Building radical unionism: Providing services without creating service unionism

Building radical unionism: Providing services without creating service unionism

A critique of 'service unionism' while advocating that some types of service are desirable in a radical union.

In the IWW many of us have a critique of the service unionism of most of the large, mainstream unions. This is where the union is seen as a service that workers pay for with dues. The service the union offers is representation with and protection from the boss.

On the Organizing Department email list a small debate arose over how services relate to our organizing. How do we not become the service unionism we criticize? Opposing service unionism is an important critique about unions and social movements in general, but whatever we may call them, services can play a useful role in building radical unionism and social movements.

We need to understand what service unionism is. It is usually defined as a passive relationship where workers expect union staff, outside representatives or even shop stewards to “fix things” for them. The model is prevalent throughout the US labor movement and can even occur in professed radical unions like the IWW. Unions promote this type of thinking through offering services such as credit cards, discounts or similar benefits. Slogans such as “Union membership pays!” suggest that the benefits of being a union member are like the advantages of signing up with Bank of American instead of Wells Fargo.

The part of service unionism we are trying to avoid is a relationship of expert and worker who needs help or leadership. What we want to create are services that are member to member and build leadership of workers. Such services play a role in integrating members into the larger union and the theory and practice of class struggle. Our consciousness around class struggle provides us with an important contrast to the mostly apolitical service unionism. We are trying to build a different world than the adherents of service unionism are. We try to make a concrete link between our ideas and the way we fight the bosses.

Service unionism creates vertical relationships where workers look to politicians, the government, lawyers, experts and even the bosses to get what they need. What we are trying to create are horizontal relationships between workers where workers look to each other, people in their communities or other workers around the world to address their needs. We often use terms like “solidarity” or “mutual aid” to describe this. This also doesn’t mean we will never use labor lawyers to support our fights. We will use them to support our organizing but we do not rely on a legal strategy and courts to do our work for us. Some of our fellow workers won’t take on leadership or expert roles. We seek to ensure that these roles do not become permanent and try to teach skills to as many people as possible. We want everyone to become a leader.

An example of this is the IWW’s Organizer Training Program, which is somewhat based on an expert-like relationship. What doesn’t make this service unionism is that we encourage participants to share their experiences. We build on those experiences during the trainings. Overall goal is that participants take these tools, put them into practice and they become the future trainers.

There are a number of other examples in the union. Many of our campaigns actively recruit workers sympathetic to our goals and help them with their resume and references to get a job in the industry they are organizing. In New York, Spanish speaking immigrant Mexican members working in food warehouses meet with English speaking members and they learn each others language from one another. Also recognizing that the fight of immigrant workers is the fight of all workers, New York members are referred to local immigration support services. The Chicago Couriers Union has a program that allows members to borrow a loaner bike if their own is suddenly damaged. The defunct South Street Workers Union in Philadelphia would organize clinics where the workers they were organizing. This allowed low wage retail and service workers without health insurance to get health screening and a check up by a nurse. They even had a member who was an accountant showing them how to get a rebate on their taxes many low-income workers do not know about (the Earned Income Tax Credit).

There are countless other examples of these currently throughout the union but also in history. The influence of late nineteenth century anarchist mutualists on the workers movement in Mexico is very strong. North of the US border, small towns made up of Mexican workers were run through various associations. Also practiced throughout the Mexican labor movement are worker run savings programs, banks, discounted food stores and health services. These can be important programs that help workers in the short run, reduce their dependency on capitalist institutions and allow them to gain experience with cooperatively run institutions.

The choice between providing services as a union and not providing them is a false choice. We need to keep the critique of service unionism. But we also need to provide services for our members by developing member-to-member relationships, building leadership and supporting programs that meet our needs. This will integrate workers into the union and connect them to the class struggle.

(This article appeared in the Industrial Worker in January 2009.)
Taken from Recomposition.

Comments

Olen
Nov 2 2012 00:52

I like the verbally professed philosophy of the IWW but my personal experience with it has hardly been positive and I, as a result, have to question any difference between its supposed radical philosophy and service/business unions in praxis... It seems both would place low-wage workers in a class at the very bottom of the heap with little or no regard for them as human beings beyond sending dues to the GMB. I have given the IWW plenty of opportunities to prove otherwise, but as stated above my experience has not been the least bit positive. I do enjoy reading some of the posts on the IWW list, but the rhetoric seems to be entirely contrary to the actions and responses of the GMB. I am/soon-won't-be an individual member and this seems to be a position the GMB cares nothing about other than collecting dues and then ignoring the person... not even sending the dues stamps after several months and a dozen emails and queries. How is this conducive to organizing the unorganized? Actions always speak louder than words, and for someone barely making it on $200/month my money could have been more wisely spent on food or maybe a second pair of jeans. No offense just speaking of my present and on-going experience.

klas batalo
Nov 2 2012 01:43

Who's your GMB?

