A Gigantic Network of Narrow Streams: Ditching the Formal IWW and Building the Real

by Tyler Zee with contributions to conversation from Chino, Adela, Kei, and others

What is the IWW? Formal vs Real

On the surface, the IWW appears as a collection of bylaws, charters, branches, treasuries, members, and officers. Only a cursory glance underneath these formalities will reveal the deception of appearance, because the vast majority of these things have no relationship at all to popular struggles. Mass struggle at the point of production is obviously not erupting at the moment, but sadly the objective state of these struggles is not taken as the starting point for organizational efforts within the formal IWW. Rather, the formal IWW is seen as the precondition that future struggles are contingent upon.

The formal IWW, like the rest of the Left, presently has no roots at all in the class, but it imagines that the dues it collects, the branches it charters, and the resolutions it passes will have some kind of effect on the vast layers of the class not currently within its ranks. It has attempted to recreate a form in a vacuum, one that was historically born from struggle and should have changed with the new political reality following the defeat of those struggles. But in the formal IWW, form is elevated above content, structure above struggle, because the assumption is that such form produces struggle. In fact, the opposite is the case: struggle is and has always been the determinant of the forms of organization. And unfortunately for us, movements are produced of themselves in objective social conditions over which none of us have control.

Referring to itself as “a union” or a times “a revolutionary union,” the formal IWW when challenged to justify that claim, retreats into the mysticism of unionism as “a moment” when any self-selected grouping of workers act on the job. Sure. But a couple of solid militants raising the possibility of job action is qualitatively different from a standing organization at a workplace publicly recognized by the workers and the company (whether that recognition is mediated by a contract or not). It is different than a widely shared culture of unionism built through years of mass struggle. This more abstract concept which can be applied to any situation doesn’t help us make a concrete assessment of the present conditions of struggle and the organizational and strategic requirements pertaining. Formal Wobs then fall back on talk about “moments” when they’re unable to explain the big difference between a revolutionary union of the sort they imagine themselves to be and the IWW today which is much smaller and more discontinuous. But most importantly, obscuring this distinction hides the fact that the current organizational infrastructure of the IWW corresponds to a much bigger type of workers movement which doesn’t actually exist at the moment.

Often we hear the formal IWW referred to as “bureaucratic” or “undemocratic” as if it is some kind of brake on our activity. But never is the irony of those claims appreciated, as there is no activity for them to brake. Our organizing proceeds unadulterated, with or without all the bureaucracy or undemocratic maneuvering, and where this organizing ceases it is because it acquiesces to the illusion that the General Executive Board or some others structures are in control. The only thing the GEB controls is a title. We all mock the white bro D&D players who show up to convention and posture like Big Bill Haywood whose only relationship to the IWW milieu is that they pay dues, meanwhile they get to shit on and block every measure proposed to advance more militant organizing, whatever that looks like. But then we feel affronted as if it will have any bearing on what we do. We actually think it matters whether our positions are accepted by them and it is precisely in this way that we reproduce the formal IWW.

The formal IWW isn’t singularly the GEB either. Certainly they are an integral part, but formalism itself is an activity that transcends formal structures. Whenever we get anxiety because the convention didn’t pass this or that resolution, we reproduce the formal IWW. The result is a mystification of what actually exists or at worse a self-mediation of our independent activity. It muddles the conversation about what and how to build rather than offering any clarity.

Even the most seasoned IWW organizer has little to no concept of mass politics or that the historic IWW (its experiences, not its paper existence) was the result of mass struggle–usually outside its immediate influence–but which it positively related to and intervened in. It never occurs to them that not an ounce of the formal IWW matters without proletarians outside our existing reach beginning to enter the fray.

We see then that formalism is a methodology, a type of idealism that begins on the footing of form rather than activity.

The real IWW: a social ecology

So if the IWW isn’t this collection of members and officers and resolutions and a composite of empty formalisms, then what is it? The IWW in its lived experience and not its idea of itself is usually an informal and sometimes formal network of workplace militants, solnet organizers, revolutionaries, prisoners, and prisoner solidarity activists. It is the African Peoples Caucus, the former Recomposition, the May First Anarchist Alliance, Unity and Struggle, Black Rose, independent radicals, communists, and anarchists. It is the Free Alabama Movement, IWOC-NYC, a single militant prisoner in a Texas facility, a tenant in Georgia who dares to challenge her landlord, a group of Seattle immigrants whose wages were stolen. It is not a union of workers who join out of interest, but a few hundred political militants and their contacts who have a beautiful if vague vision of a different world and the need to fight for it, a vision that is as contradictory as struggle itself.

The IWW is a buzzword uniting this multi-celled amoeba that with its finger-like extensions spreads across the ponds of disparate struggle by its determination to bypass the corpse of representation and the fear its name conjures in the heart of the enemy. Such fear is not of the Industrial Worker paper nor the members “in good standing”, it is of the living, breathing network of militants that threaten their ability to manage.

Some of this social ecology sees the formal IWW as the real IWW. In fact, if the formal IWW lived in a insular world we would have no need to publish this essay. We are not interested in converting the formal IWW into the informal. Quite the opposite. In addition to the urgency of clarifying for ourselves and for this broader milieu (many of which are doing important and valuable work) what the concrete IWW is, our long-term vision is cast toward an entirely new form of organization. The difference is we desire an organization that gives expression to existing activity, not one that pretends we are the CIO, or worse, a radical alternative to the AFL. We don’t aim to rewrite the constitution and bylaws to incorporate more democracy as if democracy is a piece of paper. We don’t aspire for a better “structure,” but a new concept of “what is” altogether.

Furthermore, the social ecology of the IWW isn’t an automatic remedy to the limits of the formal IWW. Similarly, it doesn’t have deep roots in the class, only inconsistent contact. But contact is the basis for deeper connection and inroads that could be an agent of ferment at the onset of mass rebellion. The real IWW, the broad milieu and network of informal and sometimes formal relationships, cannot sink those roots any better than the formal IWW without future social dislocation that propel proletarians into action in a mass way. On this point we take influence from Don Hamerquist of the STO when he wrote in Trade Unions and Independent Organizations: “It is mysticism […] to assert that through the simple substitution of a ‘good’ organizational form for a ‘bad’ one, political problems which are rooted in the current consciousness and behavior of the working class can be resolved.” No technical modification, no form or structural change can leap over the current state of struggle, but a sober assessment of what we actually are surely prepares us to better respond to struggle when it springs forth.

Recent debates and new caucuses

The immediate context of this essay are the recent debates that have occurred in the formal and informal IWW. Of course, there have always been perennial and impassioned debate, but they have reemerged with renewed vigor and urgency due to the changing political climate that has lent previously abstract perspectives a new concreteness.

The wave of prison revolts and strikes, the emergence of Black Lives Matter movement, the growth of white nationalism and the lead-up to the election of Trump as well as the immediate fallout has put the political question front and center again. No longer is the issue of imparting the IWW a political character an abstraction as the recent activity of the Twin Cities IWW, General Defense Committee and African Peoples Caucus have demonstrated.

The re-emergence of Black struggle, though it is temporarily at an ebb, reveals to the broad IWW milieu the only sober way that the racial composition of the formal IWW, overwhelmingly white and male, and the center of years of debate can be confronted. The racial constitution of the prison strikes as Black and immigrant-led, and the gendered experience of reproductive struggles which has positioned women to play the leading role in coordinating on the outside of prison walls as family, as comrades, now spells the final limits of the formal adoption of “SAFER spaces” and other top-down approaches to challenging the racial and gendered limits of the IWW: we no longer have to resolve and expel our way to a different IWW, we already have a different one by our very activity.

