"No politics in the union"? Come off it

no-politics

This blog post argues that "No politics" is a bad idea and an inaccurate description of the IWW.

There’s a kind of common sense about the IWW, among some members and some nonmembers that says “the IWW is apolitical.” I think that’s a weird idea. (I’ve argued a bit about this in a discussion paper I wrote called Mottos and Watchwords.) Among other reasons, it’s a weird idea because the IWW is openly anti-capitalist and our organization’s preamble quotes Karl Marx. If that’s apolitical, well, that seems to me like a weird definition of apolitical. I think there are several sources of this idea that the the IWW is apolitical, including people outside the IWW with an axe to grind (“they don’t have my politics, so they don’t have politics at all!”), bad views about the possibilities for unions to be radicals (“if we have politics then some workers’ views won’t be represented and we can never be a real union!”), and real discomfort and difficulties that many of us in the IWW have when it comes to talking about and advocating for our organization’s core values. All of that stuff is important and I’m sure there are other important sources as well. What I want to talk about here, though, is what I think is another source of this idea. Specifically, it’s an IWW pamphlet called One Big Union, which has a section called “No Politics in This Union.”

The IWW Constitution says that all new members shall be given a copy of the OBU pamphlet. (Article VIII section (g).) By requiring that all members be given this pamphlet, it elevates the status of the pamphlet and its words within the organization in a way, as if the pamphlet represents the views of the whole organization, or as if all members ought to agree with that pamphlet in the same way that we all ought to agree with the IWW Preamble. This makes the One Big Union pamphlet seem different from any other official literature or publication of the organization - we don’t expect every member to agree with all content in the Industrial Worker, for example. I think this pamphlet being listed in the IWW constitution has helped feed and spread this idea of the IWW as having “no politics.” (I’m told that the constitutional language requiring we hand out the OBU pamphlet to new members was introduced in the 1970s. I think we in the IWW should have a conversation about whether or not to keep this constitutional requirement. It's also not the best pamphlet to give to brand new members, in my opinion. Personally I think Tim Acott's Think It Over and his Annotated Preamble are much more relevant to new members than the OBU pamphlet, if we're going to have constitutional language requiring members to receive copies of pamphlets. Personally, I also think we should sort out what we do with literature and why, and develop some categories for different kinds of literature. If there are materials we want all members to receive, we should talk about that, and how best to do that.)

The pamphlet has also probably helped feed and spread that idea because it’s a historic pamphlet dating back to the early 20th century. The first One Big Union pamphlet was written by William Trautmann and Thomas Hargety, two people involved in founding the IWW. This makes it seem like “no politics” is a part of the IWW’s heritage from the beginning. That’s a mistake, though, in two ways. For one thing, the meaning of the word ‘politics’ as it was used by a lot of people in the era when the IWW was founded is different from the meaning of the word in a lot of the circles IWW members move in today. In the early 20th century U.S. the word “politics” meant the ballot box. There were, for instance, debates between political socialists and nonpolitical socialists. The phrase “nonpolitical socialist” may sound like a contradiction to us today, because we tend to believe there can be politics through other means than the ballot box. In the early 20th century, though, “political” meant basically “state parliamentary,” so “political socialists” were people who believed that socialism could happen through voting. So, material from the early days of the IWW that is critical of “politics” is critical of state parliamentary approaches to social change. Today we might call that non- or extra-parliamentary politics. Whatever we call it, though, we generally believe that there are forms of politics beyond the ballot box. When we talk about stuff like that, we’re talking about stuff that people in the early 20th century would have considered outside of or opposed to politics, because politics had a narrower meaning. This means that it’s a mistake to appeal to the early 20th century history of the IWW for the idea that the IWW is apolitical.

There’s a second reason why it’s a mistake to link “no politics” to the IWW’s early history tied to the One Big Union pamphlet. It’s a simpler reason, which is that the phrase “no politics in the union” doesn’t appear in the original One Big Union pamphlet at all. What we have today as the One Big Union pamphlet is very, very different, so that it’s a bit weird that it has the same title. The IWW published a pamphlet in 1910 or 1911 called One Big Union, written by William Trautmann with some material by Thomas Hagerty. It was used until 1943. Looking at the One Big Union pamphlets from 1911 to 1943 it's clear how much "no politics" is a clumsy way to express our views. Just two examples. Trautmann's early pamphlet referred to "the great words of a great thinker, Karl Marx: "The emancipation of the workers must be achieved by the working class itself. Workers of the World, Unite!" That's hardly an apolitical statement. The 1911 edition of the pamphlet, printed and distributed by the IWW, also had an ad at the end reading "The only popular illustrated magazine in the world that advocates industrial unionism is the International Socialist Review. (…) The volume entitled "Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches," contains all of Eugene V. Debs' most important writings on Industrial Unionism. (…) The Pocket Library of Socialism includes six books by Debs and one by Trautmann on industrial unionism." Again, this hardly sounds nonpolitical to me. While the early editions of the pamphlet did criticize "political socialists," meaning socialists who thought the ballot box was a meaningful tool for social change, it's a mistake to call this pamphlet nonpolitical.

In 1944, the organization published a pamphlet of the same name but with dramatically different content. We're still using the 1944 edition today, with very minimal changes. It was that 1944 edition that added the “No politics” section. (Incidentally, “no politics in the union” was an AFL slogan in the early 20th century, one used against radicals in unions.)

In the current edition of the One Big Union pamphlet, the “no politics” section, section four, reads as follows:

Quote:
“It is sound unionism not to express a preference for one religion or one political party or candidate over another. These are not union questions, and must be settled by each union member according to personal conscience. The union is formed to reach and enforce decisions about industrial questions. Its power to do this can be destroyed by the diversion of its resources to political campaigns. So that all the workers regardless of their religious or political preference may be united to get every possible benefit out of their job, the I.W.W. must be non-political and non religious. It lets its members attend to these matters as they personally see fit--and with the additional social consciousness, regard for their fellows, and general enlightenment that they derive from union activity. This does not mean that the I.W.W. is indifferent to the great social and economic questions of the day. Quite the contrary. We believe the I.W.W. provides the practical solutions to these questions. When the industry of the world is run by the workers for their own good, we see no chance for the problems of unemployment, war, social conflict, or large scale crime, or any of our serious social problems to continue. With the sort of organization the I.W.W. is building, labor can exert any pressure required to restrain the antics of politicians and even more constructively accomplish through direct action what we have often failed to do through political lobbying.”

There are a few threads knotted together in the current section about "no politics," and I think "no politics" is bad summary for all of them. One thread of the current section is organizational neutrality on disputes among different capitalist politicians. We have no "preference for (…) one political party or candidate over another," so we don't pick sides among them. Fair enough.

Another thread of this section is that with proper organization the working class "can exert any pressure required to restrain the antics of politicians and even more constructively accomplish through direct action what we have often failed to do through political lobbying." This says that it's a waste of time to use lobbying and the state because collective action is a more effective way to get what we want. Again, fair enough. Historically the IWW has tended to be generally opposed to electoralism. That was part of the conflict with the De Leonists, who were expelled in 1908. And loads of IWW members were expelled from the Social Party over their rejection of the ballot box as a meaningful avenue for change.