Olen
Nov 6 2012 01:08

I should have used the acronym GHQ as opposed to GMB, my apologies. I am an individual member. As far as I know, the only member in Flint, Mi. I was considering trying to approach the good folks of Flint, on industrial unionism. It is drastically needed here. I am also a bit appalled at other one-sided quasi-political analyses and promotion of things I entirely disagree with under the guise of solidarity-outreach by the IWW... not what I expected from an organization touting impartiality and a non-political nature. I see far more New-Left bourgeoisie tendencies (some of it so blatantly one-sided as to be offensive to me) in the IWW than reaching out to the broader working class. Sorry, but this is my honest experience thus far. (I also do not see a follow replies to this post widget, so I apologize for any delay in my replies).

Juan Conatz
Nov 6 2012 01:40

I know some Detroit folks and they are solid people. Not sure how far that is from Flint. I haven't heard of any active Wobs from Flint. Only the D, Grand Rapids and to a way lesser extent, Lansing.

redsdisease
Nov 6 2012 02:12
Olen wrote:
I am also a bit appalled at other one-sided quasi-political analyses and promotion of things I entirely disagree with under the guise of solidarity-outreach by the IWW... not what I expected from an organization touting impartiality and a non-political nature. I see far more New-Left bourgeoisie tendencies (some of it so blatantly one-sided as to be offensive to me) in the IWW than reaching out to the broader working class.

I'm curious what you mean by this, as I have no idea what "New-Left bourgeoisie tendencies" are. Can you show some examples? Obviously the IWW isn't non-political nor should it be, unless you think the preamble (which extensively quotes Marx) is somehow an apolitical document.

syndicalist
Nov 6 2012 03:14

Are you the Rash dude who contacted WSA .... and when we tried to contact you about a meeting with Lansing folks never could make it?

Olen
Nov 7 2012 20:55

I am not sure what the WSA is. But I would not schedule a meeting in Lansing since I do not have a vehicle and could not presently afford a trip. I have only had direct contact with the IWW to try and receive my dues stamps, etc as described in my posts above.

Olen
Nov 7 2012 21:24

For one, I am referring to the formal statement on Israel and the one-sided and very simplistic analysis of the Palestine-Israel situation as well as statements regarding the Israeli labor union Histadrut in formal and informal articles and postings. There are many mentions of Israel, nearly all using one-sided arguments, and I am not condoning Israel's actions in this process... but the view and analysis is very one-sided. Meanwhile, I do not see any statement regarding the Nation of Israel as being a legitimate Nation. This causes the left in Israel, and many Jews of left persuasion in the US; to lean further and further to the right. Because of such views being promulgated at a time where antisemitism has reached levels only seen in pre-WWII Europe, Jews are rightly or wrongly feeling forced to leave the left in masse. This is frequently described as "New-Left Antisemitism" because it fosters the view of Israel not being a legitimate Country. There are inferences to Israel as a historically racist entity but ignoring such things as the advocacy of the Mufti to implement gas chambers in the region, seeking Nazi aid for their construction, etc... I would also note that the close and actual "relationship" between Palestinians and Israeli's is also ignored. For example, genetic testing shows Jewish genealogy of many Palestinians and the "Breastless" women are of Jewish descent, since they were given forced mastectomies to prevent the child receiving nursing from a Jewish mother. One could also compare human rights towards gays, women, etc and cross-compare. In that analysis Israel looks much better. One should also note the change in birth rate of Haredi Jews with secular Jews in Israel. This situation is very complex. I do not feel the present analysis by the IWW is impartial or even fair and contributes to the de facto exclusion of Jews from the IWW, while giving the impression that the left has purposely chosen to exclude them. I also find such things as extreme animal rights beliefs foster the alienation of large numbers of blue collar workers and prevent a true working class movement through division of class by advocates of certain specific schools of ethics. Although I have not seen this (extreme Animal Rights) formally promoted, it was recently advocated by some on the IWW list; the blue collar folks I know would immediately seize on this as a reason "Not" to advocate revolutionary change. I personally find this ideology very bourgeoisie as opposed to working-class. These above ideas are components of what is often called the "New Left".

