“Is anything too good for the working class?” Books for a revived American worker’s movement, 2 of 3: Out of the Jungle

“Is anything too good for the working class?” Books for a revived American worker’s movement, 2 of 3: Out of the Jungle. Thaddeus Russell, 2001.


How much is too much for workers to earn? What standard of life should they expect?

Since the 1960’s new left, there has been a dominant mood among parts of the US Left that, perhaps, some workers have it too good and are part of the problem.

In the 60’s, this usually took the form of talking about workers being “bought off” by imperialism. Now, it’s more fashionable to criticize people for destroying the earth with their SUVs and their McMansions. These workers have so much that they will never struggle against the system.  This attitude echoes the Right, who attack “greedy” government employees, “entitled” autoworkers, or anyone who is getting by on a working-class job.

Instead of blaming workers for having too much, revolutionary unionists should agitate for more. In Hal Draper’s words, we should be a “loyal opposition” in the labor movement:

That means: loyal to the interests of trade-unionism in the same degree that it fights the boss and the bureaucrat, whose power is not in the interests of trade-unionism. It is necessary to proclaim this today – to put it on the banner, so to speak – because the sect radicals have been so successful in discrediting themselves before conscientious trade-unionists, and confusing “radical trade-unionism” with a sect’s commando raids to rip off a plant situation by a display of “militancy” even if the workers’ interests are harmed, or the union work is wrecked, as long as a couple of members are recruited to the sect.

If we’re going to help revive a militant workers’ movement in the US, we have to take a few things seriously: first, it’s almost impossible to exist in this country as a worker without being mired in debt; and second, people will mobilize themselves in huge numbers if they see a possibility for improving their lives. Working class people want nice things, and that’s OK. Any radicals who promise a worse life for the majority of people deserves the scorn they’ll get.

Drop the “union” word to an average worker, and they won’t think of Debs or Gompers or Richard Trumka; they probably won’t think of Norma Rae or Cesar Chavez either. They’ll think of Jimmy Hoffa, and when they think Hoffa, they’ll think “corrupt” and “tough guy.” There’s a reason people know about Hoffa: at one point, he led the largest union in the country, a union which led large and militant strikes. In the 50s and 60s, Hoffa and his union were the US Government’s biggest target in the labor movement, and yet left-wing labor historians almost completely overlook them.

Thaddeus Russell partially makes up for this with “Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the remaking of the American Working Class.” The coverage of Hoffa’s career is really just a prop to re-examine the American working class.

Russell uses the book as an extended argument for an idea that we could call “Jungle Unionism”. Basically, Jungle Unionism is extreme free-market libertarianism, applied to unions. According to Russell, the best situation for workers is when unions and union leaders are in a perfect free market (without laws or any government) and have to compete heavily against each other for the loyalty of workers. In this theory, the actual ideas and positions that a union or union leader represents are irrelevant, at least as far as the workers are concerned.

The AFL-CIO have been united since 1955, but during the 1930s, the AFL and CIO were competing to organize millions of workers. The Auto Workers (CIO) and the Teamsters (AFL) each led city-wide general strikes in 1934. Before the National Labor Relations Act (1935) had stabilized and sterilized the labor movement, there was an opening for labor leaders who could organize strikes that won. Workers would join unions in droves if they saw that those unions could deliver better lives. The leaders of those unions would go from being outcast workers to powerful citizens, with large dues bases.

As with any emerging market, there is a stiff competition. Russell focuses on Detroit, where the UAW and Teamsters both grew very quickly. As cars became more important, so did the workers who produced them, and those who transported them. Russell shows how Hoffa constantly had to fight tooth and nail against employers to prove to workers that the Teamsters could get them a fatter paycheck and more stability than anyone else. With the AFL and the CIO both competing to attract workers by the thousands, neither side could afford to pull any punches during labor struggles. Everything was fair game, from mass strikes and pickets, to blowing up trucks that belonged to stubborn employers. Oftentimes, unions would fight the boss hardest when they were trying to keep another union out. Since workers were still free to leave or switch unions, the only guarantee came from showing that your union could fight the boss better than the other.

This dynamic held true for competition inside the union as well. Hoffa learned how to organize from Farrell Dobbs, who had led and organized the 1934 strikes in Minneapolis. Dobbs and Hoffa worked together in the “Over the road” campaign, which was a bitter struggle to organize interstate trucking in the Midwest. It was successful and brought tens of thousands of new members into the Teamsters. Dobbs and the other Minneapolis Teamster leaders were also members of a socialist organization that was critical of Stalinism. In 1941, when the USA and USSR were becoming allies in World War 2, and the Communist Party became enthusiastic supporters of a nationwide no-strike pledge, Dobbs’ organization still supported labor militancy. Thus, the Minneapolis local was expelled from the Teamsters at the same time that the US Government arrested all of its leaders for subversion. Hoffa and his goons rolled into town with baseball bats, guns, and other tools of recruitment, but workers were still loyal to the local that had gotten them a better life. Russell shows how the gangster tactics alone weren’t enough. In order to crush the old local, Hoffa had to call militant strikes against employers that won significant gains. This was the only way that the workers would actually accept his leadership. According to Russell, this also shows that the anti-war, pro-class struggle socialist ideology of Dobbs and his comrades was unimportant – for workers, everything came down to the paycheck. Russell implies that even here, the competition brought gains to the workers.

Of course, all of this militancy was expensive for the bosses, it was disruptive for the wartime government, and it was dangerous and embarrassing for the union leaders. All three groups had a big interest in reducing the competition. Labor law after 1935 gave a perfect mix of ingredients to remove competition from the field: exclusive representation, dues check off, and mandatory membership. The changes in 1947 and 1959 restricted competition even more. As Russell shows, every time the competition was reduced between unions and union leaders, the result was fewer gains for workers and more power for the bureaucrats.

The question which comes to mind is: is the dynamic that Russell describes the main dynamic driving labor organizing, or is it one among many?
Russell oddly has not one word to say about another inter-union struggle involving the Teamsters. The “Salad Bowl Strike” was a series of militant labor struggles in California agriculture, which the United Farm Workers initiated when the Teamsters attempted to start organizing on their “turf”. In many ways, this struggle could confirm Jungle Unionism – competing with the Teamsters forced the UFW to become more militant. However, by the end, neither union could claim victory. Furthermore, the Teamsters had the support of the white power structure in California; the UFW was targeted by that same power structure. The largely Latino and Filipino agricultural workers paid attention to this, and didn’t act as the purely economic beings that an extreme Jungle Unionist might imagine. Perhaps there is some room for ideals in labor organizing, after all.

I would encourage IWW members and revolutionary unionists to read this book, but keep a critical eye, and read it alongside The Blue Eagle at Work and Reviving the Strike. There are two lessons we can learn. The first, which Russell suggests, is that revolutionaries would do better for workers by being a permanent, organized, militant opposition within unions rather than trying to take them over. I would add that this kind of opposition needs to promote a vision of a labor movement which is democratic as well as militant and able to completely smash US labor law. The working class desperately needs to overturn US labor law in order to be able to fight with both hands free, and we should be the force in the labor movement organizing for that.

This gets into the next point, the importance of winning. Most of us come from an activist background in which strategy is not considered, and there are no decisive struggles which involve winning or losing. This is also a material thing – our class has been losing for thirty years, and most people who are working now have never even seen a real working class victory. But a movement which had the tactics to fight bosses and win economic gains would be able to quickly inspire to organize themselves under its banners by the thousands, and wage militant fights. In the next review, we’ll look at Joe Burns’ recommendations for a labor movement which could do exactly that.

