Pinchpoint target

Pinchpoint target

A column by Nate Hawthorne, arguing against the IWW presently prioritizing what some see as key industries.

Some people think the IWW should pour all of its resources into organizing in an industry which is particularly important to the economy, to maximize our impact on capitalism--I call this the “Pinchpoint Target” idea.

Pinchpoint Target is the idea that there's one key sector or a few key sectors of the economy where organized workers could shut down capitalism. This means workers in that sector or sectors have a certain level of objective power, at least potentially. For instance, if every dockworker in the United States went on strike the global economy would stop. Dockworker strikes stop an incredibly valuable amount of machinery and goods. Every minute of the strike costs the bosses of the world a great deal of money. This analysis is correct. It does not mean that the IWW should focus only organizing dockworkers.

The problem with Pinchpoint Target is that it takes a correct objective analysis of the economy--some sectors are more important to the global economy than others--and argues that the analysis should dictate organizational strategy. The mistake is that Pinchpoint Target says that we'll organize that key sector or sectors and then be able to end capitalism. That is, the idea is that workers in that sectors or sectors will lead the charge for everyone else.

There are at least three problems with this idea. One is that workers in other industries need unions too because their jobs also suck. Some of those workers are currently IWW members and not all of them can change jobs to some key industry. The IWW needs to support and train and develop those members too. To do otherwise would be undemocratic.

A second problem is that the current level of training, experience, and dedication in the union is insufficient. The procedures for educating news members and developing a sense of Wobbly culture and community need to be better. I don't mean to put down the hard work of my fellow workers. I simply think that we still have a lot of work to do in this area. If we're talking about key sectors where we want to not only build unions but push forward revolutionary transformation then we will face tremendous repression. We have to be prepared for this repression. That means we have to develop better networks of solidarity and union infrastructure and a stronger Wobbly culture. The union busting we face when we organize image conscious restaurant chains or in the public sector is nowhere near as fierce as in manufacturing. We still have a hard time handling this in our campaigns. If we organize dockworkers or oil refinery workers the union busting we face will be much more intense than anything we have seen before. We need to get better at winning smaller campaigns in less important sectors of the economy before we charge up the mountain.

The level of repression which workers in pinchpoint industry face is an argument for not prioritizing those sectors for another reason. If workers in those industries are isolated, they will be more easily defeated. If organization and revolutionary consciousness is spread throughout the working class across different sectors then we will have a better chance at defeating that repression. If it's not, then the struggles in the pinchpoint sector or sectors will be more likely to lose--and the workers in other sectors may be less likely to unite with the workers in the pinchpoint sectors.

The experience of class struggle on the job can have a radicalizing effect. I've argued that we should organize in a way that maximizes this effect. This is important to counteract divisions between parts of our class. More important sectors of the economy are more likely to be well paid, and one response to major unrest is to improve conditions. The difference in income between the pinchpoint and nonpinchpoint workers can lead workers in the non-pinchpoint sectors to be less disposed toward solidarity.

I want to close by saying that the Pinchpoint Target is motivated by a sense of urgency. The idea is that prioritizing one sector or some key sectors will move the abolition of the wage system along faster. That's a worthwhile goal and that impatience is totally understandable. The world is a bad place in many ways and it needs to change. I'm not convinced that the Pinchpoint Target will help us, but I respect and share the sense of urgency of the fellow workers who hold to this idea.

- Nate Hawthorne

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2008)


Apr 21 2014 22:24

Interesting stuff. Personally it seems to me like picking fights where a small proportion of the workforce can have a disproportionate effect still seems like a smart move to me. I mean, allowing for the fact that there's a risk of these sections of the class seeing themselves as some sort if vanguard, and acknowledging that we still need to support workers in struggle whether they're in a "pinchpoint" industry or not, to the extent that we can or should prioritise any given area of organising over any other I do feel it's worth thinking strategically about where our efforts are likely to bear most fruit.


Apr 22 2014 23:38

I know this piece is old, and I think I've seen it before, but I actually think it's a little strawman-y. I understand it's trying to be brief, but I think that has seriously limited it's ability to engage the argument.

Right off the bat, I think the second argument doesn't hold at all. We simply have to organize and try and fail, in order to learn. I can't conceive of any other real way of moving forward in any industry. Secondly, the reason we don't face the same type of repression in fast food is because we haven't been able to exert the same kind of power that a small group of well organized crafts workers or longshoremen could. They can, as you point out, cost the bosses tons of money and interrupt the turnover of capital. We cannot do that in fast food. We've hardly come close, because the conditions allowing for that are incredibly and extremely difficult, like auto production in the thirties. So there is a qualitative difference (that you acknowledge) that I think also accounts for the kind of repression/success we have in certain industries.

