent direct action and organizing, the workers have never had any real interaction with the union. The workers historically have not attended the GMB meetings, contributed to the social and political life of the union, run for positions within, etc. This is the real history of contracts within the IWW.

How many people are familiar with the IWW Dare Family Services shop workers in Boston or the tiny clerical workers unit within an already unionized co-op in Seattle? While we’ve serviced contracts in those shops, politically they represent satellites of the IWW without any real interaction or development with the union. Our relationship has been largely to service them, acting as virtual staff and more often than not slipping away from direct action.

Today Portland’s shops do have active members and some admirable actions under their belt. Part of this shift came when we pursued a different strategy; ignored the contracts and focused on developing organizers and direct actions. With complete turnover of the shops we were lucky enough to encounter one or two individuals who wanted to organize and make changes at work. We started over from scratch and organized those shops in exactly the same way you organize without a contract. Through a series of direct actions around daily grievances, we were able to rebuild and bring new organizers into the fold. For some time the organizers in those shops were making arguments against their own contracts and looking for ways around them or even to get rid of them. In the years since I’ve left that may have changed. The bigger picture is that organizing is similar in many different contexts, and the real issue is how we advance the IWW’s revolutionary ideas and organizing on the ground.

Part of the problem is that people feel that our commitments will make the outcome of contracts different. Democracy and direct action are seen as silver bullets. In our limited experiences with contracts and their shops, we saw the opposite. The reality is that unions do not have trouble getting militant contracts because they aren’t militant (which some unions have tried obviously), but because contracts push us away from taking direct action. The real issue with contracts is that it is a framework to settle workplace disputes that changes our role as organizers and the relationship of the workers to the union.

Contracts emphasize the professional roles of lawyers, negotiators, and often politicians, while mediating direct action in getting demands. This is not random; it’s why the capitalists invented the contractual system. Contracts have long labor peace periods, because the capitalists identified in the 1930s the disruptive role of direct action. Unions experience lulls between contracts, because they are intended to. What employer would sign a contract while knowing that workers would continue to disrupt the business every month thereafter? Likewise, workers, in spite of the best efforts of many unions, continue to see the union largely as a service through the contract. Contracts are not a neutral tool for getting the goods; they channel worker discontent into the dominant means of settling disputes, a system that promotes worker passivity and something that in nearly every case has contributed to this vast alienation from workplace activity seen in unions across this country.

What is the difference between our vision of unionism and the dominant one? A point looming large is that we’re a revolutionary union. We want to do something that is fundamentally illegitimate from the perspective of dominant institutions, including the law. So we should be wary of fitting too neatly into the law. There is not an even playing field between us and the unions that want to improve capitalism today. Nor should we expect that employers, the state, and other unions will play fair if we pose a real challenge. Contracts and the legalistic framework for organizing are one tool they use to discipline workers, and it’s our job to find ways to circumvent all the detours from the kinds of organizing that builds people’s will to fight.

This discussion also raises the question of what we think made the business unions turn out the way they did? Is it just that they have personal flaws or aren’t radicals? Many of them start out just as sincere as us, and tons of union officials, organizers and militants begin as leftists. The problem with the methods of business unions is not who is doing them, or even their militancy and democracy, since militant and democratic versions of business unionism have done only marginally better. The real issue is that they struggle within a framework that improves the system and that they are ideological organizations of reform. If we pursue simply a more militant version of this, we risk becoming a business union with red flags only.

All this goes exactly against our basic tasks as IWW members, which is to increase the activity and commitment of workers to a fundamentally new order. Our goal is to expand the amount of people getting involved in fights around their daily lives because those fights can change them. People can find convictions and hope in collective struggle. Contracts restrain that and trade financial gains for restrained activity.

The author endorses the grievance procedure and points to materially improving the lives of people through contracts. The grievance procedure itself is the embodiment of this pacifying effect of contracts. Grievance procedures take the discontent around issues and put it into a labor court to be settled by officials barring direct action. Employers agree to it because it takes workplace problems off the clock and out of the way of their interests. That line of reasoning is exactly how unions become a tool of the oppression of workers with the rise of contractual unionism. During the 1930s workers engaged in slowdowns and fought to control production (for the safety of their bodies, amongst other things) directly on the shop floor. The United Auto Workers’ first contracts began to integrate production quotas, creating a virtual speed up where the union enforced the boss’s workflow against the workforce. Contracts took shop fights and institutionalized them, effectively illegalized prior struggles that kept workers safe, and turned the union into the cop for the boss.

It’s not hard to see the ideology behind contracts—they serve to channel workers into a legislative sphere that mirrors the dominant society. Contracts, union elections, and labor courts are to the world of workers what the state is to society as a whole. Just like we can’t play by their rules in the government, we need to assert our own power on the shop floor directly.

This highlights a basic dilemma that faces revolutionary unionists today: What is our role? Are we trying to secure material gains (and hope people get on our side along the way) or are we trying to organize people and radicalize workers in struggle? Obviously we need both. But the pursuit of material gains is distorting on two levels. First, people are not necessarily convinced just by winning things. Often the opposite happens. In the IWW we’ve seen easy wins evaporate when people get what they want. Likewise, it is often great defeats that spur people on to a lifetime of commitment. The history of labor is filled with this, and many of our best organizers today in the IWW come from failed campaigns. Winning or losing doesn’t happen in a vacuum; people interpret those outcomes based on how they view the world, and what they want to do with it. That can change in struggle, but it’s never as simple as winning or tipping the balance.

Secondly, we should not expect that a union which threatens all those who are powerful will be better at securing gains. No revolutionary workers’ movement ever was. Reformism has the upper hand here usually. It’s much easier for the powerful to give concessions to a collaborative body than an oppositional revolutionary one. To fetishize the winning aspect is to fundamentally mistake it for the reason why people fight.

People fight because they believe in it. I hear again and again from workers organizing that they want justice and to make things right even if it’s worse for them. This is key. People need to believe in something to give them the strength to endure the inevitable suffering that comes with throwing yourself against the capitalist class. Today it is a pretty uneven battle. If we hedge our bets on winning the day-to-day battles, I don’t think we will get very far.

On the other hand, we have been able to inspire committed lifelong militants through workplace fights. People can be transformed in collective struggle. The IWW has a lot to offer here as we offer not only our tactics, but also our revolutionary ideas that help people work through the broader problems of their lives and gives a unique vision of a better world worth fighting for. This is our basic task today: to radicalize people and spread a revolutionary movement that could pose at times a real challenge to capital. That task goes beyond any immediate short-term gains and helps us understand why it is so hard to win at the shop level today. Ultimately we are in the business of organizing individuals: workers through their lives and actions. To have a sustained revolutionary movement takes a particular situation that allows it to flourish. Often reformism just will function better. As we’ve learned through our own experiments with adopting reformist tactics, they don’t give us extra tools for building that movement; they only remove the best parts of our work.

Comments

billz
Mar 21 2014 14:51

Hey Scott, I have just read some of your other stuff and find it pretty thoughtful and interesting. I would like to hear more about the strike you were involved with. I do tend to side a bit more with the original article though, Im working on a response myself. cheers!