While most unions organize their members by the type of work the member performs — known as trade unionism or craft unionism — industrial unions organize their members by the type of industry that the member’s company belongs to. This is what makes the Industrial Workers of the World different from the majority of labor unions in the United States and Canada.

Since its conception in 1905, the IWW has had two very clear aims: 

  1. Organize workers in order to improve their working conditions.
  2. Achieve industrial democracy a post-capitalist, classless society in which workers manage the economy and share responsibility for decision making within their workplace and industry. 

Our founders knew that in order to truly emancipate the working class, we have to foster economic independence and that there can be no economic independence under the wage system. It is this very notion that brings us the IWW’s famous slogan, 

“Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’”

With these two goals in mind, the founders of the IWW structured their new union into Industrial Departments and Industrial Unions. These bodies would serve as the infrastructure needed to support a democratic, post-capitalist society. Only by focusing on organizing the industry, not simply the workplace, can we build sustainable worker power. The intent of industrial unionism is not only to organize workers within an industry but also to educate workers on how their industry functions, making it possible for them to self-manage their industry in the future. Workers will not be able to make decisions regarding their industry if their knowledge of the industry is limited to their own workplace or shop. The education required to make industry-level decisions necessitates having an existing network within the industry that shares skills, knowledge, and experience.

A brief history of Industrial Unions within the IWW

In the IWW, we organize our members into Industrial Unions (IUs) based on the primary business activities of the company the member works for. The ultimate goal of each IU is to serve as the decision-making system that enables workers to self-manage their industry.

Unfortunately, in the 1920s, the IWW lost nearly all of its membership, dwindling down to around 10,000 members. This caused the IWW’s focus to shift from building a classless society through industrial unionism to attempting to revitalize the membership through small victories in the workplace in order to try to eventually gain enough members to build out the industrial unions. Not only did this tactic fail to increase the union’s membership, at times the number of members actually dipped even further, despite a growing working class. 

What we learned from this failure is that only focusing on small victories and single-shop organizing strategies stifle the bigger-picture strategy necessary to build any real collective power. In order to gain the membership numbers needed for an IU to wield any real power within its industry, the infrastructure for the IU has to first exist and function in a way that allows workers to coordinate and make collective decisions about their industrial organizing strategy and tactics. As members are able to coordinate at the industry-level, they will be able to make meaningful wins, attracting more workers from within the industry. The more workers join the union and participate in the decision-making and collective action processes, the more leverage the union gains within the industry; the more leverage the union has in the industry, the more the union grows.

In order to make gains in any industry, the IWW needs to reorient itself to the industrial union model. For over a century, IWW has theoretically structured its membership into Industrial Unions, however, none of these Industrial Unions are actually chartered or functioning as a democratic decision-making body of workers. There hasn’t been a chartered industrial union in the IWW since the 1930s.

Shop-by-shop organizing versus an industrial organizing strategy

While occasionally successful in making valuable short-term gains for small groups of workers, the IWW’s shop-by-shop organizing — the strategy of organizing one-off workplaces at random, without a larger industrial strategy driving the allocation of time and resources — has proven to be unsuccessful at building industrial unions and gaining leverage within any industry. This has been especially true in industries with high employee turnover rates and/or precarious workers, such as food service, retail, and logistics workers. It is in these types of industries where it makes the most sense to organize the workers first, then strategically target the shops based on research, capacity, and sustainability. This can be accomplished only through the explicit coordination of workers across the industry.

Case study: Freelance Journalists Union and the Printing & Publishing Workers Industrial Union

The Printing & Publishing Workers Industrial Union (IU 450) has been actively recruiting members through campaigns in media and publishing since late 2018, beginning with the launch of the Freelance Journalists Union (FJU) in New York City. 

