Thinking About Policy and Staff in the IWW

Thinking About Policy and Staff in the IWW

In this essay I argue that the organizing policy pursued by the IWW for the past decade or so has been ineffective in large part because it’s informed by assumptions which are incorrect. The central assumption being that the IWW ought to avoid using paid staff at all costs. This viewpoint concedes that a division of labor is useful, but only by volunteer worker organizers who cannot be tempted to corruption by virtue of not drawing a salary. Certainly this assumption is itself informed by others, which I hope to address below. Most of these assumptions are not often made explicit, but are definitely current among the left today, and in the works of authors revered by many in the IWW.

In much the same way, the IWW’s organizing policy is itself not entirely explicit. Many of the formulations of principle are found across blogs and Libcom forums, as well as occasionally in the Industrial Worker. A central premise which supports my conclusion in the affirmative for paid staff is that contrary to the claims of many on the left the working class does not ‘self-organize’ or not in the sense that they often seem to imply. By this I mean that a division of labor, including full-time staff, are necessary to form any working class organization that is to be both more than ephemeral, and large, regardless of its political commitments. Obviously these political commitments matter, and that is why I take up the concept of policy as the means for the membership to direct and keep accountable staff and officers. Of course, I do not have all the answers, and I hope to invite discussion with this essay.

A Past Campaign

In the early 00’s, Wobblies helped try and organize bike couriers in Chicago. Their initial strategy was to organize a central, Industrial Organizing Committee, which would be made up of members of “shop committees” at each employer. The IOC employed an Organizer at two points in the campaign. The first, Pete, was an experienced organizer, who for about 2 and 1/2 months helped propel the campaign forward, alongside worker committees. The second organizer, Andrea Murphy stepped in after organizing had dropped off altogether and, having little organizing experience, employed a series of misguided schemes to ‘get workers involved’ (everything from yoga to zines). She had a familiarly difficult time of it. However, she was the first person to be interested in organizing the Bike Couriers, into the Windy City Bicycle Messenger Association, which lasted several months before it was dissolved. Shortly after, members met with the IWW, who began assisting them with organizing. Prior to the arrival of the the first organizer, Pete, two members of the Chicago GMB worked alongside workers, energized after a first mass meeting, to map the industry and gather contacts. Matt Kellard and Colin Bossen had begun working with the WCBMA before its dissolution, and Andrea Murphy met Pete on a trip in Portland. The idea was that upon his arrival in Chicago, Pete “would focus his energies on teaching workers how to organize, handle grievances, and strategize about the union effort.” Indeed, he did just that.

One of the organizers, Colin Bossen, wrote up a post-mortem of the campaign. But his analysis is consistently viewed through the lens of ‘activism’ current now and in the early 00’s. For example, FW Bossen states,

“With Pete in town, we were able to capitalize on this information (contacts) and to organize several shop committees. However, these committees were not capable of functioning without an outside IWW organizer present. Despite this limitation,the shop committees began to build the union slowly by winning small grievances at individual workplaces.”

A bit later, after detailing the successes of grievance handlings in the campaign with the organizer’s presence, Bossen notes

“During Pete’s time in Chicago, we held two organizer trainings, a program started by the IWW in 2000 to give everyday workers on the job the tools and skills (and confidence as well) to organize their workplaces…..The trainings provided messengers with the basic information they needed to organize but did not seem to provide them with confidence to be independent organizers.”

The Shop-floor committee is the first place a worker really interacts with the union.The IWW has had for at least the past 10 years an “Organizer Training 101.” This 2-day training introduces people to the IWW and trains them to form the shop committee. Bossen continues,

“I speculate that MK, Pete, and I served as a crutch and that with us to rely on the messengers did not need to develop their own leadership. Pete left Chicago in June 2004, and his absence was immediately felt. MK and I lacked his experience at group facilitation, and the organizing began to falter.” (emphasis my own)

On one level, this poses a question of leadership in general, and on a more concrete level it is a question of the role of the organizer.

On leadership, the left generally is stuck in a rut of ‘authenticity’. Here, a given leader is chastised as not being a part of working class, either sociologically (‘They make six figures!’) or more to the point, by the leader’s support for bourgeois aims.The question is irrelevant. It is factually true that workers can and will make up their own minds to follow this or that course. Our job then is to convincingly address the issues concerning workers and present clear paths forward. Workers may get tricked into letting someone into power over them, but they cannot trick the workers into taking power for themselves. We cannot deal with the inevitable corruption of some leaders by eliminating all leaders if that means the sacrifice of success.

In the IWW this question comes up partially in attitudes to the ‘third-partying’ tactic employed by the boss. While it is true that the union ‘is the membership’ it is also true that the union employs staff. What ought to be emphasized is that the staff of the union serve the members and that the independent nature – i.e. ‘third party’ – of the union is to the benefit of the worker. Independence from the boss is the precondition for organization against the boss.