The IWOC has been the site of debate over the role of the IWW in the prison rebellions that began to unfold in earnest in 2014. While many workplace organizers may not see it as important or at best auxiliary to the “main” work, the bigger takeaway isn’t their political weakness, it is that the explosion of prison struggle isn’t the result of IWOC formalism, but happened of its own accord. One might think that they would apply this internal dynamism and logic to class struggle outside prison walls, but instead they cling to the reified model of a linear growth of industrial unions, one workplace, one industry at a time until the eventual arrival of the general strike. Even the IWOC members themselves spent the vast majority of their conference not discussing strategy and organization, but how they can get the convention and formal IWW to take their work seriously. Instead of considering the immense coordinating and logistical questions that impose themselves as limits of the prison movement, they proposed tedious resolutions toward a democratization of the paper IWW.

Some of the recent debate among the GDC has been around “simple antifa” (the classic ARA tactic) versus “mass antifa” which aspires to take the fight against fascism and white nationalism out of the subculture of the hard Left and into the realm of mass politics. The activity of the Twin Cities GDC has produced interest around the country and new inquiries on the possibility of building similar groupings. Rather than focusing exclusively on those inquiries some sit about writing resolutions for the convention to incorporate the GDC. While there have been important questions raised, the framework has been to have it officially sanctioned or rejected by the formal IWW. But the future of mass antifa does not rest with the convention or GEB, but with those who have the fortitude and capacity to execute it.

The work of IWOC and GDC and their relationship to the IWW have seen a high degree of polarization in the milieu. While each side interjects vital considerations, the forms of the disagreement become highly obfuscatory leaving unclear the terms on which people are even debating. To make matters worse, instead of trying to establish even a modicum of categorical clarity which before staking out a position and a proposal for action examines the practical reality, semi-nebulous political critiques get subsumed into personal attacks, even to the point of pathologizing people. Instead of bringing clarity to the concrete picture which underpin the differing perspectives, they falsely polarize into the questionable content of one’s behavior. Even the whole framework of “caucuses” assumes the existence of a union movement to begin with. What the form of these debates and all their ugliness reveal is a general cynicism tied to the absence of mass struggle–the very union movement itself–and lack of clarity on who we are and what our role is, rendering a vision on how we could move forward completely futile.

The caucus of the Wobblies for a Revolutionary Union Movement is an interesting development to the extent that it has expressed a need to combat a reductive concept of unionism that subordinates struggles around social reproduction, particularly in the context of renewed struggles against cops or the wave of prison strikes and riots. For this reason, the WRUM is not only making a defense of IWOC and GDC activity as critical to IWW practice but pushing their indispensability as they more closely express where class struggle has taken place. Struggles in the context of social reproduction, in this case against the police and prisons, are not only “equally important” to workplace organizing, but central to the class experience and the heart of the crisis itself. And where the class struggles, so we as militants must be.

Unfortunately, the WRUM statement leans heavily on the undemocratic nature of the GEB, its “oppressive behavior,” and postulates that there is a one-to-one relationship between economism and racism. They implicitly imagine that by getting rid of certain people and behaviors, objective problems that limit our ability to make broader inroads to the class will be overcome. The actual substance of some of their political critique are of immense value and we should welcome the proliferation of those ideas across the milieu. But without having a different platform in which to debate these things out, even the best intentioned militants are left fighting for resolutions instead of engaging in a rich discussion with others nationwide and internationally to win them over to a particular position or tactic.

The Industrial Unionist Caucus (IUC) is another positive example of militants coming together to cohere around a set of key principles and using those principles to shape specific measures. The IUC is a concentrated space for IWW militants to coordinate their activity and to fight for the dissemination of their ideas. Like the WRUM, they advance a set of critiques of existing practice, many of which we find common agreement with: the limits of external activist cheerleading and protest-hopping, unstrategic and haphazard organizing campaigns, the inefficacy of the General Membership Branches which affiliate people based purely on location, etc. Yet while they claim to begin with concrete experience, their method reveals a similar disconnect between form and content, exemplified in the call to return to a classical industrial focus, a focus that a hundred years ago was inherently tied to a very specific class composition and activity. Classic industrial unionism was not a voluntarist effort, but reflected the mass struggles of a definite period within particular sectors of proletarians, struggles that the IWW did not will into existence.

Rather than beginning with a compositional analysis of the class and how it is being recomposed, where the class is fighting (or isn’t) and what new forms of organization might facilitate its further development, it remains trapped in formalism, which, despite their intent, is the real substance of their claim of being “IWW fundamentalists.” It actually has little to nothing to do with their supposed racism and sexism. It is not their behavior, but their particular conception of labor and capital which leaves them to conclude that industrial activity is the starting point for class struggle.

Whatever be the different political and strategic points of emphasis among the two caucuses, what unites them is their formalism. Each caucus hopes to impose its will on the other, as if it will magically neutralize the basis on which these debates are springing up. The aim is to have the formal IWW by this or that means adopt the specific measures of the respective caucuses and that will bring about the desired result. The strength of their respective ideas, however, are in their practical implications, the results of their organizing and their theoretical defense, not on their formal recognition.

How the method of direct unionism can help us

To take a relatively recent parallel, the campaign of what later became the now-defunct Recomposition crew to fight for a direct unionist approach to workplace struggle shows that it matters little whether their specific strategic assumptions are formally adopted.

Direct unionism began with a highly modest and concrete look at what the IWW is. Instead of just accepting that the IWW is a union simply because we call ourselves one, it made the observation that what we really are is an informal, and at times, formal network of workplace militants and activists. Rather than a standing grouping where ordinary workers outside the scope of a struggle affiliate merely because of where they work, what typifies the IWW are individuals who join based on a vague political commitment. It also implicitly acknowledged the objective limits in the present moment: shrinking gains, capitalist intransigence, discontinuity of struggle, etc., that imposes limits on the ability to actually win large campaigns. So it suggests that we build networks of militants who with others carry out informal and small job actions and that those experiences can possibly serve as a framework and pole for popular struggle upon its re-emergence.

Direct unionism wasn’t developed in a lab, but arrived at by the critical reflection on contemporary organizing by militants who took part in it and the subsequent systemization of those ideas for distribution within IWW ecology. The fact that it has not been formally adopted reveals how the strategic coordination of a small group of militants across the landscape can influence the direction of debate and the scope of practice. The Wobblyism pamphlet of 2013 used direct unionism as a strategic beginning point to historicize the hegemony of service-oriented unionism in the period of the 90s and 2000s. It revealed that radical service unionism was a spontaneous development, a consequence of the retreat of struggle and the growth of activist auxiliaries to the mainstream unions looking for a democratic alternative and not the result of an intense strategic debate. Direct unionism did not become a general approach by accident, but by a long-term articulation and practice of its adherents.

The current IWW has never seen a mass movement where workplaces are the site of struggle and this is one of the objective reasons why many activists who find themselves in the milieu rarely if ever think about our organizing in relationship to a future social rupture. Because of this, it is very easy to take for granted that the growth of the IWW in the long run will be the result of “good organizing” rather than on how it positions itself once popular struggle returns. We, on the other hand, assume the IWW will never grow in any qualitative sense–that is, outside the activist milieu and subculture–without social explosions. Furthermore, we insist that without such an explosion our organizing is not and cannot be decisive for any kind of future where wage labor and private property are abolished. Finally, we say that the present organizing is a training ground and infrastructure that can be radically augmented in a dynamic way once the working class in general or even in sections become activated. Therefore, the task is not to build “the union,” to sign people up to the formal IWW, to reform it through superfluous bureaucracy, and to attempt mass high-profile campaigns on the job, but engage in subterranean guerilla warfare at work and in our communities to the extent that once mass struggle materializes we can more effectively fuse with that energy rather than be completely bypassed, or worse, marginalized by establishment forces. Again, the Twin Cities experience is extremely instructive toward these ends. In this way we ask our comrades not to take the fate of the formal IWW so seriously, but also conversely, to prioritize the seriousness of organizing our milieu. This necessarily involves infinitely less conversations about “structure” because this conversation remains too abstract and miles ahead of the concrete picture, and more about building relationships with each other across, local, political, organizing divides.

