photo by SG

Friday, March 9, 2012

Response to Direct Unionism

A new pamphlet called Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper, written by some IWW members, has stirred much discussion in the past months. I agree with much of the paper and find the majority of it a useful way of pushing forward thoughts about what the union does and how it can do better today. I think any serious piece of writing put out by IWW members about our methods and ideas is an important contribution to our organizing culture and am excited that there’s been so much response to this piece. I have a few disagreements of the pamphlet that I believe are worth laying out. I will not dwell on my agreement with the pamphlet, but instead will pose some respectful criticism about ways in which I think it could be improved.

First, to summarize their basic argument: The authors criticize several practices or ideas among some IWW members. Their primary critique is against the contract as the end goal of an IWW campaign. The contract, the authors argue, not only is not enough of a goal because it leads to the constant headache of stagnant shops, but on a political level it actively slows down class struggle by functioning as a compromise between labor and capital. The compromise embodied in the contract promotes social peace not struggle. Obtaining and servicing a contract pushes a union away from shop floor struggle and towards workplace contractualism. They also find a useful way of dealing with the
question "What if the membership wants a contract in a democratic organization?" by effectively arguing that if the membership wants that, we've failed in our job as good organizers no matter what the outcome.

The authors counterpose to this contractual approach a union focused on struggle, on building fights, wins and losses, and keeping organization democratic yet smart. They spell out an articulate and compelling perspective on what the IWW should be doing. We should be a union of militant workers, engaged in the direct work of building the class struggle and always upping our peoples' level of consciousness, experience, and dedication to the class. In two key details their critique is mistaken though: their lack of concern for organizational form and their dichotomy between contracts and non-recognition.

The authors write that they are not terribly concerned with the form in which workplace struggle takes. They say: "We try not to overemphasize formalism (...) we don’t judge a struggle simply on its particular form—be it the union form, the workplace assembly form, or a “workers council” form." This is a mistake, and it's spelled out concretely throughout a section titled Are We Trying to Build A "Union"? For the direct unionists, the answer seems to be "not necessarily." I disagree. The union form, the IWW version of the union form at least, is important. We need to build formal organization and we need to be able to use that to build an IWW identity. A union as the IWW practices it is a group of workers coming together to represent their interests and act against the boss's interests today and in doing so building a fight against the boss class's interests tomorrow. By building the union, we push our message throughout the class and have a flag that we can point to and say "See, this is what the union does." Anecdotally, people working in fast food and restaurants in the Twin Cities know that there’s a union for them because of the IWW’s campaign at the Jimmy John’s sandwich shops here. Without the union form, these workers would not still be talking about these possibilities in a concrete way because there would be no organization for them to plug into. Having a clear organization is important because it allows us to build a strong union identity through our culture of solidarity and allow other groups of workers to see our vision in practice and step closer to us.

The organization is not, or at least should not, be a "union of militants" as the paper seems to suggest, but instead a "union of militant workers." By that I mean that the IWW should not be an organization of highly developed cadre organizers who stir up struggle at work, but should be a formal union made of workers with different levels of consciousness and organizing ability that is always pushing to develop our members. There will always be people with different levels of experience and consciousness and by embracing the union form, we can draw in workers from wherever they are at and develop them upwards as revolutionaries. After all, if we’re serious about revolutionary struggle, we need to build our organizational ability widely through the class struggle, as early IWW organizers suggested that revolutionary industrial unionism should train us to run the economy after a revolution. By building the union, by bringing in workers and having experiences of struggle with them, we have spaces for bringing up workers and building them into organizers and revolutionaries.

The direct unionists call for “a need for organization,” but don’t adequately explain what organization means. If we don't pay enough attention to organization, our analysis of how to act gets fuzzy and we can make mistakes that neither build the class struggle nor make our lives any better. We act united and public because that's how we have power. We should carry a revolutionary unionist banner and act in a revolutionary unionist way. If not, then what leadership can we provide? Being clear about what it is we are and what we're doing is an important part of organizing. How many times have we explained the politics of the IWW to someone in a one-on-one and heard “Wow, the IWW believes in something! That’s inspiring!” The truth is that like it or not, workers look to organizers and militants for ideas. By raising the banner of the IWW and building ourselves as a formal, revolutionary union, we make it easier to join the organization by building an IWW identity through culture and organizing, and make it easier to develop our members internally by intentionally thinking as an organization about membership development.

The second main mistake of the direct unionist perspective is their confusion of recognition and contractualism as the same thing. Here it's worth quoting the piece at length:

"[We’d] like to note that direct unionism does not reject recognition from the boss. It only rejects ‘official’ recognition and the legalistic methods (contracts, labor board elections, union registration) used to do so. This pamphlet intentionally stresses the ‘here and now’, but if we reach a point where the IWW is a majority presence in a shop, recognition won’t go much further than there being a recognized IWW delegate who is management’s “first point of call” when it come to shop conditions."

