An article by Phinneas Gage that lays out some of the ways 'dues check-off', where employers deduct dues from paychecks and give it to the union, hurts workers.
To a business unionist, perhaps the strangest thing about the IWW is our opposition to the dues check-off. After all, many people in the labour movement consider the union shop along with the employer checkoff to be the two of the greatest gains the labour movement has ever made. Typically, pro-employer groups try to undermine these two benefits by advocating an “open shop.”
The open shop is a strategy aimed at weakening unions, and creates an opportunity for some workers to get a free ride from the sacrifices of their fellow workers who chose to struggle for better working conditions. It is also a way of weakening unions by removing the steady, reliable income that a dues check-off provides.
But the dues check-off that comes with the union shop model also weakens unions. Below I would like to explain why.
An accountable union
Dues check-off has a way of making unions less accountable to the rank and file. For instance, if collecting the dues and accounting for them are the responsibility of the workers themselves, corruption is much more difficult. It is more difficult because of the greater number of people involved in the process: all the delegates who collect funds report at every meeting; the financial secretary reports all the finances every meeting; and since spending decisions are made at every meeting, few decisions are made without the direct involvement of the rank and file. In the event of a crooked delegate (which has been known to happen), all one needs to do is compare membership cards against delegate reports to see how much money is missing and who is responsible. Because of all of these checks and balances, corruption, while not impossible, is very difficult and not worth the effort.
Voluntary dues collection also puts the money directly into the hands of the organization of workers rather than passing through the bosses. This not only makes workers less reliant on their employer, it also helps workers see that the union is something that they are actively participating in, rather than just another deduction on their pay stubs.
Solidarity is like a muscle – if it is not exercised, it atrophies. By managing our own affairs (especially our finances), and not leaving them in the hands of specialists and paid reps, members are kept in constant contact with each other. The more contact we have with each other, the easier it is for us to mobilize quickly around shared grievances.
The voluntary collection of dues cannot solve all our potential problems though – and it does have problems of its own. Collecting dues in a workplace where the workers have very little contact with each other can be burdensome. Also it can be tough for a small organization to do something like make the rent for an office without having a steady income to count on. There are some creative solutions that can minimize this problem, e.g., encouraging members to pay several months of dues in advance, or setting up voluntary bank withdrawals, with a delegate still meeting with members to make sure their cards are updated. A monthly withdrawal approach is used by many charities, NGOs, and political parties to raise funds. Such strategies could help smooth out union finances and make income a little more predictable.
Voluntary membership also means that sometimes numbers, and therefore finances, will fluctuate quite dramatically. Membership will often increase during times of job action, and decrease following resolution of the issue. While we of course want to build the organization, we also want to avoid the path of the service model business unions, where bargaining units exist as legal entities long after any rank-and-file participation has stopped. This does not mean we shouldn’t do our best to retain members, but coercing workers whose interest is flagging will not get us very far. Rather, we need to figure out ways to maintain militancy and to continue direct actions around new issues even as old ones have been resolved.
It would be a mistake to think that voluntary dues collection is an archaic way of doing things or the result of an interest in historical reenactment. The reason that some unions (including the IWW) take this approach to dues collection is because of a belief in self-management. We believe that workers should use unions to better their lives, and that unions should not use workers to build up their organizations. After all, the division between leaders and the led is just as prevalent in the business unions as anywhere else.
If we are serious about building a better world within the shell of the old, managing our own finances is a first step.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (July/August 2006)