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Saturday, 14 December 2013

The potential for the IWW and revolutionary unionism

During this time of massive upheaval I do believe there is a time of reassessment all that has gone before has not worked up till now and new ideas and tactics are to be re looked at and rightly so. For one I think revolutionary unionism as a movement may make a comeback of sorts. The idea that people will continue to look towards the bureaucratic and hierarchical trade unions of today such as the TUC in the United Kingdom will always be the case is somewhat missing the point. Workers will not stick blindly and loyally by a system of organising that is not producing any progress or results. While the IWW is a small movement and is a long way from making a big comeback I do feel however the conditions for horizontalism and non bureaucratic unionism is possible as we stand today. Where many political parties from the mainstream to the non mainstream including left sects on the fringes are becoming more and more discredited why cant revolutionary unions make a comeback and start to influence the workers movement? It is entirely possible and entirely necessary in my opinion. To organise away from the huge bloated bureaucracy of traditional unions of the TUC is sometimes desirable but also quite necessary. The example I give is the IWGB who at the university of London have organised away from Unison the recognised union there at the workplace but have don little to nothing and often become a obstruction on struggle for the workers involved who have been out sourced to a private company who are not recognising the new union there and their demands still till this day. However big strides have been made in their struggles a and I do firmly believe they will win and win well and shine a light to other workers in similar positions across the land. Each step the class struggle takes forward owes itself to the step taken before it. As Rosa Luxemburg related waves of struggle in revolutionary Russia in her essay The Mass Strike, each wave recedes but leaves “sediment” behind for the next wave to rise from. As it is for Wobblies. The last few years of struggle have washed to shore a great deal of sediment packed full of invaluable "nuggets" of organizing wisdom. Revolutionary organizers would do well to mine these nuggets out, analyze their content, and synthesize the best of it. They can compare these nuggets from different waves of struggle and single out some similarities which they can apply to practice. They test them, share them with other organizers, synthesize what they learn, and develop a distinct, transmutable organizing approach - or method - over time. We believe that we are beginning to establish this method now. The IWW has in recent years made a long-overdue return to the stage of history. Since the 1950s, we Wobblies barely plodded along - almost for the sake of just existing - but gradually got back on our own feet as an organization that organized. Small skirmishes with employers - and some victories - occurred here and there over the last decades of the 20th century. Wobblies made short-lived but impressive advances in the courier industry and among restaurant workers; put the IWW on the map for non-members when they organized low-wage baristas into the Starbucks Workers Union; developed an organizer training program to share past organizing lessons and improve organizers’ skillsets, and engaged in much other significant activity. The generation of Wobblies who established these developments broke new ground on a long-dormant tradition of revolutionary union organizing. Alongside an uptick in membership and activity in the late 1990s and early 2000s came the prominence of "Solidarity Unionism,”5 a grassroots organizing approach which put workers themselves in charge of their own struggle for justice in the workplace. A relative flurry of activity and a wave of new members accompanied this significant new development. Naturally, this activity waxed and waned, but the IWW and its practice of solidarity unionism established itself in the contemporary labor movement (even if it’s still on the margins). Much has happened in and around the IWW in the last several years. New high-profile organizing drives have taken off, some won, and some failed (though we challenge rigid discernments between victory and failure). The Starbucks campaign, for example, inspired new organizers to establish similar unions in several low-wage workplaces that most other unions ignored. Where Wobblies worked in unionized workplaces, they organized among the rank-and-file along IWW principles, winning gains through direct action that their “official” union could not or would not pursue. On the national scale in the US, IWWs played visible roles in both the Wisconsin Uprising and the Occupy Wall Street movement that swept the country and brought an unprecedented many thousands of everyday working people onto the streets and into political life. Through all this, the IWW has learned much, and organizers have improved their skills a great deal. The IWW is not what it used to be. The organization has gone through stages of historical evolution, and in order to understand the current situation it’s necessary to be aware of its place in this history. The early IWW of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Vincent St. John, Ben Fletcher and so on, from which Wobblies draw so much pride and tradition, no longer exists. It is a memory - one that is essential to hold on to because of its importance to the history