An article by Matt Muchowski that is part of an ongoing debate on the use of labor contracts.
Previous articles in this discussion include:
-The contract as a tactic by Matt Muchowski
-Contractualism should be avoided by Juan Conatz
-Contracts are not a tool, they're a trap by Scott Nappalos
I wrote a piece in the December 2013 Industrial Worker (IW), “The Contract As A Tactic,” which appeared on page 4, discussing the IWW’s relationship with contracts, and I encouraged the union to see them as a tactic that can be used when it makes sense.
I’m glad to see that it has sparked some conversation, with separate response pieces printed in the January/February and March 2014 issues of the IW.
I wanted to write another piece to keep this conversation going, and perhaps clarify my views on the topic.
Overall, the decision about which tactics and strategies to use is up to each workplace, and I’m glad that our union is big enough to support workers with different views on strategy and tactics .
I agree with Fellow Worker (FW) Juan Conatz, who wrote in “Contractualism Should Be Avoided” (January/February IW, page 4), that organization is the base of the IWW’s strength, but at times a contract can be used to organize—whether it be offensively to mobilize workers around their demands, or defensively as a shield to keep union supporters employed when the boss tries to fire them.
We should not make our strategies or goals revolve around a tactic—whether it be contracts, strikes, or picketing. Using any given tactic does not prevent us from using other tactics either at the same time, or at a different time.
“Contractualism” is something that should be avoided just as much as “‘strikeism,” “electoral politics-ism,” “OSHAism,” or “picket-ism.” Turning any tactic or tool into an ideology or strategy leads us to build towards an action or event, with no follow-through. Our goal is have workers democratically control the means of production, and it’s not my intent to compare “contractualism” to “all-out-revolution;” rather it is my intent to encourage any and all tactics necessary to build our union so that we have the strength to follow through on our “unfinished business” as former IWW General Secretary-Treasurer (GST) Fred Thompson put it.
FW Conatz makes the point that if a shop were strongly organized enough to get a contract without certain promanagement clauses, we could be strong enough to simply impose the will of the workers without a contract. I feel like this is a slippery slope argument—if we are strong enough to do X, we are strong enough to do Y and Z. The fact is that workers’ organization isn’t always strong enough to get X, Y and Z, but if they can get X and Y, why shouldn’t they take it, and use those extra resources to fight for Z as well? The reality is that workers in each shop and throughout the IWW and the labor movement have to assess their strengths at the moment and make decisions that will allow them to build off of that strength. Having an “all or nothing” approach will hurt our ability to get it all.
In his article “Contracts Are Not A Tool, They’re A Trap,” which appeared on page 11 of the March IW, FW Scott Nappalos described a bad experience with contracts at his branch’s shop—where workers became apathetic because, despite having a contract, there was a lack of organizing. Unfortunately, sometimes the union loses battles.
Workers are fired and unable to get their jobs back, strikes end with the workers returning to work to keep their jobs without obtaining the goals they set out on strike for, and occupied factories can be evicted by force. In FW Nappalos’s example, a contract was an end in itself and wasn’t used to organize and mobilize workers.
The fact that these tactics sometimes fail to achieve the union’s goals is not a reason for us to swear to never use them under any circumstance. Rather, it’s a reason for us to examine the particulars of why that tactic in that circumstance didn’t lead us to our goal of better and stronger organization of the working class, and what we can change about it in the future.
In some ways, FW Nappalos’s article actually supports my point. The contracts gave the union a foothold in the shops, and when effort was applied, the union was able to organize in these shops. No matter what tactic is used in organizing, effort is necessary to make it successful.
Some “tactics” are always bad, as they do not even try to lead us to our goal—any tactic that undermines union democracy or pits workers against each other for example. However, tactics that are used to advance us towards our goal, even if they might not succeed, are up to workers to decide on a shop-by-shop and industry- by-industry basis, and eventually as a whole social class.
Granted we need some standards to make sure that a particular shop doesn’t do something which is inconsistent with the values and goal of our union. Some of these are hard-line standards, some are “best practice” standards, and some will be left up to shops to decide on a case-bycase basis.
