A response to a blog criticising the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union for not making enough use of paid organisers and officials. With animated gifs.
In terms of my perspective, I'm not a member of the IWW, nor am I particularly an advocate for its theory or practice: usually on here I am a critic of the IWW for various reasons.
However, I think a lot of the criticisms in the article were invalid. I initially responded in a comment below the article, but I ended up writing so much I thought I would turn it into a blog post. Which I also hope will encourage the original author to respond.
I will address a few key points in the article, which I think get to the heart of the disagreement I have with it.
Firstly in the background I believe the author unfortunately has quite a basic misunderstanding of workplace and labour relations, which is evidenced by this statement:
Unfortunately, since the quality of a union’s leadership decides the difference between a worker getting fired and blacklisted, and the same worker getting a hefty raise, unions are not the sort of thing you should shop for by price.
Especially in terms of what happens with an individual worker, the union leadership is completely irrelevant.
What makes the difference between individual worker losing their job or not depends largely on:
- the particular situation in which they find themselves - i.e. did they commit misconduct, or are they just in trouble for being a worker organiser
- the strategy and circumstances of the employer - e.g. are they an aggressive employer who tries to stamp out dissent, or do they try to co-opt it, are they profitable and growing or are they going into administration?
- the policies and procedures of the employer (in the US setting I guess this would include whatever union contract there were)
- the legal/political framework of the country
- the level of worker organisation at the employer
- the general background of the industry in terms of availability of labour and balance of class forces
In the UK, if an employer is determined to sack someone, they can pretty much do it, if at worst they are prepared to make a bit of a payout for unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal, or to get a compromise agreement (a legal settlement where the employee signs away their right to take legal action in return for a payment). In the US this is even easier as most places have "no-fault dismissal".
The main thing which could make this less likely, other than specific personal things like the employer needing the skills of that individual, is having your co-workers prepared to take action to defend you.
Having a radical/left-wing or highly knowledgeable union leader will make absolutely zero difference one way or another.
In terms of getting "hefty raises", in terms of things we can have an influence on, again the politics or abilities of union staff have no impact on this either, the only thing which can is the self-organisation of the workers.
In terms of evidencing this, I could point to hundreds of examples of disputes over pay and job losses, where the organisation and militancy of the workers has been the deciding factor (all other factors being relatively constant). I could also point to lots of examples where different groups of workers within the same union get wildly different results in disputes, depending on their level of organisation. If the author wants to dispute this, I would suggest they provide some examples to evidence their statement.
And this of course is forgetting about all those disputes which happen without or even against the unions, like the garment workers' strikes in Bangladesh, or the recent strike waves in China or Vietnam, or going back a bit the UK strikes in the 60s (95% of which were unofficial) and the World War II US auto workers' strikes.
Now, moving onto the thrust of the original article, marxvx essentially poses this question:
My question in this article is as follows: Can the IWW function without staffers – and if it can, why don’t other unions do the same?
To me, I don't think this is a useful question to ask. At least, it is not a fundamental question. The question to ask first is "What is your ultimate goal?"
If your ultimate goal is to bring workers to membership of unions like AFL-CIO unions, then you should just get involved in an AFL-CIO union. If your ultimate goal (like mine) is for workers to increase their power on the job, in society, and ultimately run society for themselves, then your question should be "does using staffers help or hinder the achievement of this goal?"
Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self-activity of the working class and whatever assists in our demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the working class, our apathy, our cynicism, our differentiation through hierarchy, our alienation, our reliance on others to do things for us and the degree to which we can therefore be manipulated by others - even by those allegedly acting on our behalf.
Now, in terms of my question, and that Solidarity test, then the use of paid officials is clearly counter to those objectives. As use of paid officials does the exact opposite of encourage workers to organise ourselves, but instead encourages us to rely on "professionals" and "experts", which is the exact opposite of what we need to happen for workers to start winning again.
Furthermore, the authors whole argument is very US-centric.
Outside of the US (and maybe Canada, I don't really know anything about Canada. And I guess who cares about Canada?), American-style professional union "organisers" aren't very common. In recent years a couple of unions in the UK and Europe have tried using a small number of paid organisers, but they are largely irrelevant.
Unions here are run pretty much entirely by lay reps: workers volunteering in their spare time, and then getting facilities time (paid time off for lay reps) agreed by employers once they get organised and get a recognition agreement.
Especially considering that the working class in the US is just about the worst-organised working class in the developed world, it's probably not the best idea to copy the standard practice of the established US labour movement as the best model to emulate.
This advocacy of paid officials is also not only more right wing than what I've seen from any anarchist, including the likes of the shit ones like Liberty & Solidarity, but way more right wing than any trots or even right wing social democrats like Labour supporters.
