A response to ‘Direct Unionism’

This is the first part of a two part piece by Juan Conatz, in response to a discussion paper called “Direct Unionism.” This piece originally appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper, which has had featured an ongoing conversation about the “Direct Unionism” discussion paper.

A response to ‘Direct Unionism’
by Juan Conatz

Recently, an unfinished piece titled ‘Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper’ appeared on the internet. It was written by a group of IWWers a couple of years ago and was intended to start a dialogue within the union on contracts and generally how we organize in the workplace.

It’s inline with more recent developments in syndicalism, reflective of the contemporary CNT-AIT and of Solidarity Federation’s recent change into a ‘revolutionary union initiative’. A strategy that recognizes itself as a minority and attempts to address this without being co-opted by the various welfare state or social democratic institutions and programs that have emerged since the Second World War.

In my opinion, it’s a welcome addition to further a conversation within the North American syndicalist or industrial unionism milieu. Often, in the IWW, in depth discussion and assessments do not occur for various reasons. This wasn’t always the case. The historical IWW had a number of different publications, with varying purposes, and some of them included very theoretical, long, and in depth articles. As the IWW receives additional attention and interest due to its campaigns at Starbucks, Jimmy John’s and in Wisconsin, now is no better time to restart these conversations around strategy and organizing that can determine the outcomes of what we do.

Direct Unionism and ‘Building the Union’

The piece suggests a new way1 for the IWW, defined by the phrase ‘direct unionism. It is described as

In a nutshell, we are proposing that instead of focusing on contracts, workplace elections, or legal procedures, IWW members should strive to build networks of militants in whatever industry they are employed.

This definition I find hard to disagree with, in fact, I enthusiastically support this outlook. During the union’s most active years, until the 1930’s, no contracts was actually part of the constitution. As Joyce L. Kornbluh mentions in an essay:2

“As labor-management contracts were viewed as an interference with labor’s unconditional right to strike, the IWW would not sign contracts, a controversial position it did not abandon until the 1930s. Strikes rather than contracts were the fuel for IWW militancy, for strikes built the experience and perspective needed for the general strike that Wobblies thought would overthrow the capitalist system.”

In section 3, ‘Are we trying to build a union?’ they address some important sentiments of people when it comes to organizing. The sentiment of recruitment equaling activity, or by merely increasing membership, we elevate our ability to function or to influence events. That is partially true, more people joining means more resources in the form of dues, which allow us to do a lot of things. However, just because people join does not mean they become active. The IWW, much like the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Party USA have quite a bit of historical admiration and background they’ve inherited. Because of this, the lack of identifiable radical organizations in some areas and the ease of joining online, these organizations have many interested people join for a short period of time and then fall through the cracks (the so-called ‘one month wonders’).

Syndicalism or industrial unionism has been criticized by many anarchists and left communists on the attitude of ‘building the union for the sake of building it’. There’s some truth to that, like I mentioned, some people are really focused on getting people to join as if that is the end all, be all. After they join, they aren’t engaged as much and the same effort that was put into getting them to join is not put into getting them active. Some of the propaganda, much of it older, doesn’t help fight this attitude, either. But what is forgotten is that, despite the phrase of ‘One Big Union’, the IWW at its largest and most active, still mostly organized strikes and actions with workers regardless if they were members or not. Membership was secondary to militant organizing.

In my own experience in easy to join groups, I’ve seen this issue. While 20 or so people total were technically a part of a group I was involved in, we did far better work when we reorganized ourselves and totaled less than 10. It’s the whole ‘quality over quantity’ thing.

Another sentiment that is tied with ‘building the union’ is the unfortunate one of thinking membership precludes activity. As our Organizer Training 101 program says ‘We need to act like a union before calling ourselves a union.’ A group of workers who are active on workplace issues but do not call themselves a union is more desirable than a workplace with a union presence, but workplace issues go unaddressed or ignored. As is mentioned in the piece:

“informal participation in workplace struggle, not formal membership in the IWW, should be the first concern of a workplace organizer”

