Industrial Worker (May 2012)

Articles from the May 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

Some objections to Occupy May 1st

A short list of objections to the May 1st general strike effort within the Occupy movement and some responses to them.

By now you’ve probably heard about how in various cities Occupy has called for a general strike on May 1. The call seemed to originate from a number of different circles, although the most influential circle seems to have been a group of people involved in several anarchist organizations and/or the IWW. Their influence can be seen in how widely the call was circulated, in the websites set up for Occupy May 1st, and in some of the decent looking posters and images they put out.

Regardless of the source of the call, it has been taken up in a variety of ways by Occupy groups in New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle, Denver, Long Beach, Detroit, and Oklahoma City, among other places. The media has been reporting on it and it’s probably fair to say that this could be the biggest May Day since the immigration protests of 2006.

As the call has spread around and become something inseparable from Occupy as a movement, there have been a number of objections or concerns about a May 1st general strike. Some of them even come from people in the IWW or those in the radical left who we would presume would be on board. Here is my attempt to quickly address some of the most common ones.

“A general strike is irresponsible and will make people lose sympathy with Occupy.”

This comes more from the perspective that movements are about publicity and a battle of positions, primarily though the mainstream media. I don’t want to lessen the role that media plays in affecting our movements and efforts, but this shouldn’t be a main consideration of what we do or how we do it. The media is composed of mostly large businesses that are tied to numerable other large businesses and rely on them for their existence. It is largely a reflection of the interests of the rich or politicians, and it very rarely will be in favor of groups or actions which undermine this. Look at much of the coverage of Occupy; a lot of it is neutral or even positive up to a point where Occupy calls into question the pillars of our society, then the typical associations with violence, “Communism” or “hippies” are trotted out to delegitimize what the movement says. Let us also not forget how they ignored us until the police viciously attacked Occupiers in New York.

“Organized labor was not/is not being consulted.”

In a number of cities our friends in Occupy are talking with the larger mainstream unions and there is some level of participation, even if unofficial, between the two. But let’s be clear, the mainstream unions are tied up in labor law and contracts that were specifically developed to prevent such a linking between them and social movements and to dish out major consequences (including massive fines and jail time) for exceeding the restrictions put upon them.

Unions also are on the decline and have been for a while. Only a small amount of the American workforce are in unions, and many workers (especially younger ones) have had almost no experiences with them. This makes ties to the rank and file much more difficult and can result in only having ties with staff and officers, who are not necessarily the people you want to be in contact with when it comes to mobilizing, engaging and building relationships with the membership to take part in such a thing as a May 1st general strike.

“May Day is for immigrants/Occupy is co-opting May Day”

Anything that Occupy as a movement turns its eye towards has received words of skepticism and territorial claims by individuals and groups who have been involved in specific issues prior to Occupy's emergence. At first, radical left activists looked at Occupy as encroaching their turf. The people attending the occupations were unfamiliar, not in their social circles. In places like Oakland or in situations like the port shutdowns, as the encampments moved towards 'worker issues', some union leaders and groups close to unions glared suspiciously at some erosion on their monopoly of 'worker issues'. Similar sentiments in regard to race have been expressed around the Trayvon Martin case. We see this also with May 1st and immigration.

May Day or May 1st is, strictly defined, International Workers Day. A day in which martyred Chicago anarchist labor organizers are remembered. A day in which the old workers movements have flexed their muscle in a demonstration of numbers and power. But it has also been a day for dystopian 'socialist' regimes to display to the world their weaponry. In the early 70s, May 1st meant massive student protests against the Vietnam war. And yes, in recent years, in the United States, its been a day centered around the rights of immigrants. It's safe to say its meant different things to different people at various times.

However, whether using the rhetoric of the 99% against the 1% or the traditional language of working class vs. the ruling class, the participants in both the Occupy movement and the immigration rights movement are linked. Neither one 'owns' May Day. The additional involvement of other movements with May Day is something to be welcomed.

“It’s not going to be a ‘real’ general strike”

Some like to say or imply that a “real” general strike is something which unions call for, and then people strike, in the formal definition of the word. Sometimes, general strikes do happen this way. Other times they start with other, more unofficial action or wildcat strikes that spread. On May Day 2006, for instance, millions of people just called in sick. Those who say May 1st won’t be a “real” general strike, are probably right. What will happen will most likely resemble what occurred in Oakland on Nov. 2, 2011. Personally, I don’t think what it’s called matters much.

Remember that the reason that the term general strike is even in the vocabulary of U.S. social movements again is because of the IWW’s efforts in Wisconsin. It was an important concept and we did a lot of admirable work towards this concept, but as someone who was there, I don’t think the strategy we engaged in (working through official union decision-making structures) was a realistic way to push for a general strike. However, I think that if we succeeded that it would a “real” general strike and the possibility did exist.

We also don’t really know what a U.S. general strike in 2012 will look like. The last time an official one happened here was 1946. The workforce and society in general have changed drastically since then. Our workplaces are more fragmented. Solidarity and worker combativeness isn't something that can be assumed as a given anymore. The forms of resistance that we take will often look different from past struggles. General strikes of 1877 didn't look the same as those in the 1930s, why would one today look like ones from 70 years ago?

“What about May 2nd?”

This is a good point. What about the day after? The week after? The month after? It is up to the participants of Occupy May 1st to make sure this May Day is something much more than a mere mobilization of people to protest, but the opening shot in a new era of Occupy where we take on issues relevant to our daily life. Work, unemployment, immigration, and housing aren’t just some vague issues that are mentioned within the context of the upcoming elections, but are very real experiences that make up, for better or worse, who we are. They are also things we have the most power to change or even (if we wish) to eliminate as problems. As people who wish for a new world, we should welcome the opportunity to place organizing back into the context of our lived experiences.

A version of this will appear in the May 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker

General strikes of 1877 didn't look the same as those in the 1930s, why would one today look like ones from 70 years ago?

Sex work: Solidarity not salvation

An article by an Australian Wobbly sex worker advocating solidarity and syndicalism. Orginally published in the Autumn issue of Direct Action, the newspaper of the Australian IWW. Reprinted in issue #1745, May 2012, of the IWW's newspaper Industrial Worker.

An ongoing debate is taking place in anarchist and feminist circles on the legitimacy of sex work and the rights of sex workers. The two main schools of thought are almost at polar opposites of each other. On the one side you have the abolitionist approach led by feminists, such as Melissa Farley who maintains that sex work is a form of violence against women. Farley has said that “If we view prostitution as violence against women, it makes no sense to legalize or decriminalize prostitution.” On the other side you have sex worker rights activists who view sex work as being much closer to work in general than most realize, who believe that the best way forward for sex workers is in the fight for workers’ rights and social acceptance and for activists to listen to what sex workers have to say. In this article I will discuss why the abolitionist approach discriminates against sex workers and takes advantage of their marginalized status, while the rights approach offer the opportunity to make solid differences in the labor rights and human rights of sex workers.

An example of the kind of arguments put forward by advocates of abolitionism runs as follows:

“The concept of women’s ‘choice’ to sell sex is constructed in line with neoliberal and free-market thinking; the same school of thinking that purports that workers have real ‘choices’ and control over their work. It suggests that women choose to sell sex and we should therefore focus on issues to do with sex workers’ safety, ability to earn money, and persecution by the state. Whilst women’s safety and women’s rights are paramount, the argument for state-regulated brothels and unionization is reformist at best, naive and regressive at worst. Even the proposal for ‘collective brothels’ ignores the gendered nature of prostitution, and its function in supporting male domination.

“An anarchist response should demand the eradication of all exploitative practices and not suggest they can be made safer or better.” (Taken from a leaflet handed out by abolitionists at the sex work workshop at the 2011 London Anarchist Bookfair.)

A Wobbly approach does call for the eradication of all exploitative practices, not just those that benefit the one advocating for change or that one finds particularly distasteful. Work under capitalism is exploitive, you are either exploited or live off the exploitation of others—most of us do both. Sex under capitalism and patriarchy is all too often commodified and used as a means of exploitation. Work and sex in and of themselves are none of these things. Fighting sex work instead of fighting capitalism and patriarchy does not address the exploitation in its entirety. To focus on the gendered nature of sex work will not change the gendered society we live in; if anything it reinforces the myth that the gender divide is a natural part of life that must be worked around. It also silences the sex workers who do not fit the gendered notions of the female sex worker, a group who are all too conveniently ignored whenever they challenge the abolitionist discourse on sex work.

Abolitionists have accused any approach other than theirs’ as being fundamentally reformist and thus not in line with the principles of anarchism. However, isn’t trying to end an industry because the overarching capitalist, patriarchal system of our times feeds into it, rather than fighting for the emancipation of all workers, in itself reformist?

The anthropologist Laura Agustin contends that the abolitionist movement took up strength at a time when the theories of welfarism were gaining popularity among the middle class who felt they had a duty to better the working class (without addressing the legitimacy of the class system as a whole). Middle-class women, in particular, found an outlet from their own gender oppression, by positioning themselves as the “benevolent saviors” of the “fallen,” thus gaining positions and recognition in the male-dominated public sphere that they never previously could have attained.

There are more than a few remnants of the middle class, almost missionary, desire to “save” by implanting one’s own moral outlook on the “fallen” in today’s abolitionist movement. Not only does it give people a way to feel as if they are rescuing those most in need, but it does so without requiring them (in most instances) to question their own actions and privileges. The sight of someone dressed in sweatshop-manufactured garments with an iPhone, iPad and countless other gadgets made in appalling conditions calling for the abolition of the sex industry never ceases to confound me. It must be one of the few industries that people are calling for the destruction of because of the worst elements within it. They may recognize that the treatment of workers in Apple factories amounts to slavery, and that the instances of rape and sexual assault of garment makers in some factories amount to sexual slavery, but they contend that abolition of either industry is not desirable, that mass-produced clothing and technology, unlike sex, are essentials to our modern lives. Essential to whom I may ask? To the workers making such products? They do not use the products that they slave away producing, they do not benefit from their employment anymore than a sex worker in their country does theirs. It seems the essentiality of a product is judged through the lens of the consumer, not the worker, despite this being something the abolitionist accuses only opponents of abolition of doing. Calling for the abolition of sex work remains, largely, a way for people to position themselves in a seemingly selfless role without having to do the hard work of questioning their own social privilege. This is a fundamentally welfarist and reformist position to take.

Is sex (or the ability to engage in it if you so wish) not as essential to life or at least to happiness and health as any of the above are? Sex is a big part of life, a part that people should be free to take pleasure in and engage in, not a part that is viewed as being bad and dirty and shameful. I am not saying that anyone should be obligated to provide sex for someone else unless they want to, but pointing out that trying to justify abolishing the sex industry with the argument that sex isn’t essential when there are so many industries that produce things we don’t need is incredibly weak. It also, again, focuses more on the consumer than the worker. Instead of focusing on what the sex worker thinks about their work, how important it is, how it makes them feel, we are told to focus on the fact that they consumer doesn’t really need it. The worker is reduced to no more than an object, an object that needs saving whether they want it or not.

Can no worker take pleasure in aspects of their work despite capitalism? Can no woman take pleasure in sex despite patriarchy? If the answer is that they can, then why is it so hard to believe that there are sex workers who choose and/or take pleasure in their work despite capitalism and patriarchy, not because of them? I have been told by abolitionists that this is not possible within the sex industry, that any worker who enjoys their job, or even those who do not enjoy but see it as a better opportunity than anything else available to them, only does so out of internalized misogyny. That if they were freed from this, by adopting an abolitionist mindset (any other stance is accused of being founded on internalized misogyny and therefore invalid) they would see the truth. It sounds an awful lot like religious dogma and is often treated with as much zeal. The abolitionist approach refuses to value or even acknowledge the intelligence, agency, experiences and knowledge of sex workers. This is discrimination posing as feminism. If you want equality for women then you need to listen to all women, not just the ones who say what you want to hear.

Abolitionists seem to view sex workers who do not agree with them as being too brainwashed by patriarchy to advocate for themselves, or that these specific sex workers are not representative of the experiences of the majority of sex workers. As an anarchist I view all work under capitalism to be exploitative, and that sex work is no exception. I do not believe however that work that involves sex is necessarily more exploitative or damaging than other forms of wage slavery. This is not to say that there are not terrible violations of workers’ rights within the sex industry; there are and they are violations I want to fight to overcome. (By acknowledging these violations I am not saying that there are not wonderful experiences between workers and between workers and clients as well.)

If one is serious about respecting and advocating for the rights of sex workers then we have to look at what methods work. We do not live in some anarchist utopia where no one is forced to work in jobs they wouldn’t otherwise do in order to get by, so I do not see the point in spending energy debating whether sex work would exist in an anarchist society and what it would look like, if it starts to cut in to energy that could be spent advocating for the rights of sex workers in the here and now.

