Compositional power

Turbulence chats with 2 members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) about solidarity unionism, and gets their perspective on winning, losing and workplace struggle.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 14, 2012

Why prioritise workplace organisation when some people have argued value production now takes place everywhere?

We work for wages. We spend a huge chunk of our day and our lives at work, so it just makes sense for us to organise there. We don’t see this as a choice for people who want a revolution: we have to be organising in the workplace now, so that when opportunities open up we’re already there. Whether the revolution begins amongst housewives, chronically unemployed, housing struggles, etc., we’re still going to need to deal with workplaces in the transformation of society.
As far as value production now taking place everywhere… well this isn’t actually a new condition, it’s always been true wherever capitalism has existed. Your question implies that since value production occurs everywhere, there’s no need to organise in the workplace. We see it instead as meaning we need to organise in many places.

So has nothing changed? What about increasing precarity, for example?

No. A lot has changed. But since life outside of waged workplaces has always been part of value production, we don’t see this as one major change which changes everything else (which is what some people seem to think with real subsumption, postfordism, postmodernity, whatever). This whole debate has produced some important insights into the way we understand the capitalist mode of production, exploitation, hierarchy, and so on. But many people mistake the innovation in theory for a change in the material conditions of the present. This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, we think these new theories can help us better understand the past too. And, second, there are important lessons from past experiences which we need to hang onto as a tool for use in the present. If everything has changed, as some argue, then the status of those lessons/examples is lessened.

There have been changes though. One big change in the US is that the ruling class is largely no longer interested in the class compromise upon which the higher unionisation rates in the US were once built – the business unions negotiated higher productivity in exchange for better conditions. The ruling class has decided it can accomplish much of what it wants without having to cut any such deal, by simply forcing higher productivity and worse pay and conditions. But this isn’t a change at the level of production, it’s a change in demeanor of the ruling class, how old laws are interpreted, new laws being invented, etc. Simultaneously the makeup of the US workforce has shifted – more immigrant labour in certain sectors, more service-industry work where conditions breed high turnover.

So what are the problems of workplace organising? And if material conditions haven’t changed substantially, why is the IWW a fraction of the size and strength it was 90 years ago?

The main problems for the IWW, and worker organising in general, are not a result of epochal shifts in capitalism. Take precarity, which you mention. We just don’t think there’s been a significant change here: precarity is the universal condition of the proletariat. Perhaps this condition was obscured for many years for large sections of the working class – the basis of the post-war settlement – but the people the IWW organised most and most successfully were outside these sections. Labour conditions in some of the sectors the IWW organised historically in the US are no more precarious today than in 1912, and in some cases they are significantly less so. And, more generally, precarity was never lessened or obscured in the US to the degree that it was in some other places. That’s part of the the reason why the debates on precarity in Europe haven’t jumped the ocean. European precaritisation is in many ways socio-economic Americanisation.

There’s a number of reasons for the IWW’s decline, partly related to shifts in the economy and demographics of the US, and partly to repression. The IWW was almost destroyed several times over the course of its history. Tons and tons of organisers got murdered, permanently disabled, imprisoned, deported, blacklisted, etc. There’s a parallel here with the movement(s) in Italy in the 1970s and the destruction of autonomia.

But workplace struggles never went away. The problem is simply that organising is really, really hard: the ruling class has the deck stacked dramatically in its favor, and even though our power is superior, making this latent power active is an arduous, dangerous, and difficult process. This is the main difficulty we face and it’s pretty much true for any class struggle in any society.

In some ways increased flexibility and mobility in and out of work do make organising harder. But not impossible, and, in fact, the IWW has been the only union organising in many ‘flexible’ workplaces (independently contracted computer workers, transportation workers, etc.). But despite these changes in the composition of the class, our model of organisation doesn’t vary much.

What is solidarity unionism and how does it relate to other models of workplace organisation, like bio-syndicalism or Justice for Janitors?

Talk of a solidarity unionism ‘model’ is a bit misleading. It’s more like a scale or a key in music, it provides the framework within which we improvise the affective, immaterial, flexible processes of organising and building organisation. Simply put solidarity unionism is organising collectively to directly implement our desires, whether that’s in a single workplace, across an industry, or throughout the whole economy. It’s an attempt to construct or exercise collective power against an employer (or the employing class), with the intention of making them do something they would not otherwise do. It’s about organising whether we’re recognised or not, whether there’s a contract or not, and most of all settling direct worker issues by the workers directly. Our goal is the (prefigurative) transformation of social relations within the workplace, while building experience of struggle and class consciousness amongst its participants.
A solidarity union is a shared project. Grammatically speaking, it exists in the first person plural. Considered from outside this first person perspective, the union is something else, just as I am only I when considered from the first person perspective. Furthermore, it is best to think about solidarity unions in terms of subjective rather than objective pronouns, as I or we, not me or us. As objects, we are acted upon: the boss fired me; the union won us a 5% raise. But as subjects we act: I come to the organising meeting, we refuse to work, we collaborate together.

