Of Sweatshops & Starbucks: Is the IWW a Union?

This is the first in a four-part series analyzing the Industrial Workers of the World as the failure of dual unionism in the American revolutionary left. This installment focuses on the ultra-political orientation of the IWW.

Submitted by marxvx on September 4, 2014

Is the IWW a Union?

This is the first in a five-part series analyzing the Industrial Workers of the World as the failure of dual unionism in the American revolutionary left. This installment focuses on the ultra-political orientation of the IWW.

The size of the IWW has ballooned over the past decade, and has gained a renewed relevance within the revolutionary left (which itself has been resurfacing within organized politics). After several decades of functional non-existence, the membership surge of the 21st century has forced the IWW to reassess its identity, as well as its relationship with organized labor and the revolutionary left.

The identity of the IWW has been a tumultuous subject since its foundation, and today is no exception. There is an intense amount of heterogeneity between branches and individuals affiliated with the IWW: some branches organize workers, others are political/historical discussion groups, and others are activist hubs assembled by students and activists to raise their positions on political issues from Palestine to environmentalism under the name of the IWW.

“No Politics in This Union”

One of the foundational tenets of the IWW’s mythology is that it is an entirely “nonpolitical”1 organization. Official policy states only that the IWW will refrain from forming alliances with political parties or “anti-political sects.”2 This is interpreted with varying strictness between individuals, and is often interpreted as meaning the organization cannot name itself politically.

Ironically, for an organization which claims to abstain from politics in favor of organizing workers, it does much more of the former than it does the latter. If those who codified the IWW’s abstention from politics did so with the intention that keeping politics out of the IWW would keep the union focused on organizing unions, and would prevent workers expressing aversion to the union due to political points,3 surely this has since been lost. Today, with its base in many university campuses, many branches spend more time engaging in non-labor activities than they do actually organizing workers. Whether or not it explicitly claims itself as a manifestation of any political school of thought, the organization is, in practice, usually a political organization.

This is a result of many members holding a belief that the IWW is “so much more” than “just a union.” It must immerse itself in every social and political battle happening in society – the organization must participate not just in labor struggles between workers and their employers, but also in the ecology movement, the movement against mass incarceration, against Israel, and so forth. Labor unions are undoubtedly manifestations of a political program of some sort – whether “pure-and-simple” or revolutionary. My point is hardly that anarcho-syndicalist has no connection with the world outside the workplace. Rather, the question is twofold: a) whether a union should dedicate itself as vigorously to politics as the IWW has, and b) whether it should at this stage in its life.

There is a clear lapse in strategy here. When the AFL-CIO says something about politics, people listen. People listen because the AFL-CIO represents them at their job, has 12 million members, and has a hand in changing the political landscape of the country. In order for what the IWW says about politics to be relevant, it must first grow as a union. The fact of the matter is that, whatever the “official IWW stance” on a social issue is, it has very little impact on workers or politics. The lack of balance between political work and union organizing has led the IWW, in many branches, to be a political league which, for some odd reason, uses union rhetoric and masquerades as a labor union.

My argument here is not simply the “appeal to relevance” that is issued to all revolutionary leftist groups – that is, the lackadaisical dismissal of all groups left of the Democrats simply because they are small. Rather, my question is whether the IWW’s immense amount of political and cultural work helps or hinders its growth as a union. For the IWW, “growth” cannot be understood as numerical figures, or the amount of people who join. Surely, the IWW’s politics attract an inspiring number of convinced anarchists, who in turn launch more political/cultural activities under the IWW. While this may be “growth,” in the most literal way, it is not growth as a union. In order to grow as a union, however, it needs to build a presence in workplaces by gaining the power to represent workers, not simply attract lone members from various cultural enclaves like universities, social clubs, and NGOs.

The IWW is both a labor union that struggles to retain its revolutionary program in the face of accepting non-revolutionary workers, and an organization of revolutionaries that struggles to function as a union despite the fact that it draws its membership from the revolutionary left rather than the working class. This is articulated most concisely, and perhaps most comically, by the fact that its only real organizing “victories” in the past decade have been in activist jobs: non-profit community groups like ACORN, co-operatives, including radical cooperatives like anarchist bookstores and printing houses, and canvassers for charities and political campaigns. It’s hard to chalk these up as victories for the working class, seeing as these are jobs are so highly politicized that they are pretty well-insulated from the rest of the workforce, let alone the fact that they don’t improve working conditions in the rest of their industry, being that they’re non-profits.

A labor union is (1) an organization of workers (2) dedicated to improving their wages and working conditions4 (3) through the use of their collective power in the workplace. A mere “organization of workers” is not necessarily a labor union: clearly, workers can organize political parties, workers’ centers, benefit funds, or social clubs, none of which are unions. Likewise, an organization of workers dedicated to improving their working conditions is not necessarily a labor union, as workers can improve working conditions via political lobbying or political parties. It is in this sense that, whether or not the IWW is an “organization of workers,” it is rather disingenuous to say that modern IWW branches function as labor unions – regardless of what they call themselves.

1. “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 nonpolitical and nonreligious.” (emphasis mine) One Big Union, pg. 18

2. Article IV, “Political Alliances Prohibited.” Constitution and General By-Laws of the Industrial Workers of the World

3. “These are not union questions, and must be settled by each union member according to personal conscience.” One Big Union, pg. 18

4. “Improving wages and working conditions” is not just in quantitative gains like raises, vacations, benefits, or improved safety provisions. Ultimately it is the introduction of democracy and degrees of self-management into the workplace.

Comments

Chilli Sauce

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on September 4, 2014

So, I've been reading your articles here and I actually quite largely agree with this one. But there is a thread that seems to run through them that's totally inconsistent with my experience.

I feel like a lot of your critique is based on the power of the AFL-CIO and the respect workers have for their unions. That's not something I've ever witnessed.

So, for example,

When the AFL-CIO says something about politics, people listen. People listen because the AFL-CIO represents them at their job, has 12 million members, and has a hand in changing the political landscape of the country.