Yet another thread in the "no politics" part of the One Big Union pamphlet is that individual members have the freedoms to think what they like and to vote for whoever they want to, or not vote, when it comes to elections. The IWW "lets its members attend to these matters as they personally see fit — and with the additional social consciousness, regard for their fellows, and general enlightenment that they derive from union activity." Freedom of thought is a fine thing: it's a fine POLITICAL principle. It's silly to call that "no politics." (As an aside, I think it's good that the IWW doesn't take sides among political parties and that we don't see the ballot box as a tool for change. But personally I think that there should limits on the freedom of conscience allowed in the organization. Recently in Pennsylvania an openly white supremacist candidate was elected to a Republican Committee. The nazi British National Party has made significant electoral gains before and currently has two seats in the European Parliament. An IWW member who actively supported those kinds of parties ought to be expelled: while we reject political parties and don't see the ballot box as a meaningful way to make change, it's just not true that all political parties are the same.)

The One Big Union pamphlet also says that "the I.W.W. must be nonpolitical." That doesn't make any sense to me, just "no politics in this union" doesn't make sense to me. As I said earlier, the IWW preamble basically quotes Karl Marx and calls for ending capitalism. That's political. The IWW is committed to the end of capitalism and creating a new society, just through different means than elections. Prior to 1917 most IWW members would have called this new society 'socialist', the idea of the cooperative commonwealth cropped up too and that was a socialist idea that politically literate people would have recognized as meaning socialism. That's political too. (My preferred term is 'communism' but I don't like to fight over terminology.)

The "no politics" section and the OBU pamphlet over all calls for creating a new society outside official institutional/electoral channels and without the use of the state. That is a political project, it's just an anti-electoral political project. To my mind, then, this means we should drop the idea that the IWW is "nonpolitical."

With that in mind, I think we should change the title of section 4 of this pamphlet to drop the “no politics” phrase. Instead the title should be something like “Political Parties, Members’ Freedoms, and Government Elections.” I think we should change the section to something like the following:

“The IWW does not express a preference for one political party or candidate over another, no more than the organization holds a position on religious matters. If they choose to do so, individual members have the freedom to choose to vote or work on electoral politics outside their IWW activity, though the IWW discourages this. Generally speaking, we do not see much point in arguing about electoral politics at IWW functions. This does not mean we are indifferent to the great social and economic questions of the day. It means that we see the ballot box as a poor way for the working class to achieve a better life and create a new society. When the industry of the world is run by the workers for their own good, there will be no chance for the problems of unemployment, war, social conflict, large-scale crime, or similar social problems. Other social problems such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression might exist in a noncapitalist society, but they would no longer have an economic component to them. With proper organization the working class can exert any pressure required to restrain politicians and can accomplish through direct action what we have often failed to do through political lobbying.”

And finally, just to repeat, we should openly note somewhere that declaring that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, believing that there can be no peace under capitalism, believing that an injury to one is an injury to all, and calling for a new society based on cooperation and solidarity - these are political positions.

Comments

plasmatelly
Oct 21 2012 08:43

Interesting stuff. But whether there is politics or not - clearly there is - my understanding is that there is a deliberate intention to avoid talking politics beyond a point where agreement is required. If there was, quite simply you'd have an overnight multiple fracture; there seems no disagreement amongst members - all Wobblies I speak to take a sort of pride in the way they can unite people who in other spheres are polar opposites (State-communists with liberal anarchists a prime example).
I agree that more political agreement is a desirable thing for an organisation to move forward - if there was agreement as to political objectives; but the IWW's objectives are deliberately vague too - and why shouldn't they be? They are perfectly suited to the organisation; yes there are politics, but not enough to reach a point where people are supposed to agree or disagree.
Nate - you must have had this conversation more than I have: I've spoken with Wobblies in this country who are explicit, they are opposed to anarchism in all it's forms, and in the same room other Wobblies who seem to think they're members of an anarcho-syndicalist organisation (they're not, but no one seems to let on to them). Are you sure you want enough politics where you have to start agreeing or disagreeing?

Joseph Kay
Oct 21 2012 09:00
plasmatelly wrote:
Are you sure you want enough politics where you have to start agreeing or disagreeing?

I don't know much about the internal politics (or lack thereof) in the IWW. But I think in principle making shared politics/values more explicit can guard against splits/divisions over other issues. If everyone knows we're all signed up to X, Y and Z, then disagreeing over A or B doesn't have to lead to schisms. I know we have sometimes very stark disagreements over tactics or whatever in my local, but we have a certain amount of common ground which means there's scope for frank, good faith political disagreement. I guess the flipside of that is if there's no agreement over X, Y and Z in the first place, attempting to reach one could be destructive, leading to 'no politics' as a papering over the cracks exercise.

There's probably lots more too this in terms of building a culture of vigorous but comradely discussion, guaranteeing the right to minority/unpopular positions within the A&Ps etc. But I think a clear articulation (however minimal) of shared politics/values is an important part of such a culture, though by no means guarantees it.

Nate wrote:
And finally, just to repeat, we should openly note somewhere that declaring that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, believing that there can be no peace under capitalism, believing that an injury to one is an injury to all, and calling for a new society based on cooperation and solidarity - these are political positions.

I think noting the broader contemporary usage of 'politics' compared with the early 20th century is an important point. I think in the broader sense, every organisation has politics. The question is whether they go with the grain of capitalist society or against it. So full-time paid officials, no-strike contract clauses, hierarchical/top-down structures, cosy relationships with politicians and so on are all political, but they're politics completely in line with prevailing social relations which imitate dominant social forms. So organisations that have these politics can pass for 'non-political', 'purely economic' or whatever, because their politics are in line with the ruling ideology. The denial of ideology is the surest sign of ideology and all that.

By contrast, if you go against the grain of capitalist society, if you refuse to imitate or collaborate with dominant social forms, then it's hard to maintain that without making those political commitments more explicit (otherwise the 'common sense' of ruling ideology would reassert itself). So if you ban paid full-time officials, refuse to sign no-strike clauses, adopt grassroots/direct democratic structures, and reject collaboration with politicians, that's a more overtly political stance. And there's no point denying that, as you argue. In fact, it's surely easier to take this stance if it's part of a coherently articulated ideology, even if it's expressed in very simple terms? (e.g. 'we want to change the way society's organised, so we organise in a different way').

plasmatelly
Oct 21 2012 09:12

JK wrote -

Quote:
So if you ban paid full-time officials, refuse to sign no-strike clauses, adopt grassroots/direct democratic structures, and reject collaboration with politicians, that's a more overtly political stance.

A perfect example of just what is and what could be - but also of just how different the politics of 2 IWW members could be. Unity trumps agreement only for so long; after a while the political will walk and the apolitical will seek something stronger.

Nate
Oct 21 2012 17:41

JK, well said on all counts, thanks for that.

