Industrial unionism and one big unionism

This is a series of four articles that appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper discussing the ideas of the One Big Union and Industrial Unionism. These ideas have a long history in the IWW and are part of the organization's vocabulary. Like many such terms, they sometimes mean different things to different people. In this article series, IWW members John O'Reilly and Nate Hawthorne explore different things these terms can and should mean. In the process they make arguments about the direction and core values of the organization.

Industrial unionism and one big unionism part 1: Two concepts for IWW organizing

The question “how do we best organize the working class?” has been on the minds of many of our members recently. Our organization is small, but we have made great strides towards creating a model that actually builds power for working people. We have one of the best member training programs in any union in North America and Europe, we are building solidarity with working people's organizations in our communities and around the world, and we are continually raising our own bar by taking on and winning bigger fights with bosses. As we continue to build the IWW, sometimes the ideas we have about how our organization ought to function come into conflict with the way that our organization actually functions. These conflicts require us to develop our ideas about revolutionary unionism in the long-term and in our day-to-day activity.

In this article, we reflect on ideas that have been around in our organization for a long time: One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism. Reflecting on the relationship between these ideas and how they relate to our organizing can help clarify both our thoughts and our actions. By understanding how these ideas both overlap and conflict, we want to set the stage for a larger discussion about our organization.

One Big Unionism is the idea that guides us in the work of building the IWW as a revolutionary organization. It is a way to think about the organizing work that we do and the reasons we do this work. The One Big Union is the idea that we want the entire working class to be united to act in our interests as a class and against capitalism. The united working class must cross geographic, cultural, and industrial boundaries, be democratic, and be able to coordinate and marshal the forces of us workers against the united power of the bosses and their rule over our lives and communities.

We in the IWW believe that the working class needs to be unified to fight the battle for economic democracy. We are One Big Unionists because we are committed to uniting all workers across industries and crafts and because we believe all work under capitalism share basic, fundamental similarities. While we do different kinds of work, we have the same basic role in the economy: we’re the people that make our society run but who have no power over how it is run. One of the most important lessons that we have learned in the last few years in our organizing is that because we all occupy the same place in the class system, the basic framework for organizing workers does not change depending on what kind of work they do. Regardless of craft or industry, the basic skills and tools and techniques of organizing are more or less the same. We organize by talking with workers, asking questions, building relationships with them, getting them to build relationships with each other, having frank discussions about the problems they and we all face under capitalism, building solidarity as a group, and taking action to fight the boss. These basic elements of our approach to organizing, based on our commitment to the revolutionary principle of One Big Unionism, come from the fact that all workplace organizing uses basically the same set of skills and practices that any working person can learn and do.

Industrial Unionism, on the other hand, is the idea that we need to build labor organizations connected to each other logically based on the way that the modern economy runs. By organizing unions in this way, we can strengthen our power across connected industrial chains. While One Big Unionism is a set of principles that guides our work, Industrial Unionism gives us practical suggestions about how to best implement our ideas about how to fight the bosses and win.

Industrial Unionism is understanding how we carry out our principles in action. Industrial Unionism is fundamentally about how to build and exert power in the most effective way possible in the near future. Organizing along the supply chain amplifies our power: a union of agricultural workers, food processing workers, truckers, and fast food workers in one chain has more power against the employer or employers on that chain than organizing all the fast food workers in one city. Industrial Unionism builds upon the strength of workers whose jobs are related as way to win fights. We use these fights to win membership to our union and use our membership to win these fights.

If we de-link One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism and only pursue one of them, we become lopsided. If a branch or a group of organizers focus too much on One Big Unionism, they build bodies and activities that only work to build class consciousness, or worse, only gather together people who have already become class conscious through experiences outside the IWW. Class consciousness is important, but consciousness alone does not fight or build organization. By thinking only in the One Big Unionist model, we are unable to shape our world and build industrial democracy because we have no power. There’s no way to stage and win fights in specific shops if we are everywhere at once; leaflet a Starbucks on Monday, talk to truckers on Tuesday, a hospital workers’ forum on Wednesday, etc. By the end of the week, we have not made progress in building shopfloor organizing in any one of those workplaces. Plus, if we overstress the idea that all workers are fundamentally the same, we will miss the concrete differences that do exist right now between shops, crafts, and industries and make them distinct: demographics, legal rights, concentration, forms of oppression, etc.