Let’s make sure that the IWW is the spear point of that revived labor movement!

An edited version of this post appeared in the November 2014 Industrial Worker.

Workers Power Against Police Brutality and Racist Terror




The Chicago Teachers Step Up – What does it mean?

The decision of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) to participate in the Black Friday protests against police brutality is an important step forward, advancing both the struggle against the Chicago police department, and allowing the CTU to flex its muscles before the end of its contract. Chicago Teachers voted overwhelmingly to support a strike in their recent strike authorization vote, and if they can win another strike as they did in 2012, it would be an incredibly important victory for the working class around the country. It would show that education workers can fight and win, especially if they have united with the broader working class around issues such as institutional racism.


Chicago Black Friday Protests. November 27, 2015.

The simmering rage against Chicago’s blatantly racist, terrorist, secret prison-operating police department provides an important backdrop. US anti-labor law illegitimately limits what workers can strike over; if the teachers go on strike, and demand the removal of police from school campuses, or defunding of the police force, that would make their strike “illegal” in the eyes of the state. Chicago teachers have an important choice. Even if the teachers go on strike and don’t say a word about the police, the CPD is intimately tied to Rahm Emanuel’s austerity regime, and a teachers’ strike could strengthen and build on the movement against police brutality and terror. However, if the teachers do explicitly include anti-police demands in their strike, and stick by them even when threatened with injunction, they could really inspire the rest of the working class in Chicago to mobilize and support them. A victory in that case would also show that workers can successfully take on the system of anti-labor laws in this country, particularly those which declare certain kinds of strikes “illegal”.

Could teachers and other education workers strike to remove police from schools? Nothing could stop them from putting this into their demands. If a teachers union prioritized “cops off campus”, and waged a strike on the level of Chicago in 2012 or Seattle earlier this year, this would be a massive step forward. This would be particularly powerful to the degree that it spread beyond the teachers to include other education workers. Of course, any industrial action for “cops off campus” would meet bitter resistance from the city administration, at the same time that the national media, the Democratic Party, and – most importantly – the national unions would stop at nothing to sabotage this action, and force or cajole the workers into moderating their demands.

This is why militant education workers would have to prepare for this struggle, beginning by consciously identifying with the victims of police brutality, against the police rather than with them. An initiative to strike for “cops off campus” might need years before education workers actually have the strength and organization to pull it off – but the situation in the US over the last several years has also been very fluid, and things could develop much quicker than we might expect.

“Cops off campus”, a slogan which came out of the struggles at the University of California around 2009, is just one example of an achievable revolutionary demand. The left wing of capitalism can articulate very specific and imaginable goals, such as body cameras or community policing – but these “demands”, even if granted, would only reinforce the legitimacy of the police. Revolutionaries should try to find fault lines in the struggle against the police that accomplish two things – 1) just like with anything else, we want to inspire and unite broader parts of the working class to find common interest and take action together; 2) we should articulate ways that workers can act to directly reduce the power, presence, and legitimacy of police, so that they can imagine winning, and know when they are doing it.

Education workers have a very specific ability to use their power as workers to reduce the power of police in our society, both by removing their ability to assault students, and by reducing their social legitimacy. But they aren’t the only ones.

How else are workers taking job action against police – and how could they?

Red Atlanta has done a good job finding actions that fast food workers have taken against police. Most importantly, many of the people on the ground in the Ferguson rebellion were fast food workers, many of whom had previously been involved in Fight For 15, where they had gotten experience organizing. Also notable is that when FF15 leadership called “strikes” around the country, they deliberately avoided strikes in St Louis or Ferguson in the name of “peace” and “calm”, instead bussing protestors from Ferguson/St Louis to other cities. Beyond this, there have been low-level actions, such as workers writing “pig” on burrito wrappers or otherwise making police know they are unwelcome.

There was also the infamous “hands up, don’t ship” action which was organized by IWW members working at UPS last fall. In this case, workers in the sorting facility researched one of the businesses that shipped through their facility to police departments around the country, and found that a lot of the material being shipped was racist training material. The workers temporarily asserted their power on the shop floor by refusing to ship packages coming from this company.

This shows a path that workers could take even if they don’t directly interact with police at work on a daily basis, as teachers or fast food workers do. For example, workers who build Dodge Chargers (in Windsor, Ontario) could refuse to build any which are destined for police departments. Even a short work stoppage could build on the recent success of workers at Fiat-Chrysler who voted down the first proposed contract, which would have cemented the two-tier contract, and which the union leadership was trying to ram through as quick as possible. Workers know a lot about the commodities they create or handle, and can find creative ways to register their opposition to police through job action.

As Bob Kroll, the white supremacist president of the Minneapolis Fraternal Order of Police, personifies, it is becoming increasingly clear that the struggle against police brutality and the struggle against white supremacist terror are the same. When the cops take off their badges, they put on their hoods – or maybe we should say, when the Klan take off their hoods, they put on their badges. The recent struggles at the University of Missouri show the power that workers have to fight against white supremacy, and the strike by the football players in particular has some very explosive potential. The exploitation of unpaid college athletes has been a situation ripe for organizing for decades, as Kareem Abdul –Jabbar has pointed out, but the unpaid labor of college athletes also has a racial component (which should not come as a surprise, in this country): 40% of unpaid college basketball players and 30% of unpaid college football players are Black, compared to 13% of the country in general. In addition to the football team, the graduate students, who held a short strike when they announced their union drive a few months ago, also held a two-day strike against the University’s support for campus racism.  This joint strike by football players and graduate students is an excellent example of how political strikes can win important gains, especially when workers have organized themselves without workplace contractualism. For contrast, during the many large struggles at the University of California since 2008, the leadership of the unions has almost always fallen back on the no-strike clauses to prevent any industrial action, even after reformers won the leadership of the grad students union in 2011.


Mizzou Graduate Student Rally. August 26, 2015.

This kind of solidarity across different groups of university workers is no doubt part of what forced the removal of the university president and chancellor, but we also have to imagine that the heads of the NCAA, who have an empire built off of the unpaid labor of student athletes, are losing sleep at the possibility of a rebellion and possible union drive among college athletes spreading across the country.

Delegitimize, Disaffiliate, Disband Police Unions

Part of the enduring strength of the police in our society comes from the legitimacy they are given as “regular joes”, “part of the 99%”, or most dangerously, “union brothers and sisters”. This is something that revolutionaries have to struggle against, especially within the labor movement.

The recent resolution that came from the previously-mentioned graduate students union at the University of California, calling for the expulsion of a police union from the AFL-CIO, is a welcome break from decades of support that labor leaders have given police. When Oscar Grant was murdered, and his assassin walked free, the UFCW grocery workers’ local that Oscar was a member of said nothing, nor did the union for BART workers, who later prepared to strike while demanding “increased security”. In fact, aside from the police “union”, the only unions in the Bay Area who said or did anything seem to have been the IWW and the longshore workers. Fast forward a few years, and it’s a different picture, although not necessarily a better one: speaking in Missouri after Mike Brown’s murder, the head of the AFL-CIO said that “our brother killed our sister’s son”, acknowledging Mike’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, as a union sister at the same time that he acknowledged Mike’s killer as a “union brother.”

The inclusion of police as “union brothers and sisters” blurs the lines by simultaneously legitimizing cops, and delegitimizing any industrial action against them. To stick with the example of education workers who might strike for “cops off campus”, there would be very loud voices in the labor bureaucracy arguing that they can’t strike against their “brothers and sisters” in the Fraternal Order of Police. The degree of legitimacy that police unions have directly affects the morale of workers who might try to take industrial action against police – attacking that legitimacy creates more space for industrial action.

