Community and Industrial Unity for One Big Union of the working class

First, I would like to commend FW Martinez on their reply to FW Nappalos’ Locality and Shop Inside Revolutionary Unions, it is a great example of the type of positions FWs should be putting forward to each other so as to collectively debate important issues of the day between revolutionary unionists. I find myself split about 50-50 between agreeing with both FWs, but since this is intended as a reply to FW Martinez I will mostly focus on my agreement and disagreements with their piece and my own perspectives.

Refusing to wait

“We cannot wait to act until popular political viewpoints recognize revolutionary anti-capitalism as a valid and legitimate political position. If the political landscape is going to be altered radically, it is going to be altered by the self-directed activity of the working class. As militants, our role is to actively build an organization, a movement, a concept, that encourages and allows this class activity to flourish.”

The historical strength of anarcho-syndicalism, and in recent history of the IWW, has been recognizing that as a working class movement we can struggle for immediate gains now, in a revolutionary way (via direct action and control of such struggles by those directly affected from below), while still maintaining our maximum program, abolition of the wage system, the state and capital. Unlike many left communists, autonomist Marxists, and even some class struggle anarchists (platformists come to mind), revolutionary unionists and anarcho-syndicalists have always asserted that mass workers’ associations can organize in a revolutionary way outside of revolutionary periods, in fact we must take up this task now more than ever, as FW Martinez points out:

“…the class-collaborationist unions – are falling increasingly out of favor. Working people are searching for alternatives now seemingly more than ever.”

From union initiatives to unions in practice

“If there are fifteen IWW members in a city, it simply makes no sense to divide them up into three groups of 5 people based on the industry in which they work. We can maximize the capabilities of this small group if we put them all together and enable them to work on the same campaign.”

This quote illustrates how FW Martinez agrees with FW Nappalos on this point, but I believe overlooks the qualitative leap in local organization that the latter is seeking to make. No serious organizer in the IWW wants GMBs to be leftist political organizations or Joe Hill Clubs. By introducing the concepts of locality and shop organization, FW Nappalos highlighted the historical functions most revolutionary unionist and anarcho-syndicalist union movements have taken on. Furthermore they argue that the campaign of such a local based organizing initiative should be to organize in a syndicalist way around working class life under capitalism.

The FAUD in Germany was organized around Industrial Federations and local Workers’ Communities, similarly the CGT around Bourse du Travail (local labor councils) and industrial syndicates, the CNT have had Sindicatos de Officios Varios as well as setting up local ateneos or social centers and tenant unions, the FORA with local resistance societies as well as workers associations organized by shop/trade. Today groups like Solidarity Federation in their book Fighting for Ourselves, describe how they organize a revolutionary union initiative by local groups and industrial as well as community networks (like efforts around student organizing with their student network).

As FW Martinez says “gathering militants is a means to building the union.” This is the real role that GMBs as locality based groups should take on. I feel this is what FW Nappalos means when they conclude that:

“Maybe we can make better use of what we have by recognizing the function of a locality based organization to address the totality of life under capitalism alongside committees and structures of workplace networks of militants like shop committees, industrial organizing committees, and eventually workplace branches.”

Community and industrial unity

Finally I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my criticisms with FW Martinez and others. I think unfortunately and unintentionally their reply has a straw man like logic to its’ argument, that what FW Nappalos is calling for is for GMBs to take on the character of a political organization.

“I feel the discrepancy here is that unions are not merely associations of working people, but associations of working people organized by workplace and industry, dedicated to building power for workers in those workplaces and industries. Unions are not political organizations that arbitrarily restrict their membership to workers.”

As I hinted at in the previous passage I agree with FW Nappalos that a local based group should not be a political organization, but an organizing initiative for starting small fights within our capacity around life under capitalism in order to build to the point that justifies a division of labor into more community or industrial forms of organization whether they be separate organizing committees, branches, networks, or eventually unions, and so on.

Perhaps an example from a sister class struggle and anarcho-syndicalist inspired organization would better highlight this dilemma we often face as revolutionary unionists. The Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol for short) started as an organizing initiative of about 5 wobblies who a bunch of organizing experience but little luck sustaining longer term collective campaigns in workplaces. From the get go they decided to focus on fighting struggles around life under capitalism, such as against wage theft from bosses, deposit theft from landlords, horrendous banking practices, and in some cases sexism and racism. The goal has been as working class people come to SeaSol, win, and hopefully stay committed members of the organizations’ main organizing committee SeaSol would eventually be able to take on bigger and bigger fights, including collective fights like organizing inside shops and tenant unionization in apartment complexes, etc. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the founders of SeaSol when they presented to IWWs and members of the Boston Solidarity Network, and learned that they have now split off some of their work into a new second committee (C2 short for committee 2) for investigating, mapping and charting and planning for such new more collective fights.

As FW Martinez puts forward eventually such a committee of workers or tenants according to the federalist principle should probably “break off” and form its own organization, but in my honest opinion this should only be done when it becomes a practical necessity to do so.

When FW Martinez insists that because we are an industrial union, aspiring organizers should just be assisted by the appropriate industrial body, I feel they also under estimate the need for local community support for workplace organizing. Many IWWs are self-starters like the FW correctly points out and I see this often lead to thinking that we can just build in our workplaces while being in touch with the rest of the union, but in my experience it is useful to have an organizing committee of committed Wobblies on the outside helping you. Not only can your FWs hold you to task, but their real networks of friends, relatives, and coworkers are a vital resource to rely upon in case of the need of solidarity in workplace campaigns.

Finally I take issue with FW Martinez’s insistence that we are necessarily “an industrial union, not a neighborhood- or city-based group of workers.” To me there is no denying the fact that for the time being most wobblies will be organized into GMBs which are essentially networks of militants across industries and communities, geographically organized. The role of these groups like the FW says should be to facilitate new unionist organizing. However to demarcate that the IWW should only concern itself with workplace organizing to me is vulgar workerism. I feel like the history of the revolutionary unionist and anarcho-syndicalist movements shows not only has there been attempts at community unionism, but that it is a vital necessity to engage in such organizing as part of the long term objectives of the class struggle.

FW Martinez is right we should strive not to have people ask us “How can I get involved with the IWW in my city?” but put ourselves into a position where people ask us “How can I organize a union in my community, school or workplace,” and have a plan and vision to guide them there, and hopefully become lifelong revolutionary union organizers.

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