By Lexi Owens
Bosses love to tell half-truths and say that if workers join a union, the union will force them to go on strike. But our union is completely democratic. No decision can be made without the workers’ consent. Workers will go on strike because they decide to go on strike.
Applebee’s restaurants’ parent company Gulf Coast Restaurants Inc. sent a letter to employees in 1998 in an attempt to undermine the IWW’s organizing efforts, declaring, “The only weapon the Union has is a strike. The only way that the Union could try to force the Company to give in would be to call you out on strike. It would be you who would go without work and without your pay and benefits to try and get the things that the Union wants. You and your family would suffer, but the Union organizers would not be hurt at all.”
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation outlines on its website all the ways a union can punish workers who work during strikes, cross picket lines, or leave the union. The NRWLDF is implicitly stating that a union can force you to go on strike by fining and bullying you.
When the IWW was organizing at Jimmy John’s in the early 2010s, the owners sent out fliers saying “Wobblies want to abolish capitalism. We’re proud to be American!” implying that the IWW is both anti-American and will force you to be anti-American too, if you become a member.
Behind each of these examples is the big lie: the union is an outside entity that will force you to do things you don’t want to do. And while that is arguably true when it comes to business unions run by paid bureaucrats, the IWW fundamentally disproves this big lie every time we start an organizing campaign.
In order to scare workers into not organizing, employers will often tell their workers that unions will force them to go on strike without the input or approval of the membership. It’s a pervasive myth about unions. Employers claim that the union doesn’t care about the members’ livelihoods. And while the union bosses profit from dues, the workers suffer. All the while, the company is forced to bargain away its rights and profits and give in to what the union wants.
The IWW can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do. Our dues are voluntary, for example. Our assessments extra money that goes to the union or the branch for various projects are always voluntary, even for members. The IWW can’t force you to attend meetings or trainings, hold certain political beliefs, or do anything illegal.
And here’s the big one. Can the IWW force you to go on strike? Absolutely not. This principle of freedom and democracy is enshrined in our Constitution in Article IV “Union Democracy”: “Workers at a workplace have exclusive rights to collectively engage in decision making related to that workplace.” No union bureaucrat, committee, officer, or body can compel any workers at a workplace to take an action such as a strike, slowdown, or other industrial disruption. Every action must be approved democratically by the workers in the shop themselves.
The IWW cannot be an outside entity. Our model simply does not function like the service model employed by other unions. We can’t (and don’t) swoop into a workplace and declare to the workers that they should all join the IWW now! Our campaigns begin with individual members who decide they want to organize at their workplaces. They then painstakingly build personal relationships with their coworkers.
We organize this way because we care about workers. We care about ending exploitation. We care about the people who are affected by capitalism. And we care because we take the time to build relationships within our workplaces and learn about how capitalism and exploitation make us all miserable together. The IWW isn’t an outside force that invades a workplace. We are the workers themselves and we decide how we want to organize our workplaces. Once we build those relationships, we can bring our coworkers together in one union that practices solidarity and fights to make the lives of each member better.
But we can only fight for each worker when we are standing beside them. In the workshop, the office, the field, the factory, that’s where the IWW is.
Check out Lexi Owens’s post on itsgoingdown.org about building a better IWW culture.
[This post was published in the January 2019 issue of the Seattle Worker]