Plasmatelly, I think all positions that involve a dynamic, difficult activity can appear from one perspective like agreement but are in another sense made up of disagreements - each new fork in the road requires deliberation about where to go etc. This isn't unique to politics either, it happens in interpersonal relationships and in other parts of people's live. So I'm not calling for agreement, exactly. And like JK suggests, there's different ways to have disagreements. I think IWW apoliticism when it exists is probly in part driven by wanting to avoid certain disagreements and sometimes that's productive but without experience having certain kinds of disagreements we don't get better at having them in a constructive way. I think for IWW members that some of this may also be about rejecting/being nervous about disfunctional debate/argument cultures within other left milieus. Like "people who explicitly talk politics are always shouting and polemicizing, we don't want shouting and polemicizing so let's not talk politics." Or something.

plasmatelly
Oct 21 2012 20:02

I agree with you Nate that there's more than one way to skin a cat and that every turn in the road there's decisions to be made. Where I'm coming from is that not having enough core agreement in the first instance is what people understand as being apolitical. The fact that you can and do unite and organise people who would normally tear each others eyes out is on the one hand commendable and on the other fraught with the obvious frustrations surrounding where exactly this kind of organisation can go. Even at such an early stage there has to be 2 things to be agreed before any journey - 1) where we going and 2) how do we get there? Keeping the politics out of it is like a ride on a mystery tour, imo.
One of the most common critiques of the IWA model from IWW friends that I come across is one based on simple ignorance (seriously, I'm not having a pop) - that you can't expand and organise beyond the fringes if your organisation is explicit about libertarian communism (one of the IWA's goals) - not so. We've found that being open about what sort of organisation we are and where we want to go informs the way we organise and make decisions; it creates a culture. We don't ask for peoples souls or for homogeneous clones, but we won't keep our politics in a box. I won't insult you by listing examples of how being an explicitly anarcho-syndicalist organisation hasn't stopped workers from agreeing at point of entry in our openly revolutionary agenda, but I will say that keeping politics in a box will only disappoint people when you get them out.

Nate
Oct 21 2012 20:48

hey Plasmatelly

plasmatelly wrote:
not having enough core agreement in the first instance is what people understand as being apolitical.

Well put. I think that is definitely going on, and "no politics" is partly unease about this and partly something that keeps problems in place.

plasmatelly wrote:
One of the most common critiques of the IWA model from IWW friends that I come across is (...) that you can't expand and organise beyond the fringes if your organisation is explicit about libertarian communism (one of the IWA's goals) - not so.

I agree that that's a bad criticism. We get that in the IWW in the US sometimes too. I don't know enough about the IWA's history, ideology, and practices but from what I do know I have a hard time seeing huge differences with the IWW. I mean, I know there are various differences and whatnot, but whatever differences there are between the organizations' ideologies are political differences, not a differences of one being political and the other being apolitical. I like what Joseph Kay said that all groups have some sort of politics, too, so with that in mind I guess I'd say that the ideological differences between the IWW and the IWA are differences between two groups with radical political ideology. (Sorry if I'm stating the obvious, and I'm really not trying to paper over differences between the groups.)

klas batalo
Oct 22 2012 00:14

i think this is the main issue compared to the others:

"real discomfort and difficulties that many of us in the IWW have when it comes to talking about and advocating for our organization’s core values."

in that it is more like:

"if we have politics then some workers’ will be scared away or we'll just fight all the time and we'll never be a real union!"

either for ideological reasons some don't want to have political conversations or because it is more a workerist drive to "just organize!"

overall i think this piece is really good, and i hope there is an effort to bring this up within the union. i am pretty fed up with folks who reject the idea that we should be honest that we are a revolutionary anti-capitalist workers organization, and instead a "union for all workers that has no-politics is militant and grassroots" sorry but to me that just sounds really boring and more right wing than even the change to win unions and others like UE or UH.

also i don't want to just not use the state, but abolish it. tongue

kevin s.
Oct 26 2012 15:40

hi all, good piece Nate and interesting comments all. I think both these points pretty much hit the spot:
"the meaning of the word ‘politics’ as it was used by a lot of people in the era when the IWW was founded is different from the meaning of the word in a lot of the circles IWW members move in today. In the early 20th century U.S. the word “politics” meant the ballot box. There were, for instance, debates between political socialists and nonpolitical socialists. The phrase “nonpolitical socialist” may sound like a contradiction to us today, because we tend to believe there can be politics through other means than the ballot box. In the early 20th century, though, “political” meant basically “state parliamentary,” so “political socialists” were people who believed that socialism could happen through voting. So, material from the early days of the IWW that is critical of “politics” is critical of state parliamentary approaches to social change. Today we might call that non- or extra-parliamentary politics."

"There’s a second reason why it’s a mistake to link “no politics” to the IWW’s early history tied to the One Big Union pamphlet. It’s a simpler reason, which is that the phrase “no politics in the union” doesn’t appear in the original One Big Union pamphlet at all. What we have today as the One Big Union pamphlet is very, very different, so that it’s a bit weird that it has the same title."

Also the deal about the old-school trade unionists using "no politics in this union" as an anti-radical slogan, and how what passes as "apolitical" can mean simply status quo politics, is right on as well. The "no politics" line from trade unionists can also sound ludicrous given all the wheeling-and-dealing with politicians and using the unions as electioneering machines... at best, in some cases "no politics" meant something more like "no ideology"/pure and simple economic goals, but even then it can be argued that "pure and simple economics" is just code word for an ideologically capitalist union. Which I'm really fascinated by, especially comparing with more social-democratic styles of unionism, but anyway...

plasmatelly
Oct 26 2012 17:20

Hi Kevin, some interesting points there.

Nate's first bit, well fair enough if you want to say something like the IWW is a union that doesn't rely on the separation of politics and union member via a political party. But that doesn't do anything to strengthen the argument that the apolitical stance of the IWW allows 2 divergent, polarised even, political stances to be taken as the direction of the union. Not having agreement on modus operandi and direction is what I would say an apolitical union is. I don't question that there isn't political camps - hell, I know there is, but there isn't agreement sought at this crucial level. It's viewed as a strength by some members and frustrating to others.

Nate
Oct 26 2012 17:28

Thanks Kevin. Based on about 10 minutes of looking on googlebooks about that slogan (so I'm not sure about this) it looks like the slogan in the early 20th century US was both anti-electoral and anti-socialist, a combination that made a lot of sense given that many socialists were electorally oriented. Your point about union electioneering makes me think that if I dig further into that I should pay attention to where the slogan crops up, and how those unions/their officials related to the state. I know for instance that Gompers served as a state commissioner on studies of factory inspection, maybe an unpaid role but still, and likewise for John Mitchell from the miners. That also makes 'no politics' a bit weird, and fits with what you said, that pure and simple economics is just code for ideologically capitalist unionism. That also makes me think someone should write a piece on early IWW criticisms of 'pure and simplers'

klas batalo
Oct 26 2012 22:33

yeah i was gonna say, usually calls for "no politics" is anti-communist. you actually sorta saw this in the real democracy ya movement, and you almost saw it (and there was certainly veins of this) in the occupy and other pro "democracy" movements

plasmatelly
Oct 27 2012 08:40

sabotage wrote -

Quote:
calls for "no politics" is anti-communist

I very much agree that calls for no politics is a way of neutering any union. Take out the politics of rank and file organising and you can bet your boots you're on the path to handing decision making to bureaucrats.
But I'm curious... from all the posters on this thread in the IWW...(and this is meant as a comradely enquiry) are you in favour of attempting to introduce a level of agreement that would change the organisation from apolitical to political? There are glaring contradictions in approaches that could see quite a fall out if attempted.. for instance rank and file versus representation (mediation and class collaboration, to the r&f) versus no-strike deals. Or the society based on a commonwealth of cooperatives and an end to wage slavery, seen as one thing by mutualists and another by communists. Rather than step on egg shells, but not wanting to sound rude or unconstructive, I'll get to the point: the IWW exists in its present form only because it is apolitical. You may want a greater political unity - and I commend that - but if the IWW were to move to something that incorporates politics with economics, expect fracture and very possibly an organisation that's politics you don't share.

kevin s.
Oct 27 2012 13:21

I can't speak for Nate or sabotage. Personally, I'm against seeking more political unity than we have now in the IWW, in the sense of theoretical/ideological agreement on stuff like the cooperative commonwealth, communism etc.. I don't believe it would do anything for the union, our workplace organizing, or the broader working class, and it wouldn't bring us closes to revolution either. I mean folks can talk and write about that stuff all they want, informally. I am, however, for prohibiting stuff like no-strike clauses (we already have a rule against dues checkoff, and there's a referendum item this year that would ban any restrictive agreements, including contracts with no-strike clauses) from the union. I don't see that as pushing for more political unity, I see it as enforcing the already agreed to politics of the union (anti-class collaborationism) by banning things that we know from experience conflict with what we claim to be and believe in. The same reason we don't allow salaried bureaucrats, endorse political parties, etc..

