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…)
This week’s piece Is Life Worth Living or Should I Blast Myself?, first appeared in the blog Poe Man’s Dreams which narrates some of the miseries and experiences of everyday life for people with few resources. This particular story is an account of being a juvenile delinquent and having to live with a family who had a multitude of issues. Check it out below.
(In case you’ve missed it, we also posted Exhibit A from the same author a few weeks ago.)
Trigger warning: Accounts or discussion of suicide, sexual assault, self-harm, drug abuse and physical abuse
The day the Towers came down I was planning to ride to a city 45 minutes away to pick up my friend, Javier. He had been sentenced to six months in a halfway house for a B&E, and this was his first weekend pass. I stayed up late the previous night and woke up the next morning, looking forward to seeing him. The jarring scenes from the TV in the living room confused me at first. Was this in the Middle East? No? New York? What the fuck is going on?
The family I lived with at the time explained to me what the news was saying. My first thought after realizing what was going on was about being drafted. Two weeks shy of my 18th birthday made me a prime candidate for whatever massive, national retaliation was inevitably coming to whoever did this. But there wasn’t much time to dwell on it, Javier still needed a ride. So we packed into the 1987 Ford Econoline and went on our way.
The trip itself was a bit surreal. No one talked, so the entire trip was narrated by press conferences of the Bush Administration on National Public Radio. Regardless of the fact that we were several hundred miles away from the attacks, we could see the effects. Gas prices had tripled. Corresponding with a mass rush for fuel, this meant very long lines and even some stations running out. Grocery stores were packed with people buying out necessities. You couldn’t find bottled water. Nationwide, of course, all flights had been grounded. D.C. had been hit. The only jet trails in the sky were that of Air Force One and its fighter escorts coming from U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha. There were all sorts of unconfirmed rumors flying around, both on the streets and in the media. Had a plane been shot down?
Many local rumors took root, too. We heard that there was a possibility the correctional system in the state was on lockdown because of the attacks. Fortunately, this wasn’t true and we were able to pick up my friend after some delay. When we arrived back home, I was glued to the TV, smoking joint after joint, and writing raps about the coming wars, detention camps and increased government surveillance.
As the days, weeks and months rolled by, the initial fear at the possibility of a draft became hope. Dying in some faraway land battling ‘terrorists’ seemed more noble than what felt like the inevitability of suicide.
All my life I been considered as the worst
Lying to my mother, even stealing out her purse
Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion
I know my mother wished she got a fucking abortion
She don’t even love me like she did when I was younger
Sucking on her chest just to stop my fucking hunger
I wonder if I died, would tears come to her eyes
Forgive me for my disrespect, forgive me for my lies
At age 17, I was a two-time high school dropout on supervised probation. I had already stormed out on two jobs, spent a short time in a juvenile detention center, been arrested or detained at least six times and been questioned by authorities for all sorts of things, from targeted vandalism of a cop’s home to stealing and selling off boat motors. I earned my first assault charge by throwing punches at my mom’s boss as he attempted to physically stop me from leaving a Wal-Mart with stolen merchandise.
A habitual weed smoker and pill popper, most of the day I stumbled around stupefied, accomplishing nothing. Being absolutely disrespectful and hateful to everyone who wasn’t in my little crew of friends, my parents were at a loss on how to deal with me and my younger siblings were scared of me.
The trajectory of these difficult teenage years reached a climax of sorts on a morning in the Summer of 2001.
Still living with my parents, I got up from a Vicodin induced hangover and went to the garage, where I had hidden a half gallon of the cheapest, most toxic tasting vodka on the market. But looking for it produced no results. Assuming one of my parents had discovered it and thrown it away, I confronted my dad in the kitchen. While looking back on it now, it is unclear, at that moment in time he appeared to be incredibly drunk. He claimed to have downed the rest of the bottle, saying this with a look on his face that expressed a desire for confrontation. Words were exchanged. I threw a chair, he threw fists. I swung back, he pushed me against, and almost out, of a second story window. A friend who had stopped by to see if I was home ran up and pushed my dad off me and I ran out of the house screaming, blood running from my arms and tears streaming from my face. Having no idea where to go, I eventually got cornered in an alley by police, arrested and charged with my second assault.