The other side of the coin is equally or perhaps even more important. If we focus too narrowly on Industrial Unionism, we get cut off from the revolutionary idea that forms the basis of the IWW: all workers, as workers, are fundamentally in the same place in relation to the capitalist class and therefore can and should organize together to make improvements today and end capitalism tomorrow. When branches or groups of organizers focus only on one industry without seeing how all workers need to participate in the work of building the IWW, we lose our ability to learn from workers in different industries, from their successes and failures, tactics and ideas. Many of the best lessons implemented in our most active campaigns were learned from other IWW campaigns across a variety of industries. Additionally, turnover and firings associated with our union drives mean that if we only look at one industry, we will lose our members who change jobs. In the low-wage sector where many of our current campaigns are taking off, many workers move between different industries very quickly. Finally, if we only focus on Industrial Unionism, we lose our ability to turn workers into Wobblies and miss the big picture of our organization, a united working class movement fighting to not only for a better life for ourselves under capitalism but also fighting to end capitalism and replace it with a better society.

Within the IWW as a living organization, One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism should be linked together as ways of thinking about our organizing. The balance of the two allows us to build our organization and move our class forward. One Big Unionism allows us to visualize a united working class and sets our sights on organizing all workers. It’s a vision of association which thinks about how more workers can be organized and work together for our class, as a class. It is the idea that all workers have interests in common as workers, have interests opposed to employers, and includes a commitment to building a new society to replace capitalism. Industrial Unionism is a vision of short-term conflict, expressing our commitment to creating the most effective organization possible for accomplishing goals. Industrial Unionism is about building an effective means to challenge the bosses’ power under capitalism.

Only by carefully balancing the perspectives of One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism can we push forward the work that needs to be done. Our organization has great ideas about how to organize and why, it’s up to us to implement them and build up our class.

Part 2: In the history of the IWW

We in the IWW, like many others, have long tried to link two types of struggle - struggles for short-term improvements under capitalism, and the struggle to replace capitalism with a better society. For years now the IWW has used two ideas to think about the connections between these types of struggles. These ideas are Industrial Unionism and the One Big Union. These ideas have meant many different things but they have always been related to the IWW's revolutionary vision. These ideas relate to our vision of a future revolution that ends capitalism and to our vision of our organization under capitalism before such a revolution.

In this piece, we discuss some of the ideas in the early IWW about the IWW, One Big Unionism, and Industrial Unionism. The IWW's preamble famously states that "by organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old." For the early IWW, the idea of building the new within the shell of the old had two facets. Both were all about revolution. One was a matter of organizational design and the other was a matter of preparing the working class. In its organizational design, the IWW's structures were supposed to be set up to form the basis for running a future society democratically. The idea was for the working class to be able to run the economy as quickly as possible after a revolutionary change, to get the post-capitalist economy going again after the tremendous disruption caused by the revolution. In terms of preparing the class, the IWW was intended to radicalize workers by making them want revolution and make them more capable in acting on their urge to end capitalism.

We can see the notion of structure in some documents from just before the IWW's founding. A letter that helped bring about the IWW's founding convention described the need for a new type of union. The letter called for "a labor organization builded as the structure of Socialist society, embracing within itself the working class in approximately the same groups and departments and industries that the workers would assume in the working class administration of the Co-Operative Commonwealth.” In the words of another letter, this union should “represent class conscious revolutionary principles." A manifesto issued in January 1905 described the goal as an organization which would “build up within itself the structure of an Industrial Democracy - a Workers’ Co-Operative Republic - which must finally burst the shell of capitalist government, and be the agency by which the working people will operate the industries, and appropriate the products to themselves.” In the words of the people who created the IWW initially, that's what the IWW was supposed to be.

An article called “How the IWW is Organized” published in an IWW magazine later tried to sum up the IWW’s aims in three points. “(1) To organize the workers in such a way that they can successfully fight their battles and advance their interests in their every-day struggles with capitalists. (2) To overthrow capitalism and establish in its place a system of Industrial Democracy. (3) To carry on production after capitalism has been overthrown.”

