Another response to direct unionism, and a counterpoint

updated collective fist

This is a piece that Juan Conatz wrote in response to the “direct unionism” discussion paper that some other members of the Recomp editorial group helped write. This piece appeared in the October 2011 issue of the Industrial Worker newspaper along with a reply from another IWW member, Sean G. That reply is below Juan’s article here.

The Early IWW and Contracts
In the Direct Unionist piece, it is split up into three parts. The first part of my response focused on the first part, which mainly concentrates on linking the conception of direct unionism to the IWW’s Organizer 101 Training, while giving examples, both historical and contemporary, of groups and organizations which practiced something similar to the conception outlined. The second and third parts get more in depth into considering contracts with employers. Before taking up what the piece has to say, it’s worth looking at the subject of contracts within the early IWW.

On the official IWW website, the subject of contracts is taken up in the ‘Myths’ section1, which is a section on the website that attempts to dispel a number of misconceptions about the union. Myth # 2 is called “The IWW doesn’t negotiate contracts with employers”. In this, it acknowledges that contracts were shunned in the early days and tries to explain this:

“This misconception results from the fact that during the early years of the IWW, union contracts had no legal force in the United States of America. In fact, union contracts did not become federally protected agreements until the passing of the National Labor Relations Act in 1937. Prior to that, many union contracts were attempts by the employing class to limit economic direct action and class based solidarity by unions.”

This is a bit dishonest though. Contracts always include attempts to ‘limit economic direct action and class based solidarity by unions’. A contract is a written agreement that affected parties attempt to get what they want out of it. By the nature of class struggle, employers want uninterrupted production. U.S. labor law hasn’t changed this. Later in the mytch section, it quotes from Fred Thompson’s book2that ‘Originally the IWW had put no restrictions, except requiring GEB approval’. However, Philip Foner3 describes in 1912, a local in Montana which had its charter revoked over signing a contract. The 1932 constitution4 does state all contracts required GEB approval, and also prohibited contracts that were for specified amounts of time or required notice from workers before making demands on wages, hours or shop conditions.

A 1920 pamphlet5 stated:

“It is against the principles of the I.W.W. to sign contracts with employers. When workers sign an agreement not to strike, they sign away the only weapon they possess. Past experience has shown that employers only respect contracts so long as the workers have power to enforce them. When the workers have such power, contracts are unnecessary. When they lack power, contracts are useless, for the employers break them whenever it suits their purpose. . . .”

So it’s probably safe to say, that while the early IWW didn’t explicitly forbid contracts, it structured their acceptance in a way which would be difficult, while seemingly seeing them as undesirable. Why this changed is outside my scope, but it probably had a lot to do with the combination of declining numbers and, at the time, new labor laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (‘Wagner Act’) of 1935.

While it is certainly interesting to take a look at the past and see how IWWers handled the question of contracts, it’s 2011, not 1911. We shouldn’t let the ghosts of the past determine what we do in the present, otherwise we’ll have no future.

The IWW’s Uniqueness

In Part 2, Section 2 (What if workers “want” a contract?’) the piece mentions something signifigant and

“We note here that in the countries where the IWW is most active—and especially in the US—union density and active organizing has been on the wane for decades. Ironically, this opens up a space for IWWs to present our ideas of unionization to those who may have very little understanding of what a union is and how they are ‘supposed’ to function. In fact, in many instances, IWW organizers may inadvertently give the impetus to a contract campaign by presenting the differences between “us” as the IWW and “them,” the business unions. If IWW methods falter, workers then look to other, contractual, options.”

This is mostly correct. The space opened up by declining union density means most workers will only be vaguely familiar with how a union operates, some may not even have this vagueness. So we have a chance to do that defining, and operate in a somewhat ideal way. But I think the reason the piece attributes contract campaigns being taken on (listing differences between us and the mainstream unions, workers wanting ‘stabilized’ gains) is missing something. I think what probably happens just as much, is that the IWW’s radical outlook is downplayed and it is ‘marketed’ as basically a more militant version of an AFL-CIO union or just a smaller UE. The importance of the preamble gets minimized and the language of the mainstream labor movement is adopted. There are a variety of understandable reasons for this. Among them being a history of red-baiting in the U.S. that can’t be paralleled with anywhere else, a tendency for populism inherited from the left, and fear of alienating or scaring co-workers away. Another reason worth exploring is the quite conservative way mainstream unions are, which leads to those with experience in these unions looking at the IWW as appealing. But the appeal is sometimes merely for something more militant than the mainstream unions, which covers a lot of ground, much of it not an area the IWW should be covering. It’s something we shouldn’t try to do and is, in my opinion, a significant factor in why contract campaigns are chosen in some organizing committees.