Abolitionists have often complained of rights activists using language to legitimize the industry by using terms like “client” instead of “john” and “worker” instead of “prostitute.” Sex workers and rights activists have moved away from the old terms as they are terms that have often been used to disempower and discriminate against workers, whereas “client” and “sex worker” are much more value neutral. Abolitionists are not innocent of using language to further their agenda. Often the term “prostitute” is used to describe sex workers. This positions the worker as an agency-less victim. Once you have positioned someone as being without agency it becomes easier to ignore their voice, to believe that you know what is in their best interest and that you are doing, or advocating, for them.

Another accusation made against rights activists is that they put the client’s wants before the needs and safety of the worker, or that they attempt to legitimize commercial sexual exchanges (something that is not considered a legitimate service by abolitionists). I have not found this to be the case—the majority of rights activists are or have been sex workers, or have close ties to sex workers, and their primary focus is on the rights, needs and safety of sex workers. For instance, Scarlet Alliance, the national sex worker advocacy body, is made up of current and former sex workers. People who would have an interest in worker exploitation, such as employers, are not eligible to join.

That they do not focus on labeling clients (the clientele are too diverse to paint with the one label anyway) is no reflection on how important the needs and safety of sex workers are. In fact it is because they are paramount to the rights movement that the focus is not on making moral judgments on the clients and is instead on labor organizing and worker advocacy. To ignore the vast amounts of change that can be made by workers organizing and advocating together in favor of moralizing over the reasons why the industry exists and whether it is an essential service is to sacrifice the rights and well-being of workers for theoretical gains.

At the end of the day the abolitionist is using their power and social privilege to take advantage of sex workers’ marginalized position, something that they accuse clients of doing. The difference is that they are not seeking sexual but moral gratification. The abolitionist approach does not help sex workers, nor does it empower them. Rather, this approach gives them a role, and penalizes them if they refuse to play it. The sex worker rights approach works in the same way that all workers rights and anti-discrimination movements have worked by empowerment, support and solidarity.

There is no anti-capitalist blueprint as to how to best eradicate exploitation, but rather several schools of thought, often their own internal schools, as to how to reach a free society. I believe that when it comes to eradicating exploitation in the workplace, syndicalism is the approach that best suits the fight at hand. When the workplace is that of a brothel, strip club, street corner, motel room, etc., the fundamentals of the fight are no different from that of other wage slaves. Sex workers need to be able to unionize, as yet there is no sex workers union. While I would love for there to be a sex workers union, I also think the belief that all workers are equal, that we are all wage slaves, that we are all in this fight together and that it is the bosses who are the enemy, make the IWW an ideal union for the marginalized workers who fall through the cracks of the existing trade unions. That said it really is the ideal union for all workers. Actions such as joining the IWW and using the strength of a union, rather than just one’s lone voice, to advocate for change is one way in which sex workers can fight their battle. Another is joining Scarlet Alliance, the national, peak sex worker organization in Australia. Like the IWW, bosses are not able to join, meaning that the interests of Scarlet Alliance are solely the interests of the workers, not those of the bosses or the abolitionists. It is actions like this, actions that empower sex workers, that we need to fight the discrimination and marginalization that exists.

If activists are truly serious about the rights of sex workers they will listen to us even if what we have to say is difficult to hear and they will support us even if they don’t like what we do. It is only when all workers join together that we have the power fight capitalism and the bosses. We do not ask for salvation but for solidarity.

Industrial Worker (June 2012)

Articles from theJune 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

We are the heirs to the Tulsa Outrage

An article by a member of the restablished Tulsa IWW about the Tulsa Outrage, an incident in 1917 in which Wobblies were tarred and feathered by pro-war vigilantes.

On 9 November 1917, the day after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, 16 IWW men sat in a jail cell in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On paper, they were convicted of vagrancy. In reality, the charge was defiance of the capitalist class.

Oklahoma was infamous as a hotbed of radicalism, home to at least three IWW locals and more members of the Socialist Party than any other state. The state’s official symbols– a red flag with a white star, and the motto, “Labor conquers all things,”– made this working-class militancy official. Oklahoma was a place of institutionalized radicalism.

Three months earlier, hundreds of Oklahoman tenant farmers had armed themselves and marched to overthrow Woodrow Wilson and end US participation in the Great War. The Green Corn Rebellion, as it would later become known, was quickly defeated, but it set authorities on edge against radicals across the state. As Judge T.D. Evans, presiding over the case of the Tulsan Wobblies, remarked, “These are no ordinary times.”

The spread of unionism among oil workers and farmers also moved Oklahoma authorities to anxiety. As ever, the press performed loyally, condemning the IWW as terroristic while simultaneously calling on readers to lynch IWW organizers.

“It is no time to dally with the enemies of the country,” read a November 1917 Tulsa World editorial. “The unrestricted production of petroleum is as necessary to the winning of the war as the unrestricted production of gunpowder. We are either going to whip Germany or Germany is going to whip us. The first step in the whipping of Germany is to strangle the I. W. W.’s. Kill them, just as you would kill any other kind of a snake. Don’t scotch ‘em; kill ‘em. And kill ‘em dead. It is no time to waste money on trials and continuances and things like that. All that is necessary is the evidence and a firing squad.”

It was in this atmosphere of working-class militancy pitted against patriotic hysteria that 16 IWW men found themselves imprisoned in Tulsa. With them was one Jack Sneed, a non-member who had been thrown in jail, apparently by accident, during a group arrest of IWWs.

As midnight approached, the prisoners were removed from their cells and driven away from the jail in three police vehicles. The New York Times later claimed that the prisoners were intended to be “taken by a roundabout route to I.W.W. headquarters,” though the IWW Tulsa branch secretary, who was among the prisoners, later told the National Civil Liberties Bureau that he believed the subsequent incident was planned ahead of time by the police.

Shortly after departing, the convoy met a group of armed men dressed in black robes and masks. They identified themselves as the “Knights of Liberty,” which the Tulsa World described as a minor offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. The police delivered the prisoners and vehicles into the custody of the Knights, who tied the prisoners’ hands and drove them to a secluded ravine west of the city. At the ravine, they were met by a crowd of additional armed Knights.

By the headlights of the police vehicles, the prisoners were stripped. One by one, they were tied to a tree and lashed with pieces of rope until blood ran down their backs. Then came the action for which the incident would become best known: the 16 IWWs– and the one unfortunate bystander– were tarred and feathered.

“After each one was whipped another man applied the tar with a large brush, from the head to the seat,” wrote the Tulsa branch secretary. “Then a brute smeared feathers over and rubbed them in… After they had satisfied themselves that our bodies were well abused, our clothing was thrown into a pile, gasoline poured on it, and a match applied. By the light of our earthly possessions, we were ordered to leave Tulsa, and leave running and never come back.”

In the 94 years following the Tulsa Outrage, the worst nightmares of the Tulsan IWWs became reality. Oklahoma has become the X in “We must struggle so that X never happens.” For many, Oklahoma is synonymous with hopeless backwardness, its socialist history buried by an evangelical state government which, this April, proposed to alter the state motto from “Labor conquers all things” to “Oklahoma – in God we trust!” The Knights of Liberty now run things in the capitol as well as on the streets.

But the red flame of Wobbly radicalism has also returned to the Sooner State. On January 12, the Tulsa General Membership Branch was constituted with 13 charter members from across Oklahoma. We’ve spent the past four months concentrating on the minutiae of establishing ourselves– setting schedules, hammering out meeting protocol, printing assessment stickers, announcing our existence to the community at large and working to clear up misconceptions of who we are and what we’re about.

We’ve also focused on providing training for our members, many of whom are, like myself, quite new to organizing. Since chartering, we have participated in Organizer Training 101s held by the Omaha and Kansas City, Kansas GMBs, and have arranged to send a branch member to this June’s Work People’s College in Minnesota. We’re currently in the process of coordinating our own Organizer Training 101 to be held here in Tulsa later this month.

The Tulsa GMB has taken as its symbol the Purple Martin, a bird known for its alleged habit of spreading rapidly into new areas. We hope that, with the new resources available to us as a branch, we will be able to help spread the philosophy of working-class emancipation across Oklahoma. Oklahoma has never been afflicted by political moderacy. It is a place where the injustices of capitalism are sharply felt. Oklahoma ranks 45th among the states in terms of standard of living and third in terms of incarceration rate, according to the American Human Development Project and the Department of Justice, respectively. The Oklahoman people are impatient for change, and many are ready to mobilize against the immigrants, the welfare recipients and the “socialists” whom they believe to be the primary exploiters within society.

To some onlookers, particularly those unaware of Oklahoman history, reactionary attitude in the state appears monolithic and impenetrable. However, anyone who visits Oklahoma’s workplaces will inevitably hear self-describedly conservative workers express, sometimes in surprisingly specific terms, a desire for worker control of industry. Once, one of my coworkers at a Norman, Oklahoma supermarket, while complaining about our stingy wages, explained to me an idea basically identical to Marx’s concept of surplus value– and this despite her being a self-identified “hardcore Republican.” Some of the people who have been most successfully inoculated against the grotesque strawman of “socialism” are basically in favor of socialistic development.

We believe, then, that another transitional phase may be approaching– that it is not written in the stars that Oklahoma must always be ruled by the spirit of fanaticism and ignorance that incited the Tulsa Outrage. The Tulsa GMB invites the rest of the One Big Union to support us in our efforts to organize a land that is always tempestuous and often hostile, but never without the promise of unexpected new developments.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (June 2012)

Phoenix cab drivers: “We’re 21st century slaves”

An article by a member of the Phoenix IWW about the conditions of taxi drivers in that city.

Imagine yourself as an American slave in the year 1806. After a 17-hour work day, you feel exhausted and hopelessly depressed. Unfortunately, you’ll only get about five hours of sleep before enduring another grueling day of punishment and undignified servitude. This sounds like an accurate description of slavery, right? Now, here’s the shocking part: This scenario is very much alive in America today. Today, these workers are called not slaves, but cab drivers.

For the past few months, the members of our humble branch in Phoenix, Ariz. have been speaking with local cab drivers regarding their working conditions. Each one of them has shared a similarly gutwrenching story. We have spoken with several drivers throughout the valley, but the most disturbing grievances have come from those who work at Sky Harbor Airport. Recently, I sat down with one of them to conduct an interview. I was originally going to keep his identity anonymous to protect his job but he personally gave me permission to use his real name. Hence, I will now introduce you to the world of Kris.

It was a chilly Wednesday night when I met up with him at the airport. I waited patiently in a room specifically designated for on-call cab drivers. The place resembled some kind of torture chamber straight out of a prison camp. The entire room is made of concrete. There are no pictures or decorations anywhere, and two tiny TVs hang in front of the south wall. Many of the drivers play ping-pong to pass the time. I sat down on one of the benches and looked around. It seemed rather peculiar that everyone around me had migrated from an impoverished or war-torn country.

As I sat there waiting, I sparked up a conversation with a gentleman from India. I told him that I was from a workers’ union and that I was there to help. Immediately, his eyes lit up with delight. He gave me his phone number and said he would love to participate. Suddenly, my interviewee showed up. It was crowded, so we decided to go outside. As we walked away, the Indian man thanked me and said, “God bless you.”

We sat down on a bench right outside while the cold wind blew in our faces. The black beanie on Kris’s head almost completely concealed his brown hair. He is a middle-aged man with a wife and three kids. I decided to begin the interview with some personal questions about his life. He spoke with a thick accent and many of his sentences were in broken English. Originally from communist Bulgaria, he came here 15 years ago to live out the American dream. For the past four years, he has been working as a cab driver for the Yellow Cab company. At first, the job sounded promising: You make good money, and you get to create your own schedule. However, Kris’s optimism soon turned into a nightmare.

You rent the car from the company, so you are considered an independent contractor. Ideally, you are your own boss and you make the rules; at least, it appears so. The problem is that the lease rates are way too high. Kris claims to pay $854, which must be paid, in advance, for the entire week. If you don’t pay it by each Tuesday at noon, you are charged a $25 late fee.

There are several hundred drivers working at the airport, and new drivers continue to be hired, which makes business very competitive. On an average day, a driver only picks up about 10 customers. So, for the majority of the day, you are working to pay for your lease. In order to make any money for yourself, you have to work a minimum of 14 to 15 hours a day, and sometimes up to 17 hours. Taking a vacation or a day off is out of the question since you have to pay the lease in advance. Kris said, “You prepay for the whole week. So, if you decide to take a day off, then that comes from your pocket.” Like many other drivers, he only takes one day off a week, although some drivers work seven days per week.

According to Kris and several other drivers we spoke with, the airport contract dictates that about $42 of each driver’s daily earnings goes directly to the airport. Their agreement also includes a point system for the drivers. Consequently, if drivers do something the airport and the cab companies don’t like, they will get points added to their record. If enough points are accumulated, they get summoned to a hearing where they will receive a punishment. Generally, the points are given for petty things. For example, Kris received 10 points for supposedly being “loud and boisterous” in response to an occasion during which he told a customer about his poor working conditions. After 20 points, Kris was suspended for five days.

