Rank-and-file rule: what it is, and what it isn't - Fred Thompson

An article by Fred Thompson about what he sees as the rank-and-file control of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Originally appeared in The One Big Union Monthly (March 1938)

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 11, 2016

We working people want to raise our wages, cut our hours, make our jobs safer and less injurious to our health and less unpleasant places in which to earn our living. If we realize what an injury the capitalist system does to us, we want also to get rid of it. We can not do these things by ourselves. We can do them together. That's why we form unions. Our unions are labor unions only when they do what we want them to do. A body of workers is not a union unless it is controlled by its members. That is reason No. 1 why the I.W.W. insists upon "rank-and-file" organization.

This phrase "rank-and-file" has come to be used in such strange ways of late that it has picked up some strange meanings. For that reason it is time that the I.W.W., as the foremost exponent and practioner of rank-and-file unionism, explained just what rank-and-file means, and what it doesn't mean.

The strange uses of the expression "rank-and-file" to which we refer are made most often by the communists and other addicts of the "leadership principle." Now the "leadership principle"—the idea that we should pick and follow leaders, and seek a cure for our troubles by changing leaders—is the direct opposite of the rank-and-file idea. It is indeed curious that those who advocate this "der Fuehrer" plan of organization should ever demand "rank-and-file control." How does it happen?

The object of these various political cults of "follow-the-leader" is to obtain more followers for their various leaders. (And since every time there is a new leader there are new cults, this results in a rather bewildering situation. Since their purpose is not to organize a working class to do something for itself, but to make sure that the leaders of one cult are followed rather than the leaders of another, they seek their following chiefly in already organized groups of workers. Sometimes they try to secure such a following by currying favor with the officials of these unions. That was and is the pet policy of the Socialists. The Communist sects vary this policy with that of "boring from within" to grab the official positions.

When a group of self-appointed saviours try to grab the official positions in a union, they must resort to the favorite tricks of the unsuccessful politician—the one who is out of office. They must charge the elected officials with "betraying their mandates," "not living up to their promises," "ignoring the wishes of the rank and file." They must promise that if they are elected, the "rank-and-file" will rule through them. As a result we have the strange spectacle of "rank-and-file" committees waiting instructions from some leader before they can decide upon their next step!

To get into the saddle, these would-be leaders must convince their potential victims that they are now being ridden, but that with them in the saddle, hey will no longer be ridden. It will not serve their purpose to urge that those who are being ridden should get rid of rider, saddle and all. They must urge that only the riders be changed. Their consequent political manipulations in the unions leave the impression that "rank-and-file" means disruption, misrepresentation, henpecking of the officialdom—anything and everything except the use of a union by its own members to give effect to their own wishes.

In the I. W. W.

In the I.W.W. control by the rank-and-file is implicit in our constitution, our structure, our financial arrangements, and our traditional procedure. Yet we have no rank-and-file committees, and rarely do we see any member in our ranks appealing to, or even mentioning, the rank-and-file. Just as the best evidence of a good liver is the lack of any occasion to take note of it, so is the best evidence of rank-and-file control the absence of any mention of it. We find use for the term chiefly in describing the inadequacies of other unions.

How is such complete rank-and-file control accomplished?

In the first place, there is no division of our ranks into officialdom and rank-and-file. There is no officialdom. We have officers, some voluntary, and some on the payroll, some devoting full time to the work of the I.W.W., some devoting only their spare time after regular working hours. None of them are officers for many years. The various terms of office vary from three months to a year, and in no case can a member serve more than three successive terms. Thus our members are elected into and out of office. If they stayed in office for life, as they do in many unions, they would no doubt be "sobered by the responsibilities of office, and subordinate their revolutionary urge to the necessity of balancing the budget." But they don't stay, and during this term of office, they look at the problems of organization in much the same way that the rest of the members do. Conversely, so many of our members who are not holding an official position at any one time, have held such positions, that the viewpoint of these members is based largely upon a realization of the problems that confront the officers of a union. Thus there is a natural harmony and uniformity of views throughout the I.W.W.

