The IWW, since its inception, has been an intentionally apolitical organization in regards to specific political parties or candidates, instead founding its purpose and praxis through revolutionary industrial unionism. There are two main factors for this which I, in my membership, have noticed. The first, being that we do not wish to alienate our fellow workers of many different political attitudes or ideologies – excluding, of course, ideologies that are discriminatory towards racial or sexual, or other marginalized classes, are pro-capitalist or which embrace or encourage anti-union sentiment. This is so that we can build a broader working class movement that can liberate the working class from many of the struggles that they suffer under the current socioeconomic order, via solidarity and industrial unionism. The second, being that the IWW is a labor union of all workers, and in order to build a solid organization and yield effective results, we choose to forgo any kind of political endorsement or donation. We instead focus our full efforts and resources towards educating, organizing, and empowering the rank and file to organize on the job in order to better their working conditions and by extent the conditions of labor itself.
Some would consider this form of unionism as being ineffective or incapable of addressing the challenges we face as those of trying to organize our workplaces in changing labor law. There are many business unions or related pro-union organizations that donate and campaign for various political candidates, banking on the hope that their pro-labor sentiments and speeches might hopefully signify much needed change to federal labor law. However, since the enactment of the Wagner Act in 1935 and Taft-Hartley in 1947, this has seldom if ever been the case. The primary purpose of these laws, whether on a local or federal level, are to ensure that production ceases as little as possible and only marginally challenge the rights and powers of managers and business owners over the interests of the working class.
While many aspects of these laws provide protections that incentivize organizing in an electoral manner, how union elections are conducted and what direct actions workers are allowed to take on the job, there are many drawbacks as a result of who these laws were made in service for and how these laws are applied to organizing workers. The most glaring example of the limitations of current labor law can be seen in the contrast between how workers or unions can be punished for violating labor laws, while managers and business owners only face petty fines in comparison to the net profit their industries produce through workers labor. This tips the scales of power in the workplace in the hands of the owners and not the workers, as any infraction can cost anything from workers employment at any given shop or industry all the way to sinking even successful organizing campaigns. This is especially true in a political system where most political parties are overwhelmingly pro-business interests and seek not to limit the powers of capital over our lives, but work to make sure that those powers are never significantly challenged by any body of the working class or any political party which challenges capitalism as a whole. The political avenue to changing labor laws has only become more and more limited in its capacity to counter the ever shrinking number of capitalists that control the economic direction of the world, and who exert significant control over what laws get passed and who passes them.
It would only take a surface level inspection of labor history to realize that labor laws have been by and large established as a result of workers taking direct action on their jobs, organizing their workplaces or any other action to advance the cause of unionism. In the early chapters of the 20th century, large scale labor organizing and building strong solidarity across industries and demographic differences advanced the cause of unionism against corporate propaganda, armed company guards, the police and even the military. Many methods of strike actions up to and including general strikes empowered workers by encouraging them to escalate actions against their employers, and seek to redress grievances directly rather than allow more bureaucratic systems to delegate and negotiate their organized power. In this era, the IWW reached its greatest strength, despite government and business interests levying the harshest of reprisals. We organized across entire industries in a variety of shops at a time, and challenged even the trade unions with our capacity to be inclusionary, to embrace a variety of organizing methods and direct actions, and provide a vision of the future that was not merely a continued existence of peace between boss and worker, but a future where workers had direct control over society as a whole, and reaped the full value of their labor.
It took an entire campaign of business-backed government repression, red-baiting and infighting to diminish the power the IWW had as a influencing force in the labor movement – the repercussions of which can be seen in the current state of unionism: seeing the boss as an equal to be settled with, seeing the full value of our production not our sole creation but a balanced responsibility between boss and worker, no-strike clauses, and strict legal limitations on our capacity to organize and take direct action on the job. This was normalized as the way all successful trade unions should operate, and as a result during the latter half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century union rates had plummeted, positive public opinion became a niche occurrence and the gains made by the more successful organizing campaigns and strikes still fell short of what workers deserved. Labor law as it stands saw to this.
As for the present situation and the future, the labor laws passed since the Wagner Act have limited our legal capacity to organize and take direct action. Appealing to the sweet-toned sympathies of “union-friendly” politicians has yielded to the trade unions little to no major legal changes in how labor law defines and limits the capacity for unions to organize workers. However, with the current resurgence in the labor movement beginning as a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, those deep ties of solidarity and the desire of workers to take on great risks and achieve more for their work in the shop as well as in the union have seen a resurgence as well. Along with this resurgence of the labor movement, a new era of education about labor history and labor law came with it, and many workers keen to organize saw the glaring power imbalance between boss and worker across history and decided to directly challenge it by adopting older tactics such as marching on the boss, working-to-rule and even some cases of wildcat strikes.
It has become resolutely clear to many workers during this time that if labor law cannot be changed from the inside, then we must change them from outside the current legal system. Indeed, this is how every major campaign to better the rights and conditions of working people has always been conducted, from the abolitionist movement to the civil rights movement to the LGBT rights movement and so many others. Few of these movements had any traction within the legal system to affect major change until enough external pressure had been applied, whether through protest, community and labor organizing, or even by acting outside the bounds of the law.
The IWW has seen a resurgence, in part because it recognizes and directly challenges labor law as a construction of business interests collaborating with the government for its protection, not the protection of workers. It chooses to distance itself from the political system that brought about the current situation that unions are placed in, and focuses on educating and organizing workers solely for their benefit. It places importance in the ability of workers to act, collectively and directly, to challenge the unquestioned authority of our bosses rather than enlisting a bureaucratic network to negotiate our terms for us. It defends the idea that democracy must exist in the shop and industry as it does not honestly exist in the political arena. Democracy must be one of the principal pillars of the function of a union itself. This democratic desire is even seen in trade unions, such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, who recognize that the past several decades of labor organizing have played into the bosses and politicians hands rather than for the best interests of the workers in those unions. With our understanding of labor history and labor law, we can better educate and equip workers to focus their efforts in growing the union, organizing their workplaces and taking part in a larger movement to challenge the status quo of how unionism is expressed in this country. We could even reach a point that, with the working class better educated and organized in its collective power, we can begin to shake the foundations of labor law and class relations in this country.
To change labor law, we must build strength in solidarity with our fellow workers and foster a culture of continuous education regarding labor history and law. We must give workers the education that their formal education never gave them and empower them with the tools and tactics needed to effectively organize not just in their workplaces but across industries as well. We can be more vocal about our aims and efforts by spreading the word through print, podcast, and radio of current day organizing in the union, showing the workers of the world that the organizing aims and tactics of the IWW have significant leverage in the workplace, and can yield greater gains from employers with a union by and for the rank-and-file. It is one of the principal mottoes of the IWW that we endeavor to “create a new world within the shell of the old.” Through thorough and efficient education and organization, we can finally reach the possibility of emancipation from the confines of the current laws restricting our organized power.
Contact the IWW today if you want to start organizing at your job.
If you are a member in good standing and wish to take the Organizer Training 101, please email the OTC. If you would like to request a group OT101 with your GMB, job branch, or coworkers, fill out this form.