We are trying to build a workers organization that can do away with the exploitation we live everyday. This exploitation runs deep, not just at our jobs, but in our homes, within us all. To take on this task, we’ve decided that we need to organize and both solve our immediate concerns at work (wages, hours, discrimination, quality of work, etc), and build a movement against the root causes of our exploitation, hierarchical power and class relations. The two goals are connected. We build the movement by organizing on the job. Organizing through direct action and wide participation by our coworkers can build consciousness of the rottenness of this system. So our task is to help the organizing happen, and be a midwife for the lessons of the class struggle.
Our organizing stresses direct participation, developing leadership within the most oppressed sections of the class, avoiding the illusions and traps of the legalistic system with its contracts, paid bureaucracies, labor peace, and labor courts. We have to organize in the time we find between work, our frantic social lives, and trying to be a decent normal human every now and again. The bosses have massive resources, and all the time in the world. The organizing that does happen has become integrated into capital, with corresponding channels and venues to struggle that don’t threaten the general order. In most of the parts of the world we organize either struggle is diverted and contained within the contractual union system or is autonomous. Autonomous struggle is either fragmented and individualized, or fleeting and spontaneous. Spontaneous workplace flair ups are dealt with through destroying the social relationships between workers, capitulating on gains, restructuring, and outright repression.
Frequently we are able to organize, win grievances, and radicalize workers in the shop. After the grievances are won, the shop settles down, people move on, and activity reaches a lull. The problem for the union is that we want to build a militant movement rooted in these industries. Without long term commitment from workers, we can’t rely on solidarity or coordination necessary to press industrial demands, let alone transforming society to be something more livable.
Other unions solved this problem by embracing the solution that the state, business, and AFL-CIO union leaders developed in the 1930s as a way to contain workers revolt, and prevent it from overturning the social order. Unions need a stable base. By getting formal recognition and contracts, unions get more stability in terms of membership and finances. Being a member means much less in this context, basically you join by default, than when workers voluntarily join to be a part of organizing. Contracts trade something for something, usually you get better pay and benefits, and lose control over your job. Labor peace agreements put the union in the position of being enforcers of workplace discipline, and diffusers of shopfloor struggle. At its worst the union becomes a cop for the boss, and at the least must struggle against the contradictions of being a vehicle for workers to improve their lot and toeing the line with management based on bargaining. Contracts in most cases make it punishable by law to take action if your job is unsafe, if the boss leads an assualt on the workplace, etc.
The bargaining process creates institutional resistance to workers demands. The labor courts tend to privledge the rich, powerful, and easy-going, not workers who need results quickly (or they need a new job) and who are most powerful taking action together (which was bargained away for their contract). If the union starts to rock the boat and the grievances of a few individuals, management can make life hell during and before negotiations. The end result is that the union system as we’ve known it is unresponsive to our workplace demands, while winning us some spare change.
That would have been the end of the story if the economic system globally during the 1970s. Absenteeism, sabotage, wildcats, and other forms of spontaneous struggle (alongside open revolt in the 3rd world) became a major threat to capital. The levels of profits the capitalists were used to caused a rethinking of economic and political organization, and gave birth to Reaganomics or later neo-liberalism. The businesses figured out that through restructuring they no longer needed the unions or the welfare state system. Fololowing the restructuring an all out assualt has been led against unions and workers, which has problematized the way unions have done business for almost 70 years.
These problems are inherent to the process of revolutionary workers movements. The spanish union, the CNT, has essentially the same problem as ours, though on a different scale, in a different context, and with different character. During one of the congresses of the CNT, a debate broke out about marginalization and integration. Juan Gomez Casas, a CNT/FAI militant and noted author, characterized the debate in this way. In Casas’ words, José Bondía, another CNT militant, argued that “we need inevitably to become integrated into society. [José Bondía] finishes by saying that, as we are keen to become a social force, our non-marginalization (integration, I would say) has to be as deep as it possibly can be, and we must become part of the social structure”. (Solidaridad Obrera 1983)
This is similar to an arguments, or even a frustration or impatience, within the IWW. Wobblies sometimes feel that some of the tactics of business unions could be applied to our situation, but would be different because we have radical ideas or democracy. The idea is that we need to use whatever tactics will be most successful, to build up a force within society. By gaining a large stable base within society, we can press for more and more gains, in theory adding up to revolution in measured steps. Here the definition of success is raw numbers or material gains. The problem with thinking in this way is that not all numbers are the same. Having lots of members of an organization doesn’t in any way guarentee that they participate in the organization, or are particularly to tied to anything the organization stands for. Likewise material gains can (and often are) eroded by economic fluctuations, and when capital cannot integrate demands within the present system it forces restructuring, and expansion through creating new extraction sites and markets (primitive accummulation). We don’t want to build paper tiger organizations, but want workers’ organization with broad participation that challenges hegemonic ideas and builds consciousness through struggle. We want to build a movement that can overturn capital all together, not merely fight for reforms to have them taken away in short order. Casas brings out these contradictions well.