There is speculation that the mounting tensions that are producing such intense debate and the formation of various caucuses signals an impending split. Some may see the split as a loss as it will fracture “the union,” while others could welcome it as a way that members with irreconcilable differences can move forward in a productive way. But nowhere in the debate is there a critique of the methodology of formalism leaving us to conclude that a new “union” would merely repeat the same empty structural nonsense, but with better politics on paper. Formalism with better politics gets us not an inch closer to cohering a grouping that can dynamically combine with mass struggle when it emerges, whether it be struggles on the job or outside it.

Between “economism” and “activism,” formalism is the real threat

Engaging in the formal IWW means filling out an application, paying dues, electing officers, joining or forming a branch and facilitating meetings with Robert’s Rules of Order. Likewise, taking part in the current debates mean forming a caucus and attempting to reform the formal IWW. It means voting on resolutions and reading the General Organizational Bulletin every month so we can read the overwrought defense or rejection of particular motions, as if the outcome of any of this pretentiousness has any ramifications for proletarian struggle or even our own limited activity. If we ever stop to really look at it, the whole thing is quite silly.

But we don’t have to engage this way. We don’t have to get lost in the tediousness and formality as a means to have a relationship to whatever is good or interesting that is happening in the social milieu. What is really at stake in all the personality problems and snarky debating on Red Card Holders isn’t bureaucracy or lack of democracy it’s that they obfuscate and mystify, but simultaneously are the reflex of, new forms of activity that then become subsumed into the formal IWW.

But what about the formal IWW? What about “all the money” and “resources”? We respond by asking, how decisive have those supposed resources and money been to our respective organizing? How often have we instead relied on our own collective efforts and ability to pool funds and get something done? Does our work really hang in the balance without it? What about all of our myriad solidarity networks who have come together with an extremely austere structure and dues collection? But what to do with the formal IWW isn’t really what is at stake in the question. What is at stake is whether individual activists know how to actually organize outside the framework of the formal, paper IWW. This is our failure, not theirs.

Formalism is the real danger, not the administration, not economism or IWW fundamentalism, not the activism of members. Economism narrows the sphere of activity and possibility, activism gets pulled along by whatever is hot at the moment, and for those reasons they need challenging. But formalism totally isolates us from reality and winds up absorbing activity into efforts that have zero consequences for changing what it is we don’t like in the practical IWW.

Even the most militant “economist” struggle in the workplace benefits the whole informal milieu. We automatically inherent new possibilities we had nothing to do with when we engage the IWW in the street. Likewise, when the IWW in the street extends itself in every possible political way, the workplace organizers and their associations benefit from the new political reality that can reinforce their work on the job. There is a whole network of IWW militants who can be leveraged to sustain their activity and that will prevent their isolation and potentially draw unsure or timid workers into the mix.

The informal network of IWW militants, even the most conservative and politically reductive types, are organizing struggle in the workplace and gaining real skills and experience that at the onset of a spontaneous wave of workplace rebellion situates them to be the ones many workers turn to first for perspectives on how to fight. The “fundamentalists” need the IWW social ecology organizing outside the workplace as that is where episodic rebellion has transpired and is of indispensable value to future of workplace struggle. It has been in contemporary mass struggles that we have broken out of our subcultural life and been able to show what is possible when organized militants intervene for the movement’s autonomy, defense, and expansion.

Because of this we have a responsibility to engage each other and not draw hard lines on matters of strategy, but on the formalism which could destroy it all. We are not the product of our own activity but that of the social totality and the multiplied cooperative forces of militant proletarians everywhere.

Who are we?

“We” don’t really exist as anything coherent. We are not a committee, not a caucus, not a tendency, not some faction vying for control over an imagined bureaucracy, only a handful of militants who share a methodology, one which at times leads us to differing conclusions. And though the writers would never attempt even in the context of mass unionism to capture a bureaucracy, the sad truth is that there is no bureaucracy for us to capture. Most of us don’t belong to sanctioned branches. Some of us participate in IWOC activities while others are organizing in chartered and non-chartered GDCs. Sometimes we organize on the job while at other times we show up to the picket lines of business unions and polarize against an actual bureaucracy. At no point in our collective organizing has the formal IWW stopped us for a single moment–only when we have had to combat the formalism among us. Fundamentally, we exist to rep the practical tradition of the IWW and beyond, the general threads of social revolt, and the fear it instills among the rulers. Drawing on the broad social milieu–the practical IWW, not the one on paper–has aided us in showing the working class that we aren’t just a handful of local workplace activists; that a much wider struggle exists out there, with people like us and them, even if scattered and small.

This doesn’t mean we don’t care about organization. In fact, the diametric opposite. The weakness of the social ecology of the IWW is its discontinuity and lack of coordination, its localism and activism, its lack of analysis and its empiricism. But among this ecology we find the potential–and only a potential–web of nodules for a future form. If that form winds up being called anything other than IWW, we will shed no tears. Better a small active network of militant fighters advancing the IWW traditions than a large group of passive dues-payers with legal claim to the IWW name.

We have relationships with IUC and WRUM affiliates, ex-Recompists, former Wobs, Unity and Struggle, May First Anarchist Alliance, Black Rose, IWOC and GDC organizers, Angry Workers of the World, Passa Palavra, and Clash City Workers. Even those who we are in contact with who are not directly part of the milieu are indirectly a part of it through the relationship with us. We agree and disagree with all of our comrades on a myriad of strategic and political questions. We don’t care to enforce agreement at a higher level with all of them, nor do we want to merge them and coexist into a unitary revolutionary organization. Instead, we imagine a practical network based on a loose set of principles that capture the highest expression of militancy we have seen in the milieu, a network which takes impetus from “Hands Up, Don’t Ship”, the Jamar Clark encampment, and the mass antifa of Twin Cities, the Northwest Airlines strike, the Free the Bronx 120 campaign, the Food Mart organizing in the Bay, the detention center strikes in Conroe, TX and Atlanta, GA, the general strike coordination efforts in Madison, WI.

We could care less about meeting the criteria of chartering a branch or whether particular motions we might otherwise agree with politically are passed. We could see the whole formal thing erupt into flames and the cherished Sabo cat and IWW Song Book relegated to the dustbins of history. What we do care about are the real connection to proletarians being made at UPS, in Atlanta County Detention Center, at Macon State Prison in Alabama, at the University of Puerto Rico, in the projects of Hunts Point, in apartment complexes in Gulfton, and in the petrochemical refineries of Baytown. The historic IWW only has merit to the extent that it advanced class struggle and where it didn’t we have zero sentimentalism. The only thing worth preserving are the rich lessons of past generations of IWW and other militants who put primacy on struggle over formalism: Hubert Harrison, Ben Fletcher, Lucy Parsons, Rebel Girl, Frank Little, the Philadelphia and New Orleans dock workers, East Texas timber workers, the Magonistas, Mexican IWW, and the left-wing of the Texas Socialist Party who wanted the blood of the Mexican Revolution to spill cross the Rio Grande Valley and run all the way to the Minnesota River.

A general way forward

A new organization cannot be built now. The struggle is too localized, discontinuous, and mostly non-existent. We cannot build a mass union as the formal IWW imagines itself to be and all of our tiny discontinuous organizing in the end is simply training for future revolt. What we can do now is to begin coordination of the social ecology, to turn the informal milieu into a scaffolding for future militant proletarian organization–who cares what it is called.

The real IWW is the most recent and richest pool of experiences which workers in struggle can draw from and which militants familiar with the traditions can impart. It is the best possible option we have, despite our openness to new possibilities from without, to transform from an informal militant network to something more coherent as struggles begin qualitatively changing.

We must synthesize in theory the best of the IWW social ecology and reproduce it at every level possible, not just in the workplace. The point is to organizationally (practically) connect the various threads of IWW activity: workplace organizing, strike intervention, prisoner organizing, community self-defense, and street protest blocs. If GDC militants from two different cities talk on the phone and resolve to advocate certain principles and enact certain practices among their respective spheres of influence, that is the embryonic framework of the future organization.

