In FW Conatz’s two pieces responding to “Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper,” which appear in two parts—on page 7 of the July/August IW, and above—he gives an overall positive appraisal of the concept of “Direct Unionism.” I cannot. The starting point is the idea that contracts were unconstitutional in the IWW “until the 1930s,” which is technically not true. Though contracts were discouraged, they could be negotiated with GEB approval. In “Part 2” of his review, he corrects this error but rightly maintains that a general hostility and reluctance to negotiate contracts was pervasive during our heyday. The reason for eschewing contracts in our early period emanated from historical circumstances which have not survived to the present day. There was no federally recognized right to organize, which meant no barriers to contract violations by employers. We all know employers still violate contracts with impunity, but it is in no way comparable to the non-codified nature of industrial relations prevalent in 1905. The composition of our membership then would also be completely alien to us now. The bulk of Wobblies were the transient workers of the industrially underdeveloped West; migrants rarely toiling consistently under one company or farmer. This too negated the role contracts could play.
In 2011, the IWW is a small union, filled with potential and only lacking the necessary connections to a wider working class to use it. How then can the IWW play a positive and transformative role in the class struggle today? One way is through vigorous organization on the part of dual-carders, one result of which would be opposition caucuses within the business unions and larger “cross-industry assemblies.” I do not disagree with this part of “Direct Unionism,” although I do reject framing this in a context of “de-emphasizing membership.” What I am opposed to is dropping contracts, or not pursuing them when they can realistically be achieved. We cannot simply present the working class with ideas in lieu of material gains in their economic status. To build the kind of “networks of militants” that “Direct Unionism” asks for, Wobblies need to fight on the ground for better working conditions, and among dual-carders this means agitating for better contracts. As quoted by Conatz, the pamphlet states: “…by encouraging a non-contractual organizing strategy we are… putting the building of class power before the protection of bread-and-butter gains.” Yet, how can class power be felt by workers if material gains are not achieved? Power is relative; it only matters insofar as it can be used to claim something for itself. For the working class, our pre-revolutionary power IS bread and butter.
“Direct Unionism” states that the fight for union recognition is an activity best accomplished after a “critical mass of workers” understand, amongst other things, direct action. Do these fellow workers not understand that some of the most militant labor struggles in American history have centered on the fight for union recognition? This was one of the core demands of the 1934 general strikes.
In my branch, the San Francisco Bay Area GMB, we have three contracted shops. The workers there organize great on-the-job actions and meetings (what the “Direct Unionist” pamphlet gives the pathetic name of a “culture of resistance” to) without ever attending branch meetings or engaging in theoretical debates. They are simply not left activists. They are, like most workers, motivated by meat and potato issues instead of theories. This is not to disparage theory; I think theory is absolutely critical for action. Instead, I bring this up only to remind fellow workers that ideas only matter to the extent that they correctly reflect historical experience and objective conditions. The material reality in the Bay Area is that if the branch decided not to renew the contracts, their working conditions would quickly deteriorate and our branch would shrink dramatically. This is the reality of the situation, and no theory can obscure that fact.
The IWW today is mainly organizing among the service sector, and moreover a segment that is mainly young part-timers. In these shops, the struggle for contracts may seem insignificant if only because they are not immediately attainable. Due to a small number of Wobblies organizing among a workforce of this nature, the emphasis has naturally been on informal solidarity unions. Yet it would be a mistake to apply what the IWW does from a position of relative weakness (let’s be honest) and make this is a credo of our organizing (especially not the use of “Moral Pressure,” as the pamphlet argues). Under this model, the IWW would not only be unprepared for an unexpected struggle like Wisconsin, but also have no lasting structures to build upon after the contest breaks. For these reasons, I think the IWW should be very skeptical about the methods discussed in “Direct Unionism.”
Originally appeared in Industrial Worker # 1739 (October 2011)