The direct unionists argue that that recognition is a possibility in the distant future, but in the short term most recognition is simply contractualism and should be avoided. It’s worth noting that the direct unionists effectively demolish contractualism as an IWW strategy throughout the piece, a critique that I share. They argue though that we can get contracts and get sucked into the negative aspects associated with them, or we can act directly as a group of workers using direct action and avoid all those pitfalls. But the question of recognition is not a distant one, in fact it’s a major feature in most of our current workplace campaigns.

In all the IWW union fights that I have participated in or interacted in, the question of recognition and legitimacy have been reoccurring themes, sometimes explicit and sometimes implied. The bosses sometimes attempt to delegitimize the union by arguing that a direct action approach is not a union approach. This can play out many ways, but most often plays out by the boss saying “If they say they’re a union, then they should file for an election.” Here the boss is trying to put the question of the union’s legitimacy at the workplace often as part of an attempt to third-party the union. We can respond by filing an election, something which the direct unionists and I would oppose for reasons they lay out in the pamphlet, or we can stubbornly continue to push for only direct action, not being able to answer our coworkers’ question of why we won’t file. Under the current conditions of labor law and class consciousness, simply telling a coworker that an election is a bad idea politically is not an effective answer, because the IWW and the labor movement does not possess the cultural and ideological power that we would need for most people to accept our answers without seeing it for themselves. A fellow worker said to me that he thought all new branches run end up running at least one contract campaign for this very reason.

The question of legitimacy is thus a power factor in our union fights. I disagree with the contractual approach but also think that the direct unionists’ answer is also weak. Only relying on direct action leads us to question the reasons for going public with the union in the first place, which leads us to ask why we should organize a union at all and not stick to informal work groups, something the direct unionists say they oppose. We need to find a way to find an answer to the question of the union’s legitimacy and I think we can find it in the example which the direct unionists use to argue for non-contractualism, that of Philadelphia’s Local 8, the IWW’s longshoreman’s union in the 1910’s and 20’s.

The direct unionists say “It [Local 8] established ‘worker control’ on the Philadelphia docks while balancing bread-and-butter concerns with radical, non-contractual principles. To achieve this Philadelphia’s longshore workers would strike any pier in which a shipper tried to bring in non-union labor to unload cargo.” What the direct unionists don’t include here though is that through a strong organizing campaign that took years to fight Local 8 was recognized by the shipper’s organization as the legitimate representative of longshoremen in Philadelphia. The IWW had a hiring hall which the shipping companies used to get workers, much like modern longshoring unions do. Also workers believed that the IWW was their legitimate representative and would refuse to work with longshoremen who were not paid up or would not wear union buttons. In short, through a vigorous campaign of direct action, the IWW fought for and received formal recognition outside of a contractual framework. (Refer to Peter Cole’s Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia for support for this section)

The direct unionists could be throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. Even if we find contractualism a mistake for revolutionary unionism, we need to note that there are different kinds of recognition and that the question of legitimacy cannot be solved simply by hoping that workers will see the union as legitimate by practicing direct action. Capitalist ideology is pervasive and we need to face the fact that today given a choice between pure direct actionism and a contract which recognizes the union, workers will often opt for a contract because it makes the union seem like a legitimate force in the work place. The IWW needs to fight to find ways that deal with the problem of legitimacy that do not give up our tools of direct action, but rather make them part of the culture of work.

Much of the Direct Unionism pamphlet correctly exposes and argues against approaches that would make it more difficult to develop a fully worked-out model of revolutionary unionism. “Business unionism with red flags” remains an important idea to consider and struggle against within our own organizing and organization. It is not simply enough to declare that we are revolutionaries and that it follows that everything we do is revolutionary. We need an organizing practice which matches up to our vision and values about the unionism we would like to see. In developing that practice though, we must carefully interrogate the practices that we think are associated with business unionism and ask ourselves the same questions we ask ourselves. Just because some organizations declare themselves to be business unionists does not mean that everything that follows is inherently business unionist. Reformism has the same problems of praxis that revolutionary unionism has and we should be able to correctly analyze what the “best practices” are and use them to our class’s advantage.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Review: Socialist Organizing Attempts at Pizza Hut

The IWW is hardly the first organization to attempt to take on the terrible conditions that rule today in the food and retail industry in North America. In the heyday of industrial unionism, restaurants were frequently organized as part of larger drives by unions to organize basic industry. In some places, like Detroit, workers wanted to organize and unions were so effective in organizing food and retail industries that large union federations had competing food and retail affiliates that routinely raided each others memberships. Imagining such a high level of union density in contemporary food and retail industries seems preposterous today. But even in the current moment of anti-worker legislation and dwindling union membership, other unions and left organizations have attempted to organize in this important sector of the service economy.