A critical part of our fate as a tradition is engaging outside our milieus. One of the reasons why the Twin Cities has been so successful is that they have not just passively participated in popular struggles in their area, but have actively engaged as patriots of the movement, raising important strategic questions that have resulted in changing the dynamic of the struggle. We would like to replicate this general proactive approach. Additionally we think it important to telescope the cross-local and organizing interfacing beyond the borders of the US. The profound growth of the SI COBAS in Italy are highly instructive for us in the IWW milieu in the States because while they have a history preceding the last few years of struggle, their resurgence was directly related to migrant workers in the logistics industry beginning to fight back against Ikea, DHL, TNT and other logistics giants. SI COBAS didn’t grow linearly from a small group to a large union through passive recruitment, but by jumping into the logistics struggle and providing direction. And not only the formal SI COBAS militants, but the broad revolutionary Left milieu, the squats and social centers, have been central parts of the coherence of the struggle, inveighing significant strategic and political lessons preventing the defeat and isolation of the warehouse and transport fights.

Breaking out of our isolationism and preparing for future mass struggles are the most critical parts of how we can move past the current malaise and formalism pervading us. But rather than the passive policy of simply ignoring the formal IWW (although that would be a welcomed change), we should begin on the terms of strengthening the real IWW toward the end of new associations and new forms of organization in the long view.

So how can we do this? We start by what exists or what existed in recent memory and aim toward a more purposeful extension and continuity of that activity.

  • Formation or reformation of new blogs, but with an aim toward clarifying political perspectives and elevating the level of strategic debate and creativity in the whole informal milieu, eliminating the cynical shit-talking and obfuscatory communication, with small editorial committees who puts in the long-term work of soliciting serious theory and strategy and not just putting up empirical organizing reports-back.
  • Organization of more speaking tours that focus on specific areas of work, sharing the particular experiences and obstacles of organizing, which can interface militants of different cities and backgrounds, and deepen existing relationships.
  • Giving the existing organizer training, a valuable IWW practice, a wider scope to include other arenas of organizing, and streamlined into a 2-3 hour workshop that can quickly and easily be reproduced.
  • Holding forums or conferences where the different strategic questions and limits of our organizing are discussed and debated.
  • Build practical relationships outside the IWW milieu that relate beyond passive “solidarity” work: engage local BLM groupings in strategic conversation, link up with antifa groups where we raise the need for “mass antifa” tactics, help build immigrant defense and rapid response networks, etc.
  • Engage other class struggle networks outside the US: IWW in the UK, Angry Workers of the World in West London, Clash City Workers or the SI COBAS union in Italy, Kampa Tillsammans in Sweden, Passa Palavra in Brazil, etc.
  • Finally, study and produce more theory. The empirical thinking that pervades our milieu, the disconnect between our organizing and mass struggle, the fetish of historic forms of organization are 100% a result of not taking up important theoretical questions. We need to study history and read biographies but also make sense of the value form, social reproduction, falling rate of profit, composition of labor and capital, etc.

Rather than trying to harness the little activity there is to the formal IWW and having our solid organizing be subsumed into it, we make the informal IWW the real one, not spontaneously, where we remain informal and pulled along by objective events or whatever new organizing trend is the rage; and not formalistically, by a constitution and bylaws and ridiculous Robert’s Rules which were more adequate to older forms of mass unionism. New forms which intentionally bring us closer outside the confines of formalism better represents what we are, not only quantitatively as a small milieu, but also qualitatively–not a mass of workers who affiliate out of pure interest, but a social ecology of militants and organizers committed to the development of popular struggle and the abolition of capital and the State.

The stronger the real connections become over time, the weaker and more irrelevant the formal IWW becomes. The “IWW” is dead. Long live the IWW!

“The mass strike, as the Russian Revolution shows it to us, is such a changeable phenomenon that it reflects all the phases of the political and economic struggle, all stages and factors of the revolution. Its adaptability, its efficiency, the factors of its origin are constantly changing. It suddenly opens new and wide perspectives of the revolution when it appears to have already arrived in a narrow pass and where it is impossible for anyone to reckon upon it with any degree of certainty. It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth.”


-Rosa Luxemburg, 1906


  1. Appreciate this a lot!

    And particularly think doing tours from other more radical union struggles that are having lots of impacts in other countries would be very useful for the IWW as well as appreciating the importance of the ‘upsurge’ little and big into how we conceptualize IWW theory and practice.

    I am however more optimistic about the ability to refashion the IWW’s infrastructure to not be on top of but an extension of organizing, or rather that we can create an organization form around our organizing – the social ecology you speak of – rather than an ancient bureaucratic structure.

    If this is not accomplished by 2018 Convention I owe whoever wants to take me to the prettiest bar a drink.

    Best – db

    1. Hey db! Glad you are feeling it. And ultimately I don’t expect attempts to reform the IWW to stop any time soon. Rather I would prefer a deemphasis of the centrality of it. If there are more efforts to bring greater coherence and purposefulness to the IWW ecology then I think that would be a win. More clarity of position, strategic thinking that ties form and content, more objective thinking in general would be really good, I think. Cheers.

      1. 100% in agreement on that. The most important reforms are local practices and cultures. I am hoping to publish a piece on that soon – but don’t know where to publish it at as it’s not part of a caucus : ). Let me know if y’all would be interested in publishing it here or would want to provide feedback or would do that as a criteria for publishing it…though it’ll surely be up somewhere soon regardless! Best –

  2. So this is really long: Would love to hear what others have to say.

    The central thread in Zee’s piece is a critique of ‘formalism’ which sees the IWW as it’s ‘form’. This is largely taken to mean the structure of the organization, the constitution, the by-laws, dues collection, etc. Zee argues that these things are actually not that important. What *is* important is the content. For Zee, the content is the living struggle of the worker, prison-reform organizers, tenants, etc. The ‘form’ is a sort of after-thought. Zee concedes that form doesn’t even impede local organizing, because as you can see in various campaigns, people tend to do what they want. It’s this experimentation that Zee argues we should focus on, if they occasionally critique this strand of activist-experimentation for not being collectively coordinated.
    I get where Zee is coming from. The importance is on the work we do, the content. However, I don’t think formalism is the problem. In fact, I think this characterization is actually an apology of sorts for the same kind of ‘hot stuff of the week’ activism that plagues our union. This has been a long term problem and is not meant as a unique slight (or a slight to anyone) to the WRUM comrades. It’s something we need to confront across the union.
    Let me explain what I mean by activism because it often gets muddled and personal very quick.
    Activism is any political engagement that is based on the following premises;
    a) Volunteer labor
    b) Vague Demands
    c) Local organization as the primary locus
    d) No growth strategy; little or no membership constituency in an organization
    Now one of the key results of the above conditions that plays a role in sustaining activism as a practice is something that I think is a result of the above, but a sort of feedback loop or amplifier;
    e) An embittered moral outlook based on repeatedly entrenched political principles through a process of whittling away at ‘non-believers’ corruption etc.

