When the Spanish CNT held its first Congress after the death of Franco, in 1979, there were thousands of attendees representing hundreds of new branches across the country. The mid 1970s saw an explosively resurgent and uncontrollable labor movement which the state was desperately trying to rein in, and many of the more radical elements had joined the CNT. Beyond the business at hand, which took the better part of a week, there were concerts, public debates, presentations, & films. The debates in the months leading up to the Congress had been widely read, and the decisions that the Congress made were seen as important enough that they were reported on in the national press. This is my dream for a standard for the IWW Conventions of the future. Obviously we’re not there yet, but after the 2014 Convention I do feel confident that we’re on the right road.
The IWW’s annual meeting was originally a General Convention of delegates sent by conventions of the component Industrial Unions, but when the last IUs collapsed in the 1940s and our membership dropped to the low triple-digits, the union moved to a one-member, one-vote Assembly as an emergency measure. We returned to a Convention in 2009, with the difference that now it is Branches who send delegates, rather than Industrial Unions. I went to the Assemblies in 2006 and 2007, but the 2014 Chicago Convention was my first.
It was refreshing to compare the Convention to the previous Assembly model. I did feel a lot more responsibility from the various delegates, most of whom showed that they were thinking both about their branches internal discussions and the future health of the union with their discussions and votes. I believe that high-level democratic discussion is important not just for abstract commitments to democracy, but because in a member-led, -organized, and -financed organization, it is the only way that the best decisions can be made. I think that just as the Assembly was an important and understandable measure to take in its context, it had to be surpassed by a more collective structure, one that implies union-wide debate and involvement in decision making. The step to Convention was a definite level up for the union, as it does bring us closer to the kind of organization that could very quickly scale to match a fighting workers movement. In other words, when we have 10,000 members in the US, our Convention will not be an organizational fetter in the way that the Assembly would have been. Overall I came away feeling very positive after seeing the delegate system in real life.
There is however one detail that strikes me as inappropriate in an organization which professes workers’ democracy. It is the same reservation that I had when the switch was proposed in 2008. This is that a small number of branches administer contracts with a “union-shop” clause which require membership as a condition of employment. The SF Bay Area, for example, has 3 workplaces under contract, whose employees are obligated to pay dues and form around 2/3 of the branch’s members. Thus while the Bay was tied for highest number of votes (4), without those contracts they would only have 1 or 2. However I haven’t heard of the Bay sending a worker from one of the contracted shops as a delegate during any of the five Conventions we’ve had. This is particularly problematic considering that two of those shops are almost entirely men of color, while the third is overwhelmingly women, which is not reflected by the branch members who attend the meetings and elect the delegates. (By the way, I think the Bay delegates did a great job and don’t mean to imply any kind of criticism of them.)
I don’t think this is an urgent problem, because our number of branches with union-shop contracts is very small, and does not seem to be growing quickly. Portland may have some, and perhaps next year Chicago will, but I can’t think of any other branch which has or might soon have a union-shop contract. However, at some point down the road, if this is still an issue, I’d like to see a rule about allocating delegates that branches which would receive more than one delegate, but which administer union-shop contracts, have to reserve at least one spot for a shop-floor worker. I proposed an (admittedly complicated) amendment precisely along those lines in 2008 but it was turned into a worthless “encouragement”. I say worthless, because in five years of Conventions, no worker from a contract shop has been sent as a delegate (at least that I’m aware of). I don’t plan to propose this for next year, but I’d like to encourage the Bay and any other branches which have a union-shop contract to voluntarily reserve a spot, and to choose not to elect their full complement of delegates if no shop-floor worker is willing to come. Failing that, I’d be tempted to propose a fund to assist delegates and attendees from IWW union shops, analogous to the Sato fund which financially assists women, trans, and gender-nonconformist attendees.
The other main problems that I saw were I think more related to a wider cultural infamiliarity with working in a democratic organization. For example the chairs did an excellent job, but at certain points some delegates were unsatisfied with the rulings of the chairs. This is normally dealt with by formally challenging the ruling of the chair, but some delegates were unfamiliar with this, which I’d chalk up to living in an overall authoritarian society in which we are unused to actually challenging those who are in charge, more than to any problem with Convention. We also need to be clear that as a forum for member democracy, it is a place for officers to report and give information, but officers are there to answer to the membership, not to have the membership answer to them. When one officer “joked” that he was naming and shaming branches who had not done what his committee wanted, this went unchallenged. We need to have a strong enough internal democratic culture that when this kind of attitude is displayed, the delegates will remind officers that it is out of order.