I'm satisfied with the IWW preamble being the ideological position of the union. I actually think we don't push it enough as an ideological thing in our organizing (a lot of folks try to circumvent it, even folks who clearly subscribe to what it says). A problem we've had in some of our prominent campaign is ambiguity over calling something IWW-affiliated (like "Starbucks Workers Union" "Jimmy Johns Workers Union" etc., officially both are IWW-affiliated) but having folks who are part of those but aren't card-holding wobblies. The campaign structure can be used to circumvent the IWW while still adopting its name and getting resources from it... in short "third-party" the union. I think that's a recipe for problems and should be avoided, by being stricter about how campaigns are structured. I could hypothetically see a campaign like that pursuing a contract with a no-strike clause, and then "leaving" the IWW (of which most of the workers were never actually members), to give one example of a potential bad scenario. (I also don't think company-centric campaigns are strong organizationally, and I've been pushing for more centralization into the industrial organizing committees....)

Nate, I know at the founding convention there was a split basically between De Leon and, well, everyone else (even the SPers like Debs, who would later reverse do pretty much the same thing as De Leon after having knocked out De Leon as a political competitor), over whether this new union should be tied to political platform via an electoral wing, or should be a "strictly economic organization." The economics/no-politics phrasing has to do with the choice of "battlefield" more so than with the idea of having agreed-to ideological values (as said already, even most of the "pure and simplers" openly took political stances both in the sense of electioneering and in the sense of ideological claims...). The "economic battlefield" thing is an old syndicalist position that actually goes back to Bakunin and Marx debates over electoralism in the IWMA, that was taken up by anarchists who founded the CGT (who had a slogan that "syndicalism is sufficient unto itself"), which in turn influenced the early IWW.

The union clearly went the no-politics route and repeated the same position later on with Socialists, and then the Communists. Which is why it appealed so strongly to anarchists and the SPers, when they split, accused it of being "anarchist in everything but name" (which is funny because the most famous direct actionist in the union was Bill Haywood, an SPer).

A final thing, the old AFL claimed to politically independent (as in not being tied to/controlled by one party) which I suspect is where what then were vaguely syndicalist-sounding phrases (and now come across as vaguely business unionist/anti-communist) like "no politics in this union." AFL political independence meant not being controlled by one party, and using the union voting block as leverage over candidates from the big parties ("reward your friends and punish your enemies" - political opportunism), which most of the big unions don't subscribe to anymore, and the ones that do claim to still just support the Dems in practice (a legacy of Roosevelt's labor-courting and later Reagan's union-busting). Wobbly political skepticism was taken further in not doing any electoral politics. A metaphorical explanation would maybe be the AFL subscribed to "don't put all your eggs in one political basket" while the IWW subscribed to "put no eggs in the political basket, put them all in the direct action basket" (direct action gets the goods). Whereas De Leon, the SP, and CP, all pursued a singular labor party, metaphorically "put all your eggs in one political party basket" (ironically during the Roosevelt era a bunch of SPers would leave to form an "American Labor Party" as a pro-Roosevelt political front, and then just folded that into the Democratic Party making it their one political party basket... while CPers, who like the SP wanted political control, ended up being instruments in Lewis's more politically independent Gompers-ian political policy).

Maybe that's helpful in explaining why you find similar-sounding and sometimes even the exact same slogans being used about politics in both the IWW and AFL. And remember too both the IWW and AFL and later CIO all had in-fights with the CP, so it shouldn't be surprising to find the same slogan being deployed against the same group by all those unions, despite the visceral reaction we both probly have toward "no politics in this union" as an old red-baiting slogan.

klas batalo
Oct 27 2012 15:51

I get a sense that Recomposition folks and circles around them are for defending the existing politics of the union. I see this taking two forms. Defending that the IWW can be a revolutionary union with anti-capitalist vision against percieved revolutionaries inside and outside the union that think real unions should be apolitical spaces open to all workers. Whereas you have to agree to the Preamble to join the IWW and would make sense to believe in industrial organizing around a direct action revolutionary unionist basis.

Regarding if the IWW should take on more explicit politics I agree that it would cause splits and at this time it would make more sense to effectively in a structural and policy way make the organization as anti-political as possible. I mean otherwise you'd see a faction trying to essentially form a left communist union or an anarcho-syndicalist union.

What I do think this all brings up though is that Recomposition folks, but especially Juan and Nate have been using the whole SolFed stance on political-economic organization in their polemic against such percieved currents inside and outside the union, but seemingly only to defend the union's existing line, not to argue for an anarcho-syndicalist strategy or libertarian communist vision. So sure, unions can be political, but what type of politics does that entail is an open question. Like I said earlier pushing any direction on this would probably mean splits, sorta like you have seen with the IWGB/WIIU stuff lately (though I do think any leftcom/a-s split from the IWW would probably be more substantial if it did happen.)

So for me the question about specifically anarchist revolutionary organization and questions around dual organization, or leaving a space open for all workers via open committees/mass assemblies has been answered by SolFed. But it seems folks in the IWW who are/were obstensibly anarchists (perhaps prefer communists now?) seem content with broad anti-capitalism and seem to not have answered the question of how do you work with workers who don't accept your politics but still want to be part of the campaign?

I think formerly the Brand Name Workers Union thing was used as a solution for this, but I do agree with it's dangers. Perhaps still using some over arching title for a campaign but having the union drive be explicitly about joining the IWW? I don't have all the answers around this, but I'd like to hear more from other fellow workers. grin

plasmatelly
Oct 27 2012 15:54

Kevin - thanks for that, it's one of the most honest and insightful posts on the state of the US wobs I've seen for a while.
If I can ask you more about the relationship of the JJWU and the SWU (and fair crack about wanting to organise more industrially)... the unions you have set up here include full IWW members and members who have joined for a variety of reasons; but how can these unions have any such interaction (other than as you suggested, using the IWW as support) if the members don't have automatic membership with voting rights? And if you give them automatic voting rights and lets say there were more members of these unions than actual IWW membership proper - then what's to say they don't want any of that revolutionary stuff thank you very much? Creating rank and file unions (that preferably don't mediate between classes) is fair enough and there's something in that, but actually building a revolutionary organisation requires agreement on quite a few things. I appreciate you're more than aware of the argument for and against putting a core level of agreement in at the point of membership, but allow me to play devils advocate (not that I have all the answers! But some of this IS playing out) - Let's say you set up a union in a shop and some guy joins. He does as you have stated, bypasses the preamble and joins because it makes economic sense. First off, this guy is not a revolutionary, he happens to be a Democrat voter and is culturally and politically conservative. Now, he doesn't have voting rights to the IWW (fine, he says, I don't agree with them anyway) and if he did he'd find like-minded members to change the IWW for the worse. How does this benefit the revolutionary politics for the IWW?

klas batalo
Oct 27 2012 16:19

I assume you want to hear Kevin's reply, but I would just say it doesn't benefit the IWW's revolutionary politics, or even directly via whatever membership of that individual would entail assiting the IWW (financially, as a member, etc). It would still be worth potentially working with them though if they want to fight.