In late 2003, organizers with the Trotskyist political group Socialist Alternative initiated a campaign amongst Pizza Hut workers in western Washington state. Their organizing began at a franchise that initially had 61 stores. The record of their organizing, their approach and their analysis of the industry is contained on their website as a pamphlet “Manifesto of the Fast Food Worker.” Along with that text, the analysis below comes from a few articles posted on Socialist Alternative’s website relating to the drive and an interview with one of the authors of the “Manifesto”. The campaign collapsed after a vicious anti-union response from management but the organizer I spoke with suggests that the pamphlet represents the most complete picture of the drive. Reading the “Manifesto” and the various news pieces from the campaign’s “underground newspaper” shows a picture of a drive with many similarities with IWW organizing in the fast food industry and but also points towards some key differences.

An important feature of the “Manifesto” is a long section detailing the economic conditions which have brought the rise of fast food and its prevailing low-wage, no-benefits trend. This analysis discusses the ways in which fast food owners as a whole, Pizza Hut and even specifically the franchise where they campaign was undertaken, have structured work in a way that gives the in-shop employees and drivers few options. The authors also do an excellent job critiquing the way the industry has consistently lobbied for a lowering of the minimum wage and against any attempts to raise it. The “Manifesto” itself also raises important ideas about how surplus value is extracted from workers during the production process and explains it in easy language that applies directly to the food production and service industry. They also mention the importance of organizing all pizza shops so as to bring industrial strength to the campaign. As a piece of educational material, the “Manifesto” shows that the authors were deeply committed to connecting their struggle with an industrial outlook and a socialist analysis.

The authors also provide important ideas on how to organize at the workplace for interested workers. Some of their advice, like organizing a committee and staying low-key until the time is right to strike, is classic labor organizing advice and speaks of their ability to organize effectively. The pamphlet also touches directly on the question of labor law, encouraging workers to avoid the NLRB election process and instead to rely on voluntary recognition from the employer. This approach is interesting because it highlights the important weaknesses of the NLRB election approach. It does not explain how exactly one would achieve voluntary recognition, other than through sheer numbers, a situation which is much easier to imagine than create. The “Manifesto” also suggests that interested fast food workers should organize and then affiliate with a left-leaning union in their area, pointing to the ILWU in the case of workers in western Washington. The organizer told me that the campaign was initially organized with a union that claims jurisdiction over fast food workers but that organizers felt the ILWU would have served the drive more effectively.

The pamphlet’s organizing advice seems mostly useful, but it is interesting to see a lack of emphasis on direct action. The tone of the piece is quite militant and promotes a rank-and-file approach to organizing, yet the main focus seems to be on slow building and going public in a large way with overwhelming support and then immediately demanding recognition. Experience has shown many IWW organizers that direct action taken on the shopfloor before going public is an important way for union members to build their confidence and up their dedication to the organization, as well as bringing about concrete gains before publicly attempting to negotiate with the boss. By encouraging coworkers to walk through struggle before standing openly to the world as union members, our organizers have often found success in building workers’ experiences over time. The campaign organizer I spoke to mentioned that the campaign was not able to go public on its own terms, but was discovered by management after they got ahold of the underground news bulletin. In new articles associated with the campaign, a member mentions that the campaign only had support in 15 out of 61 franchise stores and the organizer I spoke with stated that there were only a handful of stores with lead organizers. While this is certainly no small number, it brings up questions of capacity and the need to build underground in a way that engages workers for as long as possible before going public on our own terms.

Fast food is an important sector of the food and retail industry as along with sweatshop production facilities it sets the lowest bar against which employers can measure conditions. As Wobblies working in food and retail, we should familiarize ourselves with other campaigns to organize workers in our industry and see what kind of approaches have been successful and where campaigns have fought hard but encountered roadblocks they have been unable to get past. If conditions will ever change in our economy, those of us who struggle at the bottom of the economy will have to be those who organize the most effectively.

Author interview with T.W., organizer with Tacoma Socialist Alternative (1/27/12)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Raising the Flag Right

As a big fan of public demonstrations of group strength, mostly because I think they are a really good time for people, I cannot help but think about them as important somehow. The Left is famous for ritualizing things that don't really matter and then telling everything that they do matter so that's what we must do them, but I do think there is a valid purpose to putting on and participating in big public actions, symbolic or otherwise. It creates a sense of shared identity, it allows people to take small actions in violation of the normal order, which in turn allows people to imagine taking those actions to over parts of their lives. It can demonstrate to witnesses who we are and what we stand for, and sometimes even splashes on the media a bit.