The IWW is a revolutionary, anti-capitalist union which advocates for the abolition of the wage system. We have different goals, and so, should have different methods. If one sees ends and means as linked, it doesn’t make sense to mimic mainstream union tactics for our end goals. The piece states:

“First, let it be said that by encouraging a non-contractual organizing strategy we are, in many ways, putting the building of class power before the protection of bread-and-butter gains.”

This is important. We aren’t merely trying to improve our conditions, we are trying to also, eliminate these conditions. If an organizing campaign wins higher wages but does not develop our co-workers skills and knowledge, we have failed, overall. We need both and when we organize, we need to consider how what we do will determine both.

The piece describes two shops with campaigns. One won, but lost nearly all its committed organizers. The other lost but gained committed organizers. A win doesn’t necessarily mean that our capacity is increased. A loss doesn’t necessarily mean disillusion and people drifting away. It’s how the campaign is organized that determines these.

Bad Things in Contracts

So, coming from the point of view that the IWW is a revolutionary anti-capitalist union which should be building class power and developing our co-workers organizing skills and commitment, why would contractualism be counter-intuitive to these goals? In Part 3, Section 1 (‘What are the pitfalls of contractualism?’), a number of negative things employers almost always want in contracts are listed, they are:

1)No strike clauses
2)Management rights clauses
3)Binding grievance procedures

Let’s take the ‘no strike clause’. In my opinion, no union, much less a self-professed revolutionary one, should ever agree to this. It is basically a set of handcuffs that restricts our greatest power, the power to disrupt. Yet, this is one of the first things an employer wants in a contract. In fact, it is an already assumed and understood aspect of contract negotiations. ‘Management rights’ is the same thing. It acknowledges the employer’s right on the speed and pace of work and many other workplace issues. If there is a dispute on what these issues are, the way for addressing this (since strike or work stoppages are off the table) would then be ‘binding grievance procedures’, a disempowering process that leaves your issue in the hands of a steward and member of management. All 3 of these things, which are usually things every employer wants in the contracts, take away our power or individualize our issues, when we should be building our power and collectivizing our issues.


Direct unionism, very purposefully, brings up the question of what exactly the role of the IWW is. Are we just a militant, democratic union? Or are we a militant, democratic, revolutionary anti-capitalist union? And how do our campaigns, strategies, and decisions reflect this? We are small, no doubt about it. But we have always and continue to punch way above our weight. It is time we recognize this and the tactics that make this possible. Part of this is recognizing that contracts may be something that works against our goals, not towards them.

2.The IWW – Its First Fifty Years, Fred Thompson, pp. 45-6.
3.The Industrial Workers of the World: 1905-1917, Philip S. Foner, pg. 137
5.The I.W.W. in the Lumber Industry, James Rowan,

Editorial note: Juan’s other article on direct unionism is online here and the direct unionism discussion paper is online here.

No war but class war

Counterpoint by Fellow Worker Sean G

In FW Conatz’s two pieces responding to “Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper,” which appear in two parts—on page 7 of the July/August IW, and above—he gives an overall positive appraisal of the concept of “Direct Unionism.” I cannot. The starting point is the idea that contracts were unconstitutional in the IWW “until the 1930s,” which is technically not true. Though contracts were discouraged, they could be negotiated with GEB approval. In “Part 2” of his review, he corrects this error but rightly maintains that a general hostility and reluctance to negotiate contracts was pervasive during our heyday. The reason for eschewing contracts in our early period emanated from historical circumstances which have not survived to the present day. There was no federally recognized right to organize, which meant no barriers to contract violations by employers. We all know employers still violate contracts with impunity, but it is in no way comparable to the non-codified nature of industrial relations prevalent in 1905. The composition of our membership then would also be completely alien to us now. The bulk of Wobblies were the transient workers of the industrially underdeveloped West; migrants rarely toiling consistently under one company or farmer. This too negated the role contracts could play.

