On “Fundamentalism” in the IWW

On “Fundamentalism” in the IWW

by Erik

I went to high school with members and supporters of the Westboro Baptist Church. I’m an anthropologist who studies religion for a living. I know a bit about fundamentalism. So when conservative members of our union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), describe themselves, in their first sentence, as “IWW Fundamentalists,” I naturally look for the traits of fundamentalists.


First, human traditions, values, and organizations are diverse and complex. This is precisely what ‘fundamentalists’ deny. Against the complexity and diversity of their tradition, fundamentalists insist that (a) there is one correct belief, value, and practice, and that (b) they alone, and those who agree with them, are the authorities on what that one thing is.


Second, by denying the complexity of their tradition, fundamentalists attempt to assert unwarranted control over their tradition. It works more frequently than many of us would like: the history of American Christian denominations is frequently the history of small groups of people imposing new rules and restrictions on congregations, all the while insisting that these new rules are really a ‘return’ to the ‘old rules.’


Third, fundamentalists are hypocrites. Their fundamentalism is usually for other people to practice, while they allow themselves the freedom to experiment, and frequently break the rules in private that they insist on publically for others.


So why in the world would the self-named “Industrial Union Caucus” start their self-description with “We are IWW Fundamentalists?” They hint at their ambition in the name they have chosen: the “Industrial Union Caucus.” That’s a strange name for a caucus within an Industrial Union, akin to naming a group of American citizens the “American Citizens Caucus.” We’ve seen such slogans in the past, of course: “America First,” “100% Americanism,” etc.. It comes from nativists, racists, and the bosses. The name “Industrial Union Caucus” implies simultaneously that the IWW is not properly industrial, and that the people against whom they write are not Industrial Unionists.


Like fundamentalists everywhere, they have taken a component of our IWW tradition, and insisted on its uniform and ultimate authority, to the exclusion of all other components. They cagily avoid naming the legitimate and official IWW bodies against which they have struggled so intensely, such as the General Defense Committee (GDC). Both the history of this debate and the arguments they proffer, however, make it clear that they limit the industrial organization of the working class and its liberation to formal workplace campaigns. They also refuse to prepare for the defense of union campaigns and the working class (the work of the GDC). Indeed, later, they call this ‘activism,’ and say that it is an actual detriment to the union. Their only argument on this point is that, since we intend to overthrow the bosses by organizing industrially, anything other than straight-up workplace organizing is dishonest and misrepresents the IWW strategy.


They refuse to admit that other theories on this exist, which the GDC has been advancing publicly for years: that if the IWW gets to the point where it actually stands a chance at overthrowing the bosses, the organized working class will need to have ways to defend itself. It’s as if they took our Organizer Training 101, but forgot entirely about inoculation. We agree that if we organize our workplaces, fascism will have no corners to which to retreat. This point was at the center of Community Self Defense talks given throughout the country over the last year. What they refuse to accept is that we are already in a class war brought upon us by the bosses, that some parts of the class already experience violent exclusion, police terror, and incarceration, and that organizing to overthrow these conditions increases the violence and attacks will we encounter.


The refusal to accept that effective union organizing will result in violence from bosses and the state is a call for the martyrdom of others: it is a call to organize boldly, in an anticapitalist and anti-state fashion, but to refuse to prepare for the responses from the bosses and the state that we have historically encountered in the IWW.  Maybe the Industrial Unionist fundamentalists think that the Bisbee deportation, or the Everett, Centralia, Ludlow, and Calumet massacres were unpredictable events that had nothing to do with IWW organizing. If so, they are clearly incorrect. Maybe they think that such suffering and oppression is the necessary price to pay for effective organizing. I encourage them to stand in the front when the repression comes down: they’ll find GDC members who are organizing in their own workplaces and communities there. As for their notion that the IWW is a tool which works best when it is applied to the task for which it was built: nice metaphor, but in fighting against capitalism and the state, perhaps we need more than one tool? Perhaps we need a toolbox. Perhaps we shouldn’t tie one hand behind our back while we march forward to fight the bosses.


