Friday, October 01, 2010

[olympiaworkers] The Modern Relevance of the IWW

The Modern Relevance of the IWW

by Arthur J. Miller

Working people have always existed in every society. Those who produce the
goods and services that all depend upon are the one common element that all
human communities must have in order to survive. All other human endeavors
are secondary to that. Rulers, bosses, armies, churches, political parties
and so on cannot exist without the workers. Throughout the ages there have
been those who did, or sought to, exploit the labor of working people for
their own benefit. No matter what form this exploitation comes in, it all
come down to this, the accumulation of wealth and power by a few from the
labor of the many. This has been justified in many ways by the talking heads
of the exploiters. But the single fact remands, the exploiters are not a
necessary part of human society, whereas working people are.

There has been a conflict of interest between working people and those who
exploit them since the beginning. That conflict of interest has been between
the interest of the few exploiters to gain as much as possible off the labor
of the many, and the interest of the many, the working people, to produce
the needs of society for the well-being of all.

The struggle of working people against their exploitation has taken many
forms over the years. At one point in that struggle, they started to
organize their places of labor and these organizations became known as
unions. The first organizations were that of single shops and later based
upon the trade or skill of the workers. It was found that single shop
organizing did not have the power to stand up to the employers who were able
to use the might of the State against them. It was also found that trade or
skill form of unionism tended to divide workers and left many workers

Out of the lessons learned single shops joined together in organizations of
similar shops all the way to confederations of unions. After a while the
labor movement found that organizing whole industries themselves rather than
the individual trades in industry was a much stronger form of organization,
this became known as industrial unionism.

Out of the direct experiences of labor struggles, a number of veteran union
organizers came together to discuss how a stronger labor movement could be
created and they issued an Industrial Union Manifesto that called for a
founding convention of a new organization in 1905. That new organization
became the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and its members over time
became known as Wobblies.

This new organization was based upon industrial unionism where all workers
on the same job belonged to the same union and all workers in the same
industry would belong to the same industrial union.

The IWW sought to organize workers into an organization of industrial unions
rather than a federation of unions. The difference was that there could be
greater coordination of organizing and industrial action. The IWW created an
organizational form of industrial unions, industrial departments and all
together as the One Big Union. One organization with many component parts
that all work together. Each component part dealing with the needs and
issues of its members and when the needs and issues go beyond a component
part then they are addressed by the next component part in a horizontal form
of organization. Here is how this works: the Job Branch is the workplace
organization of each shop. There the shop's needs and issues are dealt with.
The Job Branch is a branch of a local Industrial Union Branch (if there is
no Industrial Union Branch yet organized then it is a branch of the local
General Membership Branch), and the Industrial Union Branch deals with local
industrial organizing and industrial action, within its industry and deals
with the common needs and issues of all the Job Branches that it has
organized. Industrial Union Branches are branches of an Industrial Union.
All related industries are organized into Industrial Departments. There are
common needs of all IWW members and they are dealt with by a General
Administration and General Membership Branches are branches of a General

The IWW became a constitutional organization that all members agreed to
abide to and it became the common agreement between all members of the IWW.
That constitution protected the rights of all members of the IWW through
direct democracy and the constitution could only be amended or changed by a
vote of all members through a union wide referendum.

The IWW believed that the gains of any workers should not come at the
expense of other workers and thus upheld the principles of universal labor
solidarity. As the IWW Preamble puts it "These conditions can be changed and
the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in
such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if
necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department
thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all."

The IWW realized that workers divided could not carry on the struggle that
was needed. Thus the IWW opened its membership to all workers regardless of
race, sex, religion, ethnicity, or other such means of division, on an equal
level. Throughout its history the IWW has sought to educate working people
and to stand against all forms of bigotry that divided them.

The IWW sought and still does seek, to empower working people. This means
that the IWW advocates that working people act directly for themselves
without delegating others to act for them. This is what we call direct

The IWW realized that the employing class was not limited to the confines of
nation states. If the IWW were to limit its organizing and industrial action
to one nation it would be unable to stand up to the power of the employing
class which is international. Historically national unions have often
concerned themselves mostly with what they see as the interests of workers
in their country. Even when it is clear that concerns need to be
international often national unions find cooperation hindered by there fear
of losing their control over workers in their countries. Also in dealing
with the necessity of international struggle, negotiating through the
structural apparatus of many national unions would be very slow and
sometimes nearly impossible. The IWW views the working class not as divided
up by nationalities based upon nation states and confined by national
borders, but rather as an international class with common interests. Though
culturally the working class is very diverse, but the IWW sees the diversity
of workers as a strength and not a weakness. That is the reason why the IWW
did not become the Industrial Workers of the U.S. or North America, but
rather became the Industrial Workers of the World.

The IWW realized that the class conflict between those who worked and those
who lived off that labor was not a necessary part of the human existence.
Thus the IWW sought in the long run to put and end to class conflict by
elimination of classes as a part of society. By organizing workers into the
IWW based upon their day-to-day struggles for better conditions, as that
organization would grow it was also be creating the formation of "a new
society within the shell of the old", as the IWW Preamble puts it.

The idea of creating a new society, as the IWW sought and still seeks, is
plain, simple and based upon the reality of the working class condition as
it existed then and now. The employing class is an organized power. But it
is not potentially the most powerful force that there is. Without the labor
of working people to exploit the power of the employing class is nothing.
The goal of the IWW is to organize that productive power until the organized
power of the working class is greater than the organized power of the
employing class. At that time a new society will be possible and an end to
class conflict will come about.

