Part 1 of a 2 part reply by a IWW member, to 'Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper', which argues for a network of militants and non-contractual organizing.
Recently, an unfinished piece titled 'Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper' appeared on the internet. It was written by a group of IWWers a couple of years ago and was intended to start a dialogue within the union on contracts and generally how we organize in the workplace.
It's inline with more recent developments in syndicalism, reflective of the contemporary CNT-AIT and of Solidarity Federation's recent change into a 'revolutionary union initiative'. A strategy that recognizes itself as a minority and attempts to address this without being co-opted by the various welfare state or social democratic institutions and programs that have emerged since the Second World War.
In my opinion, it's a welcome addition to further a conversation within the North American syndicalist or industrial unionism milieu. Often, in the IWW, in depth discussion and assessments do not occur for various reasons. This wasn't always the case. The historical IWW had a number of different publications, with varying purposes, and some of them included very theoretical, long, and in depth articles. As the IWW receives additional attention and interest due to its campaigns at Starbucks, Jimmy John's and in Wisconsin, now is no better time to restart these conversations around strategy and organizing that can determine the outcomes of what we do.
Direct Unionism and 'Building the Union'
The piece suggests a new way1 for the IWW, defined by the phrase 'direct unionism. It is described as
In a nutshell, we are proposing that instead of focusing on contracts, workplace elections, or legal procedures, IWW members should strive to build networks of militants in whatever industry they are employed.
This definition I find hard to disagree with, in fact, I enthusiastically support this outlook. During the union's most active years, until the 1930's, no contracts was actually part of the constitution. As Joyce L. Kornbluh mentions in an essay:2
As labor-management contracts were viewed as an interference with labor's unconditional right to strike, the IWW would not sign contracts, a controversial position it did not abandon until the 1930s. Strikes rather than contracts were the fuel for IWW militancy, for strikes built the experience and perspective needed for the general strike that Wobblies thought would overthrow the capitalist system.
In section 3, 'Are we trying to build a union?' they address some important sentiments of people when it comes to organizing. The sentiment of recruitment equaling activity, or by merely increasing membership, we elevate our ability to function or to influence events. That is partially true, more people joining means more resources in the form of dues, which allow us to do a lot of things. However, just because people join does not mean they become active. The IWW, much like the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Party USA have quite a bit of historical admiration and background they've inherited. Because of this, the lack of identifiable radical organizations in some areas and the ease of joining online, these organizations have many interested people join for a short period of time and then fall through the cracks (the so-called 'one month wonders').
Syndicalism or industrial unionism has been criticized by many anarchists and left communists on the attitude of 'building the union for the sake of building it'. There's some truth to that, like I mentioned, some people are really focused on getting people to join as if that is the end all, be all. After they join, they aren't engaged as much and the same effort that was put into getting them to join is not put into getting them active. Some of the propaganda, much of it older, doesn't help fight this attitude, either. But what is forgotten is that, despite the phrase of 'One Big Union', the IWW at its largest and most active, still mostly organized strikes and actions with workers regardless if they were members or not. Membership was secondary to militant organizing.
In my own experience in easy to join groups, I've seen this issue. While 20 or so people total were technically a part of a group I was involved in, we did far better work when we reorganized ourselves and totaled less than 10. It's the whole 'quality over quantity' thing.
Another sentiment that is tied with 'building the union' is the unfortunate one of thinking membership precludes activity. As our Organizer Training 101 program says 'We need to act like a union before calling ourselves a union.' A group of workers who are active on workplace issues but do not call themselves a union is more desirable than a workplace with a union presence, but workplace issues go unaddressed or ignored. As is mentioned in the piece:
informal participation in workplace struggle, not formal membership in the IWW, should be the first concern of a workplace organizer
Our aims are to intensify class struggle. This requires our co-workers becoming active and gaining confidence to do such things. Their membership in the IWW is good thing, but it is a secondary thing. As they do in the Direct Unionism piece, I must stress that this does not mean I believe everything should be informal 'workplace resistance groups'3 or whatever those in the insurrectionary or ultraleft camp think. Membership in formal organizations is an important aspect, but it is part of a wider experience and outlook, not the only and final thing. However, some of the 'direct unionist' perspective may amount to some of the shortcomings of the 'workplace resistance groups' and indeed to some of the shortcomings of the historic IWW...
