A review by Mark McGuire of John Silvano's Nothing in Common: An Oral History of IWW Strikes 1971-1992.
Review of Nothing in Common: An Oral History of IWW Strikes 1971-1992 edited by John Silvano, Published by Cedar Publishing,
The contents of the book particularly focus on the nitty gritty of on-the- job organising in mainly small unorganised shops. Certainly the impression gained is of militants serious about labour organising rather than sect building and associated unwholesome introversion, fascination with rituals of micro organisation and nostalgia. A malady which characterises some contemporary groupings which adopt the IWW label.
The accounts of the mostly unsuccessful organising drives in the book throw light on a variety of organising issues and obstacles to these efforts. One key issue and stumbling block which looms large in the various accounts is the use of relying on the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) to assist gaining employer recognition for wobbly shops and settling grievances over contracts.
The consensus of opinion amongst most wobbly militants was that the NLRB procedures are too long drawn out and cumbersome and favour employers considerably. These NLRB features contributed significantly to the crippling of organising drives.
Another contribution to the failure of some of the drives, recounted by the militants was the phenomena of very hard line bosses which the wobbly militants collided with in their organising efforts. These small business bosses were willing to allow considerable losses to their businesses rather than agree to union recognition.
The financially marginal situation of small shops/businesses presented major obstacles to the IWW maintaining permanent shops.
In the case of the organising drive in Ann Arbor, Michigan during the period 1972-86 discussed by Fred Chase, wobbly organising drives did secure IWW shops in several businesses at different times. However the financial difficulties of the University Cellar Bookshop, the most important wobbly shop in the town, led to its closure in 1986 following its failure to secure a new loan.
The focus on individual shop organising is particularly criticised by Frank Callahan in his account of organising at Kentucky Fried Chicken, State College Pennsylvania in 1973 and Arthur Miller's account of the organising drive at International Wood Products in Long Beach, California in 1972. Both argue on behalf of what they consider to be an industrial style-approach - focusing on shops in the same industry in the same region/city and the need for adequate research and preparation prior to the organising drive. Arthur Miller emphasised the lack of power of single shops and need for solidarity from neighbouring shops in the same industry which would be critical for campaigns and resistance to management attacks.
The question must be raised is how appropriate to the objective of establishing mass syndicalist unionism in the USA or elsewhere is the IWW's focus on incremental organising portrayed in this volume? If all the organising drives in this volume had been successful, what exactly would be achieved in regard to this objective?
The key obstacles to the attaining of this objective certainly would not have been overcome - the contract system and the associated tight web of restrictive labour legislation which cements in place the dominance of the business unions - AFL/CIO, and the employer offensive.
At the most, outposts of democratic alternative unionism entangled with the fixed term contract system would be achieved, similar to the situation at Ann Arbor, which melted away in the longer term due to the dynamics of the capitalist economy.
Such outposts which defied the NLRB and the associated industrial legislation are likely to be overwhelmed down the track by ferocious state and employer counter attacks. In the case of the IWW Cleveland metal industry shops through which the IWW achieved a stable substantial base from the early 1930's to the early 1950's and the majority of members of the organisation, this base was lost due to the cave-in of these members to restrictive Taft Hartley Act industrial legislation style contracts. A tendency governing the dynamics of revolutionary movements is that if they fail to spread and sweep away their conservative opponents, they are likely later to be encircled and crushed by these opponents.
The wobbly activists who participated in this volume appear oblivious to this big picture reality affecting syndicalist activism and the problems it raises. They display a lack of a broad strategic focus and an understanding of the critical importance of the psychological dimension to organising on the grand scale. This is certainly one reason why the resurgent IWW since the 1960's has lost its way in developing a serious challenge to corporate capitalism and business unionism.
In contrast to this broad strategic myopia displayed by this generation of militants, IWW militants of earlier generations displayed an acute insight into this key strategic problem. The daring organising drive by the IWW involving such militants as Fred Thompson during the early 1930's in the Detroit auto industry displayed tremendous appreciation of how to establish the IWW as a key industrial force. Unfortunately, this organising drive which looked quite promising initially, with the IWW rapidly recruiting a 1,000 auto workers, from a tiny handful, an astonishing achievement, failed due to a strike defeat. Should this drive had been successful leading to the IWW becoming the key force in the auto industry with a head start over the AFL/CIO (which later on did achieve this objective), an important step in raising morale in the American labour movement could have been achieved. This raised morale together with the industrial prestige and resources acquired through auto organising would have facilitated IWW drives in other key industries. Allowing the IWW to become a major rival to the business unions and defy restrictive industrial legislation and State and employer counter attacks. The IWW could have also become a pole of attraction for other anti-capitalist non vanguardist labour organisations enabling a new militant union confederation to form. In Fred Thompson and Patrick Murfin's book "The IWW its first 70 years", Fred Thompson refers to such a possibility developing associated with the IWW's Cleveland Metal Shops, just prior to the loss of these shops in the early 1950's.
The curing of this strategic myopia and the development of the corps of militants necessary to carry out this type of precision long range strategic organising would involve much more broad theoretical and strategic discussion/debate and analysis than currently appears to exist amongst those in the IWW and its orbit. This discussion would need to spread to and involve the grass roots and periphery of vangardist anti-capitalist groupings as well. Effects of these developments would involve the IWW moving away from being an "exotic left party/sect" which seems to characterise key components and a general syndicalist hegemony in the anti-capitalist movement enabling a much greater cooperation of militants of different groups on IWW/syndicalist projects which could reach the main road of industrial organising and not get lost in cul de sacs which affected many organising drives of the post 1960's IWW.
In conclusion, the book under review certainly throws some light on post 1960's IWW organising drives and the obstacles faced by IWW militants engaged in them. Unfortunately no light is thrown on how the IWW and revolutionary syndicalism can achieve a predominant position in the labour movement in the USA and elsewhere and the issues of industrial strategy on the grand scale which must be tackled to attain it.
Originally appeared in Rebel Worker, Paper of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network Vol.19 No.6 (168) Dec.2000-Jan.2001