I will now move on to the points which the author uses to argue why she believes paid officials are necessary or beneficial, as I do not think they do adequately support her argument:
In the first place, union organizing demands time. Especially in the food and retail industries which the modern IWW has sought to organize, union organizers need flexible schedules. Everyone who has worked a food service or retail job knows the unpredictable schedules they bring. It is nearly impossible for any four workers in the same workplace to find a time when they are all off of work. If a union organizer has their own work schedule to work around, this presents a fatal barrier to organizing
Yes, this is a problem, however having a paid outside organiser doesn't solve this problem, as the workers will still work shifts, so it is still hard for them to meet one another.
On this next bit, I think the author really shows their naïveté:
Paid positions command this dedication from staffers. For the staffer, the union is their career. They are able to devote 40 hours (and frequently more than that) per week to union activities. By offering a paid position, the union attracts those who have studied and perfected their knowledge.
Now I am sorry, but this is just wrong. I am a worker activist (who FYI is a rep for a traditional union in the UK, Unison. I have very big criticisms of the rep role, but I do it essentially for personal rather than political reasons. I.e. I enjoy it and I get to help people, but I don't delude myself into thinking it helps "the revolution" or even the self organisation of the working class is unfortunately the better a rep I am, the more it encourages members to trust me and "the union" to do things for them, although I do what I can to discourage this). My branch, as are almost all the others, are run entirely by worker activists: volunteers.
We are mostly pretty dedicated, and basically we have to be as it is our own pay, terms and conditions we are dealing with.
Our regional officers, the full-time, paid officials above us are essentially a waste of space and money. This is not the view of me being a crazy ultralefty: this is the view of pretty much all shop stewards, or members who are unfortunate enough to end up having to deal with them.
To see how great these "professionals" "who have studied and perfected their knowledge" actually are in a workplace, you can have a look at the Unison branches which have been taken into supervision by the national union, like Greenwich, which have basically fallen apart completely and lost most of their members.
The thing which makes you a good workplace organiser is not knowledge from books, but is about your understanding of a particular workplace, your relationships with those around you, your ability to encourage discussion, listen to your colleagues and get people to come together around their common concerns.
Thinking that paying people means you get the best out of them is just the worst type of capitalist thinking. You get the best out of people who care what they are doing and believe in it. When you pay people to do something it becomes a job, which they generally give less and less of a shit about the more time goes on.
This can be applied equally to other types of union staffers. Unions need dedicated business agents who are knowledgeable enough in labor law to face off against Human Resources lawyers in grievance hearings. If a grievance is escalated to the point where a union representative must sit down with a Human Resources lawyer (who quite literally has a degree in union-busting), the worker deserves a union representative knowledgeable enough in labor law to defend the worker.
Again, this is based on a misunderstanding of how disputes actually happen in the workplace.
Outside of the US, it is almost entirely lay reps who represent individual members in grievances/disciplinaries etc. And we are pretty much always in a better position to defend members than outside professionals as we know the workplace inside out. What matters in cases is rarely the law - as all the law does is set down an absolute minimum standard of treatment, and most workplaces have policies and procedures which are above the minimum legal standard.
So what matters is knowledge of the internal policies and procedures, and importantly how they are normally applied. Which isn't knowledge outsiders would have.
Finally, these types of grievances are generally pointless anyway. Grievance procedures are frameworks which are set up by management, on management's terms. If workers are to win things, we have to do things ourselves, we can't use management processes. That would be like trying to fight with both hands tied behind our backs. Workers believing that their grievances can be addressed by these management (and sometimes, union-) sanctioned procedures is a barrier we need to overcome before we can start to win.
Why do AFL-CIO unions expend millions of dollars to employ campaign researchers, translators, graphic designers, illustrators, public relations experts, writers, and web designers? It could be because they have so much money that they don’t know what to do with it, and that they want to go out of their way to hire as many people as possible. It could also be because they acknowledge that the work done by, say, a professional graphic designer is more reliable than Xeroxed newspaper cartoons from 1914.
On this bit, I'm not really sure what the point is. Firstly, AFL-CIO unions spend lots of money doing lots of things - like spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get Obama elected. Does that mean the IWW should try to get Obama elected?
The IWW and the AFL-CIO have completely different goals. The former aims at abolition of the wage system, the latter aims in theory to defend/advance the interests of its members but in practice is largely a self-perpetuating bureaucracy to sustain its membership base to pay the salaries and pensions of their own workforce.
Therefore the AFL-CIO doing something is not an argument for the IWW to do likewise.
Even if it were, I'm not really sure what the argument is here as the IWW in practice is a small radical group and can't afford to pay loads of people wages. The only way could potentially do this would be by massively increasing its membership dues, but then this would cause almost all of its members to leave, which would put you back where you started.
