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Contractualism should be avoided

Contractualism should be avoided

A reply to an article that appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper, titled 'The contract as a tactic'.

This is in response to FW Matt Muchowski’s article titled “The Contract As A Tactic,” which appeared on page 4 of the December 2013 Industrial Worker. While I disagree with most of it, this piece is the most coherent justification of contractualism for the IWW I’ve seen. The reasons behind going for a contract are very rarely talked about in this way, so the article is worth taking seriously and considering the author’s points.

FW Muchowski correctly asserts that the IWW has a legacy of no contracts; however, he attributes this to the lack of “legal structure(s) for unions to win legal recognition. On IWW.org, a similar explanation is given. This explanation is wrong, though. The IWW’s views on contracts have always been more sophisticated than what the labor law of the day has been. Overall, contracts have been regarded with great suspicion. This has had little to do with the existence of “legal structures” (most of which we were against or critical of) and more to do with an analysis of what contractualism would lead to.

The author then goes on to blame the disintegrating presence of the IWW in Lawrence after the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike on not having a contract. This is usually what anti-Wobbly liberal and Communist Party-sympathetic labor historians say, so it’s a little surprising to see this opinion expressed in the IW. It’s also an absolutely inadequate explanation of what happened. If the ongoing presence of the IWW so relied on having a formal, legal contract with the employers, then how could Local 8—the IWW dockworkers of Philadelphia who went on strike in May 1913—exist? Local 8, for most of its era, operated without a contract. The difference between Local 8 and the textile strikers in Lawrence, however, was one of organization. The Lawrence model was to throw a supporting cast of organizers into a situation that was already on the verge of blowing up; it was a “hot shop,” in other words. Local 8, on the other hand, built an organization with a purpose and from the ground up.

Local 8, along with many other noncontractual models, offers an antidote to the false and seemingly dishonest dichotomy that is often set up when talking about this issue, which is contractualism versus all-out revolution. No one who argues against or is suspicious of formal, legal agreements with employers is necessarily drawing up blueprints for the barricades.

Similarly, Muchowski frames anticontractualism as “ideological” while what he advocates is not. Suggesting that a position is “ideological” and therefore extreme or irrational is a common rhetorical trick in politics, and it works well as it appeals to what is assumed to be “common sense.” But just because it’s a neat and effective trick does not mean that what it is expressing is true. The use of ideology, or examples of it, as a swear word, means that it is something that is based on beliefs rather than reality or experience. But being against or suspicious of contractualism is not merely “ideological.” It has a long history in the radical labor movement, full of examples and historical lineage. Contractualism, on the other hand, has only hypothetical scenarios and “what if” possibilities, divorced from any concrete reality

Solidarity unionism, for example, can be traced all the way back to the old IWW, through the rank-and-file members of militant Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) locals, to labor radicals like Martin Glaberman and Stan Weir (who saw clearly the downside of contractualism), on through the New Left labor history revisionists who rejected the institutional and top-down accounts of labor movements, and finally to the numerous conversations that resulted in the modern-day IWW creating our own model of what solidarity unionism could be. Arguments for contractualism have no similar basis rooted in actual experiences of radical labor.

Many of the activities and tasks the article lists as being possible with a contract are not inherent to that model. Spreading our views, finding out our co-workers’ issues and building for demands are just a part of organizing and happens in every IWW campaign worth its salt.

Lastly, FW Muchowski addresses the problematic issue of limitations placed on the union in contracts. His solution to this is “we don’t have to agree to anything we don’t want to.” But a century of contractualism has established no-strike clauses, management rights clauses and disempowering grievance procedures as the norms. I would argue that after the point in which it is obvious the union has won or is going to win, these are the most important issues for the employer, exceeding wages and benefits. To exclude these things in a contract would take serious organization within the workplace. If you do have the capacity to impose these sorts of demands, which are expected minimum norms for contracts, then why have a contract at all? With that type of power we can have the ability to impose a lot without getting caught up in state-enforced limitations.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)

Comments

billz
Mar 29 2014 14:11

unions still are winning elections, they are just in decline as a whole based mostly on manufacturing losses, its different in other sectors. and yes, even there, it is not easy to win an election right off the bat, but its even harder to win a strike

Chilli Sauce
Mar 29 2014 17:18
Quote:
They dont give a shit about free food co ops and coffee shops or cookie stores, zero interest. plus even there there is no stable radical presence in the work force with the current iww methods. It is hard, what i propose is not an easy task, and certainly the concerns you raise could potentially be real, but i still believe its the way forward.

