The Modern Relevance of the IWW
Working people have always existed in every society. Those who produce the goods and services that all depend upon are the one common element that all human communities must have in order to survive. All other human endeavors are secondary to the work necessary for survival. Rulers, bosses, armies, churches, political parties, and so on cannot exist without the workers. Throughout the ages there have been those who did, or sought to, exploit the labor of working people for their own benefit. No matter what form this exploitation takes, it all come down to the accumulation of wealth and power by a few from the labor of the many. This has been justified in many ways by the talking heads of the exploiters. But the single fact remains that the exploiters are not a necessary part of human society, whereas working people are.
There has been a conflict of interest between working people and those who exploit them since the beginning. That conflict of interest has been between the interest of the few exploiters to gain as much as possible off the labor of the many, and the interest of the many, the working people, to produce the needs of society for the well-being of all.
The struggle of working people against their exploitation has taken many forms over the years. At one point in that struggle, they started to organize their places of labor and these organizations became known as unions. The first organizations were that of single shops and later based upon the trade or skill of the workers. It was found that single shop organizing did not have the power to stand up to the employers who were able to use the might of the State against the workers. It was also found that the trade or skill form of unionism tended to divide workers and left many so-called unskilled workers unorganized.
From the lessons learned single shops joined together in organizations of similar shops all the way to confederations of unions. After a while the labor movement found that organizing whole industries themselves rather than the individual trades in industry was a much stronger form of organization, and this became known as industrial unionism.
Out of the direct experiences of labor struggles, a number of veteran union organizers came together to discuss how a stronger labor movement could be created and they issued an Industrial Union Manifesto that called for a founding convention of a new organization in 1905. That new organization became the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and its members over time became known as Wobblies.
This new organization was based upon industrial unionism in which all workers on the same job belonged to the same union and all workers in the same industry would belong to the same industrial union.
The IWW sought to organize workers into an organization of industrial unions rather than a federation of unions. The difference was that there could be greater coordination of organizing and industrial action. The IWW created an organizational form of industrial unions, industrial departments, and all came together as the One Big Union, one organization with many component parts that all work together. Each component part deals with the needs and issues of its members and when the needs and issues go beyond a component part then they are addressed by the next component part in a horizontal form of organization. Here is how this works: the Job Branch is the workplace organization of each shop, there the shop's needs and issues are dealt with. The Job Branch is a branch of a local Industrial Union Branch (if there is no Industrial Union Branch yet organized then it is a branch of the local General Membership Branch), and the Industrial Union Branch deals with local industrial organizing and industrial action within its industry and deals with the common needs and issues of all the Job Branches that it has organized. Industrial Union Branches are branches of an Industrial Union. All related industries are organized into Industrial Departments. All IWW members have some common needs and they are dealt with by a General Administration. General Membership Branches are branches of a General Administration.
The IWW became a constitutional organization and the constitution became the common agreement between all members of the IWW. The constitution protects the rights of all members of the IWW through direct democracy and the constitution can only be amended or changed by a vote of all members through a union-wide referendum.
The IWW believes that the gains of any worker should not come at the expense of other workers and thus upholds the principles of universal labor solidarity. As the IWW Preamble puts it “These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.”
The IWW realized that workers divided could not carry on the struggle that was needed. Thus the IWW opened its membership to all workers regardless of race, sex, religion, ethnicity, or other such means of division, on an equal level. Throughout its history the IWW has sought to educate working people and to stand against all forms of bigotry that can divide them.
The IWW sought and still does seek, to empower working people. This means that the IWW advocates that working people act directly for themselves without delegating others to act for them. This is what we call direct action.
The IWW realized that the employing class was not limited to the confines of nation states. If the IWW were to limit its organizing and industrial action to one nation it would be unable to stand up to the power of the employing class, which is international. Historically national unions have often concerned themselves mostly with what they see as the interests of workers in their country. Even when it is clear that concerns need to be international, often national unions find cooperation hindered by their fear of losing control over workers in their base country. Also negotiating through the structural apparatus of many national unions would be very slow and sometimes nearly impossible if international work were attempted. The IWW views the working class not as divided by nationalities or based upon nation states or confined by national borders, but rather as an international class with common interests. Though culturally the working class is very diverse, the IWW sees the diversity of workers as a strength and not a weakness. That is the reason the IWW did not become the Industrial Workers of the U.S. or North America, but rather became the Industrial Workers of the World.
The IWW realized that the class conflict between those who work and those who live off that labor was not a necessary part of the human existence. Thus the IWW sought in the long run to put an end to class conflict by eliminating the class system altogether. By organizing workers into the IWW based upon their day-to-day struggles for better conditions, the organization would also be creating “a new society within the shell of the old,” as written in the IWW Preamble.
The idea of creating a new society, as the IWW still seeks to do, is plain, simple and based in the reality of the working class condition as it existed then and now. The employing class is an organized power. But it is not the most powerful force that there is. Without the labor of working people to exploit, the power of the employing class is nothing. The goal of the IWW is to organize the productive power until the organized power of the working class is greater than the organized power of the employing class. At that time a new society will be possible and an end to class conflict will come about.
