From the Wobblies to Change To Win?

Two major events happened in the last two years whose meaning many hope are interconnected in some fashion. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies, celebrated their 100th anniversary. This was an opportunity to make a festival of the ideals of workers self-management. Also, the New Unity Partnership (NUP), a faction within the trade union bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO, separated from the national labor federation. Many have seen NUP as an important step forward in reviving the labor movement. Now joined by the Teamsters, this coalition has the new name of Change to Win.

The renewed interest in the IWW and the intense history of the debate about the NUP are representative of what is universally held to be a national crisis in the labor movement. Many are looking to the historical example of the Wobblies and the formation of the NUP and now Change to Win as potential agents of working people’s redemption.

Self-proclaimed “insurgents”, NUP and its supporters took a stand against the AFL-CIO federation bureaucracy. Dissatisfied with the political irrelevance of unions and the continual decline of membership, the NUP unions called for and began to implement an aggressive unionization drive, the gains of which could be marshaled for political victories in Congress.

The NUP initiative energized organizers and supporters around the idea of a supposed new age of labor; one that hasn’t been seen since the earlier decades of the 20th century. In doing so, some supporters of NUP invoked the far-reaching example of the IWW and the mass organizing of the 1930s CIO years. NUP’s stand against the AFL-CIO was a claim to a progressive zeal to organize the unorganized just like the IWW and CIO unions had done. Some saw historical analogies in the early battles of the IWW and the CIO against the corrupt and racist American Federation of Labor which was properly called “the American separation of labor”.

In reality, NUP was a faction of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy that broke away to form its own competing federation. The emergence of NUP was not an opportunity to solve the labor movement’s problems—it has only distracted from them. It is part of the crisis, not its solution. Appeals to the radical tradition of labor organizing from below—as represented by the IWW and the CIO mass movement—cannot hide the fact that NUP’s argument with the AFL-CIO was really a squabble about how union bureaucracies should be managed.

The history of direct democracy in workplace organizing cannot be used to give insurgent credentials to what is thought to be a more “progressive” union leadership. Today, the crisis is to be found in people’s lack of confidence in and historical memory of what they can and have achieved. It is the failure to organize independently from the union bureaucracy that has led to victory after victory by the employer and state offensives against working people.

Is There Anything New About the NUP Debate?

In 1995, John Sweeney defeated Lane Kirkland for the presidency of the AFL-CIO. His “New Voice” platform, emphasizing the need to mobilize existing union membership and expand it by vigorous organizing, ensured his election victory. Sweeney’s election was looked on by many labor progressives as a widespread desire on the part of union leaders to solve the declining power of unions. Consequently, many hailed Sweeney’s election as a new opening for building a fighting grassroots union movement. Sweeney allocated funds for just this. He boosted the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute and promoted the importance of increased organizing.

However, disappointment with the lack of results in this campaign led to a challenge of the Sweeney presidency by several union officials who were behind the increased emphasis on organizing. In this context the New Unity Partnership emerged. The irony is the more progressive-leaning unions in this partnership have been prominent in the training of organizers at the Institute for some time.

New Unity Partnership was initially an alliance of three unions that embraced the SEIU position summarized in their “United We Win” paper published in 2003. These are SEIU (Service Employees), UNITE (Needle Trades and Textiles) and HERE (Hotel and Restaurant). In addition, two comparatively conservative construction unions LIUNA (Laborers) and UBC (Carpenters) signed on. All were critics of the progress of the Sweeney tenure. In assessing why promises to reverse declining membership roles were not realized, they determined it was because of infrastructure impediments within the AFL-CIO federation itself.

NUP argued that the way unions are organized nationally is the final impediment to building a fighting labor movement. They claimed the federation had to be a centralizing force in union strategy nationally. However, they said the power of individual national union bosses was blocking such efforts. Many saw the AFL-CIO as necessary to lobby the Democratic Party, but little else. They argued that there should be fewer unions through mergers, structured along industry lines and coordinated from a strong center that will determine policy and strategy. This certainly did not help grocery workers in southern California when super-union United Food and Commercial Workers “led” a disastrous strike in 2003-2004.