Strangely enough, almost every driver we’ve talked to has been to one of these hearings. If this isn’t bizarre enough, the contract manager of the city, a man by the name of Louis Matamoros, is the judge during the hearings. He and other city workers are constantly watching the drivers with cameras and harassing them with threats of suspension. The person in charge of this operation is a man named Hossein Joe Dibazar, the owner of Yellow Cab. Whatever he says, goes. As a result of all this monitoring, the drivers are left feeling subdued and too frightened to speak their minds about any negative experiences on the job. Kris says, “You ask many drivers, and pretty much everybody is telling you the same. We’re slaves! [We’re] 21st century slaves!”

As a result of long hours, lack of sleep, constant harassment and unethical supervision, Kris has become a nervous wreck. He is severely depressed and is now on antidepressants. He rarely has time to see his wife and three children. In his words, he “basically feels like an uncle to his kids” instead of a father. This condition is shared by many of the drivers we’ve spoken with.

This is essentially the same capitalist technique that gigantic corporations use all the time. Companies like General Motors (GM) send jobs overseas so they can pay foreigners a measly salary in order to boost their own profits. However, you can’t send the transportation business overseas. Instead, the owners hire refugees and raise the lease rates. Meanwhile, they pay off the airport to help keep the workers quiet and, ultimately, everyone makes some extra cash. You may ask yourself, “Why don’t these drivers just quit?” Some actually do, but many have no choice because the economy is bad and they don’t have the time to look for a new job. Some drivers are used to this type of mistreatment; many of them come from countries where these conditions are completely normal. This is all part of the exploitation: Find a group of people who are already vulnerable, and use them to your advantage.

About nine out of 10 of the drivers we have spoken to say they are interested in forming a union. Unfortunately, many of them are frightened of losing their jobs and seem reluctant at times. We held an “Introduction to the IWW” class a couple months ago and met our goal of getting a few to attend. So, our task now is to motivate these drivers to take the lead in this campaign. Since the drivers are considered independent contractors, they are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Therefore, our only option is to use the IWW’s practice of solidarity unionism.

While I was finishing this article, Kris informed me that he had been suspended for three months. At first, I was concerned that union activity might have had something to do with it. However, this was not the case; once again Kris was accused of being “loud and boisterous.” I immediately made plans to meet up with him that weekend to get the full story.

It was a warm Saturday afternoon when another branch member and I met Kris and his family at a park. That was the day I realized that Kris is the kind of guy that believes in standing up for himself and refuses to put up with injustice. Consequently, this is what led to his suspension. Apparently, speaking ill of a corrupt industry one too many times labels you a “troublemaker.” Matamoros summoned him for another review, but this time, he was accompanied by “Joe” Dibazar and four other officials. As a result of this hearing, Kris was suspended for three months. A few days later, I met up with Kris again for a photo shoot. He brought a letter from Louis Matamoros, which stated that Kris is permanently suspended and is no longer allowed to work at the airport.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (June 2012)

Reviews: beyond the usual scope of discussion on the working class

A review of Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini's collection of essays, Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control From the Commune to the Present.

Azzellini, Dario and Immanuel Ness, Editors. Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control From the Commune to the Present. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011 . Paperback, 400 pages, $19.00.

Much recent discussion and scholarship has gone into dissecting the decline in the strength of the working class in the United States. For the most part, the emphasis has been on the steady weakening of trade unions and on excavating why union officials have been unwilling to attempt new forms of resistance. In such a context, discussions of workers’ control of the means of production—how it might look, what about it has succeeded and failed in the past, its relationship to revolutionary change—may seem a stretch. However, maybe it doesn’t. For perhaps what the U.S. working class needs as much as anything is to explore alternatives, not only to neoliberalism, but to traditional unionism, even that of the social movement type.

“Ours to Master and to Own: Workers Control from the Commune to the Present,” edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, goes a long way in assisting us in that exploration. Ness and Azzellini are well-positioned to put together such an important work; both have long radical histories as writers, teachers and activists. The result of their efforts is a rich collection of stories of workers seizing control of production in different epochs under a vast array of circumstances in numerous countries.

Councils, in a nutshell, are self-management organizations established by workers to administer production, usually in periods of great tumult. They may take shape in a single plant, in an entire industry or, in a revolutionary situation, in many plants and industries simultaneously. Through them, workers oversee all aspects of production including those which, under capitalism, are done by owners and bosses. The forms differ greatly but the common thread is that those who do the work should decide how it’s done.

There are two important themes that emerge as one reads through the cases collected by Ness and Azzellini. One is that many workers across time and around the world have understood better than any revolutionary theoretician that the working class controlling its own work is the way it should be. Second, councils, apart from any trade union or vanguard party, develop spontaneously and organically as the system of private ownership slips into crisis. As detailed in the book, this development occurs so frequently in such instances as to be almost a natural phenomenon.

“Ours to Master and to Own” begins with four overview essays, then moves on to 18 case histories grouped into four fairly loose categories. Significantly, stories of the global South are well-represented, as Argentina, Venezuela, and other historically under-developed countries are home to some of the most important contemporary experiments in workers’ control. With upheaval rocking much of the Middle East and Latin America, these case histories, together with those where councils were an integral part of anti-colonial insurgencies in Indonesia and Algeria, take on an additional timeliness.

“Ours to Master and to Own” also includes a number of familiar cases. Perhaps the three best known occurred in revolutionary (or at least what were perceived by some of the participants as revolutionary) situations: The Soviets in Russia leading up to and immediately after 1917, the councils in Germany during World War I up to the unsuccessful uprising of 1919, and the anarchist-led movement in Spain in the 1930s. Each of these chapters is highly instructive, with nuanced analyses of the wide array of challenges the different groups faced. For the most part, each of these council movements failed simply because the forces aligned against them were too strong. However, there are valuable lessons within each as well that the contributing authors do an excellent job of mining.

Equally important are more recent cases such as Argentina during the economic crisis of 2001, which is compellingly summarized by Marina Kabat. Out of a movement that began in response to neoliberalism, workers took over factories and helped topple President Fernando de la Rua. As the takeovers evolved, workers grappled with how best to affect a degree of control within a capitalist society— something that is no easy feat, and many efforts have failed or have been co-opted. As with the uprisings in the early 20th century, however, there is much in the experience of value. As Kabat writes of the takeovers, “an objective study of their characteristics and shortcomings will help remove obstacles and develop their complete potential for the future,” especially since “[t]he reprise of the economic crisis has opened new horizons for the taken factories.”

Other chapters of note are two from Eastern Europe, one on Yugoslavia by Goran Music and one on Poland by Zbiginew Marcin Kowalewski. Both document ongoing struggles for autonomy in societies that purported to be workers’ states. The class conflict that surfaced quite dramatically in Poland in 1980 with the formation of Solidarity, for example, was the culmination of decades’ worth of work, rather than a brand new phenomenon. In Yugoslavia, Music relates the continuous contention between workers and the state over the form of self-management that lasted until the collapse of 1989.

Then there’s a fascinating case in India authored by Arup Kumar Sen, where workers in a variety of workplaces went head to head with a Communist state government within a capitalist society. Events unfolded much as those in other cases, and workers there faced many of the same obstacles. It would seem from so many examples that vanguardists are right in one thing they know, and that is the revolutionary potential of the working class. That they often fear it and have frequently been, from Lenin and Trotsky forward, as hostile to it as any capitalist is one of the most important lessons of this volume.

Trade unions, including ones of the left, have also frequently opposed working- class autonomy in the form of councils, especially at times of great upheaval. The period when fascism in Portugal was overthrown in 1974-75 is a prime example. As related by Peter Robinson, the alliance the Socialist unions forged with liberal military officials checked the possibility that the Revolutionary Councils of Workers, Soldiers and Sailors might expand their influence right at a point when something besides corporate liberalism was a possibility. Again, as we examine what was, we are left, too, to wonder what might have been.

Overall, though, the tone of “Ours to Master and to Own” is decidedly positive. In chapter after chapter, we can practically see workers contending with the most fundamental of revolutionary questions: What should the kind of society we want look like? How do we best get there? Again and again, as events unfold, great emphasis is placed on process. In fact, in case after case, a successful outcome, however else that be measured, is inseparable from process. Workers went forward as often as not without deeply elaborated theories but with a highly attuned sense that each was responsible to one another as well as to the future.

There is also much strategic discussion in “Ours to Master and to Own” that is of immense value. In a revolutionary situation, for example, do councils pre-figure an aborning working-class state? Or does their consolidation mark the beginning of the end of the state? If the former, what should the relationship of the councils be to the state? Although some of the contributors put forward more decisive answers than others, the overall tone of the book is that these are still open questions to be answered with greater experience.

Inclusion of at least a few chapters authored by workers might have added another dimension to “Ours to Master and to Own.” Workers are quoted throughout and their insights are meaningful parts of a number of the analyses. Hearing summaries and perhaps some tentative conclusions from on-the-ground participants could have provided an even fuller understanding of the subject at hand.

The specific experiences of women in worker councils are also largely invisible in these accounts, perhaps because industrial work has overwhelmingly been the domain of men and the councils largely the domain of the industrial workforce. Still, it would have been beneficial to hear about the role of women in at least a few of the case studies.

Though it is difficult to imagine any popular movement, working-class centered or otherwise, in which women would not play a prominent role, much of the work women do remains below the surface. It is for this reason that councils of the present and the future, at least those that are the most inclusive, may be influenced by cooperative economics, with its emphasis on the citizenry at all levels—be it worker, domestic laborer or consumer. At the same time, analysis that assumes the special role of women may help to bring into being richer, more inclusive council formations.

The wonderful value of “Ours to Master and to Own” is that its contributors collectively wrestle with precisely these kinds of big questions. Who should decide and which factors must be weighed in the deciding? These are not questions with easy answers, after all. “Ours to Master and to Own” is a valuable work. By thinking beyond the usual scope of radical discussions of the working class, Ness, Azzelini, and all of the contributors have provided fresh insights to the gnawing question of how workers—the social force that makes up a majority of the 99 percent—might go forward. Rich in history and devoid of blueprints, it’s well worth studying and discussing. It is all the better that a second volume is in the works.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (June 2012)

Industrial Worker (September 2012)

Articles from the October 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

Reviving an old tradition of educating IWW agitators: Work Peoples College

A reportback of the IWW's Work Peoples College, a week long workshop and training event meant to spread skills and share experiences within the union.

The IWW is famous for its radical and inspiring history, and so an oftenheard criticism of Wobblies is that we are “stuck in the past,” that 80 years have passed and we are now little more than a “Joe Hill Appreciation Society.” This argument discredits the value of lessons learned from past organizers, both recent and historical. The past has a lot to teach us, as does the present.

None of us are so smart that we can’t learn from what other workers have tried before us. The important part in moving forward is what we do with that knowledge to adapt to present labor conditions. This past summer, Wobblies revived something from our history and updated it to fit our times. That something was the Work People’s College (WPC).

Fellow Worker (FW) Mykke from the Bay Area said he came away from the WPC awestruck by shared knowledge. “Whether veterans or new members, just about everybody had invaluable organizing gems to share with each other. There was a palpable hunger to learn and an eagerness to participate in the group process,” Mykke said, adding that this could be called “thinking collectively.”

The WPC traces its roots to a Lutheran college founded in 1907 for Finnish immigrants in Duluth, Minn. As some years passed, socialists influenced the school, and eventually it was renamed the Work People’s College. By 1921, following the split in the socialist movement along electoral and direct action lines, the WPC became associated with the IWW, which used it to promote theoretical study and the spread of organizational skills.

Wobblies came to the WPC to learn about industrial unionism and the skills needed to be a delegate and public speaker. There were also English classes, readings of Karl Marx and various IWW members, as well as explanations of the structure and methods of the union. The college continued, even as our membership declined, all the way until 1941 when it finally closed shop.

In 2006, the Twin Cities IWW began reviving the WPC in a smaller way. This began as a series of workshops, mainly in the form of one-day educational events and presentations. While originally focused on attracting and building up organizers in the Twin Cities and upper Midwest, the project eventually developed into the idea and manifestation of a six-day event, returning to the woods of the former WPC in northern Minnesota. This time the event was aimed at wider audience: Wobblies throughout the United States and Canada.

This past summer, for the first time in 71 years, this more ambitious form of the WPC took place. From June 30 until July 5, approximately 100 IWW members from across the United State and Canada came to Mesaba Co-op Park. These campgrounds, near Hibbing, Minn., were originally founded by Finnish immigrant communists in the 1930s. In a region where the historical IWW led miners and timber workers in strikes a hundred years ago, fellow workers attended workshops and were able to have conversations with other members across the union.

Gifford from the San Francisco Bay Area General Membership Branch (GMB) was amazed by the conversations he encountered at the WPC. “I slept an average of four to five hours a night, mostly because I couldn’t break away from engaged late night conversations with comrades from all four corners of the continent, like young militant service industry workers from Florida, musicians from Vancouver, Starbucks workers from New York and dual-carding grocery workers from Southern California,” said Gifford. “Hearing in-depth analyses from young and old workers active during the upsurge in Wisconsin, the organizing drives of food service workers in the Twin Cities, and articulate young radicals from across the Midwest. Every one of those conversations was amazing.”