Through the FJU campaign, which has since expanded to multiple cities and countries, we have signed up more than 200 new IWW members and had one-on-one intake meetings with over 400 workers interested in organizing in the publishing and printing industry. Early on, FJU successfully participated in a public pressure campaign that pushed Vox Media to revise its freelance contract to allow contributors to share and discuss the rates that Vox pays them. FJU also gained mainstream media attention for the Unfair Labor Practice filed against Barstool Sports, not only bringing attention to the fake pro-union social media accounts the company created to identify union sympathizers, but also raising the issue of anti-union threats from the personal social media accounts of company leaders. Additionally, FJU used data compiled from a survey we sent out to freelance journalists last year to launch a targeted organizing campaign at Outside, a media outlet that routinely pays freelancers late, which resulted in the magazine agreeing to pay $150,000 in back pay to freelancers within 30 days. Most recently, FJU went on strike in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on Juneteenth, which included not only the withholding of labor by our freelance members across the media industry but also a full staff strike at an NYC public relations firm that led to Juneteenth becoming a recognized paid holiday for those workers.

In December 2019, IU 450 members were able to charter our first modern Printing & Publishing Workers Industrial Union Branch (NYC IUB 450) in New York City, while retaining momentum with our multi-city FJU campaign. In collaboration with the New York City General Membership Branch, NYC IUB 450 has an ongoing organizing campaign at a local book publisher, which has already made a few wins using direct action tactics. The IUB is made up of a variety of printing and publishing workers, including freelance journalists, staff journalists, freelance writers, book publishing workers, and media consultants, among others, and continues to maintain close ties with the local General Membership Branch. We work with members in other cities to help form local meetups and groups that can grow into Industrial Union Branches while encouraging collaboration with local General Membership Branches and participation in local IWW events.

We continue to focus on creating and executing data-driven strategy at the industrial level, while

simultaneously striving to build local worker power and solidarity through connecting new members with IWW members and branches in their area. As the media and publishing industry moves more and more toward remote telework and a freelance structure, it is increasingly imperative that we continue to organize across cities and borders, as well as across staff and freelancers alike. The structure of the modern publishing industry means that a media outlet or publishing house in New York City regularly employs writers, photographers, graphic artists, and other workers from around the world. The unionization wave in media over the last couple of years, and the subsequent folding or downsizing of many media companies, has also taught us that a worker may be staff with a union contract one day and find themselves a freelancer the next. For this reason, the printing and publishing industry requires a multi-faceted approach to organizing that incorporates both shop-floor organizing and industry-focused organizing.

We believe that, for the IWW Printing and Publishing Industrial Union, this organizing approach includes but is not limited to:

  • Shop-floor organizing campaigns.
  • Freelance and remote telework organizing campaigns.
  • Industrial strategy and industrial organizing campaigns, including multi-city and targeted outreach.
  • Intake and coordination of one-on-one meetings and calls with new IU 450 members in North America.
  • Formation of local industrial union branches.
  • Collaboration across IWW regional administrations on matters of the printing and publishing industry.
  • Outreach to ICL-CIT union sections working in printing and publishing, as well as other relevant union bodies, worker centers, or advocacy groups as deemed relevant to our goals.
  • Educational, marketing, and press materials for member recruitment and organizing campaigns.
  • Management of IU campaign-specific funds for organizing materials and resources.

If staff at a publication go on strike, the publication tries to fill that labor with freelancer work and public relations firm submissions. It’s important to understand the various relationships within the industry, how they function, and what happens if you remove one part and not the other. In order to effectively strike, you would need not only the staff writers and editors to go on strike, but also: freelance writers, staff/freelance photographers, staff/freelancers managing social media content, public relations consultants that pitch stories or experts to the publication, the printers that physically print the magazine or newspaper or the website editors who publish the content online, the receptionists, the administrators, the copy editors, the salespeople, and the janitors. That is an effective strike. And until recently, unions, the IWW included, were only focusing on the regular staff. However, in an industry like ours, 50% or more of the people doing work for a publication or publishing house might be freelance. Those freelance workers are integral to labor organizing.

