Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998)

Articles from the October 1998 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Worldwide labor solidarity: the bosses worst nightmare

An article about the Pacific Maritime Association's attempt to identify those who picketed and refused to unload a ship in solidarity with locked-out Liverpool dockers. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 1998).

The Pacific Maritime Association is continuing its efforts to compel IWW member Robert Irminger to name each of the dozens of workers and supporters who picketed Yusen Terminal in the Port of Oakland, California, last Fall in solidarity with the locked-out Liverpool dockers. The bosses' association is also demanding the identity of everyone with whom FW Irminger communicated regarding the picket and detailed descriptions of those communications, and a list of all organizations with which he is associated.

"A lot of the information I don't have," Irminger notes. "Word got out through the radio and just through an informal network, and people just came down on their own initiative and joined in the picket line. So obviously I didn't know a lot of the people, but of course if I did know their identities I would not divulge them."

Irminger, who is also San Francisco Region chair of the ILWU-affiliated Inland Boatmens Union, served as picket captain during the three and a half days of picketing. After word got out that the Neptune Jade was due in port, several activists showed up early on a Sunday morning, meeting longshoremen with a picket line when they arrived to work the ship around 7:30 a.m.

"Ordinary workers see the sense of solidarity," Irminger told the IWW General Assembly, and so they refused to cross the line.

When an arbitrator rejected FW Irminger's contention that he was a representative of the Liverpool dockers, the longshoremen refused to cross the line on health and safety grounds. The arbitrator agreed, a ruling that was repeated several times over the next three days. But the arbitrator ruled that there was no longer a health and safety issue when police showed up in force to break the picket line.

The longshoremen still refused, "saying they do not cross picket lines with an armed escort, and especially with an armed police escort, citing the murder by police of six strikers in the 1934 maritime strike on the West Coast."

The Neptune Jade then fled for Canada, where longshoremen again refused to cross a picket line, and for Japan, with no more success, before being sold in Taiwan.

While Superior Court Judge Henry Needham has cleared most defendants of the PMA charges, he has allowed the suit to proceed against Irminger on the grounds that he bore particular responsibility for the action as picket captain. Irminger's only role as picket captain was to act as liaison with the arbitrator and police, and that he had no authority over the other pickets. He has already been subjected to hours of questioning by PMA attorneys who, Irminger says, seem incapable of realizing that informal structures exist and that he and others acted on their own initiative.

"The corporate world does not have a clue about solidarity," he said. "They think there has to be someone at the top giving orders."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, perhaps running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Pacific Maritime Association has been turning to the courts with increasing frequency in the past two years. Part of the shippers' strategy is to engage the ILWU in as many lawsuits as possible, forcing the union to divert funds and energy to the courts.

Dockers closed San Francisco area ports for half a day July 22 and rallied at the courthouse during an attempt by the PMA to subponea documents about the picket from the ILWU. Judge Needham ruled in the union's favor three weeks later. The bosses had threatened to sue FW Irminger and other pickets during the action, but he didn't believe them.

"They don't sue you for picketing, for god's sake," Irminger said. "But they do sue you, particularly when you're effective." Dockworkers wield enormous industrial power, he noted, and "the shipping bosses' worst nightmare is the port workers working together, coordinating their efforts."

The defense campaign has drawn wide support, "highlighting the fact that you bring out the best in people when you have a militant struggle," Irminger said.

Irminger placed the lawsuit in the broader context of a global assault against dockworkers' unions over the past 15 years. Shipping bosses are privatizing ports and smashing unions around the world. Dockers are facing massive automation, speed-up and sub-contracting of support functions in an effort to break their industrial power.

The Liverpool dispute which prompted the picketing of the Neptune Jade ended with the loss of the last organized port in England. West Coast Mexican ports were privatized a few years ago, and the military occupied them when workers struck. A similar scenario developed last year in Santos, Brazil, the largest port in South America. This year's Australian strike was another battle in this war. And dockers have come to recognize that they can rely only upon their fellow workers for support in this global class war. And workers are learning their lesson.

