Potentials for Solidarity Unionism

Todd Hamilton elaborates on the IWW's usual mode of organizing, 'solidarity unionism'.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 2, 2011

Simply put solidarity unionism is organizing collectively (or as a group of workers) to directly implement our desires whether that’s in the workplace, industry, or economy. It is simple, but the practice has never really been fleshed out systematically either in practice or in theory. We have a body of experiences, thoughts, and discussions and as our practice matures it leads us to look deeper into solidarity unionism. Solidarity unionism leads us to change our understanding of what the 'union’ means for us, as well as where we intervene and put our emphasis in struggle.

There is no blue print for how to organize in general, but that doesn't mean we can't develop strategic ways of pursuing our goals. Previous authors (Alexis Buss, Staughton Lynd, etc) have focused on how we can organize in the without falling back on some of the familiar features of union organizing as we’ve known it. Some of the things they take on are comprehensive contracts, election based campaigns requiring a majority of workers, and the mediating bureaucracies and institutions (the courts, union bureaucracies, lawyers, politicians and parties) that alienate workers' power. They have argued for organizing even if there is only a minority of workers who are members of the union, organizing whether or not the boss and/or state recognize the union, organizing where workers’ power is the greatest (in the workplace and community), and remaining strategic about how to avoid and selectively utilize (the generally alienating and debilitating environments of) the courts, the state and parties, and hierarchical union bureaucracy that acts for and instead of workers (often against).

These are some of the walls we have hit. Contracts have helped kill job actions through forcing workplace gripes into a mediating bureaucracy that is hostile to workers. The hierarchical institutions put struggle into realms where worker power is weakest, and where workers play a secondary role. Beyond the power of the boss, the union bureaucracy has all the power and knowledge creating a hierarchy between the workers and the means of struggle. Elections and membership-based drives have sunk huge amounts of efforts into organizing where there is often little benefit for workers privileges bureaucracies with huge resources, and reproduces hierarchical relationships between workers and the union.

Solidarity unionism is about organizing whether we're recognized or not, whether there's a contract or not, and most of all settling direct worker issues by the workers. That doesn’t mean we don’t use things like contracts, lawsuits, arbitration, but they are tactics we use not our strategy. Likewise we understand them and hold them to their strategic value, and don’t mistake them for what they aren’t.

Once we begin to think in these terms though, and begin to organize with these issues in mind, we gain a deeper perspective on strategy. For instance it is no longer necessary to fly the union flag as a hallmark in every campaign. It might be more tactical to keep the boss in the dark about union activity at a shop, or in an industry until we have already won enough gains and a wide enough base of support that announcing our presence would be strategic. Thus going another route than majority-based elections allows us to be strategic about when and how we give knowledge about the union's presence in organizing.

We can also be strategic about who and when we sign members up. Rather than having the goal of organizing being to just get people to take out cards whether they want to participate or not, membership can be an actions itself and a positive step a worker can take in further the struggle and consciousness building. We can keep dues and membership for workers who want to be a part of the organization, who are ready to join, and who have experienced class struggle and organization together with the union (this of course is a positive feature, rather than a restrictive). This can draw a line in the sand between unions that are paper tigers, and unions (like us) that exist in our actions, education, and struggle.

Solidarity Unionism presents its own challenges, and poses new questions to us. The rough model I am working off is one in which experienced workers assist in workplace struggles where demands are won through direct action. Workers are brought into the organization and developed through these struggles and move towards revolutionary understanding and practice. At a certain level of strength and roots through these worker organizers can apply deeper pressure in their industry. That is, we seek to build a foundation to respond and deepen struggle that otherwise might emerge but deflate through familiar mechanisms.

Originally appeared in the August 2007 Industrial Worker