In addition to structure, the IWW's activity was supposed to prepare workers for revolution. One issue of the Industrial Worker newspaper said that conflict under capitalism helped get the working class ready to end capitalism. This conflict was "training" of a sort "most necessary to prepare the masses for the final ‘catastrophe,’ the general strike, which will complete the expropriation of the employers.” The Industrial Union Bulletin wrote that "the very fights themselves, like the drill of an army, prepare the worker for ever greater tasks and victories.” An early IWW leader named Daniel DeLeon wrote that one function of the union is “to drill the membership of the working class in the habit of self-imposed discipline” - or, to train the class to use its capacities for self-organization. The idea was that workers would learn how to run society through running their own organization -- specifically, the class conscious and revolutionary industrial union, in struggle against the capitalist class.

An Industrial Union Bulletin article called “Industrial Unionism" stated that the IWW “teaches its members that each dispute in which they are involved is merely an incident in the great struggle between capital and labor - a struggle which can only be brought to an end by the overthrow of capital” and “this supreme end must be ever kept in view.” As a result “every incident in the life of the union, every skirmish with the employers is made the text for proletarian education.”

Sophie Cohen was a child during a major strike in 1913 in Paterson, New Jersey, in which the IWW played an important role. Cohen said that “the IWW left people with a taste for organization. Every time workers win a strike, it helps straighten out their backs a little bit more and lifts their heads a bit higher. Even though the big strike was lost in Paterson, there was a feeling of togetherness among the workers. (…) From then on, there were a series of strikes and every shop had to be reorganized. Every shop refought the eight hour day all down the line.”

The education of individual members occurred through direct action, defined by James Kennedy as “use of their economic power by the workers themselves." Jack Terrill, the secretary of a Montana IWW branch put it this way: “If something should happen tomorrow so that the workers would have to run industry when they go to work tomorrow, there would be chaos. They are not educated up to that point, but the IWW is trying to organize them into one big union and educate them so that they can run industry when the time comes.” This education could not happen without the day to day and month to month struggles against bosses.

“[T]he revolutionary character of the working class is best developed while the workers are engaged in actual struggle against the masters,” stated an article from the IWW magazine the Industrial Pioneer. The article said that a “well conducted strike will do more towards developing class-consciousness and radical sentiment than ten tons of revolutionary propaganda of a general nature.” The idea here is straightforward: struggle changes people. Being involved in struggle, instead of delegating one’s power to another, makes that struggle more meaningful to the worker

Readers may have noticed that we have spent more time on one facet than the other. We agree strongly with the idea of struggles preparing the working class for revolution. While we respect the idea of early IWW members that the organizational design of the IWW should be the structure for a post-capitalist society, we don’t find it very compelling. Particularly in today’s economy, so many workers labor on products or services that are irrelevant or unnecessary for our society if we free ourselves from the bosses’ rule. For many people in the early IWW, however, these facets were not separable.

The article "Industrial Unionism" argued that the IWW's organizational structure was linked to both functions. Under capitalism, the structure was meant to coordinate effective struggle and to maximize the preparatory role -- to make the IWW radicalize as many workers as possible as effectively as possible. After capitalism ended, the same
structure would take on a new role. The article stated: “Under capitalism, the functions of the union are militant and aggressive; under the Socialist Republic they will be administrative only. This change of function will involve no internal transformation of the union, as it is precisely those powers whereby it can inflict injury upon the capitalist that will enable it to take up the work of production. It is precisely its control over production (…) that give[s] its power for militant action.” The idea was that after militant action ended capitalism, the IWW and the working class would immediately deploy its power for cooperative production.

We can see the idea of the One Big Union as having three different roles: a vision of a future society, an idea of revolutionary change, and a structure for coordinating struggles under capitalism. As a vision of a future society, the One Big Union meant a democratic society where workers cooperated freely. As an idea of revolutionary change, the idea was that workers would form one big union and then that union would end capitalism. This could mean a few things concretely. It could mean that the IWW literally became an organization that included the entire working class. Or it could mean the IWW had enough workers in it that it kicked off some major social upheaval. In those two scenarios, the IWW would be the One Big Union. The idea could also be more metaphorical - the working class united together, but without any single organization. In that case, the IWW would be one organization among many who makes a contribution.