When workers picketed the Los Angeles docks last summer to block unloading of scab cargo they had no picket captain to be sued. And ultimately the scab-loaded cargo had to be returned to Australia.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 1998)

IWW Assembly looks to future

An account of the 1998 IWW General Assembly. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 1998)

Organizing dominated a packed agenda at the IWW's 1998 General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, over the Labor Day weekend. More than 87 members attended, making this year's the largest such meeting in many decades.

General Secretary-Treasurer Fred Chase reported that membership has more than doubled since the 1995 Assembly, and is up 34 percent from last year. Over the last year the IWW has chartered Industrial Union Branches in Sedro Woolley, Washington (construction), Toronto (public service), Portland (entertainment and public service), San Francisco (marine transport) and Winnipeg (general distribution). Fourteen new General Membership Branch charters have been issued, and several new charter applications are in the works.

The IWW now has members in 12 countries, with the largest concentrations in Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. There continues to be strong interest in the union in Latin America and Africa. This international growth offers exciting possibilities for building an IWW truly capable of taking on the bosses on a global level, but it also raises financial and organizational issues which the union will continue to grapple with over the next year.

Indeed, the strains of our rapid growth were evident throughout the Assembly. So many branches were represented that the time allotted proved insufficient to allow for reports on the abundant organizing and other activities now underway despite the firm but understanding efforts of co-chairs Missy Rohs and Tim Acott. More than two dozen proposed constitutional amendments and other resolutions also overwhelmed available discussion time, and an ad hoc committee was appointed to continue the process of reviewing and refining these proposals before they are presented to the membership for a union-wide vote.

The highlight of the two days was probably the talk by IWW and ILWU member Robert Irminger, who is facing a lawsuit in retaliation for his alleged role in organizing picketing of the Neptune Jade last year in solidarity with Mersey dockers. Irminger was singled out by the bosses because he served as picket captain during the four-day action. (See report above) He told delegates that IWW members played an critical role on the picket line, constituting half the pickets at one point. The recent organization of the San Francisco Bay Ports Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union 510 Branch is, at least in part, an outgrowth of our efforts to build solidarity for the Mersey dockers in their long struggle.

The ongoing drive at Skagit Pacific in Washington state was also reported on, as was the recent organization of IWW branches in Edmonton, Alberta, and Victoria, British Columbia. Fellow Workers from Austin, Texas, reported on their successful fight to force a local developer to pay some $28,000 in unpaid wages to 125 mostly undocumented workers there.

Members broke into smaller groups Saturday afternoon for more focussed discussions on organizing strategy, working within the business unions, constitutional revision, international structure, the Industrial Worker and other topics. Sunday morning, we broke into industrial meetings after nominations were completed. Maritime workers from San Francisco brought copies of their new newsletter to spark discussion. Many Wobs work as casuals on the Oakland docks, and the MTW is undertaking health and safety training to educate casuals on their rights.

Public Service IU 670 workers discussed organzing within the already largely unionized public sector, which has many legal restrictions including making strikes illegal and not being able to bargain over pay. 670ers also discussed the nature of working for private and publically funded non-profits, where workers are often expected to make wage concessions and other sacrifices for a "common good" which the bosses do not allow them to shape the vision of. Because of the nature of IU 670, it was generally agreed that the democratic principles of the IWW would be embraced by others in the industry, especially non-profit workers and government employees saddled with undemocratic or lazy unions. We will be developing literature to address this issue.

Education workers shared stories of efforts to organize their workplaces and discussed the prospects for iwwue-based organizing where there was little prospect of winning a job branch or job control in the near future. Education workers at the University of Memphis are launching a local newsletter as part of their efforts to organize the campus' low-paid workers. Other meetings brought together construction, restaurant and entertainment Wobs.

Spreading the word

A proposal by the Literature Committee to develop an indexed archive of material to better support organizing drives was approved, while a workshop on international issues proposed that the IWW return to our earlier system of regional administrations. The Radio Committee reported that the first episode of the "Soapboxing the Airwaves" show has been produced, and that several stations have agreed to air it. Future programs will be distributed on compact disk.