Historically our union set standards for contracts by requiring that they be approved by the General Executive Board, and that they be consistent with the values of the union. The IWW has also rejected contracts that had “specified lengths of time” or required workers to state their demands before taking action on them. You can read more about these standards in a pamphlet that the union put out in the 1920s that examined how the union can organize around bread and butter issues’ in a revolutionary way called “The Immediate Demands of the IWW,” at: http://www. workerseducation.org/crutch/pamphlets/ immediate.html.
FW Nappalos said that we shouldn’t expect our opponents to play fair, and that they often use legalistic framework to keep us from organizing. Our opponents won’t play fair, and they will use any means and any tactic to keep us from organizing—not just legalistic ones.
With that said, we don’t have to “play fair” either.
We’re not required to tell the boss our strategy, tactics or intentions—in fact sometimes it may be useful to mislead the boss. We can talk to them about contracts while we are organizing direct actions. We can make the boss think that we are conceding something big, when we didn’t have it to concede in the first place.
The boss can feel free to mistake our tactics as reformist, and give in to some immediate demands of ours. However as a democratic union we are required to be honest with each other—that we will fight to end against the system of wage slavery, no matter what we take from the boss, or what they give to us in the meantime.
I think it is important that the IWW fights to win in a big picture way. We need to win against capitalism. There will be ups and downs in that fight, day-to-day battles, as well as struggles that last months, years and decades. But just as the boss leaves every tactic on the table—including contracts that they don’t like, including legalizing strikes, including force, etc., we too need to leave every tactic on the table.
Contracts, like any tactic—including strikes, if done in a reformist way—can be a trap for workers, but if done in a smart, revolutionary way, it can help set traps for the boss.
I’ve commented on some of the related posts on Libcom, and fellow workers interested in the conversation can follow or contribute there in addition to the IW.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2014)
Quote: We should not make our
See, no one has yet to convince me (or, if I'm honest, offer any sort of explanation) how contracts are a "tactic".
Not to be pedantic, but a tactic is a short-term action (like a picket or a strike) designed to create an immediate change or apply pressure. A strategy is a long-term plan achieved by a series of tactics that seeks to change the status quo. Contracts - legally binding documents that last at, say, a minimum of a year - become a goal in themselves, a result of a particular strategy.
I think this misses the point. What FW Nappalos and others have argued is that contracts change the role of the union in the shop - that "servicing" the contracts or, worse, enforcing the contract on the members, becomes fundamental to functioning of the union in that shop. FW Nappalos was pointing out that such a dynamic is a recipe for rank-and-file disempowerment.
Quote: Contracts, like any
One thing that really falls flat for me in these conversations are statements like this. It is just assumed to be true, to be pragmatic, but the questions I have are: What does a "revolutionary contract" mean? How does that play out? What historical examples are there of "revolutionary contracts"? how does that build the IWW around an anti-capitalist, anti-state platform? I would like to see an article that really addresses these issues, they seem important and pressing, despite being glossed over by pro-contract arguments every time.
Sorry, historical question:
Sorry, historical question: What year is the "Agreements" from? Pretty heavily centralist. UE basically has same policy on strikes, only they have to be approved by the national office. Same principle tho
A revolutionary contract
A revolutionary contract would be one where the boss agrees to pay us and we agree to nothing.
Quote: Quote: Contracts,
I think two things here;
1) You are not going to be able to set any traps for the boss or exert any meaningful pressure against the employing class in the US unless we organize, at least as a start, in the way Matt is talking about. Rejecting contracts as a dogma will continue to make us irrelevant in the US labor movement. We propose something that will grow and strengthen the radical labor movement, the other side has nothing really to show and no plan.
2) Its not the "contract" that is revolutionary (although i believe contract organizing by revoluationaries would provide even more contrete power and gains to workers than those organized and controlled solely by liberal bureaucrats) it is the philosophy of the union in its entirety. By growing in strength and numbers through contractual labor organizing the union can start building to strike (general strike or smaller strikes against specific targets) start a program of political engagement for the workers, began tackling other political issues outside of the shop floor that some union stay away from, etc..