Conversations on the IWW’s present and future stemmed beyond workshops to less structured exchanges at the campgrounds. A lake with a small beach, canoes and fishing allowed folks to socialize. All three meals of the day were cooked from scratch by rotating committees of volunteers. Additionally, the separate but simultaneous Junior Wobblies camp allowed children and young adults to be a part of the week in a way that benefited everyone in attendance.

Malinda from the Pacific Northwest expressed enthusiasm at the WPC’s capacity to bring together Wobblies as a community. “If I had to summarize my experience in one word, it would be: inspiring. Sharing ideas, stories, meals and songs boosted our morale, built a sense of camaraderie and friendship and rejuvenated our will to fight,” she said, adding “[the WPC] provided the opportunity for many of us to heal. It also provided us with the opportunity to strategize on how to improve our branches, our campaigns and our union.”

The structure of the six-day event allowed organizers “to offer an ambitious set of workshops that challenged us all to rethink the way we organize,” said Malinda. Sam from the Madison Industrial Union Branch (IUB) 560 felt inspired and reinvigorated as well. “[The] WPC made it very clear to me that no matter how tough things are in the tiny bubble where our day-to-day life and workplace campaigns exist, we are always amongst friends—even with the distance between us—who are willing to help however they can, support each other and who also know that when they need it, others will help them too,” he said. Sam said he felt the week was “an object lesson in what solidarity really looks like in action. I wouldn’t trade that experience, or the friendships I made there, for anything. I came back recharged, ready to dive back in, head on, into my workplace campaign; motivated to tighten the bonds in our committee, my workplace, and our branch.”

The WPC ran a wide spectrum of workshops in unique areas. Examples of workshops that focused on some practical skills included: Branch Administration, Running a Good Meeting/Committee, Industrial Research I & II, Graphic Design Basics, three courses on Media, and Picket Training. Workshops also shared knowledge of history and theory, including Understanding Capitalism and the History of Labor in North America. Areas of experience in the IWW still in development were also explored, such as Strike Support, Dual-Card Organizing and Power & Privilege on the Committee and Mediation, among others.

Sarah Rose from the St. Louis GMB said her favorite workshop was Building New Members. “We discussed formalizing programs to build up the general membership, being strategic and growing solidarity,” she said.

“The bulk of the conversation was directed into tactics a branch can use to build up new members. This included asking for goals from people who are interested in joining, creating a new member orientation, having regular socials and showing solidarity with each other by the use of time banks, skill shares and gift circles,” said Sarah Rose. “The most important reason the workshop was so enlightening was that the focus was on ways to be strategic while still building up members. Ways to do this include building a branch social map and building the branch on class-consciousness rather than on friendship,” she added.

Brianna from the Kansas City GMB said that the WPC allowed her to be inspired by the shared struggles of herself and her fellow workers. “Seeing so many people that I have only known online and hearing the many stories of struggle, success and failure really reinforced my belief that each and every one of our contributions to each others’ struggles really does make a difference in the lives of workers who are not just workers, but human beings who face daily challenges, struggle to make life worth living, not just for themselves, but for all workers, and feel the same feelings of hope, remorse, joy and pain as myself. My actions or lack of action are part of what determines whether or not someone else’s life is improved and every life improved is a step toward a more humane society. What we do matters, sometimes in an abstract and long term way, and sometimes in a very immediate tactile way,” said Brianna.

For some, the WPC was the first opportunity for those kinds of steps to be taken, as it was their chance to meet and talk to people outside of their branch or region who had been a part of well-known struggles at Starbucks, Jimmy John’s, and New York City warehouses, as well as those who had participated in recent events in Wisconsin and Oakland.

For others still, the WPC served as an opportunity to step up and discover their own strength as organizers. Sarah Elizabeth from Kansas City and formerly the New York City GMB said she was amazed at her own development there. “The Work People’s College was a lot of firsts for me,” she said. “My first experience organizing a project across states, internationally, through conference calls and Google Docs, in a community I’d never lived in, at a venue I’d never seen, and with people I had never met in person and knew very little about. I had to trust my fellow workers completely when they said, ‘Yes, I will make sure that this is ready by…’ or, ‘This person would be excellent at…’”

“I moved to Minneapolis a month before the Work People’s College to lend an extra pair of hands. As someone with a history of working at an infoshop, and hosting skill shares and small-scale events, I figured there would be some way in which I could help out. Maybe some of the skills I developed in Lawrence, Kansas would be helpful? The learning curve during this time was pronounced and intimidating. It required that I ask a trillion questions to catch up. Who is this? What is this? How is this being done? And why? But in true IWW fashion, fellow workers were supportive and patient. They challenged bad ideas in constructive ways and encouraged me to run with the good ones. By doing so, I was pushed to a whole new level of organizing,” she said.

Sarah Elizabeth knows both she and fellow organizers took a chance as she developed her leadership role for the pilot year of the WPC. “This happened with a lot of anxiety about failing and thinking that surely someone more experienced could do each task better than me. But I learned that often the ‘best’ person for a task is the one who will actually make sure it is done and not be afraid to ask for help. We are all teachers and students, specialists and generalists, leaders and workers. Working long nights through stress and unknowns created more than a weeklong intensive training in northern Minnesota; it built a lasting solidarity with other fellow workers, the type of solidarity that can only be built over collective struggle,” she said.

The impact and after-effects of the WPC are still coming into view across the union. Some fellow workers across North America have had the opportunity to participate in building up the IWW’s presence while paying respects to its history, but the legacy of the WPC is not yet over.

With a look to the future of WPC, FW A. said, “It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to meet so many Wobblies from so many different walks of life, but luckily that isn’t the case, and the Work People’s College will be back in 2013. So, if you didn’t come in 2012, come next year. If you did, come back. Together, we can build a better world.”

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2012)

What will it take to organize fast food?

A short article by db on the possibilities for organizing in the fast food industry.

What will it take to organize fast food?

- A union campaign that blasts minimum standards into the popular consciousness and spreads them like wildfire through (social) media and word of mouth.

-A wave of franchise-by-franchise sitdown strikes and occupations that enforce a union and minimum standards on hosts of employers.

- Inspired workers along the food chain and in similar workplaces rise up to demand more.

-Mass pickets, civil disobedience, sit-down strikes and more force nonorganized employers to concede to the union or see their businesses destroyed.

- A series of additional bloody struggles to raise standards and enforce them across the industry are waged and won.

Nothing more, nothing less. Can you feel it? Taste it? Are you loving it?

This is what we might call “sandwiches meets the autoworker” model, inspired by my own experience as an organizer at Jimmy John’s in Minneapolis, through which I saw the need for a more developed strategy of direct action and a need for more concise, winnable demands.

It is also influenced by looking at history, including the book “Reviving the Strike” by Joe Burns, which talks about the importance of strikes in building a powerful labor movement.

While the future is gray, to not shoot for this type of organizing in such an explosive industry is to set ourselves up for failure.

What do I suggest as minimum standards? How about a campaign for $9 per hour, tip jars and dignity, or the ability to call in sick and not have to face harassment or discrimination. What should we use as a slogan? How about “dignity comes between two slices of bread” (because bread can be slang for money)? The dollar amount could be raised progressively, or upped to fit local conditions or a rising minimum wage.

Such an effort would require some beautiful posters to plaster around stores, including a model “code of conduct” that businesses would be forced to agree to.

It would also be helpful to develop some modern day tar-and-feathering equivalent for creepy or racist managers, as an empowering response to harassment. This could be spread through social networks and done anywhere easily. Something like a glitter bomb, perhaps?

After all, we are the IWW, goddamn it! This is what we do. And fast food workers today are almost as broke as the timber beasts of yesteryear.

That said, being in the IWW gives us an additional advantage. We know that the current economic and political order called capitalism is destroying the Earth and that the same can be said for the capitalist food system. So we know that when the time comes we aren’t going to defend the practice of serving the working class diabetes. Instead, we’ll take things over and transform them for the benefit of all, bringing about a new world within the shell of the old.

A working class revolution is possible! Join the IWW! Think outside the bun!

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2012)

What will it take to organize fast food.pdf518.07 KB

The kids annoted preamble

A more simplified explanation for kids by a Junior Wobbly of the IWW's preamble.

This piece was written by FW Sasha, a 12-year-old member of the Junior Wobblies, and was used during his presentation of the “IWW Preamble” during one of the daily political education activities at this year’s Junior Wobblies camp.


In 1905 a group of workers founded the IWW. These workers wrote the “Preamble to the IWW Constitution” to explain why the IWW was started. It was written in 1905, which is more than 100 years ago! So it might be a little hard to understand. Someone wrote the “Annotated Preamble of the IWW Constitution” more recently. This is a little bit easier to understand for grown-ups but it isn’t written for kids. I’m going to try to explain the “Preamble” in a way that kids can understand.

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”

There are two types of people in the world: workers and bosses. The two different kinds of people want two different things. Workers want better pay, a shorter time working, better and safer jobs, work that keeps the earth clean and safe, and the power to decide what they do with their work. Bosses want to make sure they get more money no matter how little they pay their workers or how dangerous the work is for the workers or the planet.

“There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life.”

It isn’t fair and really just doesn’t make sense that very few, very rich people have everything they want when tons of working people don’t even have the basic things they need.

“We find that the centering of management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class.”

There are other kinds of unions that only organize one kind of job or trade—that’s why they are called trade unions. There are a lot of good working organizers in trade unions, but trade unions themselves won’t lead to a revolution. Trade unions only unionize part of the workers and sometimes they even work against each other.

“An injury to one is an injury to all.”

In the IWW everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter what color their skin is or whether they are a boy or a girl. The IWW is not connected to any country, government, religion or business. If one person needs help organizing, everyone will help. The IWW is one big union.

“It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.”

Capitalism is the system in which bosses make money off workers. No one can be equal when capitalism is the way the world is run. The reason capitalism thrives is because the bosses have power. They have power because they live off the work of the workers. If all the workers stopped working, the bosses would have no power.

“The army of production must be organized, not for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown.”

People should organize not only to deal with the bosses now, but also to get rid of capitalism. We can figure out how things will work when capitalism has been stopped.

“By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”

How the IWW is organized is the way the world should be organized when capitalism is abolished. By organizing people now, we will have a base to organize from and we won’t have to start from scratch once capitalism has been stopped.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2012)

Industrial Worker (October 2012)

Articles from the October 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

For the works: report from the 2012 IWW General Convention

An account by Ryan G of the 2012 IWW General Convention in Portland, Oregon.

Over 75 fellow workers from around the world descended upon Portland, Ore., this past Labor Day weekend, Sept. 1-2, for the 2012 IWW General Convention. The Portland General Membership Branch hosted this annual gathering of IWW members, providing housing, food and social gatherings for all attendees.

Over the course of two days, assembled delegates at the IWW General Convention were responsible for representing their branch in this important decision-making body of the union. Many different proposals were heard, debated and decided upon, all of which seek to implement changes to the IWW Constitution. These proposals will soon be mailed out to every IWW member in good standing in the form of the referendum ballot. Fellow Worker: as an IWW member, you have the right to directly vote on these changes!

We heard reports from many of the mandated committees throughout the union. A highlight was hearing reports from the Organizing Department Board (ODB), as well as the Organizer Training Committee, that the union’s developmental program of workplace organizer training is alive and well. In addition to hosting dozens of Organizer Trainings (OTs) throughout North America, the ODB is also busy at work preparing for an upcoming IWW Organizing Summit next February. We also watched a great video produced by the Work People’s College and heard about plans to continue this educational institute.

Finally, delegates and members alike were able to nominate fellow workers for various union offices, such as the General Executive Board, the General Secretary- Treasurer and many others. Most offices will feature candidates appearing on the upcoming referendum ballot, again, giving all IWW members the opportunity to directly appoint their General Administration.

Being in meetings for 8 to 10 hours a day is never easy, but despite the sometimes grueling procedures and business, there was a strong air of camaraderie and responsibility amongst delegates. This spirit was perhaps aided by the amenities of the venue: a space featuring comfortable tables and chairs, catered food service, wireless internet and air conditioning!

In addition to all the constitutionally mandated business, the General Convention is also an opportunity to meet up faceto- face with our co-organizers, friends and fellow workers. These personal bonds are invaluable in building a culture of solidarity and understanding amongst various regions where the IWW has a presence. To this end, the Portland IWW coordinated social events to accommodate the General Convention in-between sessions.

A Solidarity Party was held at the Red & Black Café on Friday evening, featuring music from Brendan Phillips (son of the late Utah) and Portland’s own house band, I Wobble Wobble. The Red & Black Café is a collectively-owned and operated business and has been an IWW union shop since 2009. It was fantastic to be able to spend the evening in an explicitly IWW space, especially when it came time to sing rousing verses of all the great IWW songs.

After General Convention business concluded for the day on Sept. 1, attendees were whisked away in a school bus (driven by an IWW driver!) to a bowling alley, where we proceeded to “Bowl The Union On.”