I think the question here is between what do we want build? The union, the fight, both?

Nate
Oct 27 2012 21:11
plasmatelly wrote:
from all the posters on this thread in the IWW...(and this is meant as a comradely enquiry) are you in favour of attempting to introduce a level of agreement that would change the organisation from apolitical to political? (...) the IWW exists in its present form only because it is apolitical.

Hey Plasma, I still need to read over the rest of the thread when I have time but just to address this directly: I think this is a misunderstanding. The IWW's not apolitical currently. I thought I said that pretty clearly in the blog post. I don't mean this disrespectfully, honest question - did you read over the piece, or skim it? If you read it, did I not make that clear in the blog post? Again, not trying to be disrespectful, rather just want to know I need to revise this piece to make that point better/clearer.

My mind is not made up about much in terms of what I want to see change in the IWW. I think the IWW is already political. We might change the politics of the IWW, but that'd be a change from one set of politics to another. One change that I'd definitely like is for there to be consensus that the organization is political. And I'd like the stuff in the OBU pamphlet that says otherwise to be dropped.

(I also think, as other folk have said a few times in this thread, that what seem like apolitical organizations are probly more likely groups with politics that are masked.)

I'll get back to you on the rest of your comment and the rest of the thread later.

Juan Conatz
Oct 28 2012 01:13

The 'what if non-revolutionary workers join' thing is sort of a boring conversation to me, but I'll engage. In what sort of situation would this mythical mass of 'non-revolutionary workers' join the IWW?

klas batalo
Oct 28 2012 02:43
Juan Conatz wrote:
The 'what if non-revolutionary workers join' thing is sort of a boring conversation to me, but I'll engage. In what sort of situation would this mythical mass of 'non-revolutionary workers' join the IWW?

They don't or if they do, usually as one month wonders...

@Nate I think you are clear about the IWW's paper politics, but I think Plasmatelly is suggesting that it is made up of a broad variety of politics.

Quote:
One change that I'd definitely like is for there to be consensus that the organization is political. And I'd like the stuff in the OBU pamphlet that says otherwise to be dropped.

For instance you say it is political but there is not a consensus on if it is or not, and you'd like there to be. I am for this too, but I think Plasmatelly's question is fair.

Nate
Oct 28 2012 03:29
sabotage wrote:
you are clear about the IWW's paper politics, but I think Plasmatelly is suggesting that it is made up of a broad variety of politics.

Right. but a variety of politics=politics. Not apolitical. The IWW is not officially apolitical. The IWW is officially revolutionary anticapitalist. Folk may want that to be different in various ways - officially marxist, official anarchist, more sophisticated, smarter, whatever - but that's politics. This is slightly blurred by the fact that the organization put out a pamphlet in 1944 with some dumb language, then in the 1970s when the organization was tiny and weird it mandated that all members be given that pamphlet. I think that's just a slight blurring and a case of the organization's on-paper views contradicting themselves somewhat. (I say "somewhat" only because the bad langauge is in the OBU pamphlet, not in the constitution. The preamble being in the constitution means the preamble trumps other documents. It'd be worse if that language was in the constitution.)

sabotage wrote:
you say it is political but there is not a consensus on if it is or not

Fair point. I'd be shocked to find that anyone but a small minority of members is like "no, we really ARE apolitical" and of those I think most of them are contrarian weirdos and/or leftists who are like "if we're too open about our views then we'll alienate people!"

I actually agree though with a lot of Plasmatelly's substantive point as I understand it, I just think the point is misphrased as being about politics vs apolitical. The IWW is political already, it's just that our political line is fairly broad and minimalist. I take Plasmatelly's substantive point to be that it'd be a mistake to try to get a more substantive official political line in any kind of hurry, given where the organization is right now. (Sorry if I've misunderstood your point Plasma.) I think trying to do so would lead to what Plasmatelly suggested - internal conflict, splits, etc. This would be especially the case if posed in terms of ideological adherence ("we should declare our belonging to the anarchist tradition!" "we should embrace our status as marxist!" etc - I say this as someone who makes a big deal of the organization's marxist heritage, by the way). I'm for more political discussion in the IWW and building political consensus, but it shouldn't happen in a polarizing way unless there are clear reasons of both principle and practice in the short term. (For instance, the debate on the shift to a delegate convention instead of general assembly got pretty heated and polarized, and there were both practical and principle issues at stake there in the short term, so that was worth it in my opinion.)

Edit:

sabotage wrote:
I get a sense that Recomposition folks and circles around them are for defending (...) that the IWW can be a revolutionary union with anti-capitalist vision against percieved revolutionaries inside and outside the union that think real unions should be apolitical spaces open to all workers.

That's definitely my view and some of what I've been writing about. We're really not organized in the recomp editorial group though so this is not a coordinated effort (unfortunately!). I think probly most of us agree on this, there might be some disagreement though, tied to disagreements among us about political organizations.

sabotage wrote:
this all brings up though is that Recomposition folks, but especially Juan and Nate have been using the whole SolFed stance on political-economic organization in their polemic against such percieved currents inside and outside the union, but seemingly only to defend the union's existing line, not to argue for an anarcho-syndicalist strategy or libertarian communist vision. So sure, unions can be political, but what type of politics does that entail is an open question. (...) folks in the IWW who are/were obstensibly anarchists (perhaps prefer communists now?) seem content with broad anti-capitalism and seem to not have answered the question of how do you work with workers who don't accept your politics but still want to be part of the campaign?

FWIW, this isn't a big deal, but I've not thought of the SolFed stuff that way, as using it to move an agenda in the IWW. I feel a strong affinity with the SolFed line as expressed in the new pamphlet for sure, above all though I've felt like it's a really clarifying statement of stuff that was already going on in the IWW, at least the parts I know about. That may be part of why it seems like a defense as you said. I do think that's a fair point, that I'm basically like "this is political already, and let's have more politics!" but I don't say much about what those politics should be. Personally I think we need a vigorous process of political inquiry and discussion, so that the "what should the politics be?" thing partly is a matter of making the politics that the organization should have. This also means increasing the organization's capacity to do collective political thinking. Like say if the Employee Free Choice Act had passed, how would we have responded to that in our actions, and what would our analysis have been of that? I have some opinions on that (I'm not being coy here, just don't want to belabor the example) but I think above all it's important that the organization have greater collective capacity to share and develop analysis collectively in a way that moves toward decisions about stuff like that. And that the organization do more to bring more members in to those (these!) kinds of discussions as full equals. That strikes me as prior to any questions of political line, and without that sort of work I don't see much point in formulating a line (except when it's a pressing issue of practice and principle like I mentioned about the delegates convention).