The Internet Committee reported on the dramatic growth of the union's online resources, which now includes six servers in three countries. While the network makes possible a much wider geographical distribution of IWW information, the burden of maintaining it falls fairly heavily on the shoulders of a few branches and individual members. FW Deke Nihilson noted that the small number of volunteers maintaining the network leaves the system vulnerable, and called for volunteers to take on a variety of support tasks ranging from helping members get on-line to more advanced technical support. Nihilson also noted the need for increased financial support, both to maintain the existing service and to enable the San Francisco Branch to secure more band-width to accomodate growing usage.

And the Organizing Strategies workshop discussed the different conditions facing organizers in the U.S. and Canada and the need to provide better training and support, particularly for first-time organizers. Participants agreed that the key to successful organizing was not winning Labor Board certification, but rather establishing a functioning union presence on the job. Even where the union remains a minority presence, real improvements can often be won through workplace struggles and the union can build legitimacy and broader support. A variety of strategies for sharing organizing skills were discussed, including regional tours, training sessions incorporated into regional meetings, and videotaped presentations on labor law and organizing tactics. Participants also discussed the need for more reflection on our organizing efforts, perhaps in the form of a regular section in the General Organization Bulletin.

Members attended from Austin TX, Boston, Butte MT, Cincinnati, Detroit, Edmonton, Eugene OR, Gainesville FL, Hawaii, Louisville, Memphis, Mendocino, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Monterey, Olympia WA, Philadelphia, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, The Dalles OR, and Victoria. Greetings were received from the British Isles, Baltimore, Greensboro NC, Lancaster PA, New York, Tacoma, and Washington D.C.

IWW members can look forward to a bulging referendum ballot next month, addressing issues ranging from a dues hike to changes in the provisions for membership eligibility to our international structure.

Members will also be asked to endorse the I-99 International Solidarity Conference being organized by fellow workers in the San Francisco Bay Area for June 1-5. The sponsors hope that the conference - open to all who agree that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, that the working class should take over the economy, and that workers must organize into unions to fight the capitalists - will replace factionalism with mutual aid, and explore the possibilities for coordinated international efforts against our common enemy, the employing class. Many other proposals were left on the table for further debate and discussion.

Nominations

Fred Chase and Alexis Buss accepted nomination for General Secretary-Treasurer. More than three dozen candidates were nominated to serve on next year's General Executive Board, and are currently being contacted to verify eligibility and to determine if they accept nomination. Nominees include: Joshua Freeze (Austin), Morgan Miller (Portland), John Persak (Seattle), Denny Henke (Memphis), Monica Berini (San Francisco), Kevin Brandstatter (Swindon), Mark Damron (Cincinatti), Fred Lee (Leicester), Nathan Smith (Asheville), Liam Flynn (San Francisco), Mike Garcia (Salt Lake City), Mickey Valis (Atlanta), Dennis Georg (Butte), Rick George (Eugene), Heather Harmon (Mendocino), Harry Siitonen (East Bay), Susan Marsh (San Francisco), Chris Wall (Seattle), Bob Rivera (Michigan), Mark Janowitz (San Francisco), Colin Dewey (San Francisco), Penny Pixler (Chicago), Hillary Yothers (East Bay), Jason Justice (East Bay), Malini Cadambi (East Bay), Jen Kortright (East Bay), Steve Kellerman (Boston), Pete Wilcox (Oahu), Robin Walker (East Bay), VT Lee (Florida), David Christian (Atlanta), Frank Devore (San Francisco), Eric Chester (Boston), Obo Help (San Francisco), Mike Reinsborough (Los Angeles), Bob Helms (Philadelphia), and David Collins (East Bay). Several other nominees declined on the floor.

Nominated to edit the Industrial Worker for the next two years were Jon Bekken, a Detroit, Michigan-based collective, and Brian Wiles (San Francisco).

Members will also choose between Memphis, Tenn., and Winnipeg, Manitoba, for the site of the next General Assembly.