I was now de facto homeless, the first (but not last) time this would happen. To avoid having to sleep in the street, my crew of friends directed me to the family of a mutual friend. The Riles family.
The Riles family was sort of notorious among us. One of their sons and two of their daughters hung out with us frequently, but they were seen as ‘white trash’ and rumored to be absolutely filthy people. The mother, the matriarch of the family, had more than a few disturbing stories about her and, in my mind then, existed more as a myth than a real person.
Moving in with them, what started as a temporary alternative to sleeping on the streets slowly became long-term. To make things worse, the rumors about filth were true….true beyond anything described to me.
The family consisted of the dad, mom, 3 sons, 2 daughters and grandma. The grandma and her deceased husband had once owned a porn theater in a city nearby, and this was the main income for this whole family for years. When it folded, they then had to rely on the dad for income. That worked for a couple years, until he fell during a painting gig and shattered his legs and hips. He hadn’t worked since. They sold their main home and moved into another property, which was technically not legal to reside in year-round. It was a summer home on the river intended for light usage. Even then, it was probably against the law to live in. There existed no running water and no heat. The main source of electricity was a mystery to me, but it was distributed in the house through a chaotic, intertwined, snake’s pit of extension cords.
Drinking water was obtained by filling empty laundry detergent bottles and milk cartons from a sink at a laundromat. This was also where the water for the way too infrequent family baths came from. The toilet was used and its contents were scooped into a Rubbermaid tub, which was subsequently dumped into the river when filled. But what made the place truly unbearable was that the family hoarded cats. There were so many of them, some had no names and their origin was disputed or unknown. Several of them were actually feral and were drawn to the house by the free cat food scattered in the back yard. Adding up to at least 40, these cats shit everywhere. On the living room floor. Under the couch. All over the yard. In the overwhelmed litterbox. None of it being ever picked up, there were piles so old they resembled gray chunks of petrified material.
The filth was a defining experience living here. The stench was unavoidable and a resident in its own right. I was able to dodge it a bit as I slept and mostly hung out in a broken down RV right next to the house. Obsessively cleaning it sometimes multiple times a day, all animals were banned from it. To keep my body clean, I started a campaign of ‘guerrilla showering’, which meant breaking into my parent’s house, sneaking into campgrounds and locker rooms for the purpose of a shower. While the filth was horrible…there was far worse happening here.
This can’t be life, this can’t be love
This can’t be right, there’s gotta be more, this can’t be us
One of the sons, Jason, was the oldest and came from the mom’s previous marriage. Jason was in his late 20s, developmentally and physically disabled and in dire need of real support. The family mainly kept him there because of his SSI checks. He was mostly non-verbal and often expressed his feelings with punches, slaps, bites and headbutts. Being 10 years older than me, this had to be taken seriously.
His younger brother, Ricky, who was around my age, constantly antagonized Jason, sometimes crossing over into abuse. Ricky would push him down, slap him, lock him in his room and burn Jason’s arm with lighters. Every so often when locked in his room, Jason would soil himself and then out of anger, smear it on the walls. On more than a couple occasions I saw his face shoved in it to “teach him a lesson”.
The most sympathetic figure in the house, no doubt, was the grandma. She suffered from Alzheimer’s or dementia, and yet was the most ‘normal’ person in the house. The family made her sleep in a bed right next to the disgusting bathroom. As some of our elderly do, she wet the bed pretty frequently. The mom would take her sheets and clothes once or twice a week and hose them down with river water. The smell was suffocating, but I never said anything about it or made any sort of face around her, out of respect.
The grandma never quite understood who I was, alternately thinking I was her Vietnam veteran son on disability or just a nice stranger. One night she woke up and tried walking out of the house, saying she needed to get to her husband, who had been dead for 7 years. The first time this happened, not knowing what to do, I woke the mom up. She stormed over, grabbed the older woman roughly by the arms and shoved her back into bed. She then proceeded to smack and hit her own mother.