Unfortunately, people with this level of knowledge and negotiation skill do not volunteer their time and energy – they look for careers.
This isn't really right either. Of course lots of people who are paid to do things can be quite good at them, but lots can be crap as well. My union branch paid professionals to build their website. However it was so shit that in the end I had to do it myself for free. And the one I did was a hell of a lot better than the one by the "professionals".
Libcom.org is run entirely by volunteers, and our site is a lot better than a lot of union's websites1 which are built by professionals, as is the IWW's (which isn't great but is functional and easy-to-use).
As for "negotiation skill", this is largely a myth. Workers win things when they are well-organised and have leverage: i.e. the ability to disrupt profits (or "business as usual"). Workers with no organisation and no leverage won't get improvements, no matter how "skilled" a negotiator is.
I say this from personal experience as well, as I represent a bargaining unit of about 3000 workers. And you can bluff a little bit, but really to get anything you need organisation: in the well-organised sections we can achieve a lot, in the sections with no organisation management get away with just about whatever they want (within the law). My "negotiation skill" doesn't come into it.
Though I hesitate to use the word, professional organizers and professional staffers are a requirement for any serious union
Apart from anything else, I think this is putting the cart before the horse. I've already said why I am opposed to the use of paid organisers. In terms of staff, I can see the need for this potentially, as if any organisation gets big enough it needs routine administrative work done (like maintenance of the membership database), and I have no objection in principle to people being paid to do this sort of thing, as long as it is on a fixed term basis and people aren't paid more than the average wage of the membership or a living wage, whichever is higher.
But this doesn't mean there is any inherent benefit to having paid staff as such, and certainly if there is not an actual use of resourcing for them then it would be counter-productive.
If paid staff were inherently beneficial, then you could evidence this by pointing to more successful unions (i.e. ones where their members successfully improve or defend their conditions) having more paid employees than less successful ones. However I bet you can't do this.
Especially if you look at historically the most successful unions: the Spanish CNT being the best example as a hugely successful union which was also an anarchist organisation, which had hardly any paid officials (something like one rotating secretary per member union, and paid print staff on the newspapers), and no paid organisers.
Now onto your criticisms of particular IWW organising campaigns:
To use a contemporary example: Starbucks will never be unionized by the IWW. As Starbucks has locations scattered throughout the country (and world), to organize it would require a nationwide union.
The reasons you specify for why the IWW could never organise it, you could also pretty much use to say why no AFL-CIO union could either.
Also, you don't seem to consider how or why it is the IWW, despite all of its difficulties, has done better organising at Starbucks than any of the major unions with their thousands of paid employees and hundreds of millions of dollars.
The reason for this is basically that they have no interest in it. AFL-CIO unions are not interested in the level of self-organisation of the working class. They are capitalist organisations which need to maintain themselves in a capitalist world, so they need to get a return on any investment they make. And low paid, transient service sector workers in small shops are very unlikely to get a decent return on investment.
So a union could send one organiser to an auto plant or hospital to try to recruit 1000 workers on relatively decent salaries, whose dues would be significant. But would it be worth sending an organiser to a coffee shop with 12 staff, all part-time, earning low wages, with a high turnover? Not really. This also means that it would be difficult for using paid organisers to organise at Starbucks for the IWW as well.
In any case, despite its small size, the Starbucks Workers Union did manage to win some real improvements for workers, particularly in New York City where its organising got a dollar an hour raise. And there were some good incidents of on-the-job action getting results, such as this health and safety win in Chicago.
Personally, while I think that the IWW have done a good job at Starbucks, ultimately my view is that it would be futile for them to try to "organise" the chain because they could only do it successfully if the majority of workers at the chain wanted revolution and the abolition of the wage system, which (unfortunately) is not on the cards for the for the foreseeable future.
So I think as revolutionaries we should focus on organising wherever we are, outside or inside and sometimes even against the unions.
But this is very different to the view of marxvx, which is basically that the IWW should become more like AFL-CIO unions. But then if this really is their view, then why do they not just get involved with an AFL-CIO union? (Although if they did I would not be surprised if they quickly became disillusioned, like these union staffers in the US or Germany.)
I understand marxvx’s frustration: it is hard to see us, as workers (let alone as communists) losing pretty consistently. However unfortunately there are no easy answers or quick fixes. Any attempt to bypass what is really necessary - the conscious self-organisation and direct action of the working class ourselves - at best merely repeats the dead-end and failed bureaucratic strategies of the past.
One final thought for marxvx: was Marx's famous quote "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of dedicated business agents who are knowledgeable enough in labor law to face off against Human Resources lawyers in grievance hearings"?2