Industrial Worker (January/February 2013)

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

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Planks for a platform and a few words about organizing - Staughton Lynd

An article by Staughton Lynd on specific practices and contract clauses that he thinks Wobblies should support.

This is the last in a series of reflections on the IWW approach to workers whom it hopes to “organize.”

The first point is that history offers inadequate formulations of what the IWW is all about.

The formulation embodied in the name and in the Preamble to the 1905 IWW Constitution is that the IWW is an association of “industrial” rather than “craft” unionists. As I have argued, the 1930s proved the inadequacy of this perspective. John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers (UMW), was an autocratic president of an industrial union and passionately repressed radicals. As principal founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Lewis sponsored the creation of a series of top-down unions in the rubber, automobile, steel, meatpacking and other industries. The Lewis model for CIO unions insisted that one union represent all the workers in a particular industry, and that the employer deduct union dues from their paychecks.

Within and without the UMW, Lewis also pushed a particular sort of union contract that included two clauses much desired by management: a clause prohibiting strikes and other disruptions of production during the life of the contract and a “management prerogatives” clause giving the employer the legal right to make all the big decisions about a workplace. Such a contract put in the hands of the employer sole authority to decide what the enterprise should produce, how many workers it needed and, above all, whether, over time, the enterprise should receive new capital investment and expand, or be shut down.

A contract that gives the boss the authority to make the big decisions and prevents workers from doing anything about those decisions by stopping work is not a contract to which any worker should ever consent. Almost every CIO contract contained (and contains today) both a no-strike and a management prerogatives clause. Wobblies were critical of such contracts and obtained the reputation of opposing all written agreements.

The point, however, was not that it is always wrong to write down an agreement, but, rather, that the agreements typical of unionism in the United States routinely contain curtailments of vital workers’ rights. It is the substance of these contracts, not the fact of a written contract, which the IWW and its members have rightly protested.

So, when a fellow worker asks, “What are you guys for, anyhow?” neither the idea of industrial unionism nor a critique of “workplace contractualism” really answers the question. The imaginary dialogue might go like this:

A fellow worker asks a Wob, “So what are you people all about?”

The Wob pulls out a copy of the paper and points to the Preamble on page 3.

His colleague says, “Yeah, I like the spirit of the thing, but we got an industrial union, and it stinks.”

Frustrated, the Wob responds: “Well, we don’t sign contracts.”

Fellow worker says: “In the first place, I heard about an IWW local across town that did sign a contract. And in the second place, isn’t it really a question of what’s in the contract, not whether you write stuff down?”

I am not a member of the IWW and am only a single voice. Obviously, it should be you, not I, who answer these critical and legitimate questions. An important beginning that I notice in the December 2012 Industrial Worker is that, in place of the Preamble written 107 years ago, you have set forth a new statement of principles. It is well-drafted and persuasive. Congratulations!

But I think it might also assist that inquisitive fellow worker if there were a set of specific practices and contract clauses that Wobblies could be expected to support. Here are some possible “planks” for such a “platform.” (I rather like this figure of speech. One takes one’s stand on a platform. It is solid, supportive. Planks are required to give it substance):

1. Above all, every individual worker and every group of workers must retain the right to stop work at any time. Nothing in the Wagner Act, the law that applies to an ordinary private sector workplace, requires a no-strike clause. Beginning with the first CIO contracts in 1937, unions have voluntarily surrendered this essential right for the life of the contract.

2. Contract clauses that prohibit strikes have also been interpreted to prohibit slowing work down. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) does not protect slowdowns. However, slowdowns are essential and workers must struggle to promote and protect this critical practice.

3. Working to rule (for instance, doing everything directed by the company safety manual in a dumb-bunny manner) is an important tool. The late Jerry Tucker made a valuable contribution with his inplant efforts at the Staley corn processing plant in the early 1990s and elsewhere. Remember, however, that Staley also proved that working to rule can be checkmated by a lockout.