Since our beginning in 2018, FJU has always been working toward building our Printing & Publishing Workers Industrial Union (IU 450). We put in a ton of time and effort to engage with prospective new members, get them to join the IWW, incorporate them fully into the FJU campaign, and ensure that FJU is a democratically run, worker-led labor organizing campaign. This is significantly more difficult to sustain and grow if new members get lost in the shuffle because they signed up through iww.org and were assigned to a branch that doesn’t work on media organizing.

People join the IWW because they want to organize their workplace and their industry. FJU does that. To us, it makes no sense for the “default” action upon signing up to be to stick our new member in a branch that isn’t working on anything in their industry and doesn’t have experience in or knowledge of the industry. General Membership Branches should exist only as a temporary holding pool to create local Industrial Union Branches — they were never intended by the IWW’s founders to be the default method of organizing. You cannot have industry-level campaigns without IUs and IUBs coordinating across cities, states, and countries, nor without an industry-level strategy.

We started FJU in September of 2018. The first General Organizing Bulletin we see with the IU membership totals published is from February 2019 — IU450 had 43 members, most of which were people that the co-founders personally signed up through FJU between September and February. Now, a little over a year later, we have over 200 IU members. For the most part, these aren’t people that floated into a GMB and signed up or people who signed up through iww.org — they are people whom FJU organizers met with and who signed up specifically to organize with FJU. We hope by this time next year, that number is over 500. Or even 1000. Our intent is to grow and expand into all areas of media, printing, and publishing.

Barriers to achieving chartered industrial unions in the IWW

The current language in the Constitution around chartering Industrial Unions — which requires five chartered IUBs, made up of a combined total of at least 100 members, as well as a petition of two-thirds of the combined membership of those branches — was added within the last few years, in a time period when the IWW had zero chartered IUs. There is absolutely no historical or even functional basis for the existence of the current restrictions — no such restrictions on the formation of Industrial Unions existed in the IWW’s original constitution from when the union was founded.

There are many functional problems to the current Constitutional approach to IU chartering — mainly that without a chartered IU, there is no union body with access to enough membership data to coordinate and facilitate the chartering of Industrial Union Branches. General Headquarters and the GEB do not actively work on fostering and coordinating new Industrial Union Branches — they have a lot on their plates and it’s understandable that this is not included in their duties. Even if the IU members were able to charter five IUBs without any coordination or help, getting two-thirds of their membership of 100 or more people to sign a petition to charter is an unjustified and avoidable obstacle of bureaucracy.  

The IWW needs to pivot toward:

  1. Researching and analyzing key industries within North American cities and regions.
  2. Coordinating industrial organizing strategies informed by qualitative and quantitative data, capacity, and sustainability.
  3. Forming Industrial Union Branches in cities and regions with 10 or more workers in any given industry.
  4. Forming the infrastructure for Industrial Unions in all of the IUs that currently have around 100 or more IWW members.

The IWW should prioritize building the democratic, worker-led infrastructure needed to coordinate industry-level campaigns and pave the way for industrial democracy. This infrastructure requires having functional, chartered Industrial Unions to support members’ organizing efforts, empowering them to make collective decisions at the industry level. We ask that all Fellow Workers committed to industrial organizing vote in favor of IUB 450 NYC’s Convention resolution to change the requirements for chartering Industrial Unions to 100 IU members, with a capped threshold of 51 members petitioning to charter the IU. Building functional industrial unions is both labor-intensive and time-consuming regardless of the chartering requirements, and easing those requirements allows members to instead prioritize their focus on organizing and building the union. Without this shift, the IWW will continue to struggle to gain sustainable worker power within any industry, ultimately wasting the membership’s time and resources, and leading to the burnout and disengagement of our members and organizers.

Liss Waters Hyde is a co-founder and organizing committee co-chair of the Freelance Journalists Union, and serves as the chair of the Industrial Union 450 Coordinating Committee. Jaime Caro is a PhD candidate specializing in the U.S. labor movement.

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