Dare the IWW Build a Revolutionary Union? 


By Rich Gibson 1999

The Resurgence of Reform and Unions
In most liberal and radical circles, there is a sense of renewed hope in the labor movement. Michael Yates' article in Monthly Review, "Does the Labor Movement have a Future?" suggests that the answer is most certainly,"Yes." His later engaging book, "Why Unions Matter," coupled with monthly periodicals like "Labor Notes," and a turn in the re-emerging IWW News to support for reform struggle inside the AFL-CIO, lends support to the notion that labor may be stretching and flexing. The victory of the Solidarity-led Teamsters for A Democratic Union, though quickly reversed when Ron Carey and other top leaders were exposed as corrupt, spearheaded an apparent rise of reform movements inside the AFL. John Sweeney's election to the top spot in the AFL-CIO, girded by promises for a "New Labor Movement," and the beginnings of "Organizing Summer," (institutes for young people led by big labor) have inspired a sense of revival. Prominent left academics like historians Eric Foner and David Montgomery have moved into top positions like the Organization of American Historians and have fostered campus labor-educator-student teach-ins, while graduate student organizing has blossomed--until the recent big defeat of the united NEA and AFT at the University of Minnesota, hushed up in liberal circles. The AFL-CIO as a whole has continued to lose membership. None-the-less, liberals and radicals, including strikers from the failed AFL-CIO Detroit newspaper battle now in leadership spots in the IWW, and change agents across the spectrum leap toward building the labor federation, as if rising membership will intensify worker radicalism.  

While any rational analysis is finally going to pin its hopes on the working class, I suggest that this flurry of talk and action from most of the left is romanticism, opportunism; reflecting a failure to study the lessons of the past with care, a moth-to-flame response to a shallow analysis of the present, and a refusal to think through what it is that people need to know and do in order to forge a better future. The relationship of reform and revolution remains unresolved, and with the absence of a sizeable left presence pressuring the U.S. labor movement from within and without, the practice that is necessary to guide or evaluate the grinding of provisional and fundamental change is also absent. What there is of a left in the U.S. faces a choice of where to send its limited cadres and how it is they should operate. The relative privilege of the U.S. working class (materially as well as in consciousness) vis a vis the rest of the world and the nearly unalterable and corrupting structures of the AFL-CIO unions, compound a difficult choice about who should do what and where.  

Marx's thought is that the seeds of the future are within the present. The organization of the working class is accomplished, in part, by the expansion of capital, for example, The liberal left, which may or may not want some kind of fundamental change, seems to believe that building and organizing within the AFL will lead to worker solidarity, action, and thus a better world--a connection, without a near-revolutionary assault on the AFL-CIO hierarchy, I think lacks evidence.  

Reform and Reaction

There is no necessary link between the growth of the AFL-CIO and worker action or solidarity. Indeed the craft-based AFL was in part created to prevent worker action and solidarity, beyond the most narrow and legalistic maneuvering, while the industrial-based CIO, a creation of the old left, set in place structures which make its reform nearly impossible. There is a relationship, early on, between employer pressure and union corruption. Today, however, the undemocratic and authoritarian structures of the AFL-CIO, coupled with deep involvement with U.S. intelligence agencies that goes back to World War I, take on a life of their own. Moreover, reformer habits and practices inside the AFL-CIO hardly lay the groundwork for radical change. The Teamsters For a Democratic Union's reliance on Carey on one hand, and the Solidarity party on another, or the liberal reformers participation in the class-collaboration of "new unionism" ; none of this adds up to a potential assault on the many structures and veils that buttress and fuel the sucking pump of capital, nor do they address or create new forms of consciousness that might lead people to never again replace an old boss with a new one.  

