Response to “Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper”


This is a response to a piece written by IWW members, entitled “Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper.

I really enjoyed reading the piece. Thanks to those who put in the time to present your ideas in such a concise and accessible way. I am new to the IWW and it was in the process of struggling on my job that I came to know more about the organization and people involved. I am a nursing assistant (CNA) in a nursing home and last year, my coworkers and I organized against staffing cuts in a non-unionized, authoritarian, anti-immigrant workplace . The knowledge and skills that IWW members offered to me had been very valuable during my organizing.

My questions with the piece relate mainly to what it takes to build the network of militants across a particular industry that the piece proposes. My organizing experience shows me the importance of it. One of the main obstacles in my organizing, is the small shop mentality. We are a small nursing home in a large industry that has no standardized working conditions. Even when our staffing ratio went from 8 residents/CNA to 10-12 residents/CNA, we were told that we are lucky not to have 16 residents or more.  We are highly expendable as low skilled workers, and the bosses use that against us. It is hard to put economic pressure on a nursing home where funding is a myriad of bureaucracy- with Medicaid, Medicare, hospital connections etc. As I reflect on how to counter the demoralization related to this small shop mentality, I think it is crucial that we build a network of CNAs across different workplaces and get at the issues of standardizing staffing ratios for the nursing home industry.

Another obstacle to my organizing was the role and rhetoric of the state. Nursing home and healthcare broadly is an industry that has been highly politicized. Anti-labor and mainstream media, in efforts to justify their conservative agenda, flippantly portray unionized workers, or workers who struggle for better working conditions ,as greedy and uncompassionate people. Where neglect of residents arise from staffing ratios and working conditions of healthcare providers, mainstream media is always more comfortable with highlighting the personal failings and character of workers, rather than also holding employers and funding losses responsible. What this results in, is the ability for the state to play the role of mediating for the rights of our residents, people with disabilities and the elderly. In their frequent state visits, they come and follow us, checking items off of their checklist. When we are unable to satisfy the tasks because of the staffing ratios (because we are short staffed), we are instead individually held responsible and written up for neglect and abuse as the management saw fit under the loose state definitions, or threatened with the loss of our licenses. For workers in an already expendable, low skilled industry, that clean record is super important.

My point in raising this is to say that to win, we need also to challenge the political narratives of the state, debate in the broader ideas about what health, care and disabilities justice means — We won’t be able to win in our little shops, in our expendable jobs, through class struggle narrative alone, on the basis that we are workers. We dont produce lifeless products, which we can abandon at will through class unity. As healthcare workers, our care for our patients and residents play into how we struggle, and how our struggle is perceived. The reason why the liberal state succeeds is because it is able to present itself as the spokesperson for the well-being of elderly people and people with disabilities in healthcare settings. We, the workers, need to break down that state monopoly and claim that role alongside our patients and their families. This is a struggle that is beyond the workplace. It is a battle against the state in the realm of ideas and analysis about healthcare, disabilities justice and the like, questions that cannot simply be answered by direct action on the job, but require study, conversation, debate, discussion etc. In the proposal for industrial strategies that the piece proposes, is there space for such a task? If so, what does it require out of the IWW, and how do we do it? If not, how come?

Furthermore, despite my political critiques of service unions, I have at the same time been very impressed with the resources they put into research (granted, it’s after they’ve done their cost benefit analysis and decide who’s “worth” organizing/researching based on how due-worthy they are). Whether it is toward lining up contracts to expire at the same time, or to strategize around who is the main target to publicize around nation wide, or to coordinate struggles across cities, the bourgeois institutions around us take this sort of national strategy into consideration. I am curious to know how an industrial strategy with IWW politics takes this need into consideration. Is national strategizing and coordination important and if so, how has it been/can it be put into practice? What level of strategizing and coordination for what level of struggle? Given that such tasks take time and energy, are there ways to support members to take on such roles? I think organizational/structural/formal support for such roles are important to avoid a scenario where it would mostly be young white, single male with relatively more resources and time, who take them on.

I value that the article emphasizes the need to be an anti-capitalist organization, as reflected in the preamble. However, there is also a mystifying of what anti-capitalist politics mean in the process of struggle. I hope this gets flushed out more.

