The Making Of A Politicized Prisoner

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The third installment in our ‘How I was radicalized’ series comes from Okwute Ekwensu. His powerful account describes the experience of leading a criminal life that led to incarceration, followed by his radicalization in prison. Okwute lives in the Twin Cities and is involved in the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).

Part 1|Part 2|Part 3

How I was radicalized (Part 3): The Making Of A Politicized Prisoner
by Okwute Ekwensu

The following is a brief account of how my lifetime of experiences with the prison industrial complex transformed me into a politicized prisoner and anti-capitalist revolutionary.

I grew up in a quiet, majority white suburb about a mile outside the Twin Cities. My mother is a public school teacher from rural Minnesota and my father is a Nigerian immigrant whose childhood was disrupted by the Nigerian-Biafran civil war. I was raised in a relatively comfortable middle class family along with my younger brother. Though I may have not realized it at the time, being one of the few Africans in a majority white neighborhood and school made me somewhat of an outcast. Before the end of elementary school, I was well aware that I was not white and would be viewed and treated differently as a result.

Being a relatively isolated youth in white suburban Minnesota began to influence my worldview. In school, teachers have lower expectations and are quicker to take disciplinary actions when it comes to black children. Another downside to being a racial outlier in my community was the attention I got from police. Beginning at the age of 12 or 13, stops and searches became frequent. Occasionally, police contact escalated to instances of brutality. I think the main cause for this was that being a black person in a neighborhood in which the vast majority was white, I was always spotted by police and looked out of place in their eyes. Many times entire working class communities of color are criminalized. In my neighborhood, police occupation was not as intense, but the spotlight was on me because I appeared to be “out of bounds”, which raised suspicion from law enforcement personnel who had a habit of racial profiling. I was viewed as a threat who must be in the neighborhood to steal, do graffiti or sell drugs. Several times I came home to my parents upset after experiencing police harassment or brutality, only for them not to believe me. “You must have done something wrong!” they would say. The naïve trust my parents had in police and a post-racial America was not helpful in preparing me to navigate society as a black man.

Consistent negative interactions with police instilled an anti-authoritarian mentality in me. Distrustful of those appointed to uphold the law, I began to question the legitimacy of law itself. In my high school years, I experimented with drug use, and then began participating in criminalized economies. My illegalist activity developed until I carried out an act of gun violence over a conflict in the drug trade. I was captured a week after this incident and sent out-of-state to a reform school. This is where I got my first taste of the real world. Strict rules were harshly enforced with beatings from the staff, which at times were severe. I don’t think one kid passed through that place without being beaten on at least one occasion. Most of the other juveniles placed there were black and from local poor and working class neighborhoods. In addition to the constant threat of abuse at the hands of staff, I had to hold my own against other residents as well, due to being from out of town. Over the course of 15 months, these harsh experiences instilled a defiant street mentality. Correctional institutions claim to force individuals to reflect on their wrongdoing, but many times incarceration only leaves people feeling like the victims themselves and they wholeheartedly embrace the criminal identity that society has already branded them with.

After leaving the juvenile placement, I was put on a form of supervision where the length of surveillance is extended from ages 18 to 21, and an adult sentence to the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) is executed if probation is violated and revoked before that time. For many young people, this type of sentencing ensures the jump from the juvenile system into the the adult prison system.

After getting out, I was even more disconnected from my community and school because I was seen as a dangerous criminal by adults and my peers. This led to my closest group of friends becoming those who I had experienced the torment of confinement and abuse alongside in the juvenile system. Up until this point, I had been straddling two worlds. Now, my family, peers and teachers knew what I had been doing. The stigma of a felony conviction and adoption of a criminal identity, as well as a group of friends I had come to closely relate to due to the ordeal we endured side by side in placement led to a transition from a rebellious kid to a more developed criminal committed to street life. School and work no longer appealed to me. Both had come to feel very similar to juvenile detention. With a new network of friends throughout Minneapolis, I re-entered the drug economy and took part in the violence which seems inevitable in that world.

One of the places I used to spend a lot of my time was a condemned apartment building that myself and some others occupied to sell drugs out of. One individual who was associated with a particular off-shoot of the Nation of Islam used to come there, buy a bag of weed, and sit and talk with us while he rolled it up and smoked it. We were not really interested in what he had to say, but since he was spending money, we let him hang around. After some time, his ideology began to catch on with some of us. For the first time we were thinking about the white supremacist power structure. Although I disagree with this brother on a whole lot of topics today, I appreciate his dedication in coming to engage with us in a place where nobody else would, and for providing a spark that was a major step in my political development.

Just before my 21st birthday, my probation was revoked due to an illegal firearm possession case. This landed me in the Minnesota DOC. During my time in prison, I began to self-educate a lot. The most influential author that I read was George Jackson. His anger, militancy, condemnation of the prison system, imperialism and sense of urgency in overthrowing capitalism resonated with me unlike anything else I had read up to that point. After that, I continued learning about the origins of the prison industrial complex in slavery, and the huge industry it has become. Most crime occurs as a result of economic need. The casualties of capitalist society are swept under the rug and subjected to slave labor, to the detriment of the entire working class. I became aware of the need for revolution.

Since returning from prison I have become active in organizing with the IWW- Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. I knew I wanted to do prison work and this project appealed to me because we aim to bring labor struggle inside prisons, giving incarcerated people the power to fight back against this modern system of slavery in order to improve conditions. Most incarcerated people respond to being caged in one of two ways. Some accept the justice system’s narrative of a complete emphasis on personal responsibility, that they are anti-social, immoral, dangerous people that society must be protected from. They react by trying their best to conform. Others embrace the criminal identity and continue to risk returning to prison. I think there is a third response, which is to know your enemy and commit to fighting systems of oppression that will continue to hurt us all until we do away with them entirely.

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Growing up during the ‘War on Terror’

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The second part of our ‘How were you radicalized?’ series brings us to the 2000s. Starting with his family roots in the South African anti-apartheid and American civil rights movements, the author takes us through the post-9/11 and Iraq War era, a time when many of us found the radical left. This piece was written by our friend, Dee, who is in First of May Anarchist Alliance as well as the IWW. Although a lifelong Midwesterner, he is currently living in South Africa.

How I was radicalized (Part 2): Growing up during the ‘War on Terror’
by Dee

I was born in an impoverished, predominantly black city near Chicago called Harvey. The youngest of 5, I was raised by two lifelong activist/artists who have been married since the 1970s. My dad is a former South African Communist exile and member of the ANC (African National Congress) who made his living as a jazz musician. My mother was a former civil rights organizer and teacher from the west side of Chicago. Radical politics has been a part of my life since before I can remember. My earliest political influences included Pan-African philosophers like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah. As kids, my brothers and I were constantly encouraged to be independent thinkers. In fact, we were taught to read as soon as we were potty trained. These factors were crucial in my development as a political revolutionary.

When I was 8 years old, our family moved to Milwaukee, where my mom was offered a teaching job at a Pan-African charter school. I was enrolled there until 5th grade, when my mom began homeschooling me instead. A year before that, my dad moved to South Africa to live for the first time in over 30 years. I would not see him again for a decade. Despite his absence, my mom was able to manage her entrepreneurial career and home school me part time. I spent most of my time learning about subjects that most interested me. Geography and history were my favorites. It was around age 11 when I first started reading about the Vietnam war. The clash of political forces and the radical cultural shifts of that time fascinated me. I was ashamed and appalled at how my country could commit such acts of mass murder against millions of innocent lives.What amazed me most however, was the resilience of such a small yet determined Communist resistance. It was at this time that I developed a curiosity for Communist philosophy and started reading the works of prominent writers like Lenin and Mao.

Like many Americans, I remember the televised tragedy that was 9/11 like a bad dream. I remember writing in my journal and listening to the radio as it happened. I couldn’t comprehend the scale of it until I turned on the TV and saw those towers tumble to the ground. It left an impression on me of great shock. Mom’s reaction was quite tame: “chickens coming home to roost” as Malcolm X used to say”. It didn’t seem like a harsh comment to me as I was well aware America had accumulated countless enemies throughout its history. Who these particular enemies were and why they were angry, wouldn’t make sense to me until later.

Subsequently, a new wave of patriotic nationalism swept over the country. Radical leftists were not exempt from this as I noticed several of them go from revolutionary to reactionary overnight. This new political climate made it difficult for radicals to organize publicly. My own political development was severely stunted and soon I would find myself falling prey to the sensationalized notion of “patriotism”. I remember reading the paper one day and seeing an American flag printed on the back pages. For some reason, just seeing this flag produced an overwhelming feeling of fear and sadness in my heart that I still cannot fully explain. Afterward I decided to do something that would have been previously unthinkable. I cut the flag out and pasted it to my door. When my mom and older brother saw this they were not amused. My brother even threatened to tear it down but my mom stopped him. She was aware of the current political climate and the effects it could have on people. She bet that eventually I would realize the error of my ways, and she was absolutely right.

Two years later, George Bush would order the U.S military into Iraq, thereby initiating a vicious cycle of death and destruction that continues unabated to this day. Seeing such a costly and pointless war justified on manufactured rumors and lies immediately set me back on the path towards radicalization. Simultaneously, the left was given new life which began to reassemble under the antiwar movement. Millions of people took to the streets to express their righteous anger against another unjust war. While I was inspired by this, I was also skeptical that protest alone would be enough to stop what was coming. Therefore, my participation was minimal. Knowing what I know now, I would have definitely done more.

By the time I enrolled in public high school I was an explicit radical Communist, more specifically I identified as a Marxist-Leninist (even though I hated Joseph Stalin). I quickly became well known for wearing “controversial” political t-shirts. Only my right-wing civics teacher ever challenged me about it. One day he tried to make me look ignorant by asking “do you really know who that Che Guevara guy on your shirt is?” I gave him an unexpected accurate reply which made him cut me off mid-paragraph and continue on with his lesson plan.

As my studies continued, my politics began to mature and I started to become disillusioned with Communism. I could no longer accept the contradictory notion of “state Communism” the way I used to. I was still a believer in Marxism, but with no understanding of radical leftism outside of mainstream Communism, my confidence in leftist theory faltered. It was at this time that I started reading a lot of Noam Chomsky and from him I was introduced to the concept of anarchism. I was not at all aware of its rich history, let alone the fact that it was a left-wing political ideology.

By junior year I had fully made the conversion to anarchism. I became a huge fan of the Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective. Short literary books and zines like Off the Map and Rolling Thunder became my favorites. Sometime during this period I would help start a graffiti group with two other friends. Graffiti provided an outlet for me to channel my political rage. I also started blogging for the group on our Myspace page and produced a good amount of anarchist propaganda which managed to attract some followers. Just as this group was starting to expand I graduated high school and was sent away to live with my older siblings in Minneapolis.

The weekend I was supposed to leave was ironically the same day as Crimethinc’s annual convergence, which was set to happen in a rural town close to Milwaukee. This would be my first chance to actually meet seasoned anarchists from all across the country and I would not miss it. The convergence initially started off with a sudden downpour which held up the initial setup. Afterward, strangers started talking to each other and helping out with the set-up which broke the ice a bit. Having come by myself to the back woods of Wisconsin, I felt somewhat vulnerable and out of place. Being one of the few black people in attendance did not help this. As time went on this feeling eventually dissipated. But I was outraged to find out that a white South African “anarchist” was allowed to conduct a workshop where he spoke openly of his dislike for black people and no one said a thing. After hearing this I made it a personal mission to confront him but he was noticeably absent.

Most of the workshops themselves tended to be more about identity politics and lifestylism than actual organizing.There was however one exceptional workshop that detailed various formations and tactics that police use to quell protests. This was in preparation for the upcoming Republican National Convention (RNC) protest set to happen the following month in St. Paul, MN. This turned out to be quite convenient for me as I would be moving to nearby Minneapolis the very next day.

I moved to Minneapolis an enlightened, yet financially challenged and socially unconnected, young man. Minneapolis was, and still is, worlds apart from Milwaukee. To make matters worse, when the RNC came to St. Paul I found myself unable to attend due to not being plugged in to the organizing efforts and having transportation issues. To make matters worse, Arise bookstore, my last connection to the left community had closed down. Three years later I would finally get my chance at redemption when the Occupy Wall Street movement came to Minnesota. From that experience I would gain invaluable contacts and resources that eventually led to me joining the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). I’ve been an active radical union organizer ever since.

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From the right-wing to the revolutionary left

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9655c7f1c0829b204074a064e6f19672For May Day, we are presenting the start of a new multipart series around the question ‘How were you radicalized?’ On the radical left, many people often speak of their protest or organizing experiences, almost like old war veterans. But one of the more interesting stories…people’s personal path to radical politics, aren’t always told. 

The first part in our series takes us briefly though the ’60s and ’70s and is from Tom Wetzel. Tom’s other writings can be found on his personal website, as well as on ideas & action, a publication by Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA).


How I was radicalized (Part 1): From the right-wing to the revolutionary left

by Tom Wetzel

I grew up in a blue collar family of auto-didacts. I lived with my grandmother who was a milliner who worked in hat-making factories. She was strongly influenced by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister who was an organizer with the Underground Railroad of the 1850s. Parker had developed a critique of Bible-based religion because he believed it could not provide an adequate basis for attacking white supremacy. My grandmother told me that I should regard all humans as my “brothers and sisters.”

My family encouraged me to read and think for myself. A childhood friend recently told me that in high school he perceived me as an “intellectual.” As a teenager my initial political direction was to the right. When I was 19 I was a member of the Young Republicans at a local community college. I had read Ayn Rand’s various books, but also was influenced by the distributivism [1] of Chesterton and Belloc. They wanted a return to the pre-capitalist economy of self-employed farmers and artisans.

Between the mid-’60s and the mid-’70s I moved from right wing politics to the revolutionary left.

After graduating from high school I worked for six years in the gas station chain operated by Standard Oil of California (now called Chevron). I usually worked graveyard shift to avoid bosses. I worked often with older black men. They told me stories which helped me to better appreciate the circumstances of life faced by black people in America. This was during the period of the black freedom movement, and I gradually became a supporter of that movement. This led to some heated arguments with certain members of my family.

Working as a gas jockey helped to develop my class consciousness. At the time of the national student strike against the Vietnam War in May-June 1970, a network of the younger workers in that chain began a rule disobedience. The company had a very strict hair and dress policy that seemed to be modeled on the Marines. As a protest we began to ignore it…grow beards etc. This was initiated by one of my high school buddies. Chevron sent a VP from San Francisco to L.A. and we were all fired. The company liberalized the dress code after our firing.

The lesson I learned from this was the weakness of purely spontaneous forms of workplace protest. At the station where I worked there was a diverse group…some blacks, two gay men, immigrants, younger and older. I realized that an effective movement among that workforce would need to have discussions with the different people, listen to their grievances, and get them involved.

There was actually a lot of worker rebellion going on in the early ‘70s such as the illegal national postal strike and the national wildcat strike of over-the-road truck drivers. To fight a court injunction in L.A., students from UCLA replaced Teamsters in picketing the trucking companies…with the drivers cheering from across the street.

By the early ’70s I was doing a lot of socialist reading. From Marx’s philosophical manuscripts to the left-wing of the old American Socialist Party. I appreciated writers who could explain the ideas to ordinary people in clear language.

In 1970, after starting work as a teaching assistant (TA) at UCLA, I attended a union organizing meeting along with 40 other people. The TAs union at UCLA was a grassroots organization with no paid officers or paid staff. It was run basically through a shop stewards council and assemblies in the departments. For me, this was concrete proof of the possibility of grassroots unionism.

By the early ’70s I had become an advocate of both democratic, militant unionism and a labor political party. I was sympathetic to the International Socialists at that time. Leninism was really quite dominant in radical politics in that era. The Leninists who were particularly dogmatic liked to call themselves “revolutionary communists”. I eventually realized I couldn’t stomach Leninism even in its milder I.S. form.

A New Left writer who I appreciated was Staughton Lynd. He was one of the people who helped to create the New American Movement. NAM called itself a non-Leninist revolutionary socialist organization. So I joined. I think for me the most important aspect of NAM was its emphasis on socialist-feminism, which was in practice the source of what is now called the “intersectional” approach.
An early NAM project was Jeremy Rifkin’s People’s Bicentennial Commission. I helped to organize the L.A. chapter. This was basically a propaganda effort to promote worker self-management under the slogan “economic democracy.”

My conception of socialism had been influenced by guild socialism. I had come across this via my reading of Bertrand Russell’s Roads to Freedom. This led me to read G.D.H. Cole, whose The Meaning of Marxism is an excellent introduction to Marxism.

In organizing my department into the TAs union, I worked with a younger friend who was an anarcho-syndicalist. Ralph had been a member of “The Resistance” in the late ’60s. He was also part of an anarchist faction expelled from the local Students for a Democratic Society chapter by the Marxist-Leninists. Although short-lived, the Resistance was the first group in that period in L.A. to develop an anarcho-syndicalist political position. From Ralph, I first learned about the Spanish revolution. Reading about that movement helped me to see the concrete viability of a syndicalist strategy and I was inspired by the mass collectivizations of industry.