U.S. labor of which the AFL-CIO represents but 12 percent, is, at the end of the day, the powerful vehicle for the fundamental change that is required in order to establish democracy and equality. But the AFL's guiding idea, the unity of labor and capital on national grounds, is an important element of fascist ideology. The AFL-CIO remains structurally and ideologically racist, sexist, and authoritarian. The federation fragments labor in every conceivable way, from mental and manual labor to divisions between crafts and industries. It is simply not possible to use democratic methods to change the direction or leadership of most of the AFL-CIO's affiliate bodies. The racism that propels all of the history of craft unionism still dominates the structure and social practice of the AFL--as the failed fruits of the Detroit Newspaper strike in the mid-1990's should show. The AFL-CIO alienates, disorganizes, and divides workers. This is achieved through the union's reliance on an aleinated vending machine mentality: 'I paid my dues so act for me," through union corruption, proved by the repeated recent, though historically repetitive, arrests of AFL leaders for collecting multiple salaries and using member dues on lavish homes, through perfectly legal but reactionary lavish salary schedules and perks for union leaders, through the federation's devotion to electoral politics--tying workers to their enemy's voting machines--and through its divisive structure which splits workers and pits them against one another; note the way public and private sector workers split on tax questions for example.  

The AFL-CIO leadership has largely succeeded in remaining in power while working for those who they seemingly would oppose--and their project has seeped into the minds of the rank and file. Note, for example, that the UAW membership did virtually nothing but accept the benefits of overtime while 3/4 of a million of their comrades lost their jobs. Resignation, passivity, even obsequiousness, are the dominant (though not sole) habits of the last generation of working class people in the U.S., a generation that will not lose its voting power in the AFL for another decade.  

The labor federation is isolated. Its leadership and internal structures are corrupt and not alterable without violence. Its controlling members are relatively privileged on the other (and by this I do not mean simply the top hacks, nor only the toadies who work for the unions, but an entire class of people in the AFL who know full well that they live better at the expense of the world's workers and are willing to enlist and die to defend that) .  

The AFL's new leadership has no history of fighting employers--President Sweeney has insisted over and over again that he wants to be a partner with the corporate class-- and there is considerable evidence that they simply do not know how. The history of organized and deliberate retreats, from Patco to P-9 at Hormel, to the UAW's massive loss of membership which came from a decision to make concessions in order to preserve U.S. capital; all of this sums up as evidence that the AFL-CIO leadership is unready to design a line of march. One contradiction to this, the Teamster strike at UPS in 1998, simply demonstrates that it is not tough to defeat an opponent who does not fight back--and the Teamsters were the first to declare themselves back in the fold at UPS as partners in production. Even more, there is a good deal of proof that the only people the AFL-CIO leaders do know how to fight are their own members, as shown in the long, failed, Detroit newspaper strike which was systematically disorganized by UAW functionaries. The Teamster strike was followed by the newspaper debacle, then the pyrrhic victory at GM in Flint, where the workers won--and found their plant sold out from under them weeks later.  

Some elites recognize the need for unions of the AFL-CIO type as evidenced by the recent Ford contract. Ford agrees to organize future plants on the behalf of the union. The UAW-Ford advertising campaign declares the unity of interest between the company and the union. When six Ford Rouge workers were blown up in the plant recently, the UAW leaders publicly mourned that William Ford might be having the worst day of his life. Still, other elites in the same business assault their unions as bitter enemies, as evidenced by the Flint strike against GM in the summer of 1998.  

Uncritical support of the suited thugs of the AFL-CIO leadership, or even the reformist call for more democracy or clout, simply misunderstands the fundamentally reactionary nature of the top levels of the AFL, and misleads people to believe that a purely reformist organization, unwilling to challenge capital, can become something but moribund. AFL-CIO leaders are now clearly enemies of working class members. The AFL leadership is surely aware of this, even if their members are not. Those with memories extending back to the radical seizure of the Detroit Mack Avenue plant in Detroit in 1973, a popular sit-down strike, will remember the violence the UAW leadership launched against its own members, unleashing hundreds of armed union goons on the plant sit-in, dragging out the rank and file and turning them over to the police in order to "protect the contract." It will take more than a vote to move people of this caliber out of the way.  