Contract relations with the
Contract relations with the employer comes straight out of the AFL playbook in the early 20th century. It became solidified under the bureaucrat dominated unions of the CIO and even though the more radical or rank and file unions like the MESA used contracts, they refused the checkoff and forfeiting the right to strike, a clause the I.W.W. recently passed/upheld. The MESA was also uniquely democratic and rank and file controlled (if still dominated in spirit by Smith).
Contracts in general are the basis of classical liberal legality and the logic of capitalism. The worker is a free human, selling their labor-power for a wage. A lot of business unions see their role as conceptually an actual business that sells the labor-power of it's workers to the capitalists, in order to give the workers a better payout. But the IWW isn't a business union, and isn't about oiling the gears of capitalist accumulation. It's about building class power as independently of bourgeois institutions as possible.
We shouldn't rely on the notion of "legitimacy" conferred by contracts or recognition "enforced" by the NLRB. But this doesn't mean workers shouldn't settle, or have demands. But this means building union strength through solidarity and direct action. Or the hard way.
It doesn't mean we can't take some fights to the NLRB, to the extent we can win them and gain from them, like monetarily etc.
But what does a contract actually give? Stability? Nope, that's created by workers responding to unfair disciplinary action or firings with an immediate walkout. A rally point? It would be clearer just to make a list of demands. Recognition? Why do you need a contract or the state at all? Recognition practically means that you're the force on the shopfloor that represents the workers. This can be it's own separate demand, but why drag in the bureaucracy of the NLRB?
They actually came out of the
They actually came out of the playbook for the state, and of course the afl and the cio adopted them and soon became enshrined as the standard.
I disagree about contracts being the basis of classic liberal capitalism, maybe between employers, but not in a employer to employee relationship. that belief is founded in a master slave relationship where they employee has zero rights. Anything to the contrary is usually fought bitterly, mostly out of class loyalty, principle, or the cost to the employer.
"legitimacy" is not the issue, the issue is organizing power and strength. Remember you dont need to be legitimized by the NLRB to file a charge and i think the IWW has used the NLRB about 99% of the time to press for demands when they had a shot to do so.
billz wrote: I think two
Ironically, the IWW has organized in the fashion Matt has advocated. Pretty much from the 1960s-late 1990s, nearly every organizing campaign was a NLRB election, contract campaign. And you know what, the IWW has never been more irreverent besides this period. So I don't buy that contractualism as a strategy gets us footholds, necessarily. To say nothing of what these footholds would look like.
And dogma? Please. I'm sick of hearing this. It was already addressed in the reply I wrote, but the solidarity/direct/revolutionary unionism a lot of us advocate has clear precedent and is based on lessons learned, either through contemporary direct experience in organizing campaigns or lessons from people who came before us, such as radical accounts of what was happening with the CIO or if you wanna take it back far enough, the tradition of the historical IWW. In contrast, those who advocate some version of contracts have nothing but the talk of aspirational growth, with no examples, and a vision of unionism that ignores the developments of the last 70 years. Honestly, until Matt started this debate off, there has been little (maybe nothing) written about why contractualism should be a strategy1 for the IWW.
Quote: Rejecting contracts as
Well, Juan has already covered this better and more eloquently than I can, but the US labor movement has been in decline for decades, both on it's own terms and certainly in terms of radical social transformation. I don't think becoming relevant in what's basically a failing and, in large parts of the country, irrelevant, movement is much to aspire to.
If anything, the bits of the labor movement that have taken a look at the IWW - say Labor Notes - are specifically looking at the solidarity unionist approach, looking at how the Starbucks Workers Union organizes fights on the shopfloor as opposed to contracts.
Also, "nothing to show and no plan" not only is that offensive, it's just plain wrong. Have you not read Direct Unionism? Attended the 101 training? Read the Workers Power column in the IW?
Finally, "dogma"? One's person's dogma is just another person's principles, so let's drop the rhetoric here, yeah?
