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You fire the worker, we fire the boss – organising at the Showroom Cinema, Sheffield

You fire the worker, we fire the boss – organising at the Showroom Cinema, Sheffield

A participant's account and critical reflections on an Industrial Workers of the World organising attempt at an independent cinema in 2008.

““I started working in the cafe bar at The Showroom cinema in February 2008. To begin with I enjoyed every aspect of working there. I was hard working and well liked and had never had a problem with management. After the restructuring and the hiring of a new operations management team, it was not long before I became aware of the total lack of job security and accessing basic employee benefits ie. sick pay and holiday pay. This new structure led to many questionable working 'methods' being put into place as well as some dubious tactics used to get rid of "unwanted" employees. This included the reduction of full time staff to untenable hours, forcing them to leave their jobs to seek other employment. During a staff meeting we were referred to as "natural wastage", even though many of us worked 40 hours weeks to provide customer service for the company.

I joined IWW [the Industrial Workers of the World union] to learn more about my rights and entitlement as a worker in order to protect myself. I had also discussed with other workers the benefits of being in a union. In August I discovered that a rumour was circulating management about a union active in the work place and naming me as a union organiser. Less than a week after I had discovered this I was fired under ridiculous accusations of 'misconduct'. These included, primarily, not being able to use a till I had not been trained on and which was notoriously temperamental, turning music up and lights down in the bar. I was never advised of my rights during the meeting and the statutory disciplinary procedure was never brought against me. These measures are steps by management to undermine employees' rights and eradicate any perceived trouble from those expecting more.” - C. Lockwood

The 12th September saw the commencement of an all day picket (and virtual email and telephone blockade) against the Showroom Cinema, Sheffield. This was not only to protest the illegal dismissal of trade union activist and IWW member Chris Lockwood but also to highlight a number of dubious practices a new management team had brought in which undermined workers rights. The Showroom Cinema had a long tradition of being a relaxed and informal cultural venue for independent cinema. Its workers have always been polite and accommodating. In fact, it was always policy to hire people who were interested and able to remain informed about art, cinema and independent film making. However, restructuring efforts brought in by a new management team had attempted to undermine these values by targeting flexibility, setting sale targets and forcing staff to "up-sell" products, providing rip-off kiosk services, ignoring input from long time staff and making "cost-cutting" measures across the workplace. Here are just a few of the new "measures" the hotel manager who now runs The Showroom had taken against staff; Firing workers for being ill; Providing no written contracts for bar staff; Refusal to pay sick pay; Referral to staff as "natural wastage" in a staff/management meeting (quoted from Ian Wild, CEO of SMEC); Voiding accrued holiday, expected and promised to staff; Breaching of contract by refusing to provide certain staff with contracted hours and refusal to follow disciplinary procedures.

Chris Lockwood had been a vocal critic of many of these changes. Another anarchist and IWW member was also a long-time employee of the Showroom Cinema and had discussed with Chris the possibility of using the union to address the more serious charges against management. Chris worked in the bar and was particularly concerned with the fact that bar workers at the Showroom were never issued written contracts. This had lead to the swift dismissal of several before him but also presented day-to-day problems in terms of having no set hours to rely on each week. Following a few informal meetings, and with Chris’s agreement, a letter was sent to the Showroom management on union letterhead asking for the contract situation to be addressed. Chris was not named in this correspondence although he had been speaking to some of his colleagues about the IWW (the other IWW member worked at the kiosk and therefore had a written contract and was on more secure ground for agitating amongst the workforce). What followed was pretty standard treatment for “troublemakers” in the workplace at that time. A drop in hours to the bare minimum, several “quite words” with management and then if the worker still didn't get the message a swift dismissal. The difference this time was that instead of the problem quietly “going away” Chris Lockwood had his fellow workers and an international union standing behind him.

Unwittingly on the part of management, firing Chris Lockwood proved to swell support for the union. The general anger at the unfair way he had been treated swelled IWW membership to over half of the Showroom workforce. IWW members, or "Wobblies" as they are affectionately known, also travelled from across the country to support his cause.

The email and phone blockade proved so successful that the company had to change its email addresses several times and finally threw in the towel and shut down its communication systems for the day. Messages of support and solidarity flooded in from across the UK, Europe and even as far away as Haiti! A group of college students who had been on a school trip spontaneously joined the picket, gripping placards and yelling slogans into the megaphone. An impromptu occupation of the bar area was even staged (who were we to temper their enthusiasm!). Local people were very supportive of the cause, showroom customers, despite often having travelled across town to see a film decided they'd rather find entertainment elsewhere than cross the picket line. IWW fellow workers (FWs) on shifts who were unable to join the picket lines wore their union badges in solidarity and even treated the picketers to a few on-the-sly rounds of hot drinks. Throughout the evening nervous glances were observed from the management team who, according to a conversation overheard earlier in the week, were expecting “a couple people at most”. The spectacle degenerated into pure farce when in order to try and drown out the sound of noisy picketers customers in the bar were treated to perhaps the loudest classical piano recital we had ever heard. Despite their efforts we prevailed and according to a worker on the front-of-house we could be heard loud and clear throughout the building. It had been a noisy, anxious and utterly exhausting today but what we had demonstrated was the sincerity of our commitment that an injury to one really is an injury to all and giving management a well deserved boot up the arse!!

What happened in the following months was a concerted campaign by management to downplay, misinform and undermine every aspect of our union organising. Whether they wanted to admit it or not, the picket and following boycott of the Showroom Cinema had been really bad publicity for the company. We had even managed to get a sympathetic piece in the local newspaper – The Sheffield Star – about Chris’s case. The Showroom tries to promote the idea of being a fairly liberal, right-on place to work and the idea of workers' struggles simply didn't fit with this image. The company even has an “investor in people” award which requires it to act in a socially responsible manner towards the community (and this includes its workforce).

So first off the management decided to try and bring in a “sweetheart” union in an effort to “solve” the problem. They arranged a meeting for the management team and the workforce with some bureaucratic hack from the TUC. Despite every best effort to contact this rep, he managed to remain elusive until the day of the meeting when his intentions became clear. He did his level best to insult and de-legitimise our efforts claiming that the IWW “was not able to represent workers”, that we wished to “annihilate” managers (managers like himself incidentally), that we were equivalent to Solidarity – the BNP's “union” and that we were all trotskyist/nihilist/stalinist looney lefties. Of course this didn't really help his case given that the majority of FW's in the Showroom Cinema are in fact far from trotskyist/nihilist/stalinist looney lefties, just working class people who are sick of being shit on by management. For the majority of them this was their first experience of workplace activism and with the exception of the initial IWW member none had any political affiliation.