I think the key change in my thinking during the course of the ‘70s was that I gradually began to develop more of a critique of the state and electoral politics. I think my shift from right to left in the ‘60s happened mainly because I began to get a more realistic grasp on capitalism, its brutality (as manifested in imperialist wars for example) and oppressive class structure. But I also think the general emergence of radical social movements in that period was an influence because it encourages you to believe that social change is possible.


[1] - A kind of economics based on Catholic social teachings.

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A new society must be built

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Equilibrium & Disequilibrium

Equilibrium & Disequilibrium

The 2008 financial crisis in the US led to a flurry of ink and predictions of world collapse of capitalism. None of that has come to be as of yet, but the significance of the crisis is still unsettled. This week’s piece comes to us from Scott Nicholas Nappalos, and argues that more than crisis we need to create the pre-conditions for collective struggles and to actively construct a new society beyond waiting for conditions to do it for us. (more…)

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Podcast Interview with Luigi Rinaldi

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Symptomatic Redness Podcast with L. Rinaldi

Symptomatic Redness Podcast with L. Rinaldi



This week we present an interview by Symptomatic Redness with one of our fellow editors Luigi Rinaldi who discusses the Recomposition blog, the IWW, unions, among other subjects.

Symptomatic Redness is a show on political economy and historical analysis and you can check them out here.

Check out the podcast with Luigi here.

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Beating Back the Bureaucrats

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Bloque Sindical de Base

Bloque Sindical de Base


We are happy to present Beating Back the Bureaucrats from a comrade writing in South Africa. The piece focuses mostly on a recent initiative called Bloque Sindical de Base in Argentina. Argentina’s labor movement and its many divisions are not well known or understood by english-speakers in the workers movement. Having a history of revolutionary unionism that pre-dates the IWW by some decades and has continued through multiple dictatorships, union labor laws modeled after Mussolini’s Italy, and more recently a severe crisis in 2001 that led to 75% unemployment and a broad uprising, Argentina’s history contains a lot organizers can learn from about building the IWW and more broadly militant workplace organization. How do we deal with government control over the labor movement? With efforts that push organizers into bureaucracies? With reform efforts within unions? Beating Back the Bureaucrats is a welcome addition to bring some of the perspectives and debates to our audience.
The author gives a general history of the development of Argentina’s two largest trade union federations today, the CGT and CTA, starting at the birth of the CGT, its unification with the Peronist movement, and the fights and splits that have followed in the past 50 years since. Much of the work focuses on a recent initiative by union militants within the rival federation CTA which split from CGT. These militants formed a current called Bloque Sindical de Base aimed at increasing rank and file participation and combating bureaucracy within the unions it organizes. Bloque Sindical de Base uses union assemblies to mobilize worker participation on the one hand and on the other runs slates in union elections. Drawing from his analysis of Bloque Sindical de Base, the author argues for positions about the development of more combative and libertarian workers movements, and how new unions initiatives could help or hinder that situation. We have some reservations about the strategy presented at least where we live in the US and Canada, but the article raises important questions for anyone that wishes to develop revolutionary unionism, and we hope it can inspire constructive debates over these issues.

Beating Back the Bureaucrats 

A rank-and-file struggle for trade union democracy in Argentina and its strategic implication
by Jonathan Payn*


Much time has been spent on the left discussing whether or not the existing unions can still be seen as capable of representing workers’ interests or whether they have been completely and irrevocably co-opted to manage and contain worker struggles on behalf of the bosses – be they private or public. Consequently, a lot of time has also been spent debating whether unions can be taken back by workers (and made to serve their interests), or whether they should be abandoned altogether in favor either of revolutionary or dual unions or so-called new forms of organization such as workers’ committees, solidarity networks etc.

It is not the intention of this essay to dwell too much on the theoretical arguments in favor of one position or the other. Rather, starting from the premise that “There is no other way to explain the formation of trade union movements except by the need of workers to organize on class lines to defend and advance their own particular interests in opposition to those of the bosses” [1], the intention is to look at a contemporary case where rank-and-file working class militants are having some success at beating back the bureaucracy and democratizing their union from below and – in discussing this experience alongside two prior attempts at establishing more independent and democratic dual unions in the same country – draw lessons from the empirical evidence and put forward conjecture on its potential strategic implications. This text thus looks at the experience of a group of workers that first joined the rank-and-file of an existing orthodox union believing it would help defend and advance their interests as workers and then – on seeing how the bureaucracy was an obstacle to pursuing their real interests (and often working against them) but still believing there to be benefits to maintaining union membership – started organizing against the union bureaucracy in order to democratize the union from below and make it congruent with the workers’ interests as determined by them.

Historical background of the Argentine trade union movement

The present day organized workers’ movement in Argentina is divided into two main trade union centers: the Confederación General del Trabajo de la República Argentina (CGT) and the Central de Trabajadores de la Argentina (CTA).

The CGT, or General Confederation of Labour, which is the dominant and historic labour federation in Argentina, was founded in 1930 through the merger of the socialist Confederación Obrera Argentina (COA) and the revolutionary syndicalist Unión Sindical Argentina (USA) – the successor of the FORA IX (Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation, Ninth Congress). Throughout the 1930s, the CGT (which was founded on the model of the French CGT and had a somewhat revolutionary syndicalist profile – although it was more a revolutionary syndicalist and Marxist-Leninist coalition in reality) competed for influence with the historically anarchist FORA V (Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation, Fifth Congress). It split in 1935 due to a conflict between socialists and anarchists/syndicalists, reflecting the unstable nature of the coalition, and again in 1942; leading to the formation of the anti-communist CGT Nº1, headed by the railroad worker José Domenech, and the CGT Nº2, led by Pérez Leirós, which grouped together various communist and socialist unions.

The CGT, having lost what revolutionary syndicalist orientation it had, was later strengthened as a federation following the 1943 coup d’état when its leadership allied itself with the supposedly pro-labour policies of then Labour Minister Colonel Juan Perón. While Peronism – the political movement inspired by the ideas of Perón – was endorsed by the CGT leadership it should be noted that there was also a mass base of support for Peronism in the unions, due to Peronism’s mixed-bag nature, including a sector of former anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists that liquidated their politics into support for Peronism. The CGT Nº2 was dissolved by the military government the same year.

With regards to Perón’s so-called pro-labour stance it is important to bear in mind that, in 1938, Perón went to Europe to study the political systems of various European countries, including Italy and Germany. On his return he talked about his positive impression of the fascism and national socialism practiced in Italy and Germany under the governments of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler respectively – that involved a state-led corporatism which allowed for massive state control over the actions, finances and leadership of the unions – believing that these countries would soon become social democracies and stating:

“Italian Fascism led popular organizations to an effective participation in national life, which had always been denied to the people. Before Mussolini’s rise to power, the nation was on one hand and the worker on the other, and the latter had no involvement in the former. […] In Germany happened exactly the same phenomenon, meaning, an organized state for a perfectly ordered community, for a perfectly ordered population as well: a community where the state was the tool of the nation, whose representation was, in my view, effective. I thought that this should be the future political form, meaning, the true people’s democracy, the true social democracy.”

Later, the CGT was instrumental in securing Perón’s release from prison and in calling for elections and was one of the main supporters of the Peronist Movement and of Perón’s successful 1946 election campaign, becoming in 1947 the only trade union to be recognized by his government.

When Perón was ousted by the 1955 military coup and Peronism outlawed the leadership of the CGT was replaced by government appointees (although the CGT itself initiated a destabilization campaign aimed at lifting the ban on Perón and bringing him back from exile). The electoral ban on the Peronists was lifted in 1962 although Perón himself remained in exile – mostly in Franco’s Spain – until 1973. He was re-elected to serve his third term as president in 1973, this time as the Partido Justicialista candidate. The populist Partido Justicialista (Justicialist Party, PJ) [2] was founded in 1947 by Juan and Evita Perón and the CGT has historically been its largest and most consistent support base ever since.

In 1968, as a product of the internal political differences that existed within the CGT some of the more combative union leaders, who held a more anti-imperialist and anti-bureaucratic line and were against collaboration with the dictatorship, left the CGT – which had adopted a position of collaboration with the military junta – to form CGT de los Argentinos (CGT of the Argentines – CGTA). The CGTA was more directly involved in the struggles against the implementation of neoliberal policies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It played an important role in the May 1969 Cordobazo [3] student-worker uprising and called for a general strike which took place on June 30, 1969, following which most of its leadership was jailed by the military junta. Following the defeat of a strike at the Fabril Financiera industrial conglomerate that lasted 120 days and the reconciliation between Perón and Augusto Vandor – then General Secretary of the CGT and the leader of the collaborationists (the union leaders who collaborated with the military junta) – most of the CGTA unions joined the Peronist political front of the CGT; the “62 Organizations”. The CGTA lasted until 1972.

During the 1970s, paramilitary death squads like the Argentine Anti-communist Alliance (AAA), linked to the right wing of Peronism, started operating in and heavily suppressing the workers’ movement: their methods were brutal, from following and persecuting workers to kidnapping, torturing and murdering combative union leaders and militants that were organizing within the CGT as an alternative to the corporatist and collaborationist leadership.

This whole process of repressing and discipling the workers’ movement was consolidated under the last military dictatorship in Argentina, from 1976 to 1983 – paving the way for the path of least resistance to full-scale neoliberal restructuring in the 1990s.
Bureaucratization, patronage and the contemporary Argentine union movement

Neoliberalism had a negative effect on union organization in Argentina. This was due, amongst other things, to the fact that the union leadership (of the CGT) were the ones who acceded to the policies of privatization and labour flexiblization implemented by the incumbent Partido Justicialista in the 1990s, under President Carlos Menem; which led many workers to see the leadership’s moves as negative and traitorous and to lose confidence in the unions. Massive retrenchments, outsourcing and the casualization of labour also had a negative impact on worker organization and union density.

Similarly to the CGTA and also in the context of neoliberal restructuring, albeit on a larger scale, the CTA, or Argentine Workers’ Central, was formed in 1991 when a group of union leaders – largely from the public sector, oriented towards the struggle against neoliberalism and seeking to revive the experience of the CGTA – decided to split from the CGT. The formation of the CTA was considered at the time as an advance for the workers’ movement in all of Latin America because it was the only union federation that allowed for free elections to leadership posts.

The CTA presents itself as being more progressive than the CGT and can be seen as heir to the process initiated by the CGTA in the 1960s and 1970s. However, it still shares many of the same bureaucratic characteristics as the CGT in practice. Over time more bureaucratic leaders have emerged; in their attempts to consolidate their positions they have assisted in giving rise to the bureaucratic CTA of today. It is now commonplace for union leaders to perpetuate their terms in office, and, as part of these efforts, to make agreements – over workers’ heads – that favor their own interests (now distinct), and those of the bosses and government they prop up.

Today, the CGT is divided into an opposition camp, headed by Hugo Moyano, and a pro-government or “oficialista” (official) camp, whose main leader is Miguel Caló. Similarly, the CTA is also divided into pro-government and opposition camps, headed by Hugo Yasky and Pablo Michelli respectively.

The CGT brings together the most influential unions in the Argentine economy, such as metalworkers and truck drivers. Since neoliberal restructuring resulted in the closure of freight rail and the predominance of road freight, transport workers have increased their presence and power within the growing sector: when transport workers strike, they can paralyze the entire country, from the petrol pump to the supermarkets, because they control the transport and distribution of goods and services.

Then there is the CGT oficialista, headed by Caló, which groups, primarily, unions in the automobile and metallurgical industries. Both of which also have a lot of weight in the national economy.

The CTA is likewise divided into pro-government and opposition camps, headed by Hugo Yasky and Pablo Michelli respectively. It groups together mainly public sector workers, such as those in health and education. Within the CTA, the union with the most economic weight is the Sindicato del Neumatico (the tyre-manufacturing industry workers’ union).

The oficialista wing of the CTA – led by Hugo Yasky, a former teacher – organizes mostly public school teachers; the opposition faction – led by Michelli – is more linked to ATE, Asociación de  Trabajadores del Estado (Association of Public Workers).

Both federation leaderships are clearly bureaucratic: they have developed interests different to those of the workers they represent, and they often make decisions that favor the bosses and government without consulting workers. Some have a profile oriented towards a more reformist or economistic trade unionism (Moyano or Michelli), and others that want to associate themselves with a certain progresismo (progressivism) that envisages a more central role for government in imposing “solutions” to social problems [4]. In the CGT this progresista faction is led by Miguel Caló; in the CTA this faction is led by Yasky. Both leaderships and their decision-making processes, however, are equally bureaucratic.

Although both union leaderships are clearly bureaucratic the CGT does not really have any objections to presenting themselves as such, whereas the CTA has certain statutes that, at least in theory, are more democratic although in practice the leadership effectively maintains control of the whole union apparatus. Both federation leaderships are also very much linked to the structures of Peronism and justicialismo (Peronist movement and ideology linked to the Partido Justicialista, the name of which was derived from the Spanish words for “social justice”).

Moreover, because of the stakes involved both federation leaderships employ quite corrupt and violent practices. This is more prevalent in the CGT, probably due to the fact that it has more economic weight and because there are therefore a lot of economic resources at play both within the unions and the Argentine economy itself. Because the CTA largely organizes in the public sector, where there are perhaps less economic resources at stake, such violent politics is less common (although it does arise from time to time, as it always will when power is challenged).

Within the government opposition the CGT faction is dominant but more to the right of the current government. The CTA opposition is weaker but has a more progressive and sometimes Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyite-oriented profile.

Both the CGT and the CTA are linked to Peronism and the Peronist movement, but whereas the CGT is linked more directly to the ruling Partido Justicialista and to justicialismo, the CTA has a more progressive and “Left” Peronist orientation. That is to say that, while both are associated with the Peronist movement, the CGT draws on the national socialist and corporatist aspects of Perón (i.e. “right” Peronism), whereas the CTA is more Marxist in its orientation (i.e. “left” Peronism). However, despite the “right” or “left” alignments of the dominant factions in each, bridging the two federations there is a “pro-K” (Kirchnerist [5]) faction – represented by Yasqui in the CTA and Caló in the CGT – and an “anti-K” faction – represented by Michelli in the CTA and Moyano in the CGT.

Left is in inverted commas above because this so-called Left Peronism – the adherents to which currently lead the CTA – is the current of Peronism that in the 1960s and 1970s saw Peronism as an anti-imperialist project linked to what had been taking place in Latin America at the time with the Cuban, Bolivian and Guatemalan Revolutions. These were political (as opposed to social) revolutions with a more nationalist and anti-imperialist thrust, and it was in this context that the Unites States made strong advances in terms of maintaining economic control over Latin America through so-called developmentalist policies and the “Alliance for Progress”. Peronism, albeit inspired in part by the fascism and national socialism of Mussolini and Hitler respectively, represented an alternative to US imperialism – that is, a reorganization of capitalism but with a more “social” face. Perón himself, who settled in Spain in the early 1960s under the protection of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, began building ties both with the authoritarian far left, such as the Montoneros [6], as well as with ultra-right groups such as the Tacuara Nationalist Movement [7] – modeled on Primo de Rivera’s Falange.

It is out of this context that we now find, within the Argentine labour movement, the CGT being more influenced by and linked to the practices and structures of justicialismo, or a more right-wing Peronism, and the CTA more linked to and influenced by a more left-wing Peronism and various Left or so-called workers’ parties, mostly with a Marxist-Leninist orientation such as, notably, Partido Obrero (Workers’ Party, PO) and Izquierda Socialista (Socialist Left, IS).

A struggle against union bureaucracy is currently being waged inside both of these two major trade union federations. However, owing to its slightly more democratic profile, is more advanced in the CTA. (Here violent, corrupt and authoritarian practices are less widespread, which opens a bit more space for more anti-bureaucratic and rank-and-file militancy.) The CGT is very bureaucratic and very hierarchical, lacking even basic assemblies. It is also very thuggish – driven largely by the massive economic interests at stake in the sectors in which it organizes. All of this complicates the potential for rank-and-file militancy and the struggle to democratize the unions from below.

The CTA has, at least, inscribed in its statues the assembly method, despite the bureaucracy’s somewhat successful attempts to harness and control them. In terms of the management of resources, both federations are linked to the practices of Peronism and clientelism – where the bureaucracy’s access to the movement’s resources are put to use for managing and manipulating people and support.
Bloque Sindical de Base and the struggle against union bureaucracy
One of the unions that has quite a lot of weight in the CTA, and one which is also growing, is the education workers’ union – the Central de Trabajadores de la Educación de la Republica Argentina (CTERA, Central of Education Workers of the Republic of Argentina). It is here that the struggle against union bureaucracy and for internal democratization from below is, perhaps, at its most interesting and advanced. CTERA is a national federation that unites various different provincial education workers’ unions, including the Sindicato Docentes Provinciales (Provincial Teachers’ Union) and, in the Province of Buenos Aires, Sindicato Unificado de Trabajadores de la Educación de Buenos Aires (SUTEBA, Unified Education Workers’ Union of Buenos Aires). SUTEBA is subsequently divided into different branches or “seccionales”, each with its own leadership, which collectively make up the central provincial SUTEBA leadership.

