How the I.W.W. can contribute to Working Class Revolution, by Phinneas Gage

How the I.W.W. can contribute to Working Class Revolution
by Phinneas Gage

The I.W.W. we used to have.

The late 19th century and early 20th century were characterised by tremendous changes to the nature of industry. The rise of coast to coast rail lines, assembly line manufacturing, and the consolidation of Capital into monopolistic trusts came the stagnation of the conventional trade unions of the AFL and the Knights of Labour. Many unions in the late nineteenth century began groping for some kind of national organisation that could span the continent of North America and bring back the ability of workers to wage the class struggle effectively.

It is against this backdrop that the development of the I.W.W. must be understood. A change in the production methods and a change in the organisation of Capital itself fuelled the development of this new organisation. In 1905 there was also world wide ferment, class struggle broke out in Russia and ran concurrently to a world wide strike wave that led over the next half decade to the formation of the CNT in Spain and the CGT in France as well as countless other radical union federations all over the world from Korea to Argentina to South Africa to China.

The situation in North America was ripe for a type of workers organisation that not only broke the mold of what was established in the nineteenth century as a union but carried the struggle forward- a struggle beyond wages and working conditions. The goal of the IWW was to change the conditions that made negotiations with a capitalist necessary at all.The momentum was so strong that several existing unions separated from the mainstream labour movement and coalesced around the new I.W.W. The Western Federation of Miners along with several other unions saw a new hope in the IWW and joined the new movement- but after only a few years they left.

It’s important to note that what eventually became the IWW’s strongest sections were organised completely from scratch. There was no previous presence in lumber or in the wheat fields, and their legendary strikes in the textile industry were actually largely on their way to happening already when the I.W.W. was called in to add muscle. Through these struggles they organised the system of job delegates, the tactic of striking on the job, and a culture of developing militants through struggle.

While the belief in Industrial Unionism came from an abstract and intellectual understanding of the labour market of the times, the organising techniques and tactics developped were built out of struggles. The restructuring of capital into trusts required organisations that could cross sectional and geographic boundaries in order to win gains, but this restructuring also allowed for the development of new techniques of conducting the struggle.

Small scale and innocuous sabotage can bring production to a total stand still on an assembly line. A union based on craft is meaningless when your ‘craft’ is turning a single screw on a piece of metal that moves down a conveyor belt. While the I.W.W. eventually went into decline, industrial unionism, and the tactics developped by the I.W.W. lived on.

What gave the I.W.W. it’s dynamism was the fact that it offered something different to workers. While the initial impulse in the I.W.W. was to recruit socialist workers into its ranks this only led to nasty splits and internal quarreling. When the I.W.W. was at its strongest was when it organised workers as workers and built them into revolutionaries through struggle. Eventually the organisation succumbed to repression and internal splits and lived on as a shadow of its former self for several decades.

The I.W.W. We Have Today.
Since the late 1970’s Capitalism has undergone a massive makeover. Increasingly Capital has moved away from the national trusts and taken the next step of establishing free trade through organisations like the WTO, IMF and World Bank. Production has followed this trend through the development of just in time production, total quality management techniques and various schemes aimed at ‘employee engagement’. One could write books on the changes capitalism has undergone, from the collapse of the gold standard to Japanese management techniques, capitalism is a very different beast than it was forty years ago and the trade union movement has stayed the same.

Also there has been a move away from the colossal workplaces of the early twentieth century. Today workers are broken up into smaller more manageable groups where possible and increasingly front line production is moved to places where the working class has a much
harder time organising. The trade union movement of today, much like the trade union movement of 100 years ago is stagnating, density is falling and their bargaining power is declining.

The template for unions in North America is the Auto Industry. This is with good cause, at it’s height Auto indirectly employed more people than any other industry on the continent. It had people in auto plants, mines, foundries, car lots, maintenance shops, rail lines and pretty much every other corner of industry. Also much of the legislation governing unions was written in response to strikes in the Automotive industry. The Rand formula, our current system of grievances and arbitrations, and the format of government sanctioned collective agreements all were determined by strikes in the Automotive industry that spanned from the 1930’s to the 1960’s.