I've worked in various union shops and, in my experience, workers don't really give a shit about the union, its politics, or its stances. And those that do, many of them are critical of the union, either for being useless and in bed with management or from the right. And we can see that based on how many people vote in union elections, participate in strike ballots, or cross picket lines.

And, on a national scale, these sentiments seem only to be magnified.

kevin s.

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on September 4, 2014

Hey Chilli, have just skimmed this piece and gotta run but regarding your comment:

I've worked in various union shops and, in my experience, workers don't really give a shit about the union, its politics, or its stances. And those that do, many of them are critical of the union, either for being useless and in bed with management or from the right. And we can see that based on how many people vote in union elections, participate in strike ballots, or cross picket lines.

And, on a national scale, these sentiments seem only to be magnified.

There's a lot of truth to that but not as completely as you make it sound. I'd say it's just as variable as is the IWW (plenty of paper branches, lots of morons running arounds, and a few sharp, solid folks in some active organizing branches).

I know plenty of current union members who, frankly, consistently even in some of the shittier unions (like UFCW, which is embarrassingly bad at organizing and is well known for it's sellout contracts) enjoy better wages and/or job security, and while the majority of folks in union and nonunion workplaces could give a flying fuck about labor politics in general, I do know plenty of folks who are proud union members. Even as a part-time package handler at UPS (which is possibly the worst job I ever had), there were still benefits of having the union that wouldn't have existed without the union... this despite the fact the union functioned as a company union and union leaders didn't give a shit about the part-timers.

I also frankly know a good few IWWs who work in business union shops, who are hostile to the union, to business unions or to contractualism, but who again enjoy significant job security and economic benefits. And some cases, where there's significant (granted, not majority, but IWW never gets majority either) membership activity and even more significant, loyalty. In my experience IWWs almost viscerally deny that business unions have a base, or are capable of good organizing or of getting the goods, when in fact there are unions that do all of those things.

I agree labor doesn't hold much sway in national politics, but I think it's highly erroneous to generalize what all unions are like based on purely anecdotal experiences.

Okay gotta run.

Chilli Sauce

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on September 4, 2014

That's all fair enough, Kevin. It would have been more appropriate to say "That's not something I've ever witnessed on any sort of worthwhile scale."

I actually considered including a line that while trade unions can inspire loyalty and respect, it often comes from an activist core - roughly the same activist core who could be involved in running an IWW branch.

And, you're right, I don't think it does anyone any favors to pretend that union shops don't offer better conditions or that militants can't organize within trade unions to do some worthwhile shit.

But that's a far different claim than what marxvx has offered above - which not only massively overstates the power and influence of trade unions, it flies in the face of how most people experience trade unionism. And it does all this while ignoring the structural reasons that trade unions act the way they do.

klas batalo

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by klas batalo on September 5, 2014

A few things:

The IWW is a union legally (whether anyone likes that or not)

In most places in its lived practice the IWW is more like SolFed, in that it is more a revolutionary union initiative, a network of revolutionary worker militants when functioning at it's best. It is striving to become a revolutionary union.

I think it is fine to point that out. And sure people have pointed out the Joe Hill historical society, or young LARPers who are all book read and not a lot of experience on the shop floor. But in most places outside isolated GMBs and individuals, the IWW has done a lot to improve this situation in the last 10 years, with it's organizing program, summits, and Work People's College.

Also the definition the author uses for unionism is very narrow, and seems to reflect their obsession with legal conceptions of unionism. The same drive to want to be recognized as the legitimate and legal representation of the working class is what lead the trade unions and social democratic parties to becoming the gravediggers of the revolutionary movements 100 years ago.

kevin s.

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on September 6, 2014

Hey Chilli, yeah I pretty much agree with this:

But that's a far different claim than what marxvx has offered above - which not only massively overstates the power and influence of trade unions, it flies in the face of how most people experience trade unionism. And it does all this while ignoring the structural reasons that trade unions act the way they do.

Also agree very strongly with this:

I actually considered including a line that while trade unions can inspire loyalty and respect, it often comes from an activist core - roughly the same activist core who could be involved in running an IWW branch.

The difference is the IWW activist core is a lot more isolated, and less diverse. And of course more radical politically. The mainstream union activist core is more diverse, has a larger base (due to the mainstream unions holding workplace contracts representing way more workers sometimes in a single local, than the entire worldwide IWW membership), and more politically reformist. I honestly don't have any clue if or how the IWW can change the first two, without changing the last. And to be honest I've been taking a break for a good while now from union business, I'm actually in bad standing with the IWW right now and I dunno if I'll be getting back in or not. I put a lot of years and a lot of work into it but, and I like a lot of the people in it, but I've grown very cynical of it and only see it declining.

And frankly I care less and less about revolutionary politics and more and more about "bread and butter" issues (probly reflecting the fact my own life is more than ever dominated by bread and butter, specifically the lack of such).

That's kinda why this series caught my eye, and I agree with some of it but a lot of it seems very naive and the IWW caricature not always very accurate to my experience (which could be due to different experiences, or could be just intellectual sloppiness or dishonesty, I won't pretend to know which cuz I don't know the author). The author seem plenty smart and I was just as naive (in a reverse, ultra-revolutionary way) a few years ago, so I won't judge that aspect.

Side bard, klas would you agree or disagree with this definition from the article, or do you think it's too narrow and legalistic?

A labor union is (1) an organization of workers (2) dedicated to improving their wages and working conditions4 (3) through the use of their collective power in the workplace.