I like to call public demonstrations episodes in a "flag raising," a catchall kind of activity that takes place when we rep ourselves. Flag raising can happen in lots of different situations, but is basically a time when we say "we're here, we believe in ourselves, watch out." Flag raising isn't necessarily antagonistic, though it might be in the context of a union campaign for example, but could for example be a dinner where we celebrate our experiences. The goal of flag raising is then both internal, as a strengthening of our bonds to each other and our ideas, and can be external, as a drawing of a line in the sand to separate us from the enemy.

How do we build flag-raising public demonstrations of power that appeal to people? If we establish that demonstrations are important to moving forward our message and provide a good space for people to encounter our ideas and discuss them in a supportive environment, we need to figure out how to make them successful.

One thing that I'm really tired of is the rally. I know this seems obvious but to so many people on the Left, the rally is the stock tactic used to raise the flag and it's not that effective. I've seen this particularly in the Occupy movement recently, but I would guess that instinct comes from the participation of folks already well schooled on left behavior as well as any organic movement towards throwing rallies. I think the rally falls short as a useful tactic for a bunch of reasons. Primarily, it becomes just another lecture to nod off to. I know this sounds like I'm way more into the insurrectionist stuff than I normally am, but the depersonalization of the rally is what makes me think it isn't that useful. Someone speaking about their issues, even if they deliver a rousing speech, goes on way too long way too quickly.

If we could do one thing to make rallies better, it would be to keep them tight. This hardly ever works in coalition work though, because if every group isn't represented in the rally than the various organizations see each other as trying to edge the other out (which, while cynical, is probably what's happening!) Therefore rallies almost always devolve into a string of lowest-common denominator speeches designed every constituency to feel involved but no one in charge. Coalition rallies don't frequently change people, usually they are an unwanted addition to another action that may have been exciting, just thrown in to sop the various parties participating in the planning or execution of the action that their voices are heard.

The rally is exclusive, boring and turns people away. How do we build public demonstrations that excite people and make people feel valued and more attached to our ideas? I'm open to new ideas. I've been struck over the past few weeks by the new vision statement of FW EF's new blog, Cultural Front, that the goal is to remake "common sense" of working people. We need to do this on the Left as well. We need to create a culture of the Left that's based on good ideas, not just ideas that have been used before, regardless of their effectiveness. We need to do flag raising in a way that works for us. Here's a few ideas:

1. Everything should have motion
The lamest march beats the best rally because it gets people moving. Moving our bodies around gives us the experience of living, of doing something, which connects the ideas we are discussing with some kind of action. I'm no psychologist, but I can't help but feel if there's not a connection here. Marches and pickets give people an opportunity to do something beyond just passively standing around and that gives us an opportunity to get people excited and have fun. I propose that if you are planning a public demonstration, people should be moving for 75% or more of the time they are at the action. Otherwise people just want to go home.

2. Voices are important but they are not the most important thing
Sometimes organizers deal with the problem created when rally speakers are already organizational leaders by doing the "speak out," where anyone can come forward to speak. This deals with the problem of the lowest common denominator by allowing militants to speak for more radical visions and it allows more voices to enter the discussion and do agitation. But what we gain by including more voices we lose by giving up our certainty of having good speakers perform. We've all been to speak outs that drag on and become a confusing mess as every wingnut gets up to the mic to move their weirdness. I think the lesson here is that voices are important because they spell our what our flag means and what we propose to do with it, but they are not the most important thing. No matter how they get deployed, voices cannot be the whole thing or even most of the thing, because they always fall back to the weaknesses of the speakers. We can't allow our flag raising to be effective or not based on how well we speak.

3. Militancy can always be upped
The power of crowds is amazing. At a recent home defense demo in Minneapolis, over 80 people stood outside a foreclosed house as the cops locked it and tried to board it. Only about 20 people had made plans to prepare for arrest and these plans involved passive civil disobedience. When the moment came though, about 70 people spontaneously locked arms and surrounded the house, forcing the police and firefighters to work around us and ultimately discouraging them (about 8 people) from going forward. We ultimately got back into the house and held it for the night. If you asked most of the 70 arm-locked protesters if they were willing to get arrested, most (including this author) would have said no. But it was clear that they were actively defying police orders and were risking arrest. So how do we square this? People make decisions in the moment based on their feelings and their confidence. We need to make people feel better about militancy, not present it as Advanced Activism, some kind of special sphere that one needs to strike out on one's own to participate in.

Often organizers frame the question of militancy in terms of "willing to get arrested vs not willing." This is a false dichotomy that only hurts our ability to act in unity. A better question might be "who cannot for reasons of parole, immigration status, or dependents cannot be arrested?" We then build actions in such a way as those "unarrestables" (notably different from "don't-wanna-get-arresteds") are as protected by the rest of the group as possible. We build militancy into our actions as a positive thing that we all believe in, not an individual choice that must me made in a vacuum. Given that choice, most individuals will weigh the benefits and drawbacks and conclude that getting arrested isn't worth it for them. As an individual, they are correct, and this promotes the thinking that militancy is just for those willing to engage in symbolic actions that might get some press attention but aren't going to actually do direct action. Militancy at flag raising events cannot be pushed as an either-or, it needs to be presented as value.