As grandma yelled out in anguish, “Who are you? Why are you doing this to me?”, I swore to myself never to alert the mom again. From then on, if the grandma got up, I brought her back to her bed. Even if I had to do this several times, so be it.
I smoke a blunt to take the pain out
And if I wasn’t high, I’d probably try to blow my brains out
I’m hopeless, they should’ve killed me as a baby
And now they got me trapped in the storm, I’m goin’ crazy
The family was unquestionably run by the mom. With both Jason and the grandma’s SSI checks coming in, she technically provided the bulk of the income and took advantage of this. Almost everything was determined and decided by her. Any resistance was met with thunderous mood swings and frightening temper tantrums. She manipulated members of the family, playing them off each other, to get what she wanted. I myself was probably most at the mercy of her. The main reason I was able to stay there was because she said so. She provided food, cigarettes and weed. The latter two were the most important as they became a vital part of my attempt to cope with my situation. But if she became irked at me, she stopped providing me with these things. This became more frequent and more complicated as she started expressing an attraction to me.
Merely 17, having a 43 year old woman make unwanted advances, licking my ear, grabbing my dick and pulling my hand onto her tits was something I wasn’t really equipped to handle. A lot of this happened in full view of her family, too.
When I finally turned 18, it got even worse. She lavished me with birthday presents with the expectation, pretty much explicitly said, that these unwanted advances would then be accepted. When they weren’t, she began sneaking into my RV to touch me as I was sleeping1. There was very little I could do to get away from her, as the property was isolated.
All of these horrors combined felt like they were about to crush me. Some days I tried avoiding everyone and didn’t use my vocal chords at all. I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t make the insanity stop. So I turned to a ‘solution’ that provided short-term benefits at long-term risk: crank.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a meth epidemic swept through the Midwest. Apparantly starting in meatpacking towns, workers who were required to work long hours doing tough, dirty work started taking it to make the day go by easier and the work seem less taxing. From the meatpacking towns it spread out like a wildfire, mostly in rural areas and medium sized cities. Meth was relatively easy to make, relying on readily available ingredients and supplies. ‘Mom and pop’ operations sprang up all over the place, supplemented by a flood of Mexican product made in ‘superlabs’. For a time, it was easier to get dope2 than it was to get cigarettes, if you were underage. Until now I had stayed away from it. But that quickly changed.
It seems like a cliche now, but a lot of people’s older brothers sold crank on the side or used it. My best friend at the time had a brother named Andrew who did both. One weekend, he and some of his friends showed up to the door of my RV for the purpose of ‘smoking me up’. Initially this was interpreted as meaning pot, but it actually meant crank.
Reluctantly, I smoked a couple foils and entered a different world. Chain smoking cheap cigarettes and pissing out as much Gatorade as one could drink, writing raps became my one mission. While everyone else played cards or dice for 12 hours, I spent half of a day filling a notebook with rhymes. When everyone decided to leave, Andrew spotted me a half gram and I shot right through to Monday with no sleep. Three entire days completely awake, with nothing to eat. This was the escape I was looking for.
My first experience with crank left me reeling though. As the next weekend came and went, and then the next, with no crank, I began to panic. When I realized reality wasn’t going to be escaped from anytime soon, my mood soured.
Halfway giving up, I ignored the many cats who attempted to gain entry to my RV. No longer did I obsessively clean it. Sleep became a refuge for me, and I artificially induced this refuge my regularly taking lots of sleeping pills. Worst of all…I stopped pulling away when the Riles mom came into the RV at night and just let her do what she wanted, staring at the ceiling and waiting for it to be done with.
With little chance of escaping, plans for killing myself began to be drafted. Writing a fairly long and rambling note to my mother, I downed 19 Tylenol PM’s with a glass of vodka and waited for the eventual fade to black. Around 1:30 AM I woke up to the Riles mom smashing her right breast against my mouth. Putting my hand on her head, I grabbed her hair and whipped her down off my bed.
“You’ll fucking pay for that, mister…”
I think that’s what she said. Not entirely sure, because the pills kicked back in and my eyelids sunk.
