Part 4: Three big unions: The IWW and revolution

Part 4: Three big unions: The IWW and revolution

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles on Industrial Unionism and One Big Unionism. In this piece we talk more about the One Big Union and revolutionary change. We suggest that we should not think about One Big Union as the IWW coming to include the entire working class. Instead we think that this is a three-part metaphor or three big unions. The One Big Union is a metaphor and name for our hope and vision of a unified working class acting together – acting in union – in a revolutionary situation. The One Big Union is also a formal organization, the IWW. Finally, One Big Union is the name for the relationship between the IWW as an organization and the rest of the working class. In our view, this understanding orients us toward questions about what we think revolutionary change looks like.

We believe, with the IWW preamble, that it is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. Only the working class can end capitalism, and in certain moments the working class has a greater chance to move closer to carrying out this important task. That kind of moment is a revolutionary situation. We need to have a serious IWW-wide discussion about what a revolutionary situation looks like. We should also talk about what we think is the IWW's role in preparing for and acting within a revolutionary situation. This not an exercise in fantasy but as part of being serious about believing in a revolutionary future.

Think a moment about the size of what we're talking about. A genuinely revolutionary situation where we could end capitalism, even if it happened in one U.S. state or even in just one major metropolitan area would involve millions of people. (And really, this is actually too small of a scale: a working class revolution that ends capitalism must be truly global.) This means we need to be thinking in huge numbers of people. This is not something anyone can control, but we need to figure out ways to make our struggles self-reinforcing and self-expanding. As an organization and as a class we need to see struggles that expand to involve hundreds of thousands people.

In this series of articles we have been discussion revolutionary unionism through the concepts of Industrial Unionism and One Big Union. The meaning of “One Big Union” is closely related to the role of the IWW in the working class’s historic mission. Here are a few scenarios:
1. The IWW grows to become the One Big Union that all members of the working class are members of. This kicks off major social upheaval.
2. The IWW grows to become One Big Union in the sense that it is very large and includes a whole lot of workers, and this creates major social upheaval.
3. The IWW grows to become One Union Which Is Very Big, including a whole lot of workers. Other groups wage important fights as well. The IWW and other groups cooperate and have good relationships. This combination is One Big Union, metaphorically speaking, and makes for major social upheaval.

We can see different versions of the idea of One Big Union in each of these scenarios. In the first scenario the IWW literally becomes the One Big Union for all workers. In the second scenario the IWW becomes One Big Union that's really big but we're not literally all the workers.

The third scenario seems more likely to us than the other two. In this scenario, One Big Union means three different things. We somewhat jokingly call this “three big unions.” One Big Union is the name for the IWW and expresses our commitment to revolution. One Big Union is also a metaphor for the working class as a whole - that is, for millions of workers around the world, acting together in solidarity - in action against capitalism and for a better world. That's not an organization, really, though it is an organized class-wide process. One Big Union is also a metaphor for how the IWW should act within the working class. We should act in a way that is open to struggles outside our organization and we should wage our own organizing drives, trying to both support our fellow workers in their struggles and building our own struggles where we are -- acting in a way that both builds organization and fights the capitalists.

A revolutionary situation in our day (or, within our lifetime) will involve millions of people in a complex ensemble across the class. No single organization will lead or control this. The working class can have more than one organization working on aspects of its interests. Given the divisions in our class it’s good to have multiple types of organization (such as unions of waged workers, committees of unemployed people, tenants' organizations, etc), and multiple organizations of each type. In all likelihood the IWW will be one working class organization among many who make an important contribution to working class revolution. As the working class takes action in a revolutionary situation there will have to be different practices developed than those that the IWW practices, and different kinds of organization - including both formal organizations and informal organizations.

These issues open onto a few key questions which apply both to the ‘normal’ operations of the capitalist system and to revolutionary situations that will develop. How can the IWW become an organization that exerts a strong and revolutionary pull within the working class? How should the IWW relate to other organizations and struggles of the working class? How should we relate to other revolutionary anticapitalists now? How can our orientation to other struggles and organizations help or hurt the IWW and the historic mission of our class? In our view there was a good start to answering these in Alex Erikson’s recent article “For A Union Of 10,000 Wobblies” in the June issue of the Industrial Worker and in Juan Conatz’s “What Wobblies Can Learn From Direct Unionism” in the July/August issue. We don’t have clear answers to these questions. We pose them questions for discussion. The two of us have written as much on all this as we’re currently able to say. We hope the principles and concepts we’ve sketched help contribute to a discussion of these questions of the direction of the IWW as a revolutionary union.

The IWW and the sorts of activities that the IWW currently carries out will not be the only things that go on during a revolutionary situation and are not the only things that will contribute to a revolutionary situation taking place. We have to do our part, but everything does not rest on our shoulders.

We believe the IWW will make a major contribution, however. The IWW will make a contribution by radicalizing workers, and by giving those radicalized workers skills and confidence and relationships that they will use to contribute to the movement of our class as a whole. That's currently what we're doing and have done. We’re helping make more working class revolutionaries. As we grow, we will periodically gather together and re-assess our course in order to refine the specifics of how we contribute to the historic mission of our class. Completing that mission is not in the cards for the relatively near future. Getting the project onto the agenda as a real possibility is not the same thing as actually carrying out that project once and for all. Our tasks for now are preparing ways to get that mission onto the agenda in a real and winnable way.