As for working w/ folk despite their political differences, that's a longer conversation and one I'm up for but I don't quite see the connection with the issue of no politics etc. I also think that it's not that complicated in theory. If you don't agree with the preamble (or can't be moved to agree with it through conversation) you can't join. If you do, you can. I know cases where people really want to be part of organizing but are put off by the preamble do exist but I think often part of the problem is IWW members not feeling comfortable to advocate for the vision and values expressed in the preamble. Also in my experience IWW members err way more on the side of working with folk despite disagreement (which is where a lot of the "let's not talk much about our politics" thing comes from) than they err on the side of making too much of our politics in our organizing. So I think "how do we work with people despite political differences?" is a less frequent a problem than "in the organizing we're already doing, how do we advocate for our vision and values?"

kevin s.
Oct 28 2012 05:31

hey plasma, in response to your question...

As it stands, it's not so much we have a bunch of folks wanting to turn the union into a more conservative/non-revolutionary union, so much as simply folks who are like half-members, who we try to get into our campaigns by offering non-formal ways of being part of the campaign structure.

The only situation in which a whole bunch of conservative workers would want to join would be if they saw economic gains in it, which would only happen if we became larger and stronger and started winning economic gains, which we don't win a whole lot of right now - frankly if you want to join a union out of economic self-interest, the IWW is a bad choice of union. I think that's a big problem, and I'm all about trying to get the goods and not just be a kind of politico-cultural society for radical workers, but it does mean that, for now at least, few workers will join and stay for long in the IWW who don't at least vaguely believe in some kind of radical politics.

I do think there's potential down the road for mass membership growth from workers who are uninterested in politics who join mostly from economic motives or out of vaguely defined class consciousness. I actually want those folks to join, I don't think it's crucial for all members to be active organizers. I don't think there's a perfect "cure" for opportunism, I mean there's always gonna be folks in any struggle (military, political, whatever...) who fight for opportunistic, self-interested or non-selfish but basically "apolitical" reasons (to protect their family, etc.) and could give a shit about political ideology. I'm not super threatened by those folks, to be honest, typically they either don't get involved in organizing, or they stay marginally involved (as paper members who maybe picket if there's a strike on, and maybe vote for officers if there's someone in particular they want to support) but don't actively try to control things, unless they see potential personal benefits from doing so (like making a fat paycheck as a bureaucrat... which can be pretty easily avoided by not having bureaucrats who make fat paychecks) or if they have major grievances over something (which in the IWW they'd probly just leave over, since it's way easier than "staying and fighting").

I'm significantly more threatened by the conflicting pressures on radicals to either compromise too much out of short-term expediency, or seek ideological purity (in hopes of avoiding compromise) at the expense of getting anything done.

I don't know the perfect answer for any of those issues (opportunists/reformists joining the union or radicals turning opportunist/reformist or radicals being self-isolating) and frankly I tend to be pessimistic about the long term, but I do think there's some really basic things the IWW can do to discourage opportunism/reformism and encourage a culture of militant direct action and class consciousness.

a.) don't allow any class collaborationist agreements, period - prohibit no-strike clauses, management rights clauses, etc., ensuring the union will have to fight for its existence (as opposed to signing a neutrality agreement or a sweetheart contract with management) thus encouraging a culture of militancy and worker solidarity (if you can't just kiss up to the boss, you have no choice but to depend on your fellow workers) ... basically force workers to "pick sides"

b.) push the preamble more, discourage folks from joining who don't subscribe to it and stop with the brand-name campaign fronts (I can only see those undermining the union's ideological position, by creating the appearance of a rank and file in conflict with some ulterior agenda of the union's... in other words third-partying the union, which can never be a good thing for us, and potentially could provoke an "insurgency" against the revolutionary politics); make it unmistakable to workers what we are and what they are signing up for when they join

c.) keep it simple - the politics are in the preamble, you don't gotta be a professor to comprehend it and it takes like two minutes to read it carefully, maybe five or ten to explain the context it was written in and any minor nuances; the language is clear-cut (the working class and the employing class have nothing in common) and unmistakably calls for class warfare, so there's no room for sneaking collaborationist politics into the union without directly opposing the preamble

I think it's helpful to encourage reading and conversations about history, politics etc., informally (to be clear, I'm against extensive required reading packets on which membership is conditioned, the preamble is good enough for me, but I'm all for pushing conversations on an unofficial basis). The smarter workers are, the better.

A final thought -

d.) fuck the press - don't try to appease the capitalist media or look like we're the reasonable ones who are more than willing to negotiate, etc., let them go ahead and red-bait the union and call us freaks and whatever else (minus straight up factual slander, and obviously don't let them come snooping around for non-public information about our organizing); it's not just that they're not our friends and we shouldn't expect them to be, frankly I'd rather we look like dangerous radicals to the press, than go out of our way to look reasonable just so we don't scare off reformists ("reasonable" to reformists always, always means "reformist")

Nate
Oct 28 2012 03:37

Kevin, I agree with most of those points. You should write that up as a discussion document. I just wanted to say though about apolitical workers who can live with the preamble but don't really agree with it, you make it sound like you know people like that in the organization. Is that what you meant? If so, are you being serious, or polemical, or are you speculating about people? Because I don't know of anyone in the organization who is like "I don't actually agree with the preamble." I know of people who have what I think are simplistic understanding of it, and I know of people who I think don't have a very serious commitment to those views, but that's different from not actually believing it. Simplistic belief and weak belief are still belief. And I also know of several cases where people with simplistic belief in the analysis in the preamble developed more sophisticated analysis, and where people with relatively weak commitment became much more committed to that vision. I think if we do things right (and we often don't, for sure) then when people join it's a dynamic thing, where their views and commitments evolve and improve over time. For me personally that's an argument in favor of the IWW having a relatively thin ideology required of members (most of it's in the preamble as you said).

kevin s.
Oct 28 2012 05:27

Hi Nate, briefly this time...

I totally agree with you about the simplistic/weak beliefs thing and how those develop over time after joining and that being an argument keeping the politics simple (or as you put it "relatively thin ideology required").

I can't think off hand of any card-holders I know who don't believe in the preamble, I was thinking more of folks who right now don't join/who "join" campaigns but not the union itself, who if the union was to grow and say (as I've been pushing for) we cut out the whole affiliated-campaigns-with-non-affiliated-members dynamic, I could see becoming card-holders and paying dues and not thinking too hard about the politics of the unions. There's certainly historical precedent for non-political/less-political workers joining radical movements for reasons that are more about economics or vague sympathies, and it wouldn't be a huge leap from how some wobs skirt around the preamble right now... and we've definitely had workers in campaigns who clearly don't subscribe to the preamble.

I think sabotage hit the nail on the head in saying that folks who do that right now are typically one month wonders - from a distance, it sounds like we got a bunch of that in Madison and we may have gotten that around the occupy movement also. The thing is, like I said, right now there's little incentive for that beyond the one month wonder sympathy votes, because the union isn't winning much in the way of economic gains. I was saying how during periods of mass growth when the union is either winning gains, or widely perceived as a viable option for winning gains, there's likely to be more folks joining either out of vague class conscious sympathies (who aren't necessarily ideological revolutionaries) or out of economic self-interest (because the union would be seen as protecting their economic interests as a worker). As I said I'm okay with that to a large extent if happens in the context of militant struggles and as long as there's some basic organizational commitments against collaborationist practices etc... A few reformist apples don't necessarily spoil the whole revolutionary barrel, so to speak, especially if they're passive apples that just sort of sit on the side and pull the occasional picket duty (or barricade duty....?).