    Ok. Some of this is touched on by Hal Draper’s fantastic critique of sects. But in the context of the I.W.W. I’d argue that it takes the following form:

    a) We have *mostly* volunteer labor though with *some* paid staff, and even some very competent and dedicated volunteer committees (OTC springs to mind). So partially true. Most members are encouraged to just organize in their off-time which at best is a life-grinding time sink and at worst leads to frustration, burnout, and exiting of the organization.
    b) We’re actually very good at *locally* winning concrete demands though these are often partial. We’ve even won a few big demands in the past 15 years (MLK Day pay through SWU) though these did not help us build a lasting institution in that industry and rarely get attributed to us. Outside of one-off campaigns, we stick to vague demands/vision. This direct action grievance solving through committees functions as our sort of ideology.
    c) The reality we face in b, is partly a result of our almost exclusive focus on our own branches. This is the locus of the ‘experimentation-activism’ activity. This is how campaigns can repeatedly fail all for similar reasons, and we see little to no adjustment. This is the reason we remain primarily activism based, and this is a large contributing factor to our own particular form of e.
    d) This is manifestly apparent in the conditions we see in C. We do not systematically synthesize the lessons from campaigns and apply them to lead more successful ones. We often don’t stress membership; in fact there is a repeated but erroneous maxim that “paper members” are somehow problematic (with the inverse slogan being “every member an organizer”).
    e) As a result of the above, fws who see losing campaigns, who pour their free time into, frankly, campaigns they have no reason to believe will be successful (given our track record) at guaranteeing them higher wages tend to fall into a kind of embittered mode. There is a sort of anti-business union inferiority complex which often manifests in shallow criticism (though I understand the OTC has done well to hem this in at least from trainers). There is, especially if one reads in campaign reflections, often simply the concession that, well, we did our damndest and we failed but that’s capitalism and we’re in a period of low struggle; what more could we do?
    Often in response to criticism of the model(building committees to handle grievances via direct action), it is asserted that failures result only when departing from the model and that it ‘just works’. Etc.
    The point is that without a central organ systematically assessing and compiling campaign results, there can be no real definitive answer; the metrics, *if they are even applied* shift wildly. How can it be otherwise? Those close to the campaign are bound to feel terrific regret at how it turned out (and who can blame them?) The result is that they reasonably search for positives (of which there are no doubt some). But without someone a bit more removed from the situation, and without the concrete requirement that reports be summarized and turned in, the result is that whatever lessons are to be learned don’t get internalized for further strategic use.
    As a result we fail again. We repeat mistakes. And in this context of a lack of growth, members have to defend why they remain. And in that process, a key logic is applied. In the stagnant left more generally the bitter assertion of tactics raised up as moral principles (tactics like: antifa, committee building, the general strike, etc),is the answer to critique or failure. Here, participation is enough. We may have lost, but we’re “on the right side of history.” No doubt this is true, but it’s clear we’re not succeeding. Sometimes this gets into an extreme form of identity politics on the class plane; workers don’t need leadership or education or organization which reflects critically or provides concrete services like accounting, report clearing, labor department filings, etc.; they just need the OT-101 more often, spread like Johnny Appleseed which imparts all the critical tools for success.
    Without critical reflection and institutionalization, this cycle of defeat will repeat itself. If instead of critical reflection, we simply assert that we keep trying the failing tactic in order to see if it will have success, or worse, as a matter of principle, we will only deepen our entrenchment in the position that committee building and grievance handling is the only thing that does work, because it sort of works sometimes (even though scores of workers get fired). The problem is that this approach *is* the only thing that works; in our formal context!
    We’re structured not how the old IWW was structured, contrary to what Zee argues. General Membership Branches were never the norm. In the ‘heyday’, the IWW had a robust printing press network, paid officers, staff and organizers, and pioneered systems of commissioned job delegates in the migratory work out west and among sailors and longshore workers.
    These were tactics tailored to the conditions confronting the union of the day. The underlying principle? What was the best way to get as many workers as possible to take out a red card and be an audience for the IWWs message? What was the best way to turn this audience into a network of committees or delegates who could serve as the point of contact between the union and the workers on the job?
    We’ve lost the focus on the first question, and traded it for a myopic focus on the second. It’s true that committee building can be effective. But the linear, 1 on 1 accretion involved limits us to a city and often 1-workplace focus. The rejection of any institution-building strategy (contracts and certification elections) means that we wage a war of attrition that the employers always win. Union growth is almost a certain no-go.
    We need formalism (new structures or bodies) because we need to identify what is necessary to overcome these local, activist, burnout-inducing, error repeating problems. And we need formalism (caucuses, convention, resolutions) because we need to discuss these problems openly and govern our own organization. We need to keep members, officers, and staff accountable to the whole union. And if one group has a good idea they need to be able to argue for it among the membership, with the aim of convincing the necessary amount that it’s a good idea to try.

    On ‘Industrial Unionism’

    In the essay, Zee says:
    “Yet while they claim to begin with concrete experience, their method reveals a similar disconnect between form and content, exemplified in the call to return to a classical industrial focus, a focus that a hundred years ago was inherently tied to a very specific class composition and activity. Classic industrial unionism was not a voluntarist effort, but reflected the mass struggles of a definite period within particular sectors of proletarians, struggles that the IWW did not will into existence.”
    This is a result of some unclarity on our part; industrial unionism is in the first place the aim to unite workers in a union at one employer. The purpose derives from the understanding that all of the workers at an employer have to unite against that employer to be as effective as they can.
    However we temper this with the further aim that workers in one INDUSTRY (across multiple similar employers) must be united.
    Further, we recognize fully that there or legitimate chokepoints that could be leveraged for more power across industries but united against one employer.
    For example, grocery stores often have their own warehouses and milk production facilities. While these would be ‘different industries’ than the store locations, they are the same employer. Here, the need to unite against the employer trumps the need to have some separate “industrial union”. But the route out of this isn’t that we have brand organizing; grocery stores are often organized this same way. Thus, what’s needed is something which unites organizing against these grocery stores. In the I.W.W. we have Departments which tied industries together. Still, the grocery store is in dept. 600 but the warehouse in 400. Perhaps this needs to be changed. I agree with Zee that we ought to organize in ways that win. But that also means finding the suitable forms of organization which help us win. These things complement eachother.
    This will run into unique situations; Wal-Mart for example contracts out a great deal of it’s warehousing. Nevertheless, those contracts rely on wal-mart as a major purchaser of their services. Thus, they are in many ways subordinate to Wal-Mart’s market power and the need for formal wal-mart workers to organize (and the hurdles they must leap through) are connected to the need for the contracted warehouse workers to organize.
    Thus, our definition of industrial unionism stands vindicated; uniting the workers employed by an employer against that employer in the most effective way possible. Uniting workers in one industry against the employers in that industry and uniting workers in general against the capitalist class .
    The Industrial Workers of the World pioneered industrial organizing; however already they linked this work to a broader form of unionism; a general workers union. This was never as a explicitly argued for except outside the preamble and the more utopian “One Big Union” slogan. But the underlying principle is what we hope to bear out in our context. Perhaps we should have chosen the name “One Big Unionists”! However, I think we want to emphasize a focus on building industrial union locals that are stable institutions over time, though they will absolutely have to work with eachother.
    The last point; there is a fetish of spontaneity that runs through the piece and this actually informs Direct Unionism and forms of this thought underlay contemporary Wobbly “common sense.” The idea is that we’re in a ‘period of low struggle’ and that at some point some exogenous explosion of labor activity will manifest itself. Any contradictory idea is treated as ‘voluntarism’. This is a mistaken notion. The old U.S. labor movement was suffused by socialist and anarchist periodicals many put out by the wobblies. Workers had experience with all sorts of unions and socialist political parties and read a great deal about their fights. There is no period where workers wildcat en masse free from the influence of labor or party organizers. It is the prior acquaintance workers gain in union and party struggles which show them their power; and it is on this basis that they often defy labor bureaucrats. If you dig deep at McKees rocks, you find the initial committees were socialists and union organizers from Central Europe. You learn that Fletcher spent several years organizing in Philly before the workers came out on strike and voted to join the I.W.W. Often, the union would portray this activity as “choosing” the I.W.W. to emphasize that this was the “right thing to do” and to minimize the accusation of “outside organizers.”
    If anything we’re in a unique historical situation. Union membership, contact, and familiarity is at an all time low. Not only this, but the failing ideology of the labor bureaucrats who command the mainstream labor movement ensures that the trend will continue downward. In this context, it’s bizarre indeed to hear socialist and communists argue that we *don’t need* to organize unions, that we don’t need to argue for socialism and so on.
    In sum, I actually think we have a *problem* of form; a lack of it. People aren’t used to argue their ideas to a public; people aren’t used to engaging the working class as it is, a constituency and persuading it to vote union, vote socialist, etc. Many on the left hold to an illusion that we can trick workers into revolutionary ideas (just push for ‘militant trade union demands’) or that we don’t NEED to convince or educate workers because they’re already SO great! The KNOW what the trouble is, they have INSTINCTS, etc. And any case, they’ll strike when they good well feel like it!
    I think the truth is closer to what Marx and Kautsky and Lenin argued; there has to be a merger of those who think and those who suffer; of socialists and the labor movement. Socialists need to unite around a program to revitalize the labor movement because we’re th onyl ones who actually grasp labor’s condition as an exploited class, destined to execute the abolition of class society altogether.