Also love this from the article:

only real organizing “victories” in the past decade have been in activist jobs: non-profit community groups like ACORN, co-operatives, including radical cooperatives like anarchist bookstores and printing houses, and canvassers for charities and political campaigns

Exaggerated, but hits close to home, and reflective of the fact that the IWW appeals most strongly to the same demographic of young radicals who go and get those kind of activist, nonprofit and co-op/collective jobs.

plasmatelly

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by plasmatelly on September 6, 2014

@ kevin s.
Not knowing you from Adam, and only going off what you write on here, I'd have thought you the very type of member the IWW is hoping to keep? The bread and butter issues IMO are thee only issues that will advance revolutionary politics. Like a lot of my friends, we stopped talking in any detail or with any degree of voluntarism about revolution and all that comes with it (and year on year that seems to change..) a long time ago, so I would have hoped you were someone who stays within base unions. And furthermore - that more bread and butter organisers have the patience to see it out while base unions like the IWW change as they become economically relevant.

syndicalist

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on September 6, 2014

Serious question: what constitutes a victory? I think we can measure this in a couple if ways
One the obvious at bringing the boss to their knees / establishment of organization. the second
Is the winning of some or many coworkers over to the concept of direct unionism or othe forms of self organization .... particularly after just getting the crap kicked out of you

On cell, shall end here

Chilli Sauce

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on September 7, 2014

kevin s.

Also love this from the article:

only real organizing “victories” in the past decade have been in activist jobs: non-profit community groups like ACORN, co-operatives, including radical cooperatives like anarchist bookstores and printing houses, and canvassers for charities and political campaigns

Exaggerated, but hits close to home, and reflective of the fact that the IWW appeals most strongly to the same demographic of young radicals who go and get those kind of activist, nonprofit and co-op/collective jobs.

See, that part of the article I found quiet grating - and I actually think it undermines a lot of the points in the article I do agree with.

So, to sort of build on Syndicalist's point, it's about what constitutes a victory. Since it appears Marxvx has quite a trade unionist understanding of victories (recognition, contracts, etc), it's understandable that they're making this criticism. But, as I mentioned in Marxvx's other thread, if we focus on disputes, I think it not only naturally moves us toward a direct action approach, but allows us to see a lot more victories in the work that we do.

The IWW has done some pretty amazing shit in the 10 or so years I've been in their orbit. So, like, I don't really care that the SWU isn't anywhere near achieving national recognition at the chain - I don't consider that a "defeat". On the other hand, they did succeed in raising wages by a dollar across stores in New York City and securing health and safety improvement in the Twin Cities.

Pennoid

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Pennoid on September 9, 2014

Who is winning bread and butter gains for anyone in fast food/retail? I agree with Kevin S. and other people about this being central. So how do we get there? Do we simply try and form underground committees at work? Do we begin engaging in public action like the FF15? Both?
What are people's barriers to fighting back?

kevin s.

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on September 9, 2014

if we focus on disputes, I think it not only naturally moves us toward a direct action approach, but allows us to see a lot more victories in the work that we do.

I totally agree with focusing on disputes. Official recognition doesn't mean jack shit if you have a substandard contract. And I agree with a direct action focus. That said I've yet to see evidence of noncontractual unionism being very effective at winning and protecting workplace gains. And I've noticed both IWWs and non-IWW anarcho-syndicalists have a double standard when it comes to workplace victories. Like this-

I don't really care that the SWU isn't anywhere near achieving national recognition at the chain - I don't consider that a "defeat". On the other hand, they did succeed in raising wages by a dollar across stores in New York City and securing health and safety improvement in the Twin Cities.

If you were talking about a contract, folks would call that a weak contract if not a sellout, and talk about the structural problems with trade unionism and/or contractualism. Because it's the IWW, folks will claim that as an impressive victory and proof of direct unionism. Granted the SWU in NYC actually sought and election once and then withdrew it because the bargaining unit was too big... in other words SWU organizers have done the best with the means they had, where a narrow contract-only focused union would not have done shit. UFCW is a prime example of that kind of shitty unionism.

Gotta go, more later.

Chilli Sauce

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on September 10, 2014

Another interesting post.

If you were talking about a contract, folks would call that a weak contract if not a sellout, and talk about the structural problems with trade unionism and/or contractualism.

I mean, maybe. I think it's more about getting what you can with the power you have. Trade unions, at best, want to engage in controlled militancy. I'd like to think that the IWW takes a look at their numbers and influence and says, "Look, let's always encourage workers who are ready to to take action to do so" and then tries to get the most they can with that power.

Trade unions, and the contractual strategies they're wedded to, have in-built mechanism that consciously work against the rank-and-file autonomously exercising their own power. In other words, sometimes a one dollar raise is the best you can hope for - fine - but let workers discover that for themselves by pushing their own struggle to the limit. Contracts and trade unions don't allow for that.

The bit about NYC SWU first trying to have an election I actually think is really important as well as, I believe, it was the last time the SWU has tried that approach. I think it show some learning within the campaign about the pitfalls of contractualism.

Although, re-reading your post, it seems like you probably agree with all that?

Juan Conatz

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Juan Conatz on September 12, 2014

The 'union debate' is one of the most tiring debates in radical politics and probably an inevitable Great Moments In Leftism strip. These never ending terminology spats over the word 'union' are as plentiful as concessionary UFCW contracts. Business union officials, bosses, liberals/conservatives and various stripes of radicals all dispute our right to use the word union.

Marxvx makes her own contribution to this here, I see. It opens up with the supposed irony of an organization that explicitly says 'No politics in this union' to then go on and engage in numerous non-workplace related activities and campaigns. Personally, I believe this is a misinterpretation of what the historical IWW meant by the word 'politics'. It did not mean anything that wasn't directly workplace related. The Free Speech Fights are very much examples of political fights. It also never meant that the IWW would not take political stances. The IWW's scathing attacks on the USSR and state socialism were political stances. It's refusal to go along with Taft-Hartley was also. This attempted 'gotcha' doesn't really stand.

After the 'gotcha', the piece then goes on to say that most of the time the IWW is really a political organization, as opposed to a union. Implicit in this is that, as opposed to other unions, the IWW has more political stances and does more political things.