The One Big Union was also the name for an organizational form for workers to coordinate activities against specific bosses and the capitalist class before the revolution. In that sense, the One Big meant a structure to work under capitalism. The One Big Union was made up of Industrial Unions, which were meant to be the fighting divisions of the IWW. The Industrial Unions were supposed to concentrate workers in particular industries in order to maximize the power they could exert. The IWW's One Big Unionist administrative structure was supposed to join struggles across Industrial Unions in order to make them more effective. The organization as a whole was also intended to spread the idea of One Big Union as a revolutionary vision. This was supposed to help keep the Industrial Unions from focusing simply and entirely on the day-to-day and month-to-month struggles.

In 1913 Paul Brissenden described the IWW's doctrine as Revolutionary Industrial Unionism. He noted that the IWW didn't invent the idea of industrial unionism or of revolution. “The Industrial Workers of the World is not the first organization of workingmen built upon the industrial form. Even its revolutionary character can be traced back through other organizations." He named other organizations that had helped influence the IWW and that held one or both of these ideas: the Knights of Labor, the Western Federation of Miners, the American Labor Union, the United Metal Workers International Union, the Brewery Workers, and the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance. Still, Brissenden argued that the IWW was part of "the most modern phase of the revolutionary movement." For the early IWW, the One Big Union served to keep the organization aimed at revolution while Industrial Unionism helped make this revolutionary vision practical instead of just wishful thinking.

Part 3: What industrial unionism and one big unionism mean today

In this series we’ve discussed One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism as ideas and activities within the IWW. In this article, we turn our attention to how carefully balancing our emphasis on One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism allows us to build the IWW in the short term. While none of us has a magic bullet answer that will make organizing easy, we can think out and discuss possible solutions to ongoing issues that we face as a way of approaching our work more strategically. How can One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism guide us towards better practices? They do so by pushing us to both build members up and build members out.

When we talk about building members outwards we mean developing practical units of struggle within the industries where we are organizing that most effectively share the message of our union and get more people involved in our work. That is: more members, organized to fight more effectively. Building out is like laying railroad tracks into the vast, unorganized working class; the act of laying the tracks means placing one railroad tie after another, each of which advances the line out farther and each of which is an individual task that can be completed. Yet each tie allows us to lay another tie and we are unable to lay the next tie until we’ve completed the one we’re working on. Even as we lay tie after tie, we continue to find that there’s further to go and more ties to be laid. After all, if the destination for our rail line is Industrial Democracy, we have a long way to go!

Concretely, building outwards means several things. Using the social networks that we find in our jobs and our industries and finding ways to tie them together are important aspects of building out. This plays on the importance of Industrial Unionism in our organizing. When a group of fast food workers organizes in their restaurant chain, they may find that they have contact with workers who transport food and supplies to their stores. These delivery workers may work for a different company but likely have grievances of their own. Good organizers can take these contacts and begin a campaign with the delivery workers. By using the relationships that form during work itself, we can grow our membership out across the industries we work in as well as up and down the supply chains within our industries and amplify the union’s power.

Industrial links aren’t the only way that we can build our membership out. During an organizing campaign, we seek to understand social groups in the workplace as way to identify and win over key social leaders – that is, people respected by their co-workers and whose opinions carry a lot of weight – in order to move groups of workers to support the union. These same social groups can be useful outside of organizing in one shop. For instance, if an active part of a campaign is made up of members of a certain church, we can use those cultural connections to meet and link up with other workers in the same church. Perhaps the church members in the union could speak about the importance of their campaign and the vision of the IWW during a service. Or members could convince a social justice committee of the congregation to put pressure on their boss in a way that involves church members and allows organizers to have conversations with different workers and agitate them about conditions on their jobs. Using our members’ access and participation in social networks and cultural groups is a great way for us to build our membership outwards in ways in addition to organizing shop by shop and reflects our ideas about One Big Unionism.