On a personal note, it seemed clear to your editor that we will need to rethink how we handle our Assemblies, given our ongoing growth. Requiring that resolutions and proposed constitutional amendments be circulated to all branches well in advance of the Assembly could have made it possible to resolve many wording issues in advance, and perhaps to consolidate proposals addressing similar issues. Similarly, by more strongly encouraging advance registration for the Assembly, it would be possible to mail out agenda packets a couple of weeks in advance, so that delegates would arrive already familiar with the content of the reports and proposals to be considered. These modest changes might lead to more focussed discussion, and reduce the inevitable confusion resulting from trying to address proposals which many delegates are seeing only for the first time.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 1998)

Protections for pottymouths - Alexis Buss

An article by Alexis Buss on the legal protections existing for union stewards to swear at their employers. Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998)

During a contract negotiation session last month, management's lawyer saw fit to loudly say "bullshit" over and over while we addressed the issue of the boss' duty to bargain about pay rates and pay equity. We decided not to engage this lawyer in a cursing war, and instead called for a caucus. The workers were alarmed that the lawyer would disrespect our position in such a way, and asked me if it was legal to curse at us. And indeed it is. So long as they actually bargain the issue, the boss and lawyer can curse up a mighty storm all they want.

Then I brought up the advantage to us: we've got that right, too. Not only at the bargaining table, but our shop stewards, once a contract is in place, would have identical protections. All of a sudden folks were volunteering to be stewards so that they could exercise this very right.

I have heard many stories of stewards being suspended or even fired for insubordination after cursing or ranting at a boss during a grievance meeting. Arbitrators and the National Labor Relations Board will generally find in the steward's favor because it is generally understood that unless there is extreme profanity tied up in violent threats, workers have a right to get angry while trying to resolve a problem. Stewards do not have a legally protected right to threaten or insinuate violence, or carry out a violent act in a grievance meeting, but cursing is not in and of itself considered violent.

Here's a review of cases that refer to stewards' rights to let their temper loose on a boss: At makeup and perfume giant Max Factor, a steward called the boss a "twerp" and was protected in 239 NLRB 804.

Imagine the poor, thin-skinned, quivering boss who was so offended by being called a twerp that they had to wade through over probably two years of litigation to justify firing a steward for using the relatively obliging language.

But it gets better for our fellow workers who learned to defend workers' rights from listening to that George Carlin album with all the dirty words. In a case at the United States Postal Service (250 NLRB 4), a postal worker steward called the boss a "stupid ass" and was legally protected. A steward called a foreman a "fucking incompetent asshole" at United Technologies (274 NLRB 504) during a grievance meeting and was protected. At Consumers Power, a steward told a manager boss "I don't give a fuck who you call" when the manager said he was going to call to verify facts and was protected in 245 NLRB 183. And at Severance Tool Industries (301 NLRB 1166) a steward called the company president a "son of a bitch" and got to keep his job and smile at the S.O.B. for years after.

Related cases include Synadyne Corp., (228 NLRB 664), which articulates the steward's right to point their finger at their boss and shake it around. Call your boss a liar in a grievance meeting, and it's ok, too (Hawaiian Hauling 219 NLRB 765), apparently even if it's not true. Another case to do with heated exchanges is an additional one from our friends at the United States Postal Service which provides for a "cooling-off period" after a heated exchange (250 NLRB 4). The case says that workers should not be expected to be totally robot-like and have the ability to switch our emotions from high to neutral in a matter of seconds.

Again I must reiterate that the cases above are rights only for stewards in shops where the union is recognized and has a collective bargaining agreement - so non-union stiffs don't be confused! Cussin' for you ain't a right, it's a duty. And my advice would be that it's a duty better done under your breath when the boss is well out of hearing range. Non-union workers are employees-at-will, and cursing can be considered insubordination which can, among a million other things, get you legally fired and sometimes even denied your unemployment benefits.

Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998)

From the desk of the General Secretary-Treasurer

An article by then General Secretary-Treasurer of the IWW, Fred Chase, on the state of the union after the 1998 General Assembly. Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998)

Just got back from General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, to face an omigod pile of mail on my desk. It could have been worse. Fellow office workers Robin Hood and Carol Igoe beat me back to General Headquarters and took care of most of what had arrived during our absence while I took an extra day to visit one of my two darling daughters who lives just across the river from Portland.