“Spanish society or the social structure as we know it today is the system. And Spanish society, or the system, is everything, that is, those who work, those who are unemployed, the marginalized, the oppressed, the oppressors, the armed forces, politicians, institutions, the State. Is it here that we are to integrate ourselves to become a ‘powerful’ force as he says? Above all, what does being ‘integrated’ mean? To be integrated is to unite the parts of a whole, make them live in harmony, so that they can fulfil their natural roles” (ibid).
It is important to understand though that every social system tolerates and assimilates a level and a venue of conflict. Not all struggle and opposition is a threat. Unions have been integrated into the system and are managers of capital alongside business (though whether that system will survive is up for debate). Protests, nonprofits, and activism have their place in society, and are yet to pose a real challenge to rupturing the system. Casas continues,
“These roles include differences, diversity and opposition, to a certain degree, but understood as a way of making the whole function properly. For the normal functioning of the system, we would say. This is how political reformism understands this question. Are the CNT and the libertarian movement integrated in the system? No. We are within the workings of the system. This limits us; indeed, it represses us and places us in the constraints of authoritarian relations. But we are against the system; we are not an integral part of the system for its development. In fact, we are in a position of marginalization accepted by ourselves. From this position, we try to get our ideas and values across, we try to get to the core of this society with our ideas and our practice. Collaboration or integration, as Bondía would have, would leave us prostrate and defenceless for the creation of alternatives which seek to perform a radical change in society and would make us into yet another part of the system” (ibid).
What Casas captures so lucidly is that given our position, given that we want to build a world without bosses, we accept a certain level of marginalization. We just plain have it harder than others. The state, the bosses, and the unions will all conspire to coopt or destroy any workers movement that threatens (or often even could potentially threaten) the existing order.
Experimentation within the IWW itself has illustrated these contradictions. Attempts to win elections and contracts, have often been crushed through the cooperation of the bosses and the state. Larger campaigns have been raided by other unions with the promise of more money and resources. When we have been able to win contracts, the workers tend not to become active within the union, and in some instances decay to the point where the bosses violate the contract but there isn’t the support to take them to task. The contracts themselves are in most instances below industry standard, and have labor peace agreements far worse than the norm in business union contracts. Campaigns that have used paid staff tend to produce campaigns that rely too heavily on hyper-active individuals, and fail to get a wide swath of workers involved necessary for the grassroots organizing we want. Not wanting to get into politics has led to opportunists using the union as their own soapbox for their opportunistic campaigns, which damage the union’s credibility and push it further towards an activist organization and not a militant workplace organization. None of these events are necessary or determined by simply going the contractual or paid staff route. Instead I think it shows the problematic dynamics of at once trying to be a revolutionary worker-run organization and to be a union that represents workers.
Historically the IWW had similar failures. The IWW was killed by (a) industrial shifts, (b) assimilation of immigrant populations, (c) the illusions of the CIO and bolshevism, (d) spectactor-type organizing, and (e) repression. Tactics varied widely between industrial unions, but there was sometimes a tactic of just trying to show up at large disruptions and sweep in, which created unsustainable growth and contraction cycles. The IWW was unable to adapt to the shifts in capitalist strategy around the welfare state and contractualism. The disruption of communities and raised standard of living undermined the culture and community framework the IWW was built on. Ideologically the IWW’s refusal to take any political line left it open to attack from bolshevism and the CIO. The allure of authoritarian communism stole the IWW’s thunder, and in correlation attracted wobbly organizers to building the CIO, TUEL, etc. Similarly to today, seeing success of bolsheviks and the new business unions attracted wobblies who saw the industrial unionism and revolutionary development in the respective organizations.
Where does this leave us though? Part of the problem is our plan to get our goals. In its simplest form the idea of the IWW is to build a mass workers organization and perhaps a movement out of struggles, step by step, and leaving all politics to the side. In reality there are a number of problems with this. First off the state will not stand by idlely while a mass revolutionary movement gets built shop by shop, industry by industry. We need the solidarity of the workers movement to protect us, but our strategy to build that movement already relies on it.
