Developing the IWW’s Direct Unionism Politics

This post by  Juan Conatz rekindles a discussion sparked by the discussion paper on Direct Unionism, which you can find here.

Cleaning out my numerous Google Doc drafts, I found this, which continues the direct unionism debate by taking on most of the responses to the original discussion paper. So I decided to finish it, as most of the written discussion has dropped off.

First off to clear something up, I did not write (not even one word!) the original discussion paper. There seems to sometimes be confusion over that, probably due to the fact I wrote 2 reviews in the Industrial Worker newspaper. Honestly, outside of a few people who later became involved in Recomposition, a former American Wobbly who is now in Solidarity Federation and some folks I associate with the Workers Power column, I don’t know who all wrote the thing. It was a collaborative effort involving a group of Wobblies over a couple year’s time.

Looking back on the discussion paper, I think (the authors would probably agree) it should be seen as an unfinished draft. Further along than a rough draft but not quite a final draft. I don’t view it as a complete program conceived in full agreement. Speaking of ‘direct unionists’ or a ‘direct unionist tendency’, which sometimes happens, is sort of misdirected because it talks of differences and perspectives in terms of factions. This is convenient when speaking in generalizations or to identify commonality, but can also be unnecessarily divisive or destructive. Part of how I interpret direct unionism is not as a sexy self-identifier, but as building a culture of seriously talking about IWW organizing in a way that advances our practice. To put it a bit more clearly, it’s not about being part of a formalized tendency that ‘wins’ out, but about pushing debate in a way where it has organizational ramifications that are discussed and decided upon by membership. Also, another problem of the sexy self-identifier is that it can be more about the term and not about the ideas. I’ve come across a few Wobs that identify with the term, but then advocate ideas that are basically the opposite of what the paper advocates.

Those ideas the paper advocates, in my opinion are:

1)Anti-contractual, as well as being against National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections and overly relying on Unfair Labor Practices (ULP’s) or using them as an offensive weapon.

2)Being enthusiastically pro-Organizer Training 101, particularly about the replace yourself parts, building more and better organizers and direct action grievances.

3)Being against permanent, full time, paid staff organizers.

4)Seeing value in membership, but emphasizing participation first.

5)Suspicion of formal recognition from the state or bosses.

There’s other stuff that can be taken from the discussion paper, but I think it’s safe to say this is the meat and potatoes of direct unionism.

Anyway, there’s been several different responses and comments related to the discussion paper, and I wanted to reply to parts of some.

The first one comes from a member of Black Orchid Collective. BOC is a small eclectic Marxist-influenced political organization based in Seattle. They write quite frequently and are worth checking out.

In their response, the author expresses agreement with the thrust of the paper, but brings up its lack of political content, made all the more relevant because of their experience as a care provider in a state-run facility.

to win, we need also to challenge the political narratives of the state, debate in the broader ideas about what health, care and disabilities justice means — We won’t be able to win in our little shops, in our expendable jobs, through class struggle narrative alone, on the basis that we are workers. We dont produce lifeless products, which we can abandon at will through class unity. As healthcare workers, our care for our patients and residents play into how we struggle, and how our struggle is perceived. The reason why the liberal state succeeds is because it is able to present itself as the spokesperson for the well-being of elderly people and people with disabilities in healthcare settings. We, the workers, need to break down that state monopoly and claim that role alongside our patients and their families. This is a struggle that is beyond the workplace. It is a battle against the state in the realm of ideas and analysis about healthcare, disabilities justice and the like, questions that cannot simply be answered by direct action on the job, but require study, conversation, debate, discussion etc.


While acknowledging this situation is unique, there are similar questions to much of our other organizing. What it comes down to is that we fight for bread and butter issues, but also have a revolutionary perspective. What is it and how does it transform our views of the jobs we organize at? Take education for example. The school system as it exists is often a horrible place for teachers and students. A radical approach needs to acknowledge and incorporate how the education system deals with, treats and conditions students, as well. Or fast food. I doubt we imagine ‘self-managing’ fast food restaurants or merely wanting the employment there to be better paid. Some have even advocated ‘abolishing restaurants’ altogether. The point is, we should have a wider critique of what that industry represents and the consequences of its existence.

Other parts of this response continue along ‘What is the political content?’ question, which is a valid one. I don’t have the answer for that. When it comes to what is our vision of society ‘post-revolution’, that’s something that needs to be developed more fully. But this is something an organization needs to be careful and concerned about. While such a thing, more fully developed, will help inform the practice in the now, this is something that can distract from real organizing, turning the membership inward, while elevating those who say over those who do. It’s a balancing act.

The last part of this response is on the unemployed.

Another question I have, is the role of the unemployed in relation to the IWW. As we all know, the high unemployment rate in the US right now reflects deeper racial divisions and segregation. A strategy for the working class needs also to include the demands of the unemployed, not simply for political reasons, but also for practical reasons. The precarious, low waged jobs that many of us are in means that our lifestyles and prospects are not that far from those who are unemployed. […]In building the leadership and consciousness of workers, how do the writers of Direct Unionism think through the relationship between precarious workers and the unemployed?


Another good question, which there probably isn’t an easy answer. In the 1930s, the IWW was involved in various unemployed movements, but I’m not sure of their activity. My question to the author would be, what do you think? One of the few things I’ve heard about this sort of organizing is refusing to work overtime because of the conception of overtime ‘scabbing’ on the unemployed. The desired effect was that refusing to work overtime would lead to people being hired, thus bringing them out of unemployment.