My life is all I have
My rhymes, my pen, my pad
And I done made it through the struggle, don’t judge me
What you say now, won’t budge me
Cuz where I come from, so often
People you grew up with, layin in a coffin
But I done made it through the pain in spite
It’s my time now, my world, my life
The next day the mom told the whole family that I tried to overdose to get back at her. That I was an ungrateful little boy who hated her even though she had done so much for me. The daughters were noticeably angry at me.
That night the decision was made to slit my wrists. But this seemed like a scary and painful thing to do. Maybe a test run first? Finding my sharpest pocket knife, and putting a medium sized amount of pressure on the top of my left hand, I sliced a straight line. Then another line. Then another. About 5 minutes into it, the word ‘HATE’, dripping with blood, was present. It hurt. A lot. There’s no way slitting my wrists was going to be an option.
What saved me was this red-headed kid named Brian I went to school with who moved in about this time, for reasons forgotten now. Although we were never that tight in school, the shared misery of living at that house made us good friends. He was a cook at restaurant, and a part-time weed dealer. Having a 1989 Pontiac 6000, he would make sure I got out of there and into town whenever he did. He also flipped the balance of power in the house. Being the main source of weed in a house full of stoners does that. We both talked immense amount of shit about them to their face and made plans to move out. Brian promised to let me stay at the apartment he was saving up for.
The mom finally left me alone, thankfully becoming disinterested in me, put setting her sights on Brian. But he handled it way better and wasn’t at her whim like I had been, so she stopped her advances pretty quickly.
Two events concluded our stay at the house. The first was my RV catching fire because of some curtains that had drifted onto a touch lamp. While I almost always turned the lights off when exiting the RV, on this particular instance shutting the door hard turned them back on.
As I was downloading Nas songs off Napster and Brian was rolling a blunt in the living room of the house, we noticed smoke rushing past the back window. Racing outside and looking into the RV, we could see a set of curtains and a 3 foot section of the wall on fire. Brian went into the RV to try and put it out, while I grabbed jugs of water from the kitchen. When I got back, he burst out of the RV and onto the ground, coughing violently. There was too much smoke. I ended up having to break a window to pour water in and finally the fire was put out.
Most of the next week was filled with crazy theories and accusations by the mom about how we had set the fire on purpose to ‘get back at her’. For what, she couldn’t say.
But the final straw came when cats started dying.
Over this same week, a couple of cats here and there started to come down with a mysterious illness. It was like their motor functions were malfunctioning and then ceasing altogether. They would collapse, sideways, periodically moaning. The mom had a near breakdown. She pushed us, crying and screaming about how we were feeding her cats meth. To this day, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever been accused of.
Brian went right into town, signed a lease, came back, picked me up and we were gone.
So in conclusion, we all seem to stumble, planning our own demise
Forgetting the big picture and making it wallet size
So to what is important in my life, I apologize
I promise to stay faithful, focused and sanctified
The horrors of that house became a hilarious, yet sad, joke among my crew of friends. In an all too rare display of creativity, I made a couple 4-panel comics called The Riles Chronicles that everyone thought were great. They were even hung up in the apartments of a couple people I knew. Someone at long last called the Department of Human Services on them. Jason was taken away by the state. The grandma died (RIP). The Riles family ended moving into town, where they remain to the best of my knowledge.
I ended up reconciling with my parents. My dad and I have never talked about the day we got into a fist fight. A military draft never happened, and although I flirted with enlisting, there was another path for me, thankfully.
I haven’t spoke to any of the Riles since I left. Brian and I remained good friends until around 2007, when we had some problems. I haven’t seen nor spoke to him since.
After a couple of years, the jokes and stories about the family mostly stopped. I tried to forget about it. Moving away, both from my crew of friends and the region itself, the experience got buried deep inside me. About once every year or two, I recollect most, but not all, of this experience to (almost always) a female I trust and then the story drifts off again.
This is the last time I will tell this story.