This year's assembly was another good working vacation as most of them are. I always come away inspired by the good work Wobs are doing, warmed by renewed acquaintances with those who have been at it for years and revitalized by the new acquaintances made. With 88 Wobs registering, it was one of the largest assemblies in our 93 year history. I'm told that even when our membership was in the tens of thousands assemblies were generally small delegate affairs rather than mass gatherings. The growth in numbers and in the volume of business has many of us thinking it may soon be time to go back to the delegate system and longer assemblies. The number of regional assemblies has been growing recently. Those may be a substitute for mass General Assemblies, saving participants travel time and expense.

Overall the tone of the '98 assembly was extremely positive. Participants in disputes generally treated each other with the respect due to Fellow Workers. Observers and workers at the assembly said they were impressed with our democratic process. May it always be so.

Many of us were delighted to spend an evening at a local bar where most of the musicians and comics were Wobblies. One of the few sore spots in the weekend was that nearly a dozen of the Wobs at Assembly were too young to enter the bar. When our membership was aging rapidly a decade ago we didn't have to worry about such things. Being an organization which welcomes and unites workers from their teens on up is a nice problem to have. Apologies were extended and word will be passed on to the hosts of the next assembly that we need to have facilities which are accessible to our younger members.

Information presented at Assembly indicates it has been another good year to be a Wobbly. We've been on an upswing for several years now, with each new year surpassing the successes of the previous. Since last September we've added 13 new branches, more than half again as many as we had then. Many of them are industry based rather than General Membership Branches. We find ourselves getting back to the industrial organizing structures which didn't fit too well when we were smaller. Membership has more than doubled in the past 3 years. It promises to be more than triple what it was in January of '95 by the time this year is over. The rate of growth has been doubling from year to year.

New members in Poland and Italy are forming Regional Organizing Committees. Membership and industrial organizing are on the increase in Canada and the U.K. as well as the U.S.

The advances are due to the hard work of Wobs in the field. Expanded distribution of the Industrial Worker and heroic efforts to maintain email lists and web pages have made us visible to more and more folks who thought we had died decades ago. Wobs are making contact with new members and linking them up with other Wobs to form branches. And we're synergistic. Effective activity breeds more of the same.

I'm winding down my fourth annual term in this office. As a position appropriately structured to serve the membership rather than consolidate power for the office holder, election often falls to the first volunteer. For the first time since 1993 there will be competition for the position of GST. That's good for the union. Democracy requires choices. But I can't bring myself to think of an election as putting me in competition with or opposition to Fellow Worker Alexis Buss of Philadelphia. We've been supportive comrades to each other in too many struggles in the past few years. If she gets elected I'm confident she'll do an excellent job. If I do, I'll continue to try my best. In either case I'm optimistic that the Once-again-getting-Bigger Union will continue to prosper.

The work continues. Discussion of issues have abounded on the internet since Assembly. New organizing efforts keep coming to light. New membership applications arrive with practically every report to General Headquarters from our delegates. Seldom do I go through a day without thinking it's a good day to be a Wobbly. I fully expect that the coming year will be a good year to be a Wobbly. During that year I expect to see a lot of you on IWW picket lines. And a year from now I look forward to seeing a lot of you once again or for the first time at the next General Assembly.

-- Fred Chase, General Secretary-Treasurer

Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998)

The IWW on the job: job control

A short article about Portland IWW about job control. Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998)

WHEN THE IWW builds a presence on a job site or in a specific industry it should be a very different thing than the presence of a business union. The IWW is as completely different from the other unions as night from day, and its methods and results should be just as different. With a business union, the focus is on the contract, the NLRB decision to grant bargaining power to the union. With the IWW, the whole point of the exercise is Job Control, direct worker control over the job site, taken as far and as deep as can be done. It's a different goal that implies a very different approach.

The tactics that work best for job control don't always make great copy. A strike is news. Lots of high drama and noble resolve, a dramatic sellout and a lot of suffering and human interest. A quickie wildcat strike, however, is over before you know it, gets the job done neatly and precisely with a minimum of high drama and human suffering, and makes no real story at all in the paper. Much less a slowdown, or a threatened but never carried out wildcat action that gets best results without any publicity or embarrassment. Nothing is more subtle and less newsworthy than the gradual establishment of dual power on the job. It's a total yawner to the press, and the best thing going to the workers on the job. So, you don't read much about the real Wobbly stuff, neither in history nor in the news.

