Industrial Worker (July/August 2013)

Articles from the July/August 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

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Venture syndicalism: fanning and dousing the flames of discontent

Article from the Industrial Worker newspaper on fast food strikes in the U.S.

Currently, organizations funded by unions are trying to win legislation requiring higher pay in the U.S. fast food industry under slogans like “Fight for a Fair Economy” Pay increases are great, but these efforts fit into something I called “venture syndicalism” in a column last month. We can see elements of a theory of venture syndicalism in a document called “Joining Voices: Inclusive Strategies for Labor’s Renewal,” which the American Federation of Teachers put out in 2005. (For more on this see Joe Burns’ excellent book “Reviving The Strike.”) While that document did not originate within the “Fight for a Fair Economy” campaign, it can help us get a sense of the discussions in the mainstream labor movement that inform that campaign and will probably inform future efforts. “Joining Voices” explains that “existing unions have much to risk and lose,” that is, lots of money which make them vulnerable to fines, if they violate laws against “secondary boycotts and shutdowns, sit-down strikes, etc.” But new unions “with no accumulated treasuries…would have substantially less to lose” and so could “enjoy greater strategic and tactical flexibility” to carry out “unconventional tactics unencumbered by the restraints of current labor law.” 

“Joining Voices” called for existing and wealthier unions to provide “money, logistical assistance, long-term loaned staff and other help”  to “organizing committees of start-up unions” while allowing these new “start-up unions” to be fully independent, at least formally. If these “start-up unions” succeeded, “increasing union density in any sector, by any union” would benefit “all union members everywhere and the labor movement as a whole.” Because these start-up unions have few resources, they are more able to break the law. The independence of these “start-up unions” would create “institutional firewalls for donor unions.” If there was a violation of the law, the independent “start-up,” with its smaller treasury, would take the hit, not the donor union with the big treasury. That’s the “venture” part of venture syndicalism. 

Here’s the ”syndicalism” part, though it’s more like “so-called syndicalism.” Unions today are experimenting in two important ways, by fighting for union contracts without going through National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections, and sometimes by “organizing outside collective bargaining,” to quote “Joining Voices” again. Efforts to pass laws requiring higher wages are an attempt to go around the NLRB while keeping the government as a key part of guaranteeing workers’ livelihoods. That is, they are an effort to abandon the NLRB while getting a different part of the state to play a role in mediating between workers and capitalists.

These efforts to go outside the NLRB are based on unions’ understanding that the NLRB is broken. Workers lose NLRB elections lose more often than they win. The odds of getting a first contract after an election are equally awful, for those workers who do manage to win the initial election. The NLRB has little power to punish employers who break the law in fighting workers who organize. Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross’s “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer,” a book every IWW member ought to read, lays this out quite well. So does Burns’ “Reviving the Strike.” This criticism of the NLRB is a big part of recent discussion in the IWW about so-called “direct unionism.” Staff and officers in the business unions are at least as aware of the limits of the NLRB as we are in the IWW. The decline of the NLRB marks an important historic shift, as the U.S. capitalist class and government have largely abandoned unions as tools for governing capitalism. Largely due to the NLRB, unions played a key role in how mid-20th century U.S. capitalism was governed and maintained.

Venture syndicalism is part of a larger trend of “militant reformism.” I point this out because it is easy for us to get swept up in struggles carried out by sincere people and to forget about the fundamental character of the organizations involved. Even when they use exciting, innovative, militant tactics, reformist unions are still committed to “the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’” as our constitution’s Preamble puts it. The IWW and our sister organizations reject this slogan, embracing "the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.” Our goal is to “bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,” to quote the song “Solidarity Forever.” We should welcome rising militancy but we should be prepared for the people calling the shots in venture syndicalist projects to act as a force for the old society against the creation of a new world out of its ashes. We must remember that not all struggles help to end capitalism, and that militancy and radicalism are two different things

Unions which are committed to nothing more than “fair wages” are like a gas stove. Different parts of a stove create and sustain fire, but also contain fire, keep it from getting above a certain temperature, prevent it from spreading or joining up with other fires, and put it out by cutting off the fuel. Similarly, different parts of reformist unions create and sustain class struggle, keep it from getting too hot, prevent it from spreading too much or joining up with other struggles, and bring conflicts to an end. Gas stoves are about making fire useful for cooking. Ultimately, reformist unions and government labor policy are about making the fires of class struggle useful to capitalism. 

Venture syndicalism is an attempt to make unions once again into important tools for governing U.S. capitalism. This involves creating and sustaining some of the fire of class struggle. We should welcome that, but we should also be aware that reformist unions fight for goals which will include their ability to contain, limit, and end struggles, if struggles get intense enough. Aspects of venture syndicalism will pull class struggle in the direction of the old world we reject. This means that IWW members who participate in these efforts should ask ourselves if our participation amounts to anything more than “we follow the strategy set by the people in charge and help them win on their terms.” If not, then we are basically just volunteers in a project oriented fundamentally around the conservative “fair wages” vision we reject. 

