by FW Noah
There has been much said, both in the annals of labor history as well as within the IWW, as to the relevance of the IWW in the labor history of years past. Indeed, we were one of the largest rank and file unions at the beginning of the 20th century, conducted some of the largest strike actions across major industries in this country, and as a result faced some of the most aggressive suppression and violence as a result of our method of organization and our industrial unionist ideals for the future of the working class.
However, in the context of modern-day labor organizing, the IWW is often overshadowed by larger labor organizations such as unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and is seen by craft union members and union supporters alike as more of a radical but niche union for specific types of workers or smaller, less populated industries. This is in large part due to a significant loss in membership over the previous century, a lack of public education on labor history and differing strategies of organizing, legal restrictions, and the pro-capitalist cultural direction of unionism, all pointing towards the modern craft union model.
Despite this, the IWW has regained a significant proportion of its membership over the past several years, and it is beginning to enter the spotlight once again as a force of rank-and-file unionists to be reckoned with as more and more workers continue to join and organize with us. Not only this, but our vision of industrial unionism and its fundamental formation of a democratic, worker led and worker organized unions had even begun to take up influence in the larger craft unions of the AFL-CIO, with organizations such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the recent UAW elections showing signs of unionism moving towards a more progressive and worker-led model similar to ours.
Such developments have been widely supported and accepted by many, and shows a significant change in direction for the future of labor organizing. The previous several decades of craft unionism, despite making some significant gains regarding working conditions and compensation for workers, lost a significant amount of collective power shortly after the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, and since then from right-to-work laws, and other external hindrances from the capitalist class. Internally, the craft unions were at the same time plagued with internal corruption, mafia infiltration, focusing on maintaining a stagnating membership rather than expanding campaigns and the endorsement of political candidates who despite having pro-labor sympathies have done little to nothing to advance the rights of working people to organize. This only contributed to the continued lack of direct action regarding the legal restrictions on unions in this country, and the continuation of a state of affairs which continues to benefit the overall power and influence of the employing class.
None of this was helped by how craft unions are structured: as bureaucratic, top-down models of unionism which place more power in officers, negotiations, and paid organizers rather than the collective bodies of workers they intended to represent. Whereas the IWW embraces solidarity unionism, where workers come together to take charge of organizational strategizing and direct action themselves, craft unions emphasize contract unionism, where workers are led to form a contract with their employers which legally enforces both gains and restrictions on the workers for extended periods of time, with the threat of unemployment or discipline by managers and the union itself for breaching the contract. The latter greatly restricts the freedom of workers to take direct action — such as striking — in most contracts, as well as providing for and sometimes requiring mediation between employers and individual workers during a contract when grievances occur.
Surely, the will of the workers today to form more transparent and democratic medals of unionism signal a revolutionary change in organizational structure and strategic direction would redirect the current course of unionism towards a model similar to or mirroring our own, a model which respects the strength and solidarity of rank and file workers in the shop and in the union itself, empowers workers across industries to take up greater direct actions on the job and a more horizontal model of organizing which could yield greater results for the workers. Fortunately, for those looking for such solutions to the problems currently facing craft unionism and the current status of organized labor, the IWW already exists!
This shift in the vision of the future of unionism in recent years has come predominantly from the rank and file itself, rather than through the current process of electing union officers in craft unions, or any overhauls to currently existing state and federal labor laws. It also shows a growing working-class consciousness as well as resentment with the current affairs within the bureaucracy of the craft unions. Much of this criticism from rank-and-file workers regarding the structure and capacity of craft unions to challenge their status quo seems to be in part from experiences with union staff and officers while organizing on the shop floor, difficulties changing the current internal politics of the craft unions, a lack of direct and just systems of accountability for when the union fails to function as intended by the workers, and as a reevaluation of labor history. All of this is taking place while inflation continues to sharply increase, the cost of living continues to rise as a result of price gouging by capitalists, the “middle class” continues to shrink, working class generational wealth continues to decrease, and the working class is ready to create a state of affairs better suited to alleviate these problems.
Many workers who are now beginning to delve further into labor history to find solutions to the problems workers face in the modern day have more and more begun to reference the organizational power of the IWW in its heyday. Our willingness to take great risks in order to ensure better wages, hours, and conditions, as well as its forward-thinking model of democratic unionism in the shop and the union itself, are becoming more apparent as the way out of the troubles organized labor continues to face today. On top of this, the re-interest in the general public of leftist ideas and the mass power of demonstrations such as a general strike have also gained great sympathy among the public, and many are beginning to find out about the IWW as a result of this interest. Our numbers are growing because we offer a real, tangible and effective model of organization for working people that can yield not just better treatment from our employers but a better future for the working class as a whole.
It is time that we in the IWW step out of a past that is as distant as it is rose-tinted and take note of the many workers who have begun to look to the IWW as a possible solution to the problems currently facing the working class. It is time that we take our place in the current affairs of organized labor with one of the most radical, progressive, and direct models of unionism. Our model prepares us for the future of organized labor, a future where the workers — and not the bosses — have the last say.