Management, of course, was very enthusiastic about BECTU (The media and entertainment union) having a presence in the Showroom with many of the management team even pledging to join. We, on the other hand, insured that the meeting with the TUC rep was packed out with those sympathetic to our cause and gave the guy a really tough time, making it absolutely clear that this was our struggle and we would not tolerate being undermined by another union. The end result was an abject failure for management. Far from demonstrating our inadequacies, the meeting showed our growing strength and now with workers openly pronouncing their support for the IWW and their grievances with the restructuring programme the bosses were forced to concede the unfair treatment of Chris Lockwood and the bad publicity it had generated. This was of course not the end of management shenanigans. The following months saw the targeting of the more militant and vocal fellow workers. An IWW member was “suspended” under flimsy pretexts for two weeks (the managers refused to concede he was suspended just “sent home” indefinitely). However, after lodging a grievance and a meeting with an IWW representative the bosses had to apologise for their behaviour towards him and allowed him to return. Next we were granted a bit of good fortune. The Investors in People were, coincidentally, in the months following the picket doing a survey of the Showroom Cinema in order to renew the award. As part of this process they randomly select a couple of workers to describe their experiences of working there. They, again in a stroke of sheer luck, selected a fellow worker who was able to describe in great detail the bad practice that had been going on in the company and the recent picket against the illegal dismissal. The result was IIP coming down really hard on the management team and threatening to withdraw the award. Following the interview the guy even went so far as threatening to rip the IIP plaque off the wall himself! A few days later, and as a direct result of these meetings, the operations manager, one of the worse culprits in undermining workers rights and bullying people in the workplace, was fired. Good riddance!

This is of course was not the end of the struggle. While there is a real sense that the tide is turning in our way there is still a lot of work to be done and we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. The Senior Manager is still very much calling the shots and we have recently discovered that the board of directors are starting to push him against recognising our union. Small victories have been won - the attitude of management towards workers is markedly improved, all workers now have written contracts and, most importantly, someone to turn to when the boss starts to put on the pressure – but many of the original changes workers objected to remain. The work is still fundamentally casual in nature with very little control of the day-to-day operation of the company. So our recognition battle continues and we struggle on, but we are in good spirits and confident that we can really make a difference.

A special thanks to Rob, Pete, Euan and all those who offered their skills, support and solidarity for our efforts.

Organising at the Showroom Cinema - critical reflections

The article above was originally written for the IWW magazine Bread and Roses following the peak of the struggle at the Showroom Cinema. Shortly after the union decided to discontinue the magazine, so the piece went unpublished (the brand was revived as an agitational newspaper later but nothing that could incorporate a piece of writing of this length). It is now over a year since the campaign around Chris’ dismissal started, a number of the key organisers have now left the Showroom Cinema, have left the IWW and, unfortunately, little remains of an organisational presence in that workplace. We have little doubt that our activity did and continues to make a real difference to those who continue and have now joined that work force; we also acknowledge with regret that our more ambitious plans went largely unfulfilled. I take this opportunity to reflect on this struggle not in an attempt to speak for the IWW or the Showroom workers, but my personal perspective as a working class activist and, what was for me as well as many others, our first involvement in any kind of sustained workplace struggle.

One Big Union: Advantages and Limitations of the IWW model in the Showroom dispute
I am an anarchist-communist, as was the other Showroom worker identified in the piece above. While we were both critical of the revolutionary capacity of any union (even one that called for the abolition of wage labour), we also saw in the IWW a potentially very useful tool in workplace struggle. The grievances in the Showroom cinema particularly lent themselves to casework and we knew that the IWW already has a wealth of experience, and some victories, in this capacity. We had very little experience of the legalities and tactics of workplace negotiations and were thankful for the pool of experience and resources the IWW provided. The workers we intended to organise in the Showroom had never been in a trade union before nor had any experience of political activity. Chris occasionally checked the activist news site Indymedia and another worker of French descent had encountered campaigns against casualisation back home (incidentally she left the Showroom shortly before the Chris Lockwood dispute, moved back to France and joined the CNT-F) but that was about it. While unionisation was by no means a natural step, many felt that even discussing such a move was needless “trouble-making”, I also feel it gave us a certain credibility that we were able to rely upon in our agitation. Of course, this also had its limitations. To represent the IWW is to put all your cards on the table, so-to-speak. It was pretty clear from the preamble the IWW was an anti-capitalist organisation and that signing up to this was to do more than just join a more democratic or militant union. This was not an issue for many in the Showroom (we were generally very successful at recruiting, holding over 50% of the workforce for at least two to three months) but did present a bar to membership for some. I do wonder whether simply a militant group of workers organised around common grievances could have been more successful. Whether that anti-capitalist consciousness could have been cultivated better in struggle as opposed to expecting workers to sign up to a revolutionary programme off the bat with only a few grievances with management to date. Of course our lack of experience barred us from this course of action at the time.

In terms of the actual struggle again the IWW provided both benefits and drawbacks. The national/international structure enabled mass co-ordination on a scale that would have not been possible within a localised group of workers. Wobblies, anarchists and others sympathetic to our cause did travel across the country to help us (we even had the obligatory Trotskyist newspaper seller on our picket line, a very strange situation indeed). Without their support, particularly those named at the end of the article, I do not think we would have made any gains. The legal status of the IWW, particularly our attempt to negotiate British trade union legislation was, however, a different story. Although the IWW is a listed union in the British Isles, it is not independently certified (certificates of independence are used to ensure that trade unions are independent from employers). This means that while it was possible to enter a grievance procedure with an IWW rep and lodge for unfair dismissal on the basis of IWW membership, the IWW could not enter collective bargaining agreements nor legally engage in strike action without voluntary recognition by management. Anything other than this would have been completely legally untested or would have meant engaging in unofficial action (a step even the most militant workers weren’t prepared to take). Management, of course, did not wish to recognise the IWW preferring the TUC-registered, and obviously management friendly, BECTU instead. At the time our goal was recognition (something that was perhaps ill-advised but I’ll discuss this more later) in the hope that we would be able to formally negotiate pay, minimum contracted hours and the discrepancies between the different parts of the workplace. The Showroom was an independent cinema and therefore a single bargaining unit so it was theoretically possible to hold the 50%+ membership to help us force recognition. However, in order to do this we needed a certificate of independence and getting this was a long and costly process with wider implications for the national union structure (the union accounts needed to be officially audited, for example). Many within the union put an admirable effort into pushing this forward done by raising money, consulting with lawyers etc. This was, however, a horribly bureaucratic and lengthy process that required a great deal of time and effort. This eventually put a permanent stall on our organising. It was felt at the time (perhaps wrongly) that we couldn’t go any further without recognition and this caused us to rest on our laurels. Some within the IWW felt that the Showroom organising had been too hasty in the first place, that we could risk getting the union sued and that we should scale back our efforts. A contradiction that I believe naturally follows from organising within the “one big union” that really isn’t. We managed to hold on for a while but as the months dragged on (the IWW is still not certified independently as of April 2010) membership declined and many involved started to drift away or get other jobs. Eventually holding a presence within the workplace simply became untenable.