It has been seen throughout history that the act of organizing can create within itself a ruling class. This can be seen in many other unions where union leaders control the union and the membership. Whenever this type of situation takes place there is a conflict of interests between the rulers and those who are ruled and this will lead to further class conflict. The interest of the ruling class is to maintain their rule and increase that which they gain by their rule. The interest of the union membership is in improving their conditions and controlling the means of doing so. The IWW is not interested in creating new rulers. Thus the IWW is a rank and file organization and places limits on how long any officer can hold an office. This is important in the day-to-day struggles of working people and it is essential in creating a new society without classes.
Since the IWW was not a top-down organization but rather an organization for workers, of workers, and by workers, the IWW became a means of worker self-expression. Everything in the IWW is worker self-expression because the IWW is nothing but workers. Wobblies learn to speak for themselves as workers create a culture of self-expression that can be seen far beyond just official writing. It can include other class-conscious forms of expression: personal writings, songs, art work, theatre, language, storytelling, social events; such things became a Wobbly tradition. The Wobblies brought into the IWW the working class culture that has always existed and made it an important part of the organization and the Wobbly way of life. If working people want to control their own labor they need to be able to speak for themselves and the Wobbly culture created a means for doing that. Culture is a very powerful means of creating strong bonds between people and is very much needed in the class struggle.
The IWW does not seek to just be an organization of bargaining units, though organizing bargaining units is important. The IWW seeks to create Wobblies: workers who understand the struggle, know who the real enemy is, understand the goals of the IWW, and understand the need to stand in solidarity with each other. Creating Wobblies takes education. The three stars of the IWW label stand for *Education *Organization *Emancipation. Through its papers, literature, speakers and culture, the IWW seeks to educate workers and when a worker becomes a Wobbly, that worker becomes knowledgeable of the conditions of working people and why they exist as they do.
The IWW does not allow any outside control of the organization. All political parties or anti-political organizations are kept out of the IWW and the IWW makes no alliances with them. Individual members may want to be involved in such organizations and it is their right to do so, but they can never bring those organizations into the IWW . The IWW believes that to do otherwise would harm the unity of its members.
Although the main purpose of the IWW is to build an industrial organization, workers are affected by other issues. Wobblies have been active in peace movements, human and civil rights movements, anti-fascism movements, anti-racism movements, anti-sexism movements, environmental movements, anti-nuclear movements, and so on, and the IWW as an organization has made strong statements on such issues. The IWW views itself as the Industrial Workers of the World, not just the Industrial Wage Slaves of the World and thus confronts all the issues that are important to working people.
After the founding convention in 1905, Wobblies were involved in a lot of organizing and industrial action. Many books like to focus on the years after the founding convention until the early 1920s. In part, this is because in 1921 the Communist-controlled Red Trade Union Congress in Moscow demanded that the IWW dissolve itself and its membership join and work within the AFL. The IWW would not allow any outside organization to dictate its actions and refused to comply. We Wobblies will not take orders from Moscow or any other group of would-be rulers. Their stated complaint was that we were a so-called dual union in that there were two organizations of labor unions in the U.S. This was without merit because most members of the IWW worked in industries that the AFL was unwilling to organize and the AFL was an organization of reformist trade unions while the IWW was a revolutionary organization of industrial unions. From that time on most communist and fellow traveler writers expressed the view that the IWW died in 1921. In fact the year of peak membership was 1924 and the IWW continues to organize to this day. Our longest period of shop control was in machine shops from the 1930s to 1950. We were hit hard in the 1950s by the government's witch hunts and from the 1950s to the early 1970s we were an illegal labor union. Since then the IWW has been rebuilding itself and has been involved in a lot of job organizing and actions.
Like any organization that has been around for a long time, the IWW has evolved in some ways, but our basic ideas on organization and actions are still the same. Does this make the IWW somehow out of date? No. The basic ideas of the IWW are the most advanced union ideas ever to be expressed.
In our modern world we have global capitalism that is mostly controlled by multinational corporations and their organized power is far greater than it was in 1905. The national unions cannot stand up to the new economic situation. Only an organization that is organized internationally with fine tuned coordination has any hope of dealing with the modern situation and the only such organization that seeks to organize on that level is the IWW.
Just because ideas are old does not make them out of date. With great vision the IWW saw how capitalism was developing and created an organization with the potential to overturn it. With the international organization of capitalism and its multinational corporations, business associations, its great influence over many governments of the world, international trade agreements and such organizations as the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank, capitalism has come a long way towards its goal of complete control of everything that is exploitable for profit in our world. Though there is a lot of strong resistance, it is mostly isolated. Only the organized power of the working class has any real hope in overcoming the organized power of capitalism. It is the only organization that is based at the source of working people's power within industry at the point of production of goods and services and has the organizational coordination to reach beyond national borders and has the vision of a new society. In our modern world of instant communication the old idea of industrial union internationalism that once was just a hope becomes a real possibility and all of this, the organizational ideas and the modern means of communication, makes the IWW even more relevant today than it was in 1905.
As long as there are workers being exploited, there will always be Wobblies. The IWW never died and it will never die as long as working people are driven like beasts of burden by a few parasites who live off of our labor.