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Minority Report #4

By Alexis Buss, Industrial Worker (December 2002)

Most union campaigns get off the ground by finding out what problems exist in a workplace or industry. Workers form union committees, a campaign is launched, and workplace issues are articulated to attract more and more support for the union's cause. Most often, this organizing is done with the goal of the union being formally recognized by the boss, either by a card-check agreement or an election of some sort, so that a contract can be bargained.

But what usually happens when it is time to sit down and bargain the contract? It isn't true to say that at negotiation time the boss and union come to the table as equals and work out the best possible deal for both parties. The union most usually comes to the table from a very weak position, because it has been built not to fight for and enforce its demands, but rather to ask the boss to give it legitimacy.

This method came about when NLRA was enacted in 1935.

"Labor peace" was a desirable concept for the bosses, the government and entrenched union bureaucracies. The bosses were tired of dealing with rising labor militancy -- factory takeovers, strikes, walk-outs, sit-ins, etc. Government officials had to deal with helping their pals in big business recover from the effects of this kind of organizing. And the labor bureaucrats were worried by workers who were getting too uppity and demanding the same kind of respect from them that they were demanding from the bosses. So a system was created for bosses to be given a legal mandate to bargain with the unions, and a set of laws and rules were created so that bargaining became a gentleman's game.

The expected way that unions and bosses dealt with each other was that the contract was improved upon with each new set of negotiations, so long as the company was in good health. This has changed. It is now routine for companies, ones with and without unions, to shut down plants and offices, downsize jobs, reduce pay and benefits, and generally show no consideration to workers, even during profitable times.

But here's something that has been true ever since our present set of laws was enacted: it is usual and expected for contracts to contain completely useless (worse than useless, positively harmful) language for workers -- the management prerogatives clause, and no-strike clause.

Because most unions accept that workers are on earth to be managed, and bosses should run the world as they see fit, it isn't a surprise that most union contracts allow management to have total control over a workplace. During the term of a contract, when the union is entitled to collect dues from workers through dues check-off, limiting the ability of workers to strike is also desirable for many unions to make sure that their main revenue streams are not cut off. Let alone the added benefit of avoiding the hassle of "managing" uppity workers.

When we think of how we can turn around the labor movement, we must keep these things in mind. We can't just accept "more organizing." Because even if we had more organizing of the kind we have now, we would still have to address the issue of unions not helping workers to pursue job control. We would still have to deal with concessionary bargaining.

How are we going to get off of this road? We must stop making gaining legal recognition and a contract the point of our organizing. Our unions and networks of solidarity must be able to deal with the issues that inspire most campaigns -- wages, benefits, working conditions. But just as necessary is to have a way for us to organize to address the respect (or lack of respect) workers feel on the job, our ability to control how we work, how our workplace is going to interact with our community and our world.

We have to bring about a situation where the bosses, not the union, want the contract. We need to create situations where bosses will offer us concessions to get our cooperation. Make them beg for it.

This is one of the potentials of minority unionism (by the way, this is the last column that I'll be using this term -- in the next month, I'd like your help in figuring out a new name to describe the kind of unionism we've been talking about in the pages of the Industrial Worker).

The point of unionism as the IWW sees it is to organize workers in ways that our power cannot be ignored or co-opted. Minority unionism is one way to do this, because we can organize around demands without worrying about if we have a contract or legal standing. As much as possible, we should seek to avoid situations where our power is replaced by laws and contracts.

If contracts and agreements help us hold bosses to their promises, that's great. But if bargaining becomes an exercise in what rights we will give up, and deciding that bosses should in fact have total managerial control over our working lives, we're going about it the wrong way.