The second question is that of the relationship between paid organizers and leadership in organizing drives. It seems reasonable to me that the first leg of the Courier campaign illustrates a healthy relationship. Workers made up the decision making bodies, and Pete and other non-worker members of the I.W.W. provided the necessary advisory roles to support workers in training, confidence, and labor. Once Pete left, and one of the IWW volunteers got a job as a courier to help form a shop committee at one of the bigger shops, the other shop committees and the jointly formed IOC (made up of one worker from each shop committee) dissolved. Bossen writes,

“Toward the end of the summer, MK took a job with Arrow as a bike messenger. He began to focus his energy more and more on building a shop committee at Arrow and less on his work with the IOC. This shift in energy ultimately spelled the end for the IOC. We spent much of the autumn and winter trying to get members of the IOC to focus on building shop committees but were unable to establish functioning committee at any shop other than Arrow. I spent months working with workers from two mid-sized companies, but in both cases, neither committee developed to the point where it was able to take on a worker’s grievance and win.”

It seems clear that with the reduction of the pool of labor outside the shop reduced by ⅔, the drive was of course bound to change in nature. What followed, was that one volunteer organizer ‘salted in’ and the paid organizer left. It’s not entirely clear what specific duties they could have continued to play outside the shop committees. Why doesn’t Bossen draw the conclusion that it resulted from a decline in outside support, and instead locates it in ‘worker confidence’?

Our Current Orthodoxy

Perhaps it is because the predominant sentiment in the IWW is anti-contractualist union activism. That means we don’t aim for the long ‘peace’ secured by contracts, legitimated by the NLRB. We could of course, within the confines of the current constitution, pursue contracts in our organizing. We are prohibited from signing contracts with no-strike clauses. This seems a fine provision, amounting to the outlawing of workers bargaining away their strength. That said, anti-contractualism in general does not change in any meaningful way the work that we’re required to do to remain effective. Contract or not, unions still have to provide their memberships with services. Here, I mean trainings, administration, calling people, house-visits, research, editing news media, designing agitational materials and much more. However, the prevailing orthodoxy takes anti-contractualism to mean a total rejection of the union providing almost any services. This orthodoxy amounts to IWW practice being “Join our union, and do everything yourself!”

Many have pointed out how workers are willing to go some distance, especially against their immediate material interests, in order to support their values. The union has certainly used this fact to it’s advantage over the years. But the reality is that workers just don’t have the time. Even if they think capitalism is wrong or awful, people must resign themselves to keeping their heads down and weathering the storm. The amount of effort involved is too much for one person to figure out alone. Put simply, there is a relationship between moral feeling, and ability to spend time fighting back. As the time necessary to win goes up, the ability to seriously fight back just disappears; even if people wanted to, the simple fact is they have to eat first.

Here we get into messy territory on the left. On the one side, we have the DIY attitude of many anarchists and ultra-leftists. This suggests that decision making (ALL decision making!) must be in the hands of everyone involved at all times. This is somewhat of a caricature. In reality, it is mostly the phenomenon of seeing formal structures doing the work that substantive democratic movements would otherwise take care of. For example: We must decentralize the powers of the I.W.W. GEB because then it will allow locals to make their own decisions and flourish. It will keep officers accountable (rather, it will get rid of officers!) and will forestall any ‘incipient bureaucracy.’ This logic is very similar to that of classical political economy. Here, a ‘civil society’ of independent private property owning producers, would work out their exchanges and grievances with each-other efficiently, if not for the interference of the heavy hand of the state. This also has considerable purchase among ideologists of neoliberalism writ large. States (the main form of social authority) ought to only pursue those efforts which lower the costs of transaction and communication or disappear altogether,save for enforcing the property rights of the idlers!

On the other side we often find some variant of Comintern inspired ideology, which clings tightly to forms of ‘democratic centralism’ that in reality are essentially bureaucratic centralism. That is, a small clique of bureaucrats, continually elected to the same or similar positions, rules on most issues, and dissent from their line is cause for expulsion. Ultimately, purity of political line becomes the goal, with organizational ‘purging’ or splitting, the main form of activity. While these organizations have some semblance of policy and program, they suffer from a combination of bad politics and bad organizational imperatives.

A Better Way?

But what does this have to do with organizing a union in fast food? Or the IWW? Well, the suggestion is that both strategies are ultimately wrong. If the union is going to have campaigns that go beyond DIY shop-level resistance efforts, it’s going to need the consistent help of staff in administration and organizing. While this is embraced to a fault by the bureaucratic sects, it is rejected by the ultras. We saw how in the case of the couriers, when the organizer left, it became difficult to sustain the campaign. What’s needed then is a staff and administration – in a word, a bureaucracy – but one which is subordinate to the will of the membership.

Here we get into the troubles that the union has had in the recent past. While being successful at building shop committees and maintaining them for a short amount of time, the volunteer salts often suffer burnout. Further, we lack a more concrete medium/long term vision for a union with stable membership in one area. Contemporary efforts regarding unionization in the mainstream labor movement are completely geared toward contractualism. It secures dues income for the union, and secures some benefits for workers. It’s cutting a deal. If we’re going to refuse this route, then we need to think seriously about what it is that we offer. And it can’t just be a “value-system.” If that’s the case, how are we better than a church?

Part of going beyond the shop committees, and using resources outside them effectively, is having a model of how to build the union as a local social/political force in the city or area where the organizing is taking place. This is necessarily outside the ongoing workplace activity. This requires social events, educational events, canvassing and a number of other activities involving the union in order to cement it as a social force.