The problem is that most workplaces, unlike in 1949, do not look like Auto plants. The size of workplaces has shrunk considerably, as well most people in North America today work much farther down the production line. Also many people work in the few industries that cannot be moved somewhere cheaper, like mines, transportation or the service sector.It is not a coincidence that the decline of the automotive industry mirrors the decline of the labour movement. The two were siamese twins for 75 years.

If there is one thing that is clear it is that what was working before is not working now. The pattern of union organisation established by the Automotive industry, that is unions based on large workforces of unskilled workers in large workplaces cannot levy enough dues to service the staff in these workplaces. A perfect example is the CAW attempts to organise at Starbucks in Vancouver B.C.

The union was killed by high turnover and an inability to gain a large enough foothold in the industry by organising store by store contracts. Staffers complained of worker apathy (read, little knowledge of and use for the grievance procedure or extended contract negotiations). After a few years the CAW packed up shop and declared the industry unorganisable.

If one considers the circumstances in Brittish Columbia the labour movement under it’s current model is about as big as it can get. They have 40% union density in the Greater Vancouver Area, almost to a number those workplaces are larger workplaces. The few workplaces that are larger than 100 people are either being looked at for unionisation, or have an ongoing campaign. The other 60% of workers are in workplaces that are not financially viable in order to be serviced by a contract. In other words the dues levied from these workplaces are not enough to pay for a union staffer to service the industry. Also the workplaces are too small and spread out to develop a steward base that can act under the direction of a local executive the way stewards can keep in touch with their executive any sort of large installation. It is not a coincidence that the places where the labour movement does try and branch out are traditional union strongholds- like McDonalds in Quebec and Ontario, Starbucks in B.C. or Wal Mart in Saskatchewan and Quebec.

Since 1999 the I.W.W’s membership has remained pretty much the same, approximately 2000 people. If you were to look at numbers alone the organisation has remained largely the same. However, production quotas may be good for establishing quantity, but they are a bad judge of quality. The I.W.W. is more effective at producing ‘wobblies’ than it has been for over fifty years- that is producing revolutionary workers with the tools to act collectively on the job. We have more members active in organising campaigns than at any time since the 1970’s. We have several very public campaigns at Starbucks stores and several more that are not public, we have a very real and tanglible presence in the messenger industry, we have several social services shops in Portland Oregon, and we have an institutional memory in the construction industry across North America that cannot be measured. We have organising attempts in almost every industry imaginable, the shadow of the I.W.W. is cast across wildcat strikes and workplace disturbances across the economy- even if the figure that casts the shadow appears to be a small and marginal force when the light is turned on it.

What is interesting is how this organising has changed the I.W.W. Compared to ten years ago the I.W.W. now has a functioning organising department that can fund organising, pool resources and helps run a union sponsored organiser training program. The I.W.W. also has succeded at building as much of a presence the C.A.W. ever did in Starbucks. The difference between the two is that the I.W.W. did this without paid staff and without signing contracts.

Like the I.W.W. of old there is a combination of an intellectual understanding of changed conditions, but also a collective knowledge that has been built through struggle and committed to memory. This has happened today through the Organising Department. Where we have made gains and the struggle has developped is where we have moved away from the format of contracts-grievances-arbitrations and services from the outside. Not unlike conventional unions where we have taken short cuts to get better concessions through bargaining we have had to deal with the same worker apathy.

This organising model has come to be known as Solidarity Unionism. Prior to this name others called it direct unionism.The role the I.W.W.has historically played is the same role it can play today. It can develop working class consciousness through struggle. However, we will deny many workers this opportunity if we take short cuts, if we prioritise short term gains by sacrificing long term power. We will also become no different than the mainstream unions we criticise if we adopt their organising models. In revolution we are nothing if not the sum totall of our actions.

7 Responses to “How the I.W.W. can contribute to Working Class Revolution, by Phinneas Gage”

  1. Thanks for this article. I am very excited about the work that the IWW is doing wrt shopfloor organizing.
    “The restructuring of capital into trusts required organisations that could cross sectional and geographic boundaries in order to win gains, but this restructuring also allowed for the development of new techniques of conducting the struggle.”

