Response to Direct Unionism

This post is by our friend and fellow IWW member John O’Reilly. John writes in reply to the Direct Unionism discussion paper which has been the subject of some discussion in IWW circles. For people who haven’t already read the discussion paper, John’s reply is a good starting point for entering the conversation.

Response to Direct Unionism

by John O’Reilly

A new pamphlet called Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper, written by some IWW members, has stirred much discussion in the past months. I agree with much of the paper and find the majority of it a useful way of pushing forward thoughts about what the union does and how it can do better today. I think any serious piece of writing put out by IWW members about our methods and ideas is an important contribution to our organizing culture and am excited that there’s been so much response to this piece. I have a few disagreements of the pamphlet that I believe are worth laying out. I will not dwell on my agreement with the pamphlet, but instead will pose some respectful criticism about ways in which I think it could be improved.

First, to summarize their basic argument: The authors criticize several practices or ideas among some IWW members. Their primary critique is against the contract as the end goal of an IWW campaign. The contract, the authors argue, not only is not enough of a goal because it leads to the constant headache of stagnant shops, but on a political level it actively slows down class struggle by functioning as a compromise between labor and capital. The compromise embodied in the contract promotes social peace not struggle. Obtaining and servicing a contract pushes a union away from shop floor struggle and towards workplace contractualism. They also find a useful way of dealing with the question “What if the membership wants a contract in a democratic organization?” by effectively arguing that if the membership wants that, we’ve failed in our job as good organizers no matter what the outcome.

The authors counterpose to this contractual approach a union focused on struggle, on building fights, wins and losses, and keeping organization democratic yet smart. They spell out an articulate and compelling perspective on what the IWW should be doing. We should be a union of militant workers, engaged in the direct work of building the class struggle and always upping our peoples’ level of consciousness, experience, and dedication to the class. In two key details their critique is mistaken though: their lack of concern for organizational form and their dichotomy between contracts and non-recognition.

The authors write that they are not terribly concerned with the form in which workplace struggle takes. They say: “We try not to overemphasize formalism (…) we don’t judge a struggle simply on its particular form—be it the union form, the workplace assembly form, or a “workers council” form.” This is a mistake, and it’s spelled out concretely throughout a section titled Are We Trying to Build A “Union”? For the direct unionists, the answer seems to be “not necessarily.” I disagree. 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.” Anecdotally, people working in fast food and restaurants in the Twin Cities know that there’s a union for them because of the IWW’s campaign at the Jimmy John’s sandwich shops here. Without the union form, these workers would not still be talking about these possibilities in a concrete way because there would be no organization for them to plug into. Having a clear organization is important because it allows us to build a strong union identity through our culture of solidarity and allow other groups of workers to see our vision in practice and step closer to us.

The organization is not, or at least should not, be a “union of militants” as the paper seems to suggest, but instead a “union of militant workers.” By that I mean that the IWW should not be an organization of highly developed cadre organizers who stir up struggle at work, but should be a formal union made of workers with different levels of consciousness and organizing ability that is always pushing to develop our members. There will always be people with different levels of experience and consciousness and by embracing the union form, we can draw in workers from wherever they are at and develop them upwards as revolutionaries. After all, if we’re serious about revolutionary struggle, we need to build our organizational ability widely through the class struggle, as early IWW organizers suggested that revolutionary industrial unionism should train us to run the economy after a revolution. By building the union, by bringing in workers and having experiences of struggle with them, we have spaces for bringing up workers and building them into organizers and revolutionaries.

The direct unionists call for “a need for organization,” but don’t adequately explain what organization means. If we don’t pay enough attention to organization, our analysis of how to act gets fuzzy and we can make mistakes that neither build the class struggle nor make our lives any better. We act united and public because that’s how we have power. We should carry a revolutionary unionist banner and act in a revolutionary unionist way. If not, then what leadership can we provide? Being clear about what it is we are and what we’re doing is an important part of organizing. How many times have we explained the politics of the IWW to someone in a one-on-one and heard “Wow, the IWW believes in something! That’s inspiring!” The truth is that like it or not, workers look to organizers and militants for ideas. By raising the banner of the IWW and building ourselves as a formal, revolutionary union, we make it easier to join the organization by building an IWW identity through culture and organizing, and make it easier to develop our members internally by intentionally thinking as an organization about membership development.