- 1.Years later, I would learn that, yes, males can be sexually assaulted and, yes, these incidents constituted sexual assault. I’ve never told anybody about these incidents, though, and this is the first time I’ve even put what happened in writing.
- 2.‘Dope’ is a generic term that applies to whatever drug is in fashion, it seems. At that time, ‘dope’ meant meth.
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.
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” , 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)  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  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 . 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 ) 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 , as well as with ultra-right groups such as the Tacuara Nationalist Movement  – 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 , 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  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),  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)  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.
* * * * *
- 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.
- 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.
See also (in Spanish):
- Bloque Sindical de Base Blogspot: http://bloquesindicaldebase.blogspot.com
- Declaración del Bloque Sindical de Base: http://www.anarkismo.net/article/26868
- Jonathan Payn is a researcher-educator at the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG). http://www.ilrig.org/2014/
This week’s piece Exhibit A, first appeared in the relatively new blog called Poe Man’s Dreams which narrates the miseries and experiences of everyday life for people with few resources.
Check out the story below.
Introduction to Poe Man’s Dreams, a blog about experiencing ‘the struggle‘ in the American Midwest.
It’s like I’m trapped in a maze walk around in a daze
I won’t rest ’til I’m paid or I’m down in my grave
I wanna look tough, but my sneakers is scuffed
Everyday pants in the week is enough
I had a little money, but it came and it went
Now its either pay the rent or stay in a tent
And it don’t make sense how the shit is intense
And all you got up in your pocket is lint, you get the hint?
I had a cigarette for breakfast, just for beginners
Pride for my lunch and sleep for dinner
I tried to go to church, priest called me a sinner
He called me everything, except for a winner
I’m walking in the rain wishing things would change
It ain’t a game, man I pawned all the rings and chains
Emotionally scarred from losing my job
Pass the nod nigga, times is hard
A man I’ve never seen before appeared in my apartment, screaming.
Accompanied by a sneering, massive German Shepherd, at 8:30 AM on a Saturday, this of course woke me up.
“What are you doing here?! Your time is up! Your time is up!”
Groggily, I assume he was sent here by my landlord. Yesterday was the deadline for paying the bulk of $1600 owed to them. Being pretty much intimidated by their lawyer because of the confusing process to agree to this ‘settlement’, I knew the payment plan was impossible.
“Who are you? I…I…thought you were goin’ to file a writ of recovery..”
A ‘Writ of Recovery’ is what landlords file with housing courts to get the sheriff’s department to begin the process of physically removing a tenant from the premises. This usually happens if the tenant doesn’t show up to court after an eviction has been filed or after the tenant violated the payment plan agreement. Law enforcement will eventually post a notice on your door (with ‘resources’ for the homeless) and then you have 24 hours to vacate.
“You can leave now or I can spend $400 to $500 filing that and then have my lawyers never rest until they get that money from you. What’ll it be?”
Fuck a lawyer. Fuck debt. Laying down threats and raising your voice immediately puts me into another frame of mind. The kind where nothing else matters but the conflict between you and I.
“Whatever’s harder for you, bitch.”, I reply, and slam the door.
After a couple minutes of wiping the sleep from my eyes and putting my shoes on, I head out into the hallway. Not sure what the plan is, but that interaction was deeply unsatisfying. I want more, Nazi-dog be damned.
The man is gone though…probably for the best.
Lately, my TV stays on that show Survivorman. Back when it was popular, the chance of me watching it was pretty slim. But just like the background noise of everyday life influences what sort of music you listen to often, for me this is true with what shows I watch as well. This guy being out in the middle of nowhere and surviving with only minor supplies is appealing to me because the threat of homelessness seems to be about to consume and transform my entire life. No longer do possessions without function serve a purpose.
Trash bags and boxes get filled quickly. My notebooks of rhymes from the early 2000s? Trashed. All my copies of Murder Dog? In the garbage. Random CD’s? Comics? Sketchbooks? Tossed.