    Are you saying here that solidarity unionism as a model is a specifically new technique of organizing that responds to the restructuring of capital and loss of huge industrial workplaces? if so, can you elaborate a little?

  2. In reply to a comrade’s question: “What is a national trust” Gage wrote the following —

    Full disclosure, I’m totally shooting from the hip on all this so it’s inevitable I’m going to get caught up in details, and no I won’t cite any thing. 😉

    Yeah, this is pretty much lifted out of old IWW theory I was reading ages ago. Basically it’s an archaic word for a corporation, which is the product of certificate granted by the US government togather the resources of large number of investors in order to undertake a large enterprise. So businesses at one stage of development (like 1840-1880) were often financed by single capitalists or small families of investors. This lead to the class struggle of craft unionism and worker coops, you could have very small unions of very specialised workers because that is what capitalism looked like then.Worker coops were viable on a large scale because businesses were small. Early IWW’s understood that industrial unionism was a natural response to the new industrial workplaces built on new management models.Stuff like trains and assembly lines, taylorism, piece work etc.

    So these new unions reflected that change in industry. Basically what the IWW did was combine cutting edge techniques with revolutionary politics and build revolutionary industrial unions in the vacuum created by the decline of craft unions as they felt their bargainning power wane. An excellent example of this is the rise of Debs in the rail industry as the craft unions fell apart.

    I think there is an important principle at work here: The Principle of extension. Any struggle will only go as far as it has the capacity to extend itself. This means into new job classifications, new shifts, new work installations, new businesses, new industries new countries etc. When a direct action campaign reaches the limits of it’s point of extension it subsides. This withdrawal leaves a residue, if the militants prepare for this it leaves a memory of struggle if they don’t it leaves demoralisation. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a pattern we would do well to recognise and accomodate.

    So like in 1905 unions are on the ropes again partly because of a change in management techniques. Much of the economy is moving towards smaller units again, this time with central direction through sub contracting. So it’s not exactly a return to the small workplaces that led to the rise of craft unionism but it does mean that the huge workplaces and assembly lines are broken down into smaller units. These units often run simultaneously in order to minimise the effect of disruptions in workplace discipline and also as a check against sabotage. This is called Lean management or Toyotaism. Another feature of this is contracting out. So a business will try it’s best not to ‘own’ anything. Dynamex has 450 workers and 4 employees (the rest are owner operators and sub contractors), they lease equipment and office furniture and own no buildings. They are one of the most profitable companies in transportation right now.

    Unions have done a bad job adapting to this partly because of the legal framework they are committed to operating under and also because they have failed to articulate a vision of industry that is not just the logical extension of everything being combined under one trust and managed by a socialist government as one big enterprise under parliamentary workers control. From social democrats to leninists everyone is committed in one way or another to this vision.

    I digress…

    Now what are we in the IWW doing properly? We are run like a church not a business. We run on the passion of our members and a commitment to a vision of a better world that isn’t in itself a pragmatic compromise. But that’s probably another note.

    If you look at what happened with the CAW on Starbucks is they had no ability to mobilise their members because the staff couldn’t inspire anyone. Also strong contracts can only be signed when there is a desire for peace on the part of the upper class so you can’t aim for mediation if there is no desire for peace (this is a lot like the problem of us focusing our struggle around contract demands in CUPW). The service industry is part of a new ascendent part of capitalism (much like Carnegie Steel was once upon a time). Because of this acting as a mediator by providing a safety valve is not necessary to them so collaborationist strategies like a cease fire (no strike clause) or sumbmission (arbitration) are not options. Nothing is left to service workers but open class warfare. It’s much more complicated at somewhere like the post office where the impulse towards compromise on the part of the upper class is much stronger so when open warfare breaks out, as it will in a month the state will step in). However, as Wisonsin shows, even these practices may go the way of the telegraph if Harper wins a majority or the liberals decide to take a turn to the right after the election (as they often do).

  3. […] RECOMPOSITION Notes for a New Workerism « How the I.W.W. can contribute to Working Class Revolution, by Phinneas Gage […]

  4. Whoa, sorry this reply is late.

    “Are you saying here that solidarity unionism as a model is a specifically new technique of organizing that responds to the restructuring of capital and loss of huge industrial workplaces? if so, can you elaborate a little?