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2012)

The IWW General Convention adapts to a new era In Portland

An article by Ryan G about the differences between the IWW's General Assembly and its General Convention, which replaced the GA in 2008.

The IWW General Convention is the annual opportunity for our members to propose amendments to the IWW Constitution, debate resolutions which signify union policy or general political sentiment, and to make nominations for the General Administration in the coming year. However, the way Convention operates is still very new to the current generation of IWW members, having only voted as an organization to adopt the model in 2008.

Previous to that year, our annual constitutional convention was called the General Assembly. In this format, which was utilized for the last several decades, voting privileges in the proceedings were based on “one member, one vote.” This model seemed to work well during this period, as the union was only composed of 200-500 members internationally, at most.

The IWW began to grow exponentially beginning in the late 1990s. This period signified the union’s transition from a grouping of labor militants seeking mainly to keep the IWW name and ideals alive in the movement, into a blossoming of younger members who took those ideals and began actually applying them to workplace organizing. Coupled with this new wave of IWW workplace organizing came the growth of IWW membership beyond the United States, particularly in Canada and Europe.

Suddenly, the union was expanding both in numbers and in geographical representation. This organizational development posed new challenges for the General Assembly system. It became apparent that the greater mass of votes required to pass a resolution or proposal was largely influenced by the regional location of the meeting. For example, if the Assembly was held in a large city, the host branch and/or neighboring branches would constitute the largest majority of attendees. With the “one member, one vote” system, branches from locations further away had difficulty making their voice and vote heard on an equal footing, as typically only one or two members could afford to make the journey.

Unfortunately, there were a few instances where this imbalance was exploited by members seeking to “control” the outcome of voting by the Assembly. I remember one General Assembly in particular where I was in attendance. During the debates on various proposals, several dozen or so members went outside the hall for a break. On several occasions, during critical votes, somebody would run outside and quickly herd them back into the building just prior to the main motion decision. These individuals could easily be heard instructing members to “Vote yes! Vote yes!” They would then vote, in some cases not having any idea what it was they were voting on. Simply by their numbers, members were able to “pack the vote” and control the motion.

As the IWW was developing internationally, and after experiences such as the one previously mentioned, it became clear to many in the union that we were quickly outgrowing the General Assembly system. The idea began to emerge that a more representative model was necessary, in order to enfranchise branches who would need to send members over greater geographical distances in order to participate. Again, the critical element of this was that branches should have equitable representation regardless of the distance between their home cities and the location of Assembly (which alternated from year to year, mainly in the United States).

Out of this necessity, the General Convention system was developed and approved by the IWW membership in the 2008 General Referendum. The Convention model establishes voting rights to branches based upon the number of members they retain in good standing. A branch with 10-29 members is allotted one delegate, a branch with 33-59 members can have two delegates, a branch with 60-89 members can have three delegates, and so on. While IWW members are allowed to attend the Convention and have voice in the debates, only delegates elected by a chartered IWW branch are allowed to vote.

This structural shift has produced a refreshing balance of representation between the IWW branches in attendance at our annual constitutional conventions. Branches are able to discuss the proposed constitutional amendments in advance, and instruct their delegate(s) on how to vote at Convention. Additionally, a branch can raise funds toward the cost of sending their delegate to the proceedings, which helps ensure that members with limited financial means are given the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. In this way, there is much more of an incentive for branches to send a delegate to convention; there is a proportionate balance of voting ability based upon the number of members in a branch, not their geographical proximity.

Significantly, all amendments to the IWW Constitution approved by delegates at Convention must then be ratified by the membership in a referendum. The greater decision-making power in the union ultimately rests directly with the membership at large.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2012)

Reds riot at steel mill: 75 years later

Mark R. Wolff on the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, in which police fired upon striking CIO workers.

Although the United Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) won a contract from the largest steel company, U.S. Steel, in 1937, the “Little Steel” corporations— including Bethlehem Steel Corp., Republic Steel Corp., Youngstown Sheet and Tube, National Steel Corp., Inland Steel Co. and American Rolling Mill Co. Republic Steel—refused to recognize the new union. In May 1937, steel workers from these plants struck for union recognition, including the workers at Republic Steel on Chicago’s South Side.

The “Little Steel” corporations were controlled by its anti-union chair, Tom M. Girdler. Under his direction, Republic had stockpiled a large accumulation of weapons to be used against strikers.

SWOC s t ruck at Republic, Youngstown Sheet and Tube and Inland all at once in a broad front. On May 26, 1937, 25,000 workers went out on strike. Inland Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed in response, but many Republic mills remained opened, including the Chicago South Side plant, where about half of the 2,200 workers went on strike. In defiance, Republic Steel shipped in food and bedding so their scabs wouldn’t have to cross the picket line.

On the first day of the strike, the Chicago police went right into the mill and pushed out the union men. Then they tore into the picket outside the plant, making the workers move to a location two blocks away, while arresting some of them. The next day, the police, who had joined the remaining workers inside the plant, came out and beat picketers with their clubs, shooting their guns in the air. During the confrontation, the strikers’ sound truck was demolished, and women strikers were beaten and sent to jail.

The SWOC strike committee called a meeting in response. On May 30, 1937, over 1,000 strikers and picket supporters, many of them women and children, gathered at Sam’s Place, a bar near the Republic Steel plant that became strike headquarters.

There, SWOC organizers and reps from Amalgamated Clothing Workers outlined the history of the national labor movement in support of the right to organize, and how the passage of the Wagner Act by the Roosevelt administration had helped.

According to the SWOC leadership, membership increased from less than 100 members in 1936 to over 75,000 members, despite anti-union efforts by the corporations. The SWOC leaders compared the pickets at Indiana Harbor plant that were without incident to the police tactics that violated the Wagner Act at Republic Steel.

Resolutions against police conduct were approved by the assembly of strikers. From the floor of the assembly, a motion was made that strikers should form a line to set up a picket outside the plant. From Sam’s Place the assembly lined up behind two American flags. One version of the story is that they went directly in a paradelike fashion to an open field outside Republic Steel, some in their Sunday dress, some setting up soup kitchens in support of a rally. A platform was constructed from which families could hear speeches as they picnicked. Girls led IWW fight songs. Another version is that marchers followed the procession behind the flags down Green Bay Avenue on the South Side, but the route changed to a dirt road across a prairie at 114th Street and Green Bay, and that they were cheering the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). At this point they were met with a police lineup of over 200 police.

Photographers from the local papers arrived in time to take photos of the confrontation of strikers and picket supporters in the prairie where they had assembled as they were confronted by the cops.

Police officials yelled expletives at them, calling them “communists” and demanding that they leave. Picketers shouted back that the police barrier violated their rights and the Wagner Act. Some accounts claim members of the strike-support crowd heaved rocks and other objects at the police.

Onlookers, such as David Krech, a researcher in psychology and member of the social democrat organization, New America, witnessed 10 people being shot and 80 being wounded, as the Chicago police opened fire on the “symbolic picket line” of steel workers and their wives and children in holiday dress. Krech and his New America comrades had supported the pickets from the start, only to witness the police violence.

A Senate investigation would later show that police had used weapons from the stockpile at Republic Steel along with their own issue to shoot directly into the rally and onlookers. As police shot at workers killed and injured at the picket be prosecuted.

A “Paramount News” photographer had used newsreel photography to record events that day, but the story was suppressed by Paramount. An investigation conducted by the St. Louis Dispatch revealed the censorship of the footage that eventually was used as evidence in the Lafollete Civil Liberties Commission investigation into the massacre by the police.

Seventy-five years later workers marched in procession to the location of the plant to commemorate the mass murders and pay tribute to the strikers. People met at Washington High School on 114th Street in Chicago for an educational event about the massacre. U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. joined the discussion. Panelists and discussion participants walked to the site of the killings, across the street from The Zone Youth Center and placed a wreath.

According to journalist Gregory Tejeda, the Illinois Labor History Society showed newsreel footage of the police beatings at the event. It was explained that at that time, a coroner’s jury in Cook County found all 10 deaths to be “justifiable homicide.” Not a single police officer was prosecuted.

Jackson described at the event how the 1937 Memorial Day travesty was called a “labor riot” caused by “red communists.” He outlined his plan to introduce legislation to raise the minimum wage and also to pay tribute to the 10 union members who died 75 years ago.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2012)

Industrial Worker (November 2012)

Articles from the November 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

Polarization past & present

An article by J Pierce on the polarization of society during revolutionary upsurges.

Two summers ago, the Phoenix IWW held an event celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Revolution. That same summer, while visiting a friend, I toured various abolitionist, African American, and Civil War historical sites around Virginia. Meanwhile, the struggle over the rights of immigrant workers in Arizona was heating up and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion on the subject. I think connecting these historical dramas could assist our work in the IWW and the concept of social polarization might be the key.

The IWW Organizer Training teaches that organizing leads to a polarization of the workplace. We must get our coworkers to support the union effort or they will side with the boss. Once the union is public, there is no more grey area. Those who attempt to stay neutral wind up helping the boss in the end. When looking at the broader society, however, does this principle remain true?

Civil War in Spain: Fascism vs. Workers’ Revolution

In the summer of 1936, Spain witnessed uprisings from both the Right and the Left. Military officers attempted a coup d’état while anarchists responded with factory and land takeovers. These rebellions hardened into the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 as the country polarized into not just fascists vs. anti-fascists, but into a three-way war based on competing class interests.

The Nationalists were a mix of contradictory right-wing tendencies. They wanted a radical restructuring of society based on modernist, fascist ideology or a restoration of the Catholic Church, the monarchy and regionalist separatism. The anarchists, in the form of the CNTFAI- AIT (the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, Federación Anarquista Ibérica, and Asociación Internacional de los Trabajadores) acted as the pole that attracted the working class and peasants to libertarian communism. The republicans, social democrats, and Socialists, by and large, wanted to maintain capitalism and liberal democracy. The Communist Party, in attempting to gain control of the government, became a pole for politicians, employers and police within the anti-fascist camp.

The divisions and contradictions were inescapable as the war engulfed every aspect of society and forced people of all backgrounds to choose sides. The fascists led an illegal uprising against the elected government and therefore divided Spanish society into camps supporting the republican government or opposing it. The anarchists were in a strange position of deciding how to fight the fascist uprising and acquire arms without reinforcing the present government. Not only did the population polarize over the uprising, but the anti-fascist camp itself polarized over how to respond. Arguments over the CNT’s course of action are valuable conversations for contemporary IWW members.

Civil War in the States: Slavery vs. Freedom

A different type of polarization occurred in the United States surrounding slavery as it led to the American Civil War of 1861-1865. The country divided regionally, between the North and the South, as well as socially on the issue of slavery. Abolitionists engaged in myriad efforts to polarize the nation over the continuance of the slave system. Their task, with respect to whites, was to bring the horrors of slavery into every city and every home, forcing whites to make a choice between righteousness and evil. With respect to Blacks, the task was to arm every African American with the weapons of liberation— be they books, newspapers, escape routes, or rifles.

Similar to the Spanish case, the federal military in the South lined up with their local right wing, in this case the confederate slavocracy, and led a treasonous uprising against their own government. For many whites, the outbreak of war stripped them of their ability to view the conflict from a distance. They were forced to side with either the North or the South, and ultimately, regardless of their own racial attitudes, Worker.with abolition or slavery. For African Americans, the war presented an opportunity to liberate themselves and their kin, either as soldiers in the Northern army or as “contraband,” escaping bondage to cross Union lines. Many prominent abolitionists threw themselves into the Union cause, and thus behind the republican-led government. Notably, Harriet Tubman worked as a scout, a spy, and an army nurse; Frederick Douglass recruited Blacks for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, including his two sons. The early abolitionist movement—a handful of Northern church-goers and pacifists, as well as isolated slave rebellions—might be an intriguing subject for Wobblies who are interested in the development of polarization to study.

Both of these civil wars provide disturbing parallels for our time and place. A frenzied and lawless right-wing element panicked over the changing times’ resorts to insurrection against their own government— one to which they would otherwise profess the holiest of loyalties. It appears, at times, that we are much closer to rightwing rejection of liberal democracy than we are to proletarian revolution. For those of us in the United States, it would be a strange situation to find ourselves on the same side of a struggle as the American government—but it is not without precedent or plausibility.

The IWW as a Pole

The past is often directly in our midst here in the present. At your average gun show in Phoenix, right wingers can be heard berserking themselves for a civil war against the liberals, the socialists, and the Mexicans. Arizona gun nuts notwithstanding, our task as Wobblies is to shift the divisions away from ”politics” and race hatred toward a class-based struggle; the goal being to pit the exploited class—including right wing whites—against capitalism. We need to define the conflict in terms that encourage workers to join our side: slavery vs. freedom; fascism vs. democracy; or perhaps the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent. We must define capitalism as the enemy and sharpen the conflict so that the financially disgruntled elements find themselves, perhaps inadvertently, on the side of their co-workers and against their employers. We must create a situation in which white workers have to decide, “Am I on the side of the bosses and politicians— of fascism, Nazis and slavery? Or am I on the side of working people—of democracy and freedom?”