The powers of these I.W.W. officers are very limited. They can not call strikes, nor can they stop them. Consequently they can not "sell out." If they are on pay, they have no votes in any membership meeting; and no official, whether on pay or not, has a vote in the Industrial Union or General Conventions. This is in marked contrast to the practice of most other unions. Their work is set out for them by the various conventions or other deliberative bodies of the membership; and should any unforeseen circumstance develop requiring any abrupt change of plan or policy, a referendum must be taken on it. At any time they can be recalled by referendum.

Not a Federation

The structure of the I.W.W. provides for the utmost cohesiveness with the utmost freedom or autonomy of its component parts to attend to local or specific problems as the definite circumstances may require. It is not a federation of industrial unions, but a One Big Union of the working class. All its members are directly members of the I.W.W. They meet as members of industrial unions, according to the sort of work they do; and there is a free automatic transfer from one industrial union to another. A good portion of the work of the I.W.W. is accomplished by general membership meetings, District Conferences of all members in a district, Industrial District Councils, and other structures that bring members of various industrial unions together. All this results in cohesiveness and solidarity without the imposition of a powerful central authority.

Consequently there is no sacrifice of cohesiveness in preserving a usual degree of autonomy for the component parts of the I.W.W. Job branches decide their own policies for organizing the job or for keeping it organized, or for improving it. Industrial Union branches decide their local organization policies, elect their own officers, decide upon their own ways and means. Industrial Unions do likewise. These bodies are limited only by this: all must act in conformity with the General Constitution and the by-laws of their industrial Unions, and the decisions of their conventions.

The financial arrangements of the I.W.W. are a further guarantee of rank-and-file control. Control over a union's treasury often means control over the union. Industrial Union branches have their treasuries; Industrial Unions have theirs; the General Organization has its own. Of the dues collected from the members a portion set by by-laws of each industrial union stays in the local Industrial Union branch, another portion goes to the Main Office of the Industrial Union. From this a certain portion set by the constitution goes to..the General Office, and the rest remains as an organizing fund to be expended by the General Organization Committee of that Industrial Union. If strikes or organizing campaigns break a union treasury, the General Office may be called upon for assistance, or the other Industrial Unions may be asked—but they can not be compelled to contribute their funds. In such emergencies the I.W.W. finds that its treasury is still "in the workers' pockets." And the closer this treasury is to the workers' pockets, the more considerate must union officials will be of the wishes of these custodians of the treasury.

But the most effective guarantee of rank-and-file rule in the I.W.W. is not in its constitution, structure, or financial arrangements, but in the viewpoints that have become traditional in our ranks. The I.W.W. members look upon rank-and-file not merely as a means for making sure that the union is run according to their wishes, but even more as a means for getting things done. The diffusion of responsibility in a rank-and-file organization begets initiative and releases energy. Even more important in getting results, it has things done by those who know what they want done, what obstacles are in the road of doing them, and consequently how they must be done. It may be possible to steer a boat on the open sea by remote control, but it won't work for riding a log down stream. It is rank-and-file control that has enabled the I.W.W. with relatively so few members to accomplish such great results as it has in American industry.

It is rank-and-file control that has kept it from being steered up blind alleys by the various fads and foibles that have beset the alleged intelligentsia of the labor movement. It is rank-and file control that has so developed organizational capacity throughout the ranks of our organization, that not only have most of our members proven competent organizers, but that somehow our ex-members have furnished a good part of the organizing force for other unions. It is this same development of individual capacity that has made the I.W.W. indestructible in the face of the most ruthless efforts to extirpate it; and it is to this development of individual capacity, and to the organized self-reliance that is back of it, that the I.W.W. looks as assurance that it can fend for itself no matter what suppression of civil liberties, no matter what despotism, and state intervention in unionism may grow out of "der Feurher principle."

It is little wonder that the I.W.W. places great emphasis on this idea of rank-and-file, looks for it in the unions that lack it, completely rejects the leader idea that would leave no room for it, and wishes the genuine article "rank-and-file rule" not to be confused with the ludicrous imitations that have been offered by the much-to-be-watched, self-appointed saviours of the American working class.

Originally appeared in The One Big Union Monthly (March 1938)


Juan Conatz

8 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 11, 2016

Rank-and-file rule doesn't mean there isn't factional maneuvers, democratic micromanaging or acquired informal power. See: Occupy, IWA, etc