By Lexi Owens
Theory and praxis
In the IWW, we are guided by a central theory: the working class must organize itself so that we can build the power necessary to overthrow capitalism and establish a new just and equitable society. Our theory is based on the knowledge that workers are the true creators. They are members of the class that creates not only products and commodities, but also wealth, knowledge, culture, infrastructure, and all the necessities of life. Wage labor—where the worker sells their time and energy to an employer in exchange for money—and unwaged labor—where the worker does labor that allows them and their family to live, such as childcare or food preparation—form the fundamental underpinnings of our existence in society. Labor is an essential part of the relationships formed between the working class and the employing class, between workers, between members of families and neighborhoods and communities. The worker is the center of our social and economic reality.
Therefore, for us to achieve our aims, we must be the creators of our own liberation. Our power comes from our ability to withhold our labor and cause a crisis for the employer. They need us to work because without our labor, nothing can be created. We believe that workers must control their own workplaces, which are the sites of our interaction with capitalists and the basis of our power.
This is what separates the IWW from business unions. At their core, business unions sell the labor of their members for the highest price. They are in the business of unionism; they are willing participants in capitalism. Labor organizations like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) pose no challenge to capitalism because they collaborate with the capitalists, they make deals to ensure there is peace between the workers and their bosses, and they push for change only insofar as workers see a marginal improvement in their daily lives. The IWW is revolutionary. We want to change the balance of power in industry. So while we will always work towards winning better working conditions in the short term, our long-term goal is the destruction of capitalism. The way we achieve that goal must be based on worker organization that empowers workers to become the instruments of their own liberation.
Practical rules to live by
1. Form bonds with fellow workers. We are in struggle together. Only together can we fight and win. Your union is only as powerful as the willingness to stand together to achieve shared goals. Individually, we have little or no power against the bosses. One worker asking for a raise will rarely be successful. But many workers, who take action together, can win whatever change they want in the workplace. This can only be achieved by bringing workers together in shared struggle, using the bonds they already share with each other or creating new ones. Trust, solidarity, friendship, camaraderie, whatever it is called, it must be built, which will take time and effort.
2. The workers are the union, you must believe it and you must behave appropriately. The struggle belongs to every participant. They won’t believe it if you don’t. If every worker doesn’t buy in to the struggle, then they won’t be working towards change. The organizer’s job is to show workers how they can be part of the union because it is both for them and from them. The union can only function if the workers believe it is working in their interests. And it can only work in their interests if they are active participants. Don’t stand in their way, don’t let undemocratic decisions or leaders set bad precedents. Ensure all participants are equal in the struggle.
3. All workers are capable of doing tasks for the union. Find the appropriate tasks that grow their confidence and organizing capacity, and get them involved early and often. They must build the union. The organizer can’t and will never build the union on their own. Workers will lead the way by completing the tasks needed to push the campaign forward, everything from gathering phone numbers to recruiting new members to holding a walkout. The best way to get workers involved is to ask them to take on tasks and make sure they complete them. This will build their confidence, help the campaign, and get them committed to winning. It also shows achievable goals that can be met so winning becomes achievable and not completely abstract. They then become the leaders of their own organization.
4. Struggle leads to change. Workers who take actions will grow as instruments of their own liberation. As workers gain the confidence they need to complete tasks, they will also gain the confidence they need to confront their bosses. Overcoming adversity, winning small demands, solving problems, and growing as organizers will help workers realize their own potential. As they grow, they will get stronger and more rebellious.
5. Leaders lead, recruit them and their followers will join too. Develop the leadership capabilities of both existing leaders and future leaders. Hold leaders accountable. A leader is anyone with followers. They are respected by their fellow workers for myriad reasons. Their opinions matter. If they turn against the union, the people who respect them will also turn on the union. Turn these organic leaders into assets of the union, people who will continue to lead, help the campaign, recruit, and build up others to be leaders.
6. Model democracy. Do not tell the workers what to do, help them find the solution they want to take on. You are only one part of the democratic whole. We can’t win by dictating to workers how they must act, how they must organize, and how they must behave. Worker power is built by individuals acting in concert together, deciding democratically how to act. Democracy means each participant is part of the decision-making process, having equal ability to raise concerns, discuss action, vote, and participate in the outcome. If you want workers to feel as though they are part of the union, then you must show them how to act democratically by being a part of the democratic process yourself.
7. Your ability to take decisive action is contingent upon the willingness of your fellow workers to fight. We have been conditioned for centuries to yield to authority and become complacent. A good organizer finds the issues people are ready to fight for and develops the workers’ skills for that fight. If we do not fight, we will never win. For most workers, fighting the bosses feels wrong. They are used to capitulating because they have been taught that will help their careers, and they are all aware of the consequences of rebelling. But all workers want something better in their workplaces, you need to find those things and help workers unite around those issues until they are ready to fight. Build up the workers until they can fight and until they can withstand being knocked down. Not every action will be successful. This is class warfare being waged across millions of battlefields. One of those battlefields is the workers’ minds. Help them discover their own skills, build those skills, and make sure that when they go to war, they know how to win.
This article is heavily indebted to the insights and lessons from Jane McAlevey’s excellent book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (2016).
[This post was published in the April-May 2019 issue of the Seattle Worker]