Juan Conatz wrote: billz
Juan, im not an expert, but i dont even think the IWW was recognized by the nlrb until the late 70s.
I think from the 60s and 70s the where the iww was almost extinguished, i think there was even more of a rejection around the kinds of campaigns i argue we need to run. I think more into the late 80s they started getting more into contracts, including organizing the Berkeley plant, which remains to this day as one of the largest Industrial Union shops, thanks in part to their contract with the IWW.
I am not arguing against "revolutionary unionism" but to advocate for it without having done the organizing makes it irrelevant. I think their are great examples of pulling unions to the left using a mix of what matt and i seem to be advocating and with what you are advocating. I have yet to see any current examples or realistic plan or strategy which rejects contracts but also produces a clear foothold and revolutionary power in a job shop that clearly can move the boss or threaten them legitimately in any way.
Labor notes is pretty much the direction i want to push the iww in, no disagreement there.
I dont mean to be offensive, just trying to ask hard questions because i think we dont have much time to get organizing. I have not read direct unionism but if you link it ill be glad to. I think i actually helped run a 101 training awhile back with some bike messengers.
I dont think dogma is good on either side of the debate..
you should read that and
you should read that and subsequent debates then, highly recommended.
There you go:
Now, I'm not in CA, but having talked to folks who are a bit more familiar with the Berkeley plant I've heard two things:
1) The workers themselves have pulled off some worthwhile actions, including strikes. Which is awesome.
2) The shop itself is maintained through the use of a business agent and the workers there have very little contact or engagement with the local GMB or certainly the wider union. On top of that, I believe their last contract was concessionary.
In short, basically what we have in Berkeley is militant trade unionism, which is all well and good, but it's not the sort of revolutionary union that I think most of us want to create.
Path to hell, good intentions....
Organizing of any sort - never mind revolutionary organizing - is a long, slow process. If there are any shortcuts to that, the NLRB and signing agreements with the bosses certainly aren't it.
Billz, if you don't mind me
Billz, if you don't mind me asking, how long have you been in the union?
Chilli Sauce wrote: There you
Thanks for the link.
I doubt the have enough resources to have a full time business agent, but maybe im wrong, either way i think the wider union should be more engaged with it, but i think they are stuck in the dogma that rejects what they are doing. I think this is wrong. They should be activity supported and their model should spread.
I dont think we know yet if its not the revolutionary union that you want to create, i think it is. Pretty much almost every contract is concessionary now, that is reflects power and reality most of the time, and not the ideology of the workers. If they could have squeezed more out of the boss and made it a net positive, i am sure they would have. I would bet you that their contract is one of the best for what they do around though.
I do think that is the path their, i know you disagree, but be specific with your counter plan. Ill check out the debate.
I have been an on and off member for over 10 years. I current not up to date but am helping out with organizing consulting.
Quote: think they are stuck
Oh, come on, contract or no contract, you don't think the IWW is going to rally around their members in a dispute?
And, I would like to point out that throughout this debate, the pro-contract folks have used a lot of "I think..." And this is actually why I asked how long you've been in the union. I've been in the Wobs on and off for about the same amount time. In that time, I've seen the growth of an organising culture and a cadre (if you'll forgive the word) of dedicated, capable organisers alongside an infrastructure (the OD, the 101) that supports organising. And the vast majority of that comes out of organising experiences on the ground. It's also those same people are the ones generally most in support of non-contractualist models.
It seems like when I talk to pro-contract folks, it's all about what they think - their opinion about what will work, no matter how much it flies in the face of experience. For my money, when it comes to having the debate, it's the anti-contractualists who are far more grounded not only in theory and history, but in practical experience.
I mean, seriously, how many NLRB elections do you think the IWW has filed for in the past 30 years. How many do you think we've won? How many have resulted in contracts? How many of those contracts have lasted? How many of those contracts had no-strike clauses? How many resulted in 'phantom shops'?
To be blunt, the model you're advocating has been tried. And it's failed for the IWW as much as it's failed for the wider labor movement.