Given their apparent support for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), indicated by their voting guide for IWW convention proposals, it is even harder to understand their objection to the ‘activism’ of the GDC. Perhaps the difference for them is that they do understand that IWOC organizes in workplaces, but fail to comprehend the way that this is connected to black, brown and other marginalized groups’ access to workplaces outside of prison. Perhaps they also do not realize the level of state and capitalist violence already visited consistently on these same communities. These are not abstract or possible facts, but the consequence of centuries of practice in North America. If they do understand these facts, it is difficult to understand what it is about the General Defense Committee they find objectionable, unless it is the mere idea that members of the working class should defend themselves outside of the workplace as well as within it. Maybe, as implied in the previous paragraph, they are content for some of the working class to absorb most of the blows from bosses and the state, and scared of the results of forthrightly defending the class against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.


They claim their ‘industrial only’ stance “pushes for the radical integration of the working class across lines of race or gender.” The IWW’s own history shows this to be an error, if not an intentional falsehood. Historically, most IWW organizing successes were in Western, largely white industries and European immigrant communities, and often in heavily male industries. While some notable examples of integrated IWW campaigns exist, like Local 8 on the docks of Philadelphia, the Louisiana timber workers, and the Bread and Roses strike of Lowell, Massachusetts, these inspiring examples don’t change the mostly white and mostly male historical IWW – or more importantly the IWW as it stands today. In spite of our goals, the IWW has rarely successfully organized workers across race lines, welcomed women workers into the union and taken sexism and misogyny within the union seriously, and our membership is currently very male and overwhelmingly white. The discussion about how to diversify the IWW has been going on for decades. In the face of projects which have done more to address these challenges than any other IWW project in decades – IWOC, the African People’s Caucus (APC), and the GDC – the fundamentalists simply claim that their exhausted strategy of “Industrial only” unionism – which should really be called simple trade unionism – will magically lead us to a “radically integrated” union, in spite of evidence to the contrary.


To answer to the question, “why would they call themselves ‘fundamentalists,'” consider their proposed solutions. Some of them are merely statements of values: they are ‘radical integrationists’ on issues of race, sex, religion, ethnicity, and more,’ but of course offer no answers to the how of such goals should be accomplished beyond their faith in the simple trade unionism of their fundamentalist vision. The African People’s Caucus (APC) on the other hand, has developed numerous projects and pathways into the IWW. And this is the problem. Instead of recognizing and addressing serious challenges within our union, they want to “make the IWW great again” by returning to an inaccurate and unreal past.


What they do advance quite clearly is the notion that it is not the organizing workers of the IWW who are the heart of the union, but the administrators and bureaucrats. They say,


the very real recognition that administrative work is the foundation of the organization. There is no organization without administration. The administration, local and general, forms the bedrock on which all else rests. We cannot wish it away. We must identify the necessary administrative tasks, and complete them routinely and consistently. That means paying administrative workers for the work they do for the union [all emphases original]


As with religious fundamentalists, the Industrial union fundamentalists distort and narrow our tradition. They deny legitimate disagreements over strategy and tactics while asserting that only their own interpretation is correct. Like other fundamentalists, their assertions either cannot be found in our union texts, or else, like homophobes obsessed with Leviticus, are elevated to near-single principles while ignoring other parts of the tradition. Their hammer is administration, not worker organization, and they want to strengthen the administrators of the union over the other parts of it. Their critique of ‘localism’ is partly a critique of the autonomy of Branches and an implied argument for more central authority.


It is shocking to see statements like those that they themselves italicized in the quote above. Administrative work, which I have done a lot of within the IWW, is not and should never be considered the ‘foundation of the organization.’ The workers built and are the foundation. Full stop. The fundamentalists’ insistence that not only are the administrators the foundation of the IWW, but that the administrators should be compensated, comes in the face of serious criticisms of the institution of the General Executive Board (GEB). A proposal to restructure the central administration of the North American Regional Administration (NARA) of the IWW has been forwarded to Convention, which will dismantle the GEB and replace it with regional organizing bodies. There is a lot to say and argue over in this proposal, which allows for several years for improvement and implementation. But they simply assert that instead of structural reform, we should double down on the broken GEB administration, see them as the foundation and heart of the IWW, and pay them. It’s gratuitous, backwards, and attempts to deny the context in which this debate takes place.