4. Wobs need to develop an egalitarian approach to layoffs that protects what Stan Weir called “the family at work,” or more simply, solidarity. We should abandon a mechanical application of seniority in layoff situations that may have the result that older workers (often white and male) not only continue to work full time but may even work overtime, while newer hires (often minority and/or female) are put on the street with nothing.

5. Internationalism is a very serious matter. The Farmworkers under César Chávez informed the federal government of undocumented immigrants from Mexico so as to protect the jobs of Mexican Americans already in the United States. Teamsters and Steelworkers were in Seattle in 1999 so that Teamsters could oppose letting Mexican truck drivers across the Rio Grande, and Steelworkers could advocate, as they always do, a protective tariff on steel imports. We must work toward coordinated strike action that protects workers everywhere.

6. The American ruling class will export to other countries any form of work that is not, by its nature, tied to a particular location. The reason is simple: lower wages can be paid elsewhere. We need to re-conceptualize the centrality of “service” industries such as public employment, work in hospitals and retirement facilities, home nursing, and trucking. Such work is the heartbeat of a community, and includes the things that people voluntarily do for each other in moments of crisis like Hurricane Sandy.

7. In general, immigrants from Latin America and other “underdeveloped” parts of the world bring with them to the United States a more sophisticated and deep-seated practice of solidarity than that which exists among Anglos. All Wobs should learn Spanish.

8. There can never be a justification of two- and three-tier wage scales for the same work. We must champion the old, old principle of equal pay for equal work.

9. When a worker is summoned to the office of a supervisor, every effort must be made to make sure that one or more fellow workers accompany him or her. The NLRB has gone back and forth as to whether non-union workers possess this right as a matter of law. We must try to assert it in practice, regardless.

10. Self-evidently, everything said in the foregoing specific suggestions finds its ultimate rationale in the idea of solidarity. In my experience, this idea is enormously attractive for many workers. The workplace, where we are legally vulnerable and must abandon the rights of citizenship when we punch in, may paradoxically become the place and time where we most fully experience that another world is possible.

I will very briefly conclude by proposing that Wobs, individually and collectively, address the question: What does it mean to organize, to “be an organizer”? Yes, I know that Joe Hill wrote to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “Don’t mourn for me; organize.” But what did this wandering songwriter and casual laborer mean by the word “organize”? Not, I think, what the organizer who works for a modern trade union means. The organizer for a mainstream union checks in at the motel, convenes an underground meeting of informal shop-floor leaders, decides how best to recruit potential voters, stages a “going public” day when union supporters display buttons and pass out cards…and then, the day after the election, checks out of the motel and leaves town. If the election has been lost, the organizer leaves behind rank-and-file workers whose union sympathies have been made known to the employer and who are therefore vulnerable to retaliation.

This is not what we should mean by “organizing.” In fact, I believe it would be helpful to leave the word “organizing” to others, and to describe what we try to do with a word first used by Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador: “accompanying.” Accompanying means walking beside another person, each learning from the other.

It also means staying for a while. My wife and I have found that staying in one place for more than 35 years gives us an ability to be heard and to be useful. It helps, too, to come to a community with a skill to offer that other people feel that they need.

I won’t say any more about this here because it appears in a new book called “Accompanying,” published by PM Press in Oakland, Calif.

Solidarity forever!

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2013)

A few words on IWW organizing.pdf155.63 KB

Entering the majority

An article by Zac Smith comparing politics between Oklahoma and France.

Oklahoma and France are obviously at opposite ends of many spectrums. In Oklahoma, to be a socialist is to be regarded with curiosity and a little hostility, like a follower of an obscure, cultish religion. In France, it is no more eyebrow-raising to say, “I’m a socialist!” than it is in Oklahoma to say, “I’m a conservative!” Among the French, one never expects someone to say, “Then why don’t you move to Russia?” as a response.