For the former, this notion is based on a common, but very much outdated and inaccurate, outlook on how organizations should or actually conduct themselves. The IWW does indeed have many political stances, but more than other unions? No way. Most AFL-CIO unions have and take stances that have only an indirect relation to 'bread-and-butter' issues, in addition to also being to the left of large swaths of their existing membership. They are also the most important player to one of the two dominant political parties in the United States, devoting significant funding, endorsements and 'boots on the ground' in the form of Working America staff. Many mainstream unions also create what would be called 'front groups' if radicals started them, with all sorts of political demands, ranging from various liberal conceptions of health care, immigration reform, etc. In some circumstances, certain locals will even deploy their paid staff to participate in mass movements in order to identify future cadre to staff the various groups they provide the majority of funding for. While it would be tough to crunch the numbers, it would probably be safe to assume that more hours, money and effort goes towards various political issues, causes and campaigns than any organizing efforts, with perhaps the exception of 'servicing' existing membership with a large layer of paid officials and staff.

The author hints at some of this here:

My point is hardly that anarcho-syndicalist has no connection with the world outside the workplace. Rather, the question is twofold: a) whether a union should dedicate itself as vigorously to politics as the IWW has, and b) whether it should at this stage in its life.

There is a clear lapse in strategy here. When the AFL-CIO says something about politics, people listen. People listen because the AFL-CIO represents them at their job, has 12 million members, and has a hand in changing the political landscape of the country. In order for what the IWW says about politics to be relevant, it must first grow as a union.

From here it starts to become obvious that there are indeed some major differences between the IWW and marxvx. Rather than be a reflection of a membership's experiences, for the author, 'politics' exist in an organization for the purpose of others listening. This sort of toothless pragmatism is very much in line with the sort of reformist unions that we see today, who rely heavily on public relations firms. Whether this is a desirable set of affairs for people who not only want to see working people winning defensive fights, but going on the offensive, is a different question.

However, the author has a point, in that we shouldn't think that the "official IWW stance” means too much. Delusions of grandeur among leftist organizations and their numerous statements, positions and resolutions has long been a cliche. It is a careful balance. There are public stances worth taking because they say what your organization is about and it ties into your values. It isn't always about what the masses of workers think, and it's very rare that I run into a Wobbly that thinks that way.

The piece goes on to say that the union hasn't or isn't growing qualitatively as a union. Whatever your particular definition of union, this is just not true. One look at copies of the Industrial Worker from just 4-5 years ago reveals this. There is absolutely more organizing and more campaigns happening in the IWW, both in the United States and Europe, then there has been in a while. Don't take it from just me, long term members have said the same. Now, this growth may not be enough for the author, it may not be as fast as she would like, but to say it hasn't and isn't happening isn't accurate.

Perhaps though, the author is really talking about the types of places the union has been at:

[...]its only real organizing “victories” in the past decade have been in activist jobs: non-profit community groups like ACORN, co-operatives, including radical cooperatives like anarchist bookstores and printing houses, and canvassers for charities and political campaigns.

Honestly, there is some definite agreement to the sentiment here that the IWW spends too much time in drives like these. But, I'm not really aware of us claiming these examples as victories. As I understand it, the ACORN campaign was crushed, although it was before my time. I'm not aware of campaigns at "anarchist bookstores and printing houses", and the canvass campaigns are either in a prolonged strike or are just emerging, with no clear outcome yet of either.

None of these campaigns that I'm aware of matched the modest (but important) victories that the union achieved during the Chicago Courier Campaign, or through the Starbucks Workers Union, Brandworkers efforts, dual card in Edmonton, etc. Even the contract shops usually get gains. I believe the author chose her examples selectively to correspond to the larger polemic, rather than correspond to reality.

OliverTwister

9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by OliverTwister on September 12, 2014

Overwhelmingly agree with Juan's critique and think he makes his points very well. However as numbers from the latest Convention show ~800 members in branches with 300-400 more at-large members, at least as far as the US is concerned. This is not substantially different from the membership figures we had in 2005. I agree that there is more of a focus on workplace struggles, etc. and there may be more members internationally, but in the US I don't think we've actually had noticeable growth.

kevin s.

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on September 23, 2014

Agree generally with Juan's and Oliver's posts. Chilli, responsive to this,

Trade unions, and the contractual strategies they're wedded to, have in-built mechanism that consciously work against the rank-and-file autonomously exercising their own power. In other words, sometimes a one dollar raise is the best you can hope for - fine - but let workers discover that for themselves by pushing their own struggle to the limit. Contracts and trade unions don't allow for that.

The bit about NYC SWU first trying to have an election I actually think is really important as well as, I believe, it was the last time the SWU has tried that approach. I think it show some learning within the campaign about the pitfalls of contractualism.

Although, re-reading your post, it seems like you probably agree with all that?

Like I said I think SWU folks likely did the best within their abilities and the situation. I know there's a few very smart, very tough people who've been involved in the NYC Starbucks campaign.

Regarding the pitfalls of contractualism, there's a difference between seeking contracts and only-ever-seeking-contracts-and-nothing-else. That's the big pitfall, which is one of the incentives behind the NLRB election system (encourage contracts-only-driven union organizing and discourage more disruptive forms of union activity). The mainstream unions mostly (but not all) only organize to win contracts. SWU gave up on an election because they knew they couldn't win it, and focused instead on whatever they could win. While some might see that as an argument against contractualism, all I see in it is SWU was too weak to win a contract so they organized without one (which is admirable and no dig against them, but clearly they were acting from a position of weakness).

I agree mainstream unions have built-in restrictive mechanisms, and among those are certain elements of contracts, I'm also very aware of ways that good union contracts actually encourage more worker militancy, which is something anti-contractual arguments never touch on. A decent union contract has generally more job protections than the labor law (the biggest exception being no-strike provisions...). Some examples I've heard from the post office demonstrating my point. Like a woman who violently assaulted and strangled her supervisor (and might have killed him, supposedly it took big guys to tear off him), was fired and then the union got her job back. Another guy who wasn't even a member, was fired for throwing junk mail and again, the union won job back. I don't if it's like that everywhere in the post office or if it's still like that, but anyway that was my grandpa's experience of the post office. Additionally there was the constant battle against work speedup, in which according to him the more diligent union stewards basically policed the supervisors and prevented speedup. Where management succeeded in speeding up, it was because of weak contract enforcement.