From the little we’ve learnt from comrades in Spain and Argentina, bio-syndicalism looks sort of like our kind of unionism, except it involves more of a relationship with the state than we see as necessary: demands for new rights or law, or running for election, say. Within the IWW we may have tactical relations with the state for defensive purposes, but we don’t think there are any positive gains to be won this way. As workers our relationship with the boss is one of power. We cannot rely on recognition, representation or visibility to change that relationship; we can only rely on our collective organisation!

Bio-syndicalism doesn’t strike us as a new idea. It’s very much like some forms of organising that existed in the 1930s and before, and have continued to exist in small pockets here and there. Why call that ‘bio-syndicalism’ instead of just syndicalism? Our impression is that the people who like bio-syndicalism hold to a type of marxism that believes everything is different under the sun today, so that old organisational forms don’t work anymore. Sure, some older organisational forms have lost their efficacy and some, like the Party and business unions, never worked in the first place. But others do still work.

And Justice for Janitors… ?

While anything that makes for better conditions for workers is great, we’re not particularly excited about Justice For Janitors. Justice For Janitors is part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a business union in the US (part of a coalition with the overstated name ‘Change To Win’ which split from the AFL-CIO). Our criticisms of business unionism are many, and we see Justice For Janitors and other similar campaigns (they’re called ‘corporate campaigns’ in the US) as repeating all these problems. In short, they all boil down to discouraging workers’ self-activity and bureaucratising and defusing struggle. The business union model involves delegating power away from workers to professionals outside the workplace – paid staff and officials, lawyers, public relations people, journalists, etc. The effects on democracy in the workplace are obvious. And business unions usually aim at contracts. But once in force these become a mechanism for policing the shop floor because of the need to keep production flowing and to avoid an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the official union (contracts all contain ‘no strike’ clauses, making work stoppages illegal).

What then is the difference between ‘activism’ and organising?

This is a crucial distinction for us. We see activism as acting for someone else: show up to a protest on someone else’s behalf. Organising is acting with someone else: get together with someone else, form a group of people, start acting collectively on shared needs. Activism has a function and is important sometimes, but organising is more important. Put it this way – in activism we exert what power we have, in solidarity with someone else. In organising we get together with others in order to increase our collective power. As a result, we have more power to exert, both in solidarity with others and, in the long run, to reduce the problems that we face.

We might explain this difference by looking at the old slogan ‘be realistic, demand the impossible!’ We can translate ‘be realistic’ into ‘be reasonable’. The activist makes impossible demands, then when criticised insists ‘this is reasonable!’ The organiser uses a reasonable approach in order to move people into thinking – and feeling in their gut, in terms of confidence – that what they used to think was impossible is actually possible.

Being an organiser means encountering someone else where they’re at, using an idiom and appealing to values as close as possible to the ones they already have. The goal is to get close to them in order to move them (and be moved ourselves perhaps). But organising in the workplace also uses capacities everyone has. It presupposes, implicit or explicitly, a universal capacity to do and be more, that the actual does not exhaust the potential. This underlines an important part of what we see as the role of an organiser. If everyone is capable of organising then the organiser is only a temporary role, and one that is not monopolisable. Indeed, anyone who occupies that role should aim at the opposite of monopoly, at collectivisation.

Given the above, how do you relate to the ‘movement of movements’, which sometimes seems to be built around spectacular events like summit protests? And don’t some ‘activists’ actually organise, whilst union ‘organisers’ might in fact be activists?

Summit mobilisations can be awesome. Take Seattle. There were tons of great people there and exciting stuff happened. Many people did stuff that went beyond their positions (and others did stuff that didn’t live up to their positions). But we think there are real limits to this.

There’s a difference of both site and function. The summit protest’s site is at a location where there’s a summit. Its functions are many and include getting a lot of people into a place together for a positive experience (inspiring, educational/transformational, meeting people, communicating, etc), and physically impeding the functioning of the summit. With workplace organising the site is double: in the workplace, as the place for action against the bosses, and outside the workplace, in homes, in meeting rooms or elsewhere. Put differently, the sites are the face-to-face encounter between two or more people (outside work), and the bigger and conflictual encounter between groups of workers and their bosses/the production process (in the workplace). But we’re not claiming any monopoly: we know some of these types of sites also exist in summit protests and other activism, and that’s excellent.

Few people literally live at work, but almost everyone lives at work in the sense that we have to go there for our jobs. We’re not there deliberately in the same way we are at a summit protest. In other words, we’re not necessarily already plugged into the movement. Take the positive encounters between protesters and residents that happen at a summit protest (like when people bring food and water to protesters, cheer them on, talk to them, etc). They’re really cool but aren’t the reason for the protest. By contrast these types of encounter are the whole point of workplace organising. We organise at work to meet our co-workers. Or rather, organising at work is meeting (actually many, many, many meetings…) with our co-workers. The function of workplace organising is also double. First, to produce a positive experience, preferably one which leads to members of the organisation and to people becoming organisers. This isn’t always or even often fun, but it is transformational and educational, both in how we see the world and in our capacities, like learning a new dance step or learning to keep cool while speaking in front of people. The second function is to increase collective power at work and therefore to improve conditions.

