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The I.W.W. and Alternative Unionism


Adam Kader has a nice article on the I.W.W. organizing of Starbucks.

That might sound weird. The I.W.W? Didn’t it disappear 80 years ago? Well, more or less. It’s always been there with a very small membership but the people I’ve known involved in the organization seemed to romanticize the past more than understand how to organize in the present. As a scholar of the I.W.W., I have always found little from its past that is particularly helpful in present labor struggles. The historical Wobblies proved utterly ineffective in running an effective organization or maintaining a union after a rare victory (such as in Lawrence, Massachusetts).

But forget about the past. What can the new I.W.W. tell us about organizing? The Starbucks campaign builds upon 2 key tenets of the old I.W.W. with great relevance to the present. First, it organizes industry wide. Understanding that one shop within the larger Starbucks empire has little meaning, the I.W.W. seeks to build solidarity between workplaces in order to build solidarity and gain additional power.

Second, the Wobblies focus heavily on worker education. One of the real weaknesses of the modern labor movement is a lack of emphasis on educating workers about their own workplace, how unions fit into a larger economic and social justice world, and building workplace democracy. The I.W.W. model is better than the AFL-CIO on all these fronts. Here there is real potential for unions outside the AFL-CIO structure to build quality organizations. The I.W.W. is rebuilding worker education centers and emphasizing larger ideas of workplace justice in its Starbucks campaign.

This alternative strategy makes a lot of sense given the continued failure of the AFL-CIO strategies of workplace organizing since 1980. Harold Meyerson had a recent piece exploring SEIU door-to-door campaigns that have nothing to do with organizing a specific workplace, but rather seek to build a larger coalition of the poor and unemployed. Given corporations’ goal of returning us to the Gilded Age, it makes a lot of sense to start revisiting older forms of labor tactics as a response.

It’s true that pre-New Deal unions always had a tremendously difficult time succeeding. It took government intervention on the side of workers to make unionization happen for most. But that intervention would not have happened were it not for 50 years of agitation by workers determined to improve their lives. It’s time to start rebuilding multiple forms of worker and poor person organization to best prepare for the brutal struggles ahead, struggles that some day may convince the government again to care about working-class people.

There are good reasons for the AFL-CIO to exist and be workers’ most powerful voice. But the big organization has always fought vociferously against alternative models of unionization. This is a mistake. There are multiple models of unionization, each with strengths and weaknesses. This most certainly includes the AFL-CIO, whose weaknesses has made it quite unprepared to deal with the modern globalized economy. I don’t know whether the renewed I.W.W. really represents a workable alternative, but I am certainly happy to see it and the Starbucks workers try.

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