I went out drinking with Thomas Paine/He said that all revolutions are not the same

Back when I was discussing the Australian Workplace Agreements (the neutrality of that Wikipedia entry has been disputed. Imagine) I had the only comment so far, from Gavin of the blog make/shift (which is a bloody great blog – and I say this not merely because of my hippie state-smashing vegan sympathies). He suggested I was a screaming leftie tit (I am) and that I should become a ‘wobbly’ – a reference to the Industrial Workers of the World.

Actually at first I though he suggested I throw one – in Australia a wobbly is a fit – i.e. a temper tantrum. At the time I said I’d discuss them at a later date – I figure now is as good a time as any.

(caveat: none of this should be taken as applying to notions such as income equality – in terms of economic theory they are not related nearly as closely as we tend to think)

From their wikipedia entry:

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies) is an international union currently headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. At its peak in 1923 the organization claimed some 100,000 members in good standing, and could marshal the support of perhaps 300,000 workers. Its membership declined dramatically after a 1924 split brought on by internal conflict and government repression.

Today it is actively organizing and numbers about 2,000 members worldwide, of whom roughly half (approximately 900) are in good standing (that is, have paid their dues for the past two months). IWW membership does not require that one work in a represented workplace, nor does it exclude membership in another labor union.

Their membership alone is a decent commentary on what has become of the days of Woody Guthrie. The IWW has a couple of interesting features. First from the paragraph above is that the workplace does not need to be unionised – although this clearly limits the ‘standard’ powers of the IWW (‘standard’ in the sense of what a union usually does in/for a unionised workplace).

The preamble to the IWW constitution is here. They also organise according to industry, rather than trade, which is organised at a higher degree of removal(?). Specifcally:

IWW organisation wheel

Nice, eh? The reason, as far as I can discern, is because the IWW’s ultimate, marching-band goal is complete unionisation, organised under one committee. Yes, you’ll find it’s a little communist in the way it presents itself.

I see a point, particularly in this day and age. It makes more sense for an entire industry to be co-ordinated, and to work with built-in solidarity not (just) between dock-workers in Melbourne and Liverpool, for example, but between loaders and welders and forklift drivers all down at the docks.

I say a point: this is not the point. The IWW’s reasons are

(1) a classless union. One Big Union, under which every worker, whatever the trade, whatever the industry, from doctors to dockers, are equally valuable as labour (within that industry), and equally represented and protected.

(2) countering employer consolidation. As firms, industries, etc. end up in fewer and fewer hands, more and more power is falling to the employer. The IWW figures the way to confront that is centralise to a single point union representation.

As a union, they also employ what is called the wobbly shop model of workplace democracy. That is, democractically-elected officials within the union, recallable and under strict term limits – and earning no more than the industry average for IWW members in that industry. It also means workers vote upon policy (a model that would do the US no end of good, I think).

For me, anyone who came in for the sort of beatings the IWW got between the wars is okay in my book. In fact it took the red scare to seriously injure them (although injure them it did).

What I like the most about the IWW about which I read is that is so clearly anachronistic. It hasn’t really changed, but we most certainly have. The ideas they hold most dear, and protect most strongly, go right back to Adam Smith (he too despised, or at least distrusted, the corporation, and pointed out that all his invisible hand stuff only worked when they weren’t around).

Speaking practically, their model and their goal is probably the most sensible: bargaining power is ever more falling into the hands of employers. The trouble is, the reason for this is government. In the heyday of the IWW there simply weren’t laws banning emergency workers from striking. There wasn’t the sort of sophistication in legislation that an army of lobbyists bring to the halls of parliament.

I suppose the other difference is us, which is harder to pin down. There wasn’t an FBI, but there were plenty of arrests, and there were plenty of blackshirts kicking the teeth out populist organisers. The Espionage Act in the US during the first World War was practically tailor-made for dealing with anti-capitalist elements. So too the Palmer Raids of a few years later. Nowadays we decry the chilling effect of workplace anti-union propaganda, and of surveillance by the FBI, but that’s nothing compared to the door-kicking brown-shirting that was required in the previous century. Is it, as Carol Pier suggests, that workers are just not learning the benefits of organisation, at the same time as the government looks the other way while any attempts are crushed embrionically?

You will have noticed I’m clearly going to leave this as an open question. Students at my University are trying with a new President to explain the utter sensibility of affiliation with the Workers Rights Consortium. They had no luck with the last President, though I don’t understand why. Certainly ordinary awareness and activism are stumbling-blocks.

I believe it comes down to education. Once unions were smashed, they mostly stayed that way, all over. New terror laws, commercial sensitivity laws, and who knows what other laws, are steadily building walls in front of them ever coming back as they were.

It also comes down to electoral participation. We are in an era where the majority of the country around me right now honestly accepts that you get to elect a president once per 4 years, and anything he does in that period is his perogative. That the electoral college is just the way it works (hell, they probably think everyone elects leaders like this). We talk about people in power, rather than people in government. We talk about leaders in Congress, instead of representatives. Everything is wrong (with apologies to Moby), not just with the dialogue/debate but with the very language itself.

I hardly begrudge the IWW their successes – I celebrate them – but I do think the manner in which the workplace goalposts have been shifted means something quite radical needs to change, in terms of basic citizen awareness, solidarity and electoral power/control, before the principles of Adam Smith can be returned to the Workplace. Meanwhile we’ll continue to buy cheap shit from Wal-Mart, while working there because all the other stores in town closed down.

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