syndicalist
Nov 7 2012 21:52
Olen wrote:
For one, I am referring to the formal statement on Israel and the one-sided and very simplistic analysis of the Palestine-Israel situation as well as statements regarding the Israeli labor union Histadrut in formal and informal articles and postings. There are many mentions of Israel, nearly all using one-sided arguments, and I am not condoning Israel's actions in this process... but the view and analysis is very one-sided. Meanwhile, I do not see any statement regarding the Nation of Israel as being a legitimate Nation. This causes the left in Israel, and many Jews of left persuasion in the US; to lean further and further to the right. Because of such views being promulgated at a time where antisemitism has reached levels only seen in pre-WWII Europe, Jews are rightly or wrongly feeling forced to leave the left in masse. This is frequently described as "New-Left Antisemitism" because it fosters the view of Israel not being a legitimate Country. There are inferences to Israel as a historically racist entity but ignoring such things as the advocacy of the Mufti to implement gas chambers in the region, seeking Nazi aid for their construction, etc... I would also note that the close and actual "relationship" between Palestinians and Israeli's is also ignored. For example, genetic testing shows Jewish genealogy of many Palestinians and the "Breastless" women are of Jewish descent, since they were given forced mastectomies to prevent the child receiving nursing from a Jewish mother. One could also compare human rights towards gays, women, etc and cross-compare. In that analysis Israel looks much better. One should also note the change in birth rate of Haredi Jews with secular Jews in Israel. This situation is very complex. I do not feel the present analysis by the IWW is impartial or even fair and contributes to the de facto exclusion of Jews from the IWW, while giving the impression that the left has purposely chosen to exclude them. I also find such things as extreme animal rights beliefs foster the alienation of large numbers of blue collar workers and prevent a true working class movement through division of class by advocates of certain specific schools of ethics. Although I have not seen this (extreme Animal Rights) formally promoted, it was recently advocated by some on the IWW list; the blue collar folks I know would immediately seize on this as a reason "Not" to advocate revolutionary change. I personally find this ideology very bourgeoisie as opposed to working-class. These above ideas are components of what is often called the "New Left".

Friend Olen...... I am of jewish birth, don't run from my heritage and hardly a friend of any nationalisms, including palestinian or zionism. I'm not a fan of the anti-Israel ban stuff, but your posting seems a bit odd and mainly provocative.

An ethical understanding of the world around us would be that no nationalism works to the advantage of the world's working class. From this we take our "passover" understandings and apply them to the world about us.

Olen
Nov 7 2012 23:13

Dear Syndicalist,

When I read the formal statements comparing Israel to Aparthied using comparisons via unions, etc. it gives a warped picture. I would note that a vote for "Hamas" was described as a political message. Yet, what about the recent bombings of Israeli civilians by Hamas? or the take-over of at least one UN union by Hamas? I would recommend this article (although a slightly different topic, there is much pertinent information): http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/03/01/why-unions-should-not-break-links-histadrut

Especially note the section on COSATU...

Keep in mind that the statements by IWW in regard to the BDS are using pro-Palestinian emotional comparisons, but not discussing any reasonable counterpoints for any divergent views. I should have said I believe the Israelis deserve the right to defend living in the Middle East and have a right to self-determination and self-defense. I agree on the concept of Nationalism as counterproductive in the long run. But to ignore the present situation where the BDS provides legitimacy to one side on a National level (whether intended or not) with no attempt to explain historical context of the Israeli side (such as the Mufti's background and why certain actions may have been undertaken by both sides) or make a statement of their right to legitimacy and self-sovereignty is not conducive to "breaking down National barriers" either. I prefer the idea of self-determination more so than Nationalism.

But the bottom-line IMHO is that the present BDS format is not at all conducive to helping class struggle but in promoting the present state of divisiveness. This can be observed in the exodus of Jews from the left and the growing power of Orthodoxy and ultra-Conservatism, such as the new Mega-Conservative party in Israel, and the large numbers of previously leftist American Jews switching to the GOP. If the present formal doctrine of BDS is not conducive to overall class struggle and promotes feelings of fear in such as myself, I find the arguments I posed previously just as pertinent and plausible as those promoted by the IWW Solidarity group whether provocative or not.

I mentioned the relatedness as I am from Anusim (also Irish and Choctaw paternally) maternal background, and feel the similar background of many Palestinians and Bedouin are a possible way to build bridges rather than the focus on religious separatism...

I'm not trying to do anything other than point out things I find disconcerting while paying dues to help support the organization making such formal statements on BDS.

Regards,
Olen

syndicalist
Nov 7 2012 23:52

Out of respect for the original topic, we should split this thread off.

Quote:
Olen----I'm not trying to do anything other than point out things I find disconcerting while paying dues to help support the organization making such formal statements on BDS.

Well, this will be the last posting here on this.

The IWW is a voluntary organization and if it does not represent your views, you may choose to dis-aasociate as you are not in a job shop. That would be my best advice.

Juan Conatz
Nov 8 2012 04:35

Honestly, I wasn't really enthusiastic about the BDS resolution, but based on what you've said and your perspective, I'm glad it has turned you away.