A Fellow Worker from the Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and England Administration on the necessity of class — not just shopfloor — organization.
Editor’s note: the following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the official views of the IWW or the Industrial Worker Editorial Committee
A fan favourite within the IWW is the illustration of a frazzled and visibly frustrated worker pointing at a factory yelling “organize!” while individuals representing different ideological trends stare at the stars.
The image rightfully points out (literally) the importance of organizing. But its intention is clear in that it seeks to differentiate the IWW from other organizations. The illustration will have us believe that it’s only the IWW that’s focused on organizing the workplace. Of course, this is not true, and we would be wrong to read too much into the illustration, a caricature. Unfortunately, we do. The reason that illustration has become a fan favourite is because it’s believed to succinctly communicate our strategy and our differentiator. The IWW’s Raison d’etre is to organize the workplace — nothing else.
The limits to workplace organizing
Unfortunately, this dogmatic embrace of a non-truth binds us to practices that have gotten us no closer to achieving the stated goals of the IWW. Furthermore, it closes us off from the flexibility our organization possess and turns a blind eye to the complexity of the ideological synthesis the IWW emerged out of.
The result of all of this is obvious, taking possession of the means of production, abolishing the wage system, and living in harmony with the earth, remain far from hand.
Our emphasis on workplace organizing has consistently been hitting up against its structural limits. This is not a theoretical statement. The fatigue, frustration, and burn out of our area organizers is testament to it. There is no shortage of trained and committed organizers, yet although our membership is growing (a fact we should celebrate more often) we do not see a corresponding rise in organized workplaces. Why is that so?
To begin with, there is a reality that our membership is still loosely located around our Regional Administration and dispersed within different industries. We usually have one to two members at a workplace which makes conversion of shops difficult.
There is also the fact that not all shops are organizable. The IWW takes pride, as it should, in organizing the ‘unorganizable’. It’s the marginalized that suffer the most under capitalism. But the most marginalized are also under the greatest threat of retaliatory measures. This also leaves out a large portion of workers who we don’t engage with. Increases in casualisation also means shorter work engagements, which means less opportunity to map and go through the process of agitation, education, inoculation, organization, to end with the Union.
Coupled with this is the fact that not everyone wants to or can be an organizer. I often hear fellow organizers proclaim, full of frustration, that every member of the union should be organizing in their workplace! Although this would be ideal, it’s simply unrealistic. Many cannot be organizers or do not have the personal disposition for it. Through our dogmatic embrace of workplace organizing, we see these individuals as dead weight who have only joined the union for ‘political’ reasons. As if that’s a bad thing.
Finally, a focus on workplace organizing turns a blind eye to those not located in workplaces or those not working. Freelancers, sex workers, houseworkers, the homeless and unemployed all don’t belong to workplaces. A focus on workplace organizing leaves the union absent of a large constituency of workers.
The limits of workplace organizing is one that has been consistently noted by revolutionaries. Even if a workplace is successfully unionised, the workplace itself might disappear, restructure, be bought out, or suffer from high turnover. Capitalist crises wipe out entire organizations in the blink of an eye. These all present structural limits to the ability of workplace organizing alone to bring about the revolutionary change the IWW seeks. So long as we think of the IWW as a union first we will continue to face an unending uphill battle of fighting against the effects of capitalism (bad working conditions, low wages, casualisation etc.) and not capitalism itself.
It’s important to note that I am not dismissing workplace organizing. The IWW’s focus on workplace organizing offers far more in terms of tangible and immediate results for workers than anarchist federations focusing exclusively on building networks of mutual aid or socialists and communists squabbling over the ‘correctness’ of their political programs.
In a way, our focus on organizing is the ‘service’ we provide to our members until we meet our goals. They’re small down payments we make until the rapture of the capitalist system.
Understanding this requires a shift of frame and an inversion of the way IWW members usually describe our union as opposed to other ‘service’ unions, when in fact, what we are is a revolutionary union that provides an organizing service (prefiguration).
From this perspective it becomes clearer that the illustration is not a condemnation of anything other than organizing but just that ‘organizing’ is the intermediate location between now and a revolutionary moment. It is how we “form the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”
Another overlooked aspect of that illustration is that the worker is not pointing to a workplace but a representation of all workplaces that is marked “industries”, a nod to another differentiator of the IWW, this time not from other revolutionary ideologies but from unions themselves. It is industrial organizing and not workplace organizing that is the vessel through which the workers of the world organize as a class.
The writers of the Preamble (as well as the illustrator) were no fools in locating the struggle not within individual workplaces or certain workers, but across industries and the entirety of the working class. It is only by doing so that we can ask for the abolition of the wage system in its entirety.
It is the historic mission of the working class, as a whole, they say, to do away with capitalism.
Organize the class, and the workplace will follow
It’s at this point that the importance of industrial organizing comes in. The writers of the preamble were conscious that if we focus on organizing individual workplaces then it’s only natural that we find ourselves boxed into the structural limits of union organizing. Industrial organizing, however, will set us free from the atomized process of workplace organizing. Industrial organizing also provides the solution to our other issues. Engaging with unpaid labour can only be done by organizing at an industrial level. Disparate groups of workers spread geographically and in different workplaces can also be unified, concentrated, and energized through organizing at an industrial level. Industrial organizing also means that we can focus on all types of workers inclusively, not just the most vulnerable. Engaging the varying strains of the working class can also unlock significant resource potentials that we are currently missing out on.