  3. These are notes from Nate Hawthorne on the above article which he posted here:

    “the objective state of [workplace] struggles is not taken as the starting point for organizational efforts within the formal IWW.”

    That seems only partly accurate to me. The training program is basically predicated on there being a low level of struggle and so low knowhow, and the training program is definitely ‘formal’ in multiple sense of the term. I may be just tripping over terminology here, I find the ‘formal vs real’ thing confusing in general. One thing I see in that distinction – and I may be reading in my own views since like I said I find it confusing – is the issue of where the life of the organization is, like at a meeting with other wobs making motions or in some other site doing other stuff more centered on opposing bosses. I think the former sort of stuff can tend to loom large in people’s live in the organization, and people who are more bound up with the latter aren’t always doing the former so much.

    I don’t get what’s illuminated by the charge of ‘mysticism’ and I think there may be some assumptions built into this that I question — “a couple of solid militants raising the possibility of job action is qualitatively different from a standing organization at a workplace publicly recognized by the workers and the company.” If I read this right, you’re saying on the second thing is *really* a union. I mean, I guess so. I don’t really care about the words, except that we need names for stuff. There’s been comrades over the years (like Scott from Recomp) who have been like ‘let’s drop the term union because of its baggage’ and I’m sympathetic but I also think the percent of people for whom that baggage exists is tiny. Most people, especially people under 30 or 40, have never encountered a union in a way that gives them strongly held ideas about it, so the term basically means whatever people want it to mean. The main reason to use it IMHO is that it’s a comprehensible regular word (unlike, say ‘soviet’ or ‘council’ or ‘mass organ of the proletariat’ or whatever), and one fewer confusing association than, say, ‘party’, which is widely used on the left.

    Terms aside, I think it’d be worth digging into what “a standing organization at a workplace publicly recognized by the workers and the company” would be and why (or, under what contexts/conditions) it’d be desirable. One of the views behind the direct unionism paper IMHO is that it’s better to build an organization that falls apart in the shop and has to rebuild than it is to build an organization that becomes a lever for managing workers. I think in some ways that sensibility is pushing on an open door – unions of that type are increasingly rare and it’s not clear if they’re going to come back – though some wobs, in good wob fashion, seem intent on reviving that particular ghost.

    I agree that there’s little bureaucracy-as-brake. That does sometimes happen in the process of chartering branches. [shrug]

    The IWW “is not a union of workers who join out of interest, but a few hundred political militants and their contacts who have a beautiful if vague vision of a different world and the need to fight for it, a vision that is as contradictory as struggle itself.” This is pretty much true, with distressingly few exceptions. One thing I’d add though is that I hesitate in the face of talk of ‘interests.’ Talk of ‘interests’ rings in my ears like workers are basically stomachs or low bank balances with legs and that kind of sensibility comes up too much among the marxist corners of the left. (EP Thompson blamed Stalin for this, then later said it’s rooted in problems in Marx. I dunno where it comes from.) Workers do lots of things for lots of reasons, reasons they have ideas about, and even the most vanilla trade unionism involves people committed to political or ethical ideas (just bad ideas).

    I like the phrase ‘social ecology.’ I agree that some of the formal procedure stuff can take up too much of that. I also think this piece really underestimates the positive role that formal procedure stuff can play in the organization’s social ecology. This piece basically treats the formal stuff entirely negatively. But, like, the training program gets a budget every year and keeps a spreadsheet. That’s formal, and useful, and important for the positive aspects of the life of the organization.

    I think there’s a strong strain of spontaneism in this piece – social dislocation propelling workers into action etc – that I don’t share. I’m sort of agnostic either way about spontaneism and voluntarism. I think elements of both make sense. I think we don’t actually know what makes political stuff happen most of the time and theories about that stuff provide an illusion of clarity that’s comforting but not as accurate as they sometimes feel.

    I’ll also say, I think in general the IWW talking about ‘the working class’ as an existing entity – that there’s this class there in the world doing stuff, as if the class for itself exists right now – has always struck me as goofy. As such I also think analysis like Hamerquist’s – ‘this has roots in the class, so it’s not subject to an organizational fix’ – don’t really hold water. The IWW’s not doing stuff with the working class. The IWW’s doing stuff with tiny, tiny handfuls of working class people. Lenin somewhere says something like ‘politics begins when millions are in motion, not thousands, millions.’ So the IWW’s basically pre-political then. At the much smaller pre-political scale of the IWW — that is, relative to the tiny handfuls of people the IWW consists of and is working with politically — organizational fixes have way more power IMHO than that Hamerquist quote suggests. I think trying to apply that quote and analysis about the class as a whole in its hugeness is sort of like trying to plan how much money I can spend this weekend using the tools that government planners use to make sense of ten years of national GDP. There’s a mismatch between the scale of the concepts and the scale of the actual activity.

    “the issue of imparting the IWW a political character” That’s a mischaracterization IHMO.

    I’ve not read much from either caucus though I’ve seen some views expressed informally by people in both. I don’t feel much connection to either. I don’t know that that matters at all, just trying to be up front.

    “Struggles in the context of social reproduction, in this case against the police and prisons, are not only “equally important” to workplace organizing, but central to the class experience and the heart of the crisis itself. And where the class struggles, so we as militants must be.”
    That’s a good clear statement of your view. I don’t know if I share it or not. This implies that if struggle breaks out elsewhere and dies down in one spot, good militants should probably jump ship. During the financial crisis, there were struggles over eviction and foreclosure, those has died down relative to other things (in part because of important defeats), so that stuff’s off the agenda of serious militants and the other new flash points are on the agenda. I think there’s stuff to recommend that approach, and there’s stuff to recommend against it. I lean against it and toward something more like ‘core down into an area of life under capitalism, or into a location, and work on whatever’s there, regardless of what’s currently the most friction-laden social location.’ I think probably it’s best if ultimately people are pluralists on this, with some people seeking to be at ‘the heart of the crisis’ for the class, moving as that heart moves, and other people seeking to be cored down as I suggested. I’m unsure if these two approaches co-exist well *in a single organization*. Currently some of the debates in the IWW map onto this IMHO and make me pessimistic that co-existence, but I’m not at my most objective judgment.

    I’m pleased by your respect for Recomp and the direct unionism paper. Thank you for that. I am entirely unsure what we accomplished in either effort. Both were meaningful to me personally to be part of and that has to be enough for me to feel okay about the time and effort. It’s nice to hear that people I respect and like also found those efforts worth something beyond personal meaning, and I hope that ends up proving true.

    In this section I don’t share the assumptions about social struggle and IWW renewal, but I’m not saying you’re wrong either. I think that section is written with more certainty than I think is warranted. Like I said above I’m not convinced we really know. I lean *in practice* toward acting as if we believe the IWW can be built linearly, one small march on the boss at a time, because I can see what that practice looks like in, uh, practice. I have a hard time understanding what the ‘IWW renewal requires proletarian upsurge’ view amounts to in practice given that such upsurges aren’t happening much, and definitely aren’t in waged workplaces. One response seems to be ‘the closest thing to those upsurges are outside the wage workplace so let’s go outside waged workplaces’ in keeping with your ‘militants go where the heart of the struggle is.’ Like I tried to say above, I think that’s a defensible view. But I’m not sure ‘militants go with the heart the struggle of the class’ means *the IWW* goes there. To be real: the IWW’s irrelevant in the big picture, the medium picture, and the small picture. It’s relevant in the very, very tiny picture. Maybe it stays that way until massive rupture, as your piece implies. Maybe it stays that way until massive rupture *specifically in the waged workplace*.