In 2011, the IWW is a small union, filled with potential and only lacking the necessary connections to a wider working class to use it. How then can the IWW play a positive and transformative role in the class struggle today? One way is through vigorous organization on the part of dual-carders, one result of which would be opposition caucuses within the business unions and larger “cross-industry assemblies.” I do not disagree with this part of “Direct Unionism,” although I do reject framing this in a context of “de-emphasizing membership.” What I am opposed to is dropping contracts, or not pursuing them when they can realistically be achieved. We cannot simply present the working class with ideas in lieu of material gains in their economic status. To build the kind of “networks of militants” that “Direct Unionism” asks for, Wobblies need to fight on the ground for better working conditions, and among dual-carders this means agitating for better contracts. As quoted by Conatz, the pamphlet states: “…by encouraging a non-contractual organizing strategy we are… putting the building of class power before the protection of bread-and-butter gains.” Yet, how can class power be felt by workers if material gains are not achieved? Power is relative; it only matters insofar as it can be used to claim something for itself. For the working class, our pre-revolutionary power IS bread and butter.

“Direct Unionism” states that the fight for union recognition is an activity best accomplished after a “critical mass of workers” understand, amongst other things, direct action. Do these fellow workers not understand that some of the most militant labor struggles in American history have centered on the fight for union recognition? This was one of the core demands of the 1934 general strikes.

In my branch, the San Francisco Bay Area GMB, we have three contracted shops. The workers there organize great on-the-job actions and meetings (what the “Direct Unionist” pamphlet gives the pathetic name of a “culture of resistance” to) without ever attending branch meetings or engaging in theoretical debates. They are simply not left activists. They are, like most workers, motivated by meat and potato issues instead of theories. This is not to disparage theory; I think theory is absolutely critical for action. Instead, I bring this up only to remind fellow workers that ideas only matter to the extent that they correctly reflect historical experience and objective conditions. The material reality in the Bay Area is that if the branch decided not to renew the contracts, their working conditions would quickly deteriorate and our branch would shrink dramatically. This is the reality of the situation, and no theory can obscure that fact.

The IWW today is mainly organizing among the service sector, and moreover a segment that is mainly young part-timers. In these shops, the struggle for contracts may seem insignificant if only because they are not immediately attainable. Due to a small number of Wobblies organizing among a workforce of this nature, the emphasis has naturally been on informal solidarity unions. Yet it would be a mistake to apply what the IWW does from a position of relative weakness (let’s be honest) and make this is a credo of our organizing (especially not the use of “Moral Pressure,” as the pamphlet argues). Under this model, the IWW would not only be unprepared for an unexpected struggle like Wisconsin, but also have no lasting structures to build upon after the contest breaks. For these reasons, I think the IWW should be very skeptical about the methods discussed in “Direct Unionism.”

13 Responses to “Another response to direct unionism, and a counterpoint”

  1. I like this one, and I’m glad that there’s been some discussion of the direct unionism paper. Scott N posted a comment on this piece over on libcom (, I think his comment is worth copying here so I’m pasting it below.
    take care,


    Thanks for the good piece Juan. There’s some issues with what you were saying about contracts that are important. If we look at the three things to reject in contracts, it’s important to understand that we will never get an employer to sign such a thing. You’d have to be crazy to sign an agreement that doesn’t recognize you’re unilaterla right to make management decisions in which the workers could break production at any time and where you have no additional recourse in grievance disputes. I think in every case the employer would settle the issues without signing a contract since it would entail additional rights not worth giving up.

    In that way, those contracts are a utopian idea in the IWW. It would take a level of struggle so high that if you achieved it, you wouldn’t need a contract in the first place. Years ago the CAW tried to get rid of no strike clauses militantly in a big struggle and failed, I have no faith the IWW would do any better.

    The dynamics of this (that you need high level of struggle for such contacts, and most contract campaigns start from positions of weakness due to populist pandering) push people towards populist business unionism with red flags. You shoot for the good contract but settle for a democratic one. there’s exceptions in exceptionally liberal small businesses, but by and large all the experiments in contractualism in the IWW have moved in this direction, except it should be noted where IWW workers under contracts came out against their own contracts!