Some NUP supporters attempted to portray this as a battle between progressive union organizing and conservative organizing. They pointed toward a couple factors. They argued that there is division along racial, gender and skill lines. SEIU and UNITE-HERE represent many in the unskilled or low-skilled work sector. As a result, their membership is majority immigrant, people of color and women workers. In skilled industry there is a larger percentage of white men and their unions care little for lower-skilled people of color and women compatriots. SEIU and UNITE-HERE have also had a relatively progressive reputation compared to other AFL-CIO unions. They have expressed affiliation with various progressive causes, including anti-Iraq war sentiments. Their supporters propose that the leadership of the NUP alliance would create possibilities for a truly anti-racist and anti-imperial labor movement.

Detractors said the NUP vision is a blow against union democracy and people of color representation. Autonomy of union locals and central labor councils would be ended—something that had already seemed to happen in NUP unions. These locals would be almost completely controlled by the treasury secretaries of the national unions. Further, people of color and women caucuses in the AFL-CIO Executive Council pushed through by Sweeney were rejected by NUP leaders in their drive to slim down the council to only union heads. Critics said there would not be enough people of color and women union heads.

Despite the fireworks there was nothing new in this debate and even less substance. This was a fight about who will control union bureaucracies. The reformers presented structural changes to the bureaucracy to achieve what they claimed would be strategic ends. This was no advance beyond what Sweeney already proposed a decade ago. Both factions are committed to giving support and union dues to the Democratic Party and believe the most vital political challenges of the day are to amend labor law by shaking hands in the backrooms of Congress. The NUP aim was to dominate “labor markets” and deliver for employers and politicians a “productive” partnership for American chauvinism. Change to Win is now carrying-out this mission.

What was so incredible is that it is just old business unionism in an era in which capitalists have ideologically dispensed with the idea of unions to help run production. These are the same people who have been warring with American workers’ movements for a century.

What is the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute For?

The NUP program and its advocates pointed towards the experience of the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute for the type of labor organizing that was going to rebuild working people’s political power. Yet many aspiring militant organizers have been demoralized.

Prominent at the training sessions at the Organizing Institute were so-called progressive experts among SEIU, HERE, and UNITE who thought they had a plan to organize. They made up role-playing dialogues to help their trainees learn to speak to non-union workers about the potential wonders of healthcare and pensions for their families. They explained an art of maneuvering to bring the union in to negotiate for them through dues check-off card elections. They affirmed that the union would come in and be their representation after workers had organized themselves.

Blatant in its absence was any reference to radical labor organizing traditions. There was no pretense to the importance of explaining the need for opposition to state and capital, no challenges offered to racism, imperialism or patriarchy, and no mention of the need to include immigrants in all job categories in fellowship.

There was no explanation during this training of the historical origins and power of anti-labor laws and the need to oppose them. Education was offered that illustrated the type of union busting tactics carried out by management when workers are struggling to have an election for establishing the legitimacy of union representation. The Organizing Institute had potential organizers view strike videos created and shown by management, where militant picket lines of the past are defended by insurgent workers attacking those who cross the picket line, shutting down production, overturning trucks driven by scabs and smashing their windshields.

In fact, many of these picket lines were part of the very movements whose mantle the NUP claimed to carry. Yet the SEIU and UNITE-HERE trainers told their organizers that management will seek to divide the workers from the union by advising that the union will bring that kind of violence and division into the workplace. As part of the “education”, potential organizers were also told that the images in this management-sponsored movie do not exemplify what unions are really about.

When we see that its organizers were implored to educate workers that unions are legal teams that negotiate health plans and pensions (that are not guaranteed and will be bargained away), the type of organizing this institute encouraged becomes clear. It would be easy to say this state of affairs is about McCarthyism that is scaring away radical commitments under fear of “communism”. It is a hard truth to learn that those facilitating the cleansing of the best instincts of labor organizing are sometimes even members of socialist organizations. There is no greater lesson that can be learned through participation in union politics and among labor organizers than this one.