The second main mistake of the direct unionist perspective is their confusion of recognition and contractualism as the same thing. Here it’s worth quoting the piece at length:

“[We’d] like to note that direct unionism does not reject recognition from the boss. It only rejects ‘official’ recognition and the legalistic methods (contracts, labor board elections, union registration) used to do so. This pamphlet intentionally stresses the ‘here and now’, but if we reach a point where the IWW is a majority presence in a shop, recognition won’t go much further than there being a recognized IWW delegate who is management’s “first point of call” when it come to shop conditions.”

The direct unionists argue that that recognition is a possibility in the distant future, but in the short term most recognition is simply contractualism and should be avoided. It’s worth noting that the direct unionists effectively demolish contractualism as an IWW strategy throughout the piece, a critique that I share. They argue though that we can get contracts and get sucked into the negative aspects associated with them, or we can act directly as a group of workers using direct action and avoid all those pitfalls. But the question of recognition is not a distant one, in fact it’s a major feature in most of our current workplace campaigns.

In all the IWW union fights that I have participated in or interacted in, the question of recognition and legitimacy have been reoccurring themes, sometimes explicit and sometimes implied. The bosses sometimes attempt to delegitimize the union by arguing that a direct action approach is not a union approach. This can play out many ways, but most often plays out by the boss saying “If they say they’re a union, then they should file for an election.” Here the boss is trying to put the question of the union’s legitimacy at the workplace often as part of an attempt to third-party the union. We can respond by filing an election, something which the direct unionists and I would oppose for reasons they lay out in the pamphlet, or we can stubbornly continue to push for only direct action, not being able to answer our coworkers’ question of why we won’t file. Under the current conditions of labor law and class consciousness, simply telling a coworker that an election is a bad idea politically is not an effective answer, because the IWW and the labor movement does not possess the cultural and ideological power that we would need for most people to accept our answers without seeing it for themselves. A fellow worker said to me that he thought all new branches run end up running at least one contract campaign for this very reason.

The question of legitimacy is thus a power factor in our union fights. I disagree with the contractual approach but also think that the direct unionists’ answer is also weak. Only relying on direct action leads us to question the reasons for going public with the union in the first place, which leads us to ask why we should organize a union at all and not stick to informal work groups, something the direct unionists say they oppose. We need to find a way to find an answer to the question of the union’s legitimacy and I think we can find it in the example which the direct unionists use to argue for non-contractualism, that of Philadelphia’s Local 8, the IWW’s longshoreman’s union in the 1910’s and 20’s.

The direct unionists say “It [Local 8] established ‘worker control’ on the Philadelphia docks while balancing bread-and-butter concerns with radical, non-contractual principles. To achieve this Philadelphia’s longshore workers would strike any pier in which a shipper tried to bring in non-union labor to unload cargo.” What the direct unionists don’t include here though is that through a strong organizing campaign that took years to fight Local 8 was recognized by the shipper’s organization as the legitimate representative of longshoremen in Philadelphia. The IWW had a hiring hall which the shipping companies used to get workers, much like modern longshoring unions do. Also workers believed that the IWW was their legitimate representative and would refuse to work with longshoremen who were not paid up or would not wear union buttons. In short, through a vigorous campaign of direct action, the IWW fought for and received formal recognition outside of a contractual framework. (Refer to Peter Cole’s Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia for support for this section)

The direct unionists could be throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. Even if we find contractualism a mistake for revolutionary unionism, we need to note that there are different kinds of recognition and that the question of legitimacy cannot be solved simply by hoping that workers will see the union as legitimate by practicing direct action. Capitalist ideology is pervasive and we need to face the fact that today given a choice between pure direct actionism and a contract which recognizes the union, workers will often opt for a contract because it makes the union seem like a legitimate force in the work place. The IWW needs to fight to find ways that deal with the problem of legitimacy that do not give up our tools of direct action, but rather make them part of the culture of work.

Much of the Direct Unionism pamphlet correctly exposes and argues against approaches that would make it more difficult to develop a fully worked-out model of revolutionary unionism. “Business unionism with red flags” remains an important idea to consider and struggle against within our own organizing and organization. It is not simply enough to declare that we are revolutionaries and that it follows that everything we do is revolutionary. We need an organizing practice which matches up to our vision and values about the unionism we would like to see. In developing that practice though, we must carefully interrogate the practices that we think are associated with business unionism and ask ourselves the same questions we ask ourselves. Just because some organizations declare themselves to be business unionists does not mean that everything that follows is inherently business unionist. Reformism has the same problems of praxis that revolutionary unionism has and we should be able to correctly analyze what the “best practices” are and use them to our class’s advantage.

This article originally appeared at John’s blog, Thoughts on the Struggle. Interested readers can find the Direct Unionism discussion paper and all the published discussion at