The old IWW did this in numerous ways. Until 1913 when Big Bill Haywood was formally expelled, the Socialist Party’s left-wing and IWW members often shared resources, published complimentary literature, and directly helped in organizing strikes. This even continued in some areas after Haywood left the Socialist Party.

The IWW also had its own robust publishing department, with paid editors for various newspapers and journals in several languages. Agitation, Education, Organization were constant processes. IWW organizers, paid and volunteer, would leaflet working class districts, soap-box, pamphlet shift changes, hold meetings, etc. This Agitation on the outside helped workers on the inside carry on Education about what was possible if workers stood up on the job.

But this was all possible because workers had previously stepped up and chipped in their money to hire staff to coordinate an organization. The IWW could speak authoritatively on questions of wages and safety, and also social and political questions; the role of the working class in society, why the bosses can’t be trusted at work or in the government.

One way that this has been thought about is in terms of “legitimacy.” As in, traditional US unions get their ‘legitimacy’ from the state securing and enforcing their contracts to some degree. This, plus their well organized nature. (We may disagree with their politics, and a lot of their strategy, and even some aspects of how they’re organized, but they have resources, and they sometimes use them effectively). John O’reilly writes:

“The legitimacy of the union springs from struggling together, from the relationships that grow from struggle, and from showing that the union and our vision is just as viable a thing to believe in as the boss and their vision. If we can show workers that our organizing can make their lives better, or at least give them powerful emotional experiences associated with trying to make their lives better, it is reasonable for them to believe other things that we say, like that we are fighting for the whole pie. ”

While the question is interesting, it seems to miss the point. Legitimacy, something we do need in order to organize effectively, will ultimately only come from organizing effectively. But we can be clearer about what that means. As noted above, if workers are not going to be forced to pay dues to to us, but do it voluntarily, then they really have to benefit from what we’re selling.

But, if we’re not selling health-insurance, a grievance arbitration procedure that is ultimately useless, and an admonition to vote for Sanders, then what are we selling? The things which immediately come to my mind are: Effective offensive and defensive organizational support.

Working class organization means having a clear and reliable source to go to with your problems at work. It means that they will be dealt with in a reasonably consistent and effective fashion, and it means that the worker aggrieved will have a role to play in addressing a grievance. Concretely this means having the infrastructural, administrative, and organizational abilities to turn out hundreds of workers in support of a local grievance. This itself would require an initial level of organization, as well as a degree of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of the participants. It also would require local bookkeeping, administration, reports filing and public relations work. This would likely would require the local or regional establishment of shop committees across an industry, campaigning by the same to win some public demands, and then their spread outside of that framework. What the worker would get in exchange for their dues is membership in an organization that has some material benefits for them (increased wages, job protection, actual grievance handling, better schedules, etc.) but that also offers an alternative political institution to the ones that dominate American politics (membership in an organization where the members set policy, vote, hold office, draft proposals, defend each other etc.). The second feature is no less important, as it is the last resort method of defense we will have to make use of in our efforts. That is, reliable, effective legal support, and other forms of defense where powerful organization is not yet possible.

Up to this point, the organizing work that the IWW has done has relied almost *entirely* upon small committees made up of volunteer salts. I do not for one minute doubt the dedication of these members, but I do suspect that we might chart a better course.
Let’s think about organizing at 6 grocery locations with 100 employees each, in the context of the prevailing orthodoxy. That would mean at least 1-2 initial Salts per store. Finding and orchestrating the hiring of 12 wobblies into a chain of grocery stores would itself take work to do. Once inside, these salts have to talk to coworkers, set up and do 1-on-1’s, socially map the workplace, physically map the workplace, do research about suppliers and the workers involved there, identify grievances, and begin thinking about recruitment from the shop-floor onto the shop committee. Further, they would have to identify production choke-points in their own stores, devise consistent and useful tactics for settling grievances, train newcomers in the practice, research the business’ growth strategy to identify tactical moves to pinch growth as a means to get concessions (as one example), engage in graphic design and PR, administer and manage funds, etc. That is, under our current model, we expect 12 people, working full time hours for little pay, to take on these tasks.

Alternatively, a union which places rank-and-file committees as it’s core, could delimit the activity they must engage in, and provide them with resources for building on their struggles. While those shop committee’s begin to recruit, the staff of the union could help lay the basis for local growth. They can train and coordinate door-to-door campaigns with volunteers to get the word out about the union when the time comes. They can host the trainings needed for the emerging shop committees (OT-101) on how to use direct action to solve grievances and build the ‘underground unionism’ phase of the campaign. They can work with other parts of the IWW to do industrial research (research staff) to help flesh out possible tactics and strategies for engaging with an employer, especially going public. They can handle educational and advertising initiatives to help newly forming locals (graphic design, pr, educational staff). They can help with the maintenance of web interfaces which allow members to debate and publish writings and arguments in a transparent fashion (web admin and publishing staff).

Instead of volunteer committees of workers handling every aspect of an organizing campaign we could augment the efforts of those workers with a division of labor using employed staff. Workers on the shop-floor would still settle grievances, and would still set organizational policy but they’d be assisted by staff that would utilize discrete skills to implement aspects of policy.