I don't think we should spend all our energy on "pinchpoints" but I do thing they should be given a high degree of attention in studying their effects and how to organize them. What I mean to say is that, if we can spend maybe 55% on pinch points vs. 45% on general membership industries we might get somewhere.

Consider that at least a part of getting people to fight back is to demonstrate success. There is no reason that organizing workers in say distribution cannot have a ripple effect in warehousing or even supermarkets etc. Of course, it isn't determinate that it will have that effect, but dependent on the interaction of supermarket workers and distribution workers. That's where organizing both industries becomes a real factor. And I don't mean to say that one should come before the other, etc. but just that I don't think organizing distribution has to run a particular course. There are certainly possibilities for internationalism, as well as inter-industiralism (neologism FTW) in organizing these workers. They aren't completely doomed to labor aristocracy-ism.

Dunno though, might have to think about this more. I've been reading about the MESA a lot recently and it is relevant to this topic.

Apr 23 2014 09:26

An alternative argument against pinchpoint targets is that while economically they may be important, demographically they are less so. A large section of the British workforce, for example, is employed in the services and hospitality sector (which is also largely privatised and hostile to unions). Well organised and high profile drives here have the potential to have a greater ideological impact on the workforce in general than a few hundred in say, for example, a port or a distribution centre. Conversely the action of pinchpoint workers can actually inflame anti-union feeling amongst unorganised sectors as they feel the impact of industrial action with seemingly little benefit.

Apr 23 2014 19:37

I haven't looked at this column in a while and don't remember the details of what I said. I'm flattered people find it worth reading and discussing. I should reread it and maybe update it, I tend to change my mind a lot and I remember I wrote that one in a hurry to think out ideas. For now, I just want to say on the 'strawman' point, I can see how it might look that way and I know that kind of thing happens a lot. I guess I just want to ask you to take my word for it that this article was actually in response to ideas friends of mine held when I wrote it, that they had voiced in email and by phone. It seemed bad form to name them by name when they hadn't voiced those ideas in print. I tried hard to represent those ideas as accurately as I could, in part because I try to be honest and in part because the people I was talking about were friends who I both wanted to do some justice to and who if I misrepresented their views they would tell me in no uncertain terms. If you don't believe me on that, well, that's your call. I can see why you might not because I'm just some anonymous internet guy. In that case, I don't really know what else to say.

For whatever it's worth in terms of the time when this was written (this was published 5 or 6 years ago, I don't remember when I first wrote it). One thing on my mind when I wrote this was about what the emphasis on economically vital pinchpoint/chokepoint targets meant in the actual life of the IWW at the time. I think this was obvious to IWW members (the ones plugged in to the union really actively, anyway) at the time when this column first appeared, so I didn't say it directly. I also didn't want to be rude and didn't know how to address this stuff politely so I left it implied. At the time, and still today, the IWW's organizing concentrated heavily in food service, industries close to the end-line individual consumer. The way people would express this pinchpoint idea was something along the lines of "who even cares about fast food, we need to target truck drivers and ports instead." In the IWW at the time that attitude was destructive because of existing tensions among different people and because we were still trying to build a culture of organizing. My attitude at the time was that pissing on food service organizing for not being trucker organizing was a serious mistake that was likely to just discourage the growth of organizing.

I also wanted to put forward something that made big points rather than a tepid thing like "well okay yeah this organizing in food service really is unimportant but be nice about it because otherwise you'll demoralize people." A lot of why I wanted to do that was that I felt at the time like there wasn't much of a culture of stating political/strategic ideas in print in the IWW. I was trying to provoke a response in writing because I thought it would be better if we had the debate more formally instead of by phone and personal emails. This was over all a goal of the people who first started the Workers Power column series, as far as I remember. There's more of a culture of fully worked out written debate in the IWW today, but there could still be more IMHO.

Apr 23 2014 20:44

Yeah, I'm not beholden to "strawman" thing, didn't mean it as an insult. And I understand where you're coming from I think. I guess I just want to get across what I felt were some more nuanced arguments as to the nature of certain workplaces and industries being strategically located physically, socially etc.

If I develop the thoughts more, I'll write them up, not as a response to this per se, but maybe just a pros and cons of the approaches.

And yeah, there is no way fast food organizing should be sacrificed for the sake of pinch point organizing. Agreed.

jef costello
Apr 24 2014 14:44

Surely this would be similar to be salting which while it has succeeded in making some unions powerful hasn't done too much. For example Lutte Ouvrière's control of signalling on French railways.

Aug 1 2014 09:35


Steel City Synd...
Jan 18 2015 16:59

Hi all,

A bit late to the discussion, but a debate has recently been happening in our branch (Sheffield) which speaks to a lot of the issues discussed in the article, as well as in the comments, so I thought I'd share the links if anyone's interested.

A lot of the facts and figures we are discussing in these pieces are naturally geared towards our local region - but the ideas at play are probably of universal, or at least national significance, and might be familiar to other wobblies elsewhere.