Cases like the speedup battle can definitely be replicated without contracts. As far as individual disputes like mentioned above, in my experience when there isn't a contract then it gets filed as a ULP. The most militant wobblies I know still basically depend on NLRB protections basically every times someone gets fired. Very rarely does the union ever win a job fight without filing ULPs - sometimes it's settled out of court, sometimes not, and when it's not then it typically gets stuck in the courts for years. And out-of-court settlements will often amount to a payoff in exchanging for giving up the job fight (which personally doesn't offend me but some folks view it as selling out), and if the union rejects a payoff then again it's stuck in court for years. And as I said, the law gives very limited protections compared to decent union contract. Based on the examples I know and the experiences I've had in workplaces and union activity, I'd argue that a well enforced union contract with decent job protection and grievance procedures, removes much of the fear of management that normally dampers worker militancy. Contracts might not be the only way to do that but it's one of more easily obtainable mechanisms I know of for doing so.

Chilli Sauce

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on September 23, 2014

I'm also very aware of ways that good union contracts actually encourage more worker militancy,

Not to be flippant (it's early in the morning), but such as?

kevin s.

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on September 23, 2014

Gotta be quick but to reply briefly...

The examples I gave above were examples of worker militancy. Assaulting a supervisor = definitely high level militancy even if not "concerted action" or whatever. Illegally disposing of junk mail = disruptive and, debatably militant behavior (even if it was probly motivated more by laziness than anti-management feeling). And frankly a lot of actions that may be targeted around contract issues (like the AT&T actions in Minneapolis in which dual card IWWs have been major instigators, nevertheless are to a large extent over contract issues or more recently, over enforcement of grievance procedures), which is generally unheard of. I mean even folks I know (who are not wobblies, or even necessarily active union people) who work in UFCW grocery stores, consistently describe their grievance procedure positively in terms like "you can't really get fired" etc., which I'm sure varies a lot but gives a sense of how contractual job protection eliminates typical fears of management.

At the UPS hub I worked at, which was mostly a perfect example of shitty collaborationist unionism, workers constantly got into with management (yelling matches, once I saw a near fist fight break out, etc...) and long-term people I met there all said it was practically impossible to get fired. And I heard specific stories of supervisors attempting to fire workers and being overruled because of union protection. Very few of the package handlers give a fuck about the union because the wages suck and the dues cuts it even lower, but undeniably it's one of the most militant workforces I've ever encountered.

Bottom line I'm getting at is militancy is largely dependent on confidence, and every IWW campaign I've ever witnessed or had any involvement in whether remote or close up, every single times the same exact cycles has played out. IWW organizers (nearly all salts, and a handful usually unpaid "outside organizers") spend long periods of time building the committee, boosting workers' confidence with things marches on the boss, organizer trainings etc., win some minor victories. Then shit hits the fan and the bubble of false confidence (based on whatever the particular organizers might push, either the power of direct action, know-your-rights legal shit, or some mixture of both as in the organizer training) bursts wide open. Then various people duck out (of the campaign or the workplace), the organizers in turn lose confidence and basically resort to court action as a survival mechanism. The more that legal action becomes the primary strategy, the more that high-risk direct actions are avoided.

(The Chicago Lake Liquor store campaign was one semi-exception to the last point, in that we did some of the most aggressive pickets I've seen in my years in the branch, which may well have contributed to getting a bigger out of court financial settlement from the company.)

OK gotta run, cheers.

Chilli Sauce

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on September 25, 2014

So, I don't know man, I still think all the examples you give cut both ways.

I guess, to start, I'm not sure an individual act can be described as militant (at least not in the sense that commies or Wobs use the term). Second, sure, in periods of class defeat having a grievance procedure gives some worthwhile defensive protection. But, once the class struggle heats up, that same grievance procedure becomes a weapon to be used against an organized, combative workforce.

And, fair enough all that same stuff plays out in IWW campaigns, but I think that's reflective of a lot of things - everything from general levels of class confidence to the goals of IWW campaigns (recognition v. disputes, etc.).

I also agree that you're right, UPS workers don't fuck around and do use the grievance procedure pretty effectively. I know one ex-UPS worker who'd get written up once a month. As soon as that happened, he and some buddies would go find examples of supervisors doing union work on the line. They'd grieve it and then agree to trade off the cancellation of grievances for the cancellation or disciplinaries. Awesome.

That said, you've sort of said it yourself, the part-time UPS box-handlers usually don't give a shit about the union, but are still militant - which seems to me to be an issue of workplace culture rather than contract protections. They use the grievance procedure because it's what there - which is fair enough, but it doesn't logically follow that the grievance procedure generates the militancy, if you get what I mean.

kevin s.

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on September 27, 2014

I'm not sure an individual act can be described as militant (at least not in the sense that commies or Wobs use the term).

Meh I disagree with that definition of militant. I know a lot of commies, anarchist and wobs have an anti-individualist view of militancy.. more to the point a bunch of folks I think conflate militancy with class consciousness. That's a common leftist assumption but I think it's false. You can be militant for non-class conscious reasons (which revolutionary optimists would probly call latent class consciousness or some bullshit), and you can be class conscious but not militant (or even anti-militant, as with certain brands of leftism). And the idea that an individual act can't be militant is based on that assumption of militancy = class consciousness, I think.

Second, sure, in periods of class defeat having a grievance procedure gives some worthwhile defensive protection. But, once the class struggle heats up, that same grievance procedure becomes a weapon to be used against an organized, combative workforce.

