The IWW is a union for all workers. It only makes sense that a union that advocates for the abolition of the wage system would blaze a path different from other unions. Over the decades, that path has sometimes been rough, but it’s made us what we are today.
Here are 8 things you probably didn’t know about that separate the IWW from other unions in the US.
1) IWW membership is not just a part of holding a certain job.
For lots of folks these days, the experience of joining a union comes from accepting a unionized job. Some of these unions have built strong communities among coworkers, some not as much. When people leave those jobs, they leave the union too.
For IWW members, though, union membership is part of a commitment to our social vision. In this vision for a better future, labor is organized for the common good rather than for profit.
Being an IWW member also means connecting with a community that is united by our common struggle, outlook and tactics. We help one another learn how to organize for power on the job. We couch-surf for free with other members when we travel. We donate when one of our own is gravely sick or injured. We pay our respects to those who came before us, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our union.
2) The IWW helped set the trend of organizing in fast food.
During the early 2000s, the IWW had campaigns to organize Starbucks and Jimmy Johns. Although these campaigns were not successful in terms of unionizing, the IWW gained very valuable lessons and experience.
Using some of those lessons, the workers at the Burgerville chain of restaurants, local to Oregon, organized with the IWW starting in 2015. Workers at Burgerville used tried-and-true direct action and solidarity union approaches to improve conditions drastically over the course of 7+ years and form the Burgerville Workers Union. The Portland-based BVWU is winning gains and looking forward to helping empower workers at Burgerville locations outside their area to get organized and united too.
Although workers at many other fast food chains have recently organized and won National Labor Relations Board ratification votes, notably Starbucks workers, none has forced their company to the NLRB bargaining table quite yet as of this writing. Many IWW members are eagerly looking forward to welcoming more fast food workers into organized labor.
3) The IWW regards the police as traitors to our class.
The institution of policing has a long history discussed in Our Enemies in Blue by Kristin Williams. Are they workers just like the rest of us? The IWW does not see it this way. Even if there are some alright people out there working as police officers, the massive historical inertia of policing as an institution that enforces class and race divisions pushes it into alignment with the interests of the exploiting class.
As police and their proponents sometimes remind us, they don’t make the laws, they just enforce them. Those making the laws are, of course, our bosses, their investors, and others beholden to them.
With laws like these, the work of “law enforcement” means violently enforcing dispossession. Rather than being a “thin blue line between civilization and chaos,” as some imagine, the police are better thought of as the thin blue line between workers and the wealth we produce.
Our corporate media engages in constant propaganda efforts, often under the pretense of entertainment, to get workers to sympathize with the police and portray them as competent guardians of public safety. However, police do not really solve as much crime in real life as they do on TV shows.
Policing and prison both masquerade as instruments of the common good, but their oppressive nature is well-known to those of us who’ve experienced their violence personally. With all this in mind, the IWW formally and concretely supports the abolition of police and prison. To this end…
4) The IWW supports strikes by people in prison, and has an active membership inside US prisons.
Amid an increasing trend of prison strikes, IWW members founded the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) in 2014. It still exists today, and has provided outside support for two national prisoner strikes as well as countless regional and single-facility strikes.
US prison slave-labor is increasingly being used to undermine wages globally for non-imprisoned workers. Jobs that were once outsourced to sweatshops in other countries are now being insourced to prisons where wages can be even closer to nothing. In prison, workers can also be controlled by throwing “insubordinate” ones in solitary confinement, rather than merely firing them.
As the corporate state invests more deeply in prison slave-labor, even while mass incarceration faces increasing public scrutiny, IWOC is positioned to play an essential role in helping the most exploited organize for justice.
5) The IWW is also one of the only unions that organizes workers in the sex industry, including the “underground” sex-trade.
A core IWW principle is that all workers can and should benefit from collective organizing. This includes those who work in the commercial sex industry, either above or below ground. Just as nobody is better positioned to enact positive change in (say) the restaurant industry than restaurant workers, the same is true for the sex industry.
Many sex workers already self-organize for mutual safety. It’s important for us to help people organize even when their line of work is illegal. Keeping industries illegal is just one more way that bosses and their state seek to keep workers divided. We won’t fall for it. We hope that someday, a revolutionary union of sex workers will help abolish capitalism and de-commodify sex along with everything else.