Doing this feels a little like digging up the zombie corpse of my past, just to beat it to death again. Most of this stuff has followed me wherever I’ve lived, not because it had any use, but because it reflected who I am in some way. What I do keep are items that to throw away would bring up feelings of guilt and remorse. In a separate box for storage go the letters my sisters sent when I was in jail, along with other family related letters and pictures. Not seeing them very often, in some ways these are the nearest tangible things I have of them in the absence of their presence.
At work, the day whisks by quickly. Paperwork appears, somehow obtains my handwriting all over it, and then disappears. Interactions are brief and forgettable. I don’t join in on the usual complaining about something at the job.
The main guy I’m tight with can tell something is off about me. He assumes it has something to do with a girl and asks me. Reluctantly, I explain my situation, rapidfire-like and animated. He pauses for a second and then:
“Nigga, you gotta stop worrying about that shit. The worrying part is worse than the actual shit that happens. I know, I been there!”
I feel a little bit better.
My back aches. This bullshit futon wrecks my body at night. Change into my work clothes. Sheriff’s deputies will likely arrive 4-5 hours into my shift. This is the last morning here. I want to destroy this apartment. Punch holes in the wall, spray paint the wood floors, shatter the windows. This would probably result in multiple criminal charges though.
Instead, next to my building and apartment keys, I leave a note saying:
“Here ya go, ya fucking scumbag…”
After a brief stay at my best friend’s place, in which she understandably became frustrated at having to assist me in yet another crisis, I take my chances with a homeless shelter. Wait in line. Enter basement of church. Breathalyzed. Name entered into lottery. Filthy couch. I sit.
Almost all the shelter workers (volunteers?) are white, while us trying to get in are almost all black and brown. I recognize a few faces from the neighborhood and various odd jobs, but am too embarrassed to check in with them.
To my right, a rough looking homeless white boy with a Boston accent is praising the right-wing Governor of an adjacent state. A Governor who has employed a scorched Earth policy on what meager programs exist to assist people like us. This is the American concept of ‘whiteness’ in a nutshell.
The lottery starts. 12 spots open. 12 spots filled. About 30 minutes into it my name is called for the 11th spot on the waiting list. This basically translates to ‘shit outta luck’. Grab my backpacks and hit the streets. Guess I’ll be moving from couch to couch for now…
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:
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.
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
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 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.
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).
- Lucy Parsons, “Third Day Afternoon Session, The 1905 Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the IWW,”http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/unio…
- Wobblies was the common slang term to describe members of the IWW.
- Paul Frederick Brissenden, The IWW: A Study of American Syndicalism (New York: Columbia University, 1920), 352.
- Delegate Charles Kiehn, “Sixth Day Morning Session, The 1905 Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the IWW,”http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/unio…
- Fred Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years (Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World, 1976), 23.
- Preamble in Brissenden, The IWW, 351.
- Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 67.
- Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1964), 195.
- Ibid., 202.
- Ibid., 150.
- Ibid., 139.
- Ibid., 235.
- Ibid., 221.
- Smith, Subterranean Fire, 74.
- James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925 (New York: Vintage Books,1967), 7.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ibid., 108.
- Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, 40.
- Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 137.
- Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 70.
- Ibid., 60-61.
- Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 168.
- Stewart Bird, Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW (Chicago: Lake View Press, 1985), 67.
- Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, 24.
- Ibid., 25.
- Quoted in Ralph Darlington, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism: An International Comparative Analysis (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 97.
- Philip Foner, “The IWW and the Black Worker,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1970).
- John Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Monad Press) 1986, 17.
- Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 123.
- Justice for the Negro: How Can He Get It? (1919), available on line at http://libcom.org/library/justice-negro-….
- Foner, “The IWW and the Black Worker.”
- Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 173.
- Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, 48-49.
- Ibid., 173.
- Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, 55.
- Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 313.
- Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the US, Vol. 4, 318.
- Thompson, The IWW: It’s First Seventy Years, 79.
- Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, 114-115.
- “Government Suppression,” 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_…
- William D. Haywood, The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood (New York: International Publishers, 1977), 360.
- V.I. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder (New York: International Publishers, 2009), 36-37.
- Thompson, The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, 196.
- James P. Cannon, “The IWW,” 1955, http://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/w…