by FW Noah

Most people have some experience with member-run organizations. If you are a student, you have probably heard of or been a part of a student union at your high school or college. If you participate in a sport, you’re probably part of a team with an elected captain, chosen by other players to effectively coordinate plays and maintain morale. If you are part of a club, you probably have commonly agreed bylaws and procedures made by members for meetings along with coordinated activities related to your association.

But whether or not you’re in school, your experiences as a worker contradicts these environments in many ways. We cannot elect our bosses. Rules and regulations are passed down from the top of a management chain, not bottom-up, and these rules prioritize profits over the health and welfare of the workers. Funding for your work comes out of your productive activities, and the majority of that value is given to those who do less of the work, not more. The means by which you produce – factories, farmland, a shop or other places of work- are owned by those who work the least and are mostly out of your control. Most importantly, many workplaces are physically made and socially enforced in such a way that collective action on part of the workers for their own betterment is disincentivized or punished.

What gives?

For many of us, our first explicit interactions with unions don’t come about until we either gain a job at a unionized workplace or we campaign to unionize ourselves. The language used to describe unions – depending on who you ask – ranges from derogatory to bureaucratic, along with vague anecdotes about paying dues, stewards in the shop, and contract negotiations. However, the basic fundamentals of unionism – such as cooperation among peers, sharing the duties of labor in a more equitable arrangement, creating a greater solidarity across demographic differences, consensus and negotiation – are all a part of our lives in some way before we even enter the workforce. A union merely applies these fundamentals to our productive labor and the shops where we work, enshrining them in the form of collective bargaining, direct action to address grievances, and a cooperative community of coworkers.

So, how does a union work exactly? A union, simply put, is a collective of workers who gather together to address grievances within any shop or trade, and who incorporate democratic principles into work itself. A union of workers organizes and acts to fight for better working conditions, wages, benefits, and democratic representation in the workplace. Most people think of the union as an entity that has a contract with management, with negotiations carried out between workers and management through representatives of each. If you are already a member of a union in an organized workplace with a contract, you pay dues to the union in order to pay for labor lawyers, campaign and strike funds, as well as other organs of the union. You can participate in regular contractual negotiations, summon a union rep during performance reviews or disciplinary actions and participate in larger union elections.

However, this is not the only way to organize a union and does have down sides. Contracts often limit the collective power of workers by forbidding strikes or other forms of direct action during future contract negotiations or when grievances on the job are not adequately addressed by management. This kind of unionism allows for an army of bureaucrats on both sides to negotiate – honestly and effectively or otherwise – on the workers’ behalf. But workers are the direct victims of poor and stagnating wages, redundant and dangerous working conditions, and the theft of their organized might from the bosses, the strikebreakers, and the politicians, then they should be the ones to lead the organizing and actions necessary to defend the use of their collective, organized power.

The other kind of union, a Solidarity Union, means that workers directly address grievances and act collectively to fix them. If This is what is known as Solidarity Unionism – that workers themselves should take the opportunity to organize and act in the way they see fit, to directly challenge the power of the boss and prevent the limits of bureaucracy from getting in the way of the big win: a union of all workers in any given industry.

Contract unionism has another disadvantage. Unfortunately, as a result of more traditional methods of labor organizing by trade and the restrictions of labor law, many actions taken by workers or negotiations for better working conditions often remain limited to one shop owned by an employer, rather than all shops or the trade as a whole, weakening worker power. This is why the IWW upholds and defends Industrial Unionism rather than contract unionism. Industrial Unionism proposes that the organization of all workers within one industry – under One Big Union of all industries – aims to organize the working class as a whole to gain better working conditions and wages for all workers, and build towards Industrial Democracy. Industrial Democracy is the IWW’s vision of the future, of workers sharing power both in the workplace and across society as a whole, of having direct hower in how work is conducted and the means of production managed by workers themselves.
If you are not in a union, but want a union in your workplace, the process is more involved. Learning how to organize your coworkers effectively while remaining out of the eye of the boss can be a time consuming and arduous process. It involves forming better relationships at work, crossing taboos related to discussing pay and benefits, effectively utilizing agitation strategies, evaluating risk, and more. The payoff is worth it of course, but figuring out where to start or how to go about it can be confusing and intimidating. The IWW offers training such as OT101 to provide you and your coworkers with those skill sets, to encourage your organizing activities, and to help you to strategize the best way of going about agitating, educating and organizing your fellow coworkers.

No matter where you work after you graduate, or if you are already in the working world, the IWW will always have your back. A Wobbly takes the union wherever they go, and carries the skills to organize with them as well. We know that the fight ahead can be daunting, but the many challenges we face today can only be overcome through an organized body of workers that can fight effectively and directly against what holds the working people from attaining the full fruits of our labor. We look forward to helping you and your coworkers in the future of your work. We hope that you too can be part of the IWW.

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