For those of us who believe that workers have much more power on their job than in a union hall, there is a real question about whether it’s worthwhile to try to organize for resolutions at union meetings. To take an example, many unions (including the IWW) have passed resolutions in favor of Boycott, Disinvest, Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. These sorts of resolutions, in themselves, do nothing to change the actual balance of power in the workplace or society at large. While BDS is important, and the resolutions might not seem to cause any harm, this kind of resolution can often function as a “left cover” for union bureaucracies that are deathly allergic to any actual class struggle. By creating this “left cover”, the bureaucracy can even incorporate and neutralize left-wing union members, encouraging them to focus their energy on maneuvering in union meetings instead of building shop-floor solidarity. (For example, even prominent activists in Britain’s Labor Party have pointed out that union bureaucrats “push out-of-favour members towards party activity to keep them away from industrial work.”)

But is it always useless or even counter-productive to organize for a union resolution? I think that there are cases where both the process of organizing, and the potential resolution, can play a part in larger processes, especially when it is against a reactionary national consensus that the union bureaucracy plays a part in, and will have a hard time even allowing lip service to. For example, resolutions during the Vietnam war against the AFL-CIO’s official pro-war stance, or resolutions against Jim Crow during the forties and fifties. In these cases, organizing for the resolutions is part of larger class movements, and if they are achieved then it is a marker of victory for those movements, as well as a moral symbol for others that the consensus does not hold, and that they can organize against it. The leaders of the 1970 USPS wildcat strike brought anti-Vietnam War resolutions to their union convention, along with resolutions to force the union leadership to protect and defend strikers against the government. They saw a relationship between their union activity and opposition to the Vietnam War – if they hadn’t seen it before, the relevance of the war was certainly brought home to them when Nixon tried to break the strike with the National Guard. The AFL-CIO leadership had set the Vietnam War as an ultimate taboo, which it was unthinkable to mention except to say that Labor was behind it 100%; by striking over the heads of their union leaders, and then publicly discussing opposition to the war, postal workers made it visible to themselves as well as other union members that union bureaucrats could be outmaneuvered, and that labor opposition to the war existed, and was acceptable. Keep in mind that this was the same year as the “Hard Hat Riot”, when New York union leaders had organized their members (including postal workers) to attack students who were protesting the Kent State murders and the invasion of Cambodia.

Postal workers

Brooklyn Postal Workers Picket Line. March 1970

Returning to the present, the question is whether anti-police resolutions are more like BDS and other resolutions, which are progressive but acceptable to the bureaucracy, and which end up pulling left-wing activists out of the shop floor and into the union hall? Or, like the resolutions against Jim Crow or the Vietnam War, could anti-police resolutions begin to call into question the entire consensus of the employing class, a consensus that keeps the bureaucrats in their offices, comfortably removed from the workplace? In either case, I don’t think that IWWs or revolutionaries in unions should focus mechanically on promoting anti-police resolutions. I hope it’s clear that our focus should be on promoting workplace-based action that strengthens working-class organization at the same time that it weakens the capitalist state, including the police; and that delegitimizing the police and their organizations will be both an enabling cause and a result of that action. In some cases, workers will bring anti-police resolutions to their unions independently of us (as the UC Grad Students did), and in other cases, IWW members who are also in other unions could consider whether bringing anti-police resolutions would support their organizing.

In particular, there are a few unions who have locals of cops and prison guards, alongside other workers. AFSCME, the main union for municipal workers, and SEIU, which is behind Fight for Fifteen, have an increasingly large focus on organizing prison guards, while UE, a supposedly “socialist” union, also represents police (local 222 is the “Connecticut Independent Labor/Police Union”). Members of AFSCME or UE could bring forward resolutions calling for the expulsion or disaffiliation of those locals, while members of any union could bring forward resolutions supporting the one from the UC graduate students, and asserting that police (and prison guards) should not be considered as “union brothers and sisters”, but rather as what they are: our enemies in blue. Any institution which defends and protects them when they commit murder, which obscures their links to organized racist groups, and which organizes them to intimidate any critics or opponents – as police unions do – needs to be delegitimized by our movements, disaffiliated from our organizations, and ultimately disbanded.


Possible next steps for the IWW

The Twin Cities IWW branch was able to have a big impact when things became critical during the 4th precinct occupation in November. I can’t speak for that branch, and encourage local members to write their own analysis. However, two broad trends seem to stand out: they have consistently engaged in anti-racist and anti-police brutality work alongside their workplace organizing in recent years; and they are ambitious – as a group, they have the confidence to believe that they can have a big impact.

TCIWW African Peoples Caucus

Twin Cities IWW African People’s Caucus. November 2015.

These are two factors that we, as an organization, struggle with beyond the level of individual branches. Although a lot of our members are generally anti-cop, very few of our branches have much experience engaging in anti-racist or anti-police brutality work. More critically, we have a crisis of ambition and confidence beyond the branch level – we have a hard time imagining that we, as an organization, can actually have a decisive influence on the course of the class struggle in the US (or internationally).

However, it’s been clear since Ferguson (maybe even since Oscar Grant) that movements against police brutality are taking on a mass character, and will have a growing impact on the class struggle in the US. Eventually, the working class will be ready to really move, and any organization which has ignored the importance of struggles to reduce the power, presence, or legitimacy of police in our society will be left standing in the dust – and rightly so.

Our union recently committed to have deeper discussions of our strategic outlook during future Conventions – specifically mentioning movements against police brutality as an area where we could have a bigger impact. Our Convention is an important part of our member-driven democracy, but it will only be bear fruit if we have serious discussion in our branches during the year. The most important step we can take as a Union to meaningfully engage with anti-police struggles is for branches to engage, discuss the results, and bring their ideas to Convention.

That engagement will take different forms, but here are some ways it might happen:

  1. Participate in a coordinated way, as IWW branches, in local anti-police brutality and anti-racist movements;
  2. Agitate for workplace or industrial action which directly confronts the power, presence, or legitimacy of police – and where possible, organize these actions, like at the Minneapolis UPS hub;
  3. IWW members are also members of other unions might bring resolutions to delegitimize and disaffiliate cop unions;
  4. When we become aware of workers taking action against the police, such as fast-food workers expressing anti-police sentiment, we should publicly support the stand that those workers are taking, and publicly defend their right to take these stands without facing repercussion at work. Besides being worthwhile in itself, this might help us to stand out for fast food workers who are looking for a more militant alternative than the SEIU, who see the connection between police oppression, structural racism, and workplace exploitation.

The rage at police violence against people of color is constantly simmering, sometimes boiling over. This, in itself, is an important marker of a new confrontational attitude in the working class. In limited ways, this confrontational attitude is even expressing itself in the workplace. At the same time, there were more strikes and threats of strikes in 2015 than any year in recent US history. The labor bureaucracy will do everything they can to keep these two trends from merging, as will the official civil rights leaders. Yet workers – fast food workers, education workers, transportation workers, auto workers – will quickly find that any effective strike must break the law and therefore invite police repression, and they might also learn, as Chicago teachers have, that mobilizing against police brutality will inspire members and build important alliances with other parts of the working class.

The IWW is uniquely positioned to agitate and organize for workplace action against police brutality, and to agitate and organize for mass industrial action that rips US anti-labor law completely apart. Serious discussion and ambitious engagement in the class movements around us will bring major results. By acting as a united organization, we can achieve the position that the Twin Cities IWW has, on a national scale. And then we can really start to shake things up!

