The One Big Union of Canada

Winnipeg general strike, 1919.
Winnipeg general strike, 1919.

A 1920 article describing conflict within the One Big Union in Canada over industrial vs. regional organization.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on September 11, 2012

Two hostile camps have developed in the Canadian One Big Union. The one is fighting for a militant industrial form of an organization, the other for a geographical (district) beans and soup association.

The former is advocated by the lumber (migratory) workers, and the later by the city "home" guard element.

The migratory workers have acquired their knowledge and class-consciousness in the bitter school of actual life, but the city slaves got their training in the A. F. of L. and in other yellow institutions that served to build up the capitalist system and now function to brace and patch it up.

From their numerous articles of polemique and their recent convention we gather the following points (they are contradicting one an other) which in their opinion would justify their form of an organization:

"That the workers would have more in common geographically than industrially.

"That the industrial form of organization endangered the success of the Russian revolution and that the Lumber Workers are having, or at least advocating a dangerous form of an organization, anarcho-syndicalist like the I. W. W.

"That industrial organizations such as the Lumber Workers etc., are A. F. L. unions.

"That decentralization of our organization and devolution shall take place". (group organization their slogan)

"That above five points are the basis wherefrom they intend to institute a "class organization" based on small geographical districts and crown it "one big union".

"And that industrial organizations creates unnecessary officialdom", (such as the Lumber Workers)

Winnipeg (Canada) is the gem of the district form of organization, since the inception. of the O. B. U. and their officialdom outnumbers that of the Lumber Workers 3 to 1. The Carpenters alone has 4 officials; the 17 Unions, each of them has its separate set of officials and three of them are separate Railwaymen's Units. Toronto, the home of the famous "class" organization shows on the books 2 Carpenters' Units, each with a set of officials.

There may be arguments as to why there are so many small crafts and trade divisions divided by geographical and other lines with sets of separate officials, but there are no arguments that would justify the agitation for further separation with a view towards the elimination of officialdom. You can get all the Philadelphia lawyers together and none of them will be in a position, to show you how that elimination is done in one big mulligan of district and decentralized group organization.

We agree to their sentimental expression in point [one] just so far as sentiment may go, "the workers have everything in common", not alone in a given locality, but the world over. But then we must remember that organizations are not advanced by sentiment, but by material conditions.

The method of production and distribution in a given industry are best known to the workers in that industry, and it is they who have the knowledge of the productive capacity of that industry, they are the ones to determine the form of government in that industry.

The industrial method of production determines the sphere of every individual in industry. We are bound to this law with unbreakable steel chains, chains that link us together with our fellow-workers in a given industry, in America, Europe, or Asia, whether we like it or not. No geographical organization can alter this fact. We must then, organize along the lines that the industrial method of production determines, according to industry, in the strata in which industry placed us going forward with the current of social evolution to the establishment of industrial democracy.

The talk of having more in common as workers of all or some industries in a given locality, serves only as a weapon to political adventurers and labor lieutenants, enabling them to form parliamentary and other machines, for the purpose of negotiation and compromise, thereby serving the master class. Therefore the militant working-class movement has just as much in common with that kind of individuals as they have with the master class, as a matter of fact those opportunists are more dangerous than the master-class.

Any school boy can tell you who the miners of Great Britain have more in common with, and in this connection there is the probability that the miners of all Europe join hands and by the strength of their industrial organizations, compel the masters to come to terms. On the other hand who cries out, "negotiate, compromise"? Who but the politico-geographical opportunists. (Same thing happened during the British railway strike). It was no mulligan of a fancy "class" organization, but the industrial workers of the metal industries who expropriated those factories in Italy just recently. Therefore the workers have more in common in a given industry the world over, than they would en masse in a geographical economic organization in the industrial field, such as the O. B. U. of Canada now proposes. Mass and class organizations have entirely different functions to perform. We have none in Canada that are worthy considering from a revolutionary political standpoint. If there is need of one, then it must be started outside of the O. B. U.

Transcribed by J. D. Crutchfield.

Originally appeared in The One Big Union Monthly (December 1920)



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Submitted by fnbrilll on September 1, 2014

Most historians that I've read in regards to the LWIU are now identifying a personality clash between the LWIU secretary (Winch) vs the OBU board for most of the conflict. LWIU was strong in the Forest Camps but weak in the mills. OBU leadership was hoping to capitalize on strength of LWIU in membership combined with the rest of the OBU's strength in towns and pushed for geographic organization to capture the mills.

Not taking a particular side but I think a more nuanced understanding is needed than this article which seems to be taken at face value.