Where other organizations on the Left are content to pick a “line” and defend it to their graves, the IWW has always been a big tent organization, which allows for many different tendencies, organizational approaches, and perspectives to coexist. This is one of our strengths. It allows us to be experimental. It gives us an organizational flexibility that other groups lack. Engaging each other in our ideas is one of the things that makes the IWW so great. Critique, feedback, and conversation are how we keep everyone in the big tent in dialogue with each other. In this spirit of ecumenicism, I’m very appreciative that FW Erik D has recently published his analysis of the recent history and organizational approach of the Twin Cities General Defense Committee. As a member of the Twin Cities IWW but not of the GDC, I’ve watched as comrades have spent an increasing amount of time developing the GDC locally. I’ve been supportive of their efforts, asked questions when I had questions to ask, but in general have remained mostly removed from them. I think Erik’s piece is very well written and puts forward important questions facing the GDC and the IWW.
A fundamental premise of the comrade’s article is that unions are not attractive to workers who experience multiple oppressions. He writes “many women, People of Color, immigrants, non-English speakers, and trans workers, for instance, have good reasons to suspect that unions won’t fight for them.” This is an important claim, and one upon which FW Erik rests his argument that the GDC, by engaging in social activism outside of the workplace setting, can transform the demographics of the IWW.
There’s a persistent idea in the Left, and its one that periodically creeps into our own thinking, that because unionism had a specific character in a certain time, that it retains that character today. In the IWW, we sometimes amplify the sins of the labor movement as a side product of our critique of the mainstream labor movement. Railing against the corruption, the bureaucratic ineptness, and the cowardice of Big Labor, we sometimes end up taking positions that are not supported by historical fact or contemporary reality.
Nowhere is this clearer than on questions of race. We tell a story about the labor movement that sometimes runs like this, “The first US unions were racist, exclusionary vehicles for white men’s advancement. The historic IWW was different because it accepted everyone.” And that’s where our story ends. This means that Wobblies sometimes don’t realize how the labor movement has evolved since the early 1900s. Especially with the push to organize the public sector, which started in earnest in the 1960s, the racial framework of American unionism has changed.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest union density in any racial group in America is among black workers. Black workers are more likely to have interactions with unions than white workers are. The IWW in its current form is actually considerably less racially diverse than the mainstream labor movement. Beyond simple membership as a proportion of total group size, there’s also the question of whether unions work for their members. Here again, workers of color have many reasons to support unions. Both black and Latino workers receive greater benefits from union membership than white workers do. Latino workers who are union members are paid 32% more than non-union Latinos, where white union members are paid only 20% more than non-union whites. At least then on a national scale, and by the very crude measurement of wages, the data does not support the comrade’s assertion that “people of color…have good reasons to suspect that unions won’t fight for them.”
It’s worth pausing here to consider the important struggles for inclusion within the mainstream labor movement that have been fought by people of color, women, and queer workers. The mainstream labor movement has been just as plagued by institutional discrimination as the capitalist system that it lives within. As revolutionary unionists, we are not content to be a better version of mainstream labor, we see ourselves as a fundamentally distinct movement that seeks the abolition of the wage system. Perspectives on our differences have been effectively laid out by IWW comrades before, especially in these two pieces. Nonetheless, as we are a marginal force in the capitalist economy, it’s important to recognize that the majority of workers who have experiences with unions have those experiences with the business unions.
Despite the errors of the mainstream union movement, it’s simply not true to say that marginalized members of the class have less interest in unionism than white male workers. Opinion surveys carried out by the capitalist media show exactly the opposite to be true. One survey, carried out in 2015, showed that black workers are much more likely to have a positive view on unions than white workers. The amount of white workers who approve of unionism is almost even with the amount who oppose them. Black workers approve of unions by an almost two-to-one ratio. Latino workers also have significantly better perspectives on unionism than white workers do. The fact that the IWW remains less diverse than the working class generally is something for us to analyze and develop strategies to change. But the failure is not with a lack of interest in unionism, it is with our organization.
Towards the end of the piece, FW Erik engages with those, such as myself, who struggle to understand why the work of widening the IWW’s membership in the working class should be a task relegated to the GDC:
“But a person might still ask if it wouldn’t be better to accomplish the goals of growing the IWW in both numbers and diversity by organizing diverse workplaces. The implication is that such organization will result in the transformation of the IWW. We think the IWW should continue to pursue this strategy, but note that it has not been effective yet.”
I think this claim is debatable. In places and times when we’ve spent serious time organizing in diverse workplaces, we have had varying amounts of success of bringing members into the union who are representative of the workplace. In recent campaigns like Stardust in New York and Mobile Rail in Chicago, membership in the IWW has been reflective of the demographic diversity of the workplace. We’ve been involved in shops where the majority of workers at a workplace are actually workers of color, such as 2004’s Troquero campaign in Stockton, the cleaner’s campaign in London, or the recycling shops in the Bay Area. The recent development of IWOC has tremendous portents for racial diversity of the IWW, focusing as it does on a specifically racialized instrument of control that assists the capitalist class in its disciplining of the working class.