More thoughts?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupy Moves Onwards

This will probably be dated as soon as I finish writing it, but I'm trying to get back to writing more and I think there's plenty to think about the Occupy movement that needs to get put down and discussed.

When the Occupy movement initially made its way out of New York, many of us were deeply skeptical of it. New York City, we argued, has such a distinctive economic and political landscape that the tactic of occupying a major piece of land will not be as effective elsewhere. In this, we have been shown to be correct and incorrect. Correct in that no other occupation has had the same vigor and strength that NYC's has. In a city where whole industries are created based on the fact that real estate is expensive and everyone is crowded together, it's no surprise that occupying a park near the financial nerve center of the the country would bring more people out and be more dangerous and disruptive to the ruling classes than in other places. Friends and comrades have consistently challenged of the tactic and fetishization of occupations, rightly. But where we were wrong is that the movement associated with the tactic has continued despite its obvious weaknesses.

The occupy movement has sent out waves throughout the working class, completely unexpected to skeptics like me. The battle to determine the meaning and content of the occupy movement continues, with opportunistic elements of the socialist left, the business unions, and the political-motivated non-profit sector entering the fray early on. Because of the ambivalence that radicals have felt towards the Occupy movement, we've largely ceded the leadership of local occupations to people associated with these groups, or at least allowed existing leadership to be moved by these groups. All is not lost though.

Radicals have been able to enter the Occupy movement, at least locally and I would guess nationally, to push specific ideas and themes to a wider audience. This operates on two levels: within the movement and within the working class. Inside the movement, radicals and IWWs have been consistently complimented and gravitated towards based on our seriousness towards doing work and our sense of fun and creativity. The main critique of the Occupy movement from the right-wing has been its lack of demands, and the big secret is that people inside the movement, or at least inside the wing of the class that finds the movement inspirational, share this criticism. Ask the leadership of any occupation movement about the demands issue and they're likely to wax poetic about the importance of the consensus and the General Assembly. Easy for them, the actual occupiers are a shock team of students and young unemployed people not actively looking for work. The majority of the section of the class that takes inspiration from the 99% theme and the idea of resistance has to work every day or is out looking for it.

Here radicals and the IWW have had a tremendous amount of success by pushing our ideas inside the movement. Our members are well-trained on how to organize workers, so it is no surprise that we approach the occupations with the same approach - get shit done. The leadership, which cares more for media strategy and "proper" practice than revolutionary change, is easily pushed aside by Wobbly organizers whose ideas and actions are easy to come around towards. Our sense of fun has also been powerfully felt, at least locally. When we mobilize our members to a demonstration, we are noisy, clever, and fun. People respond to this well, as most people at any given demonstration either feel confused by the ritualistic speechifying and chanting of the liberal left or dulled through years of dealing with it. Our physical involvement also allows us to push radical messages in positive, affirming ways. Last week an IWW contingent got a 400+ march at OccupyMN to chant "Oakland workers got it right, we need a general strike!" and brought a level of militancy and smiles to peoples' faces. One IWW comrade took the boring and off-putting "We are the 99%" chant and started pushing the message "We are the workers of the world" to the same cadence, which many responded to favorably. Obviously just pushing radical slogans is not enough to radicalize the struggle, but by pushing ideas and bringing people around to them through proving ourselves, we can push the struggle in a more radical, practical direction by showing a path away from the vague anti-banks and politicians ideology of the movement and towards an explicit revolutionary vision that shows how direct action can improve things for working people.

The Occupy movement continues to be small, partially because of its incoherence and its insistence on the tactic of occupying a space 24 hours a day. Yet its resonance is wide, and this is the milieu that radicals should especially seek to target. Many working people find the demands and ideas of the occupiers to be powerful and their ideas resonant, but are culturally alienated from the occupations because of the tactic. Here, we need to continue to target and push our ideas through mass outreach and through connecting the slogans and concerns of the movement to our ideas through projects that excite people. The slogan and rallying cry "Occupy Your Job" has been floated by some IWWs, and we will see if this slogan holds. Regardless, picking up on the energy created by the Occupy movement and moving it towards more clear, concert tasks and projects that can actually get things done is a critical task for revolutionaries in the current moment.

