In January of 1905 a group of radical trade unionists, socialists, and anarchists convened in Chicago, IL to map out a new and revolutionary Union that could unite the many and discordant strands of the labor movement. After much debate and discussion they decided to form “One Big Union” for all workers. It’s purpose was to organize all the workers on the job into the same industrial union and utilize “direct action” as their path to change. They called themselves The Industrial Workers of the World and it is widely agreed that in the first twenty or thirty years of the 20th century they were the most zealous, active, and radical union to color the pages of labor history.
However, during the depression, with the radicalizing of many jobless and hungry laborers, the United States government finally legalized and created a framework for unionism. What looked like a victory to some appeared to others as an attempt by the capitalist government to simply gain legislative, legal control of the labor movement. It was the 1935 Wagner Act, or National Labor Relations Acts (NLRA), that spelled out the rights of workers to take concerted action for mutual protection or aid, and laid out the necessary steps for a group of workers to be officially “recognized” as a union by their employers. After the passage of the NLRA John Lewis from the United Mine Workers spearheaded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) with the purpose of organizing workers on an industrial, rather than, a trade basis.
At first glance this was similar to the goal of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) of the early 20th century, however the aim of Lewis and the CIO was worlds apart from the aim of the IWW. The CIO accepted capitalism as a legitimate and desirable system of production and distribution. Lewis simply wanted to reform capitalism so that it provided a little more for the working class. The conservative motto of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the CIO was, “an honest days’ wages, for an honest days’ work.” The radical motto of the IWW was, “the abolition of the wage system.” And the chasm between these two philosophies is deep and wide.
The CIO went on to popularize, and make almost universal, the practice of including a “no strike clause” during the life of the contract, and a “management perogatives clause” that gave the corporation unilateral decision making power in fincancial decisions such as laying workers off, moving a plant, or shutting it down. Hence, the CIO was able to win bread and butter issues such as higher wages and safer conditions for workers. But, they failed to build actual worker power on the job. As we have seen in the last forty years manufacturing has rapidly folded up shop in this nation and moved elsewhere leaving countless workers, communities, and cities in economic ruins. And the unions have been unable to do anything but look on- hand cuffed by their own contracts and practices.
The Industrial Workers of the World seek not only to win better wages and benefits for the working class. The IWW, and other solidarity unions, seek the steady gain of worker power on the job. The power of the IWW is not in their bank accounts and assetts. It’s not in Union presidents and officials who can dress as nicely and exprensively as Corporate presidents and managers. The power of the IWW is in solidarity; workers standing together, taking action together on the shop floor, to win their demands and gain power on the job. The IWW sees in the capitalist system as essential immorality and unfairness that must be addressed and overcome. The CIO seeks reform. The IWW seeks revolution.
Today traditional business unionism is losing power by the day. As we pointed out above they have failed the manufacturing working class. They are failing to organize the retail and grocery industries adequetely in order to give workers there real living wages and a quality standard of living. They appear more interested in gaining more “dues paying” members than they do in really organizing the working class and making gains on their behalf. Their resources go to political parties, the accumulation of assets, and the salaries of presidents and officials, instead of to rank-and-file struggles for workers rights. State after state is passing “right to work” legislation hamstringing these traditional unions.
Notwithstanding, these “right to work” bills do not hamstring the work of solidarity unionism. Solidarity unionism doesn’t seek government recognition, or use the law, as it’s main weapon. The weapon of solidarity unionism is, as the name conveys, solidarity and unity. It is power to the rank and file to organize themselves and fight their own battles as they see fit. It is creating a new world by empowering the rank and file to democratically decide their own affairs, articulate their demands, and map out the steps that must be taken to gain their demands. It is taking the American tradition of “political democracy” and bringing it to the work place. It is taking the slogans used during times of extreme trial like “9-11” and “Hurricane Sandy” such as “we stand together”, “we help one another out”, “we stand as a community”, and makes it a reality that reaches all the way into business and onto the job.
Workers must unite to gain power on the job. A single employee may find some gumption and protection from the law to stand up in a limited way to an employer. But for the working class to make real gains, and to create a world that better distributes its wealth and cares for itself, they must unite and take action together. Workers, you are the union! The union is not a bueracracy or an office somewhere down the street. The union is the workers united together in solidarity. The time to organize is now. Low paying retail jobs fill the landscape of the american economcy. We must organize! These companies are making billions in profits while paying poverty level wages to workers. We must organize! Despite the promises and lies of politicians manufacturing isn’t coming back anytime soon and if it does it will come back to a country that has broken the power of unions and workers. We must organize!
The IWW is alive and well today and if you have felt an interest in the labor movement, or experienced the need for workers to organize, but are disillusioned with traditional business unions, check into the IWW: http://www.iww.org/