The IWW and its relevance for today

Submitted by AWL on 10 January, 2006 - 12:09

The IWW was a trade-union organisation, a revolutionary trade-union organisation, founded in 1905 in the USA, whose heyday was between 1905 and 1914.

We surveyed the IWW's distinctive organising approaches:

  • industrial unionism (as against craft unionism)
  • energetic class-struggle agitation, propaganda, and agitation
  • low membership fees
  • low or no initiation fees
  • concentrated, high-intensity waves of organising
  • addressing workers in new areas with a set of demands to be won by the union once organised (developed after a lot of preliminary discussion with workers in those areas) rather than with general agitation about the advantages of having a union in the abstract; following up the recruiting drive with immediate preparation for action on those demands
  • organising areas by getting volunteers to go in and take jobs in those areas, then talk union on the job
  • using street corner agitation, and colourful, high-profile public agitation generally (e.g. its free speech fights, to establish its right to street-corner agitation in cities which tried to ban it)
  • trying always to make industrial action short, sharp, and decisive. If a dispute drags on regardless, constantly and imaginatively trying new active tactics - never leaving the workers passive
  • an open, democratic approach, with disputes always run by strike committees elected from the workers and regularly reporting back.

These produced a body of activists with a "mass psychology" of incorruptibility and heroism.

The collective of regular, year-round IWW activists was more like a party - indeed, a revolutionary party, like the Bolsheviks - than any ordinary union.

The IWW scored some remarkable achievements on the trade-union front. It organised workers - lumber workers, railway construction workers, seasonal harvest workers - often previously considered unorganisable: transient, casualised workers, with no experience of union organisation, and often with few effective legal political rights. It won some big trade-union victories, not only for those transient workers but also for settled factory workers, for example in the Lawrence textile workers' strike of 1912.

Its most obvious weakness was its inability to consolidate a mass membership and a permanent on-the-job organisation anywhere (except, apparently, the Philadelphia waterfront). Even after its spectacular success in the Lawrence strike of 1912, IWW membership in the textile factories quickly shrank back to the small activist minority.

One dimension of this problem was that the IWW was, effectively, trying to be a revolutionary political party and a trade-union organisation at the same time. By trying to do those two different things simultaneously, in the same operation, it ended up doing neither properly.

In terms of trade-union tactics proper, the IWW's failure to consolidate mass membership anywhere seems to have a lot to do with its "principle" of never signing agreements with the bosses. That principle made it unable to do the routine trade-union thing of dealing with grievances of individual workers, or small groups of workers, by applying pressure to the boss to stick by an agreement. You could join the IWW to be a revolutionary activist, or to organise a more-or-less immediate strike in your workplace - but not for routine,"quiet" trade-union activity.

Could the IWW's positive organising approaches (listed above) be "detached" from their peculiar historical context, and from the false policy of never signing agreements, and used as policies we should advocate within the trade-union movement today? Yes, we thought, they could. Indeed, such policies are necessary if the union movement is to organise the organised and rally younger workers.

Are there other distinctive positive organising approaches, currently "lost" in established trade-union culture, which we can learn from history and apply today? One we discussed is trade-union organising by visiting workers door-to-door in their homes, rather than at the workplace.

This is done by independent trade-union organisers in Mexico, and, often, by trade-union organisers trying to develop a base inside the heavily-policed Free Trade Zones of many industrialising poorer countries. It has been done by CFMEU construction activists in Victoria, not to try to address un-unionised workers, but to get to talk to union members in the course of struggle against an employer trying to bring in a non-union agreement. It worked well there.