I actually quite agree with that first part - although I'm not sure what you mean about coffee shops and cookie stores - presumably not about organising workers within them? Just that forming co-ops is obviously a shit strategy for fundamental social change?

It's just that you lose mean after that. Any long term organising - contractual or non-contractual - is difficult and doubly so to build lasting organisation on the shop floor. It just seems to me that the contemporary experiences of both the IWW and the wider labour movement demonstrate both the practical and radical shortcomings of pursuing a contractualist approach.

Quote:
it is not easy to win an election right off the bat, but its even harder to win a strike

And again, here, that's fair enough. But it's not like it's an either or option. And, in fact, the standard IWW training model talks about winning people around by picking small winnable fights that lead to bigger fights and hopefully union membership. On top of that, you have have things like Direct Unionism which have attempted to lay out some concrete strategies for building organisation outside of a contractualist model.

Incidentally, I remember reading a thing a while back that said for battles for trade union recognition, unions that don't go through the NLRB have higher success rates at securing a first contract.

But, basically Bill, it feels like you're arguing for militant trade unionism. And there's nothing wrong with that, per se, but I think there are better organisations suited towards that type of organising. I think UE could actually be a better fit some of the IWW folks who want to pursue contracts, but I think the IWW is better reserved to pursuing explicitly radical organising attempts that consciously avoid the NLRB and all forms of trade unionism - as someone said earlier "re-discovering repressed forms of rank-and-file insurgency".

billz
Mar 30 2014 01:11
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Quote:
They dont give a shit about free food co ops and coffee shops or cookie stores, zero interest. plus even there there is no stable radical presence in the work force with the current iww methods. It is hard, what i propose is not an easy task, and certainly the concerns you raise could potentially be real, but i still believe its the way forward.

I actually quite agree with that first part - although I'm not sure what you mean about coffee shops and cookie stores - presumably not about organising workers within them? Just that forming co-ops is obviously a shit strategy for fundamental social change?

It's just that you lose mean after that. Any long term organising - contractual or non-contractual - is difficult and doubly so to build lasting organisation on the shop floor. It just seems to me that the contemporary experiences of both the IWW and the wider labour movement demonstrate both the practical and radical shortcomings of pursuing a contractualist approach.

Im not saying organizing co ops is a shit strategy for change, the more the better, im just saying from a trade union perspective the ruling class is more worried about losing control of their means of production, and as the IWW as a union, should be more focused on job shops where the boss can be directly challenged

Quote:
it is not easy to win an election right off the bat, but its even harder to win a strike

And again, here, that's fair enough. But it's not like it's an either or option. And, in fact, the standard IWW training model talks about winning people around by picking small winnable fights that lead to bigger fights and hopefully union membership. On top of that, you have have things like Direct Unionism which have attempted to lay out some concrete strategies for building organisation outside of a contractualist model.

Incidentally, I remember reading a thing a while back that said for battles for trade union recognition, unions that don't go through the NLRB have higher success rates at securing a first contract.

But, basically Bill, it feels like you're arguing for militant trade unionism. And there's nothing wrong with that, per se, but I think there are better organisations suited towards that type of organising. I think UE could actually be a better fit some of the IWW folks who want to pursue contracts, but I think the IWW is better reserved to pursuing explicitly radical organising attempts that consciously avoid the NLRB and all forms of trade unionism - as someone said earlier "re-discovering repressed forms of rank-and-file insurgency".

You might be right, i mean right now im already doing what you are saying, but i still think the iww could benefit from being less dogmatic about the things i raised in the first post and would be willing to work with people in my spare time to experiment with trying to grow some militant iww job shops