    Up till the 30s the IWW constitution had a couple clauses (changing)regarding contracts, basically they barred having a time period (they were temporary short term agreements only), they barred various relations with management, and barred things against the spirit of the iww. In essence it made getting a contract impossible. Early on lik 1907 someone got a contract and they were thrown out of the union. There were contracts in the 40s, but it was a rare thing. The first no-strike clause signed however was in Boston ironically led by an organizing team of IWA supporting anarchosyndicalists in the IWW, and then spread to Portland via someone who was expelled from the union for trying to mine IWW members to business unions to get a job.
    No Union of the General Organization, Industrial Department or Industrial Union of the I. W. W. shall enter into any contract with an individual or corporation of employers binding the members of any of the following conditions:

    (a) Any agreement wherein any specified length of time is mentioned for the continuance of the said agreement.

    (b) Any agreement wherein the membership is bound to give notice before making demands affecting hours, wages or shop conditions.

    (c) Any agreement wherein it is specified that the members shall work only for employers who belong to an association of the employers.

    (d) Any agreement that proposes to regulate the selling price of the product they are employed in making.

    (e) No Industrial Union, or any part of the Industrial Workers of the World shall enter into agreement with any labor organization contrary to the principles of the Industrial Workers of the World.

  2. Frank Edgewick Says:

    I’m not moved by Sean G’s response, having been active organizing and as a steward in two business unions and having worked on organizing with the IWW.

    Contracts don’t get you much. What they do get you, you usually have to work so hard for, they end up being like demands, rather than reality anyhow. It’d be better to cut out the lawyers (at least there) and just make demands and win them.

    In his speech at the IWW centenary, Staughton Lynd quotes John Sargeant as saying that

    “he and his fellow workers achieved far more through direct action before they had a collective bargaining agreement than they did after they had a contract. You can read his words in the book Rank and File.”

    And I can see how that’s true. It’s not whether or not you win today – the contract is better for that – it’s whether or not you keep on fighting and winning. Contract-based servicing doesn’t develop the fighting capacity that can take us further.

    The security argument also doesn’t hold up. I have seen first-hand that a contract doesn’t offer security – you have to build an organization that can fight to make it a living document. The contract only offers the protections you fight for, so again, you might as well just fight concessions outright, rather than fight to enforce the contract.

    Conditions are unlikely to fall due to a planned avoidance of contract negotiation – they fall when the union is broken by the employer, which, of course, also ends the contract bargaining process. We have to avoid legalism and remember that just because it’s the same legal situation (no contract), that doesn’t make it the same practical situation (bad conditions).

    The theory/practice argument points against Sean G’s position, generally, that the union should pursue contracts, even if it seems to support renewing them where they exist. The practice of making deals with bosses informs workers’ consciousness and supports a theory of class truce or partnership. Once that is in place and has established it’s own form of consciousness, what practice will push workers’ power further? It’s only by abandoning contracts that such people could get back on the social revolutionary path they were on when they changed their social relations by organizing themselves. So the argument that we have to prioritize conditions over theories means we have a responsibility to avoid creating conditions which will paralyse our movement.

    If we prioritize action and want theory that supports it, we have to recognize that it is not a point of theoretic purity to stand against contracts, but a point of strategy for a revolutionary union. The strategic reality is that ‘the material reality’ of a smaller, more militantly organized branch in the Bay Area may carry forward the union’s mission better than a larger, unfocused branch. This is a real question we need to consider. It’s not enough to say “numbers would fall” – we need to assess that strategically and consider what the strategic implication of that would be and how building workers’ power would make up for that over the middle and long term.

    As a union, victory in the class war is the only metric we can accept without reservation. Other metrics, like numbers of workers and shops and the value of concessions won, we need to consider in relation to our strategic progress, not for their own sake.

    None of this new on Recomposition, I’m sure, but I thought I’d gather up here some thoughts I’ve had while reading DU and these responses.

  3. I think the worst part of Sean G’s reply is the assumption that ‘direct unionists’ would suggest as a basic strategy dropping contracts outright in places where the IWW has had them in place. This is a major strawman. I would argue that while recognizing the distasteful reality that there is contracts within the IWW at the moment, I don’t believe that direct unionists would argue for completely abandoning the current CBA’s in place outright. Instead, as FW Jaun says, we “…should building class power and developing our co-workers’ organizing skills and commitment” as well as confidence as a revolutionary union. That is, organizing and strengething the power on the shop floor of the workers, and remove the illusion of the ‘power’ of the contract.

