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Union Contracts and Romanticizing the IWW

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Daniel Gross’ discussion of IWW Local 8, the iteration of the Wobblies on the Philadelphia docks during the 1910s is interesting, but it’s a lot more problematic as a lesson that “could transform the labor movement,” as the article’s title states.

Local 8 wasn’t just created by a direct action—and that’s what is so remarkable and instructive about its example. Each and every gain on the job and in the industry—from big-picture issues like wages and hours, to fighting back against everyday management abuse—was won by direct organizing, rather than representation by union officials.

Startling and even unfathomable to many unionists today, Local 8 did not sign contracts with employers and was adamantly against doing so. Fletcher himself vehemently condemned unionists who would enter into contracts with employers.

The exclusive collective bargaining agreement between company and union as well as the employer collected-dues that come with it are sacred cows in the contemporary labor movement. How did Local 8 maintain a union industry with a union standard without signing contracts?

Dues-paying members of Local 8 wore pins that indicated that they were in good standing for a given month. If a worker showed up to unload a ship without the pin for the month, he’d be approached by his union co-workers. The worker would be informed or reminded that this was a union job, with the higher standard of living and dignity that came with organized work. At that point, ideally, the worker would get his dues paid to one of his co-workers serving as an elected delegate of Local 8.

If the worker couldn’t be persuaded to join or get paid up and the boss allowed him to undermine the standard by working non-union, workers would strike on the spot. In the highly time-sensitive business of unloading a ship, it wouldn’t be long until the fellow worker would pay up, move on or get laid off until getting into good standing. A union job secured not by operation of a contract but by the initiative and power of worker self-activity is the hallmark of solidarity unionism and the Local 8 model.

I’m fairly uncomfortable with the emphasis a lot of labor activists today place upon individual empowerment and vague ideas of solidarity as a way forward. It’s quite fitting in a post-Occupy period–Occupy members often have very strong and positive ideas about the IWW. Given the number of labor activists, including insiders within the AFL-CIO who openly talk of moving to a post-labor law period, all options are on the table for the future. But while this kind of ultra-democratic unionism enforced by group solidarity sounds great, there’s one big problem. The IWW never accomplished anything long-lasting, precisely because its avoidance of union contracts meant that companies had the long-term advantage. Note the next part of Gross’ piece:

Local 8 never received the support it would have needed to endure against the multitude of forces arrayed against it. Battered by the unjust imprisonment of its leaders, relentless employer attacks, aggressive pressure from a government favored union, and its own internal strains, Local 8 of the IWW was defeated in the years after World War I. The federal National Labor Relations Act followed in 1935 and the consolidation of the traditional union model, now unraveling, was largely complete.

A lot going on in that paragraph. Local 8 never received the support it needed in part because it didn’t have the structure to demand long-term changes. One reason for that was because it eschewed union contracts. It’s rather easy to say that this democratic utopia had all these enemies and that’s why it failed. While that’s not untrue, there were also problems inherent to the IWW organizing model that helped doom it and every other Wobbly union. We also need to know more about the internal strains Gross discusses.

I know the American Federation of Labor circa 1915 is not a model anyone, including myself, wants to emulate today. But unlike the IWW, it actually could win real gains for the workers it chose to represent. What is great about the early CIO is how it combined the mass movement politics of the IWW with the realistic understanding of how American corporations and politics operated it borrowed from the AFL. The CIO was top-down as all heck (the steelworkers didn’t even have the right to vote on their own contracts), but it also could win, one big reason why millions of workers flocked to it who never became Wobblies.

In short, I’m not sure there is any organizing model from American labor history that provides a sure-fire way forward. But the IWW most certainly does not. In fact, I’d argue the IWW has some real pitfalls that I see a lot of well-meaning people fall into.

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