No Policy in the Union? Come Off It

A big concern for paid staff in the IWW is accountability. But what do we mean by accountability? Accountable to who? And in what manner? In contrast to the traditional activist mode of accountability, where ‘organic leaders’ are championed alongside a hodgepodge of democratic mechanisms (recallability), I’d argue that policy is the core of an effective accountability process. Mechanisms (recallability) are necessary in order to execute the rescinding of support for elected officials and staff which deviate from policy.

As it stands now, the IWW has a fractured, franchised organizational policy. One off campaigns devised by upstart members and branches, are meant to demonstrate success and seriousness before requesting resources from the Organizing Department. The Organizing Department acts as a networking tool for people who happen to be organizing on similar turf. That is, if the Tampa GMB and the Atlanta GMB happened to both be involved in organizing at a regionally prominent grocery chain, the ODB would, ideally, forward contact info.

This policy, in line with aforementioned tendencies toward neoliberal thought, presupposes (correctly) a general atmosphere of labor unrest in the capitalist U.S., but responds (incorrectly) with a policy of ‘limited authority’. The unrest merely needs to be ‘unleashed’ by the removal of stubborn ideology, a task best suited to ‘worker organizers’ on the ground. This will lead linearly to growth of resistance and fight back, when the pendulum of ‘high struggle’ finally swings back in a favorable direction.
This viewpoint often treats problems of approach, what might be termed ‘qualitative’ problems, as problems of quantity. Workers simply need the ‘tools’ of resistance (in the form of the OT-101) to unlock their potential to fight back. If we increased the OT-101, with the use of volunteer trainers, we’d lead to organizational growth and an increase of working class fightback etc. But if the issue, as stated above, is not simply putting the right frame of mind in the hands of workers, but of pursuing tactical and strategic ends, then a quantitative increase in the OT-101 is besides the point. It would certainly help us to some degree, but would not grapple with the failures of past campaigns.

What’s more, it would not grapple at all with the above mentioned need for a technical division of labor within the organization. Volunteer work, and member activity is necessary but not sufficient. Instead of a passive policy, of keeping tabs on local organizing carried out by ‘self-starters’ the union ought to pursue an active policy of identifying key industries and targets for growth, that put the union in a better position than today.It is the job of the members to develop a general organizing policy, and the job of national officers to direct staff to help implement policy alongside the membership.

I don’t mean to attack the OT-101, it’s to a large degree responsible for my membership in the organization and what success the IWW has had in the last decade or so. But it is limited.

By way of conclusion, I’d suggest that the following principles could guide the development of paid staff within the IWW.

1) Paid Staff are conceptually different from paid officers.
2) Staff serve the membership. As such, they are subject to the will of the membership.
3) Staff work on projects as directed by membership, or where organizing more generally, directed by policy developed by membership, in consultation with officers.
4) Policy should be a central feature of the IWW, as oppose to simply resolutions and constitutional amendments; policy sets tasks to be undertaken, and directs specific bodies to undertake them in given timelines.

While mechanisms for ensuring compliance with policy are vital, in the absence of policy, they function as idle tools, or worse, weapons in ideological factionalism. Constructing a system of hashing out and implementing policies through the vehicles of officers, staff, and the membership, give substance to mere ‘democratic mechanisms’.
There are further questions. I touched on these above, but what are the roles we need filled in the union? What is the role of the organizer? Publishing? Web administration? Industrial research? Education and training? We have to figure which roles, if given our preference for initial investment, will yield us the resources with which to build. We have to view hiring an organizer as a growth strategy for our organization. Will this organizer, applied to this drive, yield an increase in membership sufficient to spread our organization? This is a perfectly reasonable basis for measuring our finances and budgeting appropriately, and does not in the least approach a Faustian compromise of socialist principles – unless poor management of finances is to be raised from the level of ‘common socialist habit’ to ‘foundational socialist principle’!

Referenced Texts-
Colin Bossen, Chicago Couriers Union: A Case Study in Solidarity Unionism Working USA
Andrea Murphy, The Making of An Organizer: A History and Analysis of the Chicago Couriers Union

Posted By

Jul 4 2016 23:26


Attached files


Jul 10 2016 16:04

On UE:

Yeah that's why I looked at them for insight. Perhaps they just have dispatchers organized. I'm all for keeping officialdom in the hands of the rank and file. Or perhaps where there is a stipended or paid GEB, it is no more than the avg membership wage, and perhaps weighted in favor of rank-and-file officials (unwaged) or in some other fashion limited.

The U.E. uses a GEB, and also a Directer of Organization who oversees field organizers. We could have the member-run ODB (rank and file) basically oversee field organizers who would train and help coordinate the building of locals.

Jul 10 2016 16:05

Actually, within the SAC it was not simply collective agreements. As the membership shrank in the SAC, it was more often individual grievances and employment contract disputes.

On contracts, if I recall correctly, the IWW "grandparented" all shops under contract to retain those relations. So not would be interesting to see how those shops currently fair and how your props would either harm or help them.

Jul 10 2016 18:17
Pennoid wrote:
The U.E. uses a GEB, and also a Directer of Organization who oversees field organizers. We could have the member-run ODB (rank and file) basically oversee field organizers who would train and help coordinate the building of locals.

