IWW: Historical Contradictions

I’ve been reading We the Anarchists (history of FAI), and will post something about that soon. Lately I’ve been thinking about a problem in the IWW I want to outline and see if I actually believe it (and what others think).

The problem is about growth and development. Now much of our practise and theory draws from when organizations build from scratch or maintain momentum. This is distinct from the IWW, as our history is rebuilding a new organization from a more stagnant old one. Roughly before a decade or so ago the IWW was a political/history club that did not have a root in organizing or class struggle. The organization was transformed by organizing in recent times. Yet it seems to me that much of the clashes that go on with growing pains are rooted in the shift internally in the organization. There is a clash between the members who cling to the political club past, and various ad hoc factions who have conflicting views on organizing (which aren’t actually rooted in ideology despite the hype, i think it’s a matter of practice and education). Problematic situations have arisen where solid members come into branches that have heavy inertia or have pre-established feuds, political squabbles, or strong personalities. Unfortunately much of the destructive dynamics come from the people who aren’t organizing though this isn’t wholly true (I think there are important counterexamples like Starbucks which i think many had the wrong orientation towards but came around to). The tension as I see it is that the IWW has to fight between the organization it was and the one it is becoming. That is something that is true of all organizations, and is generally an organizing problem. We try to bring everyone together for common interests and positively transform one and another through the process. What I’ve begun to ponder is whether this dynamic will define our work and the residual political conflict will derail the good work going on. I don’t think its necessarily the case and I reject the perspective some people harbor of wanting everything to be perfect outside their branch without doing anything for the broader union (that’s why I try to work as much as possible with wobs from outside portland). Anyway just some thoughts. 


26 thoughts on “IWW: Historical Contradictions

  1. I like this. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of different speeds, so to speak. People are changing at different paces (or not changing), and coming into the union at different starting points, all of which causes friction. I think the GMB model means that this transition is repeated a lot because GMBs are formed based on either pre-existing relationships or pre-existing ideological agreement. That means that there has to be some things built which later become a source of friction (at a minimum, some relationships).

  2. Good post. A lot of these things I’ve been turning over in my head a lot too. In particular how to get branches to work together more, expecially here in Canada it seems like our branches have a lot stronger connections to american branches than to each other. I know way more wobs in Portland and the Bay area than I do in Toronto for instance. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but the problem is that legally Canadian Branches have to operate under a very different framework than the American branches. I also think a lot of the gains that have been made in the USA are because of the help from some lawyers, and a unique understanding of American labour law- something we are totally lacking in Canada.

    The starbucks example is a very interesting one and I think I agree with you on the analysis of that.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. If I get into school at UBC I’ll probably end up in canada if not for good. then the alliance will begin 😉 Connections between branches seems really critical, and I think we’re just getting to the point of maturity to talk about it. I hope work on the OD will help that too. The starbucks thing gets more and more interesting, especially now with them giving birth to this campaign in 460. They are having to deal with difficult and important questions that I hope will move the organization forward.

    GMBs- Good points Nate. I was thinking about how awesome my experiences with IOCs and IUs has been (minus the problem of administration which was crippling). Maybe in building them we can loosen the sediment in GMBs and bring about better relationships. *crosses fingers*

  4. hey Nick,
    What are the gains that the lawyers have helped with? Do you mean writing the training material, or in actual campaigns? I wasn’t aware of lawyers having done much for the union here, can you expand on that some more? The NLRB board agents are all lawyers so if you count them and unfair labor practices then I guess this is the case. Are there any wobs in Canada with a solid grasp of labor law who could write that part of a training? If there’s not, are there any classes someone could take that the union could partially fund, like at some union member education center or something? Maybe some folks could also attend OTs and T4Ts and swap out the Canadian legal section, then start doing a series of Canada specific OTs and T4Ts, that’d help with getting people connected across branches I think.

  5. I’d be interested in learning how things are different legally in canada. This will become increasingly important given the differing legal environments in places like Canada, UK, Australia, and now France and Brazil.

  6. Well in particular what I mean is the overall strategy mapped out by Staughton Lynd in Solidarity Unionism. A lot of the really good work the union has been doing is, as far as I can tell not entirely legal in Canada. ‘Concerted activity’ is not protected here. Perhaps I’ve overstated the importance of lawyers but what I really mean is that you folks do seem to have a pretty nuanced take on labour law.

    The idea of swapping out the american labour law and replacing it with canadian content is exactly what we have done in the last two OTC trainings we’ve had here. Part of the problem with labour law is there are about 14 different jurisdictions for labour law, (one for each province and territory and one federal jurisdiction which applies to telecom, trucking and postal work).

    Last spring I did a bunch of calls to the alberta labour relations board and we do have a few people who seem to know these laws somewhat, one of whom is in Victoria. I’m sure we could write the content for the basics, but there are some pretty serious barriers to direct action in Alberta. This partially because there is a very strong tradition of wildcats in the oil patch (a walkout is called ‘wobbling the job’ the job out there).