One issue that is confusing to me, is the conflation I see in the article between non-contractualism and anti-capitalist politics in the preamble. I think the way the piece presents what anti-capitalist politics is, is slightly hazy — it makes it seem like we will do our labor organizing, organizing shop by shop, through direct action, until a big break happens.

I think it is less necessary to explicitly spell out the anti-capitalist politics of the historical IWW, than it is to clarify a method for how anti-capitalist workplace struggle looks like in practice, in the demands we articulate, and the way we achieve those demands.How do we organize in a way that over the long run, prepares for a qualitative shift from a capitalist mode of production that heralds in the process of communism, one that is not a transitional state that is organized by bureaucrats? This qualitative shift is a process that involves changing capitalist social relations. Even though this process can only take place during revolution, we need to agitate around it now in the demands that we fight for. Our demands should be directed not only at the necessity of better working conditions and wages, but also at breaking down the division between mental and manual labor, between gendered and racial divisions at the workplace, etc. I believe that some people in the IWW are already doing this on their jobs, but it would be helpful to have it be clarified and explicit.

Another question I have, is the role of the unemployed in relation to the IWW. As we all know, the high unemployment rate in the US right now reflects deeper racial divisions and segregation. A strategy for the working class needs also to include the demands of the unemployed, not simply for political reasons, but also for practical reasons. The precarious, low waged jobs that many of us are in means that our lifestyles and prospects are not that far from those who are unemployed. The strategies laid out in the STO’s Workplace Papers articulate the importance of “independent workplace groups” that connect the workplace struggle to community struggles. I have been very influenced by those writings in my past organizing and see that organizational form as important for us to be able to make class struggle a bridging point for waged workers and the unemployed. At the same time, we need to update those writings with contemporary practice and theory. In building the leadership and consciousness of workers, how do the writers of Direct Unionism think through the relationship between precarious workers and the unemployed?

I raise these questions in good faith. I’m really thankful and excited that people are putting out writings such as the Direct Unionism piece and that there is a space for such conversations.

This entry was posted in Strategy and Tactics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Response to “Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper”

  1. Scott Nappalos says:

    One critique I had while we were writing it was that the focus was too linear and step-by-step. Others wanted something for new organizers to comprehend and help them in their work, and argued a more linear style would be easier to follow. Still I think it’s distorting and realistically these concepts require a certain level of experience to fully grasp anyway.

    Instead of a shop-by-shop or branch by branch model, I think we need to understand building mass movements through building cadre at this time. In Miami we tried to build a movement around patients and healthcare workers independent of individual workplaces, which answers some of your questions. We targeted the largest spaces of pedestrian activity, developed trainings, and attempted to recruit into the work. The problem is without a certain level of committed conscious people, it’s difficult to sustain such work. Right now, we need to develop a foundation of cadre who are going to be in it for the long haul, and willing to learn from their struggles but go beyond them. That involves a shift in orientation away from capturing shops/territory, and rather focusing on developing people and building spaces to sustain engagement. Still we need to recognize that this work will be difficult in this time, and likely the things we need will be created by future ruptures. We have to keep trying, but we should prepare our cadre for the context their fighting in, one in which active mass organizations with ongoing radicalization and participation are not likely.

    In healthcare, yes let’s build more coordination and strategy. The thing is that the industry is fairly undeveloped. Outside of a few pockets in the country, much of the industry was organized through corporate campaigns in which staff never had to fight for a union. In theory the unions have strategy, but in reality they never developed leaders, built mass participation, and they repeatedly attempt to constrain people’s break from institutional politics. Working in the public sphere now, I see a lot of “fake left, jab right” activity from tough talking unions, that continually demobilize and in effect “sell” austerity.

    So we’re starting at the ground up. The IWW could function as an intermediate network of healthcare cadre. Still it’s up to us. We need to create coherent demands and fronts to struggle around with our extremely limited resources. At this time though, I think that will require a small group of people taking on work with maximal effort for minimal returns.

  2. mamos206 says:

    Scott, I completely agree with what you lay out here, I think it’s exactly the kind of focus we need to be making right now, and the work you’re doing around health care in Florida is a good model for what we could eventually do here as we start to develop ourselves and others around us into the kind of cadre needed to hold this together short of a mass upsurge.