Our aims are to intensify class struggle. This requires our co-workers becoming active and gaining confidence to do such things. Their membership in the IWW is good thing, but it is a secondary thing. As they do in the Direct Unionism piece, I must stress that this does not mean I believe everything should be informal ‘workplace resistance groups’3 or whatever those in the insurrectionary or ultraleft camp think. Membership in formal organizations is an important aspect, but it is part of a wider experience and outlook, not the only and final thing. However, some of the ‘direct unionist’ perspective may amount to some of the shortcomings of the ‘workplace resistance groups’ and indeed to some of the shortcomings of the historic IWW…

Staying Power

In section 4, the piece tries to address how gains are protected without contracts and with membership de-emphasized. But it’s not really explored as much as it should be. While I’m in general agreement with the direct unionist perspective and see it as re-centering the union to what were and are some of our more successful practices, there are negative aspects to these.

For instance, one of the major issues of the historical IWW was staying power. They came into a particular town in a particular industry, organized and then, whether the result was a win or a loss, IWW presence disintegrated fairly quickly. Now, the question I have is how much of it was a result of the internal splits, government repression and exodus to the CPUSA, and how much of it was inevitable due to a non-contractual, network of militants, de-emphasizing formal membership strategy?

Part of elevating struggle is building a combative working class culture. Would direct unionism be too informal to contribute to the infrastructure needed for this?

Industrial Strategy and Dual Carding
In section 5, ‘What is the Industrial Strategy’, the comrades lay out pieces of what has not existed in the IWW: a dual card strategy. They state:

“In workplaces where IWWs are dual-carding, the organizing committee will seek to encourage workers to ‘supersede’ (i.e. move ‘above and beyond’) the trade-union form and push for mass assemblies as the only legitimate voice of the workforce. Wobblies will encourage struggle to be organized across trade unions (since many workplaces have more than one active union, a fact bosses regularly uses to their advantage) and seek to bring unorganized workers into the struggle as well. When mass actions occur, Wobblies should make sure that workers remain in full control of the struggle. This means democratic and open mass assemblies of workers (as opposed the secretive “back rooms” inhabited by union officials) must decide every aspect of the struggle. The final decision on what actions to take and when to call them off must be decided by the workers themselves.”

This is a really important concept and should be used to combat the chauvinism that many folks have when it comes to their particular unionized workplace or mainstream union. I’ve noticed, amongst mainstream union members in general and some dual carders, in particular, a kind of ‘my union/workplace is completely unique and you can’t give me advice’. There is sometimes an attitude that their union/workplace is an isolated island, free of any sort of commonalities from other workplaces (unionized or not) and other unions. This is probably not done or expressed purposefully and most likely has a lot to do with the way of organizing most mainstream unions operate under. While, yes, each workplace or mainstream union local is different in some ways, there are a number of broad strategies, principles and guidelines we can set. Ones which destroy the divisions between unionized and non-union, public and private, etc. are the most important. While it’s a well known fact that the IWW is small, it is often forgotten that the mainstream unions are also small, representing a combined 11.9% of the U.S. workforce4. We can’t afford to stay restricted to one segment of the class, and must, instead, use tactics that broaden the struggle beyond our small numbers. In the spirit of this, the piece says:

“Of course, it goes without saying that we are not seeking to function as a union pressure group, reform caucus, or trying to “capture” official positions within the union […] In a union workplace, the IWW organizing committee must remain independent of the recognized union at all times.”

This is also where de-emphasizing membership is important. The point is not to ‘poach’ members from the mainstream unions or to raid them. Even if the IWW was at a level where this was a realistic way of doing things, I wouldn’t think it was a good idea. An ideal dual carder strategy would not be about trying to replace the mainstream union5, but about elevating the struggle and bridging divides.

Puerto Real, the contemporary CNT & the CGT

Section 7, ‘Non-contractual organizing outside the IWW’, gives some examples of such. Because it is often given as an example of the type of organizing we should do, I’m going to address Puerto Real and Spanish syndicalism in general.

In Puerto Real, the CNT, as one of the numerous unions in the shipyards, worked to ‘massify’ the struggle and organized cross-union and cross-industry assemblies of workers and the community. The people were very militant and fought the closing of the shipyards incessantly, not only preventing the closing, but winning bread and butter gains that, to my knowledge, weren’t originally part of the struggle.