In SUTEBA there exists a group of rank-and-file and politically independent education workers who met through the union assemblies. This group has been organizing against the trade union bureaucracy for some time; it has been implanting the idea that workers need to organize themselves as anti-bureaucratic militants and urges workers to put themselves forward for the leadership of their seccionales independent of political affiliation and in opposition to the incumbent party-affiliated leadership.

Electoral processes in SUTEBA are such that each list of candidates for the union leadership is assigned a color. Lista Bordó (burgundy) arose out of Bloque Sindical de Base (Rank-and-file, or, Base Union Bloc); founded around 2006 by the aforementioned education workers of independent socialist, unorthodox Trotskyist, “grassroots” Peronist and anarchist or libertarian socialist persuasion. This anti-bureaucratic bloc went through a long process of political development and union education and training; in 2013 it ran for SUTEBA’s General Sarmiento branch in José C. Paz, Province of Buenos Aires. This was part of an attempt to challenge the existing leadership represented by Lista Celeste (sky-blue, as in the Argentine flag). Bloque Sindical de Base had previously supported Lista Multicolor, a union front of various Trotskyist political parties.

Bloque Sindical de Base arose in a context in which La Multicolor was in the leadership. During this time, from about 2003 to 2009, this leadership would hold periodic delegates’ meetings but prioritized the assembly method. These assemblies, however, were very often dominated and manipulated by the party militants in the union leadership, who used their positions to impose their party’s political line on the union. The strategic and political line of the workers’ organization thus did not emerge organically from the rank-and-file through open debate, as the militants that formed Bloque Sindical de Base think it should, but was imposed from above, from the central structures of the political parties down to the union’s rank-and-file through their union front.

This was seen by Bloque Sindical de Base as a weakness in the union because it would strengthen the influence of the political parties involved, as opposed to increasing the participation of rank-and-file members and strengthening the union. When union members realized the assemblies were being used more for discussions about how the parties would position themselves than about doing union business, they got frustrated and began distancing themselves from the union. As workers drifted and disappeared, the union leadership, instead of addressing their concerns, senselessly responded by trying to recruit them into the very parties responsible for their disillusionment – increasing the distance. Refusing to concentrate on increasing the participation of the rank-and-file, the leadership prioritized imposing the front’s political line on the union branches – despite warnings from the Bloque Sindical de Base that this path would result in their loss of the union.

In the 2009 union elections, the pro-government bureaucratic bloc represented by Lista Celeste was able to take over the union from the Trotskyist front. Following the takeover, between 2009 to 2013, no initiatives were put in place to unite the Trotskyist front with other anti-bureaucratic elements, and so Bloque Sindical de Base decided to present themselves as candidates for the leadership of the General Sarmiento branch in the 2013 elections.

Today, they are the strongest and most developed force in opposition to the union bureaucracy. Lista Bordó came second in the branch elections, after the Lista Celeste bureaucracy (which remains in office), followed by Lista Multicolor in third place. Although the front representing the Trotskyist parties won more votes, it should be noted that it is a front formed by five different blocs, each representing a different party, and essentially formed by five different candidature lists. Lista Bordó won more votes than any one of the five Trotskyist groups on its own and, importantly, has gained a much stronger presence in the assemblies.

Its focus on increasing rank-and-file participation is notable: every time the union bureaucracy calls an assembly – a practice often not driven by any democratic commitments or allegiance to the assembly method, but rather as a mechanism for rubber stamping its decisions in compliance with constitutional statues – Bloque Sindical de Base militants go from school to school (workplace to workplace) encouraging workers’ attendance and facilitating participation. They are now the majority force in opposition to the incumbent bureaucracy in their branch and this process has brought them to the point where the front of workers’ parties has recognized them as a legitimate and popular force. To the extent that, after the 2013 elections, they expressed interest in forming a larger anti-bureaucratic front with Bloque Sindical de Base – whatever the motivation might have been.

However, what Bloque Sindical de Base argues and organizes for as an anti-bureaucratic group is that the union be driven from below, by the workers. The political line and direction of the organization, in this view, should be developed by the workers themselves, through open and democratic dialogue and debate involving a plurality of positions and ideologies; rather than being imposed by external political structures. It struggles for the union to maintain the assembly method: that decisions in the unions be made through general assemblies with the participation of the highest number of workers possible. It also underscores the importance of a pro-active approach, where unions go to the workplace, in this case the schools, where workers face daily problems. This is a very different approach to current practices, whereby workers that are experiencing problems have to find time outside of working hours to go to the union structure – which often doesn’t respond to their grievances anyway, because of the bureaucracy’s focus on looking after its own interests. It also argues for a rotation of posts in the union: if tasks and responsibilities are not shared by everyone it is very easy for a layer of bureaucrats to emerge and entrench itself, as has happened to the CTA since it split from the CGT.

In addition, they demand better conditions not just for themselves as workers, but also conditions that are more conducive to a healthy learning environment for the learners. (This partly relates to the nature of the industry, which is located at schools with children as opposed, say, to on a production line.) When education workers struggle in Argentina the media usually presents their struggle as being only about the wage question; in reality it is about both the question of wages and working conditions and, importantly, the pedagogic question – because, as public school educators, they work with the sons and daughters of the Argentine working class which includes the next generation of education workers. As an example, at the beginning of 2014, teachers went on a 17-day strike, not only over higher wages but also over the state of school infrastructure and in pursuit of an increase in the government’s education budget. This strike mobilized a lot of teachers, including those that were not necessarily political but critical of the union bureaucracy. Building on that momentum, the following school term started with a two-day strike in response to non-payment of wages, and because the increases acceded to by the government at the beginning of the year were consumed by inflation.

A challenge Bloque Sindical de Base faces in organizing education workers is that teachers often tend to regard themselves as professionals or state functionaries – as opposed to workers. This can of course impede unity and the attainment of higher union density. Members of Bloque Sindical de Base recognize themselves as workers due to the condition of being salaried – which puts them on the same side as the rest of the working class in Argentina – and try to convince their colleagues of the same.

Another challenge is that by virtue of being workers employed at public schools an education worker’s boss, their employer, is the national or provincial government. This adds yet another limitation to the bargaining councils [8], which are supposedly to mediate between the workers – represented by the unions – the state ministry and the boss. In this case the Ministry of Labour and the boss are part of the same government as state mediator and employer respectively. Obviously, the Ministry of Labour will rule in favor of that which represents their own class interests, which coincide with those of provincial and national government, instead of those of the workers. In this way education workers are always disadvantaged in annual wage negotiations in Argentina because they are faced with the Ministry of Labour as the government representative, on the one hand, and the government as the employer on the other. One should also bear in mind that the union leadership is oficialista, or pro-K (it supports the current administration), meaning that they always seek solutions that represent their own class and political interests and act in defense of government policy; leaving workers out in the cold, forced to accept whatever they are offered when possibilities of intensifying or prolonging the struggle don’t exist.

As far as education worker unions go we can say, then, that the anti-bureaucratic struggle inside SUTEBA is divided into two main fronts: between, on the one hand, the front represented in union elections by Lista Multicolor, which represents different education worker groups that fall under the structures of various left-wing political parties (the dominant ones being Partido Obrero, Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas [Socialist Workers’ Party, PTS] and Izquierda Socialista); and on the other hand by Encuentro Colectivo Docente, a collective of SUTEBA groups that are anti-bureaucratic and class-struggle oriented but that are independent and don’t fall under the structures and control of any political parties. Lista Bordó/ Bloque Sindical de Base is part of this space.

There are about 15 groups in Encuentro Colectivo Docente, each pertaining to a different SUTEBA branch, or seccional, in the Province of Buenos Aires. In some cases, such as in the Bahía Blanca branch, rank-and-file workers from Encuentro Colectivo have been in the leadership of their branch for ten years already. In the December 2013 SUTEBA elections, Encuentro Colectivo also regained some old branches as well as beating the oficialista union bureaucracy and winning nine new branches. There are of course a lot more branches in the Province of Buenos Aires, but there have never before been so many branches that are organized on an independent rank-and-file and anti-bureaucratic standing. Militants from Encuentro Colectivo are present in the majority of branches with an anti-bureaucratic or non-Peronist/oficialista leadership.

In this process of anti-bureaucratic struggle and democratization, everything indicates that more anti-bureaucratic fronts are starting to be formed. Because 2013 was a year of union elections, it was a year of intense struggle for Bloque Sindical de Base, which had to organize against the Lista Celeste bureaucracy and the Lista Multicolor opposition. Bloque Sindical de Base has declared itself decidedly against the bureaucracy but is also open about its political differences with the Trotskyist anti-bureaucratic front – a tricky task considering that around the time of the elections they come under attack from all sides, both by the bureaucracy and the Trotskyist opposition. However, after the last elections, in 2013, the socialist opposition recognized Bloque Sindical de Base as a legitimate popular force; this could give way to a process of uniting the two to form a broader anti-bureaucratic and class struggle front in order to more effectively challenge the trade union bureaucracy.

This, of course, would present new challenges. Bloque Sindical de Base shares its anti-bureaucratic stance with the predominantly Trotskyist front, but it is also against the direction of the union being decided through party political structures outside the union. Something the Trotskyist front has done in the past and would surely try to do again. While Bloque Sindical de Base may work with this front in a tactical alliance in order to decisively oust the Peronist bureaucracy, it would have to wage an ideological battle against it soon thereafter were they to succeed.

However, such an alliance might not be necessary if Bloque Sindical de Base can continue mobilizing rank-and-file members to put themselves forward as politically independent candidates for the leadership of their branches and convince other education workers to vote for them rather than the party-affiliated candidates.

Organizing beyond the confines of union bureaucracy

Not only is Bloque Sindical de Base interesting because of the struggle it is waging to democratize the union from below; it is also organizing outside the union and reaching out to students, precarious contract education workers [9] and workers from other sectors.

The group produces a newsletter, called La Boya (The Buoy), that critiques the clientelism and corruption of the union bureaucracy and provides commentary and analysis on various issues. It organizes cultural evenings with live music and poetry and it organizes public monthly trade union education meetings under the name Catedra Libre Agustin Tosco (Agustin Tosco Open Lecture), [10] in order to reach out to and establish contacts with other teachers and workers from other sectors. Bloque Sindical de Base militants are sometimes also involved in supporting activities of territorial (community-based) and piquetero (unemployed) movements such as Federación de Organizaciones de Base (Federation of Base/Grassroots Organizations, FOB) [11] and participate in the annual Encuentro Social Desde Abajo y por Fuera del Estado gathering of class struggle organizations (Social Encounter from Below and Outside the State).

Towards an independent and anti-bureaucratic rank-and-file movement

Despite many heroic and hugely significant, even revolutionary, episodes of militant workers’ struggle, self-organization and rank-and-file union democracy the history of the Argentine workers’ movement since the end of the ‘glorious period’ of anarchism and syndicalism, in the 1930s, and the rise of corporatism and Peronism has been marked – like workers’ movements elsewhere – both by bureaucratization, party- and power-mongering and conflicting class interests as well as some notable attempts to overcome or break with these characteristics in the interests of advancing worker organization and struggle.

In the years since the decline of anarchist and revolutionary syndicalism, two significant attempts have been made in Argentina to organize workers on more democratic class struggle lines in response to practices of political patronage and the manipulation, by governments and parties, of workers and their primary organization – the CGT – in the struggle for power.

Both the CGTA and, later, the CTA splits from the CGT are examples of such attempts to break away from the corporatist harnessing – both fascist/nationalist and Peronist – and political domination of the unions and establish a more left-wing, independent and, for militants such as Agustín Tosco, anti-bureaucratic and rank-and-file workers’ movement in Argentina.

Both attempts, however, failed to do so.

A large part of the CGTA was reincorporated back into the Peronist CGT from which it had split with the formation of the Peronist “62 Organizations” political front – partly owing, tellingly, to a betrayal on the part of some of its leaders – who put their political interests ahead of those of the workers. The section that remained outside soon disappeared; those that re-entered the CGT, while maintaining an anti-bureaucratic and non-collaborationist position, were heavily suppressed.

The CTA, on the other hand, despite remaining outside of the CGT – and somewhat more politically independent – and maintaining a formal commitment to union democracy and the assembly method, has proven unable to escape the centralist and bureaucratic logic both of the parties that have fought for the dominance thereof and of its origin in the CGT, and is beset by the same bureaucratization and political contest that plague the CGT.

An important lesson lies in the failures of both the CGTA and the CTA to build a more participatory and democratic workers’ movement – a lesson from which Bloque Sindical de Base appears to have learnt.

Both the CGTA and the CTA breakaways from the CGT were conceived and engineered by a relatively small number of union leaders who were opposed to the political direction and leadership of the CGT and rallied the support of sections of the rank-and-file around an alternative vision of a more democratic and independent union that would supposedly defend and advance workers’ interests free from bureaucratic and corporatist fetters.

Regardless of how well-intentioned these initiatives may have been, however, the reasons for their failure are multiple. Not least of which has to do, obviously for some, with the statist and vanguardist logic of some of those responsible for setting up the dual unions in the first place – which led to them merely replicating the structures and practices from which they were trying to escape; the centralization necessitated by political interests distinct to those of the class also facilitated the emergence of a bureaucratic elite who subsequently developed distinct economic interests as well.

Another reason is the fact that organizational cultures and the practices of working class militancy do not change either over night or by decree. The level of participation of an ordinary worker – one who has neither undergone political or organizational training nor gained leadership experience through struggle – depends on their confidence: regarding their participation, their understanding of the functions, procedures and objectives of the organization, and their ability to fulfill tasks given to them. This confidence, and the practical ability to perform organizing and union functions it enables, is often developed over years of militancy and handed down from one generation of workers to another. That is to say, the level of participation of the rank-and-file majority in a union is often established over years of the union’s existence. It is both internalized by workers, and institutionalized in the practice of the union. If the majority of workers have internalized their role, perhaps due to lack of confidence, experience or opportunity, as being one of low-level engagement and participation (where the most important functions and decisions are left to a layer of leaders or bureaucrats), then they will likely carry that behavior through into other unions they might in future join or play a part in forming.

Even if they disagree with the centralization of decision-making and work, without accessing the space to gain their own experience in these roles, this practice (or lack thereof) will carry through into new experiences – including into initiatives started to redress this problem in the first place.

What the Argentine experience shows is that irrespective of how many splinter-unions and break-aways are formed, if these are not preceded by a deliberate program of political education, organizational training and sustained effort to increase rank-and-file worker participation and militancy in every aspect of union life, by building workers’ capacity and self-confidence to do so, then the leading militants that drive these moves – whether they set out to do so or not – will often reproduce old hierarchies and patterns by taking upon themselves the most crucial roles in decision-making and task implementation. In the process, they begin to constitute a new bureaucratic or technocratic elite, removed from the rank-and-file, that ‘represents’ workers and runs the union on their behalf rather than contributing towards building a new non-bureaucratic and worker-controlled union.

Rather than being taken either by a ‘politically enlightened’ or ‘revolutionary’ vanguard (whether they claim the title or not) or layer of militants, the decision to break away and establish a dual union should come as a result of anti-bureaucratic and class struggle self-organization and pressure from below and should come as a last resort when other attempts to dislodge the bureaucracy, democratize the union and stimulate worker self-activity and control have been tried and failed; and if there is reason to believe that, if done strategically with adequate preparation and at an opportune moment, significantly large sections of the rank-and-file would support the initiative and jump ship for the new union. Essentially leaving nothing of the old union but a bureaucratic shell.

This, again, should be seen as a last resort because as long as workers think the existing unions offer even the slightest defense of their interests, however modest, and don’t see a viable alternative that they are confident could offer them the same or more protection the vast majority of workers will remain in even the most bureaucratic and corrupt sweetheart unions and will not risk abandoning the devil they know for the one they don’t. Therefore, any attempt to form a dual union without adequate preparation and impetus from the base will, in all probability, fall flat on its face or, at best, succeed in establishing a perhaps qualitatively better union; but one quantitatively insignificant and marginal in the eyes of the majority of workers.

In contrast, rather than engineering a split from the CTA – which is in turn a split from the CGT – and thus further fracturing the workers’ movement, Bloque Sindical de Base opted instead to try and challenge the political and organizational culture of the union from within. This is because they believe that, rather than abandoning the fate of the majority of workers to the bureaucrats’ will by breaking away to form a minority splinter union, the union itself is something that can – and should – be contested and, ideally, brought under worker control by democratizing it from below and driving the bureaucracy out.

It is important to note here, however, that Bloque Sindical de Base does not aim to seize control of the union from within, but rather to encourage workers to become the protagonists of their own union both by contesting the leadership thereof independent of political parties and organizing independently of the bureaucracy.