It’s absolutely true that we have failed to bring in and promote workers of color in the IWW on a mass scale. And it’s unquestionably true that by engaging in anti-police brutality struggles, the GDC has brought a layer of black workers into the IWW locally who we would not have met otherwise. But it’s important to remember that we’ve barely done anything on a mass scale in the past decade. Though we are growing, we remain a tiny organization, with extremely limited resources and personnel. On a timeline where campaigns take years develop and a branch may only see one public union fight every few years, a failure to do effective organizing that brings in workers of color from the shop floor can be read as a systematic failure of labor unionism to speak to the issues of workers of color. We should be vigorously self-critical. It’s not acceptable now, nor was it ever, to fail to recruit and promote comrades of color. But at such a tiny scale, it seems to me that FW Erik is unfairly applying a critique which should be leveled at specific campaigns upon the idea of organizing at the point of production in general. Towards the end of the piece, the comrade acknowledges that this lack of data makes it hard to make strong conclusions, but this is undercut by his earlier implications to the contrary.
I should here repeat my original stipulations: I support the important work of the GDC, its transformation from a mostly moribund prisoner support organization into a proletarian defense organization that serves the union. I think it's good for the IWW. I don’t raise any of my disagreements with this article to the level of disagreements with the GDC as a whole. We’re all on the same team, pursuing different strategies within a broader IWW approach towards organization and struggle.
That said, I think the idea that diversifying the IWW through building a defense organization is debatable, and the notion that we’ve failed to do so previously is similarly debatable. If we look at one point of data and amplify that into a strategy, we may pursue strategies that aim at reproducing that single data point. Rather, we should look to our organizing to show us how to fix our errors and to our critique of the political economy to show us where we have power.
It is our class who has the power to abolish capitalism. Not because we are more numerous. If that were the case, regions with massive populations but high rates of income inequality would be where we expect to see revolutions. Instead, in those places we tend to see massive instability and the rise of religious-populist reactionary forces. Neither do we have the power to abolish the system because we can outfight the state. If that were the case, we’d think that the U.S., with its high gun-to-civilian ratio would at the forefront of the global revolutionary movement. Instead, we are about to inaugurate Donald Trump. We will never be able to win a battle in the streets with the state in its current form, we will always be outgunned. The Spanish revolutionaries were beaten in the field by the Francoists and that was before the advent of nuclear weapons. The Zapatistas put down arms almost as soon as they took them up, realizing that they would be massacred if the followed armed struggle as a strategy. The capitalists would never allow a massive, armed communist society to exist. (I don't have room here to run through the wide range of experiences of struggle that take on these two forms or regions where they've haven't appeared, for that there are many other analyses and histories.) Mass approaches tend to shunted towards nationalist populism and militarist approaches tend to reduce struggle into adventurist forms and/or will be simply be outgunned.
Our class has the power to abolish capitalism because we are the class who makes capitalism function. The ruling class provides almost nothing productive into the global economic system, they only prey upon those of us who do all the productive work. Our particular power to withdraw our labor gives us our true advantage of the capitalist class. We don’t need to struggle on their terms, we can struggle on our own. Some may choose to label this strategy with the term "workerism," a term which has lately become a slur in some circles in the Left. I choose to call it "communism" or "anarchism." Regardless, that doesn't make it's fundamental insight any less true. Further, there’s no doubt that this struggle will need to involve billions of people and will definitely need to be militarily defended. The struggle must be both mass and armed. But those approaches can and must be as secondary, and indeed as the name of our GDC even suggests, defensive in nature.
The weapon of the working class is work. Through chronic unemployment, mass incarceration, warfare, and instability, the capitalist class seeks to divide us, and some classical theorists have indeed been confused between the categories of “productive” and “unproductive” work. Perhaps it is to among these orthodox and outdated thinkers that the term "workerist" should be applied as a slur. But in the IWW, we don’t see this difference. We are not reductive in our reading of the concept of class. Every prisoner being paid pennies to do a job that was once a union job is the brother or sister of that worker on the outside. Every refugee displaced by imperialist war who draws a pittance on a welfare check is the brother or sister of the working class taxpayer whose money the government steals to build bombs. Work is the secret to the capitalism, and those of us who do it or are excluded from it have the power to take apart that system, if we work together.
It is this interconnectedness of the working class which currently perpetuates our relative weakness but could be the foundation of our power. We are all each other’s potential fellow workers or each other’s potential scabs. The IWW accepts this challenge, answering it boldly with our program of revolutionary unionism. Only by uniting the diverse (indeed mostly from the Global South and female) working class will we be able to bring the final overthrow, not of one or another particular government or form of exploitation, but of the economic system which underpins all of these them.