As a direct response to my reviews in the Industrial Worker, Sean G disagrees with both the discussion paper and my favorable opinion of it. While I would love to argue some more about this, Tom L sent a letter to the IW that tackles most of my disagreements with Sean. Chris A and Nate Hawthorne also replied and covered a bunch, too.

Also appearing in the IW was a letter from Staughton Lynd. I was pleased to see that someone who has been so influential on the IWW paying attention to our debates. He says:

I agree with Sean G. that there is nothing inherently sinful about reducing an oral understanding to writing. At the big Westinghouse plant east of Pittsburgh in the 1930s, if the management and the union reached an understanding about a particular matter, it would be written up and posted in the plant. And under Section 301 of the NLRA as amended, such an agreement can be enforced in the courts, and is therefore less likely to be ignored by management.

I find this a bit confusing, because Lynd has been one of the most critical people on the radical left of contractualism. If he didn’t invent the term, he certainly popularized the term within the labor movement. For one, mentioning enforcement of the courts brings up some questions. It is my understanding that Lynd is critical of getting wrapped up in contractualism and labor law, not only because this is the capitalist’s arena, but also because it takes disputes and decisions out of the hands of the rank-and-file. The problem with the example, is that it still would place the union as enforcer of this contract. A contract, to me, presumes a negotiation between the union and management of give and take. But I’m not sure we should be in the business of ‘giving’. Rather, how about the workers come to an agreement about their demands and then engage in the required amount of work disruption to get it? From that point, management has to show their agreement through action and meet the demands, or disruption continues. In my opinion, this sort of ‘job conditioning’ avoids the pitfalls of representation and negotiation that were the seeds of the contractualism we see today. Making negotiation happen through action seems to possibly be a way of doing this. I realize this raises lots of questions about the level of militancy, firings and other topics.

In sort of an extended version of his reply to Sean G on the development of labor law and contractualism, Nate Hawthorne wrote a blogpost titled ‘Workers, the state and struggle’. In it, he gets more in depth about why current labor law is the way it is. Where he talks about direct unionism, he echoes the Black Orchid response by saying:

the point is that those of us who are engaged in conversations about the form of workers’ struggles, including so-called direct unionism and other efforts to avoid the traps of collective bargaining and other institutionalized forms of workers’ struggles, we should have further discussion about a few things. One thing I think we should discuss further is the role of explicit, openly revolutionary political perspectives as part of our activity in struggle.

This is also a big part of his piece, ‘Mottos & Watchwords: a discussion of politics and mass organization’, which, as I understand it, being one of the authors of the original discussion paper, was him addressing what he saw as shortcomings of it. As I already stated, I agree that the political content of direct unionism could be developed more, but this task is inseparable from the task of developing the IWW’s political content more. So while, this critique of direct unionism is fair, in some ways, it misses the mark, as neither direct unionism nor the IWW itself is very clear on how practice and vision are related and linked.

As the Black Orchid response makes clear, there are organizing situations which necessitate a wider vision. But also, as Nate argues in ‘Navigating negotiations’, without this wider vision, we’re in danger of just kickstarting the existing institutions that aim to simply make a ‘better capitalism’ to work for us. One of the reasons alternative unionism arises, and this includes solidarity unionism as well as direct unionism, is that the current scheme isn’t working. Not even in the narrow parameters that it is meant for. When this happens, alternatives arise. This sometimes gets the current scheme to start working, which will attempt to incorporate these alternatives. Incorporation is inevitable unless the alternative has a vision beyond that scheme.

Moving on from Nate, the next response comes from IWW members in Vancouver. ‘Direct unionism in practice: undermining service industry barriers to worker solidarity’ gets a bit more specific than some of the other responses, describing both Canadian labor law and the service industry.

Not being Canadian, there’s not much for me to say on the labor law bit, but there’s a lot to agree with here. The recognition that there are things we do at work daily to deal or even resist the imposition of wage labor is an important thing. These ‘informal work groups’ should be the basis of our organizing, and are the key to many campaigns.

The last sentence of this article has really stuck with me. It says:

Without the basic infrastructure to carry out these direct actions and the willingness of IWW organizer’s to let go of the organizing based on site/contracting, the IWW is irrelevant; it becomes simply a club in which to wax poetic about the ideals and dreams of a liberated working class.

To me, this means that even if we wanted to, the IWW can not be a regular reformist union based on collective bargaining contracts. This isn’t the basis for our potential power and will not succeed as a strategy.

I do have some concerns about what is written about affiliation (which I assume means membership). Deemphasizing membership too much can lead to our co-workers not taking what we’re doing seriously and impede the identification of the union as the vehicle for what we need and what we’re doing.

This gets us to the most recent response to the discussion paper, by fellow Twin Cities IWW member John O’Reilly. On the topic of formal membership and building a union he says:

The union form, the IWW version of the union form at least, is important. We need to build formal organization and we need to be able to use that to build an IWW identity. A union as the IWW practices it is a group of workers coming together to represent their interests and act against the boss’s interests today and in doing so building a fight against the boss class’s interests tomorrow. By building the union, we push our message throughout the class and have a flag that we can point to and say “See, this is what the union does.”

I agree with this. Despite the often negative connotations with the word ‘union’, it’s something we have to redefine ourselves. That possibility exists now because as much as there are many bad things associated with the word, there are many people (most people in fact) with little experience with unions.

The various conversations that have branched out from direct unionism have been valuable for me personally, and in my opinion, have been much needed in the IWW. There’s much more to say, and much more to experiment with, and I hope we continue to do both.