No one can predict the outcomes of their struggle for democratization from below against the union bureaucracy. Perhaps they will succeed, fully or partially, by bringing increasingly more branches of the union under democratic control. In this case, workers may be left to forge the direction of their union and struggles in a directly democratic way through the assemblies, without allowing political parties to impose themselves on the union by transmitting their political line through party representatives. On the other hand, there is a real danger that if the democratic practices promoted by Bloque Sindical de Base become a threat, the authoritarian and statist elements – socialists and Peronists alike – will close rank and attempt to drive them out of the union altogether.

In this case, perhaps they will admit defeat and attempt to form a dual union, taking as many of their fellow workers as they can with them. This would be regrettable in that it would fracture the organization of education workers – unless they succeed in taking the vast majority of workers with them. But this would largely depend on their success at mobilizing workers in the present to fight the bureaucracy. However, while it might ultimately prove necessary to break away to form another union it is important first to contest the organizational and political space within the existing unions and, in so doing, prepare the rank-and-file and accustom them to direct worker participation and self-activity instead of a radical or revolutionary minority initiating a breakaway without first preparing the conditions and capacity for worker control through self-organization and struggle.

Ultimately, first prize would be to completely discredit and drive out the incumbent bureaucracy and defeat any attempts by authoritarians, opportunists and centralists alike to take over and maintain the centralization of the union apparatus by putting workers forward as independent rank-and-file candidates in union elections and encouraging them to do so themselves, as well as both by stressing – as did Tosco – the primacy of the assemblies as the highest un-replaceable bodies of the unions and by encouraging the self-organization and activity of workers in struggle both beyond questions of wages and the confines of the union apparatus.

However, this is all up for speculation as it is unlikely that either of these scenarios will play themselves out any time soon. What is important, rather, from the point of view of building a rank-and-file movement is not so much whether they succeed to democratize the entire union and drive out the bureaucrats, or whether they are expelled before then. Rather, it is the process and initiative itself: of struggling against the bureaucracy; of ordinary rank-and-file workers gaining experience; in workers participating more in the daily life of their union in the here and now, that is the lesson to be taken away from the Bloque Sindical de Base experience.

After all, it is a truism that the best arena for the formation of militants and the development of self-activity is in struggle, where workers are more likely to come together to discuss their problems and plan responses. Struggle is also precisely what corporatist bureaucratization of the trade unions is in place to contain; and so the struggle against union bureaucracy is a legitimate class battlefront in the process of forming militants and encouraging self-activity as it is through such struggle that workers can be accustomed to taking on a more active role in the union and through which the antagonistic class interests that exist in the union can be polarized. It is precisely the experience and the accompanying rise in worker consciousness and confidence gained in this battle that will determine future outcomes – and this is where the Bloque Sindical de Base experience is at its richest.

Moreover, in so doing, and by reaching out to and linking up with other (emerging) rank-and-file and anti-bureaucratic groups, resistance societies (such as the FORA), likeminded individuals from different branches of SUTEBA and different unions within the CTA – and even the CGT – across sectors and including so-called casual or fixed-term contract workers Bloque Sindical de Base, Encuentro Colectivo Docente and similar initiatives would already be constituting the beginnings of an anti-bureaucratic and rank-and-file current within the unions and workers’ movement more broadly. This could serve to stimulate anti-bureaucratic militancy, worker self-organization and activity, develop and coordinate common rank-and-file campaigns and activities and support the fostering of an independent rank-and-file consciousness and movement for workers control across regions, sectors and unions; across all spheres of worker resistance and uniting in common cause as many independent, anti-bureaucratic, revolutionary and rank-and-file workers’ organizations and initiatives as possible.

Indeed, it is through modest but principled and non-sectarian initiatives such as Bloque Sindical de Base, in concert with other rank-and-file and anti-bureaucratic initiatives, that the seeds of a rank-and-file movement could take root.


* * * * *




  8. As a result of the corporatism of Peronism only the CGT has full union status and the accompanying rights to participate in planning institutions, intervene in collective labour negotiations, monitor compliance with labor law and social security, work with the State in the study and solution of workers’ problems etc. Full union status is one of the historic demands of the CTA, which currently only has union recognition, which grants the CTA less extensive rights and is generally seen as a first step to gaining full union status.
  9. Contracted and precarious labour is also a feature of the teaching and education sector in Argentina, reflected in the Kirchnerist government’s new education finance plans such as the FINES Plan (Secondary Studies Finance Plan). FINES is promoted as a program to help young adults who dropped out of school to complete their secondary studies, in two years instead of four, but with reduced content and no recognition of labour rights for education workers. For teachers this is a neoliberal attack – an attempt to undermine and, eventually do away with the program of adult nights schools that has been in place in Argentina for years. FINES undermines organized labour and workers’ rights by promoting the flexiblization of labour whereby the tutors – that spend no more than two hours with a student a week – are contracted for periods of four months, thus lacking job stability and receiving only a basic salary with no benefits. Moreover, as with all other social assistance programs in Argentina, access to them – in this case to tutors’ contracts – are awarded not according to need or merit but according to a system of political patronage and clientelism. It also encourages high school students to drop out of school because they feel that they can get the same qualification in half the time. In reality it is a far inferior education: no standards govern the program, no external or independent evaluations exist, and tutors can thus pass and fail students at a whim. It is a policy that enshrines precarious education for poor students, and precarious work for education workers; it is in this context that militants from Bloque Sindical de Base are linking up with contract tutor-teachers and high school students struggling around the learning and teaching conditions associated with FINES.



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Against the IWW Series Part 4: The Legacy of the IWW

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This week we present part 4 of our Against the IWW series which we started back in late 2013.
The Legacy of the IWW: To Break Their Haughty Power by Joe Richard can be found in the International Socialist Review site.

You can find our previous posts in the series here:

Against the IWW Series Part I: The Bankruptcy of the American Labor Movement

Against the IWW Series Part 2: The IWW (1955) by James P Cannon

Against the IWW Series Part 3: An Infantile Disorder

Just to be clear, we’ve run anti IWW stuff before though last time around we accidentally confused people. People thought we had become anti-IWW. We’re not, we’re pro-IWW. Very much so. We ran those pieces and are running this piece because we think IWW members should read criticisms of the IWW, discuss them with each other, and be able to respond to those criticisms. In our organizing we inoculate our co-workers to the criticisms employers make of the IWW. Similarly IWW members should be inoculated against political criticisms of the IWW. We invite people to write full rebuttals to this and all of the other criticisms of the IWW and submit them to us and to other web sites and publications.

IWW Charter

IWW Charter

The Legacy of the IWW: To Break Their Haughty Power
by Joe Richard

You men and women should be imbued with the spirit that is now displayed in far-off Russia and far-off Siberia where we thought the spark of manhood and womanhood had been crushed…. Let us take example from them. We see the capitalist class fortifying themselves today behind their Citizens’ Associations and Employers’ Associations in order that they may crush the American labor movement. Let us cast our eyes over to far-off Russia and take heart and courage from those who are fighting the battle there.
—Lucy Parsons, at the founding convention of the IWW, 19051

To master and to own
THE INDUSTRIAL Workers of the World (IWW) occupies a proud place in the tradition of radicalism and labor struggle in the United States. Capturing the imagination of an entire generation of radicals, organizers, socialists, and anti-capitalists of every stripe, it was in many ways a uniquely North American organization, and at its height counted among its members nearly every notable radical and class fighter of its time. Its members included the great leader of the Socialist Party (SP) Eugene Debs, organizer for the Western Federation of Miners Big Bill Haywood, revolutionary journalist John (Jack) Reed, union organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the famous “friend of the Miners” Mother Jones, founder of the Socialist Labor Party Daniel DeLeon, leader of the Great Dublin lockout of 1913 and the Easter Uprising James Connolly, founder of the Catholic Worker society Dorothy Day, agitator and wife of Haymarket martyr Lucy Parsons, leader of the packinghouse and steel strikes of 1919 William Z. Foster, and even Helen Keller.

The IWW planted the idea of industrial unionism deeply in the politics of the US labor movement, paving the way for the industrial union drives of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) in the 1930s. Wobblies2 participated in some of the first sit-down strikes in US history, and built unions across color and gender lines, from the Philadelphia waterfront to the backwaters of the Jim Crow South. Their belief in industrial unionism was seen as a weapon to be used against the capitalist class, embodied in the quotation from Marx contained in the preamble of the IWW’s constitution: “Instead of the conservative motto of a fair days wage for a fair days work, we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘abolition of the wages system.’” And in the final battle between contending classes, the general strike would be used to break the power of the capitalists and usher in the “cooperative commonwealth.”3

Though never comparable in size to other union federations, the ideas of the IWW spread far beyond its formal membership, through its easily recognizable propaganda, its art, and through its famous songs written by, among others, Ralph Chaplin, who penned “Solidarity Forever,” and Joe Hill, who wrote some of the most famous labor ballads and hymns ever produced for the world working-class movement. The cultural impact of the IWW on the history of the US Left persists to this day, with many of the songs written by its bards still being sung at protests and demonstrations.

The IWW was an organization that stood for the self-emancipation of the working class, occupying a proud place in the tradition of revolutionary socialism in the US. But there were central questions and problems in the aims and practices of the IWW, which went unresolved throughout its history, and eventually led to its ultimate demise as a fighting organization. Most centrally, the IWW tried to be both a union and a revolutionary organization at the same time, and in attempting this, never fully succeeded at either.

The revolutionary year 1905
The founding convention of the IWW took place against the backdrop of the revolutionary mass strike wave sweeping across Russia, so meticulously documented and analyzed in the Polish-born revoulutionary Rosa Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike. Mutinies had spread throughout the Russian military, and soviets were formed in the cities, throwing the Tsar onto the defensive and forcing the granting of a limited constitutional monarchy, to the celebration of the workers movement across the world. In this electric atmosphere, the convention was a veritable who’s who of the American labor left, with Big Bill Haywood presiding as chair and Debs, Parsons, and Mother Jones all urging unity and class combat.  Frequent reference was made to the unfolding revolution in Russia. A delegate from the dockworker’s union of Hoboken, New Jersey put forth a resolution supporting the Russian labor movement and pledging “moral support . . . and financial assistance as much as lies within our power to our persecuted, struggling and suffering comrades in far off Russia,” which passed with no recorded dissenting votes.4

On July 8, 1905, after eleven full days of stormy debate and urgent discussion, the Industrial Workers of the World was formed. With most of the unions mentioned above affiliating as well as those connected to the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance (ST&LA) and other small local bodies, the membership in the first few months of the IWW totaled around 5,000 members.5 The Western Federation of Miners would affiliate in 1906, bringing another 22,000 members. A small but new union federation had been created, based on the politics of class struggle and the idea that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”6 Indeed, many of the arguments over the course of the convention revolved around what this would mean in practice. What would be the IWW’s relationship with other union federations around the world? How would it relate to other left wing groups and parties? Was the IWW a political organization? If not, how would it respond to national or international events? By the end of the convention, these questions would still be left unanswered, and the dual role the IWW assigned to itself would become manifest through early years of faction fights and continuous blurring of the lines between industrial union and revolutionary organization.

Rejecting the AFL
The founders of the IWW were looking for a new model of unionism, one that rejected the backwardness of the then-dominant American Federation of Labor (AFL). Founded in 1886, the AFL surpassed the declining Knights of Labor to become the one large union federation in the US by the twentieth century boasting nearly two million members by 1904, but it was plagued with problems7.

As industry developed on a massive scale in the US, the AFL continued to organize along craft lines, leading Wobblies to dub it the “American Separation of Labor.” As early as the 1890s, union militants were demanding a fundamental change in the organizing practices and organizational structure of the AFL. As US capitalism continued to develop and concentrate into enormous corporations and monopolies, it only made sense for the labor movement to organize itself accordingly in order to be able to effectively organize the new mass industries. This was radically different than the mechanism by which craft unions operated; namely, as a job trust, restricted to the better- off layers of the working class who could afford the high initiation fees, and then could expect to be paid high wages based on the union’s control over the supply of skilled labor.

Philip Foner, in his monumental history of the US labor movement, wrote:

The adverse effects of the introduction of machinery upon unions of skilled craftsmen brought sharply to the fore the whole question of the proper form of organization. It was clear to many in the labor movement that the changes in the techniques of production could only be met effectively by a change in the union structure. . . . While its inability to cope with the rapidly changing industrial conditions was advanced as the most important objection to craft unionism, it was also criticized for giving employers a great advantage in collective bargaining by enabling them, in the process of negotiating with several crafts separately, to play one union against another, and for causing bitter quarrels among the craft unions in the form of jurisdictional disputes. Changes in techniques of industry and the introduction of new machinery and new materials, it was pointed out, had made inevitable the jurisdictional quarrels among the craft unions. It was impossible under modern industrial conditions to draw an exact line where the work of one craft left off and that of another began.8

Widespread and continuous squabbling over jurisdiction led many AFL unions to turn against each other, instead of fighting together against the bosses. With separately negotiated contracts expiring at different times, employers could count on one craft at a job site or workplace downing tools while all the others continued to work. This gave rise to what would come to be called “union scabbing.” One of the unions participating in the founding of the IWW, the Brewery Workers, dealt with this problem consistently before breaking away from the AFL. In 1901,

the Executive Council [of the AFL] helped to break a strike of the brewery workers in New Orleans because the union attempted to organize the beer drivers. The New Orleans Central Trades and Labor Council, under instructions from the AFL Executive Council, gave Local 701, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, jurisdiction over the drivers, notwithstanding the fact that the contract of the Brewery Workers provided more pay and better conditions than did Local 701’s. When the brewery workers struck, the scabs who took their places and aided the employers to break the strike were organized into a Federal Labor Union by an AFL organizer, acting on instructions from the Executive Council.9

Leaders of AFL unions continuously promoted “labor-management partnership” in the labor press and delighted at hobnobbing with industrialists. Just like today, many leaders of the AFL drew enormous salaries for their times, far above what the working members of their unions brought home. They flaunted their wealthy lifestyles and defended their oftentimes lavish spending as part of the role they were supposed to play as the big shots running their union.

These union leaders were not embarrassed by reports of their wealth. They “justified” their conduct on various grounds. They argued that “union leaders should be in a position to make a good showing when they meet with the employers;” that businessmen had more respect for a union when they saw it could afford to provide its leadership with a “living standard” comparable with that of heads of corporations, and that the social acceptance of union leaders by the capitalists at meetings and dinners helped to break down the widespread opinion in the United States that representatives of organized labor were “undesirable citizens.”10

Anyone who voiced opposition to their proud lifestyles was dubbed a “misfit” or a “troublemaker.”11 One such “labor leader” gave voice to the outlook of this type in 1900: “The union should be run on just the same business principles as a business firm is. The union needs a man to manage it just as much as a business house needs a manager. Then why not reward him as the business firm rewards its manager?”12

Added on to the widespread corruption, stupidity, and backwardness of AFL leaders were the policies of the federation which widely restricted immigrants, women, and people of color from joining unions. Despite passing lofty sounding resolutions at conventions about the universal brotherhood of the working class, the AFL enforced a morass of rules and regulations which served to bar a majority of the US working class from its ranks.

In 1900, the AFL annual convention officially endorsed Jim Crow unionism, allowing for “separate but equal” locals (assuming unions were actually trying to recruit Black workers). An article of the federation’s constitution was rewritten to allow that “separate charters may be issued to central labor unions, local unions or federated labor unions, composed exclusively of colored workers where in the judgement of the Executive Council it appears advisable.”13 Certain affiliated unions had their own constitutions which explicitly barred Blacks from joining, and in others the color bar was unspoken but equally effective.

Other policies worked to ensure that immigrants and women would be kept out, considering their concentration in the least skilled and lowest paid sectors of the economy, oftentimes in the new industries which the AFL refused to attempt to organize. Patronizing sexism served to keep women from joining unions or to ignore them when they did it on their own, and racism and xenophobia towards groups of immigrants (most notoriously against Asian immigrants, which the AFL lobbied to bar from entering the US) played their own roles in ensuring the AFL would only ever represent a tiny minority of the working class.

Certain bureaucratic procedures also worked to hamstring the federation, with high initiation dues being among the biggest barriers, as in 1900 when a group of women shoe workers in Illinois wrote to the AFL concerning their attempt to form their own union: “We are anxious to go into the Boot and Shoe Workers union and wrote to Mr. Eaton [the general secretary-treasurer] to that effect. He sent us a copy of the by-laws and when we found out what the high dues were we voted by a large majority not to go in as the dues were too high, and we simply do not earn enough to pay them.”14

It was no wonder then that nearly every notable American radical wanted nothing to do with the “labor leaders” who created and maintained such an organization. Mired in organizational forms from a bygone era, with a membership restricted to a puny minority of the US working class concentrated in the skilled crafts, and with a leadership politically rotten to the core, the union militants and anti-capitalists of the IWW were eager to build a radical alternative to the swamp that was the AF of L.

Stinking “sewer socialism”
But the IWW was also rejecting something else in its founding. It was rejecting the policies and activity of the Socialist Party as a model for revolutionary change. With the apparatus controlled predominantly by the right wing of the party, which was led and supported by lawyers and professionals like Morris Hillquit in New York and Victor Berger in Wisconsin (an avowed racist who insisted on the complete separation of races and refused to support women’s suffrage), the Socialist Party, like many of the other parties of the Second International, supported socialism on paper but did little to actually fight for it.