It has been seen throughout history that the act of organizing can create
within itself a ruling class. This can be seen in many other unions where
union leaders control the union and then there is the membership who is
being control by those union leaders. Whenever this type of situation takes
places there is a conflict of interests between the rulers and those who are
ruled and this will lead to class conflict. The interests of the rulers is
to maintain their rule and increase that which they gain by that rule. The
interests of the union membership is in improving their conditions and
controlling the means of doing that. The IWW is not interested in creating
new rulers. Thus the IWW is a rank and file controlled organization and
places limits on how long any officer can hold an office. This is important
in the day-to-day struggles of working people and it is essential to create
a new society without classes.

Since the IWW was not a top down driven organization but rather an
organization for workers, of workers, and controlled by workers themselves,
the IWW became a means of worker self-expression. Everything in the IWW is
worker self-expression because in the IWW is nothing but workers. Wobblies
learning to speak for themselves as workers created a culture of
self-expression that can be seen far beyond just official writing it can
include other class-conscious forms of expression: personal writings, songs,
art work, theatre, language, story telling, social events, that became a
Wobbly tradition. What the Wobblies did was to bring into the IWW the
working class culture that has always existed and made it an important part
of the organization and the Wobbly way of life. If working people are to
control their own labor they need to be able to speak for themselves and the
Wobbly culture created a means of doing that. Culture is a very powerful
means of creating strong bonds between people and that is very much needed
in the class struggle of working people.

The IWW does not seek to just be an organization of bargaining units,
though organizing bargaining units is important. The IWW seeks to create
Wobblies. That is workers who understand the struggle, who is the real
enemy, the need to stand in solidarity with each other and what the IWW
goals are. That takes education. The three stars of the IWW label stand for
*Education *Organization *Emancipation. Through its papers, literature,
speakers and culture, the IWW seeks to educate workers and when a worker
becomes a Wobbly, that worker becomes knowledgeable of the conditions of
working people and why they exist as they do.

The IWW does not allow any outside control of the organization. This means
all political parties or anti-political organizations are kept out of the
IWW and the IWW makes no alliances with them. Individual members may want to
be involved in such organizations and it is their right to do so, but they
can never bring into the IWW those organizations to have any standing within
the IWW. The IWW believes to do other wise would harm the unity of its

Although the main purpose of the IWW is to build an industrial organization,
but workers are affected by other issues. Wobblies have been active in peace
movements, human and civil rights movements, anti-fascism movements,
anti-racism movements, anti-sexism movements, environmental movements,
anti-nuclear movements, and so on, and the IWW as an organization has made
strong statements on such issues. The IWW views itself as the Industrial
Workers of the World and not just the Industrial Wage Slaves of the World
and thus confronts all the issues that are important to working people.

After the founding convention in 1905, Wobblies were involved in a lot of
organizing and industrial actions. Many books like to focus on the years
after the founding convention until the early 1920s. In part, this is
because in 1921 the Communist controlled Red Trade Union Congress in Moscow
demanded that the IWW dissolve itself and its membership join and work
within the AFL. The IWW would not allow any outside organizations to dictate
to it and refused to comply. We Wobblies will not take orders from Moscow or
any other group of would be rulers. Their stated complaint was that we were
a so-called dual union in that there were two organizations of labor unions
in the U.S. This was without merit because most members of the IWW worked in
industries that the AFL was unwilling to organize and the AFL was an
organization of reformist trade unions while the IWW was a revolutionary
organization of industrial unions. From that time on most communist and
fellow traveler writers viewed that the IWW died in 1921. In fact the year
of peak membership was in 1924 and the IWW continues to organize to this
day. Our longest time of shop control was in machine shops from the 1930s to
1950. We were hit hard in the 1950s by the government's witch hunts and from
the 1950s to the early 1970s we were an illegal labor union. Since then the
IWW has been rebuilding itself and has been involved in a lot of job
organizing and actions.

Like any organization that has been around for a long time, the IWW has
evolved in some ways, but our basic ideas on organization and actions are
still the same. Does this make the IWW some how out of date? No. The basic
ideas of the IWW are the most advanced union ideas ever to be expressed. .

In our modern world we have global capitalism that is mostly controlled by
multi-national corporations and their organized power is far greater than it
was in 1905. The national unions cannot stand up to the new economic
situation. Only an organization that is organized internationally with fine
turned coordination has any hope of dealing with the modern situation and
the only such organization that seeks to organize on that level is the IWW.

Just because ideas are old does not make them out of date. With great vision
the IWW saw how capitalism was developing created an organization with the
potentiality to face it. With the international organization of capitalism
with its multinational corporations, business associations, great influence
upon many governments of the world, international trade agreements and such
organizations as the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank,
capitalism has come a long way towards its goal of complete control of
everything that is exploitable for profit in our world. Though there is a
lot of good resistance to this, though it is mostly isolated, only the
organized power of the working class has any real hope in overcoming the
organized power of capitalism. An organization that is based at the source
of working people's power within industry at the point of production of
goods and services and has the organizational coordination to reach beyond
national borders and has the vision of how to create a new society. That
organization is the IWW. In our modern world of instant communication the
old idea of industrial union internationalism that once was just a hope
becomes a real possibility and all of this, the organizational ideas and the
modern means of communication makes the IWW even more relevant today than it
was in 1905.

As long as there are workers being exploited, there will always be Wobblies.
The IWW never died and it will never die as long as working people are
driven like beasts of burden by a few parasites who live off of our labor.

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