How radical reformers and revolutionaries will find their way through this bog is key to making real social change--and the kind of society that prevails afterward. At issue, in part, is a structural question. On the one hand, only a disciplined organization that functions within and without the AFL (or the two-million member independent National Education Association), a class based organization, can possibly assume the power to either reform the unions or to fashion the solidarity and rule-breaking necessary for social change--in industries and communities. On the other hand, successful cadres of such an organization, operating within the relatively privileged milieu of the AFL, will form habits and develop stakes in their rising positions and the internal systems that permitted them to prosper within. This, of course, is the historical fate of "underground" cadre sent into reform organizations to perform secret yet revolutionary activity, from China to the U.S.S.R. to the U.S.A.  

What do People Need to Know to Make and Keep Social Justice?

On yet another hand, the consciousness of those involved in reform or revolution must sweep ahead of the structures the people face. People need to be able to not merely register disgust at their current situation but also envision a better one, and to write ideas, habits, and behaviors into their present struggles that they can use in a better world. That is, graphically, the lines of the spirals toward the future are with us now. People who believe they can take charge of their own lives, and who are sacrificing life to do it, need to have a reasonably clear idea of what went wrong before; a question which leads not only to the shop floor but to the structures of the family and communities. Consciousness for change must become mass consciousness, egalitarian and self-actualizing, able to quickly discover and reveal the veils of capital even in a new world that might deny the veils are there. After all, capital has had 500 years to learn many disguises.  

What, at least, must people know, to create a track for the leap into a better society? Surely they must know things neither the NEA nor AFL leadership wants them to know, or knows themselves. They need to know about the giant sucking pump of surplus value, the priming pump of capital, which cares not a whit who runs it nor who gains a little at the expense of others.  

They need to know that surplus value must run at full steam, and when it does not, when surplus value can be better served elsewhere, when some boss can pay a worker less, work them faster or longer, somewhere else, capital will empower that boss and turn ruthlessly on its old friends in relatively privileged lands. Surplus value, mostly the difference between what a worker takes home in pay and the value that workers create for the boss, is a key veil of capital's success.  

They need to know that capital, begot and fueled by surplus value, cannot allow people to even firmly believe they can understand or change their lives or their world. Nor can capital allow people to be creative, human, in determining the product or process of their work. Over time, workers under capital's hegemony can only have less and less control over the product and process of their labors, a process of production which reverberates back and creates surplus value, one recreating the other in a broadening spiral. Capital requires that people finally view their work as distinct from their pleasurable lives. In creating this distinction, people blinded to the process become instruments of their own oppression: they enrich their boss and destroy themselves. They need to know that surplus value, on the one hand, and alienation on the other, are part and parcel of capital, and that these underpin the old saw from the IWW, "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common,"--itself something of a misnomer as the two surely have opposition in common. They need to know that organizations which only seek to reform capital necessarily adopt the veils of capital as working mechanisms: unions mimic the industries and hierarchies that give them birth.  

The conundrum is, at base, the liberal organizations which strain to reform unions which themselves take on the impossible task of constructing gentle forms of capital lead workers down into closed canyons. Radical organizations, like Solidarity, calling for internal union democracy yet profoundly hierarchical and undemocratic themselves, may fall into the trap of creating a work force too willing to say "me too," a condition I think will ricochet back and assist in the recreation of capital's strengths.  

Announcing definitions of alienation and surplus value, even in the context of dramatic sacrifice and revolutionary struggle, does not innoculate people against reincarnating the desires and social forms of capitalist relations a generation later, as the Soviet and Chinese socialist history would indicate. Witness the crisis of consciousness that belies fixes on the superstructure and base when people eagerly lurch backward, past the egalitarian and democratic histories they themselves fought to create, toward the demonstrable horrors of warfare and estrangement that a dose of surplus value stimulates. It appears that how people learn something is profoundly related to how well it is learned, and that being told something, even told often, is a thin form of education.  

Can the IWW Go to School?

