Of Sweatshops & Starbucks: Is the IWW a Good Union?

This is the third 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 structural capabilities of the organization, and its geographical and industrial reach.

The IWW proudly declares that it employs no paid organizers or staffers. Instead, all the operations of the union are carried out by worker-activists on a volunteer basis – from directing workers on how to organize their workplace, to filing legal complaints against employers, to the graphic design, web design, and print media work necessary for the union. The IWW consistently praises itself on the absence of paid staffers within the union.

Many times, it is an advertisement directed at the frugal worker: “We keep our dues low by refraining from employing people.” Unfortunately, since the quality of a union’s leadership decides the difference between a worker getting fired and blacklisted, and the same worker getting a hefty raise, unions are not the sort of thing you should shop for by price. My question in this article is as follows: Can the IWW function without staffers – and if it can, why don’t other unions do the same?

In the first place, union organizing demands time. Especially in the food and retail industries which the modern IWW has sought to organize, union organizers need flexible schedules. Everyone who has worked a food service or retail job knows the unpredictable schedules they bring. It is nearly impossible for any four workers in the same workplace to find a time when they are all off of work. If a union organizer has their own work schedule to work around, this presents a fatal barrier to organizing. Therefore, the union organizer must be free from the obligation of an outside job, if only to be able to devote enough time to the campaign. The workers interested in unionizing deserve no less.

Paid positions command this dedication from staffers. For the staffer, the union is their career. They are able to devote 40 hours (and frequently more than that) per week to union activities. By offering a paid position, the union attracts those who have studied and perfected their knowledge. Workers need unions because workers need people who know the law, who know how to conduct an organizing campaign from A to Z, and so forth. This why workers contact unions in the first place: because they don’t know how to do it themselves.

This can be applied equally to other types of union staffers. Unions need dedicated business agents who are knowledgeable enough in labor law to face off against Human Resources lawyers in grievance hearings. If a grievance is escalated to the point where a union representative must sit down with a Human Resources lawyer (who quite literally has a degree in union-busting), the worker deserves a union representative knowledgeable enough in labor law to defend the worker.

Why do AFL-CIO unions expend millions of dollars to employ campaign researchers, translators, graphic designers, illustrators, public relations experts, writers, and web designers? It could be because they have so much money that they don’t know what to do with it, and that they want to go out of their way to hire as many people as possible. It could also be because they acknowledge that the work done by, say, a professional graphic designer is more reliable than Xeroxed newspaper cartoons from 1914.

Unfortunately, people with this level of knowledge and negotiation skill do not volunteer their time and energy – they look for careers.

The modern IWW is operated by a layer of worker-activists who have a varying level of devotion to the organization. For most of the “organizers” in the group, the IWW is a hobby like any other – and that’s all it can be for them. After all, they have work, school, and other interests. The degree of knowledge possessed by individuals and branches in the IWW, like everything else in the organization, varies tremendously between branches. There are branches with career SEIU staffers, and there are branches where the most knowledge anyone in the branch has on labor law is a copy of Staughton Lynd’s Labor Law for the Rank & Filer.

Though I hesitate to use the word, professional organizers and professional staffers are a requirement for any serious union. The idea that professionalism creates bureaucracy in unions is misleading – staffers do not hold executive authority over the direction of the union (in contrast to elected officers like presidents and executive boards). Staffers are analogous to legal counsel: you tell your lawyer what you want, and your lawyer has the technical knowledge of the courts necessary to get it. She can file the right papers, make the right motions, and reference the right cases, which are all things you don’t know how to do.

If anything, the threat that professional staffers pose to union democracy is roughly equal to the threat that hobby activists pose to running an organization responsible for defending workers’ jobs, livelihoods, and families. Workers join unions for the former: to defend their jobs. We become a revolutionary union not by sacrificing that function in favor of ideological platitudes and purity, but by combining that function with empowerment, education, and action. If we are unable to defend their jobs to the degree that an AFL-CIO union is able to do, our strength is not as a union, but as an ideology.

