"Why I'm a wobbly" - Three members of the Industrial Workers of the World, from different political and working backgrounds, explain why they joined the IWW, and how they see their union.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Britain is growing. Freedom talked to three of its members about why they joined the union, its relationship with the anarchist movement and the relevance of the organization today.
Why did you join IWW?
Barbara: I am in an unusual employment situation. I am employed by elected representatives (members of the Scottish Parliament) who are also my comrades in the party of which I'm a member and activist. However there was no obvious trade union to be a member of. The vast majority of us were employed at the same time, shortly after the last Scottish Parliament elections and were encouraged to join the National Union of Journalists by a comrade. However I was unhappy about this as my work does not involve any journalism, and to be a member of the NUJ you have to state what percentage of your work is journalism. When I asked the full time organiser who came to recruit us, he was patronising and sexist - using phrases about me like "just a secretary". I challenged him but he only made it worse with more inappropriate comments. There was no way I could join the NUJ. I looked around and decided that I would join the IWW. I liked the idea that it's a union for all workers, no matter what kind of work you do. I also like the idea of one big union. Quite a few of my colleagues also joined the IWW as dual carders and we now have a job branch in the parliament.
Richard: I'm with Sam Dolgoff in that think it is vital workers organise together at work to defend their interests. Reformists unions are part of the problem. Not only do they sell their members out, they also seem to spend more time squabbling amongst themselves than fighting for workers. I support the notion of One Big Union, which IWW stands for. I work in the NHS where there are over 20 unions representing everyone from porters to doctors.
Graham: There are plenty of people on the "left" who have a false idea about the IWW because they don't understand the difference between economics and politics. They come to a "left" position as a political decision, and then make the mistake of thinking that because the IWW is against the boss system, it is a "left" organization, when in fact it's an economic organization that intends to use the economic power of the working class to replace the dominant economic power of capitalism. Everything flows from that. I joined the IWW because I work for a living, and am robbed as a member of the working class by the capitalist system, and I reckon the IWW is the only group with a real plan for dealing with the inequalities that capitalism creates and maintains. It seems to me that the other organizations of the working class, both formal and informal, are just playing into the hands of the capitalist class, so joining the IWW was the only option I felt I had. Joining for any other reason is not what the IWW is about, but I have stopped being surprised by 'lefties' thinking we fit their schemes. Sometimes people just cannot see how to act in their own best economic interest.
IWW is not an anarchist organisation but you work with the anarchist federations and have a number of members who are anarchists. What is the union's relationship with anarchism and the anarchist movement?
Graham: Anyone is welcome to join the IWW so long as they work for a living and seek to build a new society in which those who do the work get the full product of their labour. Of course we have a common root with anarchism in that we date our inception from pre-bolshevik thought and forms of organisation, when the likes of William Morris and Hyndeman, Kropotkin and Sam Kitts could, to some extent, work together, and that may be the reason why some anarchists find common ground in the IWW and join us. But the IWW maintains an elected structure of officials and delegates, and responsibility to the membership and the class is an important part of being a member. What we reject though, is the sort of political manipulation that leadership groups require, so there are distinct pros and cons that anarchists should think about before they join. We are a self-policed and self-disciplined organisation.
Barbara: I'm not really in a position to answer this as I'm not an anarchist!! As a member of the Scottish Socialist Party I am always aware that the IWW does not affiliate to political parties and I totally respect this. However I sometimes feel like other members don't think of anarchist organisations as political organisations, and there's an assumption that anarchist literature, leaflets etc is ok to hand out at IWW meetings/events, but socialist publications must be kept for the pub, and then I feel like I have to continually explain myself!! I believe that the IWW is for all workers, regardless of membership of political groups/parties etc - within reason of course, I doubt we've got any tory party members!
Richard: As an anarchist one of the things that attracted me to IWW, even though I knew it wasn't an anarchist union, was its non-hierarchical libertarian structures and approaches. I am really pleased that we are working with AF and Sol Fed to develop the Education Workers Network and with Sol Fed to link up radical health workers. Working together while respecting our differences can only strengthen us all. At the end of the day we are all fighting for the same thing - the end of wage labour and exploitation.
The IWW celebrated its 100 anniversary last year - what is the union's relevance to workers today?
Barbara: I think that workers today need the IWW more than ever - the "official" unions are mostly just doing the bidding of the government, unable and/or unwilling to do anything radical. They act as mediators between workers and bosses, rather than standing up for the workers. Many unions are paralysed by layer after layer of beaurocracy, with little or no real democracy for its members. Therefore, although the IWW is small at the moment, it's growing steadily as workers realise they must stick together and fight for their own demands. That in my opinion is what unions were originally for, and the massive businesses that they are now with their own credit cards and loans etc, have grown so far from what they were meant to be that they're unrecognisable.
Graham: The union's relevance remains the same until the job is done. Our problem is, as ever, to get enough on board to move the lorry along. The means of getting the message across has changed, and the boss class is slicker now than it was a hundred years ago and controls all the means not only of production but of manipulation too, to a greater extent as time has passed, but that's no reason to give up, to become leninist, or to tip organization out the window. I went to a lecture by the late Sam Dolgoff some years ago, an anarchist and a member of the IWW, and he was asked by a member of the audience why, considering all the struggles he had been involved in without succeeding in overthrowing the capitalist system, he persisted in banging his head against that wall. His reply was something along the lines that he understood that as long as we keep going, the boss has to fight us to beat us, every single day. We on the other hand only have to win once, because we have a different definition of what it means to win. That has stuck with me - we only have to win once. Until then, the fight is the same.
IWW allows its members to also belong to reformist unions like T&G - why is that?
Graham: Members of the IWW can join any coffin club they choose; why would we as an organisation want to exercise the authority over ourselves that tells members what else they can or can not do? Would you consider it any differently if we were to exercise authority over the religious or secular, sexual or drinking preferences of the membership? Why shouldn't members of the IWW carry our good democratic ideas into any other organisation that their own circumstances lead them to join, political or social? I would be glad if there are members of the IWW in any political parties, religious and social groups, spreading the anti-capitalist ideas of the IWW.
Back in the late 1960s I was at a packed meeting of working class libertarians in the ground floor hall at Freedom Press, when at the end of a diatribe Ron Marsden rephrased the famous Joe Hill quote into "Don't moan - organise". We won't get there any other way, and I reckon the IWW is still the best step forward.
Barbara: Until the IWW has grown in size, I think it's right that we have the dual-card approach where members can also be members of "mainstream" unions such as T&G. For day to day practicalities, such as representation in grievances etc, workers should make use of the structures of these unions. Also, while the majority of workers are in these unions and not the IWW at the moment, I think it makes sense that IWW members also participate in their trade union, rather than separate themselves from their colleagues. They can also spread the word about the IWW within the other unions and help the IWW to grow!!