In section 4, the piece tries to address how gains are protected without contracts and with membership de-emphasized. But it's not really explored as much as it should be. While I'm in general agreement with the direct unionist perspective and see it as re-centering the union to what were and are some of our more successful practices, there are negative aspects to these.
For instance, one of the major issues of the historical IWW was staying power. They came into a particular town in a particular industry, organized and then, whether the result was a win or a loss, IWW presence disintegrated fairly quickly. Now, the question I have is how much of it was a result of the internal splits, government repression and exodus to the CPUSA, and how much of it was inevitable due to a non-contractual, network of militants, de-emphasizing formal membership strategy?
Part of elevating struggle is building a combative working class culture. Would direct unionism be too informal to contribute to the infrastructure needed for this?
Industrial Strategy and Dual Carding
In section 5, 'What is the Industrial Strategy', the comrades lay out pieces of what has not existed in the IWW: a dual card strategy. They state:
In workplaces where IWWs are dual-carding, the organizing committee will seek to encourage workers to ‘supersede’ (i.e. move ‘above and beyond’) the trade-union form and push for mass assemblies as the only legitimate voice of the workforce. Wobblies will encourage struggle to be organized across trade unions (since many workplaces have more than one active union, a fact bosses regularly uses to their advantage) and seek to bring unorganized workers into the struggle as well. When mass actions occur, Wobblies should make sure that workers remain in full control of the struggle. This means democratic and open mass assemblies of workers (as opposed the secretive “back rooms” inhabited by union officials) must decide every aspect of the struggle. The final decision on what actions to take and when to call them off must be decided by the workers themselves.
This is a really important concept and should be used to combat the chauvinism that many folks have when it comes to their particular unionized workplace or mainstream union. I've noticed, amongst mainstream union members in general and some dual carders, in particular, a kind of 'my union/workplace is completely unique and you can't give me advice'. There is sometimes an attitude that their union/workplace is an isolated island, free of any sort of commonalities from other workplaces (unionized or not) and other unions. This is probably not done or expressed purposefully and most likely has a lot to do with the way of organizing most mainstream unions operate under. While, yes, each workplace or mainstream union local is different in some ways, there are a number of broad strategies, principles and guidelines we can set. Ones which destroy the divisions between unionized and non-union, public and private, etc. are the most important. While it's a well known fact that the IWW is small, it is often forgotten that the mainstream unions are also small, representing a combined 11.9% of the U.S. workforce4 . We can't afford to stay restricted to one segment of the class, and must, instead, use tactics that broaden the struggle beyond our small numbers. In the spirit of this, the piece says:
Of course, it goes without saying that we are not seeking to function as a union pressure group, reform caucus, or trying to “capture” official positions within the union [...] In a union workplace, the IWW organizing committee must remain independent of the recognized union at all times.
This is also where de-emphasizing membership is important. The point is not to 'poach' members from the mainstream unions or to raid them. Even if the IWW was at a level where this was a realistic way of doing things, I wouldn't think it was a good idea. An ideal dual carder strategy would not be about trying to replace the mainstream union5 , but about elevating the struggle and bridging divides.
Puerto Real, the contemporary CNT & the CGT
Section 7, 'Non-contractual organizing outside the IWW', gives some examples of such. Because it is often given as an example of the type of organizing we should do, I'm going to address Puerto Real and Spanish syndicalism in general.
In Puerto Real, the CNT, as one of the numerous unions in the shipyards, worked to 'massify' the struggle and organized cross-union and cross-industry assemblies of workers and the community. The people were very militant and fought the closing of the shipyards incessantly, not only preventing the closing, but winning bread and butter gains that, to my knowledge, weren't originally part of the struggle.
It's a very inspiring event and one that should definitely be looked at and learned from. However, this seems to be one of only a few examples of a large, successful campaign the post-Franco CNT has had. This could possibly be a language issue. There isn't a lot of material translated on the contemporary CNT and its successes and failures. To discover the different perspectives on their activity, it is pretty much a requirement to know Spanish. This ties into the different perspectives in Spanish syndicalism in general.
In Spain, the three most widely known anarcho-syndicalist unions are (in order of size), the CGT6 , the CNT and Solidaridad Obrera. The CGT originated as a faction and later a split off from the CNT over various issues, the main ones being what level of participation should occur in the workplace councils (a sort of workplace parliamentary system, with different unions acting as 'parties' and representing workers) and accepting state funding. The CNT took a abstention stance on these issues and seems to organize in a way similar to the direct unionist approach. Solidaridad Obrera sees itself as inbetween the CGT and the CNT, leaving decisions on these matters to locals or workplaces.