The revolutionary unions of the past have not been built this way. The IWW, the CNT, the CGT, etc., were all built through a combination of locals defecting, independent unions combining, and on the ground organizing and tendencies of workers. Likewise there are significant differences between the context in which the IWW was built and today. The IWW was built in a time before large scale integration and legalization of unions had occured. Secondly the IWW wants to have its cake and eat it too. We want to be revolutionary and yet be apolitical. This leads to a situation, when we’re still tiny and the majority of us aren’t organizing, where people are attracted to the union based on politics. Yet the politics vary wildly as does the intentions within the union. The product is endless personal (usually) and factional (occassionally) fights that get in the way of organizing, and turn sensible people off to the organization. This is not to say that we should have a line, that workers can’t join if they don’t agree with. I believe in the traditional idea shared by the IWW and CNT that any worker should be able to join if they are ok being in an organization with our politics. Rather we need to set priorities, strategy, and a common vision of what we want to see come out of our movement against capital in order to build a mass workers organization. Otherwise we will continue to fracture, splinter, and spend too much time fighting eachother (or the left) and not the bosses.
Our plan needs to shift to meet our goals better. Rather than linearly trying to build shop by shop our power, we need to refocus on what we want to do. We strive to radicalize workers and organize collective activity around grievances. We know that struggles have ups and downs. During the down times workers tend to withdraw, since its not worth their time to attend meetings and be super active, not having been convinced that struggle is what they should spend all their free time doing. Rather than trying to build permanent representation shops, we need to try and build networks of organizers in industries. These networks would help coordinate actions to raise standards and consciousness throughout industries. They recruit workers to get involved and develop skills and critique through their activity. Our organizing recruits workers through our activity, directly solving grievances on the shopfloor. Through a combined process of struggle and education, we can develop leadership through grievance work, and bring workers into the organization to create a base for solving the deeper problems of the industries (and society). It is natural that in low points of struggle, workers will guard their time. Unlike the represenational union structure though, this is less of a problem for industrial networks. Networks keep up the educational and planning process (preparation for later struggles, and development) even when the struggle evaporates. Organizers from shops or industries can help out others engaged in struggle, rather than trying to coax participation out of workers to be in abstract union.
During organizing lulls the organization provides a place to keep the memory of class struggles and lessons of history, as well as develop analysis of success and failures, and push new strategies across our presence in industries. This means building skills, and having a strong organizational foundation for the development of organizers. With a solid foundation in an industry, it is much more likely that we could be in a position to assert industrial power and revolts during the spontaneous revolts that pop up now and again. The problem is not that workers don’t resist, but rather when they do they are easily fragmented. With industrial networks we could provide a democratic way of coordinating autonomous struggles, and educating workers about the traps capital sets. Building presences across industries and neighborhoods could help in spreading these struggles beyond an isolated section of society, to society as a whole.
Within the IWW, there is already this practice happening in some areas and campaigns. During the port trucker strikes of 2004, workers organized bi-coastal strikes of thousands of workers without political parties or unions. Using community media, centers, and organizations, a united front of multi-racial immigrant truckers came together. Workers can autonomously strike and win pretty hefty grievances. Workers have had trouble coordinating on more than a sporadic basis, and sometimes in crossing ethnic divides. The IWW played a small part in these struggles, and saw a strategy similar to the one I’ve given. Rather than trying to jockey for representation, the west coast intermodal trucking committee wanted to be a space and resources for bringing together organizers in the industry to set demands and take industrial action. The IWWs role was to be a space for organization of these existing and operating, and developing broader social support for the struggles. This never came together for a number of reasons. Importantly this work hadn’t been done in the recent IWW. We had no history of working together in this way, and no plan before the strikes swept the country. Building up networks rooted in industries that can develop plans, can bring together existing contacts, and draw on relationships and resources throughout society would be able to make projects like a national independent trucker industrial organization become a reality. This is one example of what it would look like to begin the process of building the IWW into an organization of revolutionary workers’ industrial networks.
Alongside this tactical shift, we need to begin political development within the union. We need an open process of debate, and a clearer idea of where we are going and how we will get there. By collectively developing some general level of common understanding, we can mediate and isolate the clashes and misunderstandings that are endemic in the union. Anyone can and should be able to join the IWW, irrespective of their political beliefs, but since we are in the process of building a mass workers organization (not all ready there) we need to have some agreement on what we’re doing. In some ways this is already true. You don’t have to believe to join. It is just that the political ideals we inheritted are hazy and loose enough to incorporate lots of contradictory ideas (not to mention being couched in language most of us don’t identify with).
This process can be begun through giving space to strategic discussions. The Organizing Summit is a promising move in this direction, but it will take a cultural commitment as well as building structures for discussion and development through which this can actually happen.
“Attention: New definitions about the anarchosyndicalism”. Gómez Casas, Juan. Solidaridad Obrera, nº 128 (special issue VI Congreso, CNT/IWA) 1983.