This is the final installment in a four-part series analyzing the Industrial Workers of the World as the failure of dual unionism in the American revolutionary left. This installment focuses on the potentials of a new approach to unions based on reforming and democratizing established unions from within rather than founding competing unions.
Of Sweatshops & Starbucks: Will Dual Unionism Win the Labor Movement?
Will Dual Unionism Win the Labor Movement?
With these critiques, my goal is not to push the IWW to reorganize itself in the ways that I think are best, nor is it to encourage revolutionaries to establish yet another dual union in opposition to the IWW. My actual conclusion is much to the opposite: no matter how the IWW organizes itself internally, it will always be at such a striking disadvantage to established unions that its ability to function as an actual union is effectively compromised, and stands virtually no chance in competitions with established unions.
It is true that creating a dual union is much easier than entering rival unions. By creating a dual union, we create a sandbox, a microcosm, of everything we think a union should be. The IWW is everything we wish AFL-CIO would be, without having to do any of the legwork of actually winning over rank-and-file workers to class-conscious militancy. Instead, we can take pride in the ideological correctness of our union: unlike the class-collaborators of AFL-CIO, our union is doing unionism right, even if we have no influence over working conditions in any employer’s operations, let alone an entire industry, let alone any influence in the larger labor movement. But forget any of that: after all, the IWW’s ideological commitments make it far more relevant to the working class than AFL-CIO will ever be.
Indeed, there is an extremely sectarian perspective of rival unions promoted by the IWW. My membership in the IWW was also my first experience with the labor movement in general. It taught me that all unions which are not the IWW are equally useless to the working class. There is virtually no difference between SEIU and NUHW, UNITE and HERE, or UE and the Teamsters because, after all, none of them are the IWW!1 The only good a revolutionary can do within these unions, I was told, is recruit their members to the IWW – and essentially, recruit their members as if they weren’t members of another union already. You do this by acting as if their union’s leadership and collective bargaining agreement don’t exist, creating a climate of opposition to the incumbent union, and using this to build allegiance to the IWW.
Going from the argument that all “business unions” are basically company-run unions, it is hard to explain how these unions often evoke enthusiastic support and loyalty from their members – unless of course you use the tired fatalistic argument that these workers have simply been deceived by a vampiristic union leadership, and that they are only loyal to these unions because they have not experienced a revolutionary union like the IWW yet. Or, as the authors of Black Flame articulated it:
The notion that the established unions could not evolve, and that the IWW alone was a real union and would inevitably replace the other ones [...] was a caricature of other unions and ignored the fact that established unions retained the loyalties of existing members, who were not prepared to throw in their lot with an entirely new union: such obstacles to replacing existing unions were simply ignored by the IWW. Workers generally preferred to join established and proven unions, and the fact that existing ones were compelled to open their ranks to new categories of workers [as we will see with fast food workers in the next section of this piece] and reform their policies showed both their ability to change as well as their lasting appeal.2
The IWW of old was unable to challenge the AFL on its own turf, and as such it was relegated to organizing those workers which the AFL had no interest in organizing: namely unskilled industrial workers and migrant laborers. As such, for many workers in the IWW’s jurisdiction, they did not join the IWW because it was the best union, but because it was the only one. They had no choice between unions, only a choice between the IWW and no union.
To an astounding degree, this is the same pattern we are seeing today. The modern IWW would be indisputably unable to challenge AFL-CIO in its own industries. We may say these industries are primarily transportation, healthcare, and education; although in basically all professional, skilled and semi-skilled jobs does AFL-CIO have the numerical and organizational advantage. Therefore, the IWW is relegated to organizing the one sliver of the workforce that AFL-CIO will not organize at this point: fast food service. For about ten years, the IWW has enjoyed no competition within this jurisdiction, and even so it has gained no ground. Unlike in 1905, it would be hard to say that “fast food workers are not joining the IWW because it’s the best union, but rather because it’s the only union,” because, well, fast food workers really aren’t joining the IWW at all.
AFL-CIO’s attitude towards these jobs is slowly shifting. It can no longer simply ignore these jobs, as they comprise an ever-greater share of the workforce. Though AFL-CIO has begun cautiously probing the industry with its recent Fight for 15 campaign to gauge militancy and study the workforce, it is not yet willing to represent fast food workers on the shopfloor. However, it would seem likely that within the next five or ten years, UNITE-HERE will begin to enter these shops.
Even if the IWW has gained a minor presence in the industry by the time UNITE-HERE enters the scene3, UNITE-HERE will most likely drive the IWW from the industry with ease.
* * *
From its foundation to its most recent conventions, the IWW has avoided the question of boring from within with the simple excuse that “established unions are too big to reform.” If these unions are too big for a militant minority to reform internally, how is it that they’re not too big for a militant minority to drive out of existence externally by creating a dual union?
Dual unions are burdened by having to perform the contradictory roles of a “pure-and-simple” labor union and a revolutionary propaganda organization. They must not only bring organization to unorganized workers, but do so in a way which brings the workers in alignment the dual union’s syndicalist ideals. This can either lead to the union not growing at all (or growing simply as a propaganda organization, like with the IWW), or to the union’s syndicalist program being diluted by the non-syndicalist workers. Malatesta remarked similarly:
It is while [dual unions] are weak and impotent that they are faithful to their program – while, that is, they remain propaganda groups set up and run by a few zealous and committed men, rather than organizations ready for effective action. Later, as they manage to attract the masses and acquire the strength to claim and impose improvements, the original program becomes an empty formula to which no one pays any more attention.4, 5
Militants who organize themselves as minorities within established unions simply do not face this dilemma. The militant minority, since its locus is within already-organized union, can focus exclusively on winning workers over to syndicalism. The militant minority, operating as a militant core within a larger union, is not challenged by workers who join their group only for “bread-and-butter” interests.
1. This is a historical trend with the IWW: “As an example, [...] the Western Federation of Miners had been unreservedly praised when affiliated to the IWW and then, following its withdrawal, was suddenly characterized as a fake union that should be ‘wiped out of existence’ – even though the union had not changed in any real way.” Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism & Syndicalism. Volume I: Counter-Power, pg. 225. Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, 2009.
2. Ibid.pgs. 225-6. Emphasis mine
3. Which, as I labored to demonstrate in the last piece in this series, is unrealistic. Assuming the IWW has gained a foothold in fast food by the time UNITE-HERE challenges it is closer to spread betting than honest historical analysis.
4. The Anarchist Revolution: Polemical Articles, 1924-1931, pg. 25. Errico Malatesta, 1995.
5. For a historical precedent to the latter claim, see the IWW’s Industrial Union #440 in Cleveland. Composed of about 1,500 workers in metal factories, the workers abandoned the IWW for the CIO in 1950 over the IWW’s refusal to sign the anti-Communist Taft-Hartley affidavit.