Reflections on organising casual labour
With the exception of a few projectionists and low-level supervisors everyone employed in the Showroom cinema was on part-time or temporary contracts (or no contract at all). This, coupled with the already hostile approach of management to organised labour, meant organising was incredibly difficult. Management would frequently dismiss workers for even the hint of trouble or drop their hours (sometime to as low as one shift in a fortnight) until they would be forced to leave. There was also a regular turnover of the workforce. This made developing trust and channels of communication very difficult. One key organiser in particular would spend virtually all his time at work recruiting trying to maintain our organisational presence. This was obviously very stressful and this with the looming threat of dismissal in a job with already very low wages would often prove too much to sustain. Many workers had joined the Showroom with an eye to getting better work or as students subsidising their studies, sometimes it was better just to keep your head down and just try and tolerate the crap that management was pulling. Being a cinema, and as is standard for service sector jobs, workers would also be scheduled for shifts all times of the day, all week. This made the idea of a formal, union meeting at a regular time and place pretty impossible. This again was perceived as another potential advantage of union recognition, that we would be able to call regular meetings on company time. Discussions had to be held impromptu, during shift changes and fag breaks and always behind the backs of management. Carrying through the formal union procedures of taking and reporting dues payments was increasingly difficult. Of course, this didn’t matter much to us at the time. We were overwhelmed on the day of the Chris Lockwood picket that so many workers were proudly wearing an IWW badge while on their shifts. It just became a problem later on when the legalities of recognition began to sink in. Chris, although carrying through the grievance with Showroom management, soon went on to another, higher-paid job. We could have got him his job back, management was even verging on offering it back to him during the height of the struggle, but after all that he had been put through he just didn’t want it. And who can blame him? He was a marked man by that point, who would want to go through all that hassle again just for a part-time, minimum wage job?

Formal vs. Informal praxis
As I have already mentioned, after the swell in membership that followed Chris’s dismissal union recognition was a central goal. At the time we felt that this would have been a massive step forwards for the IWW in the UK, that it would have provided clear advantages and greater potential for winning more gains from management locally and helped to solidify a radical presence in the cinema. Perhaps we were naive, perhaps we were too foolhardy as some of our FWs had suggested at the time. Looking back now, with a good deal of distance between myself and the struggle, I feel that it would be wrong to perceive the Showroom dispute as a failed recognition battle. The real gains that we made in terms of changes in conditions to the workforce, securing peoples jobs and getting contracts for bar workers were largely initiated outside of the recognition struggle and by much more informal action. It was never really possible to formally establish the IWW in the Showroom in an equivalent way to the way a TUC union, for example, would operate. It would be more appropriate to describe the activity as largely initiated by a circle of militant workers sympathetic to the IWW approach. I don’t think we were able to hold even one meeting with the entire membership in one room. Rather, information and advice was passed in-between shifts, on the job or in conversations after work. We never had a collectively agreed strategy or approach as a group within the workplace. Rather there was a core of militants at the centre of the struggle who were continuously agitating and pushing for bolder, more militant action. This was in addition to the two of us who already identified as anarchists.

Sometimes we were just aided by good fortune. The interview with the Investors in People, for example, just happened to be with one of the more militant workers. This seemingly quite small incident ended in a big gain for us with the dismissal of the manager who had spear-headed much of the restructuring and had been the worst culprit for bullying workers (he was also the manager responsible for Chris’s dismissal). Union membership was important at points. It clearly put management on the back-foot, the advice and representation provided by the union was decisive at points and it proved to be a powerful tool in resisting the attempts to bring in a “sweetheart” union. I’m unsure whether all of these activities could have been replicated with a non-union group. However, to talk of an IWW “branch” waging a collective struggle would clearly be disingenuous. We were also supported throughout the struggle by members of the Anarchist Federation, both inside and outside the IWW, and via news and networking sites such as Sheffield Indymedia, Revleft and Libcom. In this respect being a revolutionary connected to international networks of revolutionaries played as much a role, in terms of publicising and attracting solidarity to the struggle, as being an IWW member. Even the local animal rights group, who two of us knew through previous political activism, came down to support the picket in numbers.

Compared to many of the great labour disputes that have been waged in Sheffield’s history the activity which occurred at the Showroom cinema really does pale in comparison. It was relatively short and we, unfortunately, have only some small gains to show from it. It was, however, and still does feel important to us. Many of the conditions that persisted at the Showroom are faced by millions of workers in the UK every day. They, like those in the cinema, are unlikely to have any prior political involvement or experience of collective struggle and will expect to face a hostile and aggressive management reaction to any form of workplace organisation. I am reluctant to draw any definitive conclusions as I do not feel it is my place nor do I feel it is my capacity to do so. I feel we did make mistakes; we also got a lot of things right. I outline my thoughts in the spirit of constructive dialogue and the hope that we can build a stronger, more effective way of intervening in working class struggles.
The author of this article is no longer a member of the IWW. The views should be considered his alone and not those of the union.

Posted By

Steven.
Apr 6 2010 13:40

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  • In terms of the actual struggle the IWW provided both benefits and drawbacks. The national/international structure enabled co-ordination on a scale that would have not been possible with a local group of workers. Wobblies, anarchists and others travelled across the country to help us.

    A former Showroom Wobbly

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Comments

Steven.
Apr 6 2010 14:05

This is an interesting article, and thanks to the author for sending it to me to post up.

I had a few thoughts and questions on it.

Firstly, it did remind me of this article, with accounts of IWW organising in the US in the 1970s:
http://libcom.org/history/iww-organising-1970s

as its shares the problems of organising in small workplaces.

I think this article illustrates the problems with the union form as being something which workers can use in their own interests.

The legal knots in which a you have to tie yourself take an extremely long time, by which time most of any organisers will have been fired or quit.

Secondly, even if the union did achieve recognition, it would not be able to gain any concrete improvements unless workers were prepared to take some form of action. Then if they did this in an official capacity the employer could take the union to court - and a tiny union like the IWW might be bankrupted by even having to defend the case.

Seeing as the workers involved did not seem to have an issue with the union form as such, as they wanted to form a branch of the IWW, I'm curious as to why they shunned Bectu.

The article states that being in a union gave the workers access to advice and resources of information on their rights etc - but these resources would have been bigger in a union like Bectu. Furthermore joining an existing union like Bectu, or a general union like unite would have meant there wouldn't have been so many worries about their legal status. So I'm wondering why the workers did not just organise a branch of an official union, if that is what they wanted?

(Just to clarify I'm not saying this is what they should have done or what I would have supported doing, because this is not the case, but then I would not have tried to form a branch of the IWW either)

Joseph Kay
Apr 6 2010 14:55

yes, very interesting article. experiences of organising in service sector/non-union workplaces are few and far between and documenting them is important so that others can learn from them.

Steven. wrote:
I think this article illustrates the problems with the union form as being something which workers can use in their own interests.

The legal knots in which a you have to tie yourself take an extremely long time, by which time most of any organisers will have been fired or quit.

this is of course true, but there's two different models of unionism. one's as described here, which is essentially the same as the TUC unions only more democratic - recruit as many workers as possible and then demand the right to represent those workers vis-a-vis management. this seems to be the approach of the UK IWW - distinguished from the TUC by being "grassroots", "democratic" and industrial.

the other, which i understand is popular with some IWWs in the States and is the kind of thing SolFed advocate is where those revolutionaries in the workplace (or militant workers in contact with them) look to organise mass meetings, or at least talk to as many workers as possible, come up with a winnable grievance that effects everybody and agree a course of direct action to enforce the demand. this doesn't need to be an unofficial strike if people aren't up for it, there's all sorts of action short of a strike which can be employed at lower risks to the workers involved.

this approach doesn't require representation, recognition, or recruiting people who don't agree with your principles (despite what the article says, i don't see how you can agree with the very first line of the preamble and simultaneously want recognition from the bosses). plus you still get the benefits of being linked to a national and international organisation able to mobilise support, offer training and advice etc (very different from the 'advice' of TUC unions, since it advocates direct action, rank-and-file control, draws on experiences of workers organising this way elsewhere etc).

i want to read the article again before commenting in more detail, but thanks again for writing it up.

