An article by Chris Agenda coming out against contractualism in the IWW, based on experience with a contract shop in Portland.
During a two-month period I met with representatives from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on three different issues. All of the issues were related to grievances of workers who were represented by the IWW and employed by Janus Youth Programs in Portland, Oregon. The NLRB was not helpful in any of the situations.
The common line in each of these cases was that the NLRB had to defer to arbitration, since that was provided for in the contracts between the IWW and Janus. Once we charged the company with bargaining in bad faith, and despite a slew of evidence proving management’s malfeasance, the NLRB still sat on their hands. The NLRB representatives were all friendly to our union, but as an institution they could not provide any support. One agent candidly explained that even if there were grounds to become involved in the dispute, “there’s really nothing we can do.”
We shouldn’t be surprised at this turnout, but we should be paying better attention. The NLRB is a monolithic government agency that is detached from working people. To expect them to help is irrational. We shouldn’t rely on the NLRB’s help in resolving our disputes, at least not in most cases.
A government agency could intervene and possibly provide workers with a good resolution in a dispute, but this is problematic as the workers should be creating the resolution themselves. Relying on the government to resolve labor disputes extends the apparatus of the state and negates the concept of workers demanding things on their own. The workers do not receive any new skills or tools, they just get a handout from the government until the next time a problem arises, and the cycle continues.
This brings us to the issue we need to discuss throughout our union as we continue to grow— that is the IWW’s growing reliance on contracts. Historically in the IWW, representation at a workplace has not always equated with having a contract. We often wind up with contracts that are mediocre at best. Grievance procedures are often a joke, and additions such as “management rights” clauses add insult to injury.
Contracts rarely omit the “no strike, no lockout” clause, which cuts off one of our few effective weapons in disputes. The history of this union has always been one of militant action, not pleading for help from an ineffective government institution. We should take the next logical step and question what place, if any, contracts ought to have in the IWW.
My introduction to the IWW was through a workplace that had an outdated contract which we renegotiated over the course of eight months. There were some good things that came out of the contract as well as some bad. I had no historical perspective, however, until the last year, when I began to read more ing of our history and realized that, again, our history is one of struggle and direct action, not contracts.
My experience in Portland so far has been educational and inspiring, but I believe we are approaching an important crossroads. We are in the midst of an economic recession and have a great need for a strong, militant vehicle for the working class. If we are going to continue to grow from the local branch level to the international level, we have to be able to provide something that truly stands out from the business unions.
We have the theory and ideas to distinguish ourselves, but I think we are following their models in certain aspects of our actions. As IWW history has taught us, direct action and solidarity are the best weapons of the working class. These are what will build the One Big Union, not ineffectual contracts.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (July 2009)