  3. Nate Hawthorne says:

    I don’t much to add except to say that I think this is a really thought provoking response, Jomo, thanks for writing it. I want to mull this over and if I have more to say I’ll definitely chime in.
    take care,
    Nate

  4. adamfreedom says:

    “How do we organize in a way that over the long run, prepares for a qualitative shift from a capitalist mode of production that heralds in the process of communism, one that is not a transitional state that is organized by bureaucrats? This qualitative shift is a process that involves changing capitalist social relations. Even though this process can only take place during revolution, we need to agitate around it now in the demands that we fight for. Our demands should be directed not only at the necessity of better working conditions and wages, but also at breaking down the division between mental and manual labor, between gendered and racial divisions at the workplace, etc”

    Great to see this piece. I read some of the discussions around this document a long time ago and the more recent responses so I don’t have much to say about the piece itself until I have a chance to go over it again, but I really liked this question you posed and think of this as the key question, at least for me, in how we should see our organizing – the qualitative shifts that transform capitalist social relations and prefigure in struggle the future society (communism, anarchism or what have you). Like Todd I think the key task in this moment is building workplace cadre or militants through our struggles and this in turn builds our capacity to wage larger fights that move larger numbers of workers and militants around bigger issues.

    Once we have more of that capacity (which in my mind includes much more than saying we have X number of militants, see below) then we’ll have more freedom to ask questions like ‘where can we direct this?’ and bring in other goals or move more secondary goals up our list, but I think at this point were looking way more at subjective things like ‘where are workplaces and industries where there’s some good issues, people have a strong will to fight around these, and we have a decent connection to the type of work and workforce’ if that makes sense.

    On the capacity stuff, I think more than having numbers, but its about building an institution in the long term like the IWW. I don’t remember too much discussion on that from what I remember in the piece, but maybe I’m wrong on that. To me building an institution helps to structure things like organizational memory and lessons from previous struggles, resources, trainings, skills etc. That’s my biggest hesitancy about too much of a focus on informal struggle, is that the more long term building can fall to the wayside and that’s the stuff that can build the capacity for class struggle in the future.

  5. jomo206 says:

    @ Scott:
    I’m down to build this intermediate layer of healthcare workers. My problem here is that I dont know many radical healthcare workers who actually see class struggle and anti-capitalist, anti-bureaucratic unionization efforts as valuable and important. The progressive scene here is very social democratic, cultural and also subordinate to bureaucratic unions. It will take time and effort to build a class struggle healthcare workers milieu here. It is one that I am committed to building over the long haul though.
    That said, I want to dedicate time to develop relationships with other healthcare militants like yourself. I’d like to discuss how we can do that as a long term plan. I know the Food and Industry folks are having their industrial network conference in Oct this year. Maybe that’s something we can work toward w a healthcare industrial network in the next few years, as we develop strategy and experiences.
    Anyways, lets follow up
    peace

  6. Scott Nappalos says:

    I’m with you 100% on those assessments. How to build that network will be hard I think because especially in healthcare the existing mechanisms for settling disputes is robust, and really pushes people into the social democratic milieu. On the other hand the economy is pushing a bunch of us radicals and veterans of other struggles into healthcare, so maybe opportunities are arising. Let’s keep working on this together.

  7. Pingback: Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper | First of May Anarchist Alliance

  8. Nate says:

    hey Jomo,
    on the “I don’t know many radical healthcare workers” bit, I’d recommend looking at this pair of columns on the Workers Power archive site, called “know the union, see the union, hear the union,” they’re all about trying t walk with people to the point that we have more peers. I should add, this approach is really hard, it feels like it’s gonna take forever. Personally I think that’s just sorta where we’re at these days.
    take care,
    Nate

  9. klasbatalo says:

    Furthermore, despite my political critiques of service unions, I have at the same time been very impressed with the resources they put into research (granted, it’s after they’ve done their cost benefit analysis and decide who’s “worth” organizing/researching based on how due-worthy they are). Whether it is toward lining up contracts to expire at the same time, or to strategize around who is the main target to publicize around nation wide, or to coordinate struggles across cities, the bourgeois institutions around us take this sort of national strategy into consideration. I am curious to know how an industrial strategy with IWW politics takes this need into consideration. Is national strategizing and coordination important and if so, how has it been/can it be put into practice? What level of strategizing and coordination for what level of struggle? Given that such tasks take time and energy, are there ways to support members to take on such roles? I think organizational/structural/formal support for such roles are important to avoid a scenario where it would mostly be young white, single male with relatively more resources and time, who take them on.

