Outside the house of labor

Outside the house of labor

John O'Reilly on how the labor movement talks about itself and how he interprets it as a member of the IWW.

I've been thinking recently about the way that the labor movement sees itself and talks about itself. Labor movement activists often talk about labor as a kind of community, a place where individuals can reach across differences and speak to each other based on a shared connection to their unions and unionism more generally. There are big, well-funded internal publications that the large unions produce which help move this discourse. But there are also independent voices which participate in this discourse. I can think of Labor Notes as an example that I'm most familiar with.

Labor Notes and magazines, blogs, or other publications like it have this particular way of speaking about the labor movement and the changes that it needs to implement that I've always had a lot of trouble connecting with. I like Labor Notes, I think its a useful piece that praises rank-and-file struggles and shows how the bosses and the business unions are strong and powerful but also have weaknesses. It's the kind of publication that shows that working people can have independent publications that highlight our stories of success and explain why and when we fail with a good analysis (usually).

But I've always had trouble connecting with the language that LN and similar publications use to talk about the labor movement. There's a positioning of "inside and against" that I've always been unable to connect with. The discourse often goes "we are the labor movement, we need to do better, we need to get better leadership and democratize our unions, we need to organize the unorganized." I like all the reclaiming of the labor movement narrative, that's a great step I think. Saying that "we," being rank-and-file workers, are the labor movement and that unions are not just the union leaders, is really important. But to me as an IWW organizer, I've never felt part of some community of labor.

I think this could be partially because we're a union so influenced by the left but I don't think that's all of it. I think its also because our shops don't have stable contracts that allow us to engage in fights against a bureaucratic leadership. Most of us don't have good union jobs and therefore some allegiance to the successes of the movement and a desire for it to change. We have crappy jobs that we are trying to organize because we need to and believe in a better life for ourselves on a very direct basis. We don't feel the pressures of the capitalists trying to use the unorganized to undermine our higher wages, because we work in the unorganized section of the class and spend all our time trying to organize it.

In short, and I'm not sure if I'm making much sense with this, I feel like there's a disconnect in how we as the IWW articulate our membership in the labor movement. Other unionists are able to engage in a critique of the labor movement by testifying to their presence as part of that movement and therefore their investment in it. I can't do that because I always feel like any time we're in the room with other labor unionists they treat us variously like idiots, children, or opponents to be watched behind crocodile smiles. It's far easier to identify with the left's critique of labor as something that's outside me then the union movement's critique from this perspective. And not because I agree with the left's positioning; I'm a labor organizer goddammit! It's just that through the state of my lived experience and that of my fellow organizers, we often do not have much in common with those unionists who seek to reform their unions and get a better contract. I just want some bread and roses and a revolution.

Originally posted: November 17, 2011 at Thoughts on the Struggle

Posted By

Juan Conatz
Oct 8 2012 04:16

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OliverTwister
Jan 3 2014 21:28

This makes me think of the differences in how people address each other. Labor movement folks usually refer to each other as "union brother/sister", which is cool insofar as it promotes unity beyond the limits of a local or international union, but with the ossified unions we have in North America it means that identification only extends to other union members (ie workers with collective bargaining contracts and, probably, dues check off). What about non-union workers, there is no way to extend it to them.

Which is why I much prefer the old school "Fellow Worker", it applies to everyone regardless of whether they are currently represented by a business union on the much more important basis of whether they are a wage earner.

Spikymike
Jan 5 2014 13:53

This comment by J.O'R surely puts them in the same camp as the vast majority of workers who don't identify with anything to-day that justifies the title of 'Labour Movement' but see the unions as essential institutions within a capitalist framework (even if they wouldn't use that language). J.O'R is presumably a class conscious worker who does their best to fight the class struggle not build an institution.