The IWW is uniquely situated to sharpen this polarization into class conflict. We are the abolitionists and antifascists of our time. We have the power to drive a class wedge into the present turmoil and become a pole for multi-racial, social revolution. To do this, we’ll need to consider numerous tensions: building coalitions vs. relying on ourselves as the IWW; focusing on the liberation of workers of color vs. focusing on turning white workers against the system; illuminating the contradictions in the unions and on the left vs. organizing for mutual self-defense; and continuing a program of union organizing vs. developing a more overtly “revolutionary” orientation.

The IWW is slowly positioning us to be facilitators, if not leaders, of a powerful class movement internationally. We must be ready to become the pole that attracts the revolutionary working class.

Editor’s note: Part 3 of the Building Blocks series on building the Richmond General Membership Branch (GMB) will run in the December 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)

Reviews: valuable lessons from the Sojourner Truth Organization

Nate Hawthorne's review of Michael Staudenmaier's Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986, for the Industrial Worker.

Staudenmaier, Michael. Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2012. Paperback, 304 pages, $19.95.

“Truth and Revolution” is about the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), a small radical group based in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. Historian Michael Staudenmaier presents a good overview of the political world that the organization lived in. The STO first formed during the tail end of the civil rights movement and the New Left of the 1960s. STO members paid attention to rising black radicalism in the United States and social upheavals in France and Italy. Later, the group engaged with political events, including the Iranian revolution, the movement for Puerto Rican independence, the feminist movement, the anti-nuclear movement and the anti-fascist movement. Staudenmaier summarizes each of these important pieces of history, and his footnotes offer a lot to people who want to do further reading on any of these topics.

IWW members in particular should read this book because the STO focused heavily on workplace organizing and wrote about that experience. I will return to this, but first I want to say that the STO’s flaws make them particularly good for IWW members to read about because the limits and failures of the STO speak to the problems that we are still working on as we build the IWW we want to see. The STO was predominantly white, probably never had more than 100 members, repeatedly split in a way that left them on the edge of collapse and held some really bad political perspectives, tied in large part to their Leninism.

Despite the improvement, the IWW remains a small organization. Our successes are inspiring and exciting but often temporary and partial, while our failures are often heartbreaking for the organizers involved. This reality of our organization means that Straudenmaier’s book offers us a kind of mirror to help us think about ourselves. While the STO was briefly national in scope and engaged in dialogue and published for a national audience, at its largest the STO was the size of a mid-to-large IWW branch today. There are both positive lessons we can learn and inspiration we can draw from the STO and there are negative lessons from which we can learn about things we should avoid.

STO members did some workplace organizing throughout the organization’s lifespan, but the group only focused heavily on this for about five years. The STO’s workplace activity will be familiar to people active in IWW organizing. The group printed and distributed leaflets at workplaces, both where they had members and where they did not, ran workers’ centers that offered legal support, engaged in strike and picket support, and helped create job actions in members’ workplaces.

The STO confronted a few persistent difficulties in their organizing, which also speaks to both the strengths we have and the difficulties we face in the IWW today. The STO rarely managed to recruit members out of its workplace organizing, in part because they weren’t sure how, or if they should even try to do so. Likewise, the organization often built new organizations depending on the facility or company they were organizing in, and encouraged non-members to participate. This approach had its strengths, like placing a priority on collective action, but it had one major downside: it inhibited organizational growth. While this approach seemed like it was based on respect for the independence of the workers involved, it resulted in STO members specifically being able to make decisions that had an impact on the workers without the workers’ input. This happened above all because of the organization’s decision to make workplace organizing into much less of a priority.

One quality of the STO that was both positive and negative was that the organization tried to pay a lot of attention to and analyze changing social and economic conditions. This is important, but the way that the STO did it resulted in a sort of ambulance-chasing mentality whereby the organization repeatedly changed its priorities based on an analysis that assumed that the latest social/economic change meant that something really big was going to happen next. Staudenmaier quotes one former member of the STO who criticized the organization for sometimes having a “get rich quick” mentality whereby the group would drop everything and focus on the latest new development in the class struggle in the hopes of finally hitting the revolutionary jackpot. This resulted in a neglect of long-term organization building, as well as a turn away from the slower but ultimately more productive practices of long-term workplace organizing. IWW branches often have these same problems. This is not to say that workplace organizing is the only thing that matters, but rather that, since we see the IWW as a workplace organizing group, we should make that our main emphasis in terms of time and energy. We should also be very honest with ourselves about what our non-workplace activities actually do to help build the organization and to improve our workplace organizing.

Finally, one of the STO’s most enduring contributions that the IWW can learn from is its writings. This matters in at least three ways.

First, despite the organization’s deeply flawed Leninist perspective, the STO consisted of a group of radicals who were very serious about understanding and analyzing capitalist society. The group’s intellectual efforts were engaged with struggle and were intelligent and thought provoking. These writings remain worth reading today because they convey important information about race, gender, sexuality, and the history of the Left, among other topics, but they also remain worth reading because reading serious revolutionary thought is one of the things that makes us better radicals.

Second, the STO’s collection “The Workplace Papers” lays out views shared within the IWW about the limits of state staterecognized unions and about the importance of building workplace organizations outside the normal labor-law framework. Indeed, when I first joined the IWW in Chicago, organizers in the branch spoke repeatedly of the power of the political and theoretical perspective in “The Workplace Papers” and its relevance for our style of workplace organizing.

Third, the IWW can learn from the simple fact that the STO had such a commitment to writing. Writing helps people think. As individuals, putting ideas into writing makes our ideas clearer, and identifies the areas where our ideas and practices are still murky. As an organization that is too big and dispersed to interact face-to-face or by phone, we can only think collectively by writing, reading and responding, over and over. This is an area where the IWW could improve. While reading this book, I was repeatedly struck by the fact that the STO was doing good workplace organizing of a type that I was basically already familiar with because IWW members are doing this stuff. But I only know about it because I’m friends with a lot of IWW members. By not writing that stuff down (and by not being better about saving and distributing and systematically using the writing that we do produce), we don’t learn as much from it and we don’t share those lessons as much across our organization and beyond, and newer members often have a hard time learning about the IWW’s own activity in our recent past. I was also struck that the STO often had a clearer and better idea of what they were doing while they were doing it, while our organizing is often less theoretically clear while in the middle of our actions. That is actually a strength of the IWW, as it means that we put our emphasis on fighting bosses even if we can’t dot all the theoretical i’s and cross all the t’s about what exactly our every move contributes to ending capitalism. Still, in the aftermath of our actions we could stand to write and reflect more.

I hope I’ve convinced you that this book is worth your time to read, and after you read the book, read some of the STO’s original writing, especially “The Workplace Papers.” You can find them online at http://www.sojournertruth.net. If you do read any of this, consider writing a letter to the IW to make some points about it and engage other members in a discussion.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)

Reviews: great but unrealized possibilities in Germany

A review by Steve Kellerman of Martin Comack's Wild Socialism: Workers Councils in Revolutionary Berlin, 1918-21.

Comack, Martin. Wild Socialism: Workers Councils in Revolutionary Berlin, 1918-21. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2012. Paperback, 108 pages, $24.00.

In Germany from 1918 to 1921, the possibility of transforming the world was briefly present. Had a libertarian form of workers’ control succeeded in such an advanced and powerful a country as Germany, it would have been able to aid the Soviet Union and help prevent its decline into tyranny. It could further have encouraged similar movements in France, Italy, Britain and even the United States.

IWW member Martin Comack has written a welcome addition to the literature on post-World War I Germany, where the possibility of a substantial and permanent change in social relations was on the agenda. He writes with clarity and is able to describe complex situations in an accessible manner.

In Germany as well as the rest of the world, there existed a widespread disgust with the system which had produced the horrors from 1914 to 1918 and the desire to replace it with a new social order in which such enormities would not be possible.

Comack skillfully delineates the bureaucratic degeneration of the German Social Democratic Party and trade unions during the previous 30 years which led them to become complicit with the Imperial regime and its war.

The trade union officialdom came to be divorced from the union membership through its wartime cooperation with the authorities and the bosses. In response, workers’ committees sprang up to defend the workers’ interests during the hard wartime period and to enunciate radical doctrines of workers’ control. When the war ended in defeat and the Imperial order collapsed, these committees transformed themselves into workers’ councils, moving to take control of workplaces and form a society administered directly and democratically by workers’ and soldiers’ councils. A revolutionary mix of groups, including the Social Democrats, Independent Social Democrats, Spartakusbund (the Spartacus League)/ Communist Party, the Communist Workers’ Party, and Workers’ Councils, occupied the most advanced position advocating and, to the extent they were able, practicing worker control of industry and society. Unable to gain sufficient following among workers, the Councils were forced into retreat and by late 1920 were marginalized by the advancing rebureaucratization of the German workers’ movement.

These experiences subsequently gave rise to the school of Council Communists, the best known of whose representatives are Anton Pannekoek, Hermann Gorter, and Paul Mattick, Sr. This movement teaches that workers’ councils are the natural and spontaneous organs of workers in revolutionary situations. Council Communists emphasize vigilance about carrying the revolution to completion and resisting the pressure of aspiring bureaucrats to force affairs back into authoritarian channels.

Comack should be commended for illuminating a little-known period and movement of great but ultimately unrealized possibilities.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)

Industrial Worker (December 2012)

Articles from the December 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

The new rank and file, and the Walmart moment

Staughton Lynd on rank-and-file movements, the IWW and recent union organizing efforts at Wal-Mart.

From the beginning, the Occupy movement has been asked: What are your demands? A more important question is: Is there a way that the dynamism of Occupy and the residual energy of the rankand- file labor movement might coalesce? Most intriguing of all is the query: In that other world which we say is possible, could it come to pass that Occupiers, and the practitioners of working-class self-activity who make up the Industrial Workers of the World, could come to be a single force of radicalism from below?

What Is A “Rank-And-File” Movement?

To begin with, we need to define what we mean by the words “rank and file.” For half a century, the term “rank and file” has most often been used to describe a movement to elect new union officers.

Think of Miners for Democracy and its candidate for president of the United Mine Workers (UMW), Arnold Miller; Ed Sadlowski’s campaign for president of the United Steelworkers; Jerry Tuckers’s run for top office in the United Auto Workers (UAW); or Ron Carey’s successful candidacy for president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The term “rank and file” was even used to characterize the elevation of John Sweeney and, later, Richard Trumka, to the presidency of the AFL-CIO. And countless campaigns for local union office borrowed the words “rank and file” to describe their own election efforts. In Youngstown, Ohio, insurgent steelworkers like Ed Mann and John Barbero called themselves the “Rank And File Team,” or RAFT.

The problem with this understanding of a rank-and-file movement is that John L. Lewis imposed on the incipient CIO a template or paradigm of successful union organizing that has rarely been challenged by subsequent, purportedly “rank-and file,” candidates for union office.

Lewis ruled the UMW autocratically throughout the 1920s. Opposition movements led by socialists were outlawed and crushed. Since then, successful union organizing has been understood to have the following invariable components: (1) The union is recognized by the employer as the exclusive representative of workers in an appropriate bargaining unit; (2) New employees automatically become union members after a relatively short probation period; (3) The employer deducts dues from the worker’s paycheck and forwards the money to the union; (4) The contract forbids strikes and slowdowns for the duration of the collective bargaining agreement and (5) also includes a clause giving management the right to make unilateral investment decisions.

There is a widespread belief among labor historians that Lewis led the way to recognition of the CIO in steel, rubber and auto by a masterful organizing strategy among soft coal miners. Jim Pope, in a series of densely documented articles, has shown this story to be myth. Selforganization and the formation of new union locals among miners in western Pennsylvania were initially opposed by UMW staff. When 100,000 miners went on strike in the summer of 1933, Lewis and his lieutenant Phil Murray (later president of the Steelworkers and the CIO) made deals with the government to end the strikes without seeking rank-and-file authorization. In response, militant miners used their elected pit committees to form a network of resistance.

Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) actually opposed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA, or the “Wagner Act”) of 1935, fearing that it would institutionalize and legitimate the Lewis paradigm and thus make impossible a breakaway movement like the Progressive Miners in southern Illinois.

CIO unions in basic industry, despite their insurgent rhetoric, became mechanisms for winning material benefits while simultaneously surrendering workers’ hopes for workplace democracy.

A Different Meaning For “Rank And File”

My wife Alice and I used the term “rank and file” as the title of our first collection of interviews, published in 1973. We defined it in a way that did not mention elections or running for union office. We said:

“Rank and file, in a general way, refers to workers on the job, not paid union leadership. Rank-and-file activity usually means people on the job taking whatever action they think is necessary, doing something for themselves rather than waiting for someone else to do it for them. It means people acting on their own, based on their own common experiences.”