Why these debates are of interest to IWWers is because we've had some similar ones. There was obviously a debate at sometime that we would prohibit dues checkoff, the act of the employer subtracting union dues from employee paychecks and then transferring to the union. There was also intense debate on how to respond to various labor laws enacted in the 30s, 40s and 50s such as NLRB elections, secondary boycotts and anti-Communist pledges for officers. Some of these debates resulted in disaffiliation from the IWW, such as the Cleveland factory workers who disaffiliated over the IWW refusing to agree to anti-Communist affidavits outlined in the Taft-Hartley Act7
But in order to discover the outcomes of the various strategies intended as a reaction to the state's laws on workplace organizing in Spain, it is necessary to be able to find answers. Has the CNT's approach (which is similar to direct unionism) been a success, or just an occasional one? Does the CGT actually function like the mass, militant union we want to be or has it been too incorporated into the state from its pragmatism? Is Solidaridad Obrera a successful merging of the two positions? While we cannot simply draw a blueprint based on what's going on in Spain, knowing these things would shed some light on the viability of direct unionism.
Part 1 of 'Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper', in my opinion, is quite good. It combats some of the negative parts of radical union organizations (fetish of recruitment and quantity automatically meaning quality) and builds off the Organizer 101 Training, taking it to its logical extent. It also touches upon and tries to initiate a much-needed conversation on dual carding, while giving some examples of why the direct unionist approach can work. Even though the piece is a couple years old at this point, I would hope that they further develop some of the points in Part 1 so that this discussion, which is happening in other places as well, can continue.
- 1Technically, a lot of what they advocate is not 'new' for the IWW, but is merely emphasizing some ways of organizing that already exist. The newness of it is describing this tendency in the union and formulating its expression.
- 2The Industrial Workers of the World, Joyce L. Kornbluh, http://www.lucyparsonsproject.org/iww/kornbluh_iww.html (accessed 5/15/11)
- 3On the frontline: anarchists at work, Anarchist Federation, July 2009, http://libcom.org/library/frontline-anarchists-work
- 4Union membership falls below 12 percent of workforce, Kansas City Star, January 12, 2011, http://www.kansascity.com/2011/01/21/2601545/union-membership-falls-below-12.html
- 5Although, in some situations, if winnable, I wouldn't be opposed. For example, in Chicago (among other places), there are some old, not very well known, unions controlled by organized crime. They are barely functional even by contemporary mainstream union standards and there are other unions, such as UE, that are requested by the workers to come in on a desertification/re-certification effort.
- 6Some may contest calling the CGT anarcho-syndicalist (and I tend to agree) due to their participation with various state run workplace programs, but regardless, this is how they self-identify, this is the tradition in which the see themselves, and they use the same imagery. In any case, this is irrelevant, since I am not particularly interested in bickering over ideological labels, nor is the IWW an anarcho-syndicalist union itself.
- 7"With the passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959 and its anti-communist affidavits to rid unions of leftist leaders, the IWW lost the Cleveland metal shops. As a point of principle, the IWW, along with the Typographical Union and United Mine Workers, refused to sign such loyalty oaths, so the Cleveland shops left the Union and affiliated with a more compliant one." The IWW - It's First 100 Years, Harry Siitonen, http://www.iww.org/en/culture/chronology/Siitonen1.shtml
Juan Conatz wrote: But what
i think the phrase always had a double meaning, with both aspects often not distinguished. on the one hand it's 'one big union' as opposed to 'many sectional unions', which implies nothing about membership size, just a cross-sector orientation. on the other hand, there's the idea that the structure of the union is the basis for future industrial democracy, and therefore needs to reach 100% membership of the working class. i've rarely seen that latter approach stated explicitly by advocates (it's certainly implicit in places though), but critics often favour the latter reading.
anyway, look forward to part 2...
Yeah, this is great Juan.
Yeah, this is great Juan. Really looking forward to part 2. Have you posted/do you intend to post this up anywhere else?