    The short answer is- yes. The longer answer is much more complicated. I would say we’ve seen a lot of success in small shop retail as compared to other unions in similar industries for some very particular reasons. I don’t think anyone has ever worked out a model of organising based on a problem before practicing it. I mean if you look at most IWW campaigns they tend to start as conventional union campaigns and hit the same limits other unions do at the same jobs. Then one of two things happen, they start to experiment with SU or they fold.

    Where we have grown is where we have successfully applied direct action on the floor and substituted paid staff for a tremendous amount of personal sacrfice. Sometimes we’ve done this and failed too but it’s important to note that the marches on the boss, sick ins, phone zaps and social pressure on the job are also sustainable in a way that servicing these shops with a grievance procedure just simply is not.

    Does that make sense?

  5. I like this piece a whole lot and have been meaning to comment on it at length for a long while.

    I’d like to quibble on three counts, respectfully. One, the list of great work in the IWW (messengers, baristas, construction workers) leaves out one of the things I’m most excited about and proud of – the postal worker dual cards. Fellow Worker Phinneas is being a bit too humble on that one, I think. There are a number of good pieces elsewhere on this blog that speak to the strength of that work.

    Second, Phinneas writes that “the belief in Industrial Unionism came from an abstract and intellectual understanding of the labour market of the times, the organising techniques and tactics developped were built out of struggles.” I mostly agree but not totally. I keep saying that I’m going sit down and really learn about the Western Federation of Miners and write something about them and I keep not getting around to it (I keep doing much the same with anarchism). From what little I have read, I think the WFM came about largely as a result of local independent miners unions federating together from below, because they ran into limits based on what they could achieve on their own. I think some of these had roots in the Knights of Labor but I’m not 100% sure. Anyway, they began to think that they had to get all or at least most miners together, so a vision of industrial unionism. From there, once the WFM existed, they began to realize that miners alone needed to be federated with other workers, and they didn’t see the AFL as a vehicle for this, so they formed the Western Labor Union, which became the American Labor Union. When that broke down, a few years later they played a big role in making the IWW. In all of that, respectfully, I think the emerging idea of industrial unionism and the power folk imagined that the industrial union could have as an organization was more than just an abstract intellectual understanding of labor markets.

    Third, less history wonk, I’d like to hear more about the revolutionary role of the IWW. The piece doesn’t get a whole lot into all that. That’s not much of a criticism so much as that I really want to hear your thoughts on this Phinneas (and others too of course). I don’t feel like I have much at all in the way of clear ideas on this, just questions and emotional attachments. As I/we think more about this I can think of two or three components here – what the IWW today can do today within the working class and the revolutionary milieu, what the IWW can/should become within the working class and the revolutionary milieu, and what we as people who are revolutionaries are currently doing in the IWW (ie, why the IWW now for us)?

    take care,

  6. I have some quibbles. If you read William Walling’s history of unionism in that period (he was an SPA writer in the Left of that party, like Haywood) he talks about the “new unionism”. The IWW was just the most explicitly radical of the new unionism. This also included things like the first Auto Workers Union and there were radical shop stewards cross-craft movements (like in Europe) in the railroad shop crafts (crushed in the 1922 national strike). The first Auto Workers Union eventually became a part of the TUUL in the late ’20s after the CP picked up the pieces. This provided part of the CP’s base when the UAW was formed. David Montgomery’s “Worker Control in America” talks about a variety of syndicalist tendencies in that era outside the IWW.

    Also, in 1917 the largest union in the IWW was the 40,000 member Metal Mining Union…the part of the WFM that stayed with the IWW. The “new unionism” was a response to mass production industries. It was also a response to some extent to Taylorism. The first big IWW strikes in 1909-1916 were all in response to applications of “scientific management” and its horrendous speedup (Mike Davis discusses this in “The Stop Watch and the Wooden Shoe”). But the IWW never could work out what their actual response to Taylorism should be. In 1921 they discussed this and there were disagreements. Haywood thought they had to develop their own schools for acquiring the technical info so management didn’t have a monopoly but others accepted the new hierarchical division of labor but proposed alliances with middle managers and engineers (you see bits of that viewpoint in “The General Strike for Industrial Freedom”). But this never went anywhere.