Agreed. The thing is, first, that's assuming a top-down union apparatus exists which has a stake in preventing illegal disruptions. IWWs like to think the IWW is non-bureaucratic so why fear a grievance procedure? (I think it's actually not as non-bureaucratic as folks make it out, I think it's a latent bureaucracy waiting to happen if it ever got big again. I dunno if that would be countered by membership influx but it would definitely play some role. Which I guess contradicts the first sentence but whatever, more on that another time.)

Secondly the class struggle heats under certain types of conditions, not because revolutionaries want it to. Avoiding grievance procedures seems to me like a weird attempt to shortcut to more intense class struggle by eliminating an effective tool that exists for workers' protection. Kind of like stripping a fighter of their shield so they'll be forced to the sword. Which is likely to (and in my experience, consistently does) end in less wins, and less confidence for all but the most politicized workers. I think it's a bizarre, self-destructive and martyrdom-driven approach to union organizing, and makes the union incapable of effectively intervening when the class struggle does heat up. (I mean we could barely handle a twenty-some person liquor store...)

And, fair enough all that same stuff plays out in IWW campaigns, but I think that's reflective of a lot of things - everything from general levels of class confidence to the goals of IWW campaigns (recognition v. disputes, etc.).

Yeah but that's the same of mainstream unions. Anyway look, in the most successful IWW campaigns I've seen the goal of most the workers involved was simple - improvements in wages and working conditions. Recognition is a way to get that, without it you need something better which IWW campaigns usually lack (pretty much, either mass militancy or some kind of illegal minoritarian form of leverage).

About recognition vs. disputes, I'm all for focusing on disputes. If there's a dispute and you can fight it, cool, go for it. If not then don't try to "organize" over nothing cuz you'll get nowhere (been there, done that). That said focusing on disputes is a very bread and butter goal with opportunistic solutions, and the argument against contractualism is based on principled anti-capitalist revolutionary politics.

That said, you've sort of said it yourself, the part-time UPS box-handlers usually don't give a shit about the union, but are still militant - which seems to me to be an issue of workplace culture rather than contract protections. They use the grievance procedure because it's what there - which is fair enough, but it doesn't logically follow that the grievance procedure generates the militancy, if you get what I mean.

I get what you mean. I half agree. Workplace culture is a always a huge factor. That said workplace culture is as much shaped by company practices as vice versa. There's plenty of warehousing jobs with similar demographics in which there's less workplace defiance, or more firings, or both. At the same time the physical, macho work type plus the stressful environment is kind of a powder keg for workplace conflict. I think the grievance procedure makes it more likely that militant workers stick around who would otherwise get fired, but the fact is that sucks so bad people quit all the time. (Like I said it's one the crappiest union jobs I've ever heard of.)

Also just because they don't give a shit about the union doesn't make contractual protections irrelevant. The latest contract they signed was a major workplace controversy, because the healthcare plan was being fucked with. I don't remember the exact details but a lot of people who see the union as little more than another paycheck deduction, are still surprisingly attentive to the contract when it benefits them, e.g. grievances, seniority, healthcare etc.

Chilli Sauce

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on September 28, 2014

a bunch of folks I think conflate militancy with class consciousness.

Definitely with you there. Having been a bit more involved in the IWW recently (it's complicated), it's definitely something I see a lot of in the IWW in particular. Where I disagree is the bit about individual acts. You're right that it can have nothing to do with class conciousness, but militancy is, for me, almost by definition something that happens collectively.

IWWs like to think the IWW is non-bureaucratic so why fear a grievance procedure?

I don't think the problem is bureaucracy though, it's the fact that grievance procedures always attempt to individualize issues and place them in a framework of labor law and labor relations. They move the struggle from our terrain - the shopfloor - to management's terrain.

I'm in the UK at the moment, I should add, where employers are required to have grievance and disciplinary procedures that are as "good" as those in most union contracts in the States. I can assure you that, despite this, most workplaces don't have UPS level militancy.

All that said, I've used grievance procedures to support myself, friends, and colleagues. But, that's often precisely because we're fighting from a position of weakness, because we can't organise direct shopfloor action. Given that, it doesn't make sense to me that we should hold them up as some sort of victory or attempt to make them some sort of strategic part of our organizing.

Anyway, other than that, good interesting post all around.

kevin s.

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on September 28, 2014

Yeah i agree relying on grievances is symptomatic of a weaker position for workplace militants... for not-so-militant workers, less so. And i agree with the criticism of contractualist practices encouraging a lawyeristic view of union representation. I guess the counterarguments for me are two.

1. Very often (almost always currently, but not at all times ever) a position of weakness is unavoidably where we're at, and you have to do the best with the arsenal you have.

2. While it encourages lawyerism that's not the only thing it encourages, aggressive union representation can also encourage more confidence, removes certain obstacles of retaliation, can actually encourage class consciousness (doesn't always, but i've seen it happen), and can establish valuable gains which make workers' life better (and the loyalty that in turn inspires for the union, can encourage more class consciousness).

All that said i'm no fan of legalism, i think it's a major flaw of mainstream unionism more than ever in the past, and i've always criticized the quick dive into legal strategies in IWW campaigns. The problem is management can easily fire union organizers and kill off a workplace committee, and it's notoriously hard to beat with the normal form of direct action. (And given you're definition of militancy as inherently collective, which a lot of wobs subscribe to, makes it even harder because of the pressure it puts on to everything collectivelyand avoid reckless acts that aren't approved by democratic process.)

I'm in the UK at the moment, I should add, where employers are required to have grievance and disciplinary procedures that are as "good" as those in most union contracts in the States. I can assure you that, despite this, most workplaces don't have UPS level militancy.

Yeah i suppose. The anger, machismo and never ending stress at UPS like breeds a lot more conflict than you're average workplace. And definitely there are environments where the militancy is there without the protections (look at the garment war in Bangladesh!).

What's the difference like between union and nonunion grievance procedures in UK out of curiosity?

Chilli Sauce

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on September 28, 2014

What's the difference like between union and nonunion grievance procedures in UK out of curiosity?