EDIT

I see what you were looking at now, Nate, I think what happened was I did cut-and-paste job on a couple parts while I was writing that post, and didn't notice some contradictory/confusing language. I'm a sloppy self-editor....

kevin s.
Oct 28 2012 06:22

A quick side note/clarification, in response to plasma's question:

"If I can ask you more about the relationship of the JJWU and the SWU (and fair crack about wanting to organise more industrially)... the unions you have set up here include full IWW members and members who have joined for a variety of reasons; but how can these unions have any such interaction (other than as you suggested, using the IWW as support) if the members don't have automatic membership with voting rights? And if you give them automatic voting rights and lets say there were more members of these unions than actual IWW membership proper - then what's to say they don't want any of that revolutionary stuff thank you very much?"

To clarify, SWU and JJWU and probly similar lesser known campaigns like that, don't have a formal membership structure the way the IWW does. What makes someone a member or not of JJWU is a little unclear even to some folks who are in JJWU- is it attending meetings? working at Jimmy John's? ... Which is why there's this ambiguity about affiliation. There is an organizing committee and there are shop committees, but it's unclear and I've even heard from JJ workers who are in the union that they've encountered confusion from workers thinking they had joined the IWW and not realizing they hadn't, and the flip side of folks being in the campaign who weren't totally down for the IWW politically, and so on. Basically the affiliated campaign structure is like an intermediate step between "open mass assemblies" (since formal membership isn't required) and a formal union structure (since it's affiliated to the IWW and uses the IWW's name).

I don't mean to downgrade either campaign, the comrades who drove them were/are doing their best and achieved a lot and there have been huge benefits for the union as a result of those campaigns. The industrial organizing committee I mentioned exists largely thanks to the JJWU, so, again, this isn't meant as a one-sided attack against the JJWU.

Chilli Sauce
Oct 28 2012 12:24

This is a really good thread, prompted by a really good blog post.

I'm enjoying the discussion, but I want to play a bit of devil's advocate here:

Kevin S. wrote:
don't allow any class collaborationist agreements, period

Aren't all agreements and contracts with the boss by their very nature collaborationist?

And this I think can be the crux of the matter as well. It's not neccesarily 'apolitical' or 'conservative' workers. It's workers who think 'unions' operate certain ways as defined by labor legislation, the state, and the general capitalist institutions which govern society and who will expect the IWW to conform to this to one degree or another.

I think it's a bit like 'non-political' often means 'dominant ideology'. The development of class consciousness is often riddled with contradiction, with lots of remnants of the dominant ideology left over. And I think for this reason it makes a lot more sense to have a higher bar of required political agreement combined with an active and ever-evolving strategy for reaching our to and working alongside co-workers who may not share our radicalism (yet wink).

I mean, we've seen this in, say, the JJWU. As I understand it (and please correct me if I'm wrong), JJWU members weren't opposed to direct action or the like, but felt an NLRB election was the best way to establish a union presence in the chain and push forward the campaign. Some organizers and longer-term members may have disagreed with this tactically, but went along with it because of concerns for reasons of democracy or whatever.

Saying 'apolitical' may be the wrong wording, but clearly the influence of non-radical ideas does play out in IWW campaigns in the here and now.

fingers malone
Oct 28 2012 10:27

This thread is really interesting, thanks.

plasmatelly
Oct 28 2012 14:05

Yeah, this is thread is spot on, thanks to all who have spent the time to write some belter stuff. I got to answer but tbh, I think you're getting where I'm coming from now so I don't want to over-egg what I've said or go in circles as the thread has moved on a bit.
But just to say it may be an understanding of the language here - I think the ancient text denouncing politics in the union is a distraction, but Nate is possibly correct in suggesting it has done the ground work for the notion that the IWW is apolitical. As a member of an IWA Section, I'd expect a political union to be a union that you would join because you at least agree with enough core values to make it a viable option. An apolitical union is something I might join for whatever reason - and as Kevin as said early, if the IWW gets much bigger, this is going to be the case - but the core political values (goals, aims and principals and organisational methods) are not necessarily something you might give 2 hoots about.
Now, there's enough been said by all for me to say if I was a first time reader to this subject, I'd imagine you could join the IWW without agreeing to the preamble, that there is a mixture of radical and non-radical methods used and that there lots of politically motivated members that put aside their politics as they may possibly fall out and damage the union. Without going into what my views are on this, I would say that this is by many peoples understanding an apolitical union, imo.

klas batalo
Oct 28 2012 16:32

@Nate I agree that makes it political. I also agree that the non-consensus is small. But it still brought up Plasmatelly's point that there could be division and splits (and certainly even on a small level a lot of fuss by some grumpy politicos) if more than the existing politics, or even pushing the existing politics is brought up. Like I am sure if we try to get OBU changed just like things like DelCon it will cause a fuss. I'm all for it though.

Regarding the IWW and SolFed, you and Juan's thoughts on that stuff, I think you've finally explained them to my satisfaction, sorry if I was at all annoying, but just a very curious cat. I've gotten a lot of answers, that you think IWW should mostly focus on workplace organizing, that the Preamble is enough for that, that it can be political-economic revolutionary organization, etc. Please excuse me for my confusion on if you were using their arguments or not for the debates with others on political organization, it just really came across that way. I think perhaps this was because of the nature of what you found valuable in what SolFed folks were saying, and what SolFed is actually saying. I think we can agree that SolFed's new pamphlet lays out their strategy and vision for what they think is the best way forward (I am sure they are humble about this, but they are making a case) for revolutionary organization in our times. This includes tighter politics than the IWW preamble and community strategy as well. So when I saw you guys sympathetic to this stuff, I really thought you were trying to argue that the IWW have tighter politics as well as being economic, have a community strategy, etc. Personally I was excited about this as a union member, cause I would like to see some better positions taken (in a collective manner) on politics in the union. I'd also like to see us develop collectively what the union's community strategy is as well (I mean the social justice unions do this, it'd be nice if the IWW had a more unified approach than just a variety of community activism.)

I think that is about it for now, I generally agreed with all the points you made.

Like others I think this is a great thread, and again thanks Nate for starting to poke around about these underlying historical issues.

Oh and Kevin deffinitely make your thoughts into discussion pieces for the union! grin

Nate
Oct 28 2012 17:30
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Saying 'apolitical' may be the wrong wording, but clearly the influence of non-radical ideas does play out in IWW campaigns in the here and now.

I agree, though I think at least as often and probably moreso is that radicals with other ideas than ours (as in, yours, mine, and the people we agree with) are influential as well. So I'm not sure that it's clarifying to say it's about radical vs non-radical. I'm of two minds in that I do sort of want to say "those views by some radicals are actually conservative" but I also think that that basically just amounts to a fancier version of "my views are right and good and yours aren't" and I think it sort of obscures that sincere radicals have other views on this stuff. Like, I don't agree with some stuff on unions that's sometimes said in the platformist milieu. I'm not sure I'm remembering right so apologies if not but I think the WSM position paper on unions has stuff in it about the limits to which unions can be radicals, I know for anyway that I've gotten into arguments w/ WSM folk making that point. I disagree, but I don't doubt their sincerity as radicals. They're just radicals with different views.

