Of Sweatshops & Starbucks: Is the IWW an Industrial Union?

This is the second in a four-part series analyzing the Industrial Workers of the World as the failure of dual unionism in the American revolutionary left. This installment focuses on the internal structure of the group - whether industrially structured, or generally chartered.

Is the IWW an Industrial Union?

The modern IWW still proudly touts its devotion to industrial unionism. Industrial unionism is the idea that all workers on the shopfloor should belong to the same union – in a supermarket, the cashiers, butchers, pharmacists, and janitors are all represented by the same union. This is a response to craft unionism, in which workers of different occupations belong to different unions. In a craft union formation, the cashiers may belong to one union, while the pharmacists to another, and the butchers to yet another. These divisions weaken the bargaining power and unity of the workers.

This focus on industrial unionism is rather dated. The modern labor movement is no longer defined by the fierce rivalry between the craft unions of the AFL and the industrial unions of the CIO which occurred in the 1930s. Industrial unionism won this battle: laws on unions take industrial unionism as the norm, and most unions are organized on an industrial basis today.1

In another ironic twist where the IWW declares one thing and practices another, the IWW does not function as an industrial union. For one, the IWW has no practical opposition to craft unions, seeing as it does actually operate craft unions. There is indeed one IWW shop (Central Coop Grocery in Seattle, WA) in which the IWW represents only the janitors, while UFCW 21 represents the remainder of the workers.

The contradiction runs deeper than this. The IWW was historically structured by workers forming a local union for workers in their industry. For example, a construction workers’ local in New York City would absorb all the construction workers in the city, while chemical manufacturing workers in New York City would belong to their own, separate local. The construction workers’ NYC local is then federated into a council of other IWW construction workers’ locals across the country and globe. Each industry has its own industrial union, and workers in each industry have the autonomy to establish their union in the ways that best serve the conditions of their own industry. This is how the IWW was organized until its functional extinction in the 1950s. From that point on, it began organizing general unions (if these groups could be called unions at all – see the last post in this series) in place of industrial unions.

Today, the IWW has no actual industrial unions. Modern IWW branches are organized not by industry, but by city (into “General Membership Branches”). It should not be contentious to say, then, that the IWW of today is not an actual industrial union. Whether or not its members are assigned to industrial unions2 (which, since none of these industrial unions actually exist, these assignments function as little more than three-digit proletarian area codes), the union is organized by city, with one city branch absorbing any and all workplace activity that may fall under its jurisdiction. In a word, the primary cell of the union is the city branch rather than the industrial branch; workers are organized not by industry, but by geographical location. This structure adheres much more to the concept of “general unionism” than to any notion of industrial organization.

It is quite overwhelming for a single local to commit itself to all workers in an entire metropolitan area. A local may be responsible for supermarket workers here, truck drivers there, and plastics factory workers in yet another instance. Unless it commits itself to organizing just one of the industries in the city, the lack of strength it possess in an industry will severely hinder its ability to respond to events in that industry. Regardless of the local’s numerical size, if it sets foot in (or accepts workers from) an industry where it does not maintain any organizations, it will do so completely unprepared and at a major disadvantage.

In a word, the lack of strength it has in any single industry threatens its potentials in every single industry.

The general union similarly lacks a sense of direction. With no specific target, it is much easier for the general union to avoid devising a concrete plan to organize their jurisdiction, instead preferring to build its numerical size outside of the workplace (by recruiting individual students, activists, etc), to function as a rent-a-picket for other unions or activist protests, or to organize only when contacted by hot shops. General unions (when they are unions at all) are much more prone to becoming hubs for local activism. Indeed, General Membership Branches were created after the union’s functional extinction, when the organization needed to draw in new generations of radicals and anarchists to stay alive. This is reasonable: every union needs organizers. However, rather than being a mere means to building industrial organizations, the general membership branch has largely become an end in itself.

1. There are exceptions to this, for example in the construction and rail industries. My point, regardless, is that industrial unionism is no longer the pivotal issue dividing and determining the fate of the labor movement; and unlike in 1934, fiercely defending industrial unionism is not really a revolutionary position to take in the modern labor movement. In this sense, it seems as though the IWW’s rhetoric and propaganda has been cryogenically frozen and dug up like a time capsule.

2. When a worker joins the IWW, they are assigned membership in one of 39 industrial unions. These industrial unions are numbered in a Dewey Decimal system: Industrial Department #200 is all mine workers. Industrial Union #210 is Metal Mine Workers, #220 is Coal Mine Workers, and so forth. In theory, when there are at least 10 workers from the same industry in the same area, they charter themselves as an industrial union, and from there, an international council is established for all workers in the same industrial union. This is largely a thing of the past in the current IWW, and today this industrial structure serves mostly as a rhetorical and historical point. Emphasizing the geographic basis of the modern IWW, the modern General Executive Board is not comprised of representatives from different industrial unions, but from different regions.


klas batalo
Sep 5 2014 04:25

The author's obsession with the IWW not being an industrial (read "real union") is interesting to me, especially considering their previous writings on this subject.

It basically is a rejection of the IWW for something it can not be currently, considering overall it is rebuilding it's industrial networks.

Revolutionary unionism has always been in favor of "general unionism" in the form of locality/geographically based organization whether it is called labor exchanges/councils, local communities, various trades, general membership branches, etc. The thinking behind this follows the concept of prefiguring the One Big Union idea, that we need to regroup workers across industries and sectors. Of course we see the need to grow industrial networks and unions to do strategic organizing around supply chains, etc but I don't see how this can be seen as a failure. It is just an aspect of labor regroupment in shit conditions. Quite frankly it is a strength and reflective of the need to be flexible when militants switch industries so frequently in the modern capitalist economy.

Better to start off a general "solidarity network" of members than regulate oneself to a single "jurisdiction" paying a blind eye to working class struggles outside particular sectoral interests.