One of the most prominent leaders of the SP, Berger was continiously elected to public office in Milwaukee around this time. He boasted of what he called “sewer socialism,” so named because Milwaukee constructed a sewer system for the city, among other public works, under a socialist city commission. Unintentionally creating a perfectly descriptive epithet for his brand of politics, Berger, priding himself on his respectability and his disdain for agitation and conflict, came to represent the right wing of the SP and its lack of revolutionary politics or aims.

With an almost exclusively electoral strategy, the Socialist Party often disdained to become involved in class struggle, seeing it as a distraction from the real task of electing more and more “socialists” to office, so that the US could peacefully and slowly move toward socialism. The likes of Hillquit and Berger elaborated a strategy that  the United States could simply evolve into socialism by increasing the voting returns for their candidates. Hillquit was quoted to have said, “So far as we Socialists are concerned, the age of physical revolution. . .has passed.”15 One historian of the SP noted that “Berger argued strongly against those Socialists who were constantly speaking of revolution, which he interpreted to mean a ‘catastrophe,’ as the path to socialism. He recognized and partially accepted Marx’s statement that ‘force is the midwife at the birth of every new epoch,’ but saw in this ‘no cause for rejoicing.’ Looking for ‘another way out,’ Berger found it in the ballot.”16

In terms of the labor movement, the leadership of the SP generally attempted to win favor within the AFL by accommodating to the reactionary bureaucrats who ran the federation, having given up after several failed attempts to elect members to high ranking positions with the AFL. Again lacking any substantive fighting strategy, the Socialist Party viewed its initial goal of “capturing” the AFL through the lens of wheeling and dealing during union elections or winning majorities at conventions to pass resolutions in favor of socialism. Adhering to a policy of “non-interference” within the AFL, the right wing in the leadership of the SP hoped to win the goodwill of Gompers and his lieutenants, in an attempt to emulate the social democratic parties of Europe (and especially the German SPD), where the party performed propaganda for socialism and expected unions to provide the votes for their deputies in Parliament. During a later faction fight against those sympathetic to the IWW within the party, the SP leadership actually brought Karl Legien, the conservative opportunist head of the German union federation, to the US on a tour speaking in favor of expelling all of the pro-syndicalists from the party.

The Socialist Party certainly counted among its members a large number of dedicated revolutionaries, who were actively participating in class struggle in different locales throughout the US. But the left wing largely abstained from making a bid for power within their own party, and when they did eventually enter the fray, the left wing would find itself running up against an entrenched bureaucracy of party officials with the full resources of the party at their command. Because it attracted all kinds of elements into its ranks (from bigots like Berger to real revolutionaries like Eugene Debs or, for a while, Bill Haywood) the SP was politically divided, and during the life of the IWW, was almost entirely controlled by its most conservative elements who had no desire or designs for revolution. In response to the political shortcomings and the reformism of the party leaders, the relationship between the IWW and the Socialist Party was generally one of reciprocal hostility.

Faction fights and early organizing
As it would turn out, the IWW was plagued by faction fights from the very beginning of its existence, despite the confidence and good feeling at the first convention. In the next few conventions, three distinct groups emerged, fighting for the organization to go in three different directions. These three factions would spend the next several years battling for the political leadership of the IWW, spending precious time and resources embroiled over the future of the organization.

The first group, including the Western Federation of Miners and the United Metal Workers, was ultimately happy to adopt a bold and militant manifesto at the founding convention, but was more interested in actually building a strong and permanent industrial union federation to provide support to its own affiliate unions as an alternative federation to the AFL. By the third or fourth convention, these unions had pulled out of the IWW, taking with them their substantial membership and resources.

The second group, headed by Daniel DeLeon and his Socialist Labor Party (which consisted predominantly of German-speaking immigrant workers who held membership in the ST&LA), insisted on the IWW being closely identified with the SLP, as the labor appendage of his party. DeLeon’s conception of the role of the IWW was based on an extremely mechanistic understanding of the relationship between politics and economics, allotting unions the exclusive domain of bargaining over wages but acting as loyal voting members for the SLP, which would only function in the electoral realm. DeLeon was also renowned for his ultra-sectarianism, a practice which didn’t win him or his supporters many friends.

One historian noted,

DeLeon and his SLP disciples gave only lip service to industrial unionism. When they spoke at IWW meetings or circulated literature during strikes, they concentrated on criticizing the Socialist Party. Not unexpectedly, the IWW general executive board warned all IWW representatives in June 1907 against introducing political fights into union affairs. Directing its message specifically toward SLP members, the general executive board warned: “No organizer or representative of the IWW can . . . use his position . . . for any act of hostility . . . against such other organizations, even though individual members of the latter may be opposed to the IWW. 17

When the credentials committee refused DeLeon a seat at the fourth convention in 1908, DeLeon walked out, taking his supporters with him and founded his own IWW, which quickly faded into obscurity. It is at this point that the IWW officially declared itself a “non-political” group, specifically disavowing electoral work or identification with any left-wing political organization. By a close vote, the convention delegates rejected the original clause in the 1905 preamble calling for workers to “come together on the political. . . field.”18 Many IWW members rejected DeLeon’s sectarianism without rejecting political action outright. The majority of IWW members, however, in particular the itinerant workers in the Northwest, whom DeLeon regarded as “bums,”19 were against endorsing any party or participating in politics.

What was left of the IWW at this point represented the group that wanted the organization to be a revolutionary union: that is, both an effective fighting industrial union and at the same time, a revolutionary organization geared towards the overthrow of capitalism and the abolition of the wage system. Since its first convention in 1905, the IWW had picked up thousands of new members through new organizing and new affiliations, but by the end of the faction fights in 1908, membership in what was left of the IWW again numbered some five to six thousand.20

Revolutionary unionism
As part and parcel of being a “revolutionary union,” the IWW rejected the practices of the AFL entirely, and opened its doors to all workers, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender or craft. This was an incredible political advance to make in 1905. However, the IWW’s approach to organizing had some weaknesses. The IWW refused to sign contracts with management after winning strikes, claiming that signed contracts were a betrayal of the principle of class struggle—how could a union sign a truce, it reasoned, with the class enemy? In a speech, Haywood elaborated on the stance of the IWW: “No contracts, no agreements, no compacts. These are unholy alliances, and must be damned as treason when entered into with the capitalist class.”21

In 1912, an IWW union in Montana signed a contract with a local boss, and had their charter revoked immediately by the leadership of the IWW. The general executive board of the IWW told the local members that the leadership “saved the IWW itself from dishonor, disgrace and so forth that would necessarily have occurred had this local remained in the IWW with a contract with the employing class.”22 The political principle of refusing to sign contracts would seriously hamstring the IWW in the years to come, giving them no real ability to build permanent bases of membership and maintain work standards in the new, mass industries which operated in relatively stable, urban communities. At a more basic level, turning the anti-contract principle into a shibboleth was unrealistic, given that workers cannot engage in unremitting direct action. This point of IWW practice wound up gravely hindering their its to be an effective industrial union.

As well, the IWW refused to set up any health or death benefit funds for its members, claiming that these would only lead their members to think that capitalism could be reformed. Decades before the Social Security system began providing a modicum of support to injured or older workers, many thousands of AFL members who might have been sympathetic to the IWW had considerable investment in these programs, and understandably hesitated to leave their AFL unions to forgo the benefits they had paid into for years as union members. The IWW also refused to set up permanent strike funds, a policy which would prove disastrous when long strikes were unavoidable.

Then there was the question of dual unionism. Long had labor in the United States strived to create a single union federation covering all of the local unions in the country. When the IWW was first created, it set as its aim the organizing of the unorganized, but in the first few years of its existence it drew most of its members from preexisting AFL locals, raiding them for members when faced with the inability to win their affiliation.23

As the IWW became a pole of attraction for thousands of militant rank- and-file members of the AFL who left their own unions to join the IWW, it enshrined the power of the right-wing bureaucrats within the AFL. As Foner notes,

one of the main results of the launching of the IWW was that the conservative leaders of the AF of L gained a tighter control over the affairs of the Federation. A number of socialists who had been combatting the Gompers’ leadership most vociferously inside the AF of L dropped away from the Federation into the new industrial union, while those who remained increasingly worked hand-in-glove with the Gompers’ leadership.24

Rather than having a political strategy aimed towards supporting radicals still within the AFL, or building rank-and-file reform movements, the IWW encouraged AFL members to simply quit and join the IWW in order to “destroy the AFL.” This translated into a significant number of years where Gompers faced little to no organized opposition against his backward leadership within the two-million-member federation.

Turning their backs on “politics” was also a source of weakness for the Wobblies. When the IWW declared itself to be a “non-political” group, it meant more than just disavowing electoral politics or refusing to be an appendage to any political group. Being non-political came to mean an avoidance of forms of class struggle beyond the realm of the shop floor. When they rejected the practices of the SLP and the SP, the IWW would throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The IWW, for example, opposed the women’s suffrage movement, protective labor legislation, and even old age pension legislation (Haywood once quipped in an article opposing a pension law, “Give to the worker the full product of his toil and his pension is assured”25). The no-politics clause of the IWW would serve to put it at odds with other working-class forces who were fighting for meaningful reform, eventually leaving them on the sidelines. The IWW’s confusion over whether it was a union or a revolutionary group would be a constant source of disruption running throughout its history.

Who joined the IWW?
The names of Wobbly leaders and the iconography of the IWW indicate a vast diversity in the people who became members of the organization, ranging from European immigrants to native born radicals.

The social composition of the IWW changed depending on which region of the country it was organizing. In the East, at the center of mass industry, the IWW tended to be composed of predominantly foreign-born workers, many from the recently arrived waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

The IWW made organizing immigrant workers a top priority, using immigrant workers as organizers, like Italian-born Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti, and emphatically rejecting the AFL’s hesitancy (or in some cases outright hostility) to organizing the “mobocracy,” as Samuel Gompers (himself an immigrant from Holland) was said to have remarked about the newest waves of immigrants from eastern and southeastern Europe. Ethnic community ties also linked together to strengthen the bonds of solidarity so pivotal for maintaining strong local unions. By becoming a regular part of immigrant community life, the IWW earned itself the loyalty of the brutally exploited newly arrived transplants.

Sophie Cohen, a Jewish immigrant teenager in Paterson, New Jersey remembered attending IWW picnics, dances, and mass meetings when she was fifteen. She and her teenage friends went on to attempt to organize the mills where they worked:

I wasn’t an official organizer, but when I became a weaver, a girlfriend and I would take jobs in unorganized factories and try to organize them. We would refuse the four looms, saying it was too much for us. Because we were young girls, we were permitted to work only two. After a few weeks, we would hand out leaflets and call for an organizing meeting. We looked so innocent that the managers never thought we were capable of even believing in a union.26

Out West, the IWW tended to be made up more of native-born workers or immigrants from northern Europe, people like Big Bill Haywood, Vincent St. John, James P. Cannon, and Joe Hill, who was a Swedish immigrant. As Melvin Dubofsky a historian of the IWW noted:

Census statistics disclose that, unlike other American industrial centers of that era, all the major mining districts in Colorado, Idaho, and Montana [all locales with a heavy IWW presence] were dominated by native-born majorities. Moreover, the foreign-born came largely from the British Isles (including Ireland) and Scandinavia, and were hardly representative of the more recent waves of immigration. An unusually large number of foreign-born workers in the West also became naturalized citizens.27

The tough style of the IWW, with its mistrust of the state and its self-reliance on direct action had a particular appeal to the rugged frontier mentality of hard rock miners in the Rockies, the “timber beasts” of the Pacific Northwest, and the agricultural workers who followed the harvests from California to Canada. Fred Thompson, a postwar leader of the IWW, recalled his own experiences mingling with the Western IWW:

Their speech was different—much more seasoned, and even their cussing was original and avoided stereotype. I think they shunned stereotype in all things. Their frontier was a psychological fact—a rather deliberate avoidance of certain conventions, a break with the bondage to the past. Yet there was far more “etiquette” on the job than I had observed back east. . . In the bunkhouse or jungle or job there was this considerate-ness that was rare back east. Individuality and solidarity or sense of community flourished here together, and with a radical social philosophy. . .[they] demanded more respect for themselves and accorded more respect to each other than I found back east.28

Related to this was the IWW practice of organizing and recruiting transient, informal laborers, or hoboes, who performed much of the work of developing the western US. While the rest of the labor movement was generally opposed or unwilling to organize migrant workers, the IWW made it a priority and developed special organizing tactics to pursue their membership in the organization. An 1914 article published in the IWW’s publication Solidarity declared,

The nomadic worker of the West embodies the very spirit of the IWW. His cheerful cynicism, his frank and outspoken contempt for most of the conventions of bourgeois society. . .make him an admirable exemplar of the iconoclastic doctrines of revolutionary unionism. His anamolous position, half industrial slave, half vagabond adventurer leaves him infinitely less servile than his fellow worker in the East. Unlike the factory slave of the Atlantic seaboard and the central states he is most emphatically not “afraid of his job.” No wife and family encumber him. The worker of the East, oppressed by the fear of want for wife and babies, dare not venture much.29

Ironically, it was the immigrant “factory slaves” of the Eastern seaboard cities that the IWW first organized. As time went on, however, because of its inability to build permanent and strong local unions in the major cities where mass industry was located, the focus of much IWW organizing shifted to the West, where it was impossible to build stable membership among the migrant workers and hoboes anyway, and legislative or “political” activity held little appeal because of voting restrictions on migrants.

The IWW was the most advanced organization in the labor movement of its time when it came to the question of fighting the oppression of Blacks and immigrants. In a society gripped by virulent Jim Crow racism in the South, xenophobic anti-Asian bigotry in the West, and anti-European immigrant bashing in the rest of the country, the IWW’s practical and rhetorical stand against race prejudice stands out in sharp relief against the chauvinism of the AFL and the moderate leadership of the Socialist Party. Its basic creed, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” was a heartfelt principal of the organization in all its work. At its founding convention, the IWW voted on by-laws that stated, “No working man or woman shall be excluded from membership because of creed or color.”30

On the West Coast, the IWW made some headway recruiting Asian workers, whom most of the labor movement racistly derided as a “yellow peril.” At the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International in 1907, US delegate Morris Hillquit (despite being ridiculed by revolutionaries from other parties because of his stance on the issue) endorsed the restriction of Asian immigrants. According to Hillquit, the immigration of Asian workers “threatens the native born with dangerous competition and usually provides a pool of unconscious strikebreakers. Chinese and Japanese workers play that role today, as does the yellow race in general.31” The IWW rejected this wholeheartedly, editorializing in their paper:

All workers can be organized regardless of race or color, as soon as their minds are cleared of the patriotic notion that there is any reason of being proud of having been born of a certain shade of skin or in an arbitrarily fenced off portion of the earth.. . . If the American workers need fear any ‘yellow peril’ it is from the yellow socialists.32

A significant number of Black workers joined the IWW, as it was the only working-class organization in the United States at the time that openly and consistently welcomed them. In their organizing in the South and also on the East Coast, the IWW was the only union Blacks could join to fight for better conditions on the job. At no time did the IWW organize segregated unions.

Starting in 1910 the IWW made a concerted appeal to Black workers to join. Its publications,  including in the Jim Crow South, were filled with vigorous denunciations of racism. In a December 1912 article entitled “Down with Race Prejudice,” published in the IWW’s Southern newspaper The Voice of the People, Phineas Eastman asked his “fellow workers of the South if they wish real good feeling to exist between the two races (and each is necessary to the other’s success), to please stop calling the colored man ‘Nigger’—the tone some use is an insult, much less the word. Call him Negro if you must refer to his race, but ‘fellow worker’ is the only form of salutation a rebel should use.”33

A 1919 IWW pamphlet, Justice for the Negro: How Can He Get it? began by denouncing the “two lynchings a week” that have been “killing colored men and women for the past thirty years.” It continued:

The wrongs of the Negro are not confined to lynching, however. When allowed to live and work for the community, he is subjected to constant humiliation, injustice and discrimination. In the cities he is forced to live in the meanest districts, where his rent is doubled and tripled, while conditions of health and safety are neglected in favor of the white sections. In many states he is obliged to ride in special “Jim Crow” cars, hardly fit for cattle. Almost everywhere all semblance of political rights is denied him.. . .

Throughout this land of liberty, so-called, the Negro worker is treated as an inferior; he is underpaid in his work and overcharged in his rent; he is kick about, cursed and spat upon; in short, he is treated, not as a human being, but as an animal, a beast of burden for the ruling class. When he tries to improve his condition, he is shoved back into the mire of degradation and poverty and told to “keep his place.”