Union Organizing from Below

The democratic history of union organizing cannot be reconciled with the history of the labor bureaucracy. Every gain and every advance of people in the workplace has come from people’s desire and capacity to collectively organize themselves as an autonomous and independent class. The early history of the IWW and the CIO period cannot be reconciled with the existence of a union bureaucracy above workers.

The IWW was founded on the principle that “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common”. Committed to the self-emancipation of everyday people, it helped organize hundreds of thousands, if not more, in a time when union membership was as low as it is today. Most of these workers were thought by the conservative and racist AFL to be unorganizable and a threat to its dues and privileges.

The IWW organized the most militant strikes, made possible by a far-reaching political vision that helped give shape to a wide-ranging social movement. They organized the first sit-down strike, the first major auto strike, the first strike to shut down all three coal fields in Colorado, the first “no-fare” transit workers job action, as well as widespread organizing among waterfront, timber and textile workers. The IWW advocated a political vision of truly free speech and assembly, the end of wage slavery, direct action, multi-racialism, embracing of immigrants and international solidarity. They were continually attacked by much of the Left and faced great state repression in the Palmer Raids of 1919.

Picking up this tradition in the 1930s, countless workers in mining, rubber, steel, textile and auto began to organize in their workplaces and communities. General strikes broke out in several cities. Violent confrontations between employers and the state and workers grew. In response, the new Democratic Party, led by Roosevelt, passed the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1934 (NIRA), which said that workers had the right to union representation and contracts. Millions of workers organized new unions, often interpreting a mandate defended by the state to justify actions far more extensive than was accepted by the state.

The NIRA prepared the way for the legitimacy of union leadership loyal to a partnership with the Democratic Party and the new capitalists and management rather than to everyday people’s interests. This was built on the fact that these leaders worked hard to smash autonomous workers’ organization. As a result, the sovereignty of workers that built the resurgent labor movement of the 1930s was directly attacked in its ability to carry out strikes and other collective action and organization independently of this labor regime. Wildcat strikes from the Second World War until the early 1970s showed that this alliance never had people completely under its control.

No More Distractions

The crisis of the labor movement is a political one. All strategic questions must begin from there. Yet the reformers—on either side of this ahistorical debate—offer nothing here. Explosion of rank-and-file organization will face three problems as they have in the past. There has been a lack of preparation in terms of national organization and networking, a shortage of funds, and the lack of ability to combat union officials, Democratic Party politicians and those that justify their existence. And it is the anti-labor laws that in effect reinforce that union dues do not go to defend and sustain strikes and are diverted instead toward electoral politics, since all meaningful strikes are literally illegal.

Collective bargaining and union power are related. However, there is no active base willing to enforce this power outside of the legal framework of collective bargaining at the moment. Limited and isolated strikes are not threatening because employers are determined to restructure relations between worker and management on their own terms. They have been doing quite well at this for some time. There has been an employer and state war with only one side fighting.

The only thing that can prepare people to fight back is a wide-ranging political movement of labor across skill and industry. Even if one is not interested in ending wage slavery or phony representative “democracy”, it will increasingly become a realization of people that this is a necessity for basic survival.

We are living in a period of growing crisis not only because the “American Dream” as a mutual social contract between rulers and subjects that existed for some is being shredded. We are also living in such a period because the vast majority of people lack the confidence or memory to effectively fight back. History provides rich lessons and paths to follow and improve on. The way is promising, but not easy. What is clear is that debating about who will control business unionism by invoking the history of direct democracy in workplace and community struggles to justify it is a conversation that is going nowhere.

Rather than equating the legacy of the IWW and the 1930s labor struggles with the agenda of a group of union officials who have no interest in addressing the growing crisis, it would be better to mine these histories for the knowledge and experience that is needed to build a movement loyal to no class above society.

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