It follows that reform struggles, if they are to host anti-capitalist action (as they must today, if they are to win even modest but defendable reforms) have to creatively find ways not to merely raise the level of class struggle, or to make the objective conditions clear, but to reach into the minds of people and change the way they think and live. This, in part, goes to the need to build organizations which are simultaneously in battle and at one with their membership, developing unity and consciousness through struggle. People must be re-diverted from the daily spectacular offerings of capital in crisis, from Monica to O.J. to Jean Benet Ramsey, and offered an understanding of the sensuality of the struggle of testing for what is true. They also must be offered chances to excel, to activate their creativity and analytical abilities which capital tries to restrain or obliterate.  

Organizing for change requires a strategic and tactical analysis of concrete conditions, internal strengths and weaknesses, and the properties of the other side. I suggest that, now, the main place to be is in schools--understanding that many people do not have a choice, that they must organize where they are. Educators, all workers in education, are well positioned to deal with these issues of domination and resistance in the classrooms, probably the most free place where people receive wage labor in the U.S. Teachers are the most organized group of workers in the country. While educators, too, are relatively privileged, among the last working people with health benefits and tenure, many if not most of them are in classrooms because they have sacrificed in order to fashion hope for other people. While it is certainly true they play a reproductive role in recreating the relations of a capitalist society, it is also true that they play a productive role in creating the skills and hope that are necessary to see into an act for a better life. While education workers surely warehouse kids, they also demonstrate that it is possible to coherently gain and test knowledge, often in rational ways. But it is easily apparent to many educators that they face, from within the state apparatus, a government that has little interest in real hope or reasoned and critical skills.  

Educational work places, not the factories of decentralized and de-industrialized America, are now central to U.S. society. It is at home and at school where people first learn to read the world as a site of freedom or alienation and obeisance. This is not to say that the industrial work force is not finally the lynch-pin of change, or that teaching is the heart of productive relations, or even creates surplus value in tangible ways. Education is the center of the social communities, now, that may be the flashpoints of change. Factories come and go. Schools remain. For now, it may be that the L.A. rebellion, multi-cultural and beyond the control of reformers, will be more of a storm petrel of change than the 1998 GM Flint strike. The massive Ontario teachers' strike which paralyzed the province and mobilized citizens far beyond schools in 1998 and the walkouts of students in San Francisco protesting the fact that their schools are prepatory sites for prisoners in the fall of 1998, may be better signs of what might be organized in the future than the quick Teamster action at UPS.  

Nevertheless, there are only the slightest hints of insightful analysis or bold action rising in the teacher unions. Only one young rank and file member at last year's NEA assembly was able to articulate some of the key demands which might unite education workers, working class parents, and students into the potentially powerful unity that they possess. Demands around class size, control of the curricula rooted in a relationship of communities and educators, and a more just tax system have a history in both the NEA and the AFT. Margaret Haley, an early leader in both unions, made these demands and often won--the last a message that people also need to hear: We can fight and not lose.  

Today, the Rouge Forum, a grassroots group of k-12 educators from both unions, as well as students, parents, and community people, may offer illustrations of how a class-based reform group could operate in schools and demonstrate the key lesson: Working people can win. This comes from a Rouge Forum flyer attacking standardized tests in Michigan:  

"We are school workers, professors, students, parents, and community people concerned about questions like these: How can we teach against racism, national chauvinism and sexism in an increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic society? How can we gain enough real power to keep our ideals and still teach and learn? We are both research and action oriented. We want to learn about equality, democracy and social justice as we simultaneously struggle to bring into practice our present understanding of what that is. We seek to build a caring inclusive community which understands that an injury to one is an injury to all. At the same time, our caring community is going to need to deal decisively with an opposition that is sometimes ruthless."  

On the classroom level, I am researching the work of two untenured openly Marxist high school teachers, one working in a large inner-city school, the other working in an affluent suburban school. Without belaboring the fits and starts of our collaboration, it is noteworthy that it is possible to risk anarcho-communism in classrooms these days, and to gain enough parent, teacher, student support to carry on. Perhaps this is an indicator of the perception of the weakness of post-socialism or Marxism. Still, the class struggle is sufficiently obvious in school that these are both popular educators.  