RedAndBlack
Apr 27 2010 14:38
Quote:
Seeing as the workers involved did not seem to have an issue with the union form as such, as they wanted to form a branch of the IWW, I'm curious as to why they shunned Bectu.

The article states that being in a union gave the workers access to advice and resources of information on their rights etc - but these resources would have been bigger in a union like Bectu. Furthermore joining an existing union like Bectu, or a general union like unite would have meant there wouldn't have been so many worries about their legal status. So I'm wondering why the workers did not just organise a branch of an official union, if that is what they wanted?

I guess a lot of it relates to the situation. Those who were organisers were largely involved in the anarchist movements/networks throughout the Uk and, therefore, had strong links with the IWW. TUC unions like BECTU seemed very remote and I guess we couldn't guarantee that their organisers would share our approach to workplace struggle - preference for grassroots action, militancy etc. BECTU had also already been promoted by the bosses before the struggle so we were very suspicious of their ties with management. I guess the point wasn't that the workers wanted to organise an official branch of a trade union, they wanted to organise a branch of our trade union. Does that make sense?

I also think there is a point here relating to how workers who have very little experience of the trade union movement relate to mainstream trade unions (and how approachable they are).

Steven.
Apr 27 2010 16:08

I understand that the workers wanted to organise an IWW branch. I just don't really understand why.

In terms of the Bectu organisers, if you got a recognition agreement there wouldn't be anything else you would need to do with the organisers - the elected reps of the workers would be the ones negotiating with management.

In terms of sharing the IWW approach to grassroots action and militancy, Bectu have had thousands of times more strike action and industrial action than the IWW in this country.

Maybe you guys didn't find them approachable, that's fair enough.

Taking industrial action through an official union can be difficult, and union full-time officials can make it very tricky. But in relation to this dispute, you said that the workers didn't have the mood for strike action anyway. More importantly, union full-time officials don't act like this because they are bad people necessarily, but because there are huge legal barriers to taking industrial action. If the IWW got a recognition agreement the problem would be exactly the same. In fact, in all likelihood it would be worse - if the employer threatened to take out an injunction against proposed industrial action, but least Bectu could afford to fight it in court, whereas the IWW probably wouldn't be able to afford it.

It seems like there is some naivete around these sorts of practicalities in the UK IWW.

john
Jun 1 2010 17:00
the article wrote:
the IWW could not ... legally engage in strike action without voluntary recognition by management.

This isn't actually true - any union members can strike with immunities, provided they've been through the proper process as set out by the legislation

steven. wrote:
Furthermore joining an existing union like Bectu, or a general union like unite would have meant there wouldn't have been so many worries about their legal status.

this misses the point - which is that the aim with grassroots organizing is to try to avoid getting co-opted by the union bureaucracy - as we saw with the UBS campaign, it was actually Unite that opposed the action, leading to a switch to the IWW - link here

Quote:
if the employer threatened to take out an injunction against proposed industrial action, but least Bectu could afford to fight it in court, whereas the IWW probably wouldn't be able to afford it.

It seems like there is some naivete around these sorts of practicalities in the UK IWW.

again, this misses the point - of course the IWW faces these kinds of problems, and is aware of them - but so would workers who weren't in a union - and workers within Unite or something like it would face different problems in that either their members or the union bureaucrats would be action-averse.

Any form of industrial militancy faces these kinds of problems - even strikes organised by open meetings would face these problems. The question is how to circumvent those problems, not just to point them out at the first sign of any form of class struggle.

Chilli Sauce
Jun 1 2010 23:32
Quote:
Taking industrial action through an official union can be difficult, and union full-time officials can make it very tricky. [...] More importantly, union full-time officials don't act like this because they are bad people necessarily, but because there are huge legal barriers to taking industrial action. If the IWW got a recognition agreement the problem would be exactly the same. In fact, in all likelihood it would be worse - if the employer threatened to take out an injunction against proposed industrial action, but least Bectu could afford to fight it in court, whereas the IWW probably wouldn't be able to afford it.

It seems like there is some naivete around these sorts of practicalities in the UK IWW.

Steven, While I agree with your last sentence here, in my experience the thinking the IWW on these subjects is of a bit different vein than your post implies:

Wobs believe that the reason the TUC unions act as they do is because of their collaborationist outlook and lack of internal democracy; that it's the 'social compact' dynamic that leads to them repressing strike action and that the openly socialist leadership of the IWW would encourage class struggle. Further, if the IWW does represent workers who want to strike unlawfully, the leadership will employ the "wink and nod" technique to tacitly encourage strike action.

There is some truth to this. The leadership of the TUC unions do prevent strike action all the time (And not just because of legal roadblocks--I'm mean, hell, we're both in UNISON!). And there have been examples of, to quote a Wob, "tactical repudiation" within the TUC.

Of course, the IWW, in my opinion, misunderstands the danger of any entity (self-proclaimed as radical or not) mediating struggle and underestimates the pressure exerted on any representative organization by labor law. Ultimately Steven, I'm with you, but I do think we need to adequately understand the thinking of Wobblies if we're going to adequately address the IWW's organizational flaws.

Chilli Sauce
Jun 4 2010 13:26

I just had a re-read of this and I think it's a really worthwhile piece.

Quote:
I do wonder whether simply a militant group of workers organised around common grievances could have been more successful. Whether that anti-capitalist consciousness could have been cultivated better in struggle as opposed to expecting workers to sign up to a revolutionary programme off the bat with only a few grievances with management to date.

Yup, I think that just about sums it up. In the States there is (as JK mentions) a tendency in the IWW that argues for this. While the leadership of BIROC claims they're not opposed to this approach, the dominant approach is to pursue a legalistic approach with the aim of becoming a militant, democratic trade union. I don't think WobForum is very active anymore (and in any case I'm not active on it), but I'd be curious to see what sort of feedback this article would get.

Quote:
It was felt at the time (perhaps wrongly) that we couldn’t go any further without recognition and this caused us to rest on our laurels. Some within the IWW felt that the Showroom organising had been too hasty in the first place, that we could risk getting the union sued and that we should scale back our efforts.

Not having been in Britain at the time, I'd be curious who he's talking about. The second bit about getting sued demonstrates the danger in being a representative labor organization and how legal threats--even at this very early stage of small-scale organizes--put pressure on even "radical" unions to play by the rules of labor law.

Anyone know what sort of stuff the author is involved in presently?

Steven.
Jun 4 2010 18:23

ncwob, the author is an active member of the Anarchist Federation.

Now, on other people's points:

Quote:
steven. wrote:
Furthermore joining an existing union like Bectu, or a general union like unite would have meant there wouldn't have been so many worries about their legal status.

this misses the point - which is that the aim with grassroots organizing is to try to avoid getting co-opted by the union bureaucracy - as we saw with the UBS campaign, it was actually Unite that opposed the action, leading to a switch to the IWW - link here

I'm aware that the aim of the IWW organising (which does not encompass all grassroots organising by the way) is to bypass union bureaucracy. However my point is that the bureaucratisation of all the unions is an unavoidable result of the position of the unions within capitalist society.

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if the employer threatened to take out an injunction against proposed industrial action, but least Bectu could afford to fight it in court, whereas the IWW probably wouldn't be able to afford it.

