What Kind Of Solidarity Forever?

A piece exploring how organizing on the shopfloor and activism outside the shopfloor are different and how they compliment each other.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 2, 2011

There are two versions of solidarity activity: solidarity unionism and solidarity activism. Solidarity unionism means exercising our power on the job. We organize as much as possible so we don't give our power away to lawyers, outside organizers, union staff, or anyone else. If we have to give away some power--like when we file Unfair Labor Practice charges--it's for tactical reasons only. By getting more and more coworkers to take action based on our collective self-interests as workers we create big changes--changes in our lives on the job and changes in our coworkers by showing them our ideas in practice instead of just telling them. Solidarity unionism makes more power for ourselves, more members of our union, and more members with experience, commitment, and a vision of what the One Big Union is and should be.

Solidarity activism means showing up outside of our own jobs to help other people’s struggles to defend existing conditions or defend their attempt to build something. We hand out flyers and picket outside someone else’s workplace or some other place. This kind solidarity has helped the Starbucks organizing continue and grow. There is a long and proud tradition of this kind of solidarity in our class and in our union. If solidarity activism wins better conditions for any worker anywhere then it’s a good thing, morally and as a tactic. But it's not good strategy.

Without power on the shopfloor, a union will not be a fighting organization that can win gains, and it’s much harder to maintain union democracy. Workers are more likely to exercise our power for something we run and control than something undemocratic and unaccountable. If power is outside the shopfloor, then the workers in the shop can be replaced. If their organization breaks down, the officials don’t lose anything. This is why many of the business unions love media heavy corporate style campaigns: they put the power in the hands of staff, officers, lawyers, journalists, politicians, and the well-intentioned solidarity activists who mobilize from the outside. While solidarity activism can build the skills and experience of the individuals who take part in it, it doesn’t build power in the activists' workplaces. It also doesn’t build the power of the workers in the shop being supported. If a campaign is won by solidarity activism, that means the power to make change does not rest on the shop floor. Solidarity activism doesn't build shopfloor power because it doesn't exercise shopfloor power.

Workers’ power is like a muscle. My muscles have (pretty flabby) limits. By using my muscles within their limits, I get stronger. Solidarity unionism means exercising our power. We figure out what power we have and we increase it by exercising it. We exercise our power to build an organized shop--and eventually an organized industry and an organized working class--which increases the power we have to exercise. The point isn't just to lift this weight (improving the job in the short term, a fair day's wages for a fair day's work), the point is also how the weights get lifted and by who (improving the job by our own action, in a way that builds organization and builds the IWW to abolish the wage system). We need strategy, a plan to keep on lifting until we become able to dump the bosses off our backs.

We can only lift so much at a time, though. Every time I move I realize how there's too many boxes for me alone, so I call my friends. That’s solidarity activism. Sometimes it’s tactically necessary. But our strategy should not be based on someone else constantly lifting things for us.

Imagine if my friends who helped me move stuck around forever and I never lifted anything ever again. I would get weaker and less healthy from lack of exercise. This is what the NLRB and the business unions do. They say “don’t try to lift that, just watch me.” They don’t encourage us to exercise our own power, so they don’t encourage us to increase our power. Sometimes they actively fight us when we try to exercise our power.

There are some fellow workers who prefer to be part of solidarity activism instead of solidarity unionism. That’s their right. But solidarity unionism is the direction this union should continue to move in. Solidarity activism has a place, but a secondary one. In fact, the more we focus on exercising our power in solidarity unionism--getting more members, getting more members organizing in more shops, increasing our ability to organize successfully--the more power we'll have when we need to do solidarity activism for our fellow workers in the union and out.

Originally appeared in the June 2007 Industrial Worker