The article concluded that the only way to fight racism was not through “protests, petitions, and resolutions,” but through strikes. The Black worker “has. . .one weapon that the master class fears—the power to fold his arms and refuse to work for the community until he is guaranteed fair treatment.”34

The heroic IWW-led strikes of Black and white timber workers in Louisiana demonstrated both the possibilities for interracial working class action and the IWW’s commitment to it. In 1910, more than half of the 262,000 workers in the southern lumber industry were Blacks who worked the lowest-paid, unskilled jobs. The lumber owners operated their businesses as feudal domains, “filling the towns with gunmen whom the authorities commissioned as deputy sheriffs, and jailing anyone who questioned their rule.”35

Since the AFL refused to organize them, a group of workers sympathetic to the IWW and the SP  began organizing the Brotherhood of Timberworkers in 1911. The union opened its doors to Black workers, but organized them into separate locals in accordance with Jim Crow laws. Despite intense repression, lockouts, the blacklisting by the employers of several thousand workers, and efforts to divide workers along color lines, by early 1912 the union had a membership of around 25,000, half of whom were Black. The union decided that year to affiliate with the IWW, and invited Big Bill Haywood to speak at its convention in Alexandria, Louisiana. When Haywood arrived and was told that Black union members were meeting separately according to Louisiana law he replied:

You work in the same mills together. Sometimes a black man and a white man chop down the same tree together. You are meeting in convention now to discuss the conditions under which you labor. This can’t be done intelligently by passing resolutions here and then sending them out to another room for the black man to act upon. Why not be sensible about this and call the Negroes into this convention? If it is against the law, this is one time when the law should be broken.36

One of the IWW’s most prominent Southern organizers, Covington Hall, spoke up after Haywood, arguing: “Let the Negroes come together with us, and if any arrests are made, all of us will go to jail, white and colored together.” Later, Haywood and Covington addressed a mass meeting at the Alexandria Opera house to a completely integrated audience—a first for the city.37

The only weakness in the IWW’s impressive commitment to racial equality was its aversion, as a result of its singular focus on the class struggle, to organizing antiracist campaigns outside the workplace against the lynching, housing discrimination, denial of voting rights, and so on, that they so eloquently denounced.

Free speech fights
Immediately after the IWW found cohesion after its early faction fights, it became engaged in “Free Speech Fights” across the country, where union members were arrested for public agitation and began waging battles for the right to give street corner soapbox speeches.

These blew up quickly in various cities around the country, including Spokane, San Diego, and Fresno. The IWW responded with a tactic to make the costs of persecuting free speech quite expensive. IWW branches sent out calls across the country for their members to ride freight trains to the various cities where the free speech fights were taking place, to get arrested in turn and fill up the jails to make more arrests impossible. One such appeal from the IWW newspaper in 1909 read: “Quit your job. Go to Missoula. Fight with the Lumberjacks for Free Speech. . . Are you game? Are you afraid? Do you love the police? Have you been robbed, skinned, grafted on? If so, then go to Missoula, and defy the police, the courts and the people who live off the wages of prostitution.”38

In Spokane, the IWW waged a free speech fight throughout 1909 for the right to protest fraudulent job placement agencies and the ability to make speeches in favor of unionism. After the beginning of the year, the city council moved to outlaw public street corner speechmaking by “revolutionists,” at the behest of the local Chamber of Commerce. After having several members harassed and arrested, the local IWW put out the call:

The first day of the fight for free speech, man after man mounted the box to say “Friends and Fellow Workers” and be yanked down, until 103 had been arrested, beaten and lodged in jail. A legend runs that one man, unaccustomed to public speaking, uttered the customary salutation, and still un-arrested, and with no police by the box, paused, with nothing more to say, and in all the horrors of stage fright, hollered: ‘Where are the cops?’ In a month over 500 were in jail on bread and water.39

As the months wore on, more and more Wobblies rolled into Spokane to join the struggle for free speech and be arrested. Eventually, several hundred IWW members would be held at one time, stuffed eight or ten into jail cells built for three or four inmates. Despite a successful legal challenge by the IWW, the city fathers banned all public street meetings as well as indoor meetings, and sent police to raid the IWW hall and arrest all of its inhabitants, continuing in their attack on free speech. Spokane banned the publishing, sale, and distribution of the IWW newspaper and even arrested the newsboys who hawked it on the streets.

But the Wobblies held the line, giving educational meetings, agitational speeches and organizing revolutionary sing-alongs under brutal conditions inside the jail. After an initial lull during the summer, another wave of IWW members descended on the town in the winter of that year, continuing to make the ongoing imprisonment of roving agricultural workers as expensive as ever. Finally, in the early spring of 1910, the city sued for peace, caving in to virtually all of the IWW demands and ending their persecution of free speech.

Roger Baldwin, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and a sympathizer and one-time member of the IWW, recalled many years after the fact that the IWW “wrote a chapter in the history of American liberties like that of the struggle of the Quakers for freedom to meet and worship, of the militant suffragists to carry their propaganda to the seats of government, and of the Abolitionists to be heard. . ..The little minority of the working class represented in the IWW blazed the trail in those ten years of fighting for free speech [1908-1918] which the entire American working class must in some fashion follow.”40

This practice of “filling the jails” with cheering and singing migrant workers was later adapted to the needs of the civil rights movement in the South during the 1950s and 60s, but for the IWW, while courageous, the campaign took up precious resources and time to the detriment of organizing new shops.

Bread and roses
In 1912 the IWW made its first major breakthrough with the enormous textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Responding to a pay cut, local textile workers responded with a walkout, eventually bringing out 23,000 workers in Lawrence, roughly 60 percent of the town’s population. The IWW acted quickly and sent organizers to Lawrence to help their small local of 200 or so members organize and lead the spontaneous strike. With an elected strike committee of sixty delegates, representing each of the fifteen major ethnic populations and occupational groupings, the strike was a model for how to organize the immigrant working class.41 A song about the strike written by an immigrant “mill girl” gives a sense of the crosscultural solidarity pervading the strike:

In the good old picket line,
In the good old picket line,
The workers are from ev’ry place, from nearly ev’ry clime.
The Greeks and Poles are out so strong and the Germans all the time,
But we want to see more Irish in the good old picket line.

With the turn of the century, the demographics of the city’s labor force had undergone dramatic changes, shifting from a predominantly native-born workforce to an overwhelmingly immigrant milieu, comprised of Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Russians, Poles, Germans, Irish, Lithuanians, Syrians and Armenians. Forced into shameful living conditions in squalid tenements, working a normal week of fifty-six hours for poverty wages (malnutrition was a particularly pernicious cause of death among the children of the mill hands) and almost entirely shunned by the AFL, the textile workers of Lawrence had long been expected to explode in angry rebellion, and the wintry month of January 1912 would prove to be the time.

A statement of the strikers explained their decision:

For years the employers have forced conditions on us that gradually and surely broke up our homes. They have taken away our wives from the homes, our children have been driven from the playground, stolen out of schools and driven into the mills, where they were strapped to the machines, not only to force the fathers to compete, but that their young lives may be coined into dollars for a parasite class, that their very nerves, their laughter and their joy denied, may be woven into cloth.42

The IWW sent a cunning and talented twenty-seven-year-old organizer, Joseph Ettor, to run the strike. Prepared for this battle by previous organizing experience in the western reaches of the IWW, Ettor led a brilliantly organized strike the likes of which had never been seen. Foner wrote of the Battle of Lawrence that

the strike committee was the executive board of the strikers, charged with complete authority to conduct the strike, and subject only to the popular mandate of the strikers themselves. All mills on strike and their component parts, all crafts and phases of work, were represented. The committee spoke for all workers. . ..The principle of national equality was also carried out in the sub-committees elected: relief, finance, publicity, investigation, and organization. Thus every nationality group had its own organization in the management of the strike, and complete unity was obtained for this working class machine through the general strike committee.43

The strikers shut down the mills from wall to wall, with no textiles able to be produced at any point throughout the walkout. Monster mass meetings were held every weekend throughout the nine-week strike, for the strikers to vote on and ratify the decisions made by the strike committee, facilitated by a small army of interpreters. Continuous mass pickets of thousands patrolled the mill area of the town, completely encircling each mill to ensure that no scabs were able to work. Any scabs who did manage to sneak into the mills were visited at their homes at night and persuaded not to return to work, or had the word “scab” painted in red across their doors in their native language. Massive parades took place every few days, with anywhere between 3,000 to 10,000 workers marching and singing the Internationale in their own languages. Ten thousand of the striking workers joined the IWW.

Facing armed militias paid for by the hostile mill owners, brutal police attacks, and widespread arrests of hundreds of strikers, as well as the leadership of the competing AFL textile workers union who came to Lawrence in an attempt to call off the strike, the IWW held out. Ettor was arrested after only three weeks in Lawrence, framed on a ludicrous charge (a policeman shot a teenage girl striker at a parade and Ettor was arrested for “inciting to riot,” though he hadn’t attended the parade), so Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurly Flynn were sent to carry through the rest of the strike.

Faced with the need to raise money and the relief committee’s struggle to collect enough food to operate the multiple free kitchens operating throughout the city, the strike committee decided to send the children of striking families out of Lawrence to stay with friendly host families in New York and around the Northeast. Newspapers carried stories and images of the malnourished and ragged children of the strikers across the country as they arrived at their new temporary homes, which played a role in tipping public opinion in favor of the strike. When Lawrence police attacked a delegation of the children on their way to the train station with their mothers, ruthlessly beating down and arresting children and parents alike, national outrage ensued, leading to an eventual Congressional investigation of the living and working conditions of the striking families.

With every innovative tactic used by the strikers, the mill owners and city leaders (oftentimes interchangeable) upped the ante. The state militia insituted martial law for a time, leading to the death of an eighteen-year-old Syrian mill hand (he was bayonetted in the back while running from advancing troops). Private detectives from the Pinkerton agency were brought into the town to spy on strike leaders, provoke riots, and terrorize families. Local clergy who would play ball were enlisted on the side of the mill owners, who instructed them to denounce the strike and the IWW. And, at the behest of the city council, the rival AFL union was brought in to attempt to end the strike by signing agreements for the skilled workers and sending them back to work.

The IWW kept calm and held out through all of these challenges to win a stunning victory, wresting pay raises of 5 to 22 percent to all of the striking workers, payment of overtime, and promises of no retaliation from the mill owners.

The Lawrence strike still holds the imagination of radicals today who want to build a multi-ethnic, fighting labor movement, as it certainly did in 1912. It is from the Lawrence strike that the slogan “Bread and Roses” arises, derived from a banner held by striking teenage immigrant women, stating plainly that they wanted not just bread, that is, the basic necessities of life, but roses too.

The success in the Lawrence strike launched the IWW into the national arena, with 1912 as the year in which they scored organizing victories in different industries across the country: on the railroads, in textiles, steel, lumber, metalworking, longshore jobs, agriculture, and even cigar rolling, once a bastion of AFL craft unionism.

It is in this period, between 1912 and the end of World War I, that the IWW made its most impressive gains in terms of membership and political impact among the American working class. Because of its willingness to organize women, people of color, the unskilled and foreign-born workers (oftentimes these overlapped), the IWW grew in numbers and influence.

In Philadelphia, the IWW organized longshoremen across color lines to win united multiracial strikes against the shipping bosses. In Louisiana, it organized lumber mill workers into integrated local unions, breaking Jim Crow segregation laws, a practice not accepted by other unions until decades later. They also organized migrant agricultural laborers in California and across the West, winning some gains in anticipation of later union drives among farm laborers in the 1930s and again in the 1960s and 1970s. Foreshadowing events during the Great Depression, the IWW organized unemployed workers to fight for their own interests and prevent scabbing, and also participated in a number of “sit in” strikes in various industries, including auto plants in the Midwest. During this period, at its height, the IWW could claim 40,000 dues-paying members.44

But there were still nagging political questions which remained unanswered. Even before 1912, Eugene Debs quietly let his membership in the IWW lapse because of his discomfort at the level of hostility from some quarters of the IWW toward members of the AFL. And the IWW was still losing plenty of strikes for every victory, as in the large Paterson, New Jersey silk strike which went down to defeat only a year after Lawrence, or the defeat of the rubber workers strike in Akron, Ohio. Was it a betrayal of revolutionary  principle to set up permanent strike funds, so the IWW stood a chance of winning long strikes? Or to sign contracts with management? Within a year of their crowning victory in Lawrence, the IWW local declined from over 10,000 members to roughly 700, with most of their militants being driven out of the mills and blacklisted. Within the organization, rumblings could be heard that pointed to a different method, as storm clouds gathered on the horizon.

The war
The heyday of the IWW began to pass as major political developments played out on the world stage. World War I erupted across Europe in the fall of 1914, splitting the world socialist movement over support or opposition to the war. Instead of opposing the war or even taking strike action to cripple each country’s wartime mobilization, the various socialist parties of Europe lined up with their “own” governments and supported the war effort. The socialist parties of the Second International had failed the test of history.

With the coming US involvement in the war, the federal government began ramping up a Red Scare to use as a bludgeon against all radical forces across the country. The IWW was organizing and leading strikes in the industries pivotal to the war effort (copper mining, lumber, rubber, among others) and became a natural target for state repression. President Wilson’s propaganda machine turned out endless articles and proclamations equating the IWW with bomb-throwing saboteurs or paid agents of the German Kaiser intentionally trying to disrupt the American war effort.

Following their insistence that the IWW was “non-political,” the IWW anticipated the intensity of the Red Scare and in an effort to avoid open repression by the federal government, actually refused to take a public stance against US entrance into the war. While local unions, affiliated publications, and individual members were left free to express their opposition to the mad butchery of the imperialist war, the general executive board officially discouraged open agitation against the war and did not take any open position against it. Fred Thompson, former general secretary treasurer of the IWW wrote:

A minority [of members in the IWW] felt the IWW should concentrate on open opposition to the war.. . . The majority felt this would sidetrack the class struggle into futile channels and be playing the very game that the war profiteers would want the IWW to play. They contended that the monstrous stupidity by which the governments of different lands could put their workers into uniforms and make them go forth and shoot each other was something that could be stopped only if the workers of the world were organized together; then they could put a stop to this being used against themselves; and that consequently the thing to be done under the actual circumstances was to proceed with organizing workers to fight their steady enemy, the employing class. . .keeping in mind the ultimate ideal of world labor solidarity. There was no opportunity for referendum, but the more active locals took this attitude, instructing speakers to confine their remarks to industrial union issues, circulating only those pamphlets that made a constructive case for the IWW, and avoiding alliance with the Peoples Council and similar anti-war movements.45

Although radicals have long aimed to organize the entire world working class, the idea of only engaging in antiwar organizing through production-halting strikes once the entire global working class has been brought into the ranks of radical unions, can only be interpreted as an intentional avoidance of the issue of the war. As it turned out, however, the IWW could try to avoid “politics,” but “politics” would not ignore the IWW.

Despite their avoidance of taking a public antiwar stance, various states and the federal government went on the offensive against the IWW. Numerous state legislatures passed new “criminal syndicalism” laws, which would be used to prosecute hundreds of members of the IWW. And in September 1917, the Department of Justice raided forty-eight IWW halls across the country, arresting 165 leaders of the group in a single major operation and charged them under the newly passed Espionage Act. Of those arrested, 101 were convicted and given sentences of up to twenty years in prison, including some who had not been members of the IWW for years.46

And these were the lucky ones. Those who fared worse were attacked by lynch mobs recruited from local chambers of commerce, brutally beaten or murdered with the silent consent of the government. Frank Little, perhaps one of the IWW’s most outstanding organizers, was hung from a railroad trestle outside of Butte, Montana after being horribly disfigured. In Centralia, Washington on November 11, 1919, IWW member and army veteran Wesley Everest was turned over to a lynch mob by jail guards, had his teeth smashed with a rifle butt, lynched three times in three separate locations, his corpse then riddled with bullets, before being dumped in an unmarked grave. The official coroner’s report listed the victim’s cause of death as “suicide.”

The other political development to be a major issue for the IWW was the birth of Soviet power in Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution at the end of 1917. Before the Russian revolution, radicals across the world had always looked back to the Paris Commune as a vision of what worker’s power might look like. Then, in 1917, in the most backward country of Europe, a revolution took place, sweeping aside the Tsar’s ministers, the generals, the landlords, and the factory owners. And it was a revolution led by a party that shared a vigorous disdain for the opportunistic reformism of the Second International that many in the IWW had always possessed. The Bolshevik Party was an organization which had earned its political leadership in thousands of strikes, mass protests, and rebellions, through hard years of underground activity and struggle.

The following November mutinies broke out in the German military, and workers engaged in mass strikes in Berlin, toppling the Kaiser’s government and ending the war. A worker’s government was established in Hungary. Mass strikes and factory occupations exploded across Italy in the “Biennio Rosso.” Revolution was literally sweeping the continent, inspired by the Russian example. With the formation of the Communist International in March 1919, and the split in the US Socialist Party with newly formed communist parties emerging from the fray, many of the IWW’s best leaders and workers decided to join and build the new parties along a Bolshevik model.