A shorter version of this piece will appear in the February issue of the Industrial Worker.

So Long, Krazy Bill

[I’m honored to host this obituary for FW Bill Krist, written by J. Pierce, et al. I feel fortunate to have been able to meet Bill shortly before he passed, and agree with J. Pierce that he provides a great example of what it means to be a “Lifelong Wobbly.” A shorter version of this obituary is being printed in the Industrial Worker.]

In June of 2015, the Phoenix IWW and many others mourned the loss and celebrated the life of William Krist, Bill Krist, Krazy Bill, KB.  He was a friend, mentor, and grand-fatherly figure to many of us.

FW Bill Krist at a May 1st IWW Party in 2010 - J. Pierce

FW Bill Krist at a May 1st IWW Party in 2010 – J. Pierce

KB was the old man of the IWW in Arizona.  Having been signed up by Aaron in 2000, KB was the only continuous, paid-up IWW member in Phoenix from 2000 until his death in 2015.  He would pay his dues in January for the whole year, every year, and wore an IWW Centenary button or member pin on his hat every day.  KB was a model member in many ways: unwavering loyalty to the organization and our historic mission, and always a positive influence.

For 15 years, KB would come to Branch meetings and offer what he could to the projects the IWW was working on.  From organizing grocery workers at Gentle Strength co-op, to supporting the Roofers Union’s organizing efforts in the exclusive suburbs; from distributing Worker’s Rights Cards, to supporting immigrant workers against racist attacks by the terrorist leaders of “Dumbfuckistan” – KB was there.  Bill would often thank us personally for the work we did for the union.  Later on as his health deteriorated, he couldn’t march and picket like he wanted, but he would come and sit in his car or drive his electric scooter if he felt up for it.

FWs Elizabeth, representing ETAn, and KB picketing in solidarity with striking Indonesian miners at Freeport-McMoRan HQ in Phoenix - J. Pierce

FWs Elizabeth, representing ETAN, and KB picketing in solidarity with striking Indonesian miners at Freeport-McMoRan HQ in Phoenix – J. Pierce

Krazy Bill felt a visceral connection to Arizona’s centuries old class struggle – the harvest hands, miners, and laundresses vs. the trusts, the bankers, and the sheriffs.  He especially identified with the 2,000 mostly Mexican and immigrant miners who were rounded up at gun point and deported from the Arizona mining towns of Bisbee and Jerome in 1917.  This historic attack on the IWW and the working class was a focal point for KB’s radical education of younger fellow workers, as he took us down to Bisbee to commune with history at FW James Brew’s grave.

KB grew up in Phoenix, a dusty little town as he remembered it in the 50s and 60s.  His parents owned the Krist Café, which he often referenced in his many tall tales of the early days of the Valley. He spent most of his working life in toxic waste water treatment in Phoenix but evidently worked as a factory worker in Cleveland, Ohio when he was younger.  The plant that KB retired from at 52, originally Garrett Turbine Engine Company, is one of half a dozen companies near Sky Harbor airport, including Motorola and Honeywell, responsible for several toxic EPA National Priority List Superfund sites that are decades in the lawsuits and clean up.

Apart from his life as a working stiff, Bill enjoyed camping and hunting in the desert.  At 18, KB went to gold pan in the Superstition Mountains, working a small gold mine by himself.  He later told a few of us, “That’s when I lost all contact with civilization.”  This is from where Bill traced his non-conformity with conventions of cleanliness and tidiness, which as Bill got older, was the source of many problems, not the least of which was livable housing.

KB flouted the expectations of the ‘bourgeois fucks’ and their society in many ways, especially with his “unique, radical, and often politically-incorrect sense of humor” as Charles referred to it.  At the memorial, Dean reminded us of KB’s views on cigarettes: “Smoke ‘em if ya gotta ‘em!  If ya don’t got any, I’ll lend ya some.  If you’re pregnant, better get another one, ‘cause you’re smoking for two.” Bill claimed to own “dozens” of guns, and his neighbor shared a story about how KB enjoyed watering his lawn and his award-winning vegetable garden with a loaded pistol drooping from the pocket of his gym shorts. Evidently he did shoot his foot one of those times and then drove himself to the hospital, likely in one of his huge 1970s hoopties. As for his love of burgers, Stacy remembered KB’s amorous advocacy of eating flesh while often providing vegan treats so as to include everyone.

Although having married 3 or 4 times, KB’s destiny as a ‘ladies man’ never did materialize the way he might have liked. Yet his admiration for women, both as a feminist and as a romantic, was evident to all.  As confidant to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, man, woman, and everything outside and in-between, KB offered relationship advice when he thought it useful, but mainly his humble reflections.  Looking back on what might have gone wrong with his past loves, he concluded simply, “The only thing they had in common was me.”

One of Bill’s two sons, Josh (the other one being Jesse), reported in the memorial program, Bill “was charged with Conspiracy to Overthrow the U.S. Government by Violent Means in 1976, an experience that made him realize that those who have power often abuse it. He was distressed that his beloved, sleepy hometown had been taken over by remorseless developers and suspect politicians. He spent his retirement as an activist, and was a regular participant and organizer of protests against injustice.”

Factory work gave KB his life-long class struggle intensity and along the way he pledged his fidelity to anarchism.  He insisted that the Phoenix GMB does and always shall run on consensus: “it’s in the charter.” He was one of the anchors of the Phoenix Anarchist Coalition (PAC), which functioned as a beehive for uncompromising political resistance to the growing neo-fascism in Arizona.  The IWW functioned as the “class struggle” pie slice in PAC with Earth First!, Food Not Bombs, Cop Watch, and others who shared mutual members.

Although he was a spirited feminist and an astute economic and scientific thinker, KB didn’t go in for jargon and posturing. His most effective weapon for making the world a better place was his smile. Fara and Jakobe noted KB’s welcoming presence and its effect on all of us, saying, “There was no one who didn’t like KB.  He was involved in so many groups and friends with so many activists, yet he never talked shit… But he did love the latest gossip.”  His friendliness toward everyone – activists, neighbors, restaurant and grocery store workers, passers-by while picketing – and his skill at building unity in the movement is something that the Left could take a lesson from, Fara said.

Bill Krist was one of a kind and will be remembered in many ways.  Elizabeth said she is going to miss lunch dates with KB at his numerous (secret) cheap and delicious restaurants.  Charles reminded us of Joe Hill’s admonition: “Don’t mourn, organize!” and will undoubtedly think of KB every time he blows his nose on the American flag snot rag that KB bequeathed to him.  Aaron, Matt, and I all wrote poems of a sort, separately, in tribute to KB’s “generous heart, keen intellect, libertine spirit, and free-range feet,” as Aaron put it.  And his son Josh noted that one of KB’s “few regrets would be dying before Arpaio was in DOJ custody.”

Although he might laugh, scoff, or curse at the idea of being canonized “Saint KB” or knighted “Sir William Krist” (and surely he’s reading his copy of the Industrial Winged-Atheist, livid that I’m the one who wrote his obituary), we’d all be content if KB found his place in some Anarchist Hall of Fame somewhere.  But I suppose he’ll have to be satisfied with the honorific title: Fellow Worker Bill.

What could we accomplish in Greece?

This post is a departure from my usual style of allowing thoughts to mellow for weeks or months. I’m writing this after the results of the #Greferendum are in, showing a massive victory for the No vote which the far left was pushing, against the opposition parties and all of the European “institutions.” I’m writing it before Monday morning, when just about anything could happen. It’s an experiment with hastier writing, which after all is sometimes called for. It seems like the world has been accelerating recently, so it’s a worthwhile mode to dust off.