And the field staff have organized a staff union.

gram negative
Jul 10 2016 18:41

I'd like to echo the comments by akai, chili, et al. The working conditions for the organizers are terrible, with expectations to work 60+ hours a week and chronic creep of extra work, with a sick, moralistic pressure from the organization to do more unless one wants to be branded as not caring enough about the 'cause'. the particular union that represents my workplace has a very unpleasant and tense workplace culture and have been unable to retain staff, and this is one of the supposedly 'progressive' ones!

i will have more to add later...

Chilli Sauce
Jul 10 2016 19:03
I would take what you describe as a form of corruption. That is, staff, paid by the membership to follow it's aims, beginning to lie to the membership or work against them.

The thing is, though, corruption is about when individuals put their financial or illicit personal interests ahead of and at the expense of the wider organization.

I don't actually think that's what happens with staffers. Their position - off the shop floor, as paid employees - means they have a different perspective and a different set of interests from the wider membership. The vast majority of trade union staffers aren't corrupt, but their structural role means their interests come into conflict with those of the membership.

And no amount of oversight or mandates can change that.

In the above case of the CNT the members of the CNT who helped were not their immediate -coworkers. From the perspective of the cleaners, they may as well have been outsiders. How is this altered by paying people wages?

Well, as I said to you in that very first post, I think you should have a deeper critique of outside organizers, full stop. Our goal as a union should be to move to a situation where we have enough concentrations of workers in particular industries and companies that outside organizing won't be a thing.

What we definitely shouldn't do is institutionalize the role of outside organizers by creating paid staffers - who, whether nominally act as administrators or not, are going to be undertaking organizing tasks.

Jul 11 2016 02:59

Hmm, I think we may have to agree to disagree.

You say they have a separate interest, but that that's not corruption, which is when they put financial interests before the membership. I don't see the distinction, really.

So if it's only about the money let's put that to one side.

Isn't a Solnet workers coming together to act, though with some not on the shopfloor? So, workers at a restaurant seek assistance from others, with possibly more experience? Do the solnet workers have a separate interest? To help workers, or form a solnet? I mean here you have a group of outside organizers, right?

Even if we except that the 'narrow' interests of the staff are just to get money and benefits. What's to say that those interests will dominate the organization and lead it down the path bureaucratization? What's to say we can't in part vet for that by recruiting workers from the organization, from the shop floor? It's one thing to simply 'have an interest' it's another to be able to functionally act on it in an organized and effective fashion.

Again, maybe we'll just have to agree to disagree here.

Jul 11 2016 11:15

A few comments. Hieronymous, l liked the story you told and hope for more people like that.

About staffers and their working conditions, although it is not an argument about why staffers are not necessary and l won't use it as such, l would say that looking back at some situations l knew and know, this is not an issue to be dismissed. l literally supported and was involved in a strike of people employed by one union (FNPR in Russia), defended employees of August 80 union (in Poland) who won their cases in the labour court. Also, l know some of these people syndicalist was mentioning from the SAC Ombudsmen, and also one person took SAC to court. So there are really issues about providing the same kind of decent working conditions we are fighting for. The same thing can be said of the professionalized NGO sector and l think some of the logic of the professionalized unions and professionalized NGOs are the same.

Personally, besides being a member of the union here, and a delegated person in the international federation, l also am a member of a tenants' union and very involved with that. And in this organization l can say that there has always been a potential for being a professionalized operation with paid staff because there is a huge demand for our expert legal advice. l will go off the union topic for a few seconds because l feel strongly that the same principles are in play.

ln fact, one of the people who used to be in our group went off and made a business of it. So, because they have to pay themselves, they regularly charge people large amounts of money for things that they can do themselves. So very concretely, if somebody comes to us, we help and give knowledge but tell people they have to learn and be involved themselves. Mostly these are very poor people and they are happy not to have to spend money. But also, it turns out, they are usually very happy to know that they can take control of their situation and be the main people to manage their own affairs, with a little advice. Of course there are people who prefer to have a service, so those people can go to any of the other organizations that work differently - there is more than one. There you can find an expert sitting in the corner trying to convince people they need that person's expert help and that only he can do this. The subsequent dynamic is thus expert (leader) and clients. On the other hand, by encouraging people to take charge of their own matters, with some guidance if needed, we get a different dynamic. People who had no knowledge of certain things themselves learned and are the best people to advise other people, using their own experience. New people can talk to a wide variety of their peers that do not have degrees in law or necessarily any big education or cultural capital and learn many things from experience and see that they too can do things themselves. lt is a very important lesson because in too many organizations, those with certain types of education or social background tend to dominate and it's also not really what we want.

One other union organization that l know in another country sort of was looking at what we do, but they have a different mentality than us and they decided to hold a tenant's advice night (once a month?) in their place. But they just have a lawyer sitting their and giving advice. That's been going on for years but absolutely nothing is happening. We, on the other hand, do things differently, so we have a small but vibrant and engaged movement. What ultimately gets the results we want is not just providing a professionalized service to people, but helping them to enpower themselves and be involved.

Of course you can argue that one does not prevent the other and l can even agree with that. However, from what l see, going the professionalized route often does support a development in one direction rather than the other.

Some people used the lWA as an example and Pennoid used a text (which is quite controversial) to say that there are the "same problems". l think that the parts of the text quoted don't actually deal directly with the argument of being professionalized or not. But the author or the text does represent the factor which tends in this direction (although the evolution of this is slow and they started out in stages, first introducing the extended use of paid services, which indeed look like paid staff). The fact of the matter is that for years some unions larger than lWW avoided paid staffers. Now we see some changes in thinking among some that tend towards professionalization.

