Direct unionism in practice: undermining service industry barriers to worker solidarity

This response is primarily written with the intention of facilitating an introduction to Direct Unionism for service workers who are very new to labour. We hope to participate in the DU discussion, and share with those interested how we have been affected by these conversations and also how we are practicing and implementing these ideas.

Submitted by apt to react on February 25, 2012

Direct Unionism in Practice: Undermining Service Industry Barriers to Worker Solidarity

Disclaimer: Our intentions for posting this response to the conversations on Direct Unionism vary greatly in terms of purpose. In crafting this reflection and response, we have also considered where we could put it to the most relevant use, and so have prepared it for many different readers. This response is primarily written with the intention of facilitating an introduction to Direct Unionism for service workers who are very new to labour. Many sections of our essay may seem redundant to many labour activists and we apologize, but hope to encourage other locally contextualized struggles through Direct Unionism. We hope to participate in the DU discussion, and share with those interested how we have been affected by these conversations and also how we are practicing and implementing these ideas. We would like to thank all participants in the Direct Unionism conversation and, also, offer our analysis based on our work in Vancouver, BC.
Last fall, we were invited to the Vancouver District Labour Council youth meeting to hear a friend give a talk about the importance of mobilization, direct action, and the dissolving right to strike for all workers. From the point of view of the only “unorganized” youth worker/organizer sitting in on the discussion, it became distinctly clear that the issue of building a “culture of resistance” was a huge part of even the “recognized” labour institutions. The meeting left the impression that even the organized workers were less radicalized than the unorganized. BC Labour’s bleak future lay in the hands of the Youth Leaders around the table representing all of BC’s major unions. We learned that from our shared experiences even the organized worker of today shares little critical analysis of class and power, nor of their union bureaucracy; they express that they are simply frustrated and trying to scrape by.

The value of the union is evident to some of these member/workers -- in terms of the dollar value for which their labour is exchanged, or by their own sense of entitlement above unorganized workers [or, more bluntly, their sense of worth as measured against the ‘un-organizable’ or transient worker; their “middle class” security blanket – which is often a self-delusion, akin to ‘false consciousness’, having been beaten into them]. The working person who cannot or desires not to pursue the credentials or lifestyle required to fit into the trades/industries which are jurisdictionally organized by unions, or who rejects the corruption, politicking, and social/fiscal investment in the status quo of the ‘Labour Movement’, finds themselves battling as a ‘one man army’ and may radicalize along individualist lines. To offer this person a ‘collectivist’ approach, instead of a ‘solidarity of the autonomous’ approach, is to replicate the mechanism they reject. This is a strong argument against a contracts-bases strategy, which provides room for negotiation only within boundaries that are neither agreed upon nor seen by the working person on the shop floor; direct action responses to individual issues, when and where they happen, negate bargaining on particulars.

The follow up discussions on the “Direct Unionism” essay put out last year has provided us with a working definition of Direct Unionism and the basic elements of direct action in the workplace. These actions orchestrated by workers at their sites have a name: but now what? The previous responses while generally in favour of direct unionism, focus on contracts and memberships and leave out some of the most important elements in the essay in terms of potential actions and worker solidarity. We like what Tom Levy reinforces about “organizing the worker, not the job,” as it allows adaptation to the flexible, mobile, reality of service workers in general. It seems like the only feasible option in terms of speaking to the reality of these workers, which in most cases is substandard. The glove fits.


The majority of unorganized workers do not want to affiliate with a union, as they have witnessed first hand the societal backlash of protected workers (in Canada, the governments continually bust out “back to work” legislation and the media persists in undermining the integrity of the workers and their causes,) and many are effected by the stigmatization of labour organizing initiatives. They are swayed towards “meritocracy,” and defend those institutionalized barriers that keep them in precarious positions. Their class-consciousness is situated in inertia, not in action. On the rare occasion that workers are introduced to the possibility of a “Union,” they are provoked and mislead by their employers, peers and sometimes even the union itself. Zealous Union Reps often leave out important information and focus only on card signing, playing into these stereotypes concerning institutionalized bureau-crazy. With all of this in mind, we believe it is important to work autonomously, to develop and accentuate ideas and actions instead. As workers and organizers we have to start reaching out to workers and focus on what we have in common within/between iindustries.


At our local IWW (INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD) meetings, we talk in depth about the realities of what we as a branch can offer workers here in BC and specifically how we can offer protection. We realize that without having the financial and institutional backing a larger union in BC might have, we don’t have much to offer workers in terms of protection. It became obvious after much discussion that it would be more beneficial to find a group that cannot be represented by a bigger Union in the first place. An industry where coping mechanisms are used day to day already to facilitate Direct Unionism, and where workers already have a sense of the industry issues and setbacks. We unanimously decided that we put all of our energy into building awareness amongst the workers in the service industry in order to provide them with viable strategies accessible within our community, to fight bosses and self-organize.

This means spreading awareness across the board, creating relationships outside of work between coworkers, sharing stories, identifying industry issues, and limits, and how they can use their combined experience to make their Direct Unionism the most effective.