Glad you liked the post, by the way. And yeah this is a good thread, I'm finding it all very clarifying, thanks all, and glad that's mutual.

In a rush cuz I gotta get to a family thing, but real quick - Plasma, people aren't supposed to be able to join the IWW without agreeing to the preamble. I'm pretty sure that that does happen occasionally but very, very rarely. Rather what happens instead is that people join with a thin agreement, or they participate heavily in a committee/campaign but are not actually IWW members.

Sabotage, you weren't annoying at all, sorry if I came off like you were.

kevin s.
Oct 29 2012 00:16

Hi Chilli, interesting points.

Chilli Sauce wrote:
This is a really good thread, prompted by a really good blog post.

I'm enjoying the discussion, but I want to play a bit of devil's advocate here:

Kevin S. wrote:
don't allow any class collaborationist agreements, period

Aren't all agreements and contracts with the boss by their very nature collaborationist?

And this I think can be the crux of the matter as well. It's not neccesarily 'apolitical' or 'conservative' workers. It's workers who think 'unions' operate certain ways as defined by labor legislation, the state, and the general capitalist institutions which govern society and who will expect the IWW to conform to this to one degree or another.

Yes and no - not to sound like a politician (cuz I'm apolitical -wink-). There's different levels to this, I think.

At a certain level, we all class collaborate regularly, when we go to work and make profits for capitalist employers and agree to their terms of employment-- let's call it mundane collaboration, or low-commitment collaboration, or whatever. I don't think a contract, in the abstract, is anymore collaborationist than working without a contract- especially when non-contractual organizing means basically conceding official credit to the company for things the union fought for, as we've seen on a minor scale with the SWU. If anything I think non-contractual organizing can open itself up to nonunion workers who aren't radical at all, seeking in-house company reform. When this meets with brand name campaign organizing, it can (and has) played out as a kind of, what I'd polemically label, "reformist company unionism with a militant bent." The direct unionism pamphlet accidentally encourages this tendency, in my opinion, by downplaying formal unionism and encouraging organizing around grievances without seeking formal union recognition. A concrete example of this would fighting for paid sick days, and getting workers on board for that fight and giving them voice and vote on a committee, who don't necessarily want the union.

At another level, yeah typically union contracts are explicitly class collaborations; things like management rights, no-strike clauses, etc., I'm sure we'd all agree aren't just bargaining chips, they are expressions of a long-standing (and legally enshrined) labor philosophy that seeks labor-management partnership and to avert economic disruption except as an occasional bargaining tactic for "extreme cases" (via legally protected strikes and lockouts). Call it active/ideological collaborationism. I think that's different from what I'm calling, above, mundane collaboration.

I'd be cool with, say, workers/the union writing up a document stipulating some protections for workers and whatever economic claims, with no restrictions stipulated on what workers can do (or maybe even specifically protecting work stoppages in the contract), and imposing it on the employer via militant direct action techniques. There's historical precedent for that style of contractual "bargaining" - announcing such-and-such will now be in the contract, and then forcing it on management against their will - but unions don't tend to do it because it involves heavy disruption and invites legal problems (since labor law is designed to make companies and unions bargain "in good faith" and requires workers to abide by their terms of employment, in the contract if it's a unionized workplace, or in the company policy if it's a nonunion workplace). That's not a whole lot different really from direct unionist style non-contractual organizing, except instead of making demands and forcing the company to accept them, it's making demands and forcing the company accept them, and then putting it in writing with the union's name on it and calling it a contract (or whatever other name). While it may or may be legally protected, it does secure a greater amount of recognition of the union, not just by the company but by the workers, in my opinion. (John O'Reilly's interesting piece on recomp, about legitimacy, touches some on this problem of getting workers to recognize the union http://recomposition.info/2012/09/25/whos-in-charge-here/ )

To be totally clear, I'm less interested in the potential legal protections that a contract can offer than in the political utility of contracts/whatever-you-call-them, written documents that recognize the union in some form and provide at least some paper protections for workers and set some minimum economic standards. I think that's different a traditional contractual arrangement, so maybe it's confusing to talk about it in terms of contracts, I don't know....

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I think it's a bit like 'non-political' often means 'dominant ideology'. The development of class consciousness is often riddled with contradiction, with lots of remnants of the dominant ideology left over. And I think for this reason it makes a lot more sense to have a higher bar of required political agreement combined with an active and ever-evolving strategy for reaching our to and working alongside co-workers who may not share our radicalism (yet wink).

I mean, we've seen this in, say, the JJWU. As I understand it (and please correct me if I'm wrong), JJWU members weren't opposed to direct action or the like, but felt an NLRB election was the best way to establish a union presence in the chain and push forward the campaign. Some organizers and longer-term members may have disagreed with this tactically, but went along with it because of concerns for reasons of democracy or whatever.

Saying 'apolitical' may be the wrong wording, but clearly the influence of non-radical ideas does play out in IWW campaigns in the here and now.

There's a few different things at work with the JJWU. I don't wanna claim infallibility here, I never worked at JJs and didn't attend their committee meetings, so all my observations are based on encounters outside those meetings (at pickets, solidarity meetings, and other campaign functions), the emergency meeting after the sick day firings, and reflective discussions and writings about the campaign that've happened since then.

Some not-so-radical folks were loosely involved in the campaign, sure, and might've swayed the decisions to go the NLRB route. Those folks didn't take out red cards, or, if they did, they didn't stick around for long or make an impact on the branch (as Nate said, maybe they had a brief radicalization and then cool down later, leading them to drop out). As I've said, there's little incentive right now for folks like that to stick around in the union, so the only level at which they have a significant impact is in the campaigns. Other folks, who were/still are radicals who believe in revolutionary unionism, supported the election strategy for other reasons, motivated by their own brand of radical unionism (that didn't square with "direct unionism" but was still politically radical). Those folks were motivated, from a one-big-unionist impulse, to build a majority union. They felt an election drive would force them to reach out to all the workers there, and learn valuable lessons in doing so. Which, incidentally, even workers who were against the election strategy, confirmed that it did in fact do just that (forced them to reach out to all the workers, and that they learned valuable lessons in the process).

The sick day firings saw a similar split between NLRB-ers and the "action faction" (folks who by and large would agree with direct unionism), with swayable workers in the middle on the issue. At the emergency meeting (which had campaign members and a bunch of other wobblies), there were some softer core folks who were afraid of scaring off workers with an aggressive response. The majority of folks there supported a direct action escalation plan, at least when they thought they could win it... only within like a week or two, the escalation campaign had dried up and was basically killed when a planned blockade action was cancelled.

At least one wob (who was actually one of the fired workers), was unenthusiastic about "outside actions" (like the blockade) for reasons based on radical ideology - the same reasons why many folks like the autonomous campaigns, framed as "inside workers" vs. "outside organizers." This fellow worker had strongly supported the election strategy (for the reasons explained above), and was (and is) proud of the campaign's militant record of "inside actions." I'm not super into election drives, and obviously I don't agree with the inside/outside thing as it has played out in the campaigns (not to mention, nothing could be more "outside" than a court suit!), which in my opinion is contradictory to industrial unionism... but in fairness, in this case and other workers who have a less extreme/less vocal version of the inside/outside thing, the issue wasn't non-radicalism, it was a form of radicalism which I simply disagree with.

Okay, sorry for the long post, don't mean to hog all the air time....