Reflections on #wobcon2014

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 entrance to the CNT’s V Congress in 1979

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?
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11 thoughts on “Reflections on #wobcon2014

  1. Not being at the convention, I don’t really wish to comment on the specifics of what happened at #wobcon14.

    I would like to say that we should consider in the future changing things to count job branches separate from GMBs for convention delegates. Maybe this would give incentive for job branches to confederate as IUBs or separate IU organizing committees under guidance of the local GMB (sort of a middle step between full independence and the current GMB “service model”).

    second: we should give Solidaridad the nick-name Soli. It’s the nickname of the Catalan CNTs paper Solidaridad Obrera, I like the idea of creating a historical connection and inspiration with that movement and struggle.

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    1. Hi TS, thanks for the comment.

      Your first point seems to be addressing the same issue that I raised, that branches who administer “union shop” contracts may have a disconnect where they are alloted delegates based on the total number of dues paying members, but the shop-floor workers don’t participate in the branch meeting that elects the delegates.

      As I said I think this is an issue but not an extremely urgent one. However I also think that whatever solution that is proposed should base itself on what we have, not what we wish we have. Although the Constitution outlines “job branches” as a democratic, lasting structure for our organization within a given workplace, there are not currently any that exist AFAIK. I’d like to see that change but that would require its own debate and plan of action by the organization.

      Regarding Solidaridad I don’t have any strong opinions about nicknaming it one way or the other. There was also a historical IWW paper named Solidaridad Obrera and I would have preferred for us to revive that name but that moment has passed. In general though, although I’m a big booster of the CNT, I also think that radicals in North America should not constantly be appealing to European movements to justify their ideas. My question would be: Does giving the newspaper a nickname help us to make links with militant Spanish-speaking workers in North America?

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  2. Fellow Worker:

    I want to correct an inaccuracy in your account: the Bay Area has sent members from its shops, including Buyback Recycling, Stone Mountain and Daughter, and Shattuck Cinema’s on multiple occasions, so I’m not certain where you’re getting your information.

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    1. Fellow Worker,

      As far as I know the union doesn’t have statistics on anything like this, and not having been to Convention myself before now, I’ll admit that it’s very hard to know for certain. As I said in my post, I wasn’t aware of any delegates from a contracted shop having been sent as Delegates to Convention.

      Has Shattuck Cinema gotten a contract? Does it have a union shop clause? That would then make 4 union shop contracts in the Bay Area branch with around 80% of it’s members.

      Let’s be less vague here. The Bay Area branch has had ~4 delegates allotted at every Convention since the first in 2009. That is ~20 delegates. How many of those 20 were workers from shops with union-shop clauses? How about the portion of members at the branch meeting which elected the delegates?

      My intent is not to attack the Bay Area branch, where I know that many members have put a lot of effort into building involvement with shop-floor members. I believe that Portland has had many of the same difficulties, but I’m just not as familiar with them. The point is that there is a structural discrepancy here – while we criticize business unionism for removing decision making about the union from the shop floor, we also do so in a much lesser way.

      If our union is healthy, then a branch which has union-shop contracts ought to be at least partially represented by shop-floor workers, and naturally will be. Same for the members at the branch meeting. Let’s work to get there.

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      1. Even if two buyback Workers were delegates to one convention, that is approximately ten percent of the number of delegates that the Bay branch has sent since 2009, while the recycling and stone mountain workers form about 60% of the branches dues- paying membership. The only reason this is not a bigger problem is because it is an anomaly. If we had ten thousand members in North America and multiple branches in the same situation this would clearly challenge our claim of being a union run by the Workers on the shop floor.

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  3. I would defer to fw ongerth with regard to the bay area branch since he has been a long time member there.

    As for the “union shop clause” , while I see your point about convention representation clearly….what would it mean for us unlucky folks in “right – to – work” states? The point of rtw is to allow “non-union” workers to benefit from the contract without having to pay dues. I believe California requires workers at shops with union agreements to pay a ” fair share” if they’re not members.

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    1. Hm, I tried to post a substantial reply on September 17th and there must have been some sort of error. I just noticed it, I’ll try to remember what I was trying to say.

      I’m not arguing for or against union-shop clauses here. What I’m saying is that as long as we are collecting dues from workers based on a union-shop clause, we should admit that and recognize the complications it raises.

      I think any time a supposedly anti-employer union relies on the employer to enforce membership, there are going to be complications. That’s as true for the UE as it is for the IWW. That is beyond the scope of this discussion.

      However, there are specific complications that the IWW faces which UE, for example, does not. These are related to our recent history and current situation, in particular, the fact that almost all of our members have joined because they believe in what we are trying to do. That’s hardly a bad thing, but it does mean that our “norm” is for union business, both at the local and national level, to be decided on by people who can leave whenever they like – and in our neo-liberal, post-organization society, that is unfortunately often, although I’m not a defeatist and think that there are many things we could do to change our turnover. Regardless, I would bet money that some of our longest-term members work in the Bay Area’s contract shops, and have probably never been to more than a handful of branch meetings, and never taken part in the wider union.

      It gets complicated when there are barriers, whether cultural or otherwise, to these workers actually running their union – the union that they don’t have the luxury of dropping out of when they don’t like it, since they would lose their jobs. It gets even more complicated when their mandatory dues actually give more weight to the branch whose meetings they effectively boycott. And unless FW Ongerth can show that approximately 60% of the Bay Area’s convention delegates since 2009 have been from contract shops, then I stand by my claims.

      Although it’s on a vastly different scale, the trend has always reminded me of Maurice Brinton’s report from revolutionary Portugal:

      “Near the exit we pass a large notice board. On it are listed the workplaces ‘represented’ at the Congress. It looks impressive: factories of all kinds, transport depots, shipyards,
      telephone exchanges, hospitals, banks, shops, offices, all the areas in modern society where people are exploited and oppressed. On direct enquiry however – and after our refusal to accept evasive answers – it was admitted that although members or supporters of the PRP worked in these various places, very few were attending in a delegate capacity. The whole episode left an unpleasant flavour of manipulation.” From: https://libcom.org/history/portuguese-diary-1-august-1975-maurice-brinton

      Again, I’m not arguing in this report for or against union-shop clauses. What I am saying is, let’s realistically acknowledge the problems that we need to deal with rather than pretending they don’t exist.

      (As an aside, it’s important to recognize that enforcing dues payment through contract language arose around the same time and for the same reasons as dues check-off, in which dues are deducted directly by the employer and handed to the union. They were both part of the drive to incorporate the unions into the state which accelerated in the 1930s and ’40s. There were critics and skeptics at the time, including the IWW, who argued among other things that unions which are worthwhile would not have to rely on forced membership or state assistance. But perhaps that’s a topic for another post.)

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  4. Regarding convention, I’m actually planning on coming up with a few recommendations to send to next convention to make things run smoother. I’ve got a few ideas rolling around in my head, and I’d love to hear from you. Give me a shout by email.

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