Arriving in Paris last May, I was struck for the first time since reading “Das Kapital” with the sensation of being not entirely outside the political mainstream. Descending into the Métro, I saw an antipolice graffito signed with a hammer and sickle. On a subway car, I noticed a man reading Lenin’s “The State and Revolution.” He did not look like a student intellectual or a bohemian. On a train to Lille, my neighbor finding that I was American, delivered a long and complicated lecture on the principles of socialism, mostly designed to dispel the impression that socialism was synonymous with Stalinism, to which I listened patiently. This was all within the first few weeks following my arrival, and soon these things no longer seemed remarkable.

The moderate socialists I met in France had something in common with our conservatives. They displayed a casual openness about their beliefs. Even members of the Parti Communiste—a small group relative to the far more conservative Parti Socialiste— explained themselves in this easy, frank way.

Even the most confident and well-read American socialists have to declare their beliefs knowing that, likely as not, they’ll be met with a stream of wildly misinformed objections. In this environment it becomes common practice to express one’s views in a way that anticipates these objections and attempts to head them off. It is a rare person who can, having grown up in the United States, publicly express a belief in socialism without some degree of defensiveness.

However, in France the chaussure is on the other foot. One of the very few French Protestants I met, a very neatlygroomed student with whom I had lunch in a Vichy café, explained his views to me in the same defensive, uncomfortable manner common to American leftists. He was a supporter of the Front National, a major right-wing party whose platform revolves around blaming Muslim immigrants for all of society’s problems. He hastened to explain to me that Muslims make up the majority of France’s prison population and that the Front National had achieved a strong 20 percent in the last presidential election. Of course, in Oklahoma, no Republican would feel the need to follow up “I’m a Republican!” with “also, a conservative Republican candidate got 48 percent in the last election!”

It’s clear which attitude conveys a more appealing impression. Maybe then, as difficult as it may be to listen to the same ridiculous objections unfold over and over without interrupting, it is necessary to establish a relationship that is not adversarial.

Those of us who were not born into a radical household must remember the mistaken ideas we had before we discovered socialism. Just a few years ago, I believed that communism meant totalitarianism and, for some reason, that Marx and Lenin were contemporaries. In order to reach out to members of the mainstream we must engage them patiently, remembering that even though we may have heard their objections with monotonous regularity, it may be the first time they have had a chance to voice them.

We who wish to grow to a majority could benefit from carrying ourselves as if we already had.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2013)

Reviews: “Singlejack Solidarity” teaches valuable lessons for the working class

Patrick McGuire's review of Stan Weir's book, Singlejack Solidarity.

Weir, Stan. Singlejack Solidarity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Paperback, 400 pages, $19.95.

There are a handful of books that I believe every Wobbly should read. Some, like Joyce Kornbluh’s “Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology,” do an amazing job capturing the history and culture of our union. Others, like Staughton Lynd’s “Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding The Labor Movement From Below,” explain the current shortcomings of the labor movement and point to a constructive way forward. After having recently finished Stan Weir’s “Singlejack Solidarity,” I think I need to add another book to my must-read list.

Stan Weir was a “blue-collar intellectual and activist publisher” who lived from 1921 to 2001. Weir worked as a seaman, auto-worker, Teamster, house painter, longshore worker and, finally, as a professor of labor and industrial relations. Throughout his career, Weir was a rank-and-file activist and had the fortune to participate in many important struggles that shaped the labor movement and the political left in the post-war United States. In short, he didn’t study working people from afar, but struggled with them. As a result, in his writings we find some of the best and most concrete ideas on “building the new society within the shell of the old” as developed by one of America’s finest organic intellectuals.

“Singlejack Solidarity” is a collection of Weir’s writings which span the period of 1967 to 1998 and cover a range of topics such as working-class culture, the influence of automation, the role of vanguard parties, primary work groups, and business unionism. George Lispitz of the University of California should be commended for editing such a useful book and making Stan Weir’s writings available to the public.

