Revolutionary Unionism or White Workerism? The Choice Facing the IWW

By Brandon & Natalia

One hundred years ago, on August 1, 1917, Frank Little was lynched while organizing copper miners in Butte, Montana. Just one week earlier, at a General Executive Board meeting in Chicago, he was the lone voice calling for the IWW to oppose conscription for World War 1, in line with the 1916 Convention’s anti-war resolution. The rest of the Board refused out of fear of repression, and saying that they should keep focusing on workplace activity. Frank’s last letter before his murder was to “Big Bill” Haywood, the GEB Chair, urging him to have the GEB come out against conscription. As Frank predicted, the repression came anyways, and Big Bill died in exile in Russia.


We are seeing history repeat itself in bizarre, pathetic miniature. As a union, we haven’t adequately acknowledged the reality of increasing state repression and a growing, violent far-right. We haven’t acknowledged the growing possibilities for the IWW to expand as people are attracted to our model – the recent spike in membership is dismissively referred to as a “Trump bump.” We barely responded to the attempted political murder of one of our members in Seattle, or to the mass arrest and felony charges of many of our members at the protest of Donald Trump’s inauguration. More recently, we’ve had nothing to say or do after the racist murders in Portland, despite the Ferguson solidarity motion from our 2014 Convention which commits us to organizing against white supremacy. The IWW has an incredible opportunity to grow and to make itself relevant in this moment, but we are stuck at an impasse and feel paralyzed. How did we get here, and how can we get beyond it?


The same tension between narrow economism and revolutionary unionism that we faced in 1917 is still with us, and in many respects our vision of “the working class” hasn’t changed since then. Many working class people don’t see a relevance in our model, and that fault lies with us, not with them. Specifically, we fail to engage with struggles related to race and gender, especially when they happen outside the workplace.  The tension between revolutionary unionism and economism is really a tension between a holistic revolutionary unionism and “white workerism”. (I am adapting the concept of “white feminism”, a term often used by women of color to describe the ways that the “official” feminist movement focuses primarily on the needs of straight, cis, upper class women, to the exclusion of other women.) We say that our mission is to build a revolutionary movement of the entire working class. We can’t do that if we fail on race, gender, or other oppressions which involve non-workplace struggles. This is an urgent, life or death situation for the union.


It is crucial for us to link together struggles against racism, sexism, and class exploitation and oppression. It’s not about figuring out how to “add” anti-racism and anti-sexism to an otherwise awesome program that is totally focused on the workplace. It’s about figuring out how to find the intersections of those struggles from the start.


This isn’t just about a few individuals. This is about an overall culture within the union that often elevates a “workerist” identity politics, and a narrow focus on “pure” workplace organizing, over a coherent, holistic revolutionary unionist program. We won’t solve this just by dealing with a few individuals and going back to “how it was.” We need to examine where this economism comes from, and then develop a revolutionary program that will make us relevant to the entire working class.


CLR James has a great perspective on the way that independent struggles can and do reinforce each other. To paraphrase him, the independent black movement has its own validity and vitality, it has deep historic roots in the US, it can intervene with terrific force on the nation without needing to be led by the labor movement, it can exercise a powerful influence on the wider working class, and it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism. Describing a 1943 rebellion in Detroit, he goes on: “the struggle which began by Negro militants in the Negro community fighting purely for Negro rights … resulted ultimately in – let us put it mildly the beginnings of an alliance, a political alliance between the Negro community and the organized labor movement in Detroit.”


According to James, the independent black struggle at the time brought the labor movement along behind it. These struggles intersected and mutually reinforced each other, and it wasn’t just a case of “the class struggle” coming first. We’ve seen this more recently with the 2006 “Great American Boycott” which brought May Day back to the US, and which most business unions eventually followed. Very recently, we saw it with the reaction to the racist murders in Portland, with the transit drivers union explicitly opposing the Mayor’s call to increase police presence on the trains. It is impossible to imagine any union taking such a powerful anti-cop line before the Ferguson rebellion. (When Oscar Grant and Philando Castile were murdered, neither of their unions did anything, because they have entirely limited their scope of action to the workplace.)


