The IWW General Convention adapts to a new era In Portland

The IWW General Convention adapts to a new era In Portland

An article by Ryan G about the differences between the IWW's General Assembly and its General Convention, which replaced the GA in 2008.

The IWW General Convention is the annual opportunity for our members to propose amendments to the IWW Constitution, debate resolutions which signify union policy or general political sentiment, and to make nominations for the General Administration in the coming year. However, the way Convention operates is still very new to the current generation of IWW members, having only voted as an organization to adopt the model in 2008.

Previous to that year, our annual constitutional convention was called the General Assembly. In this format, which was utilized for the last several decades, voting privileges in the proceedings were based on “one member, one vote.” This model seemed to work well during this period, as the union was only composed of 200-500 members internationally, at most.

The IWW began to grow exponentially beginning in the late 1990s. This period signified the union’s transition from a grouping of labor militants seeking mainly to keep the IWW name and ideals alive in the movement, into a blossoming of younger members who took those ideals and began actually applying them to workplace organizing. Coupled with this new wave of IWW workplace organizing came the growth of IWW membership beyond the United States, particularly in Canada and Europe.

Suddenly, the union was expanding both in numbers and in geographical representation. This organizational development posed new challenges for the General Assembly system. It became apparent that the greater mass of votes required to pass a resolution or proposal was largely influenced by the regional location of the meeting. For example, if the Assembly was held in a large city, the host branch and/or neighboring branches would constitute the largest majority of attendees. With the “one member, one vote” system, branches from locations further away had difficulty making their voice and vote heard on an equal footing, as typically only one or two members could afford to make the journey.

Unfortunately, there were a few instances where this imbalance was exploited by members seeking to “control” the outcome of voting by the Assembly. I remember one General Assembly in particular where I was in attendance. During the debates on various proposals, several dozen or so members went outside the hall for a break. On several occasions, during critical votes, somebody would run outside and quickly herd them back into the building just prior to the main motion decision. These individuals could easily be heard instructing members to “Vote yes! Vote yes!” They would then vote, in some cases not having any idea what it was they were voting on. Simply by their numbers, members were able to “pack the vote” and control the motion.

As the IWW was developing internationally, and after experiences such as the one previously mentioned, it became clear to many in the union that we were quickly outgrowing the General Assembly system. The idea began to emerge that a more representative model was necessary, in order to enfranchise branches who would need to send members over greater geographical distances in order to participate. Again, the critical element of this was that branches should have equitable representation regardless of the distance between their home cities and the location of Assembly (which alternated from year to year, mainly in the United States).

Out of this necessity, the General Convention system was developed and approved by the IWW membership in the 2008 General Referendum. The Convention model establishes voting rights to branches based upon the number of members they retain in good standing. A branch with 10-29 members is allotted one delegate, a branch with 33-59 members can have two delegates, a branch with 60-89 members can have three delegates, and so on. While IWW members are allowed to attend the Convention and have voice in the debates, only delegates elected by a chartered IWW branch are allowed to vote.

This structural shift has produced a refreshing balance of representation between the IWW branches in attendance at our annual constitutional conventions. Branches are able to discuss the proposed constitutional amendments in advance, and instruct their delegate(s) on how to vote at Convention. Additionally, a branch can raise funds toward the cost of sending their delegate to the proceedings, which helps ensure that members with limited financial means are given the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. In this way, there is much more of an incentive for branches to send a delegate to convention; there is a proportionate balance of voting ability based upon the number of members in a branch, not their geographical proximity.

Significantly, all amendments to the IWW Constitution approved by delegates at Convention must then be ratified by the membership in a referendum. The greater decision-making power in the union ultimately rests directly with the membership at large.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2012)