The IWW is now stronger than it has been in eight decades. At our historic peak in 1917, the IWW claimed 150,000 members. State repression helped destroy the union, but it never fully disappeared. With a worldwide membership of 6,600 (3,900 in North America, 2,700 internationally), we are far from that high watermark now. But we are growing, almost exclusively in branches committed to labor organizing, who are signing up workers, organizing workplaces, and building the union. The largest branches of the North American Regional Administration are Seattle, Montreal, Los Angeles, Portland, New York City, and the Stardust Industrial Union Branch in New York. Despite their geographic and cultural differences, the branches in these cities share one key feature: their commitment to workplace organizing and building One Big Union.
For many years, the IWW had only a few unionized workplaces here and there, and only now is the union actually beginning to emerge from decades of obscurity in the American labor movement. Many people on the Left and in more mainstream unions have treated the IWW as a historical relic–a sideshow confined to history books. And until recently they’d be largely correct. Even many Wobblies have treated the union like a historical society or an activist club. Reminiscing about the struggles of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s (and hell, even the 1910s) has a certain nostalgic appeal. But our historic mission is not to lose ourselves in bygone victories and defeats. It’s to abolish capitalism, a mission which is no closer to being completed than it was in 1917.
The IWW has been steadily growing since 2015. Some branches experienced a “Trump bump,” a rapid growth in membership due to the resurgence of leftist activism during and after the 2016 presidential election. But as the Trump bump dissipates, some branches continue to grow while many others have receded. Incidentally, these continuously growing branches are the same branches listed above: those who have redoubled their efforts to organize in workplaces, putting to good use the resources gained during our national membership upswing. These branches have become stable incubators for union growth because they signed up and retained workers rather than pouring time and resources into fleeting political groups and transient activism-oriented membership. Suffice to say, the numbers we have now show a very convincing trend, but in the near future, we’ll have even better statistics which will show which branches engaged in successful growth, recruitment, organizing, and retention strategies, and which ones were overly reliant on ephemeral political adventurism.
The main factor setting these different branches apart–and the driving element of the IWW’s current and future growth–has been dedication to organizing workplaces and signing up workers. Stability is built by the workers themselves, who are committed to the IWW as a union and who see the tangible short-term and long-term benefits to union membership. The branches also have strong internal cultures where members who are not organizing in their workplaces are actively supporting their fellow union members who are. The case in Seattle is clear: we are the largest branch in North America, we have numerous active workplace organizing campaigns in several industries, and we have a strong infrastructure to support those campaigns through training, mentorship, administrative assistance, financial resources, and contact with experienced members. Our branch has doubled in size every year since 2015. And more importantly, the number of branch members actively organizing in their workplaces has also doubled every year since 2015.
We do not believe we have everything figured out. We freely admit that we have made mistakes and will so again in the future. However, we take class struggle and building working-class power to be our guiding principles. The way we engage effectively in building that power is by attacking capitalism at the point of production: the workplace. As we grow, we will face other struggles, such as administrative bloat, increased external scrutiny from bosses and the state, and how to maintain an open and democratic union structure when our meetings are too large for every member to speak at them. However, I remain confident that we can learn critical lessons from the workers themselves, who constantly and consistently impress me when they organically develop their own processes to ensure equity, access, and democratic decision-making.
Branches that we have seen recede or collapse have been those who do not take on union organizing and who have treated the IWW as a vehicle for broader social struggles rather than revolutionary unionism. (And, as many of us contend, the key to winning broader social struggles is to support working-class politics through the workplace, thereby giving us the tools, experience, and labor power to attack capitalism beyond the workplace.) We have seen that a person can be a revolutionary and a person can be a unionist, but the IWW succeeds when its unionism is revolutionary and when its revolutionaries support the union. Other initiatives, such as the forever-nebulous “community defense” and elusive “community organizing,” have not yielded nearly the same amount of success as unionizing workplaces. We have a clear path forward, and the strongest, most resilient, and fastest growing branches are on that path.
Without delving too deeply into internal politics, there has also been a substantial number of workers who have persevered through an internal conflict that has caused many to leave the union. They have stayed true to the union’s commitment to empowering workers and organizing labor despite constant factional criticism leveled against them. A different group of members–who have criticized the workplace-oriented side–has experienced their own internal collapse and the exodus or expulsion of many of their leaders. The ultimate result, which we will understand more within the next year, has been a marked shift in internal culture towards building the union from the ground up and away from posturing about abstract revolutionary proclamations.
There will be near-term and long-term challenges. We should entertain no illusions about the perfection and sustainability of our current methods. Managing a union with 30,000 members will be fundamentally different from how we do it now; so different that membership growth to that scale will pose a myriad of new problems. There are also many who still cling to the now discredited tactics which provide no way forward for the union to grow, and they will either continue to erect barriers to the union’s success or will have to adapt to a changing IWW landscape. The union will also have to deal with how it manages stagnant or inactive branches.
Considering the union’s current trajectory, I am now more confident in the IWW’s ability to become a major force in the American labor movement than I was when I joined years ago. Our message for workers is clear, and we have the means to reach workers on a scale unprecedented in the last few decades of our history. For the first time in a very long time, the union is making moves in organized labor and improving the lives of workers. The union is laying the foundation for sustainable and long-term struggles against capitalism. And what I find most heartening has been the workers I’ve come into contact with–who I’ve seen become rebellious and revolutionary–because of their activities in the IWW. That’s real class consciousness and worker power, and it starts with redoubling our focus on working organizing.