Another response to direct unionism, and a counterpoint

updated collective fist

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

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

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

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

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

A 1920 pamphlet5 stated:

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

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

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

The IWW’s Uniqueness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Things in Contracts

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

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

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


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

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

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

No war but class war

Counterpoint by Fellow Worker Sean G

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

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

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

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

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