Industrial unionism and one big unionism part 1: Two concepts for IWW organizing general strike

general strike

The question “how do we best organize the working class?” has been on the minds of many of our members recently. Our organization is small, but we have made great strides towards creating a model that actually builds power for working people. We have one of the best member training programs in any union in North America and Europe, we are building solidarity with working people’s organizations in our communities and around the world, and we are continually raising our own bar by taking on and winning bigger fights with bosses. As we continue to build the IWW, sometimes the ideas we have about how our organization ought to function come into conflict with the way that our organization actually functions. These conflicts require us to develop our ideas about revolutionary unionism in the long-term and in our day-to-day activity.

In this article, we reflect on ideas that have been around in our organization for a long time: One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism. Reflecting on the relationship between these ideas and how they relate to our organizing can help clarify both our thoughts and our actions. By understanding how these ideas both overlap and conflict, we want to set the stage for a larger discussion about our organization.

One Big Unionism is the idea that guides us in the work of building the IWW as a revolutionary organization. It is a way to think about the organizing work that we do and the reasons we do this work. The One Big Union is the idea that we want the entire working class to be united to act in our interests as a class and against capitalism. The united working class must cross geographic, cultural, and industrial boundaries, be democratic, and be able to coordinate and marshal the forces of us workers against the united power of the bosses and their rule over our lives and communities.

We in the IWW believe that the working class needs to be unified to fight the battle for economic democracy. We are One Big Unionists because we are committed to uniting all workers across industries and crafts and because we believe all work under capitalism share basic, fundamental similarities. While we do different kinds of work, we have the same basic role in the economy: we’re the people that make our society run but who have no power over how it is run. One of the most important lessons that we have learned in the last few years in our organizing is that because we all occupy the same place in the class system, the basic framework for organizing workers does not change depending on what kind of work they do. Regardless of craft or industry, the basic skills and tools and techniques of organizing are more or less the same. We organize by talking with workers, asking questions, building relationships with them, getting them to build relationships with each other, having frank discussions about the problems they and we all face under capitalism, building solidarity as a group, and taking action to fight the boss. These basic elements of our approach to organizing, based on our commitment to the revolutionary principle of One Big Unionism, come from the fact that all workplace organizing uses basically the same set of skills and practices that any working person can learn and do.

Industrial Unionism, on the other hand, is the idea that we need to build labor organizations connected to each other logically based on the way that the modern economy runs. By organizing unions in this way, we can strengthen our power across connected industrial chains. While One Big Unionism is a set of principles that guides our work, Industrial Unionism gives us practical suggestions about how to best implement our ideas about how to fight the bosses and win.

Industrial Unionism is understanding how we carry out our principles in action. Industrial Unionism is fundamentally about how to build and exert power in the most effective way possible in the near future. Organizing along the supply chain amplifies our power: a union of agricultural workers, food processing workers, truckers, and fast food workers in one chain has more power against the employer or employers on that chain than organizing all the fast food workers in one city. Industrial Unionism builds upon the strength of workers whose jobs are related as way to win fights. We use these fights to win membership to our union and use our membership to win these fights.

If we de-link One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism and only pursue one of them, we become lopsided. If a branch or a group of organizers focus too much on One Big Unionism, they build bodies and activities that only work to build class consciousness, or worse, only gather together people who have already become class conscious through experiences outside the IWW. Class consciousness is important, but consciousness alone does not fight or build organization. By thinking only in the One Big Unionist model, we are unable to shape our world and build industrial democracy because we have no power. There’s no way to stage and win fights in specific shops if we are everywhere at once; leaflet a Starbucks on Monday, talk to truckers on Tuesday, a hospital workers’ forum on Wednesday, etc. By the end of the week, we have not made progress in building shopfloor organizing in any one of those workplaces. Plus, if we overstress the idea that all workers are fundamentally the same, we will miss the concrete differences that do exist right now between shops, crafts, and industries and make them distinct: demographics, legal rights, concentration, forms of oppression, etc.

The other side of the coin is equally or perhaps even more important. If we focus too narrowly on Industrial Unionism, we get cut off from the revolutionary idea that forms the basis of the IWW: all workers, as workers, are fundamentally in the same place in relation to the capitalist class and therefore can and should organize together to make improvements today and end capitalism tomorrow. When branches or groups of organizers focus only on one industry without seeing how all workers need to participate in the work of building the IWW, we lose our ability to learn from workers in different industries, from their successes and failures, tactics and ideas. Many of the best lessons implemented in our most active campaigns were learned from other IWW campaigns across a variety of industries. Additionally, turnover and firings associated with our union drives mean that if we only look at one industry, we will lose our members who change jobs. In the low-wage sector where many of our current campaigns are taking off, many workers move between different industries very quickly. Finally, if we only focus on Industrial Unionism, we lose our ability to turn workers into Wobblies and miss the big picture of our organization, a united working class movement fighting to not only for a better life for ourselves under capitalism but also fighting to end capitalism and replace it with a better society.

Within the IWW as a living organization, One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism should be linked together as ways of thinking about our organizing. The balance of the two allows us to build our organization and move our class forward. One Big Unionism allows us to visualize a united working class and sets our sights on organizing all workers. It’s a vision of association which thinks about how more workers can be organized and work together for our class, as a class. It is the idea that all workers have interests in common as workers, have interests opposed to employers, and includes a commitment to building a new society to replace capitalism. Industrial Unionism is a vision of short-term conflict, expressing our commitment to creating the most effective organization possible for accomplishing goals. Industrial Unionism is about building an effective means to challenge the bosses’ power under capitalism.

Only by carefully balancing the perspectives of One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism can we push forward the work that needs to be done. Our organization has great ideas about how to organize and why, it’s up to us to implement them and build up our class.

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