The tactics that get the job done directly aren't that dramatic. Go slow. Sit down. Work to rule. The open mouth. The usurpation, through efficiency and good sense, of the functions of management, often without the boss even noticing. To run the shop well and get the work done at a safe, reasonable pace, while gradually establishing certain practices of safety, rotation of tasks, relief from boredom and repetitive motion injury, gradual lengthening of breaks, elimination of involuntary overtime - these things aren't splashy, but they get the job done. That is, if the job to get done is establishing job control for a long term better life. It's subtle, infectious and insidious - and it's a real threat to the boss and his pals all around the world.

Organize IWW on your job today and every day, for job control, for workers' power, for a better life, and let the NLRB tend to the business unions while they tend to themselves and the bosses' best interests. Job Control is the real menace to the status quo. how well does the status quo serve you and your needs?

Work for a better life. Establish workers' job control. Join us!

-- Portland IWW

Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998)

The IWW constitution: union democracy

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles (based upon a 1990 series by Jon Bekken) offering an overview of the IWW Constitution. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998).

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles (based upon a 1990 series by Jon Bekken) offering an overview of the IWW Constitution. While the Preamble offers a concise statement of Wobbly philosophy, the Constitution spells out the structure and workings of the organization.

As we have seen, the IWW proposes to organize all workers, throughout the world, into a single organization built along industrial lines. But such an organization would be of little use to its members were it to be run by professional bureaucrats, gangsters or politicians. Thus the IWW Constitution includes a number of safeguards designed to protect the rights of all IWW members and ensure that the members continue to run the organization.

Union Democracy.

We see every day how undemocratic union structures enable union bosses to enrich themselves at the membership's expense, to impose lousy contracts and working conditions, and to terrorize anyone who stands in the way of their autocratic reign. Business unionists justify such practices by claiming they are necessary to the efficient conduct of the organization. Union leaders, they explain, are invaluable experts who deserve compensation for their special skills, and who need the latitude to pursue policies that will promote the best long-term interests of the members, whatever short-term sacrifice must be made.

The IWW membership has no patience for such pretensions, knowing full well that it is the membership upon which the organization depends for its strength. The Industrial Workers of the World exists in order to fight for democracy in our everyday life on the job. This cannot be accomplished by subjecting ourselves to dictatorship in our union.

The IWW Constitution is designed to protect against any clique running this union to suit themselves:

* No officer can be elected for longer than one year, or for more than three successive terms (unless qualified candidates cannot otherwise be found). This protects against entrenched leadership, and guarantees that all officers must regularly return to the job floor to earn their living. It also guarantees an informed rank and file, as many members will have served as officers at every level of the union. Although it is not written in the Constitution, long-standing union policy (and the state of our finances) ensures that officers are paid no more than the average pay of the workers they represent. Most officers serve with no compensation whatsoever.

* IWW officers are required to make monthly reports on their activities to the membership, including financial reports. Rank-and-file committees audit the financial records on a regular basis.

* All officers - from Branch Secretary to General Secretary-Treasurer - are elected by secret ballot on which all members they represent may vote. Any officer can be recalled by majority vote, and any 15 paid-up members can initiate a recall ballot. In addition, members are guaranteed the right to bring charges against union officers, and to appeal any decision all the way to referendum vote of the membership.

* No powers are given officers except those needed to carry out the membership's instructions. Strikes can not be called, or called off, by officers - this can be done only by the members concerned. Settlements can be negotiated only by committees of the workers involved. No IWW officer can meet with employers except in the presence of the committee, thus preventing backroom deals.

Each branch and Industrial Union has the right to choose its own delegates and officers, and to veto any organizer appointed by the General Executive Board for their jurisdiction. While the Board can visit branches and audit their accounts, it does not have the authority to impose trustees or otherwise impose its will, so long as the branch in question is conducting itself in accordance with the provisions of the IWW Constitution.