I won’t try right now to make any grand predictions about what I think might happen in Greece tomorrow morning, or this week. Nontina Vgontzas has already covered all of the imaginable scenarios resulting from a No vote better than I could have.

For example, apparently the opposition parties are already calling for the Syriza finance minister to resign, which seems pretty bold in the context, but certainly fits the “Government of National Salvation” scenario that Nontina had outlined:

Of course, the Europeans probably would prefer a less confrontational route if they can get one. In a third possible scenario, then, No wins and the creditors resume negotiations — but on the condition that Syriza invites other political parties to join the governing coalition. A government of national salvation, without the drama of elections.

They seem to be attempting this already. According to the Guardian:

Monday’s meeting of Greek party political leaders may be dominated by a call for finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to be removed from the country’s negotiating team.

The head of the centrist Potami party, Stavros Theodorakis, has signalled he will ask for the academic-cum-politician’s immediate withdrawal from the team – citing irreconcilable differences with Greece’s creditors.

The situation is still very fluid in Greece. It has been for awhile, and probably will be for some time to come, but there is fluidity, and there is fluidity. The potential scope of activity for workers in Greece is determined both by their own initiative, confidence, and coherence as a class, as well as by the initiative and activity of the Greek far-left, of Syriza, of the European “institutions” and of the capitalist class as a global whole – just as these last four also interact on each other, and are acted on by the working class. Of course, workers outside of Greece also play a factor – the recent strike wave in Germany has tightened the possibilities for the “institutions”, and could inspire industrial action in other countries. Any increase or decrease in class activity in Germany will have its repercussions in Greece and the rest of Europe.

Returning to Nontina’s outline, it is her fifth scenario,
Plan B with an actual plan” which seems the most hopeful:

Here, No wins, Greece exits, be it negotiated or unilateral, and there is a massive push to the left: nationalization of key sectors, notably the banking sector; the possible introduction of a parallel currency; restricted foreign exchange; imports of basic goods from allies; some kind of ration, however chaotic; a potential blockade of ports to begin disciplining Greek tankers, at the very least. […]

If those pushing for political radicalization win this battle, we must acknowledge that at that point, anything goes. It will be an actual break, with all the risks that entails. There could have been better preparation, and improvisation will be necessary. The question is whether the Left in which many Greeks have entrusted their vote is willing to take such a plunge into the unknown, into the alternative we said is possible. The answer to that will determine what comes after OXI.

The question for revolutionary unionists with this scenario has to be, where is the working class? This most positive scenario relies on the victory of “the left”, both inside and outside of Syriza, but the working class as a class is not present.

A lot of the dynamics in Greece remind me of the situation during Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of 1974-76. A country undergoing a political and economic crisis, on the border of Europe, has an opening created by moderately left-wing politicians who want to modernize the economy and the political system of the country.

The opening they create inspires class action beyond what the politicians might have expected, or even wanted, and in many ways forces those to the left, or strengthens those factions who are further to the left.

The mistake of many revolutionaries in the mid-70s, both inside Portugal and outside, was to mistake the effect for the cause – they focused on the positions and the positioning of the politicians, the factions that they formed, the statements that they made, more than they focused on the initiative, coherence and confidence of workers in Portugal. We should try not to do this with Greece. As I wrote on Facebook right after seeing the referendum results:

It’s going to be a very interesting week. This is the moment for the Greek far left to go for broke, begin encouraging workplace occupations and takeovers on a massive scale, especially in workplaces which are abandoned or in the process of privatization. Don’t leave it to the politicians, seize the opportunity they’ve had to create, and build forms of power independent of them – and prepare for whatever crisis is coming. ‪#‎sofasyndicalism‬

As I acknowledge with the hashtag at the end, this is somewhat academic. I realize that workers in Greece will either act, or not, based on thousands of factors, and the exhortations of American leftists on Facebook must rank very close to the bottom of the list.

And yet… Recently the IWW has given a charter to a group of members in Greece. The members had already been active in various struggles such as supporting the vio.me factory occupation. They also issued a statement last week about the referendum:

In today’s circumstance, the workers have one and only choice. We have to stand out, with all our strength, against the big interests, which gradually sink the workers to abjection. The future will be dark, and people shall suffer privations, if we do not fight back these adverse predictions. We have only one hope to in order to prevent this tidal wave of misery and evils. This hope, this tool, is solidarity. Every worker must support the interest of his/her class, no matter where he/she lives in the world or where he/she comes from, no matter if he/she is male/female, young or aged. What is important is that we stay united. Every loss for a worker is loss for all of us and every gain for a part of the working class is a victory for all.

What is the field of possibility for revolutionary unionists in Greece to promote this class unity and solidarity?

First of all, I’ve been encouraged to hear informally that there has been some collaboration between the Greek IWW, who are not large, and the two other revolutionary unionist organizations in Greece, who are also not large (and about which there is very little information in English): The Libertarian Syndicalist Union (ESE), and Rocinante.

In Spain, which seems to be next on the Eurozone chopping-block, there is a revolutionary union, the CNT, which, in terms of how well organized it is, its ability to lead and/or influence struggles, and its density relative to the population, makes the rest of us look like amateurs. Despite the broader social roots and organizational maturity – or perhaps because of them? – the CNT has taken a major role in promoting the “Unitary Bloc” of unions outside of the two main business unions in that country. The goal with the Unitary Bloc is to organize with other “minority” unions (regional, nationalist, far-left of various sorts) towards a general strike which is not led or controlled by the business unions – it would be the first time a general strike started outside of the business unions since Spain “transitioned” to democracy in the ’70s. The Unitary Bloc at a June 30 protest in Madrid for political prisoners and against repression.

We would all do well to pay attention to the process happening in Spain with the Unitary Bloc. Workers’ struggle tends to force organizations and groups to either move in an outward-facing direction, following the class, or to circle the wagons and reinforce the sect mentality. To paraphrase Howard Zinn, you can’t stay still on a moving train.

If workers in Greece do move, we can hope that the Greek IWW, the ESE, and Rocinante, will all intervene on a similar basis: for the circulation of struggle, the unity of workers, direct action rather than trust in politicians, and for workers to continue struggling even when the politicians have let them know that it has become inconvenient. We can also hope that they’ll be able to support workers becoming independent of both the Greek business unions as well as the Communist-affiliated “alternative” unions.

If workers in Greece do move, and drag these three groups behind them in similar directions, then we can hope that these groups will find ways to coordinate even more, and try to have more influence on the struggles. At a start, this could be done through city-wide and nation-wide meetings open to members of any of the three groups, to plan common interventions and strategies. If the groups are able to intervene together in strikes or workplace occupations, and issue common leaflets which workers respond positively to, the next step might be to begin issuing common publications regularly, and to make the meetings open to all members a recurring event. We can hope that, if workers in Greece move, and these three groups allow themselves to intervene in the movement together, that all three will grow in membership and influence quickly, and grow closer and closer together.

We can also hope that, if the strike wave continues in Germany, the IWW and the Free Workers Union (FAU) will find ways to make common interventions, with the goal of circulating the struggles as broadly as possible, and will find a greater unity between themselves as a result.

The IWW Convention is in two months. We’ll need to see what develops, to see how support and solidarity can best be expressed – and we should discuss this at Convention, even if as an “emergency” motion. (Just as we should discuss our strategy if the responses to police brutality in the US continue to heat up…)

It’s going to be an interesting summer.

Would yearly dues allow the US IWW to grow as fast as the UK?