    Has the Bay Area branch ever held ‘organizer training 101’ and ‘training for trainers 101’ for these shops? Sean G states that “the reality in the Bay Area is that if the branch decided not to renew the contracts, their working conditions would quickly deteriorate and our branch would shrink dramatically”. Without insulting the good hard work that the Bay Area people have done, how big is the Bay Area branch in reality? Do workers from the 3 contract shops attend branch meetings? Are delegates from the shops elected from the shop floor (I know for a fact that the union delegate for the binside CBA is a retiered carpenter, not a worker on the shop floor)? Are there shop committees and do they meet often? I would suspect that, despite its large paper membership under CBAs, the actual size of the Bay Area branch is just as small as any other branch of the IWW.

    In essence, the Bay Area branch of the IWW is acting as a service union, and as such I figure the strategies of revolutionary unionists should be not dissimilar to the strategies within the business unions (not the same, of course, but not dissimilar). The goal is to be building the kind of skills, confidence and understanding within our fellow workers need for a union based on revolutionary, direct action unionism.

    Of course, I don’t see any shift of strategy or tactics coming from the Bay Area branch considering it’s current poltical disfunctionality.

  4. Anecdotes solve nothing, but let me share one: my contract for the NYC Transit Authority (subways and bus) has a “safety dispute resolution” clause, which always us to not obey an order we deem unsafe by asking for the safety dispute form.

    Despite having this procedure, people still do unsafe work. Clearly, more is needed than contract legalisms.

    But boy can I tell you I’m glad to have recourse to that when necessary, and I’ve needed recourse to it at times when I could’ve gotten myself out of a dangerous situation but without it, would’ve had potential problems protecting workers on probation who want to keep their job.

    Of course one can say with enough this or that, we wouldn’t need that clause or a contract at all–and I want to build toward that and I think that requires a revolutionary perspective, not a union perspective, which is part of the reason the “shop” paper I help make and distribute is called “Revolutionary Transit Worker”, an idea which seems to dovetail with the sentiments on this thread.

    But I guess the point of my anecdote is that the struggle is uneven and contracts are a way of dealing with that. They are not the answer but they are a tool in at least some cases. It is a dangerous tool in that it’s a truce and a compromise and that limitation must be taken into account from a position of revolutionary strategy.

    • HeyRed,

      Annecdotes don’t solve anything but they are my favorite way of communicating. I think your points match a lot of my experiences. I’m one of the contributors to the direct unionism paper, a minor one, but I did help write some content.

      I think your last point about revolutionary strategy is an important one. Strategy includes where you are starting from and I don’t think anyone who has contributed so far would argue that workers under union contract should decertify.

      However, I do feel the way forward for new shops is a direct action strategy. In Canada we legally have to sign contracts with no strike clauses in order to be a recognised union in a shop, there are other laws at our disposal that don’t require this. I’m in favour of us relying on laws that don’t require a trade off.

      You have even more scope for this activity in the USA, there are other options such as single issue memoranda of agreement that can be agitated for issue by issue. Ultimately the legal routes also require a lot of time and effort, time that could be spent either building a presence on the floor or empowering individual stewards to present semi legal cases to management. A good strategy on the job should leave the floor stronger after the case, and too often we sacrifice the fighting spirit of the workers on the job for a simple payout brokered in a grievance hearing.

      In the post office here, my union paid out a $50,000 grievance to the company for violating our no strike clause in a Wildcat. The company can also file a grievance against you for signing a contract. Anyways if you want to see what a direct unionism strategy would look like in a heavilly unionised environment I would encourage you to check out the stuff on here by Rachel Stafford and P. Gage (that’s me).

      Thanks for commenting and keep it up!

      • Thanks for the reply. I found some of the postal articles and such and will read later.

        I agree with “too often we sacrifice the fighting spirit of the workers on the job for a simple payout brokered in a grievance hearing.” I think I’ve heard it said not to have a legalistic strategy meaning a strategy that relies on the law (which should be easy from a class struggle point of view which assumes the “law” is a tool of the boss) but a strategy that uses the law however possible but relies on the power of the workers (and a contract is a legal document).