The political impact of the October Revolution is difficult to overstate, in that radicals the world over began to identify either with or against the Revolution. Big Bill Haywood was one of those who were immediately sympathetic to the victory of Bolshevism in 1917. In his autobiography, he recalled:

About this time a lengthy letter reached us addressed to the IWW by the Communist International. This letter spoke of the situation of capitalism after the imperialist war, outlined the points in common held by the IWW and the Communists, warned of the coming attacks on the workers, pictured the futility of reformism, analyzed the capitalist state and the role of the dictatorship of the proletariat and told how the Soviet state of workers and peasants was constructed. Such basic questions as “political” and “industrial” action, democratic centralization, the nature of the social revolution and of future society were gone into thoroughly. After I had finished reading it, I called Ralph Chaplin over to my desk and said to him: “Here is what we have been dreaming about; here is the IWW all feathered out!47

After being arrested under the Espionage Act, Haywood fled his bail and boarded a ship for the Soviet Union. James Cannon was one of the founding members of the Communist Party, as well as Jack Reed. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn joined a few years later. William Z. Foster hadn’t been in the IWW for ten years because of his opposition to dual unionism and his attachment to the policy of “boring from within” established unions, but he soon joined the new CP as well. Even Lucy Parsons, widow of a Haymarket martyr and perhaps the most sympathetic to anarchism, went on to join the CP in the mid-1930’s.

Revolutionary unionism?
While the prestige and appeal of a successful revolution certainly played a role in attracting American radicals to the CP, much of the process of winning members to the new party revolved around tough political debates and questions, argued out and voted on in the sessions of the Communist International. Central to this for the US Left was the question of revolutionary unions and the method of Communist involvement in the labor movement. Taken up by Lenin in the 1920 pamphlet “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorderand published for the Second Congress of the Comintern, Lenin hammered the strategy of creating rival unions with established trade unions in response to the reactionary character of labor officials, even citing Samuel Gompers specifically:

To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of the workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders.. . . If you want to help the masses and to win the sympathy, confidence and support of the masses, you must not fear difficulties, you must not fear the pin-pricks, chicanery, insults and persecution of the “leaders”. . . but must imperatively work wherever the masses are to be found.48

Lenin’s contribution to the debate over the future of the CP in the US labor movement, and its subsequent ratification by the Second Congress of the Comintern, steered the young American CP towards participation in the mass movements of their time. Directing much of his theoretical fire at one of the central premises of the IWW, that the AFL was beyond redemption in large part because of the top leadership’s belief in “industrial harmony” and “labor management cooperation,” Lenin (and others like Karl Radek and Gregory Zinoviev, in the Trade Union Commission) within the Comintern pushed the new CP into working within established unions to fight for better wages and conditions, as well as against the oftentimes reactionary leadership of the labor bureaucracy, and not abandoning the rank and file to the politics of the Samuel Gomperses of the labor movement.

Faced with massive persecution by all levels of government and an exodus of many of their best leaders and cadres, the IWW began to decline. The organization split in 1924, hemorrhaging members in the process. By 1930, the IWW had dwindled to below 10,000 members, and as the working class upsurge of the decade exploded across the national arena with the rise of the CIO, the IWW continued to lose numbers. Indeed, the CIO (organized by many former Wobblies who joined the CP) would quickly take the last few remaining locals of the IWW, which, because of its refusal to sign contracts, allowed the CIO to easily win over entire locals to its own powerful and growing new industrial unions. The last significant membership base was concentrated among metal workers in Cleveland, who wound up splitting away and going into the CIO.49

James P. Cannon, former organizer for the Marine Transport Workers Union of the IWW and the founder of American Trotskyism, gave a lecture on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the IWW in 1955. Cannon praised the IWW but also recognized the problems it had trying to build an organization that had features of both a union and a revolutionary organization. Whereas unions, as the basic fighting forces of the working class, are only effective when all workers in a given trade or industry are embraced in their ranks regardless of whether each individual worker believes in the political principle of class struggle, revolutionary groups are effective when their own membership maintains a high degree of political agreement and clarity, enabling the group or party to operate with effective flexibility and coherence:

One of the most important contradictions of the IWW, implanted at its first convention and never resolved, was the dual role it assigned to itself. Not the least of the reasons for the eventual failure of the IWW—as an organization—was its attempt to be both a union of all workers and a propaganda society of selected revolutionists—in essence a revolutionary party. Two different tasks and functions, which, at a certain stage of development, require separate and distinct organizations, were assumed by the IWW alone; and this duality hampered its effectiveness in both fields. . . .

The IWW announced itself as an all-inclusive union; and any worker ready for organization on an everyday union basis was invited to join, regardless of his views and opinions on any other question. In a number of instances, in times of organization campaigns and strikes in separate localities, such all-inclusive membership was attained, if only for brief periods. But that did not prevent the IWW agitators from preaching the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in every strike meeting. . . .

In truth, the IWW in its time of glory was neither a union nor a party in the full meaning of these terms, but something of both, with some parts missing. It was an uncompleted anticipation of a Bolshevik party, lacking its rounded-out theory, and a projection of the revolutionary industrial unions of the future, minus the necessary mass membership. It was the IWW.50

Yet it must be said that in its day the IWW was the most advanced working-class organization the United States had yet produced. The IWW wrote one of the most inspiring and brilliant chapters of the workers movement in the United States. A forerunner of events to come, the legacy of the IWW contains much that is imperative for the contemporary labor movement to relearn, with its rejection of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, its emphasis on building power on the shop floor through the mobilization of the rank and file, and its radical appeal to the urgency and necessity of solidarity. And beyond this, in the words of Cannon, it was “a revolutionary organization whose simple and powerful ideas inspired and activated the best young militants of its time, the flower of a radical generation. That, above all, is what clothes the name of the IWW in glory.51

Suggestions for further reading

Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 4 (New York: International Publishers, 1965).

Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, abridged ed. (University of Illinois Press, 2000).

Sharon Smith, Subterannean Fire, A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).

Vladmir Lenin, “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (New York: International Publishers, 1989).

James P. Cannon, “The I.W.W.,” The Fourth International, Summer 1955.

Hal Draper, Marxism and the Trade Unions.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography (New York: International Publishers, 1973).

  1. Lucy Parsons, “Third Day Afternoon Session, The 1905 Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the IWW,”…
  2. Wobblies was the common slang term to describe members of the IWW.
  3. Paul Frederick Brissenden, The IWW: A Study of American Syndicalism (New York: Columbia University, 1920), 352.
  4. Delegate Charles Kiehn, “Sixth Day Morning Session, The 1905 Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the IWW,”…
  5. Fred Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years (Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World, 1976), 23.
  6. Preamble in Brissenden, The IWW, 351.
  7. Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 67.
  8. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1964), 195.
  9. Ibid., 202.
  10. Ibid., 150.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 139.
  13. Ibid., 235.
  14. Ibid., 221.
  15. Smith, Subterranean Fire, 74.
  16. James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925 (New York: Vintage Books,1967), 7.
  17. Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co.,1973), 135.
  18. Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 4: The Industrial Workers of the World 1905–1917 (New York: International Publishers, 1997), 99, 103–111.
  19. Ibid., 108.
  20. Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, 40.
  21. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 137.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 70.
  24. Ibid., 60-61.
  25. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 168.
  26. Stewart Bird, Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW (Chicago: Lake View Press, 1985), 67.
  27. Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, 24.
  28. Ibid., 25.
  29. Quoted in Ralph Darlington, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism: An International Comparative Analysis (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 97.
  30. Philip Foner, “The IWW and the Black Worker,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1970).
  31. John Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Monad Press) 1986, 17.
  32. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 123.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Justice for the Negro: How Can He Get It? (1919), available on line at….
  35. Foner, “The IWW and the Black Worker.”
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 173.
  39. Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, 48-49.
  40. Ibid., 173.
  41. Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, 55.
  42. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 313.
  43. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 318.
  44. Thompson, The IWW: It’s First Seventy Years, 79.
  45. Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, 114-115.
  46. “Government Suppression,” 2012,…
  47. William D. Haywood, The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood (New York: International Publishers, 1977), 360.
  48. V.I. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder (New York: International Publishers, 2009), 36-37.
  49. Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, 196.
  50. James P. Cannon, “The IWW,” 1955,…
  51. Ibid.
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Snake March

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Workers gather over one thousand strong to protest back to work legislation.

Workers gather over one thousand strong to protest back to work legislation.


Concluding Phineas Gage’s three-part series on struggles at the Canada Post during 2011, we present ‘Snake march’. In this final installment, he describes the moral as the lockout drags on. Parliamentary filibusters and symbolic occupations fail to turn the tide on contract negotiations. The postal workers return to work, determined to not let management bulldoze them in the shopfloor.

Check out here Part 1 of the series and also Part 2.


Snake March

A truck pulled up to the parking lot in front of the main downtown Post Office. Christine and I jumped up and started unloading signs from the back. Camera people were setting up all around the truck and The Local President was going over the notes her people helped her prep for the interviews. Slowly the crowd swelled as people walked in from the bus stops, then a big bus from the Nurses union pulled up and people filed out. Half an hour later the crowd was huge spilling out of the parking lot. Around 1,000 people showed up.

Gil McGowan, the President of the Provincial Labour Federation, took the microphone from a local executive member who was managing the speakers list. The shopfloor committees huddled on the other side of the crowd, largely ignoring the people who had their faces in the television cameras.

Sheila was chairing the committee meeting. “Okay so what’s the plan?”

Christine said, “I hear they may want to stick to the sidewalk”.

Christine and I shook our heads and frowned. We had both knew with 1,000 people sticking to the sidewalk wasn’t just impractical, it would undermine the strength of the turnout.

“Well we’ve got about a dozen of these and people to carry them, Christine held up her red and black flag, a standard IWW fixture at demonstrations. It was about two meters long and on inch and a half thick dowling. “I say we march out into traffic and take a lane, then we take a second one until we completely block the traffic going the same way as we are”.

Sheila had only just started going to street demonstrations and this all new to her. She was uneasy but saw a couple other workers nodding so decided to go with it.

“The local Executive doesn’t really have a planned route, I hear they’re leaving it up to Pete”.

Pete nodded, “yeah, but I’ve never really planned a demonstration before.”

“It’s easy,” Christine said, “just walk around, take a couple loops and wind up back where you started. The crowd will take care of the rest”.

“Okay, let’s do this,” said Christine, “Phinneas and I will take the right side where the more cautious people will likely stay to the sidewalk for a bit”.

“Let’s put it to a vote”, Christine said. All hands went up then down. Sheila breathed a sigh of relief, the unanimous vote made her feel a lot more comfortable.

As we broke, the cameras started moving towards the road to watch us fan out. Soon I saw red and black flags floating over the other side of the crowd as they stepped out into the street. The Local President walked passed and patted my arm, “what are you guys up to?”

“We’re going to take the streets, both lanes, Pete knows where we are headed so you’ll have to ask him about the route”. She nodded and kept walking with a CUPW flag, yellow and blue, slung over her shoulder. The crowd was cautious at first but eventually came out onto the street.

Postal Workers take the streets.

Postal Workers take the streets.

There was a dull murmur as the crowd swelled out into the streets. Soon from the murmur came bursts of chants then the chants drowned out the murmur. Flags and signs floated down the street while young people ran out to cars moving in the opposite direction. The young people usually had a chance to briefly talk to the drivers while they would slow down and look at what was going on trying to read the signs and banners.

Through the crowd I saw Christine nod to her left, probably to the other shop committee members down the line. They took five steps back in a break of traffic and cut off the second lane. Then I saw a police officer walk up to her. She walked and talked casually with him as she followed the crowd. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the officer from the first night of the lockout.

“Where are you guys marching?”, he was being typically cheerful and polite.

“No idea, maybe the president knows. Do I look like I’m in charge here?” I smiled.

“We knew you would say that.” He walked into the middle of the march towards The Local President. He talked to her and soon found himself walking towards the back of the march, not towards Pete.

Craig walked up next to me. “Word is the NDP are planning a filibuster in Parliament. We just need to hold up the disruption a little longer and then maybe we can negotiate a settlement”.

“I don’t think that is going to help us Craig, I still think we need to defy the back to work legislation”. He shook his head and started to say something but held it back. “The goal isn’t struggle without end, the goal is to get a contract Phinneas. People have a lot on the line here houses, families, their life savings.”

“You mean people your age have those things. You can’t get much for a mortgage if you’re my age on this income. The reason for that is because we keep backing down on these fights. One generation has too much to lose and the other generation has very little to risk. ”

“There’s another way though” Craig replied, “we can win a negotiated contract, we have in the past and we will again. The NDP will stall for us, we just need to hold on and keep up the mobilisation until Canada Post breaks”.

I just stared straight forward. I genuinely hoped he was right. It seemed too easy though, we didn’t win anything without tremendous pressure on Canada Post itself. Pressure from the Official Opposition was just business as usual, none of this went off script or did much force them to make concessions.

Craig drifted off into another part of the crowd and I went back to the edge of the crowd with my flag. Later I saw the previous police officer, he had a slight twitch in his eye and was clenching his jaw tightly while awkwardly trying to smile at the same time. He went back to The Local President and she shrugged and pointed to the front of the march. By the time he reached the front of the protest two blocks ahead of where he was, Pete told him that they were one block from the destination. Sometimes holding out and keeping steady pressure can work.

Delivery drivers march on the boss on their first day of work after the lockout.

Delivery drivers march on the boss on their first day of work after the lockout.













It’s An Occupation

“Look I’m kind of worried that it’s mostly just spectacle, you know?” I was on the phone with a CUPW activist in Vancouver. Erin was fixing picket signs while she talked to me on the phone. I could hear her stapling. “Yeah I know. But a bit of spectacle is kind of what we need. People out here are pretty resigned to a return to work, we need to keep some momentum up or we are just going to get trounced when we get back to the floor”.

“Let me think about it, I’ll bounce it off some of the other folks around here and see what people think”. I turned my phone off and walked into the coffee shop. Several other people from the Workplace Mobilisation Committee and the Depot Committees were sitting at a table together talking about the NDP’s promise to filibuster.

“Well, I got a call from some folks in Vancouver that are trying to build a similar committee and they said they were thinking of occupying an MPs office. What do you folks think?”

“I think if we are going to win this we need it to be a struggle that goes beyond just the post office.,” Keith spoke rapidly, “This can do that.”

“I agree,” I said, “I just worry it’s more media hype and symbolism, you know? Like doing this goes after the Conservative party, which needs to happen but it doesn’t actually hurt them in any meaningful way”.

“I dunno I would love to try something like blockading the Purolator building like they did in Montreal last week,” said Christine, “but I ran it by a couple people from the depots and they didn’t make the connection in the way I had hoped”.

“I think we should try and test the waters and see if the occupation at an MP’s office can maybe jump start things?” Said Keith.

Pete looked across the table at Keith. “Great I will talk to the President about it and get the ball rolling”.

The lockout stopped our work and our paychecks, and started several levels of negotiation. The most obvious ones were between higher ups in Ottawa, union and corporate higher ups over the national contract. Those negotiations were the reason we were locked out and were the reason the conventional union infrastructure held off and tacitly supported the militancy on the shopfloor. There were also negotiations with the local management during the lead up to the lockout and the first night of the lockout, negotiations with the police during the various pickets and rallies, negotiations with the staff of the local political officials during the occupations, and negotiations between the shop committees and the union leadership.

On the local level we won most of our fights, mostly by going around the existing local leadership, especially The Local President. “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission,” became mantra among many of us. How the local officials reacted depended on national officials. When the national officers were keen to fight the company, the local leadership stepped aside and we operated more or less without interference. As soon as we tried to fight the bigger fight, to reach outside of Edmonton, the infrastructure on the ground wasn’t there. Because of the limits of our networks we called on the Canada Labour Congress to call a general strike. The union bureaucracy called our bluff. They guessed, correctly, that the sort of organisation we had on the ground in Edmonton at the Post Office didn’t exist outside of Edmonton, or outside of the Post Office. We could achieve symbolic gestures like occupations and marches but more concrete actions like a general strike were outside the experience and confidence of the workforce outside the Post Office at this point. We knew there was similar militancy in the rest of the country, and even other workplaces around ours in Edmonton, but the organisation was just not there to coordinate these struggles and build a program of action out of it.

The strength of our organising approach was that we looked at the structure of the unions and identified where they were inadequate and then built parallel structures outside of them. We needed the solidarity of workers outside of what we had to win a struggle on a national scale. We just didn’t have that. During the lockout we had an opportunity to be less ‘ultra left’, less outside the union and take a step into the mainstream. As soon as we did that not only did we have the same limits as before but we had a much more difficult time distancing ourselves from the catastrophically bad decisions made by the National Executive Board, decisions that were the result of pressures they felt but we didn’t.

In the end we let the dynamic of being a union opposition dominate how we conducted the fight. We had gotten to where we were through independent struggles based on direct action on the floor and coordinated outside the union. When we stopped making that our focus and tried to use the opportunity to work within the conventional union structures – as an oppositional force but still a force moving through those official channels – we became just another bargaining chip. They encouraged us to take action when they needed us. Once we hit the limit of what could be done under the current bargaining regime they simply switched gears. They brought everyone back into work once the stakes were too high and we didn’t have a way to force them to keep struggling.