In this, we have been unintentionally aided by the police. The massive, coordinated expulsion of the occupations across the country this week was a clear attempt by the security forces to end the movement through forcing the conflict to be about whether or not we can camp or not and away from the issues it raises. This has prompted many forces within the movement, notably the more forward-thinking business unions, to push away from the ritualization of the occupation tactic. They are right in doing so, and its our opportunity to lose if we don't pick up on this chance to reframe the debate away from the tactic of occupations and towards a strategy of class conflict. We have a moment in front of us where the discussion no longer has to be about whether or not to support or participate in the occupations (and if so, how) but rather how we can take the energy created by the media events and publicity stunts the movement has pulled and use it towards building more organizers in shops, a more organized class (for how many people was this their first experience of meetings outside of church or work?) and ultimately a stronger, more diverse IWW. We need to make it so that soon Occupy doesn't mean a physical takeover of a public space, but an idea that evokes militancy, a social space for people to meet, change each other, and be changed, and a spot from which we can launch our next campaigns and attacks on the bosses' power.

Outside the House of Labor

I've been thinking recently about the way that the labor movement sees itself and talks about itself. Labor movement activists often talk about labor as a kind of community, a place where individuals can reach across differences and speak to each other based on a shared connection to their unions and unionism more generally. There are big, well-funded internal publications that the large unions produce which help move this discourse. But there are also independent voices which participate in this discourse. I can think of Labor Notes as an example that I'm most familiar with.

Labor Notes and magazines, blogs, or other publications like it have this particular way of speaking about the labor movement and the changes that it needs to implement that I've always had a lot of trouble connecting with. I like Labor Notes, I think its a useful piece that praises rank-and-file struggles and shows how the bosses and the business unions are strong and powerful but also have weaknesses. It's the kind of publication that shows that working people can have independent publications that highlight our stories of success and explain why and when we fail with a good analysis (usually).

But I've always had trouble connecting with the language that LN and similar publications use to talk about the labor movement. There's a positioning of "inside and against" that I've always been unable to connect with. The discourse often goes "we are the labor movement, we need to do better, we need to get better leadership and democratize our unions, we need to organize the unorganized." I like all the reclaiming of the labor movement narrative, that's a great step I think. Saying that "we," being rank-and-file workers, are the labor movement and that unions are not just the union leaders, is really important. But to me as an IWW organizer, I've never felt part of some community of labor.

I think this could be partially because we're a union so influenced by the left but I don't think that's all of it. I think its also because our shops don't have stable contracts that allow us to engage in fights against a bureaucratic leadership. Most of us don't have good union jobs and therefore some allegiance to the successes of the movement and a desire for it to change. We have crappy jobs that we are trying to organize because we need to and believe in a better life for ourselves on a very direct basis. We don't feel the pressures of the capitalists trying to use the unorganized to undermine our higher wages, because we work in the unorganized section of the class and spend all our time trying to organize it.

In short, and I'm not sure if I'm making much sense with this, I feel like there's a disconnect in how we as the IWW articulate our membership in the labor movement. Other unionists are able to engage in a critique of the labor movement by testifying to their presence as part of that movement and therefore their investment in it. I can't do that because I always feel like any time we're in the room with other labor unionists they treat us variously like idiots, children, or opponents to be watched behind crocodile smiles. It's far easier to identify with the left's critique of labor as something that's outside me then the union movement's critique from this perspective. And not because I agree with the left's positioning; I'm a labor organizer goddammit! It's just that through the state of my lived experience and that of my fellow organizers, we often do not have much in common with those unionists who seek to reform their unions and get a better contract. I just want some bread and roses and a revolution.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Industrial Unionism and One Big Unionism part 4: Three Big Unions: The IWW and Revolution

by Nate Hawthorne and John O’Reilly

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles on Industrial Unionism and One Big Unionism. In this piece we talk more about the One Big Union and revolutionary change. We suggest that we should not think about One Big Union as the IWW coming to include the entire working class. Instead we think that this is a three-part metaphor or three big unions. The One Big Union is a metaphor and name for our hope and vision of a unified working class acting together – acting in union – in a revolutionary situation. The One Big Union is also a formal organization, the IWW. Finally, One Big Union is the name for the relationship between the IWW as an organization and the rest of the working class. In our view, this understanding orients us toward questions about what we think revolutionary change looks like.

We believe, with the IWW preamble, that it is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. Only the working class can end capitalism, and in certain moments the working class has a greater chance to move closer to carrying out this important task. That kind of moment is a revolutionary situation. We need to have a serious IWW-wide discussion about what a revolutionary situation looks like. We should also talk about what we think is the IWW's role in preparing for and acting within a revolutionary situation. This not an exercise in fantasy but as part of being serious about believing in a revolutionary future.

Think a moment about the size of what we're talking about. A genuinely revolutionary situation where we could end capitalism, even if it happened in one U.S. state or even in just one major metropolitan area would involve millions of people. (And really, this is actually too small of a scale: a working class revolution that ends capitalism must be truly global.) This means we need to be thinking in huge numbers of people. This is not something anyone can control, but we need to figure out ways to make our struggles self-reinforcing and self-expanding. As an organization and as a class we need to see struggles that expand to involve hundreds of thousands people.