Someone like Steven would probably be better to comment on this, but I'll give it a crack.

Basically, all employers are required to have graduated disciplinary and grievance procedures in place. In my experience, the procedure are broadly similar, however they're far more often just ignored in non-union workplaces. As well as this, punishments are usually harsher in non-union shops (for example, they amount of time a written warning is active) and there is some extra level of "objectivity" built into process. So an appeal will, in theory, go to a manager from an different department or whatever. Or you can have someone you can report to other than your line manager if the issue is with him or her.

Plus, in union workplaces, there are usually a lot more negotiated policies that give you grounds to fight on when raising a grievance.

In any case, an organisation called ACAS, a "Crown non-departmental public body of the Government of the United Kingdom", lays the guidelines on these things if you're interested to have a read:

http://www.acas.org.uk/dgcode2009

kevin s.

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on September 30, 2014

Huh interesting. I suspect geographic relativity plays a part in how anarchos react to stuff like grievance procedures. A union grievance procedure is a lot of a universal workplace norm in the american workplace and thus has less of normal legalistic practice. I mean workers' rights are so badly enforced, non-politicos feel like they've had a baptism by fire if they actually file a ULP and go to court. And the employer-side likewise tends more to view union grievances (and unions, period) as a threat to be eliminated, whereas it's a lot more normalized in western european industries. And for that matter both worker-side and employer-side views of labor-management relations have changed frequently in the past century and vary widely depending on industry, region etc... I mean I'd say what's thought "radical" and the distinction between going through normal channels vs. some kind of lawless rebellion, depends a lot on circumstances. (A totally legal strike in one setting would be an illegal wildcat strike in another setting.)

Steven.

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on September 30, 2014

Chilli Sauce

What's the difference like between union and nonunion grievance procedures in UK out of curiosity?

Someone like Steven would probably be better to comment on this, but I'll give it a crack.

Basically, all employers are required to have graduated disciplinary and grievance procedures in place. In my experience, the procedure are broadly similar, however they're far more often just ignored in non-union workplaces. As well as this, punishments are usually harsher in non-union shops (for example, they amount of time a written warning is active) and there is some extra level of "objectivity" built into process. So an appeal will, in theory, go to a manager from an different department or whatever. Or you can have someone you can report to other than your line manager if the issue is with him or her.

Plus, in union workplaces, there are usually a lot more negotiated policies that give you grounds to fight on when raising a grievance.

In any case, an organisation called ACAS, a "Crown non-departmental public body of the Government of the United Kingdom", lays the guidelines on these things if you're interested to have a read:

http://www.acas.org.uk/dgcode2009

Yeah, I would say this is about right. Although rather than "union" and "non-union" workplaces I would talk more about "organised" or "non-organised" ones, as many nominally unionised workplaces have zero organisation, so employers can often ignore their own policies unless the individual employees are bolshie.

I would say that that there is hardly any difference at all though, as most policies are hardly any better than the statutory minimum. My workplace historically has had a very strong union, however the grievance policy is the same as the statutory minimum

And I would say that 99% of the time grievances are completely useless, as whatever the text of the policy, they are decided on by other managers. And managers stick together. Most of the time you can negotiate the outcome you want much more easily than winning a grievance (although the existence of a grievance procedure can be quite useful, as you can say "let's negotiate about this, and if you don't we will put in a grievance", which would at least mean the employer would have to expend time and work sorting it out.

Chilli Sauce

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on September 30, 2014

And I would say that 99% of the time grievances are completely useless, as whatever the text of the policy, they are decided on by other managers.

So, this might sound like total backtracking here - but not totally, you'll see - I actually find that in my experience, grievances scare bosses a lot more in non-organised workplaces (which is much better terminology, btw).

So, for example, I'm helping an ex-workmate with a grievance right now. It's been dragging on for close to three months now and she's been on paid leave the whole time! Plus, management have hired an outside HR consultant to oversee the process when we called the objectivity of their procedures into question.

But, that's all gone once this become routine for mgmt. Just like us, mgmt learn how to navigate the procedure. Except that it's so objectively weighted in their favor (how could it not be? It's senior management you're appealing to!) that it becomes basically meaningless without real workplace organisation to back it up.

Furthermore, mgmt aren't stupid, they know that having grievance procedures has the power to undermine the exact sort of collective organisation needed to enforce the grievance procedure in the first place. So, for example, I've had a disciplinary threatened against me for failing to use the grievance procedure when we took some low-level collective action at work!

kevin s.

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on October 3, 2014

Thanks Steven for the explanation, also yeah organized vs unorganized is probly more accurate than union vs nonunion. Gotta press on this one point...

And I would say that 99% of the time grievances are completely useless, as whatever the text of the policy, they are decided on by other managers. And managers stick together.

There's no form of govt arbitration or do you just mean pre-arbitration it's decided by mgmt (or do you mean nonunion shops)? That's the main leverage of grievance procedures as I understand in the US anyway, granted it's a slow form of leverage and good argument why direct action is more effective if you have the means and will to do it. But I've never heard of a contractual union grievance procedure that didn't involve binding arbitration, if that's lacking in UK that sounds like actually a weaker system than in the US.

But, that's all gone once this become routine for mgmt. Just like us, mgmt learn how to navigate the procedure. Except that it's so objectively weighted in their favor (how could it not be? It's senior management you're appealing to!) that it becomes basically meaningless without real workplace organisation to back it up.

Furthermore, mgmt aren't stupid, they know that having grievance procedures has the power to undermine the exact sort of collective organisation needed to enforce the grievance procedure in the first place. So, for example, I've had a disciplinary threatened against me for failing to use the grievance procedure when we took some low-level collective action at work!

That makes a lot of sense, again the relativity thing and why grievances seem more rad and rebellious where they didn't previously exist. Same thing happens with direct action tactics like march on the boss. Wobs practically glorify like it's the revolution in mini-form, but it's only effective under non-conflictual conditions in which you have surprise, and a boss who's inexperienced in labor relations. When it becomes a regular thing then it loses it's effect. (For that matter the same thing can happen with work stoppages if mgmt learns how to prepare and outmaneuver them.)