While organizing outwards, we cannot neglect another lesson of One Big Unionism: just because our fellow workers leave a job or an industry does not mean that they become less important as a Wobbly. To move our organization forward in the short term, we need to focus more strongly on retention of members who switch jobs. Finding ways for these members to plug in to campaigns in a new industry or job is integral to keeping them in the union. If one considers how much time organizers spend building relationship with each of their coworkers, agitating and educating them into becoming an IWW member, and helping them acquire the skills necessary for organizing successfully, its clear that washing our hands of members so that they leave the union when they leave a job is a huge waste of our limited energies.

While we build members out, we must also focus on building our existing membership up. In fact, by doing one thing we also do the other. As members become more involved in the IWW, participate and learn, they increase their ability to do the work of the union, and so they help bring in more members, and begin to build others up. At this point in time, we would argue that it’s more important to focus on building members up than out because it allows us to win more fights and improve our organizing strategy, which will lead us to reap the greater rewards further down the line. In any case, by educating members into the IWW – getting them to take part in the democratic process, meeting and sharing ideas about our directions and goals, taking on tasks at different levels of the union including local, regional, craft, industrial, administrative, and international – we amplify our ability as organizers by producing more organizers who can do more work. These new organizers in turn help produce more organizers.

One crucial way that we can build our members up is by training them to organize. This work, undertaken by the Organizer Training Committee of the Organizing Department, constitutes the most important work of the union right now outside of shopfloor organizing. It highlights one of the most important values of One Big Unionism: organizing is an interchangeable skill, regardless of industry or craft, and is something that workers can and should do for themselves instead of leaving these skills to specialized professionals. While there are some concrete legal and structural differences between industries, the work of organizing is basically the same. Organizing means the work of creating relationships with fellow workers, building organization, and fighting bosses together to improve our lives. Whether in an eight worker café with one boss or a giant factory with thousands of employees, organizing is the same basic skill set. When we give our members the confidence they need to organize in their shops, we teach them skills that they can use anywhere they work. This fundamental insight of One Big Unionism cannot be overstated in our approach to organizing in the short term.

Currently, more of our campaigns are going public and need support to push to the next level. Here, we find many opportunities for building our members up. We can create connections between workers in different industries as a way of sharing ideas and experiences about organizing and to create networks that support our organizing work. Starting solidarity committees for public campaigns, providing food or childcare for campaign meetings, discussing important IWW campaigns with coworkers, raising funds or organizing pickets: these and many more are ways that we can give our members tasks that deepen their relationship with the IWW and build new bonds across industries. This builds members up and allows them to grow as Wobblies and push themselves to further heights.

Like a staircase, the IWW can grow both outwards and upwards at the same time. When we stand on the top step of a staircase we are not just standing on that step, we are standing on all the steps below as well. Depending on the moment, we may emphasize growing out or building up, but the two factors develop together. Each step is built on top of the last one and creates the basis for the next one. As we walk up the staircase, we have to step carefully, the two feet of Industrial Unionism and One Big Unionism guiding us, always in balance and working together.

Part 4: Three big unions: The IWW and revolution

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles on Industrial Unionism and One Big Unionism. In this piece we talk more about the One Big Union and revolutionary change. We suggest that we should not think about One Big Union as the IWW coming to include the entire working class. Instead we think that this is a three-part metaphor or three big unions. The One Big Union is a metaphor and name for our hope and vision of a unified working class acting together – acting in union – in a revolutionary situation. The One Big Union is also a formal organization, the IWW. Finally, One Big Union is the name for the relationship between the IWW as an organization and the rest of the working class. In our view, this understanding orients us toward questions about what we think revolutionary change looks like.

We believe, with the IWW preamble, that it is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. Only the working class can end capitalism, and in certain moments the working class has a greater chance to move closer to carrying out this important task. That kind of moment is a revolutionary situation. We need to have a serious IWW-wide discussion about what a revolutionary situation looks like. We should also talk about what we think is the IWW's role in preparing for and acting within a revolutionary situation. This not an exercise in fantasy but as part of being serious about believing in a revolutionary future.