It’s a very inspiring event and one that should definitely be looked at and learned from. However, this seems to be one of only a few examples of a large, successful campaign the post-Franco CNT has had. This could possibly be a language issue. There isn’t a lot of material translated on the contemporary CNT and its successes and failures. To discover the different perspectives on their activity, it is pretty much a requirement to know Spanish. This ties into the different perspectives in Spanish syndicalism in general.

In Spain, the three most widely known anarcho-syndicalist unions are (in order of size), the CGT6, the CNT and Solidaridad Obrera. The CGT originated as a faction and later a split off from the CNT over various issues, the main ones being what level of participation should occur in the workplace councils (a sort of workplace parliamentary system, with different unions acting as ‘parties’ and representing workers) and accepting state funding. The CNT took a abstention stance on these issues and seems to organize in a way similar to the direct unionist approach. Solidaridad Obrera sees itself as inbetween the CGT and the CNT, leaving decisions on these matters to locals or workplaces.

Why these debates are of interest to IWWers is because we’ve had some similar ones. There was obviously a debate at sometime that we would prohibit dues checkoff, the act of the employer subtracting union dues from employee paychecks and then transferring to the union. There was also intense debate on how to respond to various labor laws enacted in the 30s, 40s and 50s such as NLRB elections, secondary boycotts and anti-Communist pledges for officers. Some of these debates resulted in disaffiliation from the IWW, such as the Cleveland factory workers who disaffiliated over the IWW refusing to agree to anti-Communist affidavits outlined in the Taft-Hartley Act7

But in order to discover the outcomes of the various strategies intended as a reaction to the state’s laws on workplace organizing in Spain, it is necessary to be able to find answers. Has the CNT’s approach (which is similar to direct unionism) been a success, or just an occasional one? Does the CGT actually function like the mass, militant union we want to be or has it been too incorporated into the state from its pragmatism? Is Solidaridad Obrera a successful merging of the two positions? While we cannot simply draw a blueprint based on what’s going on in Spain, knowing these things would shed some light on the viability of direct unionism.

Part 1 of ‘Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper’, in my opinion, is quite good. It combats some of the negative parts of radical union organizations (fetish of recruitment and quantity automatically meaning quality) and builds off the Organizer 101 Training, taking it to its logical extent. It also touches upon and tries to initiate a much-needed conversation on dual carding, while giving some examples of why the direct unionist approach can work. Even though the piece is a couple years old at this point, I would hope that they further develop some of the points in Part 1 so that this discussion, which is happening in other places as well, can continue.

1. Technically, a lot of what they advocate is not ‘new’ for the IWW, but is merely emphasizing some ways of organizing that already exist. The newness of it is describing this tendency in the union and formulating its expression.
2. The Industrial Workers of the World, Joyce L. Kornbluh, http://www.lucyparsonsproject.org/iww/kornbluh_iww.html (accessed 5/15/11)
3. On the frontline: anarchists at work, Anarchist Federation, July 2009, http://libcom.org/library/frontline-anarchists-work
4. Union membership falls below 12 percent of workforce, Kansas City Star, January 12, 2011, http://www.kansascity.com/2011/01/21/2601545/union-membership-falls-below-12.html
5. Although, in some situations, if winnable, I wouldn’t be opposed. For example, in Chicago (among other places), there are some old, not very well known, unions controlled by organized crime. They are barely functional even by contemporary mainstream union standards and there are other unions, such as UE, that are requested by the workers to come in on a desertification/re-certification effort.
6. Some may contest calling the CGT anarcho-syndicalist (and I tend to agree) due to their participation with various state run workplace programs, but regardless, this is how they self-identify, this is the tradition in which the see themselves, and they use the same imagery. In any case, this is irrelevant, since I am not particularly interested in bickering over ideological labels, nor is the IWW an anarcho-syndicalist union itself.
7. “With the passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959 and its anti-communist affidavits to rid unions of leftist leaders, the IWW lost the Cleveland metal shops. As a point of principle, the IWW, along with the Typographical Union and United Mine Workers, refused to sign such loyalty oaths, so the Cleveland shops left the Union and affiliated with a more compliant one.” The IWW – It’s First 100 Years, Harry Siitonen, http://www.iww.org/en/culture/chronology/Siitonen1.shtml

(Taken from libcom.org. The direct unionism discussion paper itself is online here.)