It seems like there is some naivete around these sorts of practicalities in the UK IWW.

again, this misses the point - of course the IWW faces these kinds of problems, and is aware of them - but so would workers who weren't in a union - and workers within Unite or something like it would face different problems in that either their members or the union bureaucrats would be action-averse.

Any form of industrial militancy faces these kinds of problems - even strikes organised by open meetings would face these problems. The question is how to circumvent those problems, not just to point them out at the first sign of any form of class struggle.

workers who weren't in the union would not have to worry about their unions assets being sequestered if they took unofficial action. And yes, the question is how to circumvent these problems - but my point is that forming an IWW branch will not circumvent them - it will have the problems the same as a traditional union, except with the additional problem of not having the legal/financial clout to combat them.

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Taking industrial action through an official union can be difficult, and union full-time officials can make it very tricky. [...] More importantly, union full-time officials don't act like this because they are bad people necessarily, but because there are huge legal barriers to taking industrial action. If the IWW got a recognition agreement the problem would be exactly the same. In fact, in all likelihood it would be worse - if the employer threatened to take out an injunction against proposed industrial action, but least Bectu could afford to fight it in court, whereas the IWW probably wouldn't be able to afford it.

It seems like there is some naivete around these sorts of practicalities in the UK IWW.

Steven, While I agree with your last sentence here, in my experience the thinking the IWW on these subjects is of a bit different vein than your post implies:

Wobs believe that the reason the TUC unions act as they do is because of their collaborationist outlook and lack of internal democracy; that it's the 'social compact' dynamic that leads to them repressing strike action and that the openly socialist leadership of the IWW would encourage class struggle. Further, if the IWW does represent workers who want to strike unlawfully, the leadership will employ the "wink and nod" technique to tacitly encourage strike action.

There is some truth to this. The leadership of the TUC unions do prevent strike action all the time (And not just because of legal roadblocks--I'm mean, hell, we're both in UNISON!). And there have been examples of, to quote a Wob, "tactical repudiation" within the TUC.

Of course, the IWW, in my opinion, misunderstands the danger of any entity (self-proclaimed as radical or not) mediating struggle and underestimates the pressure exerted on any representative organization by labor law. Ultimately Steven, I'm with you, but I do think we need to adequately understand the thinking of Wobblies if we're going to adequately address the IWW's organizational flaws.

I think you are misinterpreting my understanding of wobblies' thinking. I am aware that most of them believe TUC unions act as they do because of "their collaborationist outlook and lack of internal democracy". This is also what Leninists and Trotskyists believe. However, I think this is wrong - they act as they do, like I said before, because of their role and legal existence in capitalist society. Unions have to compel their membership to obey the anti-strike laws. This means making their membership abide by anti-working class procedures such as formal, secret ballots, giving extensive notice to the employer for industrial action, etc. If they did not do this they would have their assets sequestered and they would be shut down. Consequently, they cannot allow much internal democracy, because if they did that would soon end the union. Democracy is not the issue here.

And as for the thought that the "openly socialist leadership of the IWW would encourage class struggle", which is echoed by the poster above's statement about "action-averse" bureaucrats, the logical conclusion which would stem from these ideas is that if this were the case then why not just elect good socialists into the leadership positions within the mainstream unions? But of course the futility of this can be seen in pretty much every major union in history, where the revolutionaries who get elected into leadership positions then act in the same way as the bureaucrats they replaced - because they are forced to buy the structure in which they exist. A recent example would be the SWP member in the CWU national executive who voted to call off the national strikes.

Regarding "tactical repudiation", while the IWW could try this - but an employer could still sue them, and the costs associated with defending this claim would probably bankrupt the union (or leave it devoting all its energies to fundraising to pay lawyer fees). And if the IWW would still have to officially repudiate action - then what is the need of the IWW as a legal union? I.e. why not just join one of the mainstream unions (or don't bother), and if the mood is therefore unofficial action just take it anyway?

Chilli Sauce
Jun 4 2010 22:16
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I am aware that most of them believe TUC unions act as they do because of "their collaborationist outlook and lack of internal democracy". This is also what Leninists and Trotskyists believe

Is it? Don't they believe the unions could worthwhile class organizations, if only Commies captured leadership positions? The IWW, to their credit, does have a critique of the union bureaucracy--as union bureaucracy--within the TUC. (How effectively they apply this critique to their own organization however....)

re: tactical repudiation

The argument is that as opposed to tactical repudiation being exception to the rule, it would be a conscious tactic. It's hoped further that if the IWW builds up enough muscle, it can challenge these laws head on. And the reason one doesn't do this through a TUC union is that this would entail battling the bureaucracy and the social partnership mentality. With the IWW, you start with agreed upon principles that--in theory--should lead this eventuality anyway.

And, like I tried to make clear, I'm not defending the IWW's position or their justification for it. In fact, I fully agree with you on both these points:

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However my point is that the bureaucratisation of all the unions is an unavoidable result of the position of the unions within capitalist society.

They cannot allow much internal democracy, because if they did that would soon end the union.

It's just that there's a belief in the IWW that their principles would somehow prevent this. And to be honest I think pieces like this (and especially the bits like the ones I quoted in my last post) make the argument for us. They demonstrate that even in the early stages of a organizing drive that if the IWW wants to be a trade union, it's going to be forced into acting like a trade union--regardless of the preamble.

Steven.
Jun 4 2010 23:48

Okay, thanks for that post I think I understand where you're coming from better now.

Just a couple of quick things:

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I am aware that most of them believe TUC unions act as they do because of "their collaborationist outlook and lack of internal democracy". This is also what Leninists and Trotskyists believe

Is it? Don't they believe the unions could worthwhile class organizations, if only Commies captured leadership positions? The IWW, to their credit, does have a critique of the union bureaucracy--as union bureaucracy--within the TUC.

my point was that the logical extension of the position that the problem with unions is not with their nature but with their ideological stance and lack of internal democracy is that the solution to these problems is to change their structure by reforming it, and change the ideology by passing resolutions within it and electing different leadership. This is the position Leninist and Trotskyists take, which is a more logically consistent position.

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re: tactical repudiation

The argument is that as opposed to tactical repudiation being exception to the rule, it would be a conscious tactic. It's hoped further that if the IWW builds up enough muscle, it can challenge these laws head on. And the reason one doesn't do this through a TUC union is that this would entail battling the bureaucracy and the social partnership mentality. With the IWW, you start with agreed upon principles that--in theory--should lead this eventuality anyway.

but of course here the only issue with taking unofficial action is not anything to do with the bureaucracy or ideology, or even a law - it is the confidence and power of the workers. A large number of workers have broken the anti-strike laws, in defiance of the government and their national unions, for example the postal workers, oil refinery strikers, Shell drivers, etc last year - but these have been pretty much all by members of the mainstream unions. So the IWW is quite superfluous.

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And, like I tried to make clear, I'm not defending the IWW's position or their justification for it. In fact, I fully agree with you on both these points:
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However my point is that the bureaucratisation of all the unions is an unavoidable result of the position of the unions within capitalist society.

They cannot allow much internal democracy, because if they did that would soon end the union.

It's just that there's a belief in the IWW that their principles would somehow prevent this. And to be honest I think pieces like this (and especially the bits like the ones I quoted in my last post) make the argument for us. They demonstrate that even in the early stages of a organizing drive that if the IWW wants to be a trade union, it's going to be forced into acting like a trade union--regardless of the preamble.

yes, exactly.