To the contrary, the membership can impose its will on the General Executive Board. The IWW Constitution provides that membership referenda and the annual General Assembly (open to any paid-up member) are the IWW's highest decision-making bodies. IWW officers are elected to implement these decisions, they cannot overturn them. Indeed, although IWW national officers and paid employees can speak during Assemblies, they are not allowed to vote.

* Any 15 paid-up members (also the General Executive Board or the Assembly) can initiate a referendum on any issue. The Constitution requires that these questions are presented to the membership for voting in a timely fashion, after proper notice so that members can discuss the issues and circulate their views throughout the union. Ballots are counted by rank-and-file members, elected by the branch(es) operating in the city where headquarters is located.

* The union's mechanism for handling union funds also protects democracy by keeping the power of the purse in the hands of the membership. The IWW rejects the "check-off" system of dues collection, where employers take union dues out of the workers' wages (just like any other tax) and hand them over to union officials. Such a system tends to discourage direct, regular contacts between union members and their elected delegates, reinforces the notion that dues are just another tax, and involves management in internal union affairs.

When union treasurers get their check from the company they rely more upon its goodwill than upon the support of the membership. After all, if management refused to issue the check, the officers would be out of a job. Without dues check-off the way dues are paid is a direct barometer of the members' satisfaction and involvement in the union (or lack thereof). Officers who don't do their job will face lagging dues payments and delinquent members.

Instead of the check-off, the IWW requires that union dues be paid directly to the delegate on the job, or the local delegate where the job is unorganized. Dues stamps are issued in exchange for all funds received. All delegates are required to report to the branch on a monthly basis and can have their accounts audited at any time.

* No mandatory assessments or dues increases can be levied except when approved by a referendum of those who have to pay them.

* Union dues and initiation are kept as low as possible. Union funds can be spent only on legitimate union expenses - they cannot be spent in behalf of politicians, for sick or death benefits, etc. The IWW has always believed that its treasury should be kept in the members' pockets. In this way we guarantee that the members can decide (though voluntary contributions) which causes they will support - and we protect against the court injunctions and fines which so often force unions to capitulate in order to save their benefit funds.

Such funds, necessary though they may be, are best kept entirely separate from union control. Instead the IWW has always insisted that workers be paid their full wages in cash, leaving them free to join mutual aid societies or to make other arrangements that are not tied to any single employer or union. This protects against injunctions and court seizures of funds, and against the common practice whereby workers lose their pension plans and other benefits when employers go bankrupt or terminate workers just before they become eligible for pensions.

* IWW members are guaranteed the right to bring charges against local or international officers, or against individual members, and to have these heard by a committee of rank-and-file members. The Constitution scrupulously guarantees the rights of charges parties to notice of the charges against them, a neutral hearing panel, and to appeal. Both charged and charging parties are guaranteed the right to appeal the outcome of any charges proceeding to the general membership.

* The IWW Constitution outlaws the sort of "amalgamated locals" which group together workers from disparate industries and localities - sometimes covering two or more entire states. It is not uncommon in other unions for workers to have to spend two or more hours travel time if they wish to attend their union "local" meetings. The IWW Constitution provides that Branch charters can be issued only when it is "feasible for their members to meet together." This prevents a small clique from avoiding membership control by creating sprawling locals so vast that few members can realistically attend meetings.

* The IWW Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality, creed, color or sexual preference. Only paid officers of trade or craft unions, politicians, managers and bosses, and those "whose employment is incompatible with the aims of this union" (such as sheriffs and union-busting consultants) can be barred from membership. Otherwise, any worker who agrees to abide by the IWW Constitution is eligible for membership.

A worker-run union

The IWW is organized on the principle that working people must control, and are capable of controlling, their own organization - and ultimately all of industry. Our procedures for realizing this goal were developed over more than 90 years of activity in diverse industries and under often difficult circumstances.

Because of our insistence on union democracy and membership control, the IWW has more than once survived the arrest and imprisonment of its entire "leadership." It is easy to incapacitate an organization that is run by one person or by a self-perpetuating Executive Board - all one need do is buy off or lock up those in charge. But an organization composed of members accustomed to making their own decisions and running their own affairs is much harder to control or to crush. Such a membership guarantees democracy, by refusing to tolerate any infringement of its rights.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1616 (October 1998)