    You mention 40 percent union density in Vancouver. Union density in the USA never reached 40 percent. Do you propose to simply dismiss those unionized workplaces with 100 or more employees? We can’t have a viable revolutionary strategy that does that. If you don’t propose to dismiss them, what’s the strategy there?

    The IWW advocated class unionism. That is, actual solidarity in practice across sectoral (craft or industry) boundaries, to extend struggles, as you say. You don’t say this but some say the IWW is “industrial unionist” but that’s misleading. Industrial unionism in the USA became just an enlarged form of craft unionism, that is, sectorally limited unionism. “Solidarity unionism” to me evokes the idea of class unionism, because of the idea of a widening solidarity through the class. But I know that it is also used to mean direct solidarity, people directly acting like a union.

    Chains of subcontracting and precarious individual contracts are both part of the contemporary tactics used by capital. The electronics industry, for example, is organized like the garment industry. Dell and HP and Apple don’t make any computers. They’re just design and marketing firms. If a group of workers try to organize or protest, they simply move the contract elsewhere. This is the way they deal with the fact that historically militancy had developed furthest in manufacturing. And so much of this networked manufacturing chain and its link to suppliers and customers is across national boundaries. How to deal with this?

    As you point out, there’s still a lot of landlocked industry that can’t be offshored….big stores, the transportation and warehousing chain to get to customers, construction, public utility systems, food service chains, health care chains, public transit systems.

    The present attack on the public sector in the USA is a frontal assault on one of these residual areas of work that can’t be offshored.

    • P. Gage Says:

      Hey Tom,

      I’m not actually sure what your quibble is but I’ll take a swing at it anyways. I think you are inferring an argument in this piece that is beyond the scope of this article. All I was looking to put forward in this relatively small piece is that the ‘classical’ IWW was a response to changes in the management structure of businesses. This parrallels the rise of “Solidarity Unionism” in the IWW.

      I could point to examples of contemporary unionism that is similar to what we are doing, such as the Solidarity Federation in the UK, the CNTs high profile strikes in Spain that are ongoing among other struggles elsewhere but I don’t think it is a weakness in the argument to say other organisations share the practices we are advocating but we didn’t bring them up because they have varying degrees of relevancy.

      I think folks doing the same thing as what we are doing, in the 30’s is cool and interesting but I think the IWW has a training program, some resources for organisers, regular conferences and a coherent perspective on organising that no other labour organisation in North America currently has.

      “Do you propose to simply dismiss those unionized workplaces with 100 or more employees?”

      Well Tom I was just ordered back to work under the threat of a $50,000 fine along with about 1800 of my workers in Edmonton and 48,000 of my co-workers across Canada. Solidarity Unionism in this instance worked well at my job and I think my job is about as central as it comes to the new economy since we subsidise most internet business off of my depressed wages.

      Conventional grievance and arbitration is also sustainable at my job too, it isn’t in food retail, or small organic grocery chains, or temporary contract work. I don’t know of another organisation that has a critique of workplace contractualism or anything that compares to our partially fleshed out alternative to this dead end.

      Just to sum up:

      Yes there historically have been good things that were not the IWW, I agree everyone who checks out this blog should read about them. I just didn’t mention them because I’m writing about the IWW.

      Yes large workplaces that are central to the operation of capitalism are essential to a revolutionary strategy based on working class self activity. I just didn’t mention this because usually people focus on this to the exclusion of the other 70% of the economy that has no unions or tradition of unions. As my current struggle illustrates very well a militant union in the heart of capitalism can still be strong armed back to work by the state. The way to break that isolation to have a real strategy for making the march into the service sector without building dues farm bargainning units or paper shops but real power on the job.

      Yes there are some great organisations that are doing great work very similar to the IWW. I just didn’t write about them because I’m in the IWW and believe there are good reasons for these projects to be connected through the IWW. These largely have to do with not having to start everything from scratch on one hand or to pander to the social democratic pretensions of a fossilised labour bureaucracy on the other.

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