6) The IWW has no professional or paid organizers. Our members are our organizers.
For all of living memory, it has been common practice for unions to employ workers as professional organizers to unionize other workers. The IWW does things differently, and some might say more traditionally.
Before the legal institutionalization of unions in the US, the common practice was for every union member to take part in organizing. Nowadays that’s not as much the case. Why organize when they’re paying someone else to do that, right? One overall effect of this change has been for unions to be viewed as more like other social service organizations than working-class fighting formations.
In the view of IWW members, having “organizer” be a paid job alienates average workers from the role we must play in organizing. The Organizing Department handles logistics over wide geography. Our External Organizers program helps motivate and advise those who come to us seeking organizing assistance. Our organizer training program is superb and open to all workers. All this is accomplished with no more than determination, commitment and some very modest stipends for trainers.
7) Tom Morello and Noam Chomsky publicly support the IWW.
Tom Morello released a music video entitled “Hold the Line: Union Strong Edit” in 2021. Tom Morello has played many times at strikes and other members of Rage Against the Machine such as Zack de la Rocha are vocal about their support for international working-class solidarity.
Nevertheless, it seems there are always people who associate Rage Against the Machine with being “cool,” but have no idea about their not-at-all-hidden politics. Famously, when austerity hawk Paul Ryan became a candidate for Vice President in 2012 and cited Rage Against the Machine as his favorite band, Tom publicly replied in a now-famous Rolling Stone piece,“Paul Ryan is the embodiment of the machine our music rages against.”
10 years later, and it seems the number of people who know about Rage Against the Machine but not their explicit anti-capitalist politics is as high as ever.
Tom Morello and some friends also wrote the new Netflix original movie Metal Lords.
Noam Chomsky, for his part, is pretty much the predominant public intellectual in the US. Along with becoming one of the most respected professors in linguistics, Noam Chomsky also penned the hit non-fiction book Manufacturing Consent, which was also made into a documentary film, analyzing the US corporate media as propaganda.
Besides revolutionizing the field of linguistics and being one of the most prominent public critics of US imperialism from inside the US, Noam Chomsky has also won enough awards to sink a small boat and authored well over 100 books and articles from the 1950s to today.
Noam Chomsky is also probably the best left-wing star of YouTube despite not being a YouTuber. People have taken it upon themselves to make Chomsky channels for him, and videos featuring him regularly rack up views into the seven figures. Here’s Rage Against the Machine’s lead singer, Zack de la Rocha, interviewing professor Chomsky about NAFTA.
8) The IWW does not participate in electoral politics.
IWW members do not see being part of a political party machine as a proper role for a union. Political parties can and do sell workers out, but they also pursue policies that workers are divided on. Some IWW members still vote and even volunteer or work on political campaigns, but it is understood that it is not the role of the IWW to take sides in a political system that is rigged in favor of our exploiters.
Throughout history, change happens first economically, then politically. Supposedly favorable labor laws do not organize workers. Only fellow workers can do that. In reality, nearly all labor policies are meant to achieve what is termed “Labor Peace.” Labor Peace means work no longer being interrupted by upset workers. In other words, Labor Peace does not mean peace for workers, it means peace for bosses. The fact that policies aimed at securing Labor Peace involve concessions to workers is a result of organizing. Not only does government policy aim at Labor Peace, so do many union contracts. This is the purpose of “no-strike” and other “management’s rights” clauses in such contracts.
It’s natural for us, as workers, to want a better deal. However, we can pursue gains today without giving up the goal of a fully democratic, worker-run economy tomorrow. We won’t achieve that lofty goal by making political deals or passing new laws. We can only achieve it by organizing where we are exploited and acting directly to take power back from our exploiters.
The governments we have are designed to grant us “political freedoms” while restricting access to the wealth that our labor produces. As workers unite and reorganize the economy to abolish scarcity, more fair, free and equal political systems will also arise to settle disputes and look after the public interest.
If you are interested in organizing at work and working toward the abolition of the wage system, contact the IWW today.
Featured image is from the IWW Materials Preservation Project. 1992 Queer workers at the July 1992 picket of End-Up Bar in San Francisco.