Nate
Jun 6 2010 15:43

Yeah Joseph what you're describing - picking winnable fights etc - is the dominant approach in the US IWW and is what our training program is centered around. And what you say about the benefits of a larger (though admittedly still small) organization seems spot on to me. I think it'd be good to try to find a way to get some SolFedders and US IWW folk exchanging notes on this stuff, since it's still hard stuff with a relatively high failure rate.

Two other things, only partly on topic - I have very mixed feelings about this, but in the US in the service industry I think our track record is competitive with mainstream unions. In Starbucks there have been places that get or try for recognition through other unions and they tend to fold and go through stuff as described in this article. In our Starbucks organizing, which is also hard and has definitely taken hits and so on, we've been able to reverse firings and get raises from 75 cents up to two dollars an hour, which is competitive with what people can get under contracts. (I have mixed feelings about this sort of appeal to bread and butter stuff.) I should add, the normal route to recognition and contract rarely succeeds which is why the US mainstream labor movement pushed hard (and lost) recently for labor law reform in the Employee Free Choice Act. I used to know figures on these win rates but don't remember them anymore, they're probably out of date by now anyway.

The other thing I want to say, I don't want to criticize when I don't really know the facts, but I found it frustrating to read this in that it seemed to me that the A-Fed comrades were basically like "it got really hard, eventually it got too hard, so we left, I mean, it took like a whole year!" I understand that this stuff sucks and sometimes you really have to pack it in and move on with your life, but at the same time it's like, what do people think revolutionary change will be like? And well short of that - if things had gone the other route, without recognition etc, it also can get very long and drawn out and difficult too. For all the many flaws of recognition campaigns it's not like nonrecognition campaigns never deal with similar difficulties. To hear members of a revolutionary group be like "we got worn out so we quit" is a bit disappointing. To be fair, I think this implies a very fair criticism of the UK IWW, that it's vitally important to have support and mentorship structures in place for organizers particularly newer ones, to prevent or minimize situations like this where people throw in the towel because they get exhausted or hopeless. Maybe that does exist in the UK, I dunno, in the US it only partly exists, a 3 or 5 years ago we set up some formal bodies that are tasked with some of this but they're not fully developed yet, so a lot of this support work happens informally - and sometimes it falls through the cracks, with the predictable result that we lose people in the way this article describes.

On that, people leaving, lack of support, etc, there are probably a lot of factors here that I don't know about, but again reading the article and just going from what it sounded like to me without any other information it was frustrating that the anarchists left the IWW after this. Obviously people have differences with some of the strategic emphasis in the UK IWW but it seems to me, at least in my experience in the US, that experiences like this one can generate excitement and relationships that radicals can use to start to pull people in a better direction. And there are skills that come out of this that could be spread around among other memebrs, and perhaps skills that could be acquired by sticking it out (the article basically says "we didn't have the experience or knowhow initially, the IWW provided a lot of that, if we had had those we might have been able to build an independent workplace group" and I think there's an implication that those skills are unevenly distributed among IWW members, in that case why not try to stay in longer in order to acquire those skills, and try to change the distribution of those skills? What I mean is, as the article reads, and from similar situations I know of in the US, this sounds to me like a missed opportunity and had the comrades stayed in maybe they'd have been able to pull some people in the UK IWW in another direction. Again I could be way off base here because I don't have all the facts but from what I've seen in the US I think that some of the criticisms of unions voiced here, while correct, can be expressed or thought in ways that are in the short term not positive - people can be right in the wrong way, and miss opportunities that come up within flawed situations to make improvements. Then again maybe the comrades moved on to much greater projects and so this is for the best, none of this is clear from the piece. Have these people ended up in SolFed working on the type of organizing Joseph Kay describes?

Steven.
Jun 7 2010 14:48

Nate, your characterisation of AF members' role in the IWW here is highly inaccurate. No-one had said anything like "it got really hard... so we left".

I was never involved in the IWW, as people on here will know I am a critique of the idea of syndicalist unions. However I believe a more accurate description of what occurred was that the AF members who joined the IWW hoped that, rather than attempting to be a "real" union, it would act as a network of militants in the workplace. However, the main thrust within the organisation was to attempt to be a "real" union, with all the problems that entails - namely being tied up in the management of capitalism. So most of them have now left. As to your last question, as far as I'm aware pretty much all of them are still in the AF, and in a couple of towns at least it seems like the IWW is predominantly propped up by AF members.

john
Jun 7 2010 19:59
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workers who weren't in the union would not have to worry about their unions assets being sequestered if they took unofficial action.

this is probably the most frustrating part of this whole critique of the IWW .

You speak as if striking workers will have no constraints whatsoever if they could just get rid of those darned unions.

But, as surely you must know, any striking workers who isn't in a union can be sacked with immediate effect for breaking her contract.

There are pros and cons of industrial action within a union (pro=certain legal protection; con = union bureaucrats, integration within capitalism); but equally there are pros and cons with ununionised action (pro=lack of interfering bureaucrats, lack of division between members and non-members, room for more rapid militant response without considering legal implications; con=you're pretty likely to get sacked with no room to come back and claim unfair dismissal)

to just focus on the cons of union organizing and the pros of non-unionised organizing is clearly one-sided and misleading

Ed
Jun 7 2010 22:40
john wrote:
But, as surely you must know, any striking workers who isn't in a union can be sacked with immediate effect for breaking her contract.

You say this as if workers who organise within the legal framework of a union never face any repression. Off the top of my head, I can think of union reps in both health and rail industries that have faced suspension and sackings. Even Steven. from this thread once found out his employers were trying to put a case together to get him sacked when he was a rep.

Any worker who takes part in effective organising will find that their bosses will come down hard on them.. and being part of a union is not what will defend them against it. It's their willingness to take effective collective action. Just look at what happened in the Lindsey Oil Refinery strike. Or the 2008 Brighton bin wildcat.

Any legal protection we get from being in unions is just our bosses accepting into a contract some protection based on our willingness for action. These are also the contracts which our bosses willingly violate if they reckon they'll get away with it. So much for the legal protection...

john wrote:
There are pros and cons of industrial action within a union (pro=certain legal protection; con = union bureaucrats, integration within capitalism); but equally there are pros and cons with ununionised action (pro=lack of interfering bureaucrats, lack of division between members and non-members, room for more rapid militant response without considering legal implications; con=you're pretty likely to get sacked with no room to come back and claim unfair dismissal)

Of course there is, no one is claiming that there are no drawbacks or problems with unofficial action. But the issues we face with action outside the unions are different to the ones we face inside them. It's an issue of our strength in fighting our bosses, it's internal and, therefore, within our control. Within the unions, our cons are our 'allies', the very organisation we'd been building.. its external and definitely out of our control.

And without wanting to sound snide (really, I honestly don't), all your talk of 'there are pros and cons to unions etc' sounds odd, considering the IWW claim to be a completely different kind of union.

Steven.
Jun 7 2010 23:03
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workers who weren't in the union would not have to worry about their unions assets being sequestered if they took unofficial action.

this is probably the most frustrating part of this whole critique of the IWW .

You speak as if striking workers will have no constraints whatsoever if they could just get rid of those darned unions.