The Fundamentalists are the caucus of simple trade unionism, which argues that everything is fine, or at any rate, will be, once the workers smarten up and fall in line behind their leadership, and finally agree to follow the “recipe” our self-appointed betters have determined is the one true way. None of their proposals or statements are enshrined in the IWW constitution or other guiding documents as sole ways forward, though like most fundamentalists, they claim otherwise. Their claim to know the truth about the IWW and our ‘correct path’ forward is connected to who they are. Certainly we don’t need to accept their narrow assertions about the IWW. No one in the IWW should allow themselves to be browbeaten into a position, especially one without argument or evidence. The fundamentalists have not provided either. Moreover, if one goes over the history of those who have volunteered for central administrative roles on the GEB, one sees a startling and disturbing trend of members who are largely disconnected from organizing, and often their own branches, who have little skin in the game and risk little themselves, and perhaps most disturbingly, are small business owners, financial capitalists, well-off retirees, and trust-fund recipients. These people, and hence the GEB, tend to treat each other and the rank and file membership of our union (and anyone who challenges them) with disdain and disrespect. The idea that we should strengthen precisely this group of people is a retrograde idea at best.


Fundamentalists are always profoundly dishonest and hypocritical. They rarely follow the rules they set out for others, and the criteria that motivates their actions are often different from the ones they claim. They seek power by distorting a group’s central values, texts, and practices, and especially by eliminating discussion and debate about ‘what is good.’ Against democratic discussion and debate, they assert the ‘one true thing’ and express it as the red line that separates the “true believers” from the “sinners.” It’s not democratic, it’s not honest, it’s arrogant, and it upholds all the negative elements of the IWW, especially our lack of diversity, that generations of us have been working to fix. While IWOC and the GDC – both official and chartered bodies of the IWW – have proposed new practices, ideas, strategies, and tactics to further the revolutionary unionism of the IWW, the fundamentalists have only the solo refrain of fundamentalists everywhere: “No! That’s wrong! We said so! Obey!”


I encourage fellow workers and defenders to ignore appeals to fundamentalism, and use their own minds. Does the IWW need to overcome racism, sexism, and all other oppressions within the working class? Will it be able to do that solely through the strategies we have used thus far? If so, why have we not done so already? Is it perhaps acceptable to have more than one tool in the IWW toolbox, in accordance with actual, historical, IWW practice? Or should we let a bunch of bureaucrats dictate the practices of the IWW for the future?

3 thoughts on “On “Fundamentalism” in the IWW

  1. Thanks for illuminating this issue. As a Wobbly in Washington State (Olympia GMB), I have not been in on the internal debate that emanates from the IWWs in the Eastern and Midwestern regions. I have long thought that ignoring or belittling efforts to attract people of color and incarcerated workers is counterproductive to our goals. I understand that prisons contain the most exploited workers, that community work and workplace organizing go hand-in-hand, and that more, not less democracy is needed in our Union.
    I’m undecided about how I would vote if I were a Delegate to the Convention, but the arguments laid out here have helped me to better understand the debate. I lean towards more regional autonomy in matters of policy, as the workers on the ground in the various constituencies understand best the pressing matters of their locality. I am an old guy, a white male retiree from shipyard work for 31 years, so present something of an anomaly: I learn from and support my younger FWs, as they are among the most repressed and exploited of workers. This old “new leftist” can take a backseat and trust his comrades to do what is best for our struggle as a class against Capital.

  2. Thanks, Gordon, for those replies. I’m glad it was helpful. For myself, I think it’s important that people see efforts to narrow our practices in the iww to their one correct line for what it is: an opinion that need not be taken as gospel by anyone.

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