In 2005, when the IWW celebrated its 100th year, we had a scarce 100-odd members in the British Isles. This year, as the comrades at New Syndicalist report, they passed 1000 members! Ten fold growth in ten years is impressive, and it means that they’re doing a lot of things right. If we want to hit 10,000 members in the US by 2020, we’ll have to steal their methods ruthlessly. (We’ve been hovering between about 1000-2000 members for the last ten years, at least.)

Ironically for a revolutionary union movement, I’d say the UK IWW are “agile” compared to the US IWW in the same way that a tech startup is “agile” compared to Microsoft. They’ve been able to use organizational tools which work for them, and ditch the ones which don’t, much easier than we have over here.

One thing that the UK IWW ditched several years ago was the system of monthly dues, in which members are responsible for paying every month to a delegate, who puts a stamp in the membership card, fills out paperwork, hands the money and paperwork to the Branch Secretary, who then cross references the report, compiles multiple delegate reports together, and sends it all to the General Headquarters, in a process that often sees months go by before GHQ is able to update the status of the members who are paying dues – assuming the data is even correct to begin with!

We may spend more administrative time, to achieve less efficient results, than any other organization around!

If there is a hell, surely at each of the 9 circles there are delegates from the IWW of yesteryear, frantically putting stamps in red cards, filling out reports, and sending them to lower levels for compilation into bigger reports. At the 9th level, a forgotten old GST is chained to a desk trying to make sense of them.

The delegate, as seen by...

Before I pigeonhole myself, I’m not against monthly dues in principle. Organizational decisions such as monthly versus yearly dues should be judged based on their results. When I say results, I don’t just mean in an opportunist sense of whether the decision brings some minor advantage to the organization as a structure; the decisions should be judged politically based on the results – do they increase member involvement at the same time as encouraging growth? Do they promote stability and democracy? Or are they just a fossilized remnant of an earlier period, which has not been challenged strongly enough to be changed?

In some circumstances, monthly dues make a lot of sense. There are a lot of reasons why many unions traditionally operated with monthly dues. For one thing, it is much easier to get someone to accept paying a lot of money, if you charge it in installments over the year. Or, less cynically, if the union knows how much it needs to charge each member during the year, charging by the month makes it easier for workers who might have a hard time accumulating or holding on to money, to pay as they go.

The more interesting justification for monthly dues, to me, is related to job control in the pre-NLRA era. For example, when the IWW Local 8 had job control over the Philadelphia docks, they didn’t maintain it through a contractually-mandated membership. Rather, each worker wore a button showing that they had paid dues for the current month. If a work group noticed that a worker had been assigned to them who didn’t have the button, they stopped working until the issue was resolved.

That’s awesome. But unfortunately, it’s not where we’re at. We don’t use monthly dues to maintain job control, and I’m not convinced that we need them to keep dues rates low.

We maintain the monthly dues system, stamps, membership booklets and all, out of inertia, and because we haven’t dared to dream of something better. We make it ridiculously easy for someone to cease being a member – or rather, we make it ridiculously hard for someone to continue being a member .

Maybe that is part of why we lose members as quick as we get them, at least in the US. Let’s imagine that we can’t increase the rate of new members over recent years. OK. Even if we can’t accelerate our new membership growth, if we could simply staunch the bleed of membership attrition, that would be a huge step in getting us to 10,000 by 2020!

Of course it doesn’t help anyone to simply say “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” I’ll try to outline how we could do this in concrete terms, inspired by aspects of the system that the UK Fellow Workers have. This is a sketch at something workable – one of the great things about a democratic organization is that the proposal gets improved during the debates. Please, suggest improvements!

The proposal then, is for

  1. A base dues rate of $60 per year for waged workers, with lower tiers for non-waged and incarcerated workers (say, $30 and $12 respectively).
  2. Initiation fees set to $20 waged/ $10 non-waged/$0 incarcerated.
  3. Payment can be scheduled as a monthly debit of $5/$2.50/$1 through GHQ, or the entire year can be paid in cash to a Branch officer. No more need for delegates as distinct officers.
  4. Membership standing determined in March, if the member has not paid for the previous calendar year than they are in bad standing and can no longer vote until they pay for the previous calendar year. If they are two calendar years behind they are considered to have quit their membership and will have to reinitiate.
  5. Industrial Worker and the GOB sent to all members who paid during the previous calendar year.
  6. All members in the US are considered to belong to the nearest branch to their workplace when they join (or nearest to their residence if they don’t work), until they transfer branches. No at-large members. Branch size for Convention or other purposes is determined by the number of dues-paying members in the previous calendar year.
  7. The dues split could be handled in various ways. The simplest would be an even split, like we have now. $60 also splits well into three, four, or five parts: there could be even splits between the branch, GHQ, the Industrial Worker, the IWW-allied non-profit that is being proposed at this year’s Convention, or the regional coordinating bodies that I think we would do well to form – or any combination of these. We could change it as we go on, if we need to. We could even try the method that the UK fellow workers use, which subsidizes branches with higher numbers of lower paid workers, by giving them a higher share than branches with more well-paid workers (at least I think that’s how it works).

The biggest objection to a plan like this, I think, would be that it is essentially lowering our dues expectations. Currently our badly named “sub-minimum” rate, for people in dire circumstances, comes out to $60/year. Well-paid workers are expected to pay $324 every year, which is more than a lifetime subscription to Jacobin magazine. That’s a lot for what, materially speaking, is little more than a 1-year subscription to the Industrial Worker, but it keeps our organization going, and it’s important.

I have a few points to make about whether $60 would not be enough:

  1.  The most facile: $60 is an arbitrary figure, chosen because it’s easy to divide in many ways, and because it’s easy to handle with cash – no need to make change. But we could easily choose a higher amount, even $120 (though for the reasons below I don’t think we’d need to).
  2. We know we lose a lot of money on the so-called “One-month wonders”, members who join for one month and then disappear. If they become one-year wonders, and pay $80 instead of $10 or $18, that would make a big difference – but maybe we could even keep more of them in past that first year, if it doesn’t take so much effort to remain a member?
  3. A lot of the labor costs at GHQ are currently tied to keeping up with the monthly dues system. If we change to yearly dues, we can either cut labor costs, or use that GHQ labor for more exciting activities which will help us sign up new members and develop existing ones.
  4. Many of the “big ticket” items that are currently paid for through GHQ, such as the Industrial Worker newspaper, or Organizer Trainings, could be transferred to the IWW-allied non-profit which is being suggested at this year’s Convention. Members who are able to, can be encouraged to add an additional monthly contribution to this non-profit – after all, our current higher dues rates are basically just glorified “suggested donations”!

Fellow workers, unite! You have nothing to lose but your stamp books, and you have a more dynamic union to win!

Books for a renewed American workers movement, 1 of 3: “The Blue Eagle at Work”

[Introduction: This is the first in a series which will focus on three books which I think are particularly useful to reviving a fighting labor movement in the US. They are: The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace, Charles Morris, 2005; Reviving the Strike, Joe Burns, 2011; and Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class, Thaddeus Russell, 2001. I hope to convince every labor radical and IWW branch to keep these in their library, but more importantly I hope that we in the IWW can take lessons from these books and make them part of our program. – LLW]

The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace: Charles Morris, 2005.

If you’re like me, the first question you’ll have about this book is about the boring title. What does it even mean? Blue Eagle at Work? Why not Black Cat on Strike? In fact, this title caused me to overlook this book for a long time in favor of flashier books about struggles taking place far away. When I finally got around to reading it, I found it myself full of new thoughts about what a renewed workers movement could look like in the US.