In 2000 we published a second collection of interviews, and then in 2011 an expanded edition of “Rank and File” (Haymarket Books) containing all the interviews in the first book plus eight interviews from the second.

Over time, an oral history in the original “Rank and File” to which we often found ourselves referring was that with John Sargent. Sargent had been the first president of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Ind. After the Steelworkers was recognized by management as the exclusive representative of the 18,000 workers at Inland, Sargent was elected for several terms as local union president.

Sargent’s heretical thesis was that steelworkers at Inland accomplished more before the Steelworkers was recognized as their exclusive representative than they did afterward. The reason, he asserted, was that, as exclusive representative, the Steelworkers, like other CIO unions, gave up the right to strike for the duration of the collective bargaining agreement. Before then, management was obligated to bargain with the local CIO union, but also bargained with the socalled company union sponsored by the employer, “and any other organization that wanted to represent the people in the steel industry.” There was no comprehensive contract covering all those who worked at Inland. As a result, there was no clause giving up the right to strike and the workers progressed by small victories won by direct action.

In putting together our second collection of rank and file interviews, my wife and I became aware that different groups of workers were feeling their way toward re-creating the working-class self-activity, the unionism from the bottom up, that John Sargent experienced in the late 1930s at Inland Steel.

Here are thumbnail summaries of some of the new interviews we added to the original “Rank and File” in the expanded edition.

Vicky Starr, who, in the original “Rank and File,” described how she helped to organize packinghouse workers in the 1930s, told about forming a union of clerical workers at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. She said that before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election and before they got a contract, she and fellow workers raised and resolved specific grievances.

Marshall Ganz had been a volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in one of the most dangerous parts of Mississippi. From 1965 to 1981 he worked with César Chávez and the new United Farm Workers (UFW) union in California. Farm workers were not covered by the NLRA, and that left them free to pursue the tactic of boycotting stores in which an employer’s product was sold. It worked. The Schenley Liquor Company, who owned the vast majority of the vineyards, signed a contract with the UFW.

Mia Giunta came from a workingclass family in eastern Pennsylvania. She got a job as an organizer for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). At F-Dyne Electronic in Connecticut she and other UE members rejected the practice of laying off workers in order of seniority. Strict seniority in layoffs meant that the newest hires might be put on the street with nothing, while others— typically white males—continued to work full time and even to work overtime. Mia and her colleagues searched for, and found, ways in which all employees agreed to receive a little less so that everyone could stay on the job.

Bill DiPietro, president of a small International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) local at an automobile sales and repair shop, had a different gripe. He tried to explain to his national union that organizing didn’t work unless the organizer was prepared to stay for a time. “If you aren’t there every day, you can’t do it,” he said. “People will tell them, ‘I don’t want to talk to you. I want to see what you can do.’”

Members of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association told how new workers’ organizations can reach out horizontally to the community, rather than vertically to regional or national union offices. Students took part in a hunger strike in front of a restaurant, the practices of which they protested.

Youngstown’s Ed Mann became president of a Steelworkers local union. He had to live through the shutdown of the mill without being able to stop it. In retirement, Ed became a member of the IWW. He felt that the union was the people who composed it, and that the unions of the future maybe “won’t be structured as we see them today.”

The IWW And The New Rank And File

The IWW is a natural place to look for the alternative structure that Ed Mann imagined. The Wobblies stand in the imagination of labor people as the embodiment of rank-and-file self-activity. They are understood to orient themselves to folks at the bottom rather than to union leaders and their election contests.

But here we need to be good historians and to recognize an important fallacy in the original Wobbly perspective.

The IWW was formed in 1905 at a conference with one major emphasis, which was expressed in the call to the conference issued in January 1905 by three dozen individuals including Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, and Eugene Debs (see the new edition of “Rebel Voices,” ed. Joyce Kornbluh, page 7-9). Their manifesto deplored trade and craft divisions that broke the workers’ collective “power of resistance.” The separation of crafts and trades was said to be “outgrown” and “long-gone.” It was assumed that the formation of industrial unions would increase class consciousness.

The same theme was emphasized by Debs in a speech he gave in Chicago the next November, after the founding conference. Drawing on his own experience among railroad workers, Debs declared: “We insist that all the workers in the whole of any given plant shall belong to one and the same union.” (The speech is conveniently available in “American Labor Struggles and Law Histories,” ed. Kenneth Casebeer, page 91-99).

The implicit perspective, embodied as well in the IWW Constitution, is that the industrial union form of organization in itself fosters class consciousness, solidarity, and labor radicalism.

But we know now that this is not the case. The United Mine Workers (UMW) was an industrial union, albeit within the old American Federation of Labor. Under Lewis’s leadership the UMW proved once and for all that an industrial union could be just as conservative and undemocratic as the craft unions it replaced.

Only in the past few years have IWW organizers seriously begun a search for new organizational forms and a qualitatively new and more radical kind of labor union.

The examples with which I am most familiar are the Workers Solidarity Club of Youngstown, a “parallel central labor union” that offered significant strike support in the 1980s, and the more recent “solidarity union” at Starbucks establishments in New York City and elsewhere.

Daniel Gross is the principal IWW organizer at Starbucks, and he and I have written a pamphlet called “Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks” available from PM Press in Oakland, Calif.

The main idea is that the NLRA has two parts, and you can use one while avoiding the other.

The part to be avoided, according to Fellow Worker Daniel and myself, is Section 9. This is the section that provides for—guess what?—election of an exclusive collective bargaining union representative, the very practice John L. Lewis wished to make universal.

A recent book by a labor law professor, Charles J. Morris, argues that this practice was not universal when the NLRA was enacted. Morris contends that the initial conception was that an employer had a duty to bargain with any organization of its employees that requested negotiation, whether or not the organization claimed to represent a majority of the employees. This was the practice John Sargent reported to exist at Inland Steel for several years after the Little Steel Strike of 1937. Obviously such a “minority union” could not, practically speaking, bargain away the right to strike embodied in Section 13 of the NLRA for all the workers at a particular worksite.

On the other hand, Daniel and I argue that Section 7 of the NLRA, which protects the right to engage in “concerted activity for mutual aid or protection,” should be embraced and fully used. Section 7 is the basis for unfair labor practice (ULP) charges by employees who are fired or discriminated against when trying to act together in the workplace.

It seems to us that in this way rankand- file workers can safeguard the selfactivity by means of which they seek to address specific problems as they arise, while at the same time avoiding the part of the NLRA that empowers majority unions to bargain away the right to strike.

What Is Happening At Walmart?

The recent upsurge of rank-and-file activity at Walmart stores and warehouses in the United States has not, so far as I know, been led or inspired either by participants in Occupy or by members of the IWW. What it represents is the spread of characteristic Wobbly forms of self-activity to workplaces where those practices arise spontaneously because they speak to the needs and opportunities actually experienced by Walmart workers.

Recent Walmart strikes began among warehouse workers in California, spread to warehouse workers in Elwood, Ill., and finally have begun to appear at Walmart retail stores all over the United States. (The following compilation of facts is derived from a variety of websites and published articles.)

Walmart is the country’s largest private employer, reporting 1.4 million employees in the United States at 4,300 stores. The company claims that full-time employees make more than $13 an hour. Workers say that most of them work part-time for less than $10 an hour. Colby Harris in Dallas makes $8.90 an hour and says that workers need a “buddy system” to make it through “non-paycheck weeks.” Also according to Walmart workers, health care benefits are theoretically available, but they are too expensive and too many hours are required before a worker qualifies to receive them. Sixty percent of Walmart’s hourly employees are women, who brought a nationwide lawsuit against the company that the United States Supreme Court held could not be pursued as a class action.

Meanwhile, Walmart made a profit of $15.4 billion in 2011, and $4 billion in the first quarter of 2012.

In the words of an article by Matthew Cunningham-Cook, Walmart workers “are harkening back to an earlier form of union organization…far more common prior to the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935.”

In mid-September, warehouse workers for Walmart in southern California went on strike to protest unsafe working conditions: broken equipment, dangerously high temperatures, inadequate access to ventilation and clean drinking water. These are temporary employees, hired by a Walmart contractor and paid minimum wage.

Strikers marched on a 50-mile “Walmarch” from their worksite to Los Angeles to raise public awareness. Old-timers may have been reminded of the farmworker pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento in the 1960s. Over 120,000 persons signed a petition supporting the Walmarchers. They went back to work Oct. 5 with a promise of improved conditions. It is reported that workers from different countries marched into the workplace carrying their countries’ flags.

Elwood, Ill., on the outskirts of Chicago, is a strategic link in the Walmart supply chain. Walmart’s warehouse there is said to process 70 percent of the company’s domestic goods. This was what made it possible for a strike by just two dozen workers to be so successful.

Some of the grievances of the Elwood strikers had to do with wage theft resulting from forced overtime and the lack of set working schedules, as well as inadequate safety equipment. These temporary workers have had a hard time finding housing. Mike Compton told a reporter that he sleeps in foreclosed homes. Another worker set up a tent in the woods.

The first step at Elwood was to circulate and present a petition on Sept. 15. Four workers were immediately fired. Other workers walked out in protest.

On Oct. 1, the striking workers were joined by more than 650 community supporters, including members of the clergy, many of them bused in from Joliet and Chicago. Seventeen more persons were arrested in a civil disobedience action planned in advance. The arrestees included national UE Director of Organization, Bob Kingsley.

On Oct. 5, strikers delivered a petition to Walmart management with more than 100,000 signatures. The next day, after three weeks “on the bricks,” the Elwood workers went back to work. The company actually paid them full back pay for the time they were on strike.

One result of this ferment was a meeting of Walmart executives on Oct. 17 with delegations of workers from warehouses in California and Illinois. This was in striking contrast to the past practice of meeting with individual workers pursuant to the company’s “Open Door” policy. Workers also want the Open Door process itself revised so that: (1) Confidentiality is respected; (2) Resolution of issues is put in writing; and (3) “Associates” (as Walmart calls its employees) are permitted to bring a co-worker to meetings as a witness.

Rather than presenting themselves as new members of existing unions, these wildcat strikers have formed new organizations with names like Warehouse Workers for Justice and OUR Walmart (OUR standing for “Organization United for Respect”). It is important to recognize that existing unions, especially the United Food and Commercial Workers, support these new entities in many ways, including financial support, and no doubt hope that Walmart workers will ultimately join the union. But it is equally important to recognize that nothing obliges Walmart workers to join a traditional union, if they prefer to continue their less traditional practices of horizontal mutual aid.

Emboldened by the actions of their fellow workers in company warehouses, Walmart “associates” at company retail stores staged a one-day strike on Oct. 4. More than 70 workers from at least nine southern California Walmart retail stores took part. Using social media, strikers spread the word and a nationwide walkout followed on Oct. 9. More than 200 Walmart workers also showed up at a national meeting of company executives on Oct. 10. “Democracy Now!” reported that they came from 28 Walmart stores in 12 different states.

As I complete this essay in early November 2012, there is talk that if Walmart continues to ignore these bottom-up demands for change, Walmart workers will call for a nationwide boycott of their stores on the Friday following Thanksgiving (otherwise known as “Black Friday”).

Toward Another World

The dramatic saga just narrated should remind us that fundamental social change is unlikely to happen without the working class, and that workers remain capable of acting in the imaginative and irrepressible spirit of their theme song, “Solidarity Forever.”

The Occupy movement is a potential actor in the play. Events at the grain terminal in Longview, Wash., one year ago remain controversial. I think the evidence suggests that Occupy volunteers strengthened the struggle, and that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) settled for too little, indeed that Pacific Northwest grain exporters wish to copy the Longview contract in their bargaining elsewhere.

The main point is simply that change is possible because workers, like others, treasure the moments when they experience the possibility of another world. Archbishop Óscar Romero said shortly before his assassination:

“The so-called Left is the people…We can’t say that there is a formula for moving from capitalism to socialism. If you want to call it socialism, well, it’s just a name. What we’re looking for is justice, a kinder society, a sharing of resources. That’s what people are looking for.”

Trinh Duong described as follows why she became an activist in Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association: “There was something that drew me. It was as if you got a glimpse of something that you’re not allowed to see. I don’t know how to describe it, but I came back.”


Alice Lynd contributed to this piece.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2012)

Remembering FW Adam Briesemeister

An obituary of Twin Cities IWW member and anarchist organizer, Adam Briesemeister.

On March 21 of this year, members of the IWW and broader community in the Twin Cities were shattered by the tragic news that our Fellow Worker Adam Briesemeister perished in a house fire early that morning. It has been very hard to believe that Adam is no longer here. As the year draws to a close, I’d like to take a moment to remember him.

A few days after the tragedy, friends, family members, fellow workers, and comrades gathered in a park in Minneapolis to celebrate Adam’s life and mourn his departure. As people shared pictures and stories, a portrait emerged of a man who was many things to many people- an actor, a friend, an anarchist, a Wobbly, a worker. To me, Adam was a comrade in the IWW, and an actor. He had leaped at the opportunity to play multiple roles in “The Silent Room,” a play one of our branch’s members wrote about his experiences of wage slavery and rebellion at Starbucks and IKEA. He had happily played the parts of both a union-busting lawyer and a rebel café worker, squeezing rehearsals into a schedule already jam-packed with radical projects. Adam never said “no” to an invitation to participate in a campaign, and never backed down in a struggle.