First off, the book takes its name from a term used by hard-rock miners in the American West. These miners worked in pairs to drill holes for dynamite. One worker would kneel and hold the steel drill while the other would swing the sledge hammer (or single jack). Work partners would often build up trust and friendships due to the skill and danger inherent to their work. Organizers in the Western Federation of Miners and the IWW started to use the term “singlejack” to refer to their way of organizing that emphasized slowly building one-on-one relationships. This wisdom still speaks to us today as we talk about “organizing the worker, not the workplace.” We want to develop union members who take the union with them to whatever workplace they may be in. We know that no campaign or job action can be won without face-to-face contact with our fellow workers.

The topic which looms largest in “Singlejack Solidarity” is the longshore industry in which Weir spent a key portion of his working life. Weir was active in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and had the benefit of working with many “‘34 men,” or workers who had participated in the great 1934 strike. From these workers, Weir learned the history of workers’ resistance in the longshore industry. Weir was most impressed by the dockworkers’ victory which eliminated the “shape-up” system, in which bosses hired workers for halfday shifts by making the workers stand around in circles on the dock. Longshore workers replaced the arbitrary “shape-up” with a union-run hiring hall that included a “low-man out” system which democratized shifts and workloads. For Weir, this is one of the most important examples of workers’ control in the history of American industry.

Weir also spends a great deal of time investigating the influence of “containerization” on the ports. He examines the ways in which a workplace that was once characterized by cooperative work teams (unloading the holds of ships) was broken apart and its workers atomized by increasing use of mechanization and the standardization of shipping containers. The role of the ILWU in only half-heartedly resisting this process is outlined in great detail, as Weir points out how the union was weakened by creating second-tier members, or “B-men.” These ideas should ring true for Wobblies today as we see the effects of two-tier wage schemes being agreed to in concession bargaining. As my own experience in a United Food and Commercial Workers shop has confirmed, these types of deals are corrosive to the solidarity which should be built in a union. Weir’s analysis of automation and technological change can also inform our understanding of how our workplaces are changing today. How is capital currently seeking to increase efficiency and profits at our expense? And, to follow Weir’s arguments, how can we best resist in order to “humanize the workplace”?

The true gem of this collection is Weir’s essay, “Unions With Leaders Who Stay on the Job,” and it is worth picking up “Singlejack Solidarity” for this essay alone. In it, Weir tells the inspiring story of how he participated in a workplace action while employed as a seaman in 1943. Weir and his fellow shipmates pulled a quickie strike where they refused to re-board their ship until better bedding, food, and supplies had been provided. From the reaction of the infuriated captain to the working-class education provided by the experienced sailors to the newest workers on board, this story is brimming with specifics on what direct action at the point of production can, and should, look like. And it also demonstrates how workers can get the goods without going through disempowering third parties. In fact, it is experiences such as this one which shape Weir’s critique of the labor movement due to its bureaucratization and timidness. The alternative which he lays out, of a democratic union movement which is based on the self-activity of the rank and file, is very much in line with the “solidarity unionism” approach which we have been building in the IWW.

The above are just a few of the topics discussed by Stan Weir in “Singlejack Solidarity.” He also recounts his experiences in and eventual disillusionment with various vanguard parties of the left as well as his friendships with such figures as James Baldwin and C.L.R. James. My only criticism of this book would be that there is significant overlap between the content of many of the selections (when you finish reading you will feel like you have a really good grasp on the longshore industry), but this can be forgiven because Weir never intended that these writings to be read as a collection and he wrote about what he knew best.

“Singlejack Solidarity” is exactly the type of practical, insightful and encouraging writing about working-class struggle that we need. It addresses some of the most important questions about how we organize and how to build a revolutionary labor movement which can abolish wage slavery. I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy and pass it on to a fellow worker.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2013)