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.