A letter from Staughton Lynd concerning 'direct unionism'


I am entering an ongoing conversation about “Direct Unionism” and recognize that I have missed out on earlier episodes. I also am less informed about the early history of the IWW than either Juan Conatz or Sean G. Here are my two cents’ worth of opinions:

1. I agree with FW Conatz that employers almost always want a contract to include no-strike and management rights clauses. The draftspersons of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) went out of their way in Section 13 of the law as originally enacted to rebut the notion that once you had a contract you should no longer need the right to strike. John Sargent, first president of Local 1010, United Steelworkers at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana, was convinced that the local union accomplished more for its members before the local union was recognized as an exclusive bargaining representative and a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement, including a no-strike clause, was negotiated. See his oral history in “Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers” (1982). What happened was that the new CIO national unions, beginning with the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers of America in 1937, gave away the right to strike.

2. I agree with Sean G. that there is nothing inherently sinful about reducing an oral understanding to writing. At the big Westinghouse plant east of Pittsburgh in the 1930s, if the management and the union reached an understanding about a particular matter, it would be written up and posted in the plant. And under Section 301 of the NLRA as amended, such an agreement can be enforced in the courts, and is therefore less likely to be ignored by management.

3. Where the problem arises, in my opinion, is what it means for a union to be “recognized.” The usual understanding, favored by U.S. labor policy, is that when a union is recognized it becomes the exclusive representative of workers in that bargaining unit. Such recognition puts the union in a position to have management automatically deduct dues from the workers’ paychecks, the so-called “dues check-off.” Workers interviewed in the 1960s and early 1970s who had experienced the self-organization of workers in the 1930s mentioned this most frequently as the reason that “your [watch]dog don’t bark no more.”

I think there is much to be said for the typical European arrangement of many “recognized” unions in the same workplace, as opposed to the idea of a particular union as exclusive representative.

- FW Staughton Lynd

Originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Industrial Worker newspaper


Jan 12 2012 06:57

I thought this is pretty good letter.

The Westinighouse story I heard many years ago. It alway stuck with me. And always seemed like a way to go about satisfying some of the need to have some form of written understandings. I recall, not so long ago, asking comrades what happens if they actually won the Jimmy Johns election, what would they do about a written agreement. No one ever answered me, but I thought along these lines, that it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

As a PS: I would highly recommend this article:
The Origins of the Union Shop
Note: This article is excerpted from ideas & action #11 (Fall, 1989).

Jan 12 2012 07:55

I thought I did answer you on that Syndicalist, but if not then I apologize. If I remember right that exchange was during a high point in the campaign, so a lot fell off a lot of people's radar. Anyway, the short answer about Jimmy John's, what we would have done: fight to negotiate a contract. There was disagreement in the campaign about whether or not to file an election at all and there would have been disagreement about what came after winning the election. (By the way, it was a hair away from winning that election - lost by two votes, and two people showed up late to vote by less than 5 minutes. To my mind, it being that close means it's our fault that it was lost, because that's a small enough margin that we could have pushed that much harder.) Anyway, like the election itself, there would have been disagreement over the goals and the aims after winning. We would have negotiated some kind of agreement though. Given that there was a slim majority willing to file for an election, I think it's like that there would have been a slim majority willing to accept a contract with all the trappings of contracts that we reject. Then we would have been stuck with the mess of trying to service that contract.

I looked at that article of Tom's, it's too long for me to read just now but it looks really good. I think I'm going to put in the libcom library tomorrow or soon. Thanks for that.

Jan 12 2012 15:05

Nate..thanks for a reply... I think this basically is the email which I wrote at the time. . For decades the nuts and bolts question of "What if we were a majority"
and "What if we actually organized a (broadly speaking) Syndicalist Union?"in a workplace has bounced around my head. I've never been in that sort of situation, where radical workers or radical worker organization has been in a majority. I have posed this question, a number of times over the years to a number of folks in the IWW, and never really got a good reply. So, in one way, the question, remained open at the time of the Jimmy Johns campaign.because folks I had a good political feel for and sense of solidarity with were engaged in the campaign.

The below email was was written before the "Direct Unionism" stuff came out, so some of the issues are coverd in tose writings

Anyway, perhaps this posting is improper or misplaced in this section. Apologies in advance.

"Even though [the question of majority status and contracts was] stated ... in the context of trade unionism, from an anarcho-syndicalist or even revolutionary industrial unionist
perspective, I think this issue continues to pose a dilema. It has for
the SAC in Sweden; has for the CNT in Spain; the USI in Italy, the
IWW's IU 440 Cleveland Metal Workers Union (where significant job
control existed) and for the IWW when they organized U. Cellar (at
U.Michigan) some many years ago. I realize that each country has their
own traditions, but each has the fundamental "daily" questions of how
it exists and operates.So, it's really the "nuts & bolts" stuff that
interests me.

I break this down a couple of ways. Do libertarian revolutionaries
doing mass work, particularly organizing indendent or IWW unions, seek
contracts as an objective in their campaigns?

Let's put aside how one would organize in the workplace for a moment,
'cause I'm assuming we're all on the same page on building maximum
rank-&-file control. A couple of quick questions come to mind. If the
campaign in mind seeks "majority status" what happens after a
collective agreement is reached with a boss? Does the independent or
IWW union really fall into many of the same functions as a trade

If, I may, and this is posed with all sincerity and respect, I'd like
to pose this to our IWW comrades here. I'm asking this because the IWW
comrades have been the most active in organizing indendently as of
late and their dilema and situations are real. .