  7. Wow! This is crazy! Check out this that I found from the Canadian Relations Board:

    “Unlawful Strikes and Lockouts
    What is a strike or lockout?
    Section 3(1) of the Code defines strikes and lockouts as follows:

    “strike” includes a cessation of work or a refusal to work or to continue to work by employees, in combination, in concert or in accordance with a common understanding, and a slowdown of work or other concerted activity on the part of employees in relation to their work that is designed to restrict or limit output.

    “lockout” includes the closing of a place of employment, a suspension of work by an employer or a refusal by an employer to continue to employ a number of his employees, done to compel his employees, or to aid another employer to compel his employees, to agree to terms or conditions of employment.

    When is a strike or lockout unlawful?
    A strike or lockout is unlawful, at any time, if there is no union, or where there is a union and the requirements of the Code in acquiring the right to lockout or strike have not been met.”

    Simply put solidarity unionism is illegal. In actuality it’s more complex. Is it possible to get contracts without no strike clauses? We could have “agreements” rather than “contracts” i.e. signed contracts that stipulate single won grievances like wage and grievance procedure but no things like management rights, productivity, or bans on concerted activity.

    If not that changes the rules of the game, and that will be a new challenge (though an exciting one) for solidarity unionism.

    This brings to mind two things:
    1. Do wildcats happen a lot? If so how do they get pulled off? What are the consequences for illegal concerted activity.
    2. How is a union implimented in canada? Is it a lot faster and easier than in the US? This complicates solidarity unionism greatly for dual carders as acting outside the contract in concert would be illegal?

    Interesting stuff…

  8. Yeah, those are exactly the clauses I was talking about. Signing contracts without no strike clauses is something we’ve already discussed, doing everything very under the radar is another one. The other option is working through outside campaigns to put pressure on employers without striking (we were talking about this one in our social services drive last spring) this well suited to the social services but not really anywhere else.

    Also keep in mind that work to rule, and other non strike direct action is considered strike activity. Arbitration can, and usually is imposed by the government, the whole process is also very legalistic and requires lawyers generally.

    Also in Alberta unions are very dificult to get in, 40% of cards must be signed and then an election in a couple months. Other provinces have automatic certification after more than 50% of cards are signed. Also in Alberta the government can impose a 60 day cooling of period in order to forstall strikes. Overall I would say that Canadian law in progressive provinces with NDP governments, or recently had NDP governments (Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, BC) it is about as hard as in the states, in Alberta it is actually harder. The government also regularly legislates workers back to work. From what Jim Crutchfield has said, Albertan labour law is worse in many respects than any right to work states in the USA.

    The labour relations board here is also crooked, and I don’t mean that as hyperboly, the Alberta Federation of Labour has put out numerous articles proving the labour board actually advises the government on how to draft legislation to make it easier for this supposedly neutral arbiter to break unions:

    However wildcat activity does happen a fair amount, basically it is completely illegal and in complete defiance of the law and knowingly so. My ‘other’ union was founded in 1965 by a national wildcat, from what I’m told they didn;t even start negotiating until the 80’s before that they would make demands and then shut the post office down until the demands were met. Partially all of this is why we in Edmonton have tradionally had so much emphasis on dual carding.

  9. Damn, that _is_ complicated. One thing I’d say is that the take on labor law is that it’s something to resort to tactically, not strategically. Cuz even where it exists it’s weak and ineffectual much of the time. Maybe we could all work on a discussion document on solidarity unionism in Canada? I think the legal situation might be similar in the UK, where there’s no right to concerted activity, maybe we could get someone from over there to be part of that discussion too. Presumably campaigns like the current Starbucks campaign, the Chicago Couriers, and the Stockton/trucker stuff when it was going one, those might have more resources to draw on?

  10. I think that is a really good idea, something I was already hoping to get going was a thread on ‘comparative labour law’ for IWW groups. One person I know who has a pretty good understanding of Brittish as well as Australian labour law is Adam lincoln.

  11. Nick, what’s the membership % nationally in canada? I think we should work on a piece on solidarity unionism in canada for sure. It makes it pretty interesting both within unions with no-strike clauses, and without a union. Maybe we could collaboratively right it?

  12. I think that is a realy good idea and am interested in a colaborative writing project. I would imagine the membership Canada wide is probably about 100 with half those in Edmonton. This is with the usual disclaimer that calculating membership is always hazy. We have about 35 in good standing and lots of folks not in good standing and active and lots in good standing and not active.

  13. Awesome! I actually meant what’s the percent of workers in Canada in unions (i.e. it’s like 12% in the US). Edmonton is rocking!

  14. What say we try to write two discussion docs, solidarity unionism under Canadian labor law and solidarity unionism in a dual card setting? The latter’d be useful in my branch.

  15. there are a number of infrastructure issues that need to be addressed by the IWW to grow again.

    First is the GMB structure which was implimented to keep the IWW alive. Fair enough for the time. The problems lies in that in encourages non-industrial organizing – eg specific shops only, no strategy, community activist culture in the worst sense. As R’bt Rush said one time, the IWW is a tree with all branches and no trunk.

