Contractualism should be avoided

A reply to an article that appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper, titled 'The contract as a tactic'.

This is in response to FW Matt Muchowski’s article titled “The Contract As A Tactic,” which appeared on page 4 of the December 2013 Industrial Worker. While I disagree with most of it, this piece is the most coherent justification of contractualism for the IWW I’ve seen. The reasons behind going for a contract are very rarely talked about in this way, so the article is worth taking seriously and considering the author’s points.

FW Muchowski correctly asserts that the IWW has a legacy of no contracts; however, he attributes this to the lack of “legal structure(s) for unions to win legal recognition. On, a similar explanation is given. This explanation is wrong, though. The IWW’s views on contracts have always been more sophisticated than what the labor law of the day has been. Overall, contracts have been regarded with great suspicion. This has had little to do with the existence of “legal structures” (most of which we were against or critical of) and more to do with an analysis of what contractualism would lead to.

The author then goes on to blame the disintegrating presence of the IWW in Lawrence after the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike on not having a contract. This is usually what anti-Wobbly liberal and Communist Party-sympathetic labor historians say, so it’s a little surprising to see this opinion expressed in the IW. It’s also an absolutely inadequate explanation of what happened. If the ongoing presence of the IWW so relied on having a formal, legal contract with the employers, then how could Local 8—the IWW dockworkers of Philadelphia who went on strike in May 1913—exist? Local 8, for most of its era, operated without a contract. The difference between Local 8 and the textile strikers in Lawrence, however, was one of organization. The Lawrence model was to throw a supporting cast of organizers into a situation that was already on the verge of blowing up; it was a “hot shop,” in other words. Local 8, on the other hand, built an organization with a purpose and from the ground up.

Local 8, along with many other noncontractual models, offers an antidote to the false and seemingly dishonest dichotomy that is often set up when talking about this issue, which is contractualism versus all-out revolution. No one who argues against or is suspicious of formal, legal agreements with employers is necessarily drawing up blueprints for the barricades.

Similarly, Muchowski frames anticontractualism as “ideological” while what he advocates is not. Suggesting that a position is “ideological” and therefore extreme or irrational is a common rhetorical trick in politics, and it works well as it appeals to what is assumed to be “common sense.” But just because it’s a neat and effective trick does not mean that what it is expressing is true. The use of ideology, or examples of it, as a swear word, means that it is something that is based on beliefs rather than reality or experience. But being against or suspicious of contractualism is not merely “ideological.” It has a long history in the radical labor movement, full of examples and historical lineage. Contractualism, on the other hand, has only hypothetical scenarios and “what if” possibilities, divorced from any concrete reality

Solidarity unionism, for example, can be traced all the way back to the old IWW, through the rank-and-file members of militant Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) locals, to labor radicals like Martin Glaberman and Stan Weir (who saw clearly the downside of contractualism), on through the New Left labor history revisionists who rejected the institutional and top-down accounts of labor movements, and finally to the numerous conversations that resulted in the modern-day IWW creating our own model of what solidarity unionism could be. Arguments for contractualism have no similar basis rooted in actual experiences of radical labor.

Many of the activities and tasks the article lists as being possible with a contract are not inherent to that model. Spreading our views, finding out our co-workers’ issues and building for demands are just a part of organizing and happens in every IWW campaign worth its salt.

Lastly, FW Muchowski addresses the problematic issue of limitations placed on the union in contracts. His solution to this is “we don’t have to agree to anything we don’t want to.” But a century of contractualism has established no-strike clauses, management rights clauses and disempowering grievance procedures as the norms. I would argue that after the point in which it is obvious the union has won or is going to win, these are the most important issues for the employer, exceeding wages and benefits. To exclude these things in a contract would take serious organization within the workplace. If you do have the capacity to impose these sorts of demands, which are expected minimum norms for contracts, then why have a contract at all? With that type of power we can have the ability to impose a lot without getting caught up in state-enforced limitations.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)