Reflections on the IWW (UK) National Strategy Conference – “organising the unorganised and the abandoned”

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?”

–          Organisers

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.

–          Politics

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.

–          Context

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.


2 comments on “Reflections on the IWW (UK) National Strategy Conference – “organising the unorganised and the abandoned”

  1. Thanks for the excellent report.
    I write as a wob with some anxieties about the Conference’s stress on greenfield organising.
    As someone who’s been involved in the London Cleaners struggles from when they were in Unite (not Unison) at City of London offices, obviously I’m going to have a somewhat different take to fellow workers not involved in these disputes.
    These were workers already being militant in these offices, recruited by Unite’s “Justice for Cleaners” and then stabbed in the back (I well remember the police driving up to a picket and telling us Unite had withdrawn its support.)
    Also from anti-cuts campaigning, I’m painfully aware (arent we all!) of the massive sell-outs by most of the mainstream Unions. And of the level of anger among the rank and file. Some indeed are so p***ed off they are leaving to join the IWW. Others are staying in and fighting. Dual carders (Roll on Industrial IWW conferences) or not. These are good, experienced militants. We need them as fellow wobs and alongside us where not.
    Seems to me there are problems with defining the “greenfield project”. Unless the workers are already fighting, or wanting to, we’d simply be parachuting in to the hardest section of workers to organise. Maybe when we’re big enough to do that- but now?
    And- in fact London GMB is currently mostly working in greenfield – the amount of training from a very basic level needed is problemmatic. Never mind the dangers of a small core of revolutionary unionists (as per the Preamble) and a mass membership of fws who dont have those experiences/ambitions etc with a big gap between them.
    I’m trying not to worry that local Branches will think “no, we are prioritising greenfield. These disgruntled militants will have to sort themselves out.”
    At bottom, my feeling is GMBs should be supporting whichever current struggles (whether eg cleaners or greenfield) come asking for it.

  2. I was at this conference too and this reporting of it is excellent – as good an overview as could be done given the sheer range of topics covered and viewpoints expressed. The Dual-carding vs.” Greenfields” debate is well encapsulated and summed up, so my interest here is in exploring further the hint made about a “possible third scenario”, and some of the debates that have followed on after the conference on this topic.

    To start with it may be worth disposing of one possible distraction. Although the main poles of the conference debate were between dual-card and greenfields work, I’ve also come across a distinction being posed between greenfields work and poaching from mainstream unions. In reality that distinction is something of a straw man given that no-one has ever put forward a poaching strategy, or is likely to.

    The situation with the cleaners’ branch is indeed a third scenario. We may want to prioritise greenfields work, but I think we may also need to make more allowance for this third scenario turning up again.

    I’m not in the cleaners’ branch, so I hope I’ve got this right. The workers involved got let down and abandoned by their union (not UNISON incidentally) and then decided for themselves to try organising as an IWW branch instead. I’m sure that in any future version of this scenario – apart from any obvious caveats – we would back such workers 100% and without any equivocation, as happened in the cleaners’ case. So maybe we need to be more explicit in acknowledging and accepting this as a viable scenario for us – as long as we are careful over how we express it? It would be awful if we ended up supporting such workers in a manner that could seem to them to be half-hearted or unwelcoming in any way. In actual fact I doubt that this is a controversial point within our union, – but just a sign of the fact that you can’t cover every aspect of every debate all in one go!

    Another relevant issue that’s come up in my branch since the conference is the place of greenfields in the context of a wider possible strategy. As described to me it consists of linking greenfields policy to working around or to one side of or with the mainstream unions with the aim of adding to the overall number or percentage of union members throughout the population. This in turn is based on low ‘union density’ figures for the UK as issued by ILO, OECD etc. This takes us into another debate which may be worth tackling at the next strategy conference. My own take on this is to agree about increasing union numbers – but via a different route. I believe the immediate priority should be to increase or encourage the combativeness and militancy of workers, rather than building everything around numbers per se – which begs a lot of questions, such as how active or passive members might be, and whether unions could be performing like staff associations or worse. I think that workers seeing that direct action really can get the goods will prove to be the best and most appropriate recruiting officer of all in the longer term.

    Finally, it’s worth saying that I thought the conference was a very constructive and unifying experience. It was great to be having (sometimes controversial) strategy debates in such a positive atmosphere. And thanks again for this summary, which helps to put the event in perspective.

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