The IWW constitution: union democracy

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles (based upon a 1990 series by Jon Bekken) offering an overview of the IWW Constitution. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998).

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles (based upon a 1990 series by Jon Bekken) offering an overview of the IWW Constitution. While the Preamble offers a concise statement of Wobbly philosophy, the Constitution spells out the structure and workings of the organization.

As we have seen, the IWW proposes to organize all workers, throughout the world, into a single organization built along industrial lines. But such an organization would be of little use to its members were it to be run by professional bureaucrats, gangsters or politicians. Thus the IWW Constitution includes a number of safeguards designed to protect the rights of all IWW members and ensure that the members continue to run the organization.

Union Democracy.

We see every day how undemocratic union structures enable union bosses to enrich themselves at the membership's expense, to impose lousy contracts and working conditions, and to terrorize anyone who stands in the way of their autocratic reign. Business unionists justify such practices by claiming they are necessary to the efficient conduct of the organization. Union leaders, they explain, are invaluable experts who deserve compensation for their special skills, and who need the latitude to pursue policies that will promote the best long-term interests of the members, whatever short-term sacrifice must be made.

The IWW membership has no patience for such pretensions, knowing full well that it is the membership upon which the organization depends for its strength. The Industrial Workers of the World exists in order to fight for democracy in our everyday life on the job. This cannot be accomplished by subjecting ourselves to dictatorship in our union.

The IWW Constitution is designed to protect against any clique running this union to suit themselves:

* No officer can be elected for longer than one year, or for more than three successive terms (unless qualified candidates cannot otherwise be found). This protects against entrenched leadership, and guarantees that all officers must regularly return to the job floor to earn their living. It also guarantees an informed rank and file, as many members will have served as officers at every level of the union. Although it is not written in the Constitution, long-standing union policy (and the state of our finances) ensures that officers are paid no more than the average pay of the workers they represent. Most officers serve with no compensation whatsoever.

* IWW officers are required to make monthly reports on their activities to the membership, including financial reports. Rank-and-file committees audit the financial records on a regular basis.

* All officers - from Branch Secretary to General Secretary-Treasurer - are elected by secret ballot on which all members they represent may vote. Any officer can be recalled by majority vote, and any 15 paid-up members can initiate a recall ballot. In addition, members are guaranteed the right to bring charges against union officers, and to appeal any decision all the way to referendum vote of the membership.

* No powers are given officers except those needed to carry out the membership's instructions. Strikes can not be called, or called off, by officers - this can be done only by the members concerned. Settlements can be negotiated only by committees of the workers involved. No IWW officer can meet with employers except in the presence of the committee, thus preventing backroom deals.

Each branch and Industrial Union has the right to choose its own delegates and officers, and to veto any organizer appointed by the General Executive Board for their jurisdiction. While the Board can visit branches and audit their accounts, it does not have the authority to impose trustees or otherwise impose its will, so long as the branch in question is conducting itself in accordance with the provisions of the IWW Constitution.

To the contrary, the membership can impose its will on the General Executive Board. The IWW Constitution provides that membership referenda and the annual General Assembly (open to any paid-up member) are the IWW's highest decision-making bodies. IWW officers are elected to implement these decisions, they cannot overturn them. Indeed, although IWW national officers and paid employees can speak during Assemblies, they are not allowed to vote.

* Any 15 paid-up members (also the General Executive Board or the Assembly) can initiate a referendum on any issue. The Constitution requires that these questions are presented to the membership for voting in a timely fashion, after proper notice so that members can discuss the issues and circulate their views throughout the union. Ballots are counted by rank-and-file members, elected by the branch(es) operating in the city where headquarters is located.

* The union's mechanism for handling union funds also protects democracy by keeping the power of the purse in the hands of the membership. The IWW rejects the "check-off" system of dues collection, where employers take union dues out of the workers' wages (just like any other tax) and hand them over to union officials. Such a system tends to discourage direct, regular contacts between union members and their elected delegates, reinforces the notion that dues are just another tax, and involves management in internal union affairs.

When union treasurers get their check from the company they rely more upon its goodwill than upon the support of the membership. After all, if management refused to issue the check, the officers would be out of a job. Without dues check-off the way dues are paid is a direct barometer of the members' satisfaction and involvement in the union (or lack thereof). Officers who don't do their job will face lagging dues payments and delinquent members.

Instead of the check-off, the IWW requires that union dues be paid directly to the delegate on the job, or the local delegate where the job is unorganized. Dues stamps are issued in exchange for all funds received. All delegates are required to report to the branch on a monthly basis and can have their accounts audited at any time.

* No mandatory assessments or dues increases can be levied except when approved by a referendum of those who have to pay them.

* Union dues and initiation are kept as low as possible. Union funds can be spent only on legitimate union expenses - they cannot be spent in behalf of politicians, for sick or death benefits, etc. The IWW has always believed that its treasury should be kept in the members' pockets. In this way we guarantee that the members can decide (though voluntary contributions) which causes they will support - and we protect against the court injunctions and fines which so often force unions to capitulate in order to save their benefit funds.

Such funds, necessary though they may be, are best kept entirely separate from union control. Instead the IWW has always insisted that workers be paid their full wages in cash, leaving them free to join mutual aid societies or to make other arrangements that are not tied to any single employer or union. This protects against injunctions and court seizures of funds, and against the common practice whereby workers lose their pension plans and other benefits when employers go bankrupt or terminate workers just before they become eligible for pensions.

* IWW members are guaranteed the right to bring charges against local or international officers, or against individual members, and to have these heard by a committee of rank-and-file members. The Constitution scrupulously guarantees the rights of charges parties to notice of the charges against them, a neutral hearing panel, and to appeal. Both charged and charging parties are guaranteed the right to appeal the outcome of any charges proceeding to the general membership.

* The IWW Constitution outlaws the sort of "amalgamated locals" which group together workers from disparate industries and localities - sometimes covering two or more entire states. It is not uncommon in other unions for workers to have to spend two or more hours travel time if they wish to attend their union "local" meetings. The IWW Constitution provides that Branch charters can be issued only when it is "feasible for their members to meet together." This prevents a small clique from avoiding membership control by creating sprawling locals so vast that few members can realistically attend meetings.

* The IWW Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality, creed, color or sexual preference. Only paid officers of trade or craft unions, politicians, managers and bosses, and those "whose employment is incompatible with the aims of this union" (such as sheriffs and union-busting consultants) can be barred from membership. Otherwise, any worker who agrees to abide by the IWW Constitution is eligible for membership.

A worker-run union

The IWW is organized on the principle that working people must control, and are capable of controlling, their own organization - and ultimately all of industry. Our procedures for realizing this goal were developed over more than 90 years of activity in diverse industries and under often difficult circumstances.

Because of our insistence on union democracy and membership control, the IWW has more than once survived the arrest and imprisonment of its entire "leadership." It is easy to incapacitate an organization that is run by one person or by a self-perpetuating Executive Board - all one need do is buy off or lock up those in charge. But an organization composed of members accustomed to making their own decisions and running their own affairs is much harder to control or to crush. Such a membership guarantees democracy, by refusing to tolerate any infringement of its rights.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998)