I am almost but not quite saying that these campaigns are reformist so the IWW should not participate. IWW members should participate in venture syndicalist projects…if we have nothing better to do. In those cases, we should participate with a plan to gain skills, experience, confidence, and relationships so that we will eventually have something better to do. When we participate, we should be honest with ourselves about whether or not, and how, we are actually accomplishing our goals. We should also be clear about what we are and are not going to accomplish as volunteers in venture syndicalist projects. I am reminded of John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s. Lewis was relatively conservative but he liked hiring radicals as organizing staff. When criticized by moderates for this decision, his reply showed that he did not see radical participation in the CIO as a threat to capitalism: “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” he said. When we participate in venture syndicalist projects, we should always remember who holds the leash.

This column originally appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper in July, 2013.

Workers & peasants demand a kingdom of heaven on Earth: a review of 'Q'

A review by John O'Reily of Q by Luther Blissett.

Blissett, Luther. Q. Boston: Mariner Books, 2005 (reprint edition). Paperback, 768 pages, $39.95.

Most people think about the Protestant Reformation about as frequently as they think about sitting down to do their taxes, if not even less. But a contentious medieval Europe is the backdrop for one of the best pieces of historical fiction that Wobblies should really pay attention to. “Q,” the novel by a collective of radical Italians who used to publish under the name Luther Blissett and now go by Wu Ming, is a great adventure story that also packs a political wallop. The sequel to “Q” has just been translated from the Italian to English and been released, so it is worth revisiting the original novel, published in 2000, to remember why exciting works of fiction like “Q” should be a priority for Wobblies to check out.

The book centers around two characters and is structured like a spy novel. The protagonist, who goes by various names throughout the book, is known most frequently as Gert-From-The-Well. He is a German who bounces around various revolutionary groups during the explosion of social conflict that takes place during the Reformation. He follows the flags of peasant rebels, communistic Christian booksellers and preachers, cruel messianic zealots, pacifist communitarians and persecuted Jewish liberals, as their fortunes rise and fall, ever in the quest to be free of the influences of the powerful and authoritarian Catholic Church, the kings and lords of Europe, and the increasingly out-of-touch “official” Protestant leadership. Gert deals with the inevitable crushing of movements for popular power by changing his name and moving on to a new struggle, a man weighed down by the fact that while his comrades often die, he lives on to fight another day.

His antagonist is the shadow known as Q, a papal operative who blends in with the crowds of workers and peasants throughout Europe, seeking information on heresies and finding a way into the good graces of radical movements in order to subvert them. Q, less a zealot than a cynical manipulator, finds a way to put himself on the sidelines of multiple popular struggles, using his influence and instincts to tear at the unity of those who would be free of the Catholic Church’s power. He and Gert’s paths consistently cross, though their significance to each other remains concealed for most of their respective journeys.

While “Q” is an exciting story of intrigue, back-stabbing and straight up swash-buckling, what makes it most interesting for Wobblies to check out is that its center is on ethics and that it’s a story of anti-capitalism. Outside of a few science fiction writers, most fiction treats radicals as a stand-in for something else. Radicals are often signifiers, ciphers, of viewpoints that the author seeks to abstract. Radicals, rebels, anti-capitalists, and others are introduced to talk about the author’s ideas about intransigence, morality, discipline, freedom, personal virtue or a host of other ideas. What makes “Q” different is that the authors are themselves veterans of the Italian extra-parliamentary left, and they write the novel to talk about the ideas of anticapitalist struggle itself. In “Q,” radicals are real people, with complicated and contradictory ideas, with lives and thoughts of their own, but still with a firm dedication to their cause of liberty from the dominant repressive order.

They are not archetypes but characters. Instead of communism being a signifier for something else, it is the content of the plot itself. Gert’s adventures through various revolutionary activities show the highs and lows, exuberance, excitement and excess, of people who spend their lives trying to live without bishops, popes and kings. It’s hard not to identify with the plight of the common people organizing themselves for liberation who appear throughout the novel, not as stereotypes of the hammer-and-sicklewielding proletarians and peasants of socialist realism, or misguided bohemians and shady bureaucrats of most Western literature, but as the regular types of people you run into at the bar or the grocery store, who have just had enough of the oppression of the bosses and cops.

Based on the actual history of various uprisings and scandals in Europe in the 16th century, “Q” delivers a heart-pounding story of revolt and repression. While the novel has its flaws, particularly in the relative weakness of its female characters (something recognized by its authors, who have promised that the sequel, “Altai,” will deal with better), “Q” is a first-rate adventure novel that highlights a reasonably obscure piece of the people’s history of Europe and imbues it with the fire of revolution. In a moment when everything from the papacy, to the divine right of kings, to the idea of God itself was up for debate, “Q” tells an engaging story of everyday workers and peasants demanding a kingdom of heaven on Earth and willing to go as far as needed to make it happen.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (July/August 2013)