The standard of living for US workers has been stagnating or in decline for the last four decades despite enormous leaps in productivity. Labor unions, organizing on the shop floor to shut down production to enforce workers’ demands, are a well-proven and direct method of closing the gap between what workers want and what they get from their bosses. Yet labor unions today count under 8% of private sector workers and under 40% of public sector workers in their membership. Furthermore, public opinion often turns against those workers who risk their jobs and reputations to try and start up unions in their workplaces, calling them undeserving and a host of other insults. Is there anything in the history of unionism that explains why we see these self-defeating and contradictory behaviors playing themselves out at a time when workers need more than ever to come together to fight for common goals?
Looking back a century or earlier to the rise of labor unions as major force in industrialized countries, we see that some of the biggest unions (AFL in particular in the US) made no bones about setting their priorities on organizing and protecting highly trained and socially privileged workers (native-born white males in particular) not only from capitalist factory owners, but also against supposed threats “from below” in the form of immigrant workers; female workers; workers of ethnic, religious and racial minorities, and other relatively underprivileged workers. The arguable goal of these unions was to create a well-paid, elite class of “deserving workers” who were able, as a unified group, to put their needs ahead of other workers’ needs, sometimes aligning their interests with the employing class in the process. When it suited them, these unions would break each others’ strikes and generally do whatever it took to obtain for themselves, as they said, what they considered to be “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” even if it meant hurting other, supposedly less deserving workers along the way.
That is not what we in the IWW would call a broad-spectrum working class solidarity, but a perverse kind of unionism fueled by reaction, racism, sexism, nativism, and other prejudices. Most of all, though, it’s a unionism that doesn’t get to the root of the problem facing all workers, whether or not we inhabit traditionally privileged racial, gender, and other statuses. That is that capitalism, in allowing a 1% to 10% of social members to control, own, and unduly influence industry, thereby directly or indirectly ruling over the other 90% to 99%, creates at a structural or institutional level a permanent underclass of people who have fewer opportunities and greater hardships no matter what they do.
By contrast, the IWW and our similarly radical forebears have fought — even when it was illegal, for instance, for black and white workers to belong to the same unions — to have a totally unified class of working people: skilled and unskilled, male and female, with no one left out. We did this because it is not only just in itself, but also because it is the only strategic or logical method of liberating workers from the capitalists’ domination of modern society. Either we all stand united and on equal footing in opposition to the controllers of industry on the basis of class alone, or we will be divided and conquered from within our ranks and defeated, as has happened over and over again. (The reaction from certain subsets of the white working class against racial equality and integration in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, was arguably an important part of how the capitalist class was able to regain a strengthened hand after decades of working class organization and upsurges to bring us the overtly anti-worker, neoliberal regimes of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and so on from the 1980s to today.)
In 2014, more than 60 years after McCarthyism and the institutionalized purging of radicals from within mainstream labor unions, more than 50 years after the near-collapse of the IWW that followed it, and more than 40 years after average US wages reached their high point, labor radicals still struggle to overcome pro-capitalist union ideologies and reverse the class defeats which have plagued workers for far too long. In current IWW organizing campaigns, whether it is around the Sisters’ Camelot Union in Minnesota, the Insomnia Cookies Union in Massachusetts, or any number of other active shop-floor struggles, we IWWs still hear criticism regularly from people who consider themselves to be progressive or otherwise left-of center in comments such as, “I support unions, but not for these people. They work part-time and don’t have job skills!” Or they will tell us, “If you want better wages, get out of the fast food industry and go back to school!” We also hear these sorts of remarks around other contemporary struggles going on in the broader “Fight for 15” movement at McDonald’s and other large, highly profitable franchise chains.
Comments like these betray almost superstitious beliefs not only in an upward social and economic mobility that always had a low ceiling for the majority and no longer, in large measure, even exists, but also in a labor division and class system that is based on the notion that some workers deserve to be treated and paid badly by their employers — and indeed that there should be two separate employing and working classes to begin with (rather than, say, a cooperative system of industry in which this dichotomy is transcended). To IWWs, all workers deserve a union, and we believe that until all workers do organize into One Big Union, we can expect to see continued inequalities between “undeserving” workers (or so it is rationalized) who are stuck with jobs comprised of 90% disempowering tasks and low compensation and “deserving” workers (or so it is rationalized) who get to do the better jobs that carry more prestige and never involve undervalued but necessary “dirty work” like picking up trash, flipping burgers, or changing diapers. But most of all, there will be a capitalist class above both types of workers, keeping most of the fruits of our labor as their own private property and letting us fight amongst ourselves for the leftovers. The IWW exists to end these injustices and form a democratic society in which industry is operated according to need as determined by workers ourselves. Are you with us?