Convention is when all of the official committees & officers of the union offer their reports to the membership. Right now it is basically giving information and inviting questions – it would be much more democratic if each report had to be approved by vote (or not). The other issue with the reports is that they were only distributed during the weekend of Convention, allowing very little time for delegates or other members to read through them thoughtfully, come up with questions or criticisms, etc. The Board report mentioned the crisis of member numbers in the US, which is very serious, and the financial crisis that must be at least partially related to that. They also reported that Australia’s ROC had not reported or showed signs of life in years and was on the verge of being dechartered, while the attempts at a Greek ROC ended in a political falling out and the Uganda group’s past as leftist swindlers was brought forward – all of which received very little comment from the floor. (I can’t help but notice the irony that large amounts of money were being sent to Uganda while our own organization was entering a financial crisis, but no one brought it up at the time.)
Convention is the highest interactive organ for member democracy and is the forum where we should be able to discuss anything and everything that is critical for the union. The referendum is an important safeguard of member democracy but is basically reactive, choosing whether or not to accept various items (as well as elect officers). IWW members should come to Convention ready to discuss difficult topics – which also means that these difficult topics should be adequately raised ahead of time, by the Board or other central bodies. In the future we’ll have to make sure that the Board is adequately sending information around to branches to allow for enough time to discuss, and if this is consistently not happening, then we should ask why.
Of course, the format is only as important as the discussions that it enables. As I mentioned in my pre-convention post, there were two official proposals brought before Convention, meaning proposals sent by branches to the Board more than 2 months before Convention so that they could be distributed to branches for discussion. These were a proposal from the British branches to have a committee critically examine our international structure during the next year, and a proposal from Atlanta to implement card exchange with other revolutionary unions.
There were also three “emergency” proposals brought, which came after this deadline and so required the agreement of 2/3 of the delegates that they ought to be slotted into the agenda. The first was to restart publication of Solidaridad as the union’s official Spanish-language medium. The second was to instruct the General Executive Board not to interfere with publication of the Industrial Worker. The third, which came much later, was a resolution in solidarity with Ferguson, MO. The delegates ultimately accepted the suggestion of the agenda committee to add the Solidaridad and Ferguson proposals but not the IW one – however as very few delegates had printed copies of the proposals it did make it somewhat difficult to know what we were voting about.
The British proposal was the first to be discussed. There was almost unanimous agreement that the international structure of the union has a lot of problems, and that this proposal is a fairly sensible way to explore changing it. The proposal originally mentioned exploring affiliation with the Red & Black Coordination, which was changed to a more neutral commitment that we would explore affiliation with other labor internationals which call for abolition of the wage system. The other amendment from Atlanta, to have us simultaneously examine our structures in North America, received a more mixed response. Some delegates felt that the original proposal already implied that. Others felt that it seemed more like an additional proposal than an amendment. Although there was some support, it was not accepted.
The other major discussion on this proposal was regarding how it was to be structured, with an early amendment passing which changed the committee from being appointed by the Administration to being chosen at Convention. However soon after, we began discussing how to guarantee that the committee would represent the union as it exists in different countries, and after much discussion ended up deciding to elect a chair at Convention, with the German-language, British, Canadian, and US groups each electing one member themselves (the GEB choosing one for the US), and the entire committee electing two more. This is perhaps a bit unwieldy, but it was generally recognized that we were not proposing an entire international structure, simply a committee which would work for one year to foster discussion and proposals about the international structure.
The second proposal, for card exchange, raised a lot of debate about how exactly the IWW sees its international role. Some delegates thought the general idea was good but that the specifics were not flushed out enough. Others argued that IWW members who move to places where there is no IWW should not join other revolutionary unions, but should simply try to build IWW branches. This gets into the question of how the IWW envisions a future labor international, whether it is through an outgrowth of the existing IWW expanding, or whether it is based on seeking and achieving unity with compatible existing unions. This is a debate that will continue to surface within the union until we have decided one way or the other. Ultimately the card exchange proposal turned out to be much more controversial than I expected, and was defeated.
The two emergency proposals were both greeted with general approval, and reservations only on specifics. Overall there was a lot of support for Solidaridad but many delegates appeared to agree with the Twin Cities’ point that this publication should be oriented primarily towards Spanish-speaking workers in North America, rather than towards activists in Spain or Latin America.
Similarly, with the Ferguson resolution, everyone agreed that we want to express our solidarity. We amended the resolution to include mention of the workplace action at UPS in Minneapolis as an example of the kind of action we want to support and organize in the future. It’ll be up to us to make sure that we put this into practice.
We’re still not at the kind of Convention that sums up a year of action and debate, and which is seen as a milestone for the next period. But I’m happy to say that after 2014 I’m convinced we’re on the right path. If you were at this Convention, I’d love to hear what you took away from it. What impressed you? What needs to be worked on? If you’ve been to previous Assemblies or Conventions, what noteworthy changes have you seen?