Neither the NEA nor the AFT nor the AFL-CIO have a strategy to resolve the fragmentation of the working people they represent, nor does the AFL want to demonstrate to them that workers can indeed understand and transform the world. That can only be accomplished by a class-based organization, perhaps presently initiating its work in schools, willing to take the practical risks of rubbing together reform and revolution, the relationship of wanting a better life now and understanding that the ravenous demands of capital for more and more surplus value make a better life transient---that an injury to one really does simply precede an injury to all.  

The people who actively cause social change ared not usually over 40--as are most of the people in the U.S. industrial working class. The people who make change in practice are often teenagers, and right now they are in school. This is not to suggest abandoning industrial workers. It is to say that the struggles in the near future are likely to be initiated in communities, in and around schools, by youth. Those struggles may reverberate back into the working class in a rising and reciprocal relationship. But I see no reason to believe that the industrial working class in the U.S., in the near future, will take action--unless it is to don brownshirts, which is quite plausible given the AFL leadership.  

Reform and Revolution

I do not see the IWW meeting the challenge it appears, at least on paper, that it is designed to address. The IWW is designed as a revolutionary union rooted in claims about persistent opposition to the domination of the many by the few. The IWW is organized, not by industry or geography or craft, but by class. In theory, the IWW alone is positioned to make serious social change. The IWW could democratically unite people across communities, could meld reform and revolution, could operate with a general plan combined with specific autonomy, could even create public and non-public sectors in recognition of the potential for a fascist turn. For those cadres who cannot move into schools, IWW could form a serious revolutionary force within the AFL, with the IWW mission to destroy capital and its representatives, including its organizations. The IWW could seek to plan where cadre will go and what they will do, and focus on work in schools, through a common struggle among its members. But that is only on paper, only potential. While membership in IWW is growing, rather than deepening sophistication, I see a great deal of action and plenty of fury, and little wisdom or organizational refinement. IWW, if the newspaper is representative, has taken a sharp turn toward reform, without the necessary link to revolution. The goal, at least in the paper, is to reform the AFL, to make it a better union, to make the AFL fight the good fight, or to make the IWW a good union within it--or in its stead. Reform Borders with a good union? Well, one could do worse. But the Borders target is truly peripheral, and the target of revolution is lost in heady talk about declining book sales coming from IWW actions.  

Support the Detroit newspaper strike? The strike is over, declared over when the UAW et. al. declared victory and sent there members back to work--to jobs that do not exist. Perseverating over this defeat, pretending it is still a hot issue, gloating over the loss of Detroit newspaper readership; none of this gets to the point: this strike was lost because the leaders betrayed it, because the rank and file lacked the sense of history to understand that their leadership would inevitably betray them, and because the relative privileges of those who struck, vis a vis race and class in an African-american community in deep poverty, never occurred to the group who declared Detroit a "Union Town," and confidently marched out the doors with no anti-racist plan at all to fight the boss or unite the community. This strike is done. We should never abandon people hurt on a battle field, but we should also stop worrying about what the NLRB thinks about the technicalities of the strike--or revolution.  

Union reform, the focus on reform absent revolution, the discussion of struggle without discussing the role of capital, is not how I read the IWW's reason to be. It remembers union and forgets revolution. One without the other simply will not do. There is no alternative but to assault capital, and to build communities of resistance and revolution that simultaneously go beyond it. Capital does not sparkle long for anyone. Things change. The IWW should be the revolutionary union leading the transformation. The place to start is in schools.  

Rich Gibson taught in the Wayne State University Labor School in Detroit. Now he is the co-ordinator of social studies education at WSU and a director of the Rouge Forum and the Whole Schooling Consortium. He served was the director of education for the Michigan State Employees Association, an organizer for the UAW and AFSCME, on the staff of the Florida and Michigan NEA in the eighties, and was the director of organizing and education of the National Treasury Employees Union. His web site is at: http://www.pipeline.com/~rgibson 
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