and culture of the working class, but as an organization it is no more. Decades of ruling class repression, containment of working class rebellion through state (legal) channels, capitalist advancements in managerial control and internal IWW conflict--subjects critical to an understanding of how the IWW got here, but which are beyond the scope of this piece--drove the IWW to a point in the 1980s where it could claim few members, little activity, and almost no power in the working-class. Though the union still held on to relics of the original IWW in the form of Joe Hill's ashes and membership records, and on paper the organization was technically the same one that was founded in 1905, its content had drastically changed. What was once a powerful, revolutionary force for organized class struggle, stretching across the continent with influence throughout the world, had long since faded to a withered husk - an organization better characterized as a labor history club than a revolutionary union. Let's stop to note that this observation is not meant as an attack on anyone who was a member during the 80s, or an attempt to say that everything after World War I isn't the “real” IWW. It is just as real of an organization, but a different organization, which changed over time due to a multitude of historical factors, not least of which being the relative strength and consciousness of the American working-class, which had reached a similarly low point in the 1980s. Individuals who were members of the organization had ultimately very little capacity to do much within those limits, and can't be held responsible for what was the product of historical dynamics far out of their control. But it's important to recognize that the IWW had reached a demise. Though not a final demise, since it was brought back from the brink and into a new stage of development in the 1990s. Rising class-consciousness and growing interest in “radical” politics attracted more members to the IWW starting in the 1960s, with membership spiking in the mid to late 90s. The spike in the late 90s was largely activists - some of them politicized workers - immersed in the anti-globalization and anti-war protest movements. But while the organization’s membership scale increased, its content was still fundamentally different from the content of the union that led the Bread and Roses strike8. Those traditions of struggle had been broken and the union was forced to re-establish itself in a barren terrain. The 90s IWW largely functioned as a history club of greater size, but took on another dimension that sharply diverged from the union's organizing roots; increasingly (but not exclusively) the IWW became an activist organization. Here we use the term “activism” critically, in our examination of a kind of activity that is not rooted in class struggle, but instead devoted to expressing moral outrage at the capitalist system's superstructural contradictions. At its most basic, a union is “an organization of workers formed to protect the [...] interests of its members”11 over time. Where an instance of self-activity could dissipate or pass, unionism is the practice of consolidating workers into an organization that acts to protect their interests on an ongoing basis. In recent decades, this has often meant that union representatives do the “protecting” in the form of negotiating with management on the workers’ behalf, thus “unions developed a life independent of their membership and began to operate over their heads”. Solidarity Federation calls this tendency the representative function of unions as we know them now, in contrast to the (once more prevalent) associational function of workers relating directly to each other without the mediation of an entrenched bureaucracy12. This distinction is useful as it demonstrates that unions can have diverging trajectories, leading to them playing very different roles in society. While many ultra-Left positions13 take the representational function of unions for granted, understandably portraying them as backwards institutions who have a stake in maintaining capitalism, clearly there have also been many workers’ organizations throughout the history of capitalism that have retained their associational function and represented a genuine threat to capital. Whether we call it a council, a union, or anything else doesn’t change the fact that it is possible to create and maintain “an organization of workers formed to protect the [...] interests of its members” - and that such a formation can retain its autonomy from the State and its allied institutions, can win improved conditions for workers under capitalism, and, further, can facilitate the development of a revolutionary politics amongst the workers. The fact that such formations must come up against limitations under this system does not render them irrelevant, ineffective, or “infantile”. Clearly, we believe self-organization is the cornerstone of unionism, and it is the premise upon which we base our argument for Wobblyism. We draw on a rich tradition of working class self-organization in the US, from the Knights of Labor14 Its true that the IWW is small and largely unheard of in the UK but I do believe its method of organising and the idea of revolutionary unions is something all revolutionaries should revisit and take a moment to think can this be of any use to our struggle or for us wishing to change society as I believe it can be if taken seriously. I’d encourage all to read up more on this via this excellent new document put out at

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