Morris is a practicing labor lawyer with several decades of experience, and his book is a lengthy explanation focusing on a close reading of US labor law. I know it sounds boring, but bear with me a little longer. According to Morris, US labor law has always recognized members-only unionism (also called minority unionism). It may be more accurate to say that members-only unionism was a common practice, which was legally recognized in the ’30s and ’40s, and was never prohibited after. The landscape of the ’30s and ’40s, in which workers were generally free to join one or another union, or none at all, and in which unions were only responsible to the workers who freely chose to join them, sounds like the pluralist set-up in some European countries such as Spain which get labor intellectuals such as Staughton Lynd so excited. (More about that later.)

As Morris describes members-only unionism, it is based on voluntary membership, and does not rely on NLRB-recognized exclusive representation (which recognizes exactly one union as the representative of an entire bargaining unit) and mandatory membership (whether through the dues check-off or other means). According to him, this form of organizing is enshrined in the 1935 NLRA, and there is no legal reason why it would not still be a protected form of concerted activity. Although it may have been considered “pre-majority” organizing in 1935, intended to lead to a stable, mature, majority union organization, there is no legal requirement that a minority union take any specific steps towards majority status (such as an NLRB election).

This seems promising for the narrative of “solidarity unionism”, which we tell ourselves can lead to permanent, stable workplace organizations which do not rely on recognition or legitimacy from companies or the government. Staughton Lynd does a good job of explaining the pitfalls of unionism based on exclusive representation contracts, mandatory membership, and the no-strike clause and management prerogative clauses which come from the first two:

The critical elements of [the post-1935] model are: exclusive representation of a bargaining unit by a single union; the dues check-off, whereby the employer deducts dues for the union from the paycheck of every member of the bargaining unit; a clause prohibiting strikes and slowdowns for the duration of the contract; and a “management prerogatives” clause giving the employer the right to make investment decisions unilaterally.

In combination, these clauses in the typical contract give the employer the right to close the plant and prevent the workers from doing anything about it. So long as collective bargaining agreements conform to this template, the election of reformers — an Arnold Miller, an Ed Sadlowski, a Ron Carey, a John Sweeney, or a Rich Trumka — will not bring about fundamental change.

Yet a form of unionism which doesn’t rely on exclusive representation or mandatory membership seems so distant from our world of absentee, dues-bloated unions and raiding over bargaining units, we might as well just daydream about socialism. The question is, if the government never changed labor law to exclusive representation and mandatory membership, how did we get from there to here? Morris tells us that when the NLRA was developed in the early-to-mid 30s, members-only non-majority unionism was a common practice; according to contemporary research it represented the majority of contracts signed before WW2. Morris argues that the NLRB election process and elections which allowed for exclusive representation rights, especially combined with dues-check off, quickly became “addictive” (his word) for union bureaucrats who realized that it was a much quicker way to rapidly add a dues base, and secure that dues base against competing unions.

The narrative here is compelling, but Morris does not draw any theoretical conclusions. This deserves much more attention, but I think that there is an important theoretical point here. There are three classic revolutionary positions about the unions, which can be summarized as:

  1. Syndicalist: We need to replace the hierarchical, pro-business unions with directly democratic, anti-capitalist ones;
  2. Left communist: all unions, after a certain period, by having to represent the “average”, non-revolutionary worker and accept compromise, have had to make their peace with capitalism and end up defending it;
  3. Trotskyist: unions are genuine organizations of the working class, but with leaders who represent and defend capitalist interests, who must be replaced by revolutionary leaders.

I think all of these positions have some validity, but also recognize that they come from before 1935, that is, before the NLRA, before exclusive representation and mandatory membership became the model for unionism in the US, and brought no-strike clauses and management rights clauses with them.The problem with all three of these positions, or at least the caricature that they have become when upheld by modern leftists, is that they are very black-and-white, and almost magical in their lack of nuance – they are certainly not materialist. What Morris’ narrative provides is a story of precise steps that pro-business union leaders were able to take, to completely remove the union from the control, financial and otherwise, of the membership and make it a pillar of capitalism. Of course these pro-business leaders didn’t act alone – their path was cleared by the ruling class guiding them. I think it can be shown that in every western capitalist country, there has been a process of stabilization which involved the government, capitalists, and union leaders working together to create a situation where the unions were completely removed from the control of the members. This is how Joe Burns, in Reviving the Strike, was able to quote so many conservative union leaders talking about the importance of retaining the strike weapon and independence from the government in language that would never be used today even by “liberal” union leaders – those conservative union leaders came from before the period when unions were removed from membership control. They may have been conservative, but they were a reflection of a conservative sector of the working class – one that was nevertheless clear about the effectiveness of the strike weapon.

In the US, the recipe for removing membership control was exclusive bargaining and mandatory membership. In many European countries, such as Spain, it has been done by subsidies from the government and corporations, allowing unions to still have voluntary membership without challenging or changing the overall functioning of the system. When Staughton Lynd gets so excited about the voluntary membership in Spain, and the relative plethora of minority unions there, he somehow avoids pointing out that the capitalist state nevertheless operates a stable labor system there. The reason is, almost all of the minority unions receive subsidies, and their goal is to take market share from the majority unions to receive bigger subsidies – not to challenge the “Union-industrial complex”, as one small radical union puts it [“Empresas de servicios sindicales” in Spanish].

In other words, if we want to be materialists, then let’s be materialists. That means following the money. It’s too easy to say, in vague terms, that the unions have left the control of the workers and become tools of capital and the state – or else that the unions are and always have been genuine workers organizations with bad leadership. Let’s go further. We can see, if we take a step back, a nearly universal process, where capital, the state, and the trade union bureaucrats work hand to remove the financing of the union from the hands of the workers, or to remove the ability of the workers to stop financing one union and start financing another. It is done by different methods in different countries and periods, and it is not always fully complete, but it is unmistakably a general trend.

As I said, though, this deserves more detail another time. Let’s return to the book. Although he unwittingly provides insight into how unions got to be what they are today, Morris not a radical, he is a New Deal democrat, of the sort that one thought disappeared at least two generations ago. The sincerity of his New Deal politics shows both how low the modern Democratic party has fallen, as well as how much of what passes for radical thought today is barely New Deal-ism, eighty years too late. For example, Morris talks about Industrial Democracy, a term that today is only used by radicals as a shorthand for a post-capitalist society. Morris, however, uses it in the same way that Senator Wagner did. Industrial Democracy for Morris or Senator Wagner does not mean workers’ control over production, any more than political democracy means workers’ control over society. For Wagner and Morris, industrial democracy is a system of power-sharing between classes in the plant and company, complete with checks and balances, just as political democracy is a system of power-sharing between classes in the larger society. For Morris, the tragedy of American labor law regime seems to be that it missed the chance for the sort of workplace representation that was the norm in post-WW2 Germany and Western Europe generally.

But nobody would dispute the quagmire that American labor is in, or the bankruptcy of the laws governing it. The question is, how can American workers break the shackles, or perhaps how can they organize in a way that avoids the shackles altogether?

Here again I want to point out Joe Burns’ excellent Reviving the Strike along with Russell’s Out of the Jungle. In fact, I would recommend reading all three of these books back-to-back-to-back. Morris’ book gives primers on left-hand jabbing while Burns’ is a lesson on right-hand knock-out swings. Burns shows us how working people can wage large-scale struggles against capital and win, avoiding the losing tactics of the past seventy years, and inspire hundreds of thousands, even millions of new workers to form workplace organizations. Morris gives a convincing schema for how those millions of workers could control their organizations in the day-to-day, without relying on the trap of NLRB elections, or contracts with mandatory membership and dues-checkoff clauses. Along with this, Russell reminds us that working people under capitalism are not concerned with making the system run smoothly, and will not fight for that – they want more of the good things in life, and any labor movement that wants to have a chance of inspiring allegiance by the thousands, has to prove that it is fighting for a materially better existence, not for a well-drassed capitalism (however liberal the dressings are).