In this series of articles we have been discussion revolutionary unionism through the concepts of Industrial Unionism and One Big Union. The meaning of “One Big Union” is closely related to the role of the IWW in the working class’s historic mission. Here are a few scenarios:
1. The IWW grows to become the One Big Union that all members of the working class are members of. This kicks off major social upheaval.
2. The IWW grows to become One Big Union in the sense that it is very large and includes a whole lot of workers, and this creates major social upheaval.
3. The IWW grows to become One Union Which Is Very Big, including a whole lot of workers. Other groups wage important fights as well. The IWW and other groups cooperate and have good relationships. This combination is One Big Union, metaphorically speaking, and makes for major social upheaval.

We can see different versions of the idea of One Big Union in each of these scenarios. In the first scenario the IWW literally becomes the One Big Union for all workers. In the second scenario the IWW becomes One Big Union that's really big but we're not literally all the workers.

The third scenario seems more likely to us than the other two. In this scenario, One Big Union means three different things. We somewhat jokingly call this “three big unions.” One Big Union is the name for the IWW and expresses our commitment to revolution. One Big Union is also a metaphor for the working class as a whole - that is, for millions of workers around the world, acting together in solidarity - in action against capitalism and for a better world. That's not an organization, really, though it is an organized class-wide process. One Big Union is also a metaphor for how the IWW should act within the working class. We should act in a way that is open to struggles outside our organization and we should wage our own organizing drives, trying to both support our fellow workers in their struggles and building our own struggles where we are -- acting in a way that both builds organization and fights the capitalists.

A revolutionary situation in our day (or, within our lifetime) will involve millions of people in a complex ensemble across the class. No single organization will lead or control this. The working class can have more than one organization working on aspects of its interests. Given the divisions in our class it’s good to have multiple types of organization (such as unions of waged workers, committees of unemployed people, tenants' organizations, etc), and multiple organizations of each type. In all likelihood the IWW will be one working class organization among many who make an important contribution to working class revolution. As the working class takes action in a revolutionary situation there will have to be different practices developed than those that the IWW practices, and different kinds of organization - including both formal organizations and informal organizations.

These issues open onto a few key questions which apply both to the ‘normal’ operations of the capitalist system and to revolutionary situations that will develop. How can the IWW become an organization that exerts a strong and revolutionary pull within the working class? How should the IWW relate to other organizations and struggles of the working class? How should we relate to other revolutionary anticapitalists now? How can our orientation to other struggles and organizations help or hurt the IWW and the historic mission of our class? In our view there was a good start to answering these in Alex Erikson’s recent article “For A Union Of 10,000 Wobblies” in the June issue of the Industrial Worker and in Juan Conatz’s “What Wobblies Can Learn From Direct Unionism” in the July/August issue. We don’t have clear answers to these questions. We pose them questions for discussion. The two of us have written as much on all this as we’re currently able to say. We hope the principles and concepts we’ve sketched help contribute to a discussion of these questions of the direction of the IWW as a revolutionary union.

The IWW and the sorts of activities that the IWW currently carries out will not be the only things that go on during a revolutionary situation and are not the only things that will contribute to a revolutionary situation taking place. We have to do our part, but everything does not rest on our shoulders.

We believe the IWW will make a major contribution, however. The IWW will make a contribution by radicalizing workers, and by giving those radicalized workers skills and confidence and relationships that they will use to contribute to the movement of our class as a whole. That's currently what we're doing and have done. We’re helping make more working class revolutionaries. As we grow, we will periodically gather together and re-assess our course in order to refine the specifics of how we contribute to the historic mission of our class. Completing that mission is not in the cards for the relatively near future. Getting the project onto the agenda as a real possibility is not the same thing as actually carrying out that project once and for all. Our tasks for now are preparing ways to get that mission onto the agenda in a real and winnable way.

Industrial Unionism and One Big Unionism part 3: What Industrial Unionism and One Big Unionism Mean Today

By John O’Reilly and Nate Hawthorne

In this series we’ve discussed One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism as ideas and activities within the IWW. In this article, we turn our attention to how carefully balancing our emphasis on One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism allows us to build the IWW in the short term. While none of us has a magic bullet answer that will make organizing easy, we can think out and discuss possible solutions to ongoing issues that we face as a way of approaching our work more strategically. How can One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism guide us towards better practices? They do so by pushing us to both build members up and build members out.