Pennoid, who proposes paid staffers as a strategy for the lWW somehow chooses some passages for a text which weren't directly related to this topic and even highlights a phrase pointing out that the majority of CNT unions are general membership branches which have less than 50 people. This fact was introduced by saying that the lWA unions have the same problems as the lWW.

l would really caution people here. l don't know Pennoid, but l know the way of thinking of that author and his clique and the message behind this is that it is a problem to be a general membership branch of less than 50 people.

ln the region of the author, this has translated into purges of the general membership branches of less than 50 people. Sometimes these are for other formal reasons, but when you have a situation when, for example, 4 unions did the same thing and were threatened to be kicked out, but only the ones less than 50 people actually got kicked out, the formal reasons are exposed as pretexts.

Sometimes the grand vision of being a large, professionalized workplace union turns people against their comrades who either are not this, or want to avoid professionalization. This prescriptive model sometimes does not value any form of organization that does not conform to its vision. We have even seen on this thread that if l am critical of this form, l must be like a lifestyle anarchists, against organization itself.

l would really, really caution the lWW against this mindset. l mean, not only you. The lWW includes many organizations which are small. This fact does not determine whether or not you are present in workplaces where you have opportunities. Having more comrades is useful and it is also clear that we want to activate people in a range of localities and some people lived in isolated places, small towns, etc. lt's pretty clear that there are a multitude of factors which determine whether things get going in a workplace in a given locality or not. l think it is a good thing that you all think about discussion, training, etc. as a way of encouraging others. But l would avoid the mindset that it is a "problem" that people organize themselves, but are not a huge professional union yet. There is a lot of consequential problems that result from this. l think we all want to do concrete work, be in the workplaces and have more people in our organizations. The kind of thinking that "you don't want to professionalize, or do this or that means you don't want to grow" is really problematic. (l've been facing it for years personally and it just doesn't work that way, because we do stuff and have our victories, but yeah, we could always grow faster if we made a lot of compromises.) lt also creates a bad stigma and l've seen some people just drop out because they think there is not point if they cannot easily reach a certain level, or become de-activated because some professionals did a "better job", so they just stopped trying.

All that said, l do not want to be taken out of context. l think that we should take care to improve our organizations all the time. Our organizations are healthier when we have lots of people who have knowledge and who can act with the same (or higher) degree of competence as larger organizations. That's why l'm really proud of some of my comrades who do a really good job advising people about their rights, how to organize themselves, etc. We only needed to pay lawyers a couple of times in the last years (because it was really special stuff that even the main unions couldn't deal with). Truthfully, we just cannot afford that stuff and getting more people won't help much more because most of our members are low income. Despite this, the comrades did really well defending themselves and other workers (even outside our union) or helping them in different ways. So l just see that it is possible to develop a high level of competency among normal working people and avoid the need for some paid services.

Jul 11 2016 18:47

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Akai.

Let me just clarify again, things which I am not advocating

- Hiring lawyers to give passive give legal advice
- hiring 'outside organizers' in the sense of business unions which service a contract
- hiring organizers which simply sit passively until called on
- paying organizers less than a living wage. Not giving organizers benefits
- overworking any paid staff
- giving organizers the final decision making power in negotiations or organizing.
- forcing small branches to close

Again, these are all things which I DO NOT advocate, and stated pretty clearly.

I do think its useful to look at the application of staff in other contexts, and what can go wrong with them. But I don't draw from that the conclusion that they're completely useless. Not least of all because key revolutionary organizations have had such a resounding success in the past with them. Further, I do not advocate 'professionalization' which is *your* term.

On the CNT, people can look to the piece themselves. I'm happy to look at other documents which give perhaps a fuller scope to the size and character of their membership. It appears to me, and you have not refuted this, that the relevant fact is that most of their membership, like the IWW in the US, is in small branches of workers in many different industries, and plugged into the 'counter-culture' left to some extent. The IWW has gotten better on the last aspect. But I did not misrepresent this fact, to the best of my knowledge.

Jul 11 2016 19:20

Hey Pennoid, just one note about the CNT - it's been changing quite a bit over the past 6 years or so, sometimes in ways which are not immediately apparent, and there is particularly little information in English. Even in Spanish it's mostly picking up a detail here and a detail there. For example, someone mentioned to me a few months back that a branch of 50 would be considered small in the CNT, the average is probably closer to 100. (Keep in mind a "big" branch in the IWW has 60 members.) It is true that most cities have mixed locals, and only a few such as Madrid have local federations of branches (with 6-700 members in Madrid proper). I also think that the portion of members engaged in the "counter culture left" has changed quite significantly in recent years. Some branches have been picking up dozens of members at a time through organizing.

Most importantly about info on the CNT though, is that I would take anything said by anyone outside of Spain (including me) with a grain of salt.

Joseph Kay
Jul 11 2016 19:35

Fwiw the problems people have with paid functionaries are an example what's called the [url=–agent_problem]principal-agent problem[/url]. I'm not sure the standard political science/economics solutions are any more palatable, but it isn't just a niche anarcho purist concern, rather it's an example a fairly general class of problems involving delegation under divergent material interests.