The Twin Cities IWW and GDC in recent years have built a powerful living example of holistic revolutionary unionism. Their participation in Occupy attracted many folks who wanted to organize at work. Some of them got jobs at UPS and tried to agitate around “traditional” workplace issues like poverty wages, abusive managers, or dangerous working conditions. Their co-workers basically ignored them. In 2014, when the struggle exploded in Ferguson, they discussed stopping police shipments to Ferguson, and this immediately generated a ton of excitement, leading to the infamous “Hands Up, Don’t Ship” action. As they said, “we want to put forward a simple idea: we shouldn’t be forced to contribute to racism, brutality, or murder in order to pay our rent.” This created a positive feedback loop, where they successfully fought several firings, created more high-paid jobs in their building than came from the ‘97 strike, and confronted sexism, homophobia, and transphobia among their co-workers (which they wrote about in “You Better Work: Queer/Trans*/Feminist Worker Stories.”)


Hands Up, Don’t Ship contributed to the formation of the African People’s Caucus (APC) in the Twin Cities branch. When Jamar Clark was murdered by Minneapolis police in 2015, and an occupation began in front of the police station, the Twin Cities IWW, GDC and APC participated very heavily. Their commitment during this occupation seems to have been a watershed moment for the branch. The branch had begun to make itself relevant to the struggles and oppressions that many working class people of color experience outside of the workplace. Recently, the APC, GDC, and the IWW’s education workers committee (Social Justice Education Movement or SJEM) successfully worked together to prevent construction of a youth prison. SJEM has also recently successfully reversed racist firings in schools through mass action involving education workers as well as the community.


Instead of learning from the Twin Cities, a vocal group of members have tried to minimize this development, arguing that anything being done outside of strict workplace organizing is a “distraction,” or that “it’s not IWW work.” This has become especially common since Trump’s election, as many branches and GDC locals have found new relevance in the Twin Cities model.


The IWW is the only organization in North America that teaches workers how to fight at work without relying on a reformist business union. That is incredibly important, but it can’t be everything. Our implicit idea of the “average” worker is wrong and exclusionary. It envisions someone without any struggles outside of their workplace, nor having to deal with sexism, racism, homophobia, or ableism in their workplace. In short, we assumed the “average” worker to be a white, able-bodied straight male US citizen with a job and no kids. We’ll only move past this by recognizing and confronting it.


Ironically, white workerism has hit a wall in its ability to find relevance for the IWW model at work, while the branches basing themselves on holistic revolutionary unionism have seen a surge of new workplace campaigns. We saw in the Twin Cities that the experience with workplace pickets and at UPS prepared the branch to engage with movement against police terrorism, and that years of radical organizing among education workers prepared them to organize against the construction of a youth prison, both of which then reinforced possibilities for workplace organizing. The workplace and non-workplace organizing are both independently important, but together they mutually reinforced each other and lead to a wider and wider arena for struggle in the Twin Cities. This has also begun to happen in Raleigh-Durham and other cities.

June 10, 2017, Raleigh, NC, United Against Islamophobia and Racism Rally. Organized by Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia, NC Asian Americans Together, and Muslims for Soical Justice, who asked IWW and Redneck Revolt to help organize/lead the mass demo.

This is an exciting thing for all of us to see and support. One of the authors of this piece was skeptical of IWOC and the GDC until eight months ago, but has realized they were wrong. The explosive growth that they are enabling as they make the IWW relevant to very different groups of workers from the ones we have appealed to in the past deserves to be recognized, celebrated, and encouraged.


There are two choices facing us right now: we can continue to cling to a narrow vision, close our eyes to what is happening around us, and languish in obscurity, as any future working-class rebellions leave us in the dust. Or, we can embrace a holistic revolutionary unionism, and form a meaningful part of a creative, militant, and rebellious class-wide movement that simultaneously challenges all oppressions and prepares for a post-capitalist society.


If we’re serious about growing and becoming relevant to the entire working class, it’s way past time to confront, cast out, and finally abandon white workerism.

This piece was first published in the Summer 2017 Industrial Worker

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