We received a number of replies and great discussion from the piece by S Nappalos on the IWW’s locality versus industrial structures. E.A. Martinez has sent a lengthy response raising points of criticism and agreement that is worth engaging. While the discussion centers around structures of the IWW, bigger issues are at hand. In reality the debate centers around the role of the workplace organizer, how they relate to their job and neighborhood, and where we situate their struggles. We’re glad to see this thoughtful reply, and hope it generates some reflection and responses.
The division between local organization and industrial organization – and which should prevail over the other – has been a hot topic of debate within revolutionary unions for decades, and the IWW is no exception. Locality and Shop Inside Revolutionary Unions provides one perspective on whether the local form (the General Membership Branch, or GMB) or the industrial form (the Industrial Union Branch, or IUB) is superior.
After examining attempts by the Portland IWW to build a patchwork of IUBs in the early 2000s, the author concludes that industrial organization is not suited for the present socio-economic conditions in which we find ourselves, or for the present state of the IWW. Rather, we should look to build the IWW as local groups of militants and political radicals who “take [their militancy] with them through their jobs.”
The author points to many Wobblies’ opposition to activism as one of the chief causes for the preference of industrial units over local units, which is not untrue. Many Wobblies have argued that locality-based IWW branches are often mistaken for merely another acronym in a city’s alphabet soup of revolutionary groups, book clubs, NGOs, and non-profits. To combat the perception of the IWW as anything but an industrial union, Wobblies have pushed for more workplace- and industry-based organization, as this will demonstrate to activists that we are in fact a union, and not one of many political clubs. (more…)
There’s been a long debate within the revolutionary union movement about structure and specifically about the relationship between locality-based units and workplace/trade/industrial based units. Though not well known, the IWW also had battles with these concepts with different factions trying to abolish the General Recruiting Unions, the predecessor of the General Membership branch uniting all workers based on a local who lacked a Industrial Union Branch, and other trying to support it. The recruiting unions were banned at some periods of IWW history and had to be brought back though not without controversy. Other revolutionary unions such as the CNT of Spain and FORA of Argentina maintained both locality based grouping and workplace based ones. This piece explores the debate around these issues within the IWW and experiences both with locality-units and workplace-units from recent activities, and attempts to get at the issues of our tasks and objectives beyond only looking at structures.
Area, Shop, and Revolution: a case for both locality and workplace unitary organization
Scott Nikolas Nappalos
In the early 2000s a series of experiments were carried out in the IWW that led to the formation of Industrial Union Branches (IUBs). Alongside the handful of IUBs emerged ideas around why IUBs should be prioritized and their superiority to other structures. The IUBs primarily were initiated in the Portland IWW after a series of struggles that produced the largest and most dynamic area for IWW workplace organizing in the union for decades. The Portland IWW ballooned to its peak with membership in the hundreds in the early 2000s after a decade of organizing attempts in the 1990s, and some high profile contract campaigns, strikes, and actions at the turn of the century. As membership grew, Portland moved from a General Membership Branch (GMB) towards IUBs in areas where there were a concentration of members: social service, construction, education, restaurants, grocery/retail, and transportation.
General Membership Branches were created late in the IWW’s life. At it’s peak, the IWW was built on active workplace branches centered in industries. The IWW arose in a time different from ours in which workers were actively seeking out alternatives such as the IWW. Before the IWW existed, groups like the German brewers, Western Federation of Miners, La Resistencia of the Tampa cigar workers, and others openly moved to revolutionary anti-capitalist ideas, and workers struggles moved towards insurrectionary militancy in conflicts with the police, militias, and military. Workers ended up far to the left of the unions through their aspirations for a better world, their actions, and the necessity of confronting a hostile system. The IWW often organized by going to these wildcat strikes, and attempting to organize the striking workers. In other cases radicalized workers would move to the IWW as part of their trajectory against the political and union establishments. In an environment where there was already active workers struggle that outpaced both the political parties and unions of their day, centering the structure of the IWW on workplace structures made sense. Though other formations existed such as Industrial District Councils (where multiple IUBs coordinated in a city, which the Portland IWW also had in existence) and General Recruiting Unions (similar to GMBs today, where workers without IUBs could begin to plan their IUBs), it wasn’t until after the total collapse of the IWW’s workplace presence and in a new regime of State-Labor-Capitalist collaboration that GMBs were proposed. (more…)