Surely, taunting the AFL-CIO for their lack of ideological dedication to the working class will bring the IWW few members, and even fewer organized shops. If we cannot (or do not wish to) compete with the power and ability of AFL-CIO unions, workers will continue to join UNITE-HERE and UFCW over the IWW, because they offer a security we cannot match. Excuses in favor of the IWW are predictable: it’s a small union, its ideology leaves it vulnerable to being disregarded and red-baited, it doesn’t have the money to hire organizers, and so forth. Precisely! These conditions are not historical accidents; these are problems inherent in the strategy of dual unionism.

The IWW is both shockingly (from the point of view of unions) and unsurprisingly (from the point of view of anarchism) decentralized. Any ten people can join the union and establish their own branch. The organization does not require that anyone in your group has any knowledge of labor law, the labor movement, how unions work, what a union is, or how to organize one. For workers interested in unionizing, contacting the IWW is a roll of the dice: the branch you contact could be a group of people relatively capable of organizing a union, or they could be a group of people who are more interested in the historical IWW and theoretical texts than in organizing workers.

The IWW is much like a franchise in the sense that it delegates its name, logo, and likeness to groups of people (who may or may not identify themselves as “workers”), and then essentially lets them go about their business. This is what creates the extreme heterogeneity of the group. The franchisee decides how they want to use the IWW, with basically zero obligations placed on them by the International. The franchisee is not required to actually organize any workplaces – in fact it’s not required to do anything!

In recent times, this has led to the International union being clueless as to what different branches are doing, and even as to whether or not some branches even still exist – there have been several “ghost ships” that lose contact with the rest of the organization and disappear. The Organizing Department Board, to use one example, has been struggling in recent months to even find out what other branches are doing. It is not uncommon for branches to go public with a union drive without notifying any higher body in the union beforehand. Oftentimes, the union does not hear about a campaign until it goes public, and then it gets blindsided by having to handle a strike on zero notice.

To use a contemporary example: Starbucks will never be unionized by the IWW. As Starbucks has locations scattered throughout the country (and world), to organize it would require a nationwide union. Other unions are structured in such a way where they are able to undertake a corporate campaign of this nature. These unions either retain organizers at the national level, or they send organizers from their locals to targeted locations. The IWW is simply structurally incapable of conducting a campaign of this nature. The Starbucks campaign, as with any other campaign against a regional or nationwide employer, is picked up by any IWW branch that wants to undertake it. There is no obligation for a branch to participate in efforts to organize an employer targeted by the union – if the organization ever did approach a branch asking them to participate in Starbucks organizing, the branch would be able to respond with a simple “No thank you.”

Even Jimmy John’s, which is microscopic compared to Starbucks1, has a scope of business too expansive for the IWW. The target employers chosen by the IWW are probably chosen by a sense of social and moral responsibility rather than a serious estimation that the IWW can organize them: “Well, if UNITE-HERE is not going to organize Starbucks, someone has to!” This altruism is certainly well-meaning, but given the present size and state of the modern IWW, in my opinion it would be fatally irresponsible to organize workers under the union. In my opinion, workers would be much more well-off in an established union which has the interest and material ability to defend them. Our role in the labor movement as revolutionaries should not be to divide the labor movement by forming dual unions with little hope of success, but to push an uncompromising agenda of internal democratization and class struggle within these established unions.

How will the IWW reach the Starbucks workers in locations where it doesn’t have branches, or where its branches don’t want to organize them? So long as the formation of IWW branches depends on the number of convinced radicals in a given area, it will not only never reach far outside of major cities and younger demographics, but its numbers will surge and recede with the popularity of radical politics. While the IWW will probably rack up occasional victories in predictably activist- and radical-dense cities like Portland, Minneapolis, and Boston, it is not foreseeable that the union will ever gain a truly nationwide presence.

1. While Starbucks has 10,784 locations in the United States alone – and another 13,000 locations in 64 other countries – Jimmy John’s has less than 2,000 locations in just 42 states. Upon reading these figures, we can see that either the IWW’s eyes are monumentally bigger than its stomach, or that it lacks even a basic understanding of the role of industry research in union campaigns. To drive the point about professional staffers home, a union with even one professional researcher/campaign strategist would never authorize campaigns which are as disproportionate to the size of the union as these two.