There is a misconception in the union that Industrial Unions will come naturally as workplace organizing grows. But as we have just shown this is highly unlikely as each workplace continues to fight against the daily challenges posed by their employers. As atomized units there are significant barriers to collaboration. Additionally, waiting for this theoretical maturation means that many of our members will remain on the fringes with little or no support. Dead potential — not dead weight.
IU organizing also means a more sustainable approach to organizing. As certain workplaces enter and exit the organizational cycle, IU’s can represent continuity and act as a repository for union memory.
Finally, IUs will provide a more equitable spread of responsibility and engagement. As it stands, local branches are playing multiple functions and none of them well. From training to organizing, a few individuals in each branch are carrying the burden of the entire union. IU’s allow for the sharing of organizing responsibility by bridging various geographic areas together meaning that local groups will only need to provide support not lead the charge.
IUs solve a lot of the problems we currently face with workplace organizing, but they are not enough on their own. Even if we’re able to structurally move away from workplace organizing to IU organizing, we are still stuck within a limited interpretation of organizing itself.
To truly unlock the potential of the IWW we need to reorient the entire organization towards the concept of organizing the class, workplaces are sure to follow.
Fit for Purpose
In addition to the structure of IUs, centralised departments and local branches themselves need to alter their focus. This would create a three-pronged structure fit for purpose that would look something like this.
General Membership Branches: Local branches represent the widest spectrum of workers in a geographic area. They form in a way that is akin to federations or councils. It makes little sense that these groupings of workers from different industries should be charged with the organizing work itself. As a local grouping of workers, its focus should be on confronting local community issues. This can be done by establishing local networks of alliance/partnerships with social and political groups (tenants associations, rights activists, poverty reduction initiatives, etc.), organizing neighbourhood defence committees, or taking the spirit of direct action to confront local issues.
This does not mean that they should abandon workplace organizing. Local branches should continue to be a locus of training and support. More importantly, they will always be the front line of any campaign work. This makes local branching the ultimate funnel of growth while also providing a varied number of issues for members to engage with and remain active.
Departments or National/Regional Bodies: To be effective in building a class movement, local branches cannot be completely independent autonomous ‘councils’, they need to be connected. It is departments that must act as the connective tissue to the various parts. Departments need to tap into all the branches and understand and respond to their needs. This can be in developing training material, financial records, media, or circulate and amplify the work done by one branch to the rest of the branches. It is both a productive and supportive element for the entire organization but not a directing one.
Robust departments would also provide greater opportunity for members to engage who may not be directly interested in or able to organize but have valuable skills that can be volunteered for the general administration of things.
It is also the departments that can launch national campaigns such as the previous 4-hour day, 4-day week IWW campaign that found widespread appeal. This too, is organizing.
Industrial Unions: IUs are the organizational wing of the union. All members of the IWW should belong to a local branch and an IU. There is often various section of workers within an IU. For example, IU620 (education workers) will most likely consist of students, schoolteachers, university teachers, and others. These different workers may find it useful to organize through networks within the IU but should also organize as an IU within local branches. As such every local branch can have an IU620 committee, members of this committee will interact with other members around the Regional Administration that are part of their network. Committee and network chairs will constitute the regional IU.
In this way, area organizers and branches can assist IU branch committees (help form them, provide training, organizing support) while regional IU committees synchronize activity and provide resources and support, functioning similarly to departments
The above proposal constitutes an entire shift in the approach of the IWW. Growing the union no longer hinges on the probability that a workplace organizer can recruit their colleagues into the union with the hopes of unionising a shop. Instead, it now becomes a question of building mass appeal through campaigns at the regional and industrial level and then channelling a mass membership into organizing. It also accounts for the variance in personal disposition and provides all members alternative ways in engaging in meaningful organization outside of the workplace as well, be it in their communities or within the union.
Infrastructures of Dissent and Counter Hegemony
Its only through understanding organization on a class level that we can start making progress. Revolutionary change requires a mass movement that can further influence society at large while making gains on terrain that allows to the greatest leverage in meeting our revolutionary goals — striking. It’s no secret though, that any success in mobilising on that front will be met with heavy handed suppression.
For this reason, in addition to our focus on community and workplace organizing, we need to keep in mind ways in which this mass movement can be sustained beyond legislative or workplace suppression. This can only be done by combining mass agitation and organization with the establishment of infrastructures of dissent (coops, credit unions, housing provisions, union halls, autonomous spaces etc.). It is on this infrastructure that our voluntary union can pose itself for a prolonged fight against capitalism and build the physical space in which the counterculture needed to withstand attacks can flourish. The union needs to be built metaphorically by showing people that there is a better way and literally by providing this way.
For now, however, our biggest impediment to growth is not the state or our lack of infrastructure, but our dogmatic interpretation of organizing. Only by surmounting this barrier can we start organizing to win.