But, as surely you must know, any striking workers who isn't in a union can be sacked with immediate effect for breaking her contract.

Firstly, your characterisation is not what the critique is. Secondly, your final statement is incorrect. When taking unofficial action doesn't matter if you are in a union not, you have no legal protection if the action is unofficial.

Hence the point - as Ed mentions is that supporters of the IWW try to claim it is something qualitatively different from other unions whereas even you are basically acknowledging this is not the case here!

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There are pros and cons of industrial action within a union (pro=certain legal protection; con = union bureaucrats, integration within capitalism); but equally there are pros and cons with ununionised action (pro=lack of interfering bureaucrats, lack of division between members and non-members, room for more rapid militant response without considering legal implications; con=you're pretty likely to get sacked with no room to come back and claim unfair dismissal)

again this is missing the issue - pretty much all workers who take unofficial action, in the UK at least, are union members who are taking action either with the unofficial consent, or occasionally against the union. So this is not the dichotomy. The issue is whether there is any qualitative difference between a "syndicalist" union, and a regular one - and I would say that the answer is actually "no" (other than the syndicalist one will have an insignificant membership)

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to just focus on the cons of union organizing and the pros of non-unionised organizing is clearly one-sided and misleading

this is not what I'm doing - I am a convener for UNISON at my work.

john
Jun 8 2010 08:51
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considering the IWW claim to be a completely different kind of union.

I'm not sure the IWW does claim this - at least not in the UK.

Of course there are tensions within the IWW, but they way I would see their position is that they are partly similar to other (TUC-affiliated) unions - in that they are listed with the government, and therefore can apply for various legal protections under TULRCA 1992 and other relevant legislation - but also have a relatively mililtant membership, are open to all employees (and therefore more effectively able to organize in accordance with principles of solidarity), and have various constitutional rules in place that prevent full-time permanent officials from taking control of the union.

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your characterisation is not what the critique is.

ok, so it's probably helpful then if you could clarify?

Steven.
Jun 8 2010 10:04
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considering the IWW claim to be a completely different kind of union.

I'm not sure the IWW does claim this - at least not in the UK.

from the first line of the UK IWW about section:

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We are a grassroots and democratic union helping to organise all workers in all workplaces. The IWW differs from traditional trade unions. (my emphasis)

http://iww.org.uk/about/main

Quote:

Of course there are tensions within the IWW, but they way I would see their position is that they are partly similar to other (TUC-affiliated) unions - in that they are listed with the government, and therefore can apply for various legal protections under TULRCA 1992 and other relevant legislation - but also have a relatively mililtant membership

I don't think you can refer to the membership of what functions basically as a small political organisation as "militant", in a workplace sense. Militant in a workplace sense implies readiness to take industrial action, which the IWW has not done.

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are open to all employees (and therefore more effectively able to organize in accordance with principles of solidarity),

loads of unions are open to all employees, or all employees within an industry. For example unite and GMB the former, or UNISON, RMT, etc the latter. However, they all have to obey the law, which forbids solidarity action. So the RMT doesn't act as an industrial union - cleaners act separately from drivers, etc, in UNISON health workers and council workers are separated etc. In the IWW the same would have to apply to obey the law (or else have assets sequestered).

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your characterisation is not what the critique is.

ok, so it's probably helpful then if you could clarify?

I thought I had been quite clear really. My point is that all the unions are bureaucratised, and try to prevent action taking place. And this is not a coincidence but due to the nature of trade unions' role under capitalism as negotiators of the sale of labour power, and due to the legal structure in which they exist. If the IWW ever grew to a size where it actually represented whole workforces etc it would be subject to the same bureaucratic pressures as all the other union regardless of their structure or how left-wing the leadership.

This has been demonstrated time and again across the world where any "revolutionary" union, if not outright smashed, has been incorporated into the management of capitalism.

Joseph Kay
Jun 8 2010 10:20
Steven. wrote:
This has been demonstrated time and again across the world where any "revolutionary" union, if not outright smashed, has been incorporated into the management of capitalism.

this isn't strictly true, unless you think that describes the modern CNT or FAU. what's true is that any union that takes on a mediating/representative role goes that way, regardless of paper revolutionary intent.

all mainstream ones and many purportedly revolutionary ones are eager to play that role (since it's what 'real' unions do). it's no coincidence that that's precisely the role capitalism legislates for unions (in the UK at least), but the law doesn't cause it, the role does.

the problem with the UK IWW is there's a critique of existing unions for being undemocratic, bureaucratic services, but no explanation of why that is (i.e. arising from their mediating role, needing to police the workforce in order to make deals on their behalf). so if the IWW is successful at being a 'real' union... well, careful what you wish for. as far as i can tell the organising model of the UK IWW is identical to the TUC unions (i.e. recruitment, recognition, representation), the differences lie not in the role it seeks to play but how it seeks to play it.

Steven.
Jun 8 2010 10:48
Steven. wrote:
This has been demonstrated time and again across the world where any "revolutionary" union, if not outright smashed, has been incorporated into the management of capitalism.

this isn't strictly true, unless you think that describes the modern CNT or FAU. what's true is that any union that takes on a mediating/representative role goes that way, regardless of paper revolutionary intent.

in terms of the modern CNT, I'm aware that in some areas it does not act as a "union" by my terminology in terms of having any representative function - such as in the Puerto Real shipyards. However, I do not know if this is true across the whole union (I don't know if it has recognition agreements etc in some places). My point does apply to the historical CNT. With the FAU, I'm not aware of detail of the functioning of the organisation, but I would say that it is small enough (a few hundred members) that it doesn't affect my point - which is substantively the same as yours, but regarding a union as an organisation which has representative functions. The rest of your post is spot on.

Joseph Kay
Jun 8 2010 11:12
Steven. wrote:
in terms of the modern CNT, I'm aware that in some areas it does not act as a "union" by my terminology in terms of having any representative function

thing is i think this kind of humpty dumpty stuff discredits actual critique, 'it's not a union if it does things i like'. it's substituting word-games for materialist criticism; unions are only unions when they fit the criticism, rather than the criticism being a of a materal relation to workers struggle that would have the same outcome whatever it was called.

john
Jun 8 2010 13:40
Ed wrote:
considering the IWW claim to be a completely different kind of union.
john wrote:
I'm not sure the IWW does claim this - at least not in the UK.
Steven. wrote:
from the first line of the UK IWW about section:

Quote:

We are a grassroots and democratic union helping to organise all workers in all workplaces. The IWW differs from traditional trade unions. (my emphasis)

The IWW is different in certain ways - I spoke about them in my post - my point is that it doesn't completely differ - and neither does (at least the UK version) purport to do so.

On the other points:

is the IWW a political organisation or a union? - IWW members will claim the latter

is the IWW subject to certain constraints arising from its location within capitalism? - well, yes, but who/what isn't? - the point is whether it's a hindrance or a help in the attempt to overturn capitalism - personally I think it's a help, at least for the timebeing (and certainly more of a help than a more social partnership-oriented union, such as UNISON).

Steven.
Jun 8 2010 13:50

I can see there is no point taking this bit of the discussion other. But I'm curious: are you an IWW member? and if not, why not?

Chilli Sauce
Jun 8 2010 17:25
Quote:
Off the top of my head, I can think of union reps in both health and rail industries that have faced suspension and sackings.