If these sort of questions or discussion is not appropriate, I take no
offense if being told so. I only ask 'cause I think there's something
to be shared and something to be learned by the nitty gritty of the
practical experiance. I am less interested in the ideological debate
at the moment.

For my IWW comrades, how would the Brooklyn warehouse workers goals
differ from the Jimmy Johns workers goals if they were both succesful?
Would they end in collective agreements? If so, from a broad
syndicalist perspective, how can, over the long haul,prevent "creeping
bureaucracy" and traditional trade union methods from seeping into
work and existance of the union?

I recognize that when we are in "minority" status, our tactical and
other abilities are quite different. Sometimes even "easier" to hold
to a more comfortable position and, most certainly, a better
ideological one. For all of my shopfloor experiances have always been
in the minority, but never in a shop independently organized."

Jan 12 2012 15:28

hey Syndicalist, yeah I think my answer is the same. We'd have fought for a contract, maybe won it, then things would have fallen down the rabbit hole of dealing with a contract shop. This is the IWW's experience in other places where we've won contracts (some of the strongest anti-contract folk in the organization are people who came into the organization by working in the shops under contract). That's what most likely would have happened given the balance of views in the Jimmy John's campaign. FWIW I don't think the people who argued against the election and who would have argued against various aspects of the contract, I don't think we're more revolutionary, the other cats were just as sincere of revolutionaries and in their commitment to the IWW. It's a difference of vision among sincere revolutionaries, which is why I think conversations around this direct unionism paper are relevant within the IWW.

The other thing you seem to be asking is what *could* have happened in a better scenario than in the Jimmy John's campaign, if the votes internally had gone the other way. I think it probly would have looked a lot like the Chicago Couriers Union and the Starbucks campaign, except with larger numbers of people involved in one spot and with a smaller, weaker target. Run actions, fight on issues, etc. A lot of that happened anyway during the election and in my opinion is the stuff that the campaign pulled off best after it filed for the election. That stuff was useful for the election but only partially so. In terms of running those kinds of campaigns, I think the legal sorts of things like in Staughton's letter are mostly a red herring. The core issues in those kinds of campaigns are social/organizational within the campaign (how to build and maintain and fight effectively) and aren't really legal issues, and the legal stuff doesn't offer much of a resource for us in that. I think a lot of us in the IWW nowadays first learned that lesson from reading it in Staughton's writing, so it makes this letter something I don't really know what to do with.

All that aside, I put that article of Tom's in the libcom library, it's here - http://libcom.org/library/origins-union-shop - I'm looking forward to reading it all the way through.

Jan 12 2012 15:33

I appreciate the reply Nate. I guess that I'm still wondering about the broader question: "What happens when we are a majority?"

Anyway, I think this would lead astray from the nature of the postings. So I'll end here in the spirit of not derailing or detracting from the spiirit of the IWW postings.

Dec 16 2012 07:24

This is relevant to a piece I read called "Who's in Charge Here?" about making the union "legitimate" in the eyes of our class and our class enemy. It's a good piece, on Recomp: http://recomposition.info/2012/09/25/whos-in-charge-here/

Err on the side of direct action, I say. #soapboxing

Chilli Sauce
Dec 16 2012 08:30

Hi Pennoid, FWIW, many of the folks involved in Recomp were also involved in writing Direct Unionism as well.

Dec 17 2012 20:07

I just saw Syndicalist's last comment about what do when we're a majority. I think once we hit majority status in one location (one workplace, an area with multiple workplaces, etc) I think we have at least two things to do. Stuff in that location, and expanding out of that location. Within whatever the location is, we fight the boss, and try to do so in a way that escalate upward. I think there's a ceiling on how much we can pull off in any one location and the limit is lower the smaller that location. Of course do education and relationship building among members etc, in a way that tries to get people to plug in to broader stuff beyond that particular location. I'd also prefer that our stuff not happen via a contractual framework, and the JJ's election was going to be that. I thought that's what you were talking about at first. I'm not sure I'm really answering the question, maybe I don't really understand the question. I'd like to know what you think people ought to do, or what the possible outcomes are when we get to a majority status in any location.

Dec 18 2012 02:15

Nate, I'll get back to when I have some thoughtful time. But my basic question was premised on two live wire situations that are now prolly at least a year and another a few years old (JJ & Brooklyn warehouses). So i suspect there's been plenty of reflection time and seperation on both those. And some of Nate's answers certainly are reflective of a viewpoint expressed in DU.

In the age of prmotion of minorities by miltants here, the question of being a majority is never really addressed. And, candidly, I have no real answer myself...even after all these years.

My original comments were written almost a year ago, so I might rephrase this, but I think the essense is still at the heart of the matter of majority status and building a functional syndicalist union or workers association:

Would they end in collective agreements? If so, from a broad
syndicalist perspective, how can, over the long haul,prevent "creeping
bureaucracy" and traditional trade union methods from seeping into
work and existance of the union?

Also, given that we are not always in a "struggle mode", can majorities, over time, receed and things fall back into militant minority situations? or does the core of more ideologically dedicated/educated militants become the heart, soul and core of the shopfloor organization?

I guess we don't know some of the answers cause we don't have any real contemporary
US examples of this (a functioning syndicalist like union or majority shopfloor orgamnization that practices our general ideas/forms). So alot of what we think we want as an outcome is, in part, speculation.

The "long haul" question will continue to be on the table until there is some real, shopfloor constructive examples of keeping the ideals alive and working over time.

Well, more when I can give some real meat and potato thinkibng to this.