    We need to change that emphasis from local to industrial. While the Portland IWW made some missteps going to IU branches (and again retreating from them) those experiences need to be written up and lessons drawn up to encourage folks to push forward as well as not making the same mistakes.

    Second is the IW as a classic labor paper, which the Bekken era IW was a very good example. the IW is well written, addresses the union movement, etc. But this strategy made sense in the 1950s when 30-40% of the working population were union members. It was the most effective strategy we had to influence the class. But today, I think we would be much better off addressing the “masses” with a more agitational paper like we had in the 1910-20s.

  16. Those are good insights morgan. We need to put your wisdom on tap and not all that beer ;)I agree about GMBs and IUs, and also the newspaper bit. It would be interesting to open a discussion on that. By the way, what’s your blog address? I lost the new one

  17. Maybe it’s the beer that breeds the wisdom! I lost the new one as well. There’s something new in the works. FN FN.

  18. Hey Morgan, is would it be koser to post that issue about GMB’s & IUB’s on the libcom wobblies page for discussion? Or do you think its best this one happen more internally first? I think its a really important one to have and one we need more discussion of in our branch. Our structure is a little bit different than most branches, but is still geared very much towards an activist sort of approach.

  19. I think these discussions are happening all over already. Libcom is as good a place as any, though there’s so many wankers there now it’s hard to have a discussion. What would be great is if we had some ideas or debates to put out in the GOB or something? Or the IW?

  20. What?!? Use the GOB for discussion? Never in my life have I seen such an outrageous proposal. Perhaps we should do it. But then the GOB would have to be published and distributed…

  21. follow up on german labor law first by the FAU-D

    “”The problem with German labour law is the description of a union…The
    > FAU is not officially registered as a union ? there are advantages and
    > disadvantages to being officially registered, for example if you are a
    > union and you go on strike, your members can?t get fired. However, we
    > think even if we wanted to, it wouldn?t be possible for FAU to become a
    > union, the legal definition is so specific. You have to sign collective
    > contracts, which mean you can?t go on strike until the end of the
    > contract ? strikes can only be used to negotiate contracts, and it?s
    > unlawful to go on strike during contract and the union can be sued.

    then wobbly from German ROC Lutz-
    “Hm,I?m afraid, the FAU comrades don?t really get the point. The description of a
    union in Germany is much more complex. There is no standardized official process of
    being “registered” as a union (the service workers union, ver.di, for example, is
    registered simply as a “registered association” (e.V.), like any carnival of
    football club. Recognized as unions are organizations which have proved to be able
    to effectively strike and – as a result of this strike-ability – to negociate
    contracts. For the core industries there are state-wide or country-wide contracts
    for all factories etc. whose owners/managers are members of the employers
    association (what the most employers for example in the steel industry, chemical
    industry etc. are). So, these industries are more or less closed for samller
    unions, regarding strikes for higher wages or bargaining contracts. You simply need
    the ability to effectively cease production in a whole state or even in the whole
    country, which is impossible for smaller unions who don?t have millions of members
    or at least strong support by a significant minority of workers. In most of these
    industries, one member-union of the DGB (German Trade Unions Leage) is representing
    the workers. In some other sectors (for example the education sector) there are 2
    unions of the DGB in rivalty to each other (ver.di and GEW in the education sector).
    Of course, the employers association of an industry will avoid to negotiate with
    more than one union. In other sectors without countrywide contracts or even without
    strong union presence (for example most newer service industries) it?s easier for
    small unions to act. The DGB unions have 7,2 Mio. member (and lost about 1,5 Mio
    over the last years) the christian unions have around 200.000 members (mostly in
    the coal mining industry). There are other yellow unions in some sectors, but only
    with a few thousands of members. The FAU estimates it?s own size with about 300
    members and the IWW has about 20 members now.

    The FAU comrades are right about the dangers of being captured in longterm contracts
    without the right to strike (Friedenspflicht) as they are with their criticism of
    the limited strike law and the collective bargaining. But the simple fact is, that
    they don?t have the choice. I doens?nt matter if they like collective baraining and
    public accptance as “real unions”. Not with 300 members Germany-wide. Nor have we.

    I think, the only realistic option for small revolutionary unions in Germany is

    – to build a small but active and anti-class-collaborationist rank and file union
    presence in those sectors without collective contracts(service industries, some
    private parts of the health and education sector etc.), try to protect our members
    if possible (especially in small shops), where we really could have advantages
    compared to the formalized and paralysed business unions through direct action

    – and to develop a dual carder strategy in those core industries which are still
    dominated by the DGB unions and their contracts. In some factories of the metal
    industry there have been wildcat strikes against closures and job cuts, because the
    metal workers union (IG Metall) obiously served the bosses interests and sold out
    the workers. But I think it is not enough, just to trust on this.


  22. Morgan, can you get a draft document together on lessons from the PDX IUB/IDC experience? We could build a discussion bulletin, include that piece, a piece on the history of the switch to GMBs, a piece on why GMBs are a bad idea, and a piece with some pratical advice to take the union one or two steps closer to overcoming the GMB model (both locally – form IOCs etc – and at the larger level)
    take it easy,

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