..or all of the BA cabin crew stewards that have been sacked in this most recent dispute. What’s the number up to, like 50?

....or the 10+ year blacklist construction militants have faced....

Chilli Sauce
Jun 8 2010 17:17

John, I'm wondering if you could perhaps respond to my first two posts on this thread? I think they very much apply to the defense you're giving and I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.

I should let you know that I agree pretty strongly with most of Steven's points and I think the article speaks to the truth of them. In particular, how do you respond to this particular bit?:

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Some within the IWW felt that the Showroom organising had been too hasty in the first place, that we could risk getting the union sued and that we should scale back our efforts.
Chilli Sauce
Jun 8 2010 19:55
Quote:
I thought I had been quite clear really. My point is that all the unions are bureaucratised, and try to prevent action taking place. And this is not a coincidence but due to the nature of trade unions' role under capitalism as negotiators of the sale of labour power, and due to the legal structure in which they exist. If the IWW ever grew to a size where it actually represented whole workforces etc it would be subject to the same bureaucratic pressures as all the other union regardless of their structure or how left-wing the leadership.

This has been demonstrated time and again across the world where any "revolutionary" union, if not outright smashed, has been incorporated into the management of capitalism.

I hope this doesn't sound patronizing or pedantic, but I was just re-reading this thread and think there is some nuance here that should be addressed.

Unions--as in representative, mediating organizations--do suck and all of them face structural limitations and "bureaucratic pressures". However, bosses still don't like unions and would much rather prefer to deal with a UNISON than an RMT. If a unionized workforce is being especially recalcitrant a boss may also try to break the union in an effort to break the militancy, a la the posties and the CWU. (The important exception to these trends is during periods of heightened class struggle when bosses love unions in that they enforce the contract and police the workforce.)

The reason that I'm bringing this up is because I don't want to get into the trap of "If a boss doesn't want it, that must mean it's good." Clearly Sheffield management felt threatened by the IWW. However, what bosses really fear is a loss of power in the workplace. What I think needs to be stressed to Wobblies who want the IWW to be "a union" is that, to quote Brighton SolFed:

"What workers don't always acknowledge (or fail to act upon) is that this strength [forcing reforms through trade union action] is their own power mediated - and therefore limited- by the union structure as its representation."

This applies to any representative organization--reformist or revolutionary.

Joseph Kay
Jun 8 2010 20:02
ncwob wrote:
"What workers don't always acknowledge (or fail to act upon) is that this strength [forcing reforms through trade union action] is their own power mediated - and therefore limited- by the union structure as its representation."

iirc that quote was from an article we republished in abridged form, in a leaflet we compiled but didn't write. just to be clear. agree with it 100% though. the original author's on libcom but not a SolFed member.

Chilli Sauce
Jun 8 2010 20:10
Quote:
This has been demonstrated time and again across the world where any "revolutionary" union, if not outright smashed, has been incorporated into the management of capitalism.

Oh yeah, I'll point out that when revolutionary unions are smashed, it's usually because they've moved beyond the trade union form/their representative function.

IWW Local 8 comes to mind in that it never received recognition from Philadelphia's shippers. The union was the means by which the workers related to one another. In the dockers' struggles, the boss dealt with the entire workforce--acting through self-organized channels--who all just happened to be members of the IWW.

This was the same with much of the old IWW organizing. Wobs showed up and encouraged direct action regardless of membership. All involved in those direct actions participated in organizing them, crafting demands, and could be involved in electing or participating in negotiating committees. It was not a representative or mediative organization.

I think where the IWW has gone wrong is in believing that representing workers (both individually and collectively) is "what unions do". I think re-conceptualization of the term "union" (or, arguably, a return to an earlier understanding of the idea) is needed throughout the entire organization if the IWW wants maintain a consistent revolutionary position.

john
Jun 8 2010 21:05
Quote:
..or all of the BA cabin crew stewards that have been sacked in this most recent dispute. What’s the number up to, like 50?

....or the 10+ year blacklist construction militants have faced....

for this to be meaningful it has to be a comparison with the number of militants engaged in unofficial (and therefore illegal) action that get sacked/blacklisted

in my experience bosses will at least think twice before sacking workers with a union that's likely to kick up a fuss of some kind (legal or industrial action) - they don't, and don't need to, think twice before victimising workers engaged in unofficial industrial action

ncwob wrote:
In particular, how do you respond to this particular bit?:
Quote:

Some within the IWW felt that the Showroom organising had been too hasty in the first place, that we could risk getting the union sued and that we should scale back our efforts.

I don't know who was arguing this - and it wouldn't be an argument that I would personally make if I was in the same situation - but my main point stands - that the Showroom employees would have been sacked outright if they hadn't been in the IWW, so you're not comparing like with like by saying that union membership leads to overly-cautious employees.

non-unionised employees are even more cautious!

Joseph Kay
Jun 8 2010 21:17
john wrote:
the Showroom employees would have been sacked outright if they hadn't been in the IWW

factual point - i thought the IWW hadn't (yet) gone the whole way to be a registered union so members don't get legal protection. can anyone clarify?

Chilli Sauce
Jun 8 2010 21:43

John, I don't think that was an adequate response at all.

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for this to be meaningful it has to be a comparison with the number of militants engaged in unofficial (and therefore illegal) action that get sacked/blacklisted

I don't know what you mean by this. All Ed was arguing--and I was supplementing his arguments--was the unionized militants are victimized just like non-union militants.

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bosses will at least think twice before sacking workers with a union that's likely to kick up a fuss of some kind (legal or industrial action) - they don't, and don't need to, think twice before victimising workers engaged in unofficial industrial action

All you proved is that employers are less likely to victimize a militant workforce. Certain unions may allow a bit more militancy, but it's still the threat of action that keeps a boss in line. Unions--all unions, even the more militant ones--are more easily controlled than self-organized wildcat action.

See my point above: "What workers don't always acknowledge (or fail to act upon) is that this strength [forcing reforms through trade union action] is their own power mediated - and therefore limited- by the union structure as its representation."

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that the Showroom employees would have been sacked outright if they hadn't been in the IWW

Wait, the dude who was sacked was in the IWW! What protects any employee is solidarity. We're arguing that if the IWW wants to most effectively engage in solidarity it's better off not trying to be a trade union as it will face structural and legal limitation to the expression of solidarity. If, on the other hand, the IWW seeks to build up networks of militants who engage in direct action grievance and facilitate large-scale struggle through mass assemblies, it'll be better at building solidarity and building the revolutionary potential of the working class.

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so you're not comparing like with like by saying that union membership leads to overly-cautious employees.

Who the hell is saying that? Find me a single quote that states or even implies that!?!?

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non-unionised employees are even more cautious!

Once again, you're the only way engaging in this "cautious" debate. We're arguing workers--non-union or union--are going to be able to more effectively engage in struggle if they are acting outside the union form. Unmediated struggle is always more powerful and more threatening. Hence, why all labor law tries to ensure all struggle occurs through government-sanctioned trade union channels.

If the IWW chooses to organizing in a unmediated way, that's great. This isn't an argument against the IWW organizing workers, just the IWW organizing as a trade union (registration, representation, casework, negotiating agreements, etc.)

I don't want to sound like jerk, but if you're not going to engage with that debate, I'm not going to continue this conversation.