State intervention to save capitalism: the IWW and the state

A discussion of the role of state intervention in the workers movement, an increasing approach of mobilizing movements to improve capitalism through state reform, and an appeal for the IWW to take an oppositional role to the state and such reform projects.

Submitted by s.nappalos on March 26, 2014

The most important change to hit the workers movement was when governments around the world began integrating union negotiation into their institutions. Before the National Labor Relations Act and creation of the National Labor Relations Board in the US, most labor disputes were settled with bullets and clubs by the police and occasionally armed forces. Grievance boards, arbitration, labor courts, and non-profit services for workers in trouble simply were not a thing. Most of the unions similar to the IWW came out of this era, and it was a situation that gave syndicalist unions a distinct advantage. Reformist unions had a hard time delivering to members in time periods where open warfare existed between employers and workers, a stark contrast to American labor in recent memory. While some syndicalist unions ran into these problems earlier [1], the institutionalization of labor conflict by the State changed the landscape for revolutionary unionism and in most cases severely hampered it. It continues to be a pressing issue dividing revolutionary unionists internationally, but more importantly making adapting our strategy towards a workable revolutionary method both necessary and a challenge.

The IWW itself had a series of conflicts running from the 1930s-50s around first signing contracts at all and secondarily around certifying as an official union which entailed signing anti-communist affidavits. These tensions led to splits in the union and harsh rounds of critique. Earlier in the union’s history the State played a relatively small and clumsy role, generally confined to meeting out violence and legal attacks against union opposition. In that environment the IWW focused its attention on the war between the bosses and workers and took a strategy largely of ignoring the role of the State. Though the IWW of old repeatedly rejected what they called political action (elections, state reform, and political parties), they did not anticipate or figure out a response to reformist state projects that would internalize union opposition.

The crisis of the 1930s made the State become more sophisticated and take on not only repressive roles, but also positive community recuperation of the energy that might otherwise be directed against the government and capitalism. Union conflicts were diffused by taking them out of workplaces and putting them into board rooms, labor courts, and perhaps today non-profit service centers as well. The unemployed movement, which often consisted of rioting against government offices, that the IWW participated in was disarmed in part by the New Deal integrating the payments and programs for unemployed workers within the State itself, thereby neutralizing the independent unemployed workers councils. Likewise in the workers movement integration with the State spelled the destruction of the collective power of the workers who were shuffled into bureaucracies, legalistic procedures, and lobbying the government rather than taking direct action.

State intervention, recuperation, and reform have played an increasingly important role since then. However as IWWs we have not done enough to understand this or counter it. The State attempts to isolate, contain, and redirect opposition to the dominant powers and generally with the carrot more than the stick (despite the impression you might get from a lot of propaganda). In the golden age of labor this was done through the compromise of industry and the unions. When labor no longer became necessary because of global restructuring that system too has been partially dismantled. Today elements within the State and industry are working out how to deal with potential threats from an increasingly precarious and immiserated populace. The State plays a front and center role here in a way that the IWW needs to counter. Our strategic thinking needs to hone in on this and question how we can provide an oppositional power that undermines attempts of the State to bring workers resistance within itself in the aid of saving capitalism.

The institutional left of labor and non-profits are themselves being squeezed by the situation. The collapse of labor has made the need to grow more high stakes, and especially in light of the extra pressure created by the Republican attack on labor as part of their sectarian fight for a larger share of control of the State. Increasingly isolated and with declining living standards in the non-union sector, labor and the non-profits are shifting their tactics to meet both their reality and a clear rising anger in the populace. Our Wal-Mart, Occupy Homes, Fight for 15, and other retail sector organizing are places where this tendency is being worked out. With explicit direct action and confrontational tactics, these projects are advancing an organizing approach to immediate problems in working class communities tied to overt reformist political aspirations. This provides both opportunities for the IWW and problems. On the one hand we can ‘bring fire to the castle’ so to speak by holding them to their words in terms of their rhetoric and tactics, and attempt to create breaks by people participating in these actions towards more radical directions. On the other hand as the institutional left is increasingly willing to adopt the rhetoric and tactics of the IWW (in terms of participatory democracy, direct action, and confrontation), it threatens to coopt and direct radicals towards conserving capitalism. If we do not define our work beyond these tactics, it is not clear what difference there is between organizations trying to improve capitalism and ourselves who want to replace it. I call these efforts militant reformism.

Some will rightly question how much the rhetoric and practice actually line up as Fight for 15 fast food organizing has often been big on media spectacle and small on worker participation for example. It is questionable how much the media events are actually even strikes in terms of workers stopping their labor. Still it’s unwise to dismiss them outright, or think that some group (if not SEIU itself) couldn’t decide to increase worker participation and organize militant direct actions along those lines.

Militant reformist campaigns have been largely directed at the State. Anti-foreclosure work led by SEIU coalitions have placed reform of mortgage laws and state intervention programs at the forefront, coordinated likely with (if not directed by) the Democratic National Convention’s own proposals. The retail organizing has not sought to bargain with employers (though that is likely on the table later), but targeted legislative reform to unionization, minimum wage, employment programs, and the like. With a strategy that parallels the IWW in some cases, militant reformism poses a challenge to revolutionary unionists as they do so with the objectives of forcing the state to intervene, diffusing potential social conflict directed against the system, and ultimately making capitalism better able to respond to the present situation.

Beyond the institutional left, parts of the socialist left and associated fellow travelers (which may include activists, progressives, anarchists, and communists) have moved forward in promoting reformist interventions to address the needs of the working class through the State as well. The well-publicized election of Kshama Sawant to Seattle City Council highlighted these efforts with explicit proposals of nationalizations, labor reform, institutional unions, and social welfare programs. While it’s unclear how much of this could be implemented in the short term, it occupies similar space to the IWW's work and proposals. Such reformist attempts within the State work directly against the organizing and aims of the IWW in building an autonomous movement with its own interests, powers, and activities. As populist candidates and reforms continue to gather steam in progressive outposts around the country, the IWW will again face having to define its work and challenge both a repressive capitalism and a reformist one.

Part of the blame for our relative immaturity with grappling with these questions comes from the past few decades where all of this was off the table and somewhat speculative. For the IWW, we could rest on our revolutionary laurels free of clear examples by reformists who were constantly outgunned by the forces of capitalist-labor collaboration. With our changing reality, the sustainability of ignoring the role of the State in our day-to-day organizing is increasingly dangerous to our work. The State is the main actor in society creating the momentum necessary to keep capitalism on track. Building a revolutionary movement will continuously throw up new opposition into the struggle that seek to conserve and expand the ruling powers. As revolutionary unionists committed to overcoming all the horrors of this world and abolishing the wage system, we have to practically resist those attempts and give people a concrete way to live better and overcome capitalism. This practical daily resistance to both run of the mill and reformist versions of the State is a critical piece of the victory of unions like the IWW. Rather than an article of faith or choosing sides in some sectarian battle, IWW opposition to the State itself is how we can demonstrate in practice the value and difference with our path to a better life. It is a component whose importance is growing everyday with this renewed cycle of global resistance. We should think more about the State and its relationship to our work then, and carve out a path and positions in opposition to the State and its reform.

[1] Left populist governments in Uruguay and Argentina implemented variants of State mediated labor frameworks at the turn of the 20th century decades before the US and Europe. The Argentinian and Uruguayan anarchist workers organizations the FORA and FORU continued to thrive for some years after those reforms, though it should be added that they saw similar tensions, divisions, and splits because of them.