Jul 11 2016 21:37

Oliver, your promotion of the growing CNT is truly touching, but what you say is not accurate. There are many ways to calculate "averages" but the basis of any are the dues collected, which are the basis for calculating current membership and voting rights. Then you can choose a method - totalling and dividing by the total number of unions or by using another method. But first you need to actually have access to historical statistical information. So if we take the last plenary a couple of months ago, we see that the largest is the North region, just over 900 members in 14 unions. That averages out to what - around 64 per union? That's the biggest regional. Aragon-Rioja has a bigger average - about 78 on average ... but we all know the reality is that most of them are in one larger union. The second largest regional, Andalucia, averages only 44 members per union. The smallest region has literally one union, but averaging about 100. Now, going absolutely statistically, if you divide the total membership by the total number of unions, you statistically get an average of about 40 members. The unions with 100 or more members would be around 15, (give or take a few) which is a statistical minority. So... let's look back at the claims that "most" unions have 100 members and 50 is small. No - despite the vigorous purges, which maybe improve the average performance statistics, there are just not those numbers in place.

Of course plenty of organizations have people around them in and out, that support time to time, but those are not paid up members. By using that criteria, we can increase the number of any organization.

The long and the short of it is that the paid membership of the CNT at the 2010 Congress was about the same as in 2016. l know that a lot of people want to believe in a "transformation" into "big unionism" because of whatever ideological affinity they have, but it didn't happen.

This is way off the main topic, but somehow connected. There is a growing part of that organization that believes in paying for professional services and is going in this direction, yet the organization is hardly in rapid expansion because of that. lt is just propaganda used to get some people excited but it does not translate into paid membership. So using these types of arguments are just repeating this mantra without looking at the facts.

That said, the CNT did make good growth in the last 20 years, but not due to the new direction of the last 6 years. l would say that their ability to carry out a lot of conflicts and have important victories without a professionalized staff does prove that things can be done without them. But if we want to use CNT as an argument, it is much better to point out their achievements from the rank and file struggles than to just spread some mythology that is less important. Because ultimately a union should be judged by what it did for workers and what workers accomplished in it, not by how many people signed a paper.

Jul 12 2016 18:36

Thanks for the info Oliver and Akai. Maybe if someone could provide documentation we could get to the bottom of it? (no snark intended).

Joseph: Thanks for the reference but I have to say: if that is the condition upon which the concern is raised, then that kind of works in favor of my argument; there is not a satisfactory guarantee that someone we trust won't burn us. There are practical, organizational (here I mean 'practical' as in good practices, culture; and organizational as in structural mechanisms) options for ensuring that *any* agents don't 'act in their own interests' to the detriment of the whole.

That is, if I'm understanding the 'problem' correctly. In my first essay on this theme I addressed as well by noting that it is a class antagonism. It doesn't disappear simply by renaming the 'agents' (aka representatives) 'delegates' and the 'principles' (electorate) 'organizer members'. Who rules is the outcome of the actual practices and activity of people.

Once recognized, the question of pay does add to the problem certain peculiarities. Why can they not be addressed? If I'm correct in the class nature, hiring dedicated, well managed, and appropriately employed staff, would not be a threat to the organization's democracy, the activity of the members, or anything else etc.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 13 2016 03:04
You say they have a separate interest, but that that's not corruption, which is when they put financial interests before the membership. I don't see the distinction, really.

So if it's only about the money let's put that to one side.

Here's the thing - for me at least - the money isn't the issue.

It's about certain core principals the working people are fully capable of running their own organizations and organizing their own struggles. From there, I worry about certain internal contradictions that arise from having paid staff in revolutionary organizations. The potential exists - despite our best intentions - for paid staffers to act against the interests of the membership based on their position as paid staffers off the shop floor and as outside participants in the struggles they're supporting.

Anyway, this whole thread has had me thinking about those opening few paragraphs in Punching Out.

Isn't a Solnet workers coming together to act, though with some not on the shopfloor? So, workers at a restaurant seek assistance from others, with possibly more experience? Do the solnet workers have a separate interest? To help workers, or form a solnet? I mean here you have a group of outside organizers, right?

Solnets are, in my opinion, a symptom of our weakness. I like solnets , they do important work, and they should be supported. But, ideally, the sort of work solnets undertake should be done either by unions or by us acting collectively with out co-workers. And, at least everyone I know who's involved in solnets, sees solnets as a springboard to those larger aims.

As for the role of more experienced militants in solnets, as I said, in an ideal world, they're in the same workplace or the same industry. But even if they're not, these outside organizers relate to the worker in question as a fellow worker, not as a paid expert.

Again, none of this is malign the intentions of paid staffers, but by being paid, full-time class warriors puts certain pressures on them, changes their perspective, and changes the way workers in struggles relate to them - none of which are things we should be setting in motion within our revolutionary organizations.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 13 2016 04:27

Also, Penn, just out of curiosity what do you see as the reasons staffers in the business unions become corrupted?