But the movement of movements isn’t just about summit protests, is it? And we think really the question of the IWW’s relationship to the movement of movements can only be answered by talking about what it is. We’re not sure exactly, but nor are we interesting in drawing lines, defining who’s in and who’s out. Certainly we think it’s likely that the transformational effects on individuals of both summit protests (say) and workplace-organising could have results for the other, as people’s lives take them across different sites. Struggles mutually reinforce one another. But we don’t know that either includes the other or should, at least not ‘include’ in the sense of ‘subsumes’.

What does organising really mean in concrete, day-to-day terms? And related to that, how do you measure success or failure?

Someone we know says this: ‘Everyone wants a revolution but no one wants to wash the dishes.’ Organising involves a lot of dish-washing. We have a lot of conversations with people, asking them questions, listening, responding, asking follow-up questions, listening some more. We build a relationship with them. We find out what they want to see changed at work. We get them to talk with other people at work in order to build (and then strengthen) a web of relationships.
Then we start to talk and act as a group – identifying things we want to see changed, figuring out ways to pressure the boss and ways to implement the changes we want. At the concrete day-to-day level, organising is like running a really long distance – it’s not particularly complicated intellectually but it takes a lot of time and energy, and it can be really hard. It is pretty slow-moving sometimes, especially when we’re used to the pace and the energy of big demonstrations.
It’s easier to talk about the success question. It’s usual to think of success and failure in terms of winning campaigns, achieving demands, increasing membership, etc. But many of our most active members are from campaigns that didn’t achieve their goals, and few active members are from campaigns that did. Betrayals, false starts, firings, attacks, and the like seem to have gotten us some of the best people, whereas gains can sometimes lead to slow deaths and few committed members – contracts leading to passive satellite shops uninterested in organising and interaction.
Of course we organise to protect ourselves and our co-workers from layoffs and from harassment, and we organise to improve our wages and benefits. But winning is not solely a matter of better wages or conditions. It’s also about radicalisation and the experience of collective organising. It’s collective struggle with our co-workers which expands our experience, understanding and abilities. We have seen this occur in many cases, even without winning external measurable gains.

When we struggle we reshape our lives in ways that are deeply moving for many of us, so moving that people are willing to risk their livelihoods to be a part of it. Todd was on strike at a home for children with acute behavioral problems. Almost none of the workers planned to stick around for the end of the next contract period, but they were striking for something bigger than that. Nate worked at an NGO where people started organising against bad conditions. People began to stick around out of commitment to each other, because of the relationships that they built as part of the organising. Neither of these instances created the workplace improvements we were hoping for. Judged from an external standard, our experiences were failures (as is every working class struggle which does not abolish capitalism). This external standard is important, because it reminds us of the world we must change, but it makes it difficult to draw lessons from our experiences or identify resources we have gained.

Struggle changes us, makes us different, recomposes us. When we organise on the job something is ruptured. This happens to individuals and to organisations, whether informal, like a group of friends and co-workers, or more formal, like a union. If struggles are widespread or circulate enough, they begin to effect what can be called a recomposition of the working class. The most important effect of this is to increase ‘compositional power’ – the individual and collective ability to organise. Compositional power is increased or made more effective by its use, like a muscle: solidarity unionism is one way of doing this.

Some of this is analogous to feminist practices of consciousness raising. It matters less if something has been said before about women’s oppression and more that this particular person or group of persons comes to be able to say it – and does say it – for themselves. An agitational conversation, one involving say the question ‘what is your job like?’, is less about extracting knowledge and more about a performative activity in which the person has an affective experience (becomes agitated), makes a decision (to take a small action toward changing the workplace and coming together with others), begins to develop a relationship with the conversation partner, and begins to acquire the confidence, skills, and analysis needed to successfully organise their workplace.

In the end the success of organising lies in social relationships. Organising ought to prefigure the systemic shifts in social relations that the end of capitalism entails. When we struggle together and take action, we confront things that formerly we had to face alone. A bridge can be built between people engaged together in struggle, and we can drive fissures into the isolation that is imposed on us. Organising is about reclaiming our lives and our space to realise our desires, often ones we didn’t even know about. It’s not always easy or pleasant, but sometimes unique beauty and joy can be born of these collective transformations.

For an interesting take on biopolitical syndicalism from an Argentinian perspective, see Franco Ingrassia’s article, available in English at

The May 2007 International Syndicalist Conference agreed to organise an international union of Starbucks workers linking the current local unions across Europe (UK, France), North America (US, Canada) and Australasia (New Zealand). This means taking the first practical steps towards a true international union for fast food workers, setting a model whereby they can organise internationally across the industry to fight casualisation and low pay. More details from

Originally appeared in June 2007 issue of Turbulence