    I guess I don’t see why the relevance of the IWW should be a concern. I think that focus could itself be called a kind of ‘formalism’, because overly concerned with this specific formal organization rather than with the lived networks of militants and members of the working class in struggle, networks that run through multiple organizations and aren’t monopolizable by any single organization. What I mean is, militants don’t have to be single-organization-focused. One version of ‘militants seek to be in the heart of the struggle’ = ‘the IWW changes its focus.’ Another version = ‘militants are really focused on the IWW when the IWW is relevant or useful, and are really focused elsewhere than the IWW when that focus elsewhere is relevant or useful.’

    I feel like this relates to an article John O’Reilly and I wrote a while back, here https://libcom.org/library/industrial-unionism-one-big-unionism-part-4-three-big-unions-iww-revolution. As always we were (or at least I was) figuring out the ideas by doing the writing, so it has all kinds of flaws. Not pointing to it because I think I am or my ideas are important, just saying this is the best I’ve managed on this. After a bunch of conversations and some articles that at best only sort of worked IMHO, I started to think the IWW should talk more about the various understandings of revolution and organization that float around inside it. (Beautiful and vague ideas, as you said.) I looked at it again now. I guess it’s like 5 years old. I don’t think my views have changed, which fits with my general condition of stagnation.
    Here’s the gist: “A revolutionary situation in our day (or, within our lifetime) will involve millions of people in a complex ensemble across the class. No single organization will lead or control this. The working class can have more than one organization working on aspects of its interests. Given the divisions in our class it’s good to have multiple types of organization (such as unions of waged workers, committees of unemployed people, tenants’ organizations, etc), and multiple organizations of each type. In all likelihood the IWW will be one working class organization among many who make an important contribution to working class revolution. As the working class takes action in a revolutionary situation there will have to be different practices developed than those that the IWW practices, and different kinds of organization – including both formal organizations and informal organizations. (…) The IWW and the sorts of activities that the IWW currently carries out will not be the only things that go on during a revolutionary situation and are not the only things that will contribute to a revolutionary situation taking place. We have to do our part, but everything does not rest on our shoulders.”

    To my mind, the IWW now, prior to a revolutionary situation, should see itself as making small contributions to preparing small numbers of people for that future moment (or, more likely, I’m sad to say, preparing small numbers of people to work on preparing slightly larger numbers of people to work on preparing slightly larger numbers of people to contribute to that future moment).

    I think we probly agree on some of that and disagree on some of what conclusion we think this supports.

    I think your piece underestimates the value in “sign[ing] people up to the formal IWW.” To some extent, you’re right, sure, who cares. But signing people up, if it’s in the context of an actual substantive conversation about the short term struggle and organization’s core values (the Preamble and Think It Over and whatnot), then I think formally joining plays a role in political education, so to speak, and in people putting their money where their mouth is. “I’m down for this effort if it’s gonna get us more tips and end all the sexual harassment at work” is one thing. “I’m down for this effort to abolish the wage system and create a new society” is another. Seeing those two things as parts of a complexly interconnected process would be better still.

    “We don’t have to get lost in the tediousness and formality as a means to have a relationship to whatever is good or interesting that is happening in the social milieu.”

    “how decisive have those supposed resources and money been to our respective organizing?”
    I agree with this. People will sometimes be like ‘we need to fund organizing more!’ and I think it’s mostly magical thinking. Like, organizing + money =…. what? Or more to the point: what organizing where and how, and how is lack of funds an obstacle to that? (And when/if it is an obstacle, how is it an obstacle we can *actually* overcome in a realistic way.)

    “Better a small active network of militant fighters advancing the IWW traditions than a large group of passive dues-payers with legal claim to the IWW name.” Agreed. Though personally I think I’m way more in the ‘I’d prefer an IWW that’s maniacally, maybe even myopically, focused on waged workplace struggles’ than I suspect y’all are. (I want to be clear that that’s not because I think that stuff is all that matters. I take the point of this piece that the heart of the class struggle isn’t the waged workplace currently. It may never be again, I don’t know — I’m not someone who thinks the waged point of production is required for revolution, that’s something else I’m agnostic on. I’m okay with the IWW not being at the heart. I don’t need the IWW to be at the heart. It could be at the shoulder joint or at a lymph node. A body needs its heart more than it needs those things, but bodies need those things too.)

    “What we can do now is to begin coordination of the social ecology, to turn the informal milieu into a scaffolding for future militant proletarian organization–who cares what it is called.” I agree with this completely. I’ve personally always seen the IWW’s activity as basically preparatory for some future moment (like in the Lenin quote about millions in motion). I think that I like have a different sense of how this preparatory work should best proceed than you do. I favor something of a division of labor with relative specialization per organization – waged workplace focused organizations, tenant focused organizations, etc – rather than organizations with more general focuses of activity. I can agree to disagree on this. I just have a hunch that specializing will work better ultimately as the way to ‘coordinate the social ecology’ of efforts to get the working class to become a class for itself (or efforts to be ready for when that happens; I’m unsure if we can contribute or not to the class becoming a class for itself, but I think trying to contribute to that process is good preparation for activity once that actually happens). So to my mind it’s a strategic error and overly broad in focus *for the IWW* to do all the activity you mentioned, but that is not to say that working class militants/radicals shouldn’t do all that activity. There should be people doing all that stuff and there should be a ‘coordinated social ecology’ of those militants. I’m just skeptical that having that coordination within/through a single organization makes sense, and I suspect it would would better if these efforts had different organization homes, with efforts to keep their relationships ones of solidarity and friendliness.

  4. From AWW across the Narrow Sea

    I read your recent article on the IWW-caucus debates and want to share a few thoughts. We suggested discussing the article together with contributions from both WRUM and IUC at an informal smile meeting with, amongst others, comrades from IP (Workers’ Initiative, Poland) and El Salariado (Spain) in September – hopefully we can expand on the discussion after the meeting.

    First of all, I share your criticism of IWW formalism based on my one year experience of being a member of the IWW in the UK. Too much time and effort is spent on keeping the structure going and re-shuffling it. Actual exchange of working class experiences is minimal, both because the exchange of, e.g. workplace reports or reports about local / town-wide proletarian experiences is not seen as a central function of a ‘national’ organisation and because there is an actual lack of experiences, too. I share all suggestions you make to foster the ‘real IWW’, meaning, the creation of open channels for strategic debate etc..

    What I think is lacking in your criticism is the question why people maintain the importance of formalised structures, even though they suck up so much energy and can create pretty absurd relationships. You treat formalism a bit like a religious fetish: you mainly describe the absurdity of over-emphasising formal over practical relations, but you write less about why you think people do this. A formal structure with all the membership business, formalised functions etc. is probably more than just a ‘soul’ in a ‘soulless world’ that gives people a sense of belonging and cohesion by wearing IWW badges.

    In the following I will play a bit of devil’s advocate for the IWW as a formal union structure. Behind this is our own grappling with the concept of a ‘class union’ (probably more a Spanish/Italian term). A union as a body of workers’ association that can operate within the legal limits of the labour law etc., that can call for official strikes etc. has to be a formal structure. That’s by default, the legal circumstances prescribe it and the potential mass base requires it. For us the question is if there is a role for such a union structure that can be used by workers as one (!) means of self-organised struggle. A ‘class union’ would be open to workers of different political persuasions and professions etc. to conduct their struggle on the official level, as self-organised and unified as possible – which wouldn’t mean that there aren’t any other levels of struggle. Different political tendencies and organisations can relate openly to the class union, offer debate, education, strategical suggestions. As I said, this is hypothetical and I am not sure whether it is possible to actually formalise the relation between a rank-and-file union and ‘political organisations’ in a fruitful manner.


    So what kind of concerns might hide behind formalism?