In the scenario Morris outlines, a new type of union could form based on a workplace committee, and at some point simply declare its existence as a union (either quietly, to other workers, or out loud, to the boss) without bothering with an NLRB election. He also confirms that section 7(a) protecting concerted activity would offer the very modest legal protections of the NLRB to such workers. So far, most of my Fellow Workers in the IWW will be with me – we have seen this before, plenty of times, since the Starbucks Workers Union started in 2004. By the way, the timing is interesting here, since Morris’ book was released in 2005, just around the same time that the Starbucks Workers’ Union in Manhattan withdrew its NLRB election petition, in favor of solidarity unionism. I think this switch by the SWU wasn’t the only thing that brought the IWW on the solidarity unionism track, but it was something of a watershed, and the idea became much more popular afterwards.

We have much less confidence about what comes next.

According to Morris, such an organization would have a few more legal protections, which, modest as they may be, have yet to be systematically and strategically used by an organization such as ours. First of all, it could negotiate and make agreements directly with the employer on behalf of its members (without having to announce ahead of time who those members are). Second, it could exercise Weingarten rights, which guarantee a right to have a shop-steward present during potentially disciplinary meetings with management.

The negotiation power of a members-only non-mandatory union, or MONMU (the technical description of this kind of organization), might seem limited. But that is only in the abstract. Returning to Burns, negotiation power is only as limited as the union’s will to really strike and its ability to convince the workforce to do so. Anyways, a MONMU could sign an agreement covering whichever workers voluntarily join it, which could have two effects – it could convince more workers to join, or it could have the employer extend those conditions across the workplace for the ease of simplicity. Both would be victories.

The Weingarten argument is more interesting. Weingarten means you have a right to have a shop-steward present with you at potentially disciplinary meetings. The courts have interpreted this to only apply if you have a union, and it only gives you a right to bring your shop-steward, not anyone else. That is a recent court interpretation – for a long time, it meant simply that you could have a co-worker present with you at a potentially disciplinary meeting, and applied whether or not you had a union. According to Morris, that recent change from the courts could actually spur on MONMU organizing – imagine a MONMU which has 20 members out of 100 workers, but only 2 or 3 shop stewards, who are the only members of the union known to management. The union has “instant membership” that the shop stewards can give to workers on the shop floor. If a worker is called to a potentially disciplinary meeting, even if they aren’t yet a member, they say they want the shop steward – the boss has no way to know if the worker is a member, the steward gives the worker instant membership, and the steward has the right to be there.

This is a good sketch of how a different type of union could form a permanent, sustained, militant workplace organization in non-union workplaces. If there’s a weak part to Morris’ book, it’s this: I would have liked to see more consideration of how a fighting organization could operate within partially organized industries as well. There are plenty of workplaces and industries with one union which does nothing, and where an independent organization could accomplish a lot to change things. Some of these workplaces have two-tier contracts, where “B card” union members are exploited by the union; some allow temp workers who are not represented; and there are some industries, such as rail, where there are multiple competing unions. Railroad Workers United is a great example of the kind of independent organization we can form in these situations, but it would have been nice to see more information about how these independent organizations can conquer a right to exist within the workplace, in the day-to-day.

OK. The right to negotiate, the right to be present at disciplinary meetings – these are modest things and will not inspire tens or hundreds of thousands of workers to join new (old) types of unions. It is mass struggles, which win important gains, which will do that, as Burns points out, and only if these struggles win a better life, as Russell reminds us. What Morris usefully does is to show that there is a legal basis for a different type of union to exist in the day-to-day without the crippling drugs of NLRB elections, exclusive representation clauses, and mandatory membership. A different type of union can fight, it can win, and it can continue to exist without necessarily going down the same route as the existing ones.

But none of that will happen by magic. For any of this to happen, we as workers have to make it happen, as we make everything else happen. We in the IWW can play our part, but we have to consciously and democratically incorporate these lessons into our official strategy, and transform them from ideas into reality.. I don’t see anyone else who will.

What questions do you have for current CNT members?

One of the most important tasks for rebuilding a fighting workers movement, a workers movement which can help lead to a post-capitalist society, isn’t to have all the right details and correct ideological positions about what happened long ago, in a land far away. It’s to ask how we can have a functioning workers organization which fights in day to day battles and is independent of the state and the employing class. This independence can’t just be theoretical, it has to be practical. Almost all unions in modern Western countries rely on the state or the employing class to keep their funding in order, which means they are ultimately tied to social peace with those forces. Things haven’t always been like this, and they didn’t happen by accident. It’s been a strategy on the part of our enemies, and it will be incredibly hard to build a mass workers movement which goes beyond it. This is particularly challenging when in many countries, the standard form of organization for radicals is the sect based on ideology, which historically tends to be a building block to mass movements based on relationship to the class struggle.

Finding an example of any kind of success here, one has to look pretty far and wide. As far as I can tell, the modern CNT in Spain is the best example in a Western country of a workers organization which is theoretically and practically independent of the state and the employing class, which organizes workers in day-to-day struggles at the same time as they acknowledge the need for a working-class transition out of capitalism, and which is not a sect.

By saying the CNT are not a sect, I don’t want to imply that they are a mass movement. I don’t think they are a mass movement, yet, and I think it would be an exaggeration to call them that. I think that they occupy a very tricky middle ground, the same one that the IWW occupies in North America or Britain – unlike most sects, the membership is not based on strict adherence to the ideology, nor are the members concentrated in just a handful of cities, and in at least a large number of cities the main focus is on day-to-day struggles with the employing class. But neither one is yet able to make its weight felt, or to inspire thousands of workers to join at a time by winning fights, which means that the “centripetal force” of participation in the class struggle still has a hard time dominating over the “centrifugal force” of ideological disputes.

However, if both the IWW and the CNT occupy this tricky middle ground, the CNT is at least further along than we are. Their membership in Madrid alone is comparable to the entire North American (or British) IWW membership, and it’s hard to find even a small-ish town in Spain which doesn’t have a branch that would rival our biggest. This isn’t just a club for cool kids who have the right ideology, either – a quick look at any issue of their newspaper or at the home page of CNT.es will show that most of the articles are about current workers struggles. (Well, except for right now, when there are still a lot of stories on the home page about May 1).

CNT Madrid demonstration on May 1

Of course, the CNT isn’t perfect – no organization created by human beings ever has been. It has its own challenges to overcome, just as we in the IWW have ours.  However, while I firmly believe that the IWW is the best-placed organization we have to contribute to a revived workers movement in North America, and don’t believe we should blindly copy from anyone, I do think that we can save ourselves a lot of pain if we know more about the CNT’s current organizing, and recent history.

To that end I’m trying to arrange an interview with some rank-and-file members who are involved in day-to-day organizing. I plan to ask them about the current organizing climate: with the growing mobilization against austerity, are workers more open to organizing outside of the realm of the business unions, or are they placing their hopes in new electoral projects like Podemos? I also want to know about the 11th Congress, which will happen in December, and how the organization is reflecting on the last four years of social struggles.

I also plan to ask about the organizing in Spain and the developments in the CNT in recent history. But I’d like to get as many questions from readers as possible. What do you want to know about the contemporary CNT?