A report and reflection on the (relatively) recent strategy conference from a UK wob.
The Industrial Workers of the World, an international union founded in 1905 but largely based in North America, has had mixed success in the UK. Tiny compared to its US counterpart the BIROC (British Isles Regional Organising Committee – the precursor to the BIRA) reported 200 members in the UK and Ireland out of a total global membership of 5,000. That is not to say that historically the IWW, or revolutionary industrial unionism more generally, has had no impact on the British labour movement. The British Advocates of Industrial Unionism supported the IWW as did the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (an organisation which claimed to represent 60,000 workers in 1910) and syndicalist ideals also bore their mark on the South Wales Miners’ Federation. Nonetheless it has not been until recent history that the IWW in the UK has been able to consolidate itself into more than a small handful of local branches.
Coming at the initiative of the, very active, London-based Cleaners’ Branch the national strategy conference was the first time that the British Isles Regional Administration had sought such a general and active congress of its membership in the discussion of union policy. As much as this conference was about debating and passing motions, many of which had been pre-circulated before the conference, it was also about testing consensus in a union that has experienced rapid growth in the past couple of years, is increasingly taken on a collective, representational role in workplaces and has set itself ambitious goals for the future. As a result the discussions were a good indication, although ultimately not formally representative of the membership, of the general political direction of the union as it moves into, what it hopes, is a new stage of growth and development.
Due to work commitments our group was unable to travel the night before and so we missed some of the early discussions of the first day. However, I was able to compile summaries of the discussions from this point onwards. Sections were divided into broad questions such as “what is the IWW?”, however, these were generally also broken down into more practically orientated themes. For ease of presentation I have divided the summary below on the basis of those themes (even if they do not strictly conform to the agenda of the conference). The conference was well attended with members from almost all branches (both industrial and geographical) where the union is active, including the newly-formed Pizza Hut Workers’ Union.
– Branch Autonomy
When we entered the conference hall the issue of branch autonomy was in the middle of discussion, particularly how this autonomy related to the strategic priorities of the union as a whole. It was expressed that this autonomy, although also a constitutional right, was reflective of the political aims of the union denoting the self-control, self-organisation and sovereignty of workers in struggle. Later through the discussion, however, some concerns were expressed about feelings of isolation amongst geographically disparate members and the need for participation as a basis of union democracy – “ask now what your union can do for you, but what you can do for your union?”
It was stressed that the IWW is an organising union foremost and not a service union. As such resources should be devoted to campaigning and organising first. There was a little discussion on what being an organiser meant and this fed into a broader debate on the possibility, and practicalities, of paid full-time organisers. Some drew on the history of organisers in the US who were given the freedom and flexibility to catalyse struggles in a way restricted by volunteers. This was while being held to strict accountability and with a common understanding that this is not a “career path” (as is the case with the trade unions). The alternative position was put forward that an “organising union” is more of an ethos and general approach and top-down applications of the full-timer model can be particularly wasteful and counter-productive. Likewise it was highlighted that our US counterpart employs full-timers for the purposes of administration and that this might be better as it more effectively frees people up for organising. Finally a number of members pointed to the heavy workload that being a volunteer organiser entailed, something more restricted to people with families or children, and that full-timers could play a supporting/supplementing role in this respect. Some felt that this debate may be pre-mature with the resourcing needed to sustain full-timers.
During this session the “non-political” status of the IWW was discussed. Members clarified that “no politics in the union” didn’t mean not enlisting political support but retaining a commitment to anti-factionalism and to be non-partisan. Some expressed the appeal of this position that to be a union for “all workers” was to speak to the interest of all workers in the UK regardless of their political allegiance. In response it was argued that saying “no politics” does not mean having no political content. Revolutionary Industrial Unionism is about class-struggle and social transformation and this is profoundly political. In a similar vein a speaker highlighted the historical origins of this commitment in the tradition of the Charter of Amiens and the distinction made between politics as ideals and as Parliamentary politics. A motion was accepted on the second day that proposed more active promotion of the union’s tradition of revolutionary industrial unionism and the incorporation of this into branch and rep education.
– Diversity and Equality
As a part of the discussion of the outward projection of the union motions were heard on the imagery and associations of the IWW particularly in respect to the dominance of White, male figures in union propaganda. As the speaker introduced it, “there is no imagery that says, ‘who we are’ and ‘who workers are’”. It was argued that we need to project a more representative identity and also take more concrete steps to correct the real gender imbalance that often exists in branch meetings. It was similarly stressed that this was a priority that often drops off the bottom of priorities even though it should be central to our organising efforts. It was even suggested that the union could learn from trade union practice, whose female membership is stronger.
– Dual-carding vs. “Greenfields”
A lengthy discussion was had on the relationship of the IWW to the existing trade unions. One of the more interesting practical outcomes of this related to the future orientation of the union and whether it was felt that “dual-carding” (joint membership with reformist unions) or “greenfields” (un-unionised workplaces) should be prioritised. It is important to state here that, although these approaches were often dichotomised, many were keen to stress that this is not an either-or distinction. Dual-carders represent an important part of the existing membership and an essential resource for future organising. Nonetheless there was a feeling that a focus on dual-carding made it difficult to grow the union and didn’t address the 74% of UK workers who find themselves without a union. Important proposals were accepted in relation to greater national co-ordination and conferencing of dual-carders, nonetheless, it was accepted that the priority should be “greenfields” sites (this was while accepting that cases like the cleaners, who had been effectively abandoned by UNISON and had left en masse, represent a possible third scenario). It was accepted that “greenfields” sites, although requiring greater resource, also provided the best opportunity for ideological leadership within the labour movement.
The crisis was discussed in great detail, both in terms of the rising unemployment and pressing need to unionise younger workers but also in terms of the opportunities created for the IWW. It was argued that the union should draw on its own tradition of organising areas that other unions wouldn’t touch. It was accepted that there are lots of challenging face us, in terms of a Neo-Liberal offensive, but the crisis equally presents a unique opportunity for organising. Especially in respect to the fact that the view that capitalism can either be reformed, or at least cannot be reformed by representative democracy, is becoming more widely accepted. The IWW could play a unifying role in relation to the disparate struggles that emerge in response to austerity.
– Tools for Struggle
Throughout the conference there was a great deal of discussion on the appropriate tactics for organisers. It was accepted, for example, while both casework and legal representation were essential tools it was equally not acceptable to replicate the existing trade union’s approach to this or rely on these alone. “Solidarity” and “Direct Unionism” were both mentioned frequently along with “direct action casework”. Although this was while the conference expressed no principled opposition to seeking legal recognition of workers if appropriate (this is an area of contention for advocates of “direct unionism”). It was felt that the education programmes of the union need to be reformed to reflect the use of direct action organising.