As people shared how they had known Adam, we saw that even as he was many things to many different people, he also touched all of our lives in the same way. It is almost impossible to find a photo of Adam where he is not smiling. He was human like all of us, and I’m sure he had his bad days, but I haven’t met anyone who can remember a single day that Adam was cranky, discouraged, or outwardly pessimistic. Whether he was your friend, coworker, fellow actor, fellow Anarchist, or Fellow Worker, his love of freedom and humanity was infectious. He was a revolutionary to the core. Adam lived without compromise.

We found out that in fact, Adam gave up his life rather than give up his values. He was the first in the house to wake up during the early-morning fire. Rather than save himself, he woke up his roommates so that they could escape safely. He died of smoke inhalation while attempting to rescue the last person in the house, who fortunately survived.

Adam’s death is a terrible tragedy. It is hard to believe that this great comrade is no longer among us. But in so many ways, Adam is still here. Adam’s purpose in life was to inspire and encourage others- to “make revolution irresistible,” in his own words. For many of us who knew him, it would be no overstatement to say that Adam accomplished his goal. He showed us how to live.

I think about Adam almost every day. Whenever I am afraid, or whenever I can’t decide if a risk is worth taking, I ask myself- what would Adam do in this situation? Would he worry about ruffling feathers by confronting racism and sexism? No way. Would he hold back in order to protect his job or ‘career possibilities’? Absolutely not. Would he keep a distance while others put their bodies on the line? Hell no. He would do the right thing, without even stopping to think twice.

He is missed very much by very many. But in many ways, Adam is still among us. Every time we put others before ourselves, every time we do what is right instead of what is convenient, Adam is there. Just as he died so that others could live, it’s up to us to make sure Adam lives on in our hearts, minds, and above all in our actions, for as long as we live.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012) and reposted at The Organizer on December 16, 2012

Not just “a dues collector”

An article by DJ Alperovitz on the role of IWW delegates.

Over the last few months there have been several Facebook discussions about IWW delegates who have made arbitrary decisions outside of their job description (e.g. not allowing students to join and stalling an organizing campaign). Several times there have been statements made that delegates are just “volunteers to accept dues.” As a delegate who has tried to live up to high standards, I find both these assertions troubling. On the one hand, some delegates are obviously not receiving any training or even reading their “Delegate’s Manual,” and on the other hand, there appears to be a misunderstanding of the position by fellow IWW members.

Delegates have both an honorable, colorful history and an important place in their branch and the IWW itself.

In earlier days when our union was organizing mostly “home guards” (sedentary workers attached to home and a single job often with family responsibilities), prospective new members would make their way to an IWW hall and be lined up by either the branch secretary-treasurer or stationary delegate. This system worked well when building membership in cities, or mill and mine towns; however, it showed its limitations out west with its far-flung railroad and logging camps and especially with migratory harvest workers.

Almost simultaneously in both western Canada and the United States, branch secretaries in towns with IWW halls began delegating members to represent them in the camps and harvest fields. Call them what you will—camp delegates, roving delegates, or job delegates—these dedicated workers would travel, work, eat, and live with the fellow workers. In camps and harvest fields, these representative delegates were agitating, educating, and organizing not only to build the One Big Union of the industrial commonwealth, but for the day-to- day improvement of wages, working, and living conditions, too.

In her speech “Memories of the Industrial Workers of the World” from Nov. 8, 1962, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn described these footloose delegates as equipped with “…a little black case in which they had membership books and buttons and literature and dues stamps and all the paraphernalia of organization and the most remarkable thing was that there was practically no defections. Maybe one or two. One man actually stole money and then afterwards hung himself, I understand. You see there was great devotion and loyalty to this mobile organization of migratory workers.”

In another example, FW Sam Green recently came across a General Organization Bulletin (GOB) from the 1920s. In it a letter mentioned that a named fellow worker was a delegate that had run off with some union funds and if you happen to see him “you know what to do.”

Often these delegates would be holding relatively large amounts of cash, and the stories of their not having the price of a cup of coffee while having union money in their care are legendary. After the harvest when workers’ identities changed from necessary harvest worker to unwanted vagrant, “town clowns” (small town police officers) and the local (in)justice system would “harvest hobos” (a term used for arresting hobos, sometimes at the end of harvest so that the town could collect the fines and court costs, or when a town had a civic improvement project that needed to be done such as road work, sewer line, etc...). As a way of ensuring that fellow workers did not lose their funds, delegates would be entrusted with a worker’s earnings to be wired to an IWW hall where the worker planned to winter. And how did delegates avoid the perils of vagrancy laws and being harvested themselves? Some of them became travelling insurance or farm tool salesmen allowing them to travel relatively unmolested. In the case of Agricultural Workers Industrial Union delegates, they were allowed to keep the 50-cent initiation fee to help cover expenses; expenses being the cost of wiring funds back to headquarters, stamps and envelopes, sometimes renting a hotel room to hold meetings, buying a cup of coffee and a doughnut for the boys during hard times, and sometimes when necessary to protect union and workers funds by having to “ride the cushions” (pay for and ride as a train passenger). These were dedicated Wobs of the first water—class conscious, willing and able to tough out lousy camp and working conditions, and fight to help better the lives of their fellow workers.

Fast forward to today and while most delegates are not hopping freight trains or living in lousy bunk houses, they are still more than just “a volunteer to collect dues.” A good delegate is part organizer, part bookkeeper, part Literature Department, part fundraiser, and all IWW. They are entrusted not only with union funds but also with signing up and ensuring that new members understand our principles and structure. They keep up with union news through reading the IW and the GOB, and work towards connecting fellow workers in their branch to the larger union. Certainly they do much more than just collect dues.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2012)

Is revolutionary unionism undemocratic and insincere?

Nate Hawthorne argues against some common objections to revolutionary unionism. Adapted from a section of his article, Mottos and watchwords: a discussion of politics and mass organizations.

“Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work,’” says the Preamble to our Constitution, “we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’” Some anti-capitalists reject the idea that unions can or should truly believe in ending capitalism. For them, the IWW can either reject the Preamble in order to grow, keep the Preamble but not sincerely believe in it, or keep the Preamble in a sincere way at the cost of being nothing but a small marginal group. These people implicitly reverse the Preamble to say “instead of the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system,’ our banners should only pose the common sense motto ‘a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.’”

These critics sometimes use a hypothetical scenario such as: “If you call for ending capitalism, most workers won’t join because most workers don’t want to end capitalism. If a lot of workers did, the IWW would not have a real collective commitment to ending capitalism because all those new workers would not believe in ending capitalism. Your Preamble will be just empty words. Or the few members who want to end capitalism will control things while the majority who don’t care about that anti-capitalism stuff will have no real input. Revolutionary unionism can be marginal, insincere, or undemocratic, and that’s all.”

This can sound compelling, but let’s look closely. If most of the working class today do not want to end capitalism and are not willing to join an anti-capitalist union then we don’t need to worry about how to keep the organization democratic if large numbers of workers join, because it simply won’t happen. The problem dissolves. Something will have to change before lots of workers start wanting to join a revolutionary union. One possible change is that more workers will decide they want to end capitalism. The problem dissolves again. Another possibility is that many workers will begin to see some benefit in IWW membership, and they pretend to agree with the Preamble in order to get those benefits. That’s possible. Sincerity is hard to test. People might lie. The same kind of problem occurs in any organization. Currently unions often face the problem of having members who aren’t active participants and who lack a culture of solidarity, so that members crossing picket lines and don’t stand with their fellow workers. There’s no easy solution to any of this, it requires ongoing effort. We should also organize ourselves so that the benefits of IWW membership are linked to activities that deepen people’s commitment to revolutionary unionism, and to an important extent we simply have to trust each other. Part of the problem with the hypothetical scenario, “What if lots of workers join, when they don’t actually agree with the Preamble?” is that it treats people as fixed. Many workers today don’t want to end capitalism. If it’s believable that people would want to join the IWW in large numbers, then we should not assume that their beliefs will stay the same.

At the same time, we shouldn’t assume that people’s commitment to the values expressed in the IWW Preamble will stay the same. People are dynamic, which means that we face a more serious problem than “What if workers only pretend to want to abolish the wage system?!” Namely, people might sincerely agree with the Preamble but change their minds later, or they might agree but decide that they don’t want to act on that agreement. They might think one thing in a moment of anger or desperation, but then cool off and change their minds. Many people who have had radical beliefs for many years have thought a bit about what their lives would be like if they had different beliefs and commitments and have seen fellow radicals waver more strongly, and sometimes fall away. Life under capitalism is hard to endure and radical views sometimes make it harder. This problem appears in non-radical unions as well: people get tired of the work, or stop agreeing with the union. Here too there is no simple solution. The IWW will continue to face real problems with recruitment, retention, and member education for the foreseeable future. We can respond to these problems in better and worse ways, and radical critics who reject revolutionary unionism don’t help us to respond better. If anything, they encourage worse responses.

Some people will cool off and move away from the organization sometimes. We should prepare for the consequences this will have. Among other problems, we want to avoid a situation where people become only paper members. One thing the IWW does to prevent this is heavily encouraging face-to-face interaction with delegates in order to join and to stay members. This encourages the organization to be financially dependent on having real members, rather than paper members.

We should have longer conversations about how to reduce the frequency and consequences of people cooling off. Many people who have held radical beliefs for a long time have managed to take the heat of their outrage at the world, their passionate relationships with other radicals and experiences of collective struggles and combine it with ideas, values, and stories in order to create their own internal heat source, so they are less likely to cool off. We need to figure out how to make this happen as often as possible for IWW members, so that as many members as possible will own internal revolutionary unionist heat. One important aspect of this is that joining our organization is or should be an interactive activity. Joining a union can and should involve a frank discussion with a member about why the organization exists, about the organization’s core values, why the person is joining and why the current member is involved. This is a conversation between two people about their understanding of the world now and of the world they would like to see. This way, joining the IWW is a dynamic activity that shapes the direction people move in after joining. After joining, there can and should be educational components of membership in an organization, including written materials, discussions, various parts of the life and culture of the organization, and, above all, relationships with other members. All of this helps prevent the situation described in the hypothetical scenario above, where workers join the IWW but don’t believe in the Preamble. Through these kinds of activities, we practice revolutionary unionism in a way that is sincere, democratic, and continues to become a more powerful presence within the working class.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2012)

Is revolutionary unionism undemocratic and insincere.pdf4.81 MB

IWW report from the 30th SAC Congress

A reportback of the 30th Congress of the Swedish syndicalist union, SAC.

The IWW Norway General Membership Branch (GMB) was invited to send a delegation to the 30th congress of the Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation (SAC, or the Central Organization of the Workers of Sweden), in Gävle, Sweden, on Sept. 27-30. International guests were invited to attend the first two days.

Other than the IWW, members from the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) of Spain and Die Freie Arbeiterinnen- und Arbeiter Union (FAU-IAA) of Germany also attended. The International Workers Association (IAA/IWA) banished the SAC several years ago and has since not maintained much contact. The FAU-IAA and SAC are seemingly maintaining a friendly relationship, which is promising for the future of syndicalism in Europe.

The town of Gävle is the birthplace of our very own Joe Hill (born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund), and much of the social part of the congress took place in the Joe Hill Museum, which is the house where Joe Hill grew up. The house is now a museum maintained by the SAC. The house is full of IWW items and books, and definitely sets the mood for a syndicalist union congress. The museum gracefully decided to donate a large bag of books on Joe Hill to the IWW in Norway, and we now have a mobile library for members! The fellow workers at the museum also made it clear that the IWW would always be welcome to use the house, and that members of the SAC would be happy to help with planning and accommodation should we decide to have a convention or meeting there.

Amalia Alvarez, from the SAC international committee, introduced the IWW delegates to some of the SAC delegates and the international guests and made sure the stay was great. The SAC provided excellent food and housing.

The congress itself dealt not so much with international issues, but mostly with internal and structural affairs. One of the cases was a discussion on the definition of syndicalism in the SAC declaration of principles. In 2009, the congress decided that syndicalism be defined as a fighting tradition of the working class, removing part of the definition that identified it as an ideology. The proposition was to take back the word “ideology” in the definition. The proposition failed. Never the less, the SAC still defines itself clearly in the syndicalist tradition, and has a structural likeness to the IWW. Other than that, there were some cases pertaining to internal democracy, and propositions intended to increase membership influence.

For those of you that are not familiar the SAC: it was founded in 1910 based on the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) in France and the IWW. Their structure is similar to the IWW’s industrial unionism, except that members are not direct members of the SAC, but direct members of an industrial union branch or general membership branch that is connected to the SAC. There are approximately 7,000 members in good standing, and the 2012 congress devoted itself to increasing membership radically in the next 10-20 years.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2012)