Think a moment about the size of what we're talking about. A genuinely revolutionary situation where we could end capitalism, even if it happened in one U.S. state or even in just one major metropolitan area would involve millions of people. (And really, this is actually too small of a scale: a working class revolution that ends capitalism must be truly global.) This means we need to be thinking in huge numbers of people. This is not something anyone can control, but we need to figure out ways to make our struggles self-reinforcing and self-expanding. As an organization and as a class we need to see struggles that expand to involve hundreds of thousands people.

In this series of articles we have been discussion revolutionary unionism through the concepts of Industrial Unionism and One Big Union. The meaning of “One Big Union” is closely related to the role of the IWW in the working class’s historic mission. Here are a few scenarios:
1. The IWW grows to become the One Big Union that all members of the working class are members of. This kicks off major social upheaval.
2. The IWW grows to become One Big Union in the sense that it is very large and includes a whole lot of workers, and this creates major social upheaval.
3. The IWW grows to become One Union Which Is Very Big, including a whole lot of workers. Other groups wage important fights as well. The IWW and other groups cooperate and have good relationships. This combination is One Big Union, metaphorically speaking, and makes for major social upheaval.

We can see different versions of the idea of One Big Union in each of these scenarios. In the first scenario the IWW literally becomes the One Big Union for all workers. In the second scenario the IWW becomes One Big Union that's really big but we're not literally all the workers.

The third scenario seems more likely to us than the other two. In this scenario, One Big Union means three different things. We somewhat jokingly call this “three big unions.” One Big Union is the name for the IWW and expresses our commitment to revolution. One Big Union is also a metaphor for the working class as a whole - that is, for millions of workers around the world, acting together in solidarity - in action against capitalism and for a better world. That's not an organization, really, though it is an organized class-wide process. One Big Union is also a metaphor for how the IWW should act within the working class. We should act in a way that is open to struggles outside our organization and we should wage our own organizing drives, trying to both support our fellow workers in their struggles and building our own struggles where we are -- acting in a way that both builds organization and fights the capitalists.

A revolutionary situation in our day (or, within our lifetime) will involve millions of people in a complex ensemble across the class. No single organization will lead or control this. The working class can have more than one organization working on aspects of its interests. Given the divisions in our class it’s good to have multiple types of organization (such as unions of waged workers, committees of unemployed people, tenants' organizations, etc), and multiple organizations of each type. In all likelihood the IWW will be one working class organization among many who make an important contribution to working class revolution. As the working class takes action in a revolutionary situation there will have to be different practices developed than those that the IWW practices, and different kinds of organization - including both formal organizations and informal organizations.

These issues open onto a few key questions which apply both to the ‘normal’ operations of the capitalist system and to revolutionary situations that will develop. How can the IWW become an organization that exerts a strong and revolutionary pull within the working class? How should the IWW relate to other organizations and struggles of the working class? How should we relate to other revolutionary anticapitalists now? How can our orientation to other struggles and organizations help or hurt the IWW and the historic mission of our class? In our view there was a good start to answering these in Alex Erikson’s recent article “For A Union Of 10,000 Wobblies” in the June issue of the Industrial Worker and in Juan Conatz’s “What Wobblies Can Learn From Direct Unionism” in the July/August issue. We don’t have clear answers to these questions. We pose them questions for discussion. The two of us have written as much on all this as we’re currently able to say. We hope the principles and concepts we’ve sketched help contribute to a discussion of these questions of the direction of the IWW as a revolutionary union.

The IWW and the sorts of activities that the IWW currently carries out will not be the only things that go on during a revolutionary situation and are not the only things that will contribute to a revolutionary situation taking place. We have to do our part, but everything does not rest on our shoulders.

We believe the IWW will make a major contribution, however. The IWW will make a contribution by radicalizing workers, and by giving those radicalized workers skills and confidence and relationships that they will use to contribute to the movement of our class as a whole. That's currently what we're doing and have done. We’re helping make more working class revolutionaries. As we grow, we will periodically gather together and re-assess our course in order to refine the specifics of how we contribute to the historic mission of our class. Completing that mission is not in the cards for the relatively near future. Getting the project onto the agenda as a real possibility is not the same thing as actually carrying out that project once and for all. Our tasks for now are preparing ways to get that mission onto the agenda in a real and winnable way.