    This is something I’d like see discussed more and I really think the Direct Unionism piece and taking industrial organizing/networking on a national level seriously is the only way we are gonna see this happen, otherwise we’ll be left with the localism we mostly deal with now. The only thing I was impressed with in my short stint flirting with Unite-Here was the scale of their organizing and creating space for networks of militants (salts) in the Hospitality industry to reflect and organize across large regions of the country. I would also like to see movement toward the directions the BOC piece outlines, regarding research and coordination. FRWU is deffinitely a good step in this direction, though I’d like to see regional organizing conferences of that body at some point.
    Quote:

    Another question I have, is the role of the unemployed in relation to the IWW. As we all know, the high unemployment rate in the US right now reflects deeper racial divisions and segregation. A strategy for the working class needs also to include the demands of the unemployed, not simply for political reasons, but also for practical reasons. The precarious, low waged jobs that many of us are in means that our lifestyles and prospects are not that far from those who are unemployed. The strategies laid out in the STO’s Workplace Papers articulate the importance of “independent workplace groups” that connect the workplace struggle to community struggles. I have been very influenced by those writings in my past organizing and see that organizational form as important for us to be able to make class struggle a bridging point for waged workers and the unemployed. At the same time, we need to update those writings with contemporary practice and theory. In building the leadership and consciousness of workers, how do the writers of Direct Unionism think through the relationship between precarious workers and the unemployed?

    I do think the Direct Union piece starts to tepidly address this in the sub section “Reaching out to the Class” though this is hardly anything more than what most progressive militant unions these days are saying, i.e. that they need parallel community/ solidarity / strike / boycott support organizations. It would be better all around to see the IWW and other unions to take on a community unionism approach, and I do think this is one benefit I’ve seen that A-S groups like SolFed taking on solidarity network as well as workplace union-ish functions having as compared to the IWW. Even some of the Direct Unionist folks, don’t really think the IWW should get involved in more outside the workplace activity, because it would stretch us too thin. A way around this that might seem more IWA style, could be that independent community unions/associations could affiliate to the IWW just like an IUB would. There could be Community Union Branches…or maybe it’d be better for GMBs to just take on this form?

    • Scott Nappalos says:

      National campaigns- I think you’re right in this moment. We live in a time with a shift in the pulse of the working class, and we need to be bold and pushing the envelope. Couple assumptions we should challenge though. Service unions run campaigns certain ways that fit their goals. If our goals are about building lifelong revolutionaries and increasing the capacity and cognition of the working class, our methods are somewhat different. The media heavy campaigns coming out right now can serve to leverage their immediate limited demands. How would any campaign fulfill ours? One way I think is if the campaigns are about: targeting conditions not union membership, bringing workers into conflict with capital and the state in the course of their struggle, and chosing fights that highlight the limits of the system. We should also question the national element. NYC is attacking fast food locally as a jumping point. The walmart warehouses likewise. Choosing nationally significant fights may be as good as coordinating fights across the country.

      unemployed- I think we’re seeing two trends: long term unemployment and underemployment. The latter is probably a bigger problem. We should be doing unemployed organizing, but I think we need to factor in what we demand, and also how to avoid being outflanked by social democracy like happened in the 1930s. Unemployment organizing is dependent on a sense of whether things are improving or not. This has been on the back burner for a while for the left, and should be addressed.

      Community stuff- in what sense? The debate is essentially do we build the base that would make it possible, or start now and potentially take away from workplace struggles. Both sides seem wrong to me. We need to do everything, most of it comes down to capacity

  10. conatz says:

    Way late, but I respond to a couple things here on a Recomp post earlier this year. Not sure if you happened to notice, so posting here: http://recomposition.info/2013/03/06/developing-the-iwws-direct-unionism-politics/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s