On contracts and the IWW

I’m writing in response to FW Sean Gallagher. I am a member of the Portland IWW branch, which has a number of contracts. Unlike FW Gallagher’s experience, I don’t have as nearly a positive view on the impact and role of contracts in the IWW as he does.

A starting point for me in criticizing contractual organizing is that it absorbs too much time and energy in an environment which we have little expertise in. Research, drafting articles for a contract, and the perpetual back and forth at the bargaining table is both time and labor intensive and often creates a drain on shop-floor activity. This occurs in opposition to the employer’s lawyers, who are better versed in legal language and have the incentive of getting well paid while finding ways to navigate contractual language. We are not lawyers, nor are we well-versed in how to use the language or even read it, let alone argue it across from the table from a lawyer. On a more basic level, it’s tedious and difficult to sustain energy when focusing solely on this approach.

If a contract has been reached, then another series of problems arise. Sustaining motivation and organization can be difficult even with premeditated inoculation around the idea that the struggle is never done even after a contract is signed. Furthermore, a contract becomes stagnant as worker turnover continues during the duration of a contract or worse, new workers may resent elements of the contract that they come into. It is also difficult to agitate workers while under a contract to take action because of the attitude that “we can just wait until the contract is open again,” even if it’s not for another year or more.

Anyone who has had to deal with a laborious and ineffective grievance procedure will also be able to speak to the limits of contracts. The grievance procedures serve as a trap to drain more energy and time from workers when other tactics would likely resolve the issues at hand in a faster way that simultaneously emboldens workers.

Of course bread and butter issues need to be pushed if we’re trying to support workers, but I’ve often seen the “either/or” approach taken in contractual organizing where bread and butter issues get traded for other work conditions. Bread and butter issues in a single shop’s contract, and single shop contracts in general, do not address issues on a larger industrial level. This means that we spend our energy defending a single shop when we could and should be trying to organize on a wider level.

-FW Chris A.

Originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Industrial Worker newspaper