        All that said, I think one needs a specific and concrete analysis of a situation on whether a contract is the way to go, not a general principle. It seems most commenters here agree in general with that but I tend to think Conatz is being too “negative” on contracts…but without a more specific context, hard to judge. I would think that given the general level of class struggle in North America, one may not want to start with a focus on a contract in many cases but that if that workplace struggle picks up whereas the overall level doesn’t, a contract probably would be on the horizon. At the same time, many workplaces (such as fastfood and Walmart types) probably will require a broader level of struggle that goes beyond the workplace to find political/social solutions and will not be solved based on the activity at or within a single workplace through union forms alone. Again, all the more need for a revolutionary (not union) strategy and one focused on the power of the workers as a class.

        Small point, I interpreted Frank Edgewick’s comment as being for decerting (saying “abandon” contracts and such).

        Small point on memoranda–they don’t always have the same legal standing. I know in Tennessee the court ruled they have no legal status (but most public workers don’t have collective bargaining either). I don’t know how much this varies from state to state.

  5. A good strategy on the job should leave the floor stronger after the case, and too often we sacrifice the fighting spirit of the workers on the job for a simple payout brokered in a grievance hearing. I very much concur with your writing and I am so interested in the loop hole theory of using another route such as you mentioned but besides the time and effort I would like to know where to look to do some homework myself.
    If you have any suggestions please share with me.

    In Solidarity,

    Yvette Brusseau

    • Yvette also left this on my facebook where I replied there but just to keep folks up to speed I think there is a Canadian Edition of Labour Law for the Rank and Filer coming out some time. This book is an excellent book on American labour law that answers a lot of the questions Yvette is asking about.

      One other thing, I think there is a tendency to see the law as something that we can use in our favour and sometimes this is the case but often it isn’t. We should definitely know the law, not just leaders but every active union member but often it is about knowing how to defy the law and get away with it too. Labour law is written to keep workers down and any loop holes we find will be quickly closed by legislation, you can count on that.

  6. Hi RedTrackWorker, would you happen to have a link to the shop paper you put out “Revolutionary Transit Worker”? Always great to see good examples of shop newsletters in action.

  7. hey all,

    Thanks for your comments. Real quick because Phinneas mentioned them, I want to add that all the Canadian postal worker articles that have run here are available at

    Red, is the Revolutionary Transit Worker available online anywhere? If not, is there a way to contact you privately to get paper copies? (I won’t be offended if you want to work out a way to have someone vouch for me etc before getting my your contact info.)

    I don’t have as clear of thoughts on this as I’d like to but I guess I want to say that in my opinion aiming for contracts is always a problem but sometimes we only have problematic options. I think like Red said that a lot of questions have to be dealt with “a specific and concrete analysis of a situation.”

    I’ll also say that my biggest concerns here are with the IWW specifically. I think the IWW existing as one organization in a sort of ecosystem where other groups pursue other strategies is a good thing generally. I’d like to see the IWW be primarily direct unionist in approach (there’s certainly room for disagreement on this among members – it’s not an antagonistic contradiction, pardon the Mao-ism) and I think that for the IWW specifically aiming to get and keep contracts is a mistake more often than not. Again though, sometimes we only have problematic options — we’re basically all always trying to make the best of imperfect opportunities in circumstances we didn’t choose. So I don’t think we should be mechanical about it to where we claim to know for sure what is always the best approach in all circumstances – I say this even though I’m for what the discussion paper calls direct unionism over all and would like to see other approaches within the IWW gradually decline.


    ps- I can’t remember if I said, I was a co-author of the Direct Unionism paper too, though not the main author. Also wanted to say, the December issue of the Industrial Worker will have further discussion on this stuff.

    • Nate,
      Thanks for posting the link–I had found some of them but missed others.

      Posted the link to Revolutionary Transit Worker in the comment above yours. I’ll send you an email in case you want paper copies too (I read your blog). My email’s

      I just subbed to Industrial Worker based on this discussion and will read the original piece this discussion is based on.

  8. New issue of the Industrial Worker just came out, it includes further discussion of all this –

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