When we talk about building members outwards we mean developing practical units of struggle within the industries where we are organizing that most effectively share the message of our union and get more people involved in our work. That is: more members, organized to fight more effectively. Building out is like laying railroad tracks into the vast, unorganized working class; the act of laying the tracks means placing one railroad tie after another, each of which advances the line out farther and each of which is an individual task that can be completed. Yet each tie allows us to lay another tie and we are unable to lay the next tie until we’ve completed the one we’re working on. Even as we lay tie after tie, we continue to find that there’s further to go and more ties to be laid. After all, if the destination for our rail line is Industrial Democracy, we have a long way to go!

Concretely, building outwards means several things. Using the social networks that we find in our jobs and our industries and finding ways to tie them together are important aspects of building out. This plays on the importance of Industrial Unionism in our organizing. When a group of fast food workers organizes in their restaurant chain, they may find that they have contact with workers who transport food and supplies to their stores. These delivery workers may work for a different company but likely have grievances of their own. Good organizers can take these contacts and begin a campaign with the delivery workers. By using the relationships that form during work itself, we can grow our membership out across the industries we work in as well as up and down the supply chains within our industries and amplify the union’s power.

Industrial links aren’t the only way that we can build our membership out. During an organizing campaign, we seek to understand social groups in the workplace as way to identify and win over key social leaders – that is, people respected by their co-workers and whose opinions carry a lot of weight – in order to move groups of workers to support the union. These same social groups can be useful outside of organizing in one shop. For instance, if an active part of a campaign is made up of members of a certain church, we can use those cultural connections to meet and link up with other workers in the same church. Perhaps the church members in the union could speak about the importance of their campaign and the vision of the IWW during a service. Or members could convince a social justice committee of the congregation to put pressure on their boss in a way that involves church members and allows organizers to have conversations with different workers and agitate them about conditions on their jobs. Using our members’ access and participation in social networks and cultural groups is a great way for us to build our membership outwards in ways in addition to organizing shop by shop and reflects our ideas about One Big Unionism.

While organizing outwards, we cannot neglect another lesson of One Big Unionism: just because our fellow workers leave a job or an industry does not mean that they become less important as a Wobbly. To move our organization forward in the short term, we need to focus more strongly on retention of members who switch jobs. Finding ways for these members to plug in to campaigns in a new industry or job is integral to keeping them in the union. If one considers how much time organizers spend building relationship with each of their coworkers, agitating and educating them into becoming an IWW member, and helping them acquire the skills necessary for organizing successfully, its clear that washing our hands of members so that they leave the union when they leave a job is a huge waste of our limited energies.

While we build members out, we must also focus on building our existing membership up. In fact, by doing one thing we also do the other. As members become more involved in the IWW, participate and learn, they increase their ability to do the work of the union, and so they help bring in more members, and begin to build others up. At this point in time, we would argue that it’s more important to focus on building members up than out because it allows us to win more fights and improve our organizing strategy, which will lead us to reap the greater rewards further down the line. In any case, by educating members into the IWW – getting them to take part in the democratic process, meeting and sharing ideas about our directions and goals, taking on tasks at different levels of the union including local, regional, craft, industrial, administrative, and international – we amplify our ability as organizers by producing more organizers who can do more work. These new organizers in turn help produce more organizers.

One crucial way that we can build our members up is by training them to organize. This work, undertaken by the Organizer Training Committee of the Organizing Department, constitutes the most important work of the union right now outside of shopfloor organizing. It highlights one of the most important values of One Big Unionism: organizing is an interchangeable skill, regardless of industry or craft, and is something that workers can and should do for themselves instead of leaving these skills to specialized professionals. While there are some concrete legal and structural differences between industries, the work of organizing is basically the same. Organizing means the work of creating relationships with fellow workers, building organization, and fighting bosses together to improve our lives. Whether in an eight worker café with one boss or a giant factory with thousands of employees, organizing is the same basic skill set. When we give our members the confidence they need to organize in their shops, we teach them skills that they can use anywhere they work. This fundamental insight of One Big Unionism cannot be overstated in our approach to organizing in the short term.

Currently, more of our campaigns are going public and need support to push to the next level. Here, we find many opportunities for building our members up. We can create connections between workers in different industries as a way of sharing ideas and experiences about organizing and to create networks that support our organizing work. Starting solidarity committees for public campaigns, providing food or childcare for campaign meetings, discussing important IWW campaigns with coworkers, raising funds or organizing pickets: these and many more are ways that we can give our members tasks that deepen their relationship with the IWW and build new bonds across industries. This builds members up and allows them to grow as Wobblies and push themselves to further heights.

Like a staircase, the IWW can grow both outwards and upwards at the same time. When we stand on the top step of a staircase we are not just standing on that step, we are standing on all the steps below as well. Depending on the moment, we may emphasize growing out or building up, but the two factors develop together. Each step is built on top of the last one and creates the basis for the next one. As we walk up the staircase, we have to step carefully, the two feet of Industrial Unionism and One Big Unionism guiding us, always in balance and working together.