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).

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 9, 2014

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.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 10, 2014

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.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 12, 2013

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”

Graphic: Leslie Fish, IWW IU630
Graphic: Leslie Fish, IWW IU630

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

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 10, 2014

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.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on September 17, 2013

“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)



9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by amba on September 17, 2013

The problem with most unions today is not only that they are not revolutionary, but that they are not willing to fight for piecemeal, immediate changes that workers are ready to fight for. Do you believe such a fight is necessary and important? Do you believe revolutionaries should support organisations founded specfically for this fight? Such an organisation/union will be based on all workers willing to take up this fight for reforms. If it sincerely requires agreement with a revolutionary perspective as a condition for membership, it will exclude those workers who are willing to fight, often militantly, but who are not yet in agreement with a revolutionary approach. Would this not weaken the struggle for reforms and thereby also the possibilities for revolutionary struggle?


9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by plasmatelly on September 17, 2013

Hi amba - lot of questions there. Certainly from a revolutionary unionist perspective, class struggle embraces the here and now struggles - the reforms - and builds for a revolutionary future.
I couldn't agree more that a fundamental problem with reformist unions is that they lack any notion of how they would rather have society organised - unless you count those still living the post war social democratic dream.
Your comments about the dilemma with wanting to expand and take on the fight yet requiring a certain degree of agreement with the revolutionary aims of the union is one that is a daily problem, though I suppose less so if we move into more revolutionary conscious times.


9 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by backspace on September 17, 2013

I thought this article interesting, it seems to me, however, that an important caveat to the general points made, needs to be that the revolutionary aspect of revolutionary unionism is done in a smart way - radicals need to be self-aware of how the educating process of maintaining a revolutionary outlook is carried out.

For instance, I think the base fear of many that after consideration and analysis results in a rejection of revolutionary unionism, is the social insufficiency of activist political networks to act as spokespeople for the politics they wish to see generalised. The embarrassing situation arises in the early construction of a revolutionary union in which the revolutionary component of the membership might be composed from those gravitating toward an ideology outside of periods of mass unrest, with plenty of theories and attempts at, but no established process of, how to achieve a social generalisation of those politics.

Now I think the method by which to solve this is simple, any attempt to build a successful functioning organisational construction by which to generalise this, must be a project capable of involving the best heads and hearts of the working class, whether or not they are yet convinced of the value of those politics. Such was the original nature of anarcho-syndicalism (I understand this writing is referring to revolutionary unionism), a nature I think whilst paid theoretical lip service, in practice long lost in almost all the projects that have attempted its revival.

Hence, to involve the general participation of those elements less convinced of the value of anti-capitalism, it is not so much that instances such as the preamble must be jettisoned, but instead a problem concerning the specific character of the method by which a syndicalist union's claims to revolution are married to its basic collective defence functions. The most firmly radical component of a revolutionary union's membership needs to carefully consider its need to maintain a sense of modesty (and regulate its sense of historical importance), and be self-aware of its characteristics of an activist social scene, and be prepared to avoid foisting this component on prospective and non-activist members. It needs to be aware of the general negative social character of communist networks outside periods of mass unrest.

Personally, I think there are a great deal of 'lay', lapsed or potential anti-capitalists in the world, and that this is good reason to suggest that there is a falseness to the idea that completely dropping association with socialist ideas would immediately improve things. People would be receptive to the politics, if only the real world embodiment of them were different.

It is not so much that workers reject the principles, but they might reject the way in which they are introduced to them - being handed a rather jargon laden anti-capitalist leaflet that will go straight in the bin, or something performed in a rather patronising proselytising fashion as though it were conversion to religion.

Should functional organisation be constructed through a successful alliance between those firmly radical but varying in capability, and those less politically convinced but extremely capable, I agree with this article that the key is that the union is capable of maintaining a situation whereby there is no binary of consciousness governing to what degree a member is involved in the internal life of the union. I guess the 'undemocratic/insincere' component of the accusation is levelled at how the activist social scene character of the more firmly radical or longstanding component of a revolutionary union, effectively possesses an extra layer of organisation, although informal, and that debates may occur through this with support gathered primarily within this, then the constructed suggestions presented to the wider union. This I think is a problem if this component isn't prepared to admit it exists and to be self-aware enough to limit this.

I also agree with the article that constructing a generalisation of revolutionary spirit, will not so much be built by leaflets or books, but by the attempt to create a social recomposition around a series of wider union activities, largely outside the workplace - it is here that people can comfortably discover the politics of the union and drop in and out of this as they choose, leaving the workplace primarily for struggle, without forming a binary of consciousness.

IWW report from the 30th SAC Congress

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

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 10, 2014

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)



9 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by akai on March 10, 2014

The International Workers Association (IAA/IWA) banished the SAC several years ago

Aren't there such things as editors on that paper? I mean, pretty bad mistake considering SAC left IWA to pursue some social democratic lines more than 50 years ago.

Juan Conatz

9 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 11, 2014

Yeah, 'banished several years ago' isn't really an accurate way to describe it. But, the number of Americans that know the finer points of IWA history is a very small number, so I don't think it was any ill will on the editor's part.


9 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by akai on March 11, 2014

No, certainly not ill will. But the question is why people are always repeating misinformation and how that misinformation shapes their view.