Our discussions are about medium-term direction and industrial focus following an extremely successful year locally. Of note is that the FW I am responding to in my article labours under the same illusion as RedAndBlack in the comments above - that a large portion of the British workforce is now employed in the hospitality sector. That might be true in London for all I know, but it certainly isn't the case in the North East, where so-called "pinch-point" industries also happen to be some of the biggest employers, and the tertiary sectors (such as hospitality) which we often clamour about in the Union not only play a lesser role in the economy but also employ markedly fewer workers than people seem to think.

I'd suggest that the IWW, locally, nationally and probably internationally, does need to begin throwing more at "the commanding heights" or "pinch-point industries", *not only* because of their role in revolutionary strategy, but also because in many areas they are just far larger industries - in terms of number of workers - than a lot of people care to imagine - they represent a startlingly high percentage of the workforce in many areas. What I see happening is huge sections of the workforce (in heavy industry, trades, construction etc.), not only "not being the priority" for organising, but effectively being written off entirely (relative to their immense size) in favour of tertiary sector organising, because too many people believe the myth that we don't really have manufacturing or heavy industry in this country any more, and that the whole economy is based on tertiary services.

Ultimately, attention to regional economic realities should guide outreach and organising emphasis - and we should be wary of assuming too much about the composition of the economy without the research to back it up.



Jan 19 2015 15:33

Having read the articles you just posted I have a few comments and questions. First I agree with you that factory and warehouses have greater potential than retail and hospitality. I suspect the reason they don't get pursued is that the larger shop floors are proly already unionised. However, a dual card strategy could be an option.

However, I don't reckon discussions over the future of IWW branches should be numbers games. You're first aim is to double GMB every year. Is this independent of broader class struggle in the country? If the IWW started getting recognition and contacts on the shop floor of factories how would the workers be in any better position than if it was a TUC union was recognised, especially if there was another major recession and their barganning power is weakened? How would the Sheffield IWW any different from the Sheffield Unite branch about from not having as many bureaucrats and it's members agreeing to its revolutionary rhetoric? To my mind it's their use of direct action rather than legalism. Surely then a better goal for the IWW over the next five years would be to spread the use of direct action, rather than a rise of membership, which IMO would be the result of wider class struggle than the actions of IWW members.

Jan 18 2015 22:40

Double post

Steel City Synd...
Jan 19 2015 06:17

Hi d33r,

Thanks for your comments. There is definitely some TUC union penetration in some factories in our area, but a) most of the unskilled labourers working for gangmasters/agencies are unorganised, and make up a huge percentage of the factory/warehouse workforce, and b) as you rightly pointed out, the posture of TUC unions is to pursue recognition and negotiate by standard methods of collective bargaining - consequently they aren't often ambitious in their demands, and will entirely neglect workplace where they don't think they can get a bargaining-unit majority.

We allow dual-carding already, so even reaching out to organised workers disaffected with the big unions is worthwhile. Plenty of our current members are ex-TUC or dual-carders.

You're correct that our use of direct action methods distinguishes us from TUC unions in day-to-day campaigning - our hands aren't tied as much by restrictive Trade Union legislation because the toolset we train our organisers in is based on wildcat tactics to begin with.

However, I'm not sure why "spreading the ideas of direct action" is a distinct goal from recruiting and training new members - unlike the TUC, every single member of the IWW gets fully trained in our tactics and exposed to the ideological and strategic rationale behind them - so for us recruitment and the spread of direct action skills is really one and the same.

As for the regionalism inherent in our discussion - it's a question of being realistic - Sheffield IWW's work is not disconnected from nationwide class struggle, but at the same time, it's the area we are actually responsible for organising in, and is where we live and work, so I feel like it's a bit of a no-brainer that we're first and foremost responsible for local/regional strategy - the IWW has a national and international administration too, so it'd be a duplication of effort (and undemocratic) for one branch to try and war-game for the whole country.

Hope this has been a helpful response to your questions. Thanks for reading!


Jan 22 2015 22:09


Have you seen the angry workers of the world blog on libcom? I think it's relevant for this discussion

Sep 26 2015 17:08

Just had a chance to read this It's informative in many ways While I can't speak to the IWW strategic aspect, one thing I'd like to comment on tho

On training, it's important but not crucial
In the 1970s and early 1980s, we used to learn by the seat of out pants, with valuable lessons learned(both positive and negative). That said, what was very much missing from this were mentors, those who already had experiances and were willing to share, listen, help develop.
Training, while good and very much needed, is, IMHO, supplemental to live wire interaction and experiance sharing

Basically all we could do is learn our own lessons, watch and learn from the authoritarian left ( in terms of not wanting to follow there wY of going about things, but also learning things from their trial and error). And what amounted to lecturing by some if the few old timers still around was not
Very positive

Anyway , pardon the rant.