Juan Conatz wrote: But in
With the increased attacks on workers in Spain that took place last year and earlier on this year, I'm sure some data has emerged from the various strategies employed in struggles. Though I would be cautious to simply approximate the three unions stated as being perfect models from which to draw conclusions. There was a CNT comrade who came to study in London a few years ago and told me of his sections impressive success in defending cleaners jobs at the University he was working. If I recall the story properly they went on an indefinite strike for months after the sacking of a cleaner. They soon broke managements will and the cleaner was taken back with her being asked to dictate to management what pay and conditions she expected. The CNT comrades 'fighting union' approach ,which involved utilising a mix of legalities and direct action, reminded me more of what IWW BIRA are trying to do in London IWW Education Workers Industrial Union Branch (trade union leaderships are dragging their feet on taking necessary industrial action so we are hosting open participation strategy & tactics meetings for students and workers on campus, with participation from union shop stewards, and have suggested using work to rule and 'down' tools as tactics to increase confidence at the same time 'pressuring' their union for a ballot on all out industrial action).
EDIT: There is also some great participation from students who took part in last years actions and are looking to continue the 'fight' on campus. They are organising things workers will easily get the sack for.
Joseph Kay wrote: On the
I think its an end goal that we're all very very aware is very very far away from our current position. I certainly think that union structures will provide the basis for industrial democracy in our model. But the short-game is all about developing militancy and participation and I think participants are very cognizant that if we succeed wildly in this aim that we may shift targets (hell, maybe everyone will fall in love with Parecon *shoots self in head*)
This is great stuff Juan,
This is great stuff Juan, thanks for writing it. I'm excited for part 2.
On the One Big Union stuff, I don't want to derail this thread so I posted some stuff on that in this other thread - http://libcom.org/forums/theory/instead-derailing-thread-15052011 -- A friend and I have a articles in Workers Power about "one big union" coming out over the summer. We cut one article from the series, that had stuff dealing really directly with the points raised in this thread. I pasted the relevant excerpts into that other thread.
Chilli Sauce wrote: Yeah,
Thanks. No, I've just posted it here. Haven't posted it any where else.
Something to promote in the
Something to promote in the GOB? It'll hopefully get people reading the "Direct Unionism" and kind of see it as a dialogue.
I'd like to see these appear
I'd like to see these appear in the IW as a two part review with a link to the online version of the discussion paper. The IW runs books reviews after all and this is pretty relevant stuff. We might also again take up trying to get the discussin paper published in pamphlet form. I never heard back from the cats I wrote to but I could look into it again. It'd help a lot if someone would get it laied out in a goodlooking pamphlet format, I don;t know how to do any of that stuff myself.
i agree. should we talk to DK
i agree. should we talk to DK about this?
I was gonna wait for Juan to
I was gonna wait for Juan to agree but fuck it, democracy is for chumps. :) So yeah, ask DK. And can you get someone to make the discussion paper look good and pamphletable so we can get it printed?
Yeah if I can get all three
Yeah if I can get all three parts I might be able to throw it by my guy ;) www.pvdind.com
blackrainbow wrote: With the
I'm sure there has, plus stuff from the last 30+ years, but there isn't a lot of English language information on that. Like, for instance, I've seen the CGT slagged off here (both constructively and in a sectarian manner), and I've seen a couple articles in admiration of them, but I'm still not really sure about what industries they are strong in, what their organizational structure is like, if they contribute to working class self-activity or contribute to a service model attitude (or a mixture of both). And Solidaridad Obrera...I basically know nothing of them.
Oh, I wasn't trying to say that. I hope you didn't get that impression!
But I think some partial conclusions could be made. There aren't a lot of models to draw comparisions to when it comes to the IWW. We have a mixture of what it Spain would seem to be CGT unionism and CNT unionism. That's why I think it would be valuable to know more about both their models more in depth, and see what their success and failures are (and I don't mean just on bread and butter issues...).
sabotage wrote: i agree.
If ya'll wanna do that, go head. I don't have a problem with that. I thought it might be a bit long (with the addition of the second part), but checkin the May IW, I noticed two enormous, full page book reviews....
Quote: nor is the IWW an
I was under the impression it was. What would be the appropriate theoretical classification? (Not that it makes a big difference, but just curious.)
knotwho wrote: I was under
Officially, the IWW considers it self under 'industrial unionism'. It's a peculiar American thing that reflects the truce between left socialists in the Socialist Party, apolitical syndicalists and anarchists many, many,many years ago. The IWW, overall, probably has more in common with 'revolutionary syndicalism' such as the various non-IWA unions than anything, but during various times has engaged in pretty much the same tactics that anarcho-syndicalists have.