The same thing also happens with mgmt scare tactics, that's why the IWW organizer training (and I assume mainstream union trainings) stresses "inoculation." Unfortunately I've noticed a weird sloppy approach to inoculation from even veteran organizers, of assuaging the worker's fear more so than planning for the worst. Then the worst happens and the organizer looks either naive or dishonest.

Which is why when I've helped past organizing campaigns, I've always erred more on the pessimistic side when talking with "inside" workers, like you might be fired etc. and are you willing to risk that, how hard you willing to fight and so on .... and weirdly, have clashed with other wobs on that approach and being too negative in general. I'd argue I've been proven right every single time about it, but I'm biased. I assume the same problem happens in mainstream union since it's caused by politicking which IWWs and biz unions alike both do...

kevin s.

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on October 4, 2014

Clarification - what i mean about bad inoculation is organizers saying things like (really bad) "you can't legally be fired for union activity" without explaining how it happens all the time anyway, or (less bad but still weak) "organizing is your best defense" without acknowledging how often our organized campaigns have lost job fights.

The best weapon in my opinion isn't being "organized" (which could mean a lot of things) but intimidation, which requires strong enough leverage whether it be legally protected or not or even illegal. I've definitely concluded that fear (of losing your job, losing profits, of confrontation, or whatever) is the strongest weapon of both workers and bosses, and the key to enforcing is knowing what both mgmt and workers fear, and how to put that to the workers advantage. You do that not assuaging your coworkers that everything will be fine (because when it turns out not so fine, then the organization breaks down), but by planning for the worst, following through and building trust and confidence, and ensuring how far people are willing to go when shit hits the fan. And in my experience that makes a big difference in the cohesiveness of an organizing committee.

Chilli Sauce

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on October 4, 2014

what i mean about bad inoculation is organizers saying things like (really bad) "you can't legally be fired for union activity" without explaining how it happens all the time anyway, or (less bad but still weak) "organizing is your best defense" without acknowledging how often our organized campaigns have lost job fights.

The first, that shit should never happen. In fact, isn't that specifically in the OT 101 that you never say that? I know we included it specifically in the SolFed OT when we adapted from the 101.

As for the second, fair enough that people lose job fights and we should be honest and open about that, but I still that the maxim still holds true.

kevin s.

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on October 4, 2014

Well unfortunately, while the intent of the OT 101 is to discourage legalism, half of training is devoted to a summary of labor, nlrb and ulps etc, and many walk away from it with a more labor law oriented mentality even than they might've gone in with. Probably in part be ause as weak as it is, labor law has more protections on paper than most people realize due to it being so under-advertized in general. And also in part likely because it's the "easy way out" of more hazardous activities. Anyway the OT definitely does stress the US labor law's protection of "concerted activity" which need not even include official union organizing - in fact anti-contractualists often stress that as an argument why officialunion recognition isn't necessary.

About the second point, i'd argue that organization is no more than a baseline. You can't do much without but it's no guarantee of anything. Organization doesn't inherently protect you anymore than the law - you need leverage and a willingness to enforce it, and to pay the costs of enforcing it (such as hefty legal fees, potentially more firings, potential encounters with law enforcement, or whatever...). A lot of the most effective forms of leverage have no legal protection, and folks aren't often willing to risk that. A totally democratic organization can be just as much an impediment to action if the majority oppose the action in question (for example, we were gonna block up a drive-thru during the jimmy john's job battle, but it was cancelled last minute by the organizing cmte under advice fromthe lawyer). ULPs are slower but less risky than aggressive direct actions. And ironically the "organizing our best weapon" was used as argument against potentially alienting, aggressive action. And with justification too, aggressive confrontations often "scare away" less militant workers - seen it happen.

Juan Conatz

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 7, 2014

kevin s.

Well unfortunately, while the intent of the OT 101 is to discourage legalism, half of training is devoted to a summary of labor, nlrb and ulps etc

I'm assuming your intention here is to exaggerate to make a point, rather than make an outright lie. As someone who I believe has been to numerous OTs, I'd expect a more accurate description of them. At the very most, and that's depending on how you do it, the section on labor law goes 2 hours. Most of the time it is more like 1-1.5 hours. Out of a 16 hour deal. It isn't even half of half a day.

kevin s.

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by kevin s. on October 10, 2014

Yeah sorry sloppy language wrote in a hurry, didn't mean literally half of the training time (don't remember the times on everything, it's been years and both times I took the length played out very different depending on group discussion, how role plays went etc.). My take away away both times was labor law was one of the main topics if partly to discourage legalism. Along with stuff like march on the boss, 1-on-1s, AEIOU.

More importantly I've talked with enough folks about OT trainings and listened to what folks have to say about it and, lastly, watched what they do afterwards and yeah, in my experience many people walk away more adept at and more invested in stuff like ULPs. Very few people I've ever met outside of union organizing contexts, have so much as heard of a ULP let alone know what is and isn't one or how to file one. Which by the way I don't mean as an inherent criticism, just pointing it out as a side effect of providing legal know-your-rights training to people previously unaware of their legal rights. They attempt to flex those rights.

EDIT: in the post you quoted, to be clear I wasn't dissing the training for including labor law, I think it would be insane not to include a legal section. The "half the training" was rhetorical (or I might've been trying to type "half the first day of the training," don't honestly remember cuz I wrote it quick on the run). I'm sure your probly right about the timing, I thought it was like half of the first day but I could be remembering wrong. Also like I said, I took it twice and each time was slightly different including on timing, and both of those times were a long time ago.

Main point I was getting was, as said above, that from what I've seen people take away different lessons than intended due to whatever other factors (prior ignorance of labor law, or the fact that filing ULPs can feel easier than engaging in a protracted or aggressive direct action campaign).