    1) Keeping the focus on ‘the work-place’ as an reaction to the middle-class character of the ‘milieu’

    Some of the formalism (“let’s just be a rank-and-file union for everyone”) is an expression of wanting to stay focussed on the sphere of production or rather, and that’s the problematic bit, ‘the workplace’. It is a reaction to the fact that most activists come from student and middle-class backgrounds, for who it comes easier to get engaged in ‘political struggles’ than to get rooted in daily lives of workers. Perhaps I am wrong, but my criticism of formalism would start with seeing it as an unproductive and unclear effort to keep the organisational work focussed on ‘the real thing’. The problem is that this is not spelled out politically: how do we see the production process today? how does it or does it not relate to other spheres of working class lives? how is it stratified racially and gender wise? etc. Instead, and you describe this clearly, it gets ossified in the organisation itself and an IWW methodology which breaks up a dynamic and contradictory social process into (perhaps more manageable) individual economic units (memberships, branches etc.) that are gradually joined together.

    Because you mainly focus on the ‘real’ and current aspects of struggle in order to criticise the emptiness of formalism I feel that you have to treat class struggle with a certain immediacy perspective: whatever happens is the focus. Here I think we have political differences – and to be fair, I deduct this not mainly from your article on the IWW, but from recent Unity and Struggle texts and focus. I hope you don’t take it the wrong way! This perspective that ‘class struggle is nowadays happening mainly in the sphere of social reproduction, because actual production has lost its significance for capitalism’ is propped up by historically and empirically questionable arguments made by groups like Endnotes etc. As we could see during most recent situations of ‘popular uprisings’, from Argentina to Egypt, the battle in the streets and for the squares can only produce a limited vision of social change. The ‘point of production’ remains the centre of workers’ self-emancipation and social transformation, not mainly because of some economic leverage or quantitative/empirical dimensions, but because of its social and material characteristics: people produce the material world and social relationships as capital, rather than just opposing or confronting it. The left has to engage in a deeper inquiry process about the modern production process and its social scope, rather than just keep on repeating empirically questionable opinions (‘all gonna be automated; everyone will be surplus; nothing’s happening’).

    2) Formalism as a way to provide a necessary structure and resource for workers to use

    I therefore understand the general urge to ‘get rooted’ and of consistent and continuous organising, the problem is that in the IWW this largely happens in an unsystematic and unstrategical manner:

    a) either IWW members just ‘organise where they are’ – and ‘where they are’ is seen as a kind of natural state of being – which explains the large numbers of student-type of jobs in organic food-stores represented. That’s kind of fine, but I would expect more strategical focus of the largely politically motivated members;
    b) the organising focus is chosen on the basis of what ‘benefits or suits the IWW’ as an organisation, e.g. because the mainstream unions are not present or the IWW would get good publicity. Large areas of working class lives and potential power in the big industries (transport, agro-industry, manufacturing, public services etc.) are ignored, because the IWW would lose the official competition with the mainstream unions. This is problematic, because the starting point is not the working class, but the organisation.

    Again, politically conscious members should debate where the current potentials of generalisation of class struggle are, e.g. because of new structural power, such as in logistics, or because of the general working class atmosphere, such as at the conjunction of low wage and anti-racist / anti-deportation struggle.

    To make my point clearer I use the example of the IP (Workers’ Initiative) in Poland. From what I know their actual formal structure is way lighter than the IWW, less meetings mainly focussed on running the organisation. They nevertheless function as an official union shell that workers can use. In the case of Amazon it was Amazon workers (many of them supervisors who had experiences of working at Amazon abroad, before they opened the warehouse in Poznan) who approached the IP, because they saw that here they could ‘run their own union’, rather than being patronised by main-stream unions like Solidarnosc. IP is now the main representing union at Amazon Poznan and has managed, amongst other things, to organise international meetings of Amazon workers. The same happened recently at VW, where over 500 workers left Solidarnosc and joined IP – something quite incredible, knowing how VW manages union representation in general. IP comrades facilitate the process of ‘running the union’, but as far as I am aware of, they keep their other activities, e.g. squatting and housing struggles, work in the anarchist federation and theoretical discussions formally outside of the union, though workers can get in touch with this political dimension informally and personally.

    3) Formalism as practice to run a potential mass organisation

    Playing devil’s advocate ain’t easy, but another possible underlying reason for a formalism which seems stifling and for-its-own-sake in an organisation of the size of the IWW is that it’s partly meant to be a structure for a potential mass organisation. This seems very hypothetical, but let’s take Si Cobas that you mention in your article as an example. You are right, Si Cobas didn’t grow gradually, but through a combination of factors: structural growth of the logistics sector, migrant work-force influenced by the Arabic Spring, old guard of experienced comrades from the vanguard of class struggle in the 1970s, a political and social ‘ecology’ of militants, squats and strategical thinking. They grew from a few hundred members to over 10,000 within a couple of years or so. They had no paid staff or elaborate committee structures. Collecting membership dues is pretty random. The lack of formal structures create problems when it comes to the question how the organisation is run and by whom. The organisation is dominated by ‘the most active’, to the extent that the political leadership of Si Cobas can threaten delegates elected by workers to be sacked if they don’t turn up on pickets etc.. No doubt it is a very dynamic organisation, but for workers who are not or cannot be on the forefront the whole time it might be less transparent how things are run. (Having said all this in defense of more formalised structures there are obviously numerous examples, also within IWW, where individuals can hide behind structures and manipulate them in their favour. Attempts by more Leninist-oriented factions in London IWW to steer the IWW into different waters were not met with an open political debate, but they were excluded on formal grounds of having tried to ‘build a separate union structure’)


    For us in AngryWorkers the IWW involvement is also an experiment about how largely migrant workers in the bigger workplaces in west London relate to more formalised union structures. For three years we try to get workers in warehouses involved through informal workplace groups and solidarity networks, with modest success. Where we work – workplaces with 1,000 plus workers – there is a mainstream union present, which means that formally the IWW will have little chance to act on the shop-floor. We try to act inside and outside the official unions in this case. We suggested to London IWW to start a three months organising trial at a dozen workplaces where no union is present – see invitation letter below. We are interested to see if the official union status of the IWW and the potential to, e.g. force management to act to an official wage dispute will make a difference. If workers react differently to more powerful looking union banners and decorum of officialdom. In addition to us offering workers to make use of the formal character of the IWW as a union vehicle, the organising drive will mainly be an effort to create a link between some of the London political scene and largely female, migrant workers in the outskirts, whose specific problems inside and outside of the workplace need to be addressed. We’ll keep you updated about this effort and how it goes.

    To conclude:

    As I said, I agree with the measures you propose to make the current debate within and around the IWW and their caucuses more productive. I would add the following:

    * debate the IWW as a ‘class union’, meaning, the IWW does not have to be a political and cultural home for anarchism, but a well structured organisation that workers of different sectors can use as an official formal body and as a means to exchange experiences; a sharpening of focus would allow to strip down a lot of the formal work
    * figure out how a wider political debate and political activities can be organised around the ‘class union’ in a fruitful way, instead of different political factions fighting over the IWW as a political organisation
    * focus the political debate away from ‘what the IWW should look like’ towards ‘where are developments within the class, either because of material changes in production or because of class activity’ where the IWW can function as a bridge and tool of self-organisation
    * encourage locals to re-root themselves and to discuss their problems and experiences doing this: pick an area of town for a solidarity network; pick three, four bigger workplaces as organic focus; try to create a dynamic between both solnet and workplaces through meetings and a local publication; see the local newspaper not in merely geographical terms (leaving the paper in local shops etc.), but related to specific workers problems and places, e.g. go to the same areas and workplaces regularly; create a blog to communicate your experiences to the rest of the milieu/organisation

    I send this as a personal mail, but if you think it’s helpful I would post it on your blog and perhaps on libcom as a partial reply to Nate. Let me know what you think…

    Warm wishes from Greenford, greetings to the others

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