Jul 20 2016 18:43

1. I've helped organize a Solnet and we won a fight. I've seen some of these limitations first hand, I've heard about them informally by being a member of the IWW for 5 years which uses the same general tactics and strategy of Solnets (direct action grievance handling). The problem is that these tactics don't scale up linearly into a strategy. My thinking is specifically: What were the limitations in the these campaigns? Every time there is a labor issue, it's turned into an issue of personal dedication, distraction, or inability to 'delegate tasks'. It's kind of depressing how much we've internalized our own guilt about not being able to win with a handful of busy volunteers.

2. The principal agent problem has as its basis contract law - in a word, it has as its basis private property. The working class asserts itself generally, when lacking in private property and the requisite state authority to enforce property rights through class struggle, and organizing to win its demands by force or demonstration. It's no different in the case of bureaucrats. But this *does* pose the problem of strategy.

3. Staffers aren't the bureaucrats. They aren't office holders sitting on fat salaries making decisions on behalf of the membership, which include continuing their cush ride. I've proposed the alternative about 3-4 different times and ways(trainer-organizers, a general organizer, field organizers) all jointly subordinated to the campaign they're working on and the ODB. Workers would still be deciding on every aspect of how the organization is run, like they do today. They would also be able to direct staff toward specific ends. We do have to think about the kinds of pressures that being paid etc. will put on the staffers, how to keep everything above-board and transparent, and minimize fraud or failure. But those aren't reasons to not do it. Not anymore than the same are reasons to abolish the GST position or the GEB.

4. I think the conception of 'self-organization' is very historically idiosyncratic. Was the old IWW not self-organized? Was it not democratic? Did the staff it hired lead it into bureaucratic ruin? My own conception of the bureaucracy is that it is a result of the class struggle; bureaucrats *do* have separate interests, and they often express them as 'harmonizing the interests of labor and capital'. Once they're in a position of power and influence, they can then use the staff and the organizational apparatus as they see fit. I think this is partly why so many people have a knee-jerk response to staff.

The answer though, is 'democratic-republican' control by the workers. Majority rule and recall-ability of officers. That is, if you truly believe the workers can govern their own organizations under capitalism.

I hope that clarifies.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 21 2016 04:42

So, Penn, I think this discussion has probably run its course, so this will probably be my last post.

However, I do think it's worth noting here that you're using the model and language of the democratic capitalist state to frame your arguments:

The answer though, is 'democratic-republican' control by the workers. Majority rule and recall-ability of officers. That is, if you truly believe the workers can govern their own organizations under capitalism.

I really try not to be one for semantic arguments, but I thinks that's reason for pause.

Sewer Socialist
Jul 21 2016 05:33

Since I rarely come to this site, it's an odd coincidence I came across this.

I was actually involved with the Couriers' Union, having moved to Chicago in 2005.

I would say that while Andrea's, Colin's and MK's contributions were huge, there was also a fairly committed core of about ten couriers at any time. We had, really, not much idea of what we should do.

MK did a lot to organize Arrow, but there wasn't really committed organizing outside of it; I mostly just told people to come to meetings and always made sure to show up. There really could have been outreach to us, organizer training, long- term goals and planning for the CCU, but there wasn't. If someone had reached out to us, we could have gotten around half of those ten to become committed organizers (which might have yielded further enthusiastic organizers. I even went to some GMB meetings, but was never sure of what I should or could be doing.

Having them there helped a ton, but looking back, we were really too dependant on them. I guess paying them could have let MK quit, but IDK if he would have been more or less effective from the outside. I actually didn't know MK was salting at Arrow, I always thought he was a messenger first.

Jul 21 2016 22:37


By 'democratic-republican' I mean the basic politics of most classic anarchosyndicalists; majority rule, and recallability of officials/delegates. I know that's idiosyncratic, which is why I'm breaking it down. I do think it is a semantic thing, and I don't mean to invoke the state here, just organizational principles.

I want to emphasize that there is a line of thought here that is problematic:

Bureaucrats have separate interests from workers (true)

Therefore even one or a few can't be trusted

So we can't have any bureaucrats. (remains to be demonstrated).

Bureaucrats are a social class in capitalism; a subgroup of the petty-bourgeoisie with monopolies on crucial skills; lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, editors, etc.

This is a result of the *social division of labor* in capitalism. It is not simply a reflexive matter of choice but a result history and developments in the class struggle. Transcending the bureaucracy is the task of the working class in destroying capitalism. Partly that means subjecting them to working class rule in the interim.

It means keeping them from extorting workers' organizations through their monopoly on skills, or playing downright petty bourgeois roles, like U.S. doctors. It means that working class interests have to be made to prevail in general social questions. In the most abstract, it means the majority of society's propertyless will have to prevail in social questions, over the propertied (including those who's property is 'office' or again, a monopoly on skills).

I hope this clarifies, and I recognize if we've kind of hit our different ends. Still happy to debate.

Sewer (dig the name);

You say:

There really could have been outreach to us, organizer training, long- term goals and planning for the CCU, but there wasn't. If someone had reached out to us, we could have gotten around half of those ten to become committed organizers (which might have yielded further enthusiastic organizers. I even went to some GMB meetings, but was never sure of what I should or could be doing.

That's precisely my point. I would love to see someone compensated to remain with workers, train them, guide them, provide them with research resources and information, and take on tasks so delegated by the committee of workers themselves etc.

Also, thanks for the input! Pretty neat to talk to someone else involved, after the fact. You guys struggling is the reason we can even have this conversation, and that's real.