Especially now, at a time when in Canada, the service industry is the largest growing but yet remains the least protected. It might be time to focus on the dynamics of the service industry and what is allowable in terms of getting through to employees and being able to illustrate to them, through small possible actions that there is power in numbers. In order for this to work entirely, the IWW may need to prioritize and adapt to these immediate needs.

As organizers working mainly in coffee shop settings, it became apparent that a lot of these ideas are already manifested day to day as coping mechanisms for workers on these sites. Most of these workers don't even know they are participating in direct action or direct unionism. There is room here, we believe, to reclaim workers sense of solidarity by pointing out to them how they already do it; as a movement we could be honing in on this direct action and reclaim it as direct unionism. The only option is to promote dialogue, in a manner resembling what we are collectively doing here, in response to the original article and the responses of others before us – but in the embodiment of the ideas, opening a conversation of direct actions and working with what we have. We could be highlighting what workers are already doing as a form of survival and framing it as a tool they can use to get direct results that effect them positively. These are skills they can access and take with them from job site to job site. The workers identify as “transient,” and understand the realities of the service industry, but they usually don’t fight to influence these realities.

In regions where the local labour regulators do not recognize any IWW ‘bargaining units’, (i.e. no card-signing threshold has been met and filed with the authorities; no legal negotiations between the employer and their ‘representative body’ have taken place to secure a contract) it becomes obvious the issue isn’t whether we should debate card signing relevance, but instead really think about what is needed. If the IWW is not recognized as a body with power, by either the average worker or the boss who should fear it, we need to undertake local issues-based organizing and use these examples to build this network from nothing. It is important to recognize all groups in the community that can participate in this network in different ways.

As a small unit, we have started a campaign, distributing pamphlets and visiting work sites, coffee shops especially, focusing completely on worker options and examples within our city in terms of fighting bosses. Giving a name to the work of the employees who do actions at their worksites has been really useful. “Direct Unionism” has been received with much excitement, as many workers feel that their actions day to day in terms of solidarity, are recognized. This gives their actions meaning and context, and a foundation for story-sharing and further actions.

Many workers don’t hear positive stories about coworkers fighting the bosses, and many wouldn’t attempt to take action because of the powerlessness imposed by the corporate environment, or other coworkers. It only takes one bad exchange with a boss, and one trip to the Employee Standards Branch for a worker to know that going that route is bleak. The service industry worker, already marginalized in so many ways, also has to take the time to build a case against their employer and wait for many months just to hear that their case was missing some vital element, or that the employer submitted more winning evidence to counter their arguments.

We need to build an infrastructure and working relationship with groups in our communities who are sympathetic to our cause, and we need to have a better understanding of local labour law, so we can work around, navigate the bias. We can provoke members of larger unions to hold their heads higher and speak louder from within the Labour hegemony in order to break down the divisions that stifle solidarity.


IWW members on the Island put together a pamphlet of just this, BC Worker's Rights. To help workers in BC access the info available to them in the Employee Standard Branch In the “Standing up for Ourselves” section of the pamphlet, the IWW Vancouver Island touches on methods workers can use in order to achieve fair treatment, but on the whole leaves out the potential to implement direct unionism. We view this pamphlet as one of the first stages of what is necessary as put forth by the DU paper in starting the direct unionism campaign in terms of identifying the local issues and restrictions. It must be considered that many service industry workers will not go through the Employee Standards Branch because of the precariousness of their positions as service industry workers.

When they do try to take action (which takes a bigger toll on the individual in the long run) they are often unsuccessful at receiving remuneration. This speaks to the lack of faith in the system (whether big Union or otherwise) and fits well with the autonomous nature of direct unionism.

In BC, the labour law is divided cleanly; there are completely separate employment Acts that deal with workers, dependent on whether or not they are members of a union. This presents a difficult challenge to the IWWer who wishes to form a bargaining unit within a specific worksite: the moment their certification is complete, the entire game changes. They will find themselves with a new set of laws to learn, a new set of power bureaucracies to deal with, and importantly, a new division between these workers and their comrades in the IWW who are not in the bargaining unit. It means they have more privilege and are also more constrained under the law than their unorganized colleagues, making solidarity actions tricky to pull off.

While the legal processes of union certification play out (from the date the IWW would file the cards, above threshold, at the Labour Board, through scheduling, holding, debating on and finally counting the votes, and thence throughout bargaining the first Collective Agreement) “a trade union or person affected by the application must not declare or engage in a strike”[BC Employment Standards Act 32:1]. Any intentional decrease in productivity can be legally considered a ‘strike’ action, or in the very least can be debated in a court or arbitration as enacting ‘bad faith’. In the event that a group of workers wished to sever their IWW agreement with the boss and dissolve the union (or, bring it back underground using a new name), the law requires they pay $10,000 to de-certify – and these funds must be proven to derive from the workers themselves, not the employer or other body.

All of this should serve as a caveat to IWW organizers seeking legitimacy from the established legal system. We, especially as the most transient and vulnerable workers, should recognize that the deck is stacked against us, and question the impulse to ‘play the hand we’re dealt’ – why play that game at all, when we can freely choose to play a different one, and see the results on the faces of our coworkers.