General syndicalism, no?
General syndicalism, no?
Chilli Sauce wrote: General
I thought the common terminology was there was 'revolutionary syndicalism' and 'anarcho-syndicalism'. Revolutionary syndicalism was the radical, but non-aligned kind such as the French CGT, IWW and anarcho-syndicalism was the IWA.
I don't agree. I think you're completely right to point out the uselessness of simply focussing on recruiting for the sake of recruiting, but I think that if any of our branches become strong enough to replace an existing AFL-CIO contract, for example, and they think its a good move -go for it.
Of course there are exceptions, but I think as a rule that the established union leadership will only stand in our way, and the sooner we can get them tossed out, the better. The IWW, where strong enough, should be more hostile towards the business unions.
Otherwise, great article!
Otherwise, great article!
Juan Conatz wrote: Chilli
They're just two different traditions of revolutionary unionism. Anarchosyndicalism never took off in a way that was rooted in the working class in the US, unlike in Europe, where it did. I think if we look at the early IWW there was no real difference in the content of the ideas, certainly not after the expulsion of De Leon in 19-oh-whenever and the split in the Socialist Party in 1913 where they expelled some of their IWW members and most the rest of the IWW members in the SP quit. From that point on, in practice and in expressed vision I think there's very little difference, from what little I know about the A/S cats and from what I hear them say today. (FWIW I consider myself an anarchosyndicalist but in a naive kind of way as I've only read Rocker and Strategy and Struggle and no other A/S writings, something I keep meaning to correct.) I think most of the differences are a matter of historical traditions and vocabulary much more than the content of the ideas. Someone who knows the history ought to write a compare/contrast kind of piece about the ideologies of the IWW and A/S unions in their heydays, to help sort this out.
I think this largely applies in the present too, except that it appears that at least comparing the IWW and SolFed (I don't know about any other A/S groups or union) the IWW is looser in a few ways - less ideological unity and member education, and less official agreement on strategy. Though I think the SolFed industrial strategy basically corresponds to IWW actual practice, the primary difference there is that these aren't laid out in the IWW and aren't prioritized. From watching the debates from the US side of the Atlantic the problems seem to be partly that some cats don't like each other and compounded by genuine disagreements between most/all SFers and some vocal/visible IWWers plus people tripping over words and traditions.
Quote: Nate: Though I think
Hmmmm...This would not wholely be my observation at all. For example, Jimmy John Workers Union, the Starbucks Workers Union and, even, Brooklyn Warehouse Workers organizing were all billed as union organizing drives. The goal was/is to build a "functioning" union.
Where the Solfed has set up industrial networks, how woukld they be similiar to current IWW practice? While on paper the goal of the networks are to set up unions, oft times their work is inside of exisiting unions. In which case they have laid out an industrial strategy (which someone posted here was changing). Just asking more out of interest (and, perhaps, lack of knowledge).
The Solfed has yet to go in that direction. The best analogy for current Solfed practivce might be more like Solidarity Network stuff..... a look at the Office Angels campaign and some of the retail workers stuff parallel that. Now, of course, one can posit that this sort of stuff lays the basis for organizational work and drives..... Like I said elsewhere, sometimes folks engage in parallel and often complementary work, but not always of the same variety or within the confines of a particular "union" (used broadly) structure.
Here's the bit of SolFed's
Here's the bit of SolFed's industrial strategy document I was thinking of when I said that.
I missed the thing about the written statement of strategy changing, I'm interested in seeing what that turns into.
syndicalist wrote: Solfed
To which Jim Clark replied:
i think what Jim's getting at
i think what Jim's getting at is that when that was written, SolFed thought of itself as a propaganda group which supported the formation of a-s unions. i think that's developed somewhat, and now we see ourselves as a 'revolutionary union initiative', i.e. a network of militant workers which aspires to take on those union functions itself. there haven't been any formal discussions on this, but we are writing a new pamphlet on workplace organising, so if anything needs changing it will probably come out of the discussions around that.
Joseph Kay wrote: i think
Respectfully, how would this differ from the IWW?
i think there's two very
i think there's two very different conceptions of how a union should operate, but maybe best discussed on the 'anarcho-syndicalists in Britain' thread?
edit: replied here.
This appears (slightly
This appears (slightly edited) in the July/August 2011 Industrial Worker.