The House of Parliament and the House of Labour

“Did you hear the speech in Parliament last night?” Jay asked. Pete was dropping off firewood at line outside the Mail Plant. It was cold at night and they were going through a lot of firewood, even in June. Pete shook his head. He had tried watching the news last night but fell asleep after two hours of calling activists trying to get them to come down to the picket lines. Morale was flagging and we had to pull hard just to keep the lines up during normal hours at twelve different locations around the city. The NDP filibuster had begun the night before. The entire NDP caucus in Parliament opted to help us by stalling. They stacked the microphones and gave impassioned speeches, some that went on for hours.

Jay did his best to imitate the New Brunswick Francophone accent of one of the Members of Parliament. “Why do you hate da worker?! Why do you hate da Canada Canada Post Worker!?” Jay smiled as he spoke, “It was great Pete, really firey and all about us. It wasn’t like Parliament usually is”.

At this point even some of the newspapers were starting run some editorials that were mildly in favour of us, mixed in with the usual right wing abuse, like Lorne Gunter calling us “glorified paperboys.” Still, it seemed like when the legislation started to look like it was going to pass we were starting to become symbols in media stories about the Government’s poor treatment of unions across the board. The parts of the media that were criticising us referred to us as “militant” or “radical”; the parts of the media that supported us were probably more honest and referred to us as “formerly militant”.

Jay then asked Pete about the Canada Labour Congress and if there was any word on the motion that was passed at the big assembly. Pete shook his head, “I don’t think that motion went anywhere outside the room it was passed in. I know the local office is saying the motion had no standing under the bylaws as it wasn’t an official meeting”.

Later that day Pete asked a few people around the union office, “any word on stuff happening with the Solidarity Pact? That promise of help Dave Coles from the Communications Energy and Paperworkers had with us? Is CEP going to pull people out?”

The Local President said that there was money coming from them to help with a constitutional challenge. “When will that be heard?”

“Probably five years from now.”

“Is the CLC giving any money for the challenge?”

Pete shook his head. “No”.

Pete then ducked out of the conversation and went upstairs to talk to The Local President about the upcoming occupation.

Pete sat across from the The Local President’s desk and she started by saying “I think this is great and it’s nice to see the Workfloor Mobilisation Committee keeping us in the loop on what is happening”. Sheila was already up there talking about something else.

“Yeah well some folks weren’t sure, I think Keith and Phinneas in particular had some reservations about this.”

“Well the point is still to get the Corporation to negotiate. A strike clearly didn’t work but maybe the political pressure will. National still has a plan and it’s better if we can all play this way.” Pete nodded.

Legitimacy and Morale
An important factor in organising is legitimacy. This word is usually used to describe a few different things. Things like: the faith the workers have in their own struggle; the faith workers in the class more broadly (often called “the public”) have in the justice of their struggle; and the legality of the struggle, the legitimacy in the eyes of the law. Morale is often tied up in each of these factors. If the public is on your side but the law isn’t, the workers are more likely to see their struggle as a just one against an unjust law. If the workers don’t have faith in their own struggle but the law is on their side it’s largely meaningless because laws don’t enforce themselves and labour and employment are rarely enforced unless government agencies feel compelled to do so.

The single most important task for any radical is to build the legitimacy of actions done by working class people in their own interests. Often when people want to get legitimacy for organising they try and build it by appealing to the law. (“they can’t fire you, it’s illegal” or “your boss broke the law”). This is addressing the wrong problem. The problem with gaining legitimacy under the current system is your legitimacy will only ever go as far as those laws will grant you legitimacy. If people weren’t willing to challenge the legitimacy of the law itself there would never be any mechanism for changing the law. Instead the emphasis should be “if they fire you, we will support you” or “what your boss is doing is wrong and we’re here to stand up for each other”.

Christine had a note pad in her hands. “Okay Rachel you lead the charge in the door. There’s a chance they might see this coming and lock the doors so be ready for it. Sheila, you go around back just in case the front doors to the offices are locked, maybe the back doors with be open. Phinneas, you keep your eyes glued to your phone and talk to Winnipeg and Vancouver for us”.

Outside our huddle a crowd of about 200 people had gathered. The Local President was talking to the media. Pete looked over at her and nodded, she nodded back and patted Rachel on the shoulder. She then started walking towards the door while Sheila went around back to the back of the strip mall the office was in. The doors swung open and the twenty-year-old guy behind the desk stared in shock at 200 people gathering outside and a group beginning to pour in through the doors. Soon the room began to fill up as people who were not in on the action decided to join the fun. Then a middle-aged lady in a power suit came striding out from the back saying loudly “The Member of Parliament isn’t in today, would you like to take a message and come back another time?”

“Naw, we’ll wait,” said Rachel.

“It could be days.”

Rachel sat down square in the middle of the floor. “Works for me.”

The lady in the power suit walked across the room and closed the blinds so we couldn’t see the supporters outside. Keith looked at me and winked. As she walked back towards her office, he reached over and opened them again. She winced, turned on her heels and came back and closed the blinds again. As soon as she walked away he opened them again and we all started giggling. For a brief moment a look flashed through her eyes of abject, directionless, rage, the rage of people who expect obedience from their social inferiors, the sort of rage that sends drones to bomb weddings in countries on the other side of the planet, the sort of rage that starves entire countries through sanctions. Then it was gone, replaced by the calm professional indifference that borders on disdain. The kind of disdain that sends entire industries to other continents while people rot without jobs for having the temerity to ask for more money, the indifference that talks about dead children as collateral damage.

A little while later the cops came in, the same Labour Relations cops as always. They walked right up to me sitting on the floor. I guess you could say we had a rapport at this point. “How long are you staying?”

“As long as it takes.” The cop shook his head and smiled. He got on his phone and I checked my texts. The occupations were holding strong in Winnipeg and Vancouver.

As time dragged on our morale began to flag. Sheila was the first one. “Are you sure this is the time we want to get arrested?” Keith nodded like he agreed.

This put me in an awkward position, we had committed to see this through, but occupations like this were largely symbolic and media driven. The cameras were packing up.

“I’m not going to pressure anyone into staying but we do have a commitment to Vancouver and Winnipeg”. Pete nodded at that.

When I checked in with Vancouver, Erin texted back that I should hold out as long as I could but not to push my people. They would hold it down on their end and would talk to Winnipeg for us. At another point when one of the police left we took a quick vote, I voted to stay, Pete abstained (Pete abstained a lot), and everyone else voted to leave. I suggested one last thing.

When the cops came back into the room one of them said: “Okay guys, at 5pm this office closes and you need to leave, that leaves you an hour”.

Rachel then got on her cell phone, “hello? Panago? Yes I would like to order some pizza.” The cops frowned.

As the time came closer and closer we started unpacking sleeping backs and blankets. The police shuffled uncomfortably. Then the pizza came and we started eating. With three minutes left we started packing our stuff up. The police then waited ten minutes past the deadline for us to leave. As we drove home we heard reports on the radio about the arrests during the occupations in other parts of the country.

When you know your cause is just and the law is not on your side legitimacy becomes more important. Part of the task of building a world where the economy is something we use to provide what we need rather than it using us to provide capitalists with greater wealth is building the legitimacy of workers taking control. When we negotiated with the police we were asserting a kind of legitimacy and the law took that legitimacy seriously. When we negotiated with the employer it was not because the law recognised us but rather they recognised our ability to cause damage to their bottom line. However when the law came down and ordered us back to work we failed to put our own legitimacy against the law.

A just cause does not need to argue in favour of itself. It needs to defend its legitimacy, that legitimacy comes from an appeal to the power and interests of working people. We had reached the limit of our power in society and without pushing forward, morale collapsed. Instead of being something that carried a new world forward, the union, by ordering everyone back to work on the government’s terms, became something that was imposing the old world back on the workers. All strikes do have to end but how they end is a very important strategic concern.


“Why are we still out here if they are just going to order us back to work?” The member was trying to stay calm but he was obviously upset. Christine looked back at him for a second, choosing her words very carefully.

“We need to hold the line so that we can pressure the corporation to negotiate.”

“Negotiate?! What negotiation?! Before the strike they offered us 2% now they are offering 0%. What the hell kind of negotiations are going on over there?!”

“You going to negotiate with the bank when they come to take my house too?” Another person shouted.

“The back to work legislation is obviously going to pass, why are we bothering now?”

“Well maybe we can do something to take the financial pressure off somewhere else? I know some folks at the other depots are sharing food. Let’s grab a burger and talk this over.” The group all agreed to line up for burgers while someone from the local office started flipping the ones that were done onto people’s plates.

Once they were done eating Christine started her pitch.

“Right now the government and management think they won”.

“You mean they didn’t?” shouted a heckler from the back.

“Well we may not have won the negotiations, I think this contract is going to be a big hit for all of us. But we held ground in this depot, we had control of the floor, we can’t let them take that back from us when we go back. National may have lost the fight over the contract but we can still keep what we won outside of it. We need to go back in with our heads held high”.

Not with a bang…

It was raining and cold in a way that only Edmonton can be. Any time of year in that place there is this cold that stings, not because of the presence of something – no moisture, no early morning mist– but rather because of the total absence of anything. It’s a cold that eats at you. Pawel was at the back gate standing next to a burn barrel that was soaked. Sheila was a quarter mile away at the front gate of the plant standing by herself in the road by herself. Her picket sign was soggy and falling apart so she tucked it under one arm. Between her head and shoulder she had her cell phone while she talked to Pawel.

“You ever been on strike before Pawel?”

“Sort of. When I was a teenager I was part of a youth group that met at a church basement down the road from my house in Gdansk. My cousins were all on strike a few times, so we would go down and throw rocks at the police. How about you?”

“No. But my dad was a postal worker and I walked the line as a kid a few times in the 80’s. I also remember being at some of the rallies at Gainers.” Gainers was a meat packing plant in North Edmonton that had some very militant strikes and strong community support.

“Did you call anyone else, Pawel?”

“Yeah, the only person who picked up was Jenny. She told me we shouldn’t bother, the back to work order is coming any minute now”.

“We still need to hold the line though, Pawel.”

“Hey, I’m here aren’t I?”

An hour later I pulled up in my car. It was still raining. They were singing pop tunes to each other over the phone a quarter mile away from each other.

Sheila told me to take over for Pawel, she drove off as the sun began to rise behind the clouds. It was a dull white circle behind a sheet of grey.

With Heads Held High

In previous struggles like the Winter Campaign, St. Albert Wildcat or the Forceback Fight we managed to pick issues that were scaled to the support we had on the floor. Our network reached into most departments and actions were targeted at the level of management that was able to act on our demands.

Probably the biggest mistake we made was thinking that the lockout was going to be a continuation of this process. In the lead up to the lockout the union moved closer and closer to our positions and even at a few points openly supported our actions. The union also had access to the highest ranks of the Corporation. When we were fighting over piecemeal policies and control of the day-to-day operations, we got to be very good at winning. A comprehensive contract, however, is a matter of Corporation wide policy and required national coordination of a kind we didn’t have in place except through the union officialdom. Plus it’s almost impossible to turn down the institutional legitimacy that comes with support from the official union and its leadership when your ass is on the line, the cops are breathing down your neck and the government is ready to fine people a week of wages for one day of striking.

Conventional unions operate on the principle of being able to turn on workplace militancy in order to get agreements and then turn down that militancy in order to create an incentive on the part of the employer to sign an agreement. When we organised outside that labour relations framework, we tried to take that militancy and put it in the hands of the members. We prioritised fights that put more control over the work itself, as opposed to issues of monetary compensation and benefits, because those were harder to fit into the labour relations framework due to long established rules around the right of businesses to manage and unions to strike only at the appropriate time.

During this lockout the official union had to walk a tightrope. On one hand they needed the militancy to try and force an agreement. On the hand they needed to maintain control in order to shut it down at the point that the government was threatening the existence of the institutional union itself. The stakes were just too high for the union leadership to take the risks needed to win. Defeat was a possibility and the government was probably not bluffing. Ultimately the union leadership made a judgement call and they decided to end the militancy in order to save CUPW as an institution – at the cost of what made the union a living social movement. For our part, we failed to understand how the terrain had changed. We thought there was an opening that came with collective bargaining but realy it was a closing off. There were actually less chances to make real gains because we got swept up in a process and pattern that used our agitation as just one piece on a much bigger game board. We got played.

Sheila motioned for Jay to help her drag the barrels into the middle of the road. They were full of ash from the previous few weeks of burning. Once the barrel was in place she ran over to the woodpile, grabbed some wood and started throwing it in the barrel. Jay looked at her like she was nuts.

“What are you doing? The lines are coming down in ten minutes.”

“Exactly. If those fuckers want us off the line, fine, but they can’t fine a barrel $50,000, can they?” Jay smiled and started dragging the other barrels over and filling them with wood. Sheila brought over the can of gasoline.

She lit a cigarette while Jay poured gasoline in the barrels. She lit a few more smokes and passed them around. Everyone took a few drags off of them and then threw them in the barrels. The fires went up. A guy from one of the waiting trucks shouted at them, “what the hell are you doing? We need to get through there!”

Sheila turned, looked at him, and shrugged. They all made their way to the front of the building as the barrels started to glow red with all the fuel and wood. The deadline passed. The trucks were supposed to go through but the barrels burned for another half hour before they simmered down enough to be moved.

On the other side of the building a large crowd of a few hundred had gathered. Half of them were the first shift to go into the plant. The other half came from the depots and transportation department. As the start of the first shift came closer a bunch of us went to the front by the doors and formed two lines. Soon everyone fell in line behind us. I looked across at Ike and Toni and smiled.

Soon a member of the labour relations team came up to the doors from inside and pushed them open. Suddenly everyone started chanting “General Strike! General Strike! General Strike!” The workers started marching in the building and those of us there as supporters joined them. As we crossed the lobby the labour relations people began to panic. One of them started to close one of the inside doors. Another one started pushing them open and trying to stand in front of Ike.

“Ike, you can’t come in”

“Why not? I’m here on union business.”

“The hell you are”

Soon the crowd was milling around in the foyer and no one could get in. The chants continued. One guy was wearing a shirt that said “Wildcat, not just a beer”.

“You might have just got yourself a $50,000 fine Ike, the strike is over, you can’t just stand there like that. You’re blocking things.” Ike shrugged.

Then the other one got a call on his cell phone. He winced and shouted into the phone “get a fire extinguisher and put them out then!”

Eventually the crowd managed to file through and back in to work carrying orange whistles and wearing strike shirts. A week later I found out there was a series of investigations into sabotage including sending one container of mail bound for Regina Saskatchewan to Inuvik. They never did find out who did it.

Struggle leaves bruises. It is tremendously tempting to simply return to work and lick your wounds. There is also a rush that comes with struggle. That rush always eventually subsides, leaving everyone worn out. It’s important not to think that everything will be over with a new contract and instead to treat everything as part of an ebb and flow of struggle. Successes and victories will wash over the class as time goes on but the job of a militant is to help determine what stays and what is carried out to sea. I’ve written before about the phenomenon of waves of struggles but some waves are bigger than others and not every step is a step forwards. Some waves crash upon rocks, others roll into a beach.

The next morning Toni and I met with everyone in the Transportation Department parking lot. It was two blocks away from the Parcel Hub we worked in. A crowd of about sixty of us stood in a large circle next to a row of red mail trucks. Toni spoke up, “they forced us back to work by law. They can make us go back with threats but they can’t break us! First they locked us out of this place. The only thing that has changed is now they are locked in here with us!” The crowd cheered. It was Toni’s first speech.

The drivers then marched the two blocks with union flags in a large group. As they entered the building as one large crowd, management looked. Sam, who almost punched me before the day before the lockout, looked at us and ran into his office and closed the door behind him. Toni waved to Jay the steward for the loaders and Jay shouted something to his fellow loaders. They all put the boxes down gently and joined us on the floor.

Soon everyone started pounding on the door where management was hiding. Some folks started kicking the metal mail cages and others used pieces of broken pallets to bang on the railings around the highdock for the 5 tonne freighter trucks. The racket was like dropping a drawer full of cutlery down concrete stairs. We kept the racket up for about ten minutes before putting everything down and getting to work. Management didn’t leave their office until most of the drivers were on the road that day.

Across town at Depot 2 Christine stood in front of an assembly from her depot. A bunch of them carried picket signs with them. The doors were about to open.

“I know you all have had a shop steward tell you not to start early,” Christine said, “and I know a lot of you think it’s none of the union’s business when you start. I’m not going to do that here. But I am going to say this, if we start early for the next month going back in it sends the wrong message.”

“Just for this month we need to work to rule. We need to rack up the overtime, we need to make them hurt. Going back in, they are going to try and break us. They are going to try and make up some of the money they lost in the lockout. We can’t give it to them easy.”

Another worker raised his hand and made a motion that the depot committee draw up a roster of workers who would guard the door every morning for the next month to stop early starts. The depot voted overwhelmingly in favour.

Christine tried to make her speech stirring but she couldn’t hide the fact that she felt crushed. One of the old guys came up as they walked in and play punched her lightly on the shoulder. “You did good and this isn’t over, you know, there’s a reason the union has the slogan ‘The Struggle Continues’.”

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