The reality as a service industry worker is very concerning. Unfortunately through legislation and many other barriers, the means to form a union is almost impossible. We feel the laws and regulations around forming a union and working as a service worker are incompatible in BC. The nature of the service industry (being flexible, having high turnover, notorious for low wages,etc) cannot stand up to the rigid qualifications for joining a labour union. When the circumstances do line up, which can only be for a short period of time, many of the employees are bullied, and alienated or just aren’t in a position to tough it out and inevitably something goes wrong.

Also, if you have a small unit, and this is often the case in service industry work, the recognized Unions won’t even work with you because the success rate is so low. Tom Levy also mentions this in their response, that “many of the workers we’re currently organizing are basically locally transient.” This makes it clear that it is not possible for everyone to form a union in this industry. One source from a bigger Union here in BC laid out the reality that “the de-certification rate is in the 70% range when it comes to units with less than 15 - 20 people, and they are not willing to work with smaller units, unless these units can guarantee....[success and longevity of union membership]”. The requirements are not feasible within the service industry, as the service industry was designed and has evolved in relation to a labour climate shaped predominantly by industrial trade unions of middle-class, white men; the service industry has been historically (and continues to be) regarded by many blue-collar and ‘professional’ union members as “unskilled” work, done by persons with whom they hold no affinity nor solidarity. This lack of inter-industry respect has meant less institutional and popular support for the struggles of precarious workers and their exclusion from participation within ‘Big Labour’ has allowed many legal loopholes and unfair industry ‘norms’ to become well established.

When you ask a coffee shop worker where they worked before their current job, they will probably tell you they worked at some other coffee shop, for another owner, and so on and so on. It is part of the coffee shop worker culture to hop from shop to shop. We want to agree with Chris A. about the importance of “addressing issues on a larger industrial level,” we see a potential here to win cases and set examples in order to create a worker network where workers take their experiences to the next site and tolerate less and less abuse from the bosses each time. Where they can use the tools available in the community to build solidarity and call out the bosses.

It is crucial that we build up a generation of resisters who understand their rights in the work place, who value the basics of workplace organizing as an ongoing, all-hands-on-deck exercise, and who will provide a re-educating example to dissatisfied union members. Without the basic infrastructure to carry out these direct actions and the willingness of IWW organizer’s to let go of the organizing based on site/contracting, the IWW is irrelevant; it becomes simply a club in which to wax poetic about the ideals and dreams of a liberated working class.



12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Nate on February 25, 2012

I'm happy to see more discussion of the direct unionism stuff. I particularly like the points about labor law in BC, I didn't know any of that. I think this piece - - covers some of the specifics of stuff that people can do if they agree with the perspective in this article.

Juan Conatz

12 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 25, 2012

Is this in the Industrial Worker?

Chilli Sauce

12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on February 25, 2012

Is the author a regular libcom poster?

Juan Conatz

12 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 25, 2012

Ok, just read it. The authors seem to have put a lot of thought into this. I'm kinda surprised about this appearing because it is pretty much outside all of our circles as far as who we know. There's some limited ties that I discovered after asking around, but this isn't the same as the other people who have responded, all who we either know personally or are familiar with through other means.

They do take up a issue of the discussion that has been more neglected so far, that is...they see this as the way the IWW has to organize. That to try and function as a mainstream union is a dead end, not because it requires we take on a role counter to our aims, but that the way labor law is set-up means that even with unions with vast resources and political friends have major issues with this model of organizing. The IWW attempting to do it will just result in utter failure or as they put it, we will be "simply a club in which to wax poetic about the ideals and dreams of a liberated working class."

This viewpoint has been expressed though by people like Devrim in regards to some of the sentiments of the UK IWW though.

Juan Conatz

12 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 25, 2012

One of the authors said they are having trouble adding links to this piece. Its telling them 'Try again later'. I've never seen this warning and assumed it has something to do with them being new users. Anybody know something about this?

Joseph Kay

12 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by Joseph Kay on February 25, 2012

that probably means mollom (anti-spam) was down (it's set to reject posts if it is, since we've been hit with hundreds of spam comments during brief outages before). i've bumped their permission to regular user which should bypass it (this is usually automatic after a while).

klas batalo

11 years 6 months ago

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Submitted by klas batalo on November 20, 2012

yeah just got to agree with Juan and the OP about this being the way new workplace initiatives have to organize.

i think more often than not the usual argument i hear against the IWW is more like, you are bad at being a real union, in that people think the IWW trying to be a revolutionary union means it should be trying to be both revolutionary and fight like a trade union.

Reflecting on this just makes me laugh because I don't understand why anyone on both sides of that, people on the inside or outside think it would ever be a good idea to just make the IWW a more militant trade union with red and black flags.

Haven't we seen that those models are not working, haven't we seen even the trade unions recognize they have to move towards more open minded ways of organizing under pressure of the current materially conditions? Similarly for dual carding, in regards to reform caucuses/boring from's not working let's try experimenting with "new" methods. (Really it's all back to the future for me...)