IWW – then and now

By Humphrey McQueen

Given the parlous condition of the organised labour movement, it is hardly surprising that attempts are underway to revive the IWW (Wobblies – Industrial Workers of the World). My impulse is to send off the annual dues for much the same reasons as I belong to the Society for the Study of Labour History and the National Museum of Labour, that is, for old times sake. Yet there is much more to the IWW than nostalgia. Its past lives in our present and we should weave the finest achievements of the Wobblies into our future. The part of the IWW could not kill goes on to inspire.

The ashes of Joe Hill

Let’s start from three interlocked expressions of the IWW’s approach to educating, organising and agitating: its humour, its slogans and its songs. In comparison, today’s grouplets, including the IWW, seem po-faced.

The first aspect is the power of IWW satire, sarcasm and irony. We remember jokes and repeat them in ways we don’t with the best argued ideas. On slogans, ‘Fast Workers Die Young’ is still going the rounds when not many Marxist scholars can define universal labour-time. Tom Barker was gaoled in 1915 for a headline in Direct Action to counter wartime recruiting: ‘Your Country Needs You: Workers, Follow Your Masters.’ Similarly, we remember snatches of IWW songs because they are witty and because we sing them together. The whole of a May Day march should be a massed choir. ‘Bump me into parliament’ to ‘Pie in the Sky’ circulated long after speeches and manifestos were forgotten.

The second weapon in the Wobblies’ armoury was ‘Propaganda by deed’. My father and his workmates at a Brisbane tannery joined a union in 1917 after a Canadian seaman Wobbly king-hit the foreman. The workers had never seen anyone stand up to the boss. Of course, the effectiveness of that blow was increased because it took place during a revolutionary upsurge around the world.

Propaganda by deed is not just the one-off punch but involves building up strength in the workplace by initiating a campaign for a winnable demand that has broad support, for a shithouse or potable water on site. That is the way to recruit and to keep those who join active once they pay their union dues.

Parliamentary cretinism

Before turning critical of the IWW, there is one issue on which its program is 300 percent correct. No affiliation of unions with parliamentary cretins, that is, otherwise intelligent people who think that making a speech or passing a law changes reality.

Union officials waste more than half of their time in factional battles about the ALP. These diversions from the main game are not as simple as lining up for a berth in parliament. The prime temptation used to be a job in the arbitration system – aptly identified as the union officials’ slice of the state. Officials are duchessed by being asked for advice, appointed to boards and sent on overseas delegations. They are flattered by a kit and caboodle of perks. The problem is that they cannot do their job for their members if they stand aside from inquiries into health and safety, precarious employment or skills training. They must walk on two legs by keeping up mass campaigns around these issues and refusing to get enmeshed in ‘commercial-in-confidence’ hearings.

The wrong-headedness of union officials being the last rusted-on ALP supporters was evident when the Construction and General Division of the CFMEU backed the ALP for Melbourne in 2010 against Adam Bandt. The officials had seen Killard’s tough-cop performance at the Brisbane ACTU Congress in support of the ABCC. Backing even the most progressive ALP candidate is a waste of time, money and effort unless you have a passion for being kicked in the teeth. No ALP parliamentarian is ever going to break caucus solidarity and back Bandt’s motion to abolish the ABCC.

However, spurning the ALP does not solve the political question since the capitalist class can exist only because of its control of the state. The state is the party for all capitalists. The political question is not solved by abstention. The IWW had split over this matter shortly after its formation.

Nor can we give full-throated endorsement to the abandonment of the Leninist party, despite the multitude of crimes and errors flowing from that model. Moreover, the reason for holding back is a Leninist one: our class enemy has a party of its own and it is called the state. The state organises capital and disorganises labour. Whatever else the capitalist state in Australia might be these days, it remains organised violence raised to an obligatory norm. On that point, Marx, Engels, Bukharin, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao and Chomsky agree. To accept the irrelevance of the Leninist party for Australia in 2012 does not get over Lenin’s identification of the state as organised violence. In our case, that violence is more often latent than actualised as it was under the Czars. Yet, not only is the violent core of the state unchanged, that force is several times more intense with modern weaponry and surveillance. Those forces cannot be overcome by workplace militancy.

Union bureaucrats?

From one other point in the IWW program, there can be no dissent: all officials must be elected by the membership.

However, we need to consider how those elections should be arranged. The following comments are drawn from researching the BLF – which recruited the nomadic and less-skilled workers among whom the IWW had most influence.

Annual elections sucked energy out of that union – the organisers and their critics ended up doing little beyond contesting the next poll. Making officials ‘subject to recall by majority vote’ has its place, but that process too can be used by scabs to derail struggle.

Although all positions must be subject to regular election, unions also need to make short-term appointments to train and test people. A number of BLs gave away the position as paid organiser as too hard psychologically as they encountered anti-union attitudes on the jobs, or found the tasks beyond their administrative abilities, their literacy and numeracy. Keeping accurate records is essential and taxing. Democracy depends on an efficient bureaucracy to track the money.

Three-year tenure is not long enough to get on top of the job. Rule one of historical materialism is that we learn by doing. Effective delegates and officials are made in action, not born. Victorian BLF officials such as Malone, Karslake and Wallace were as solid on the day they retired as on the day they began. Fred Thomas in NSW was rotten from start to finish.

[People often cite Jack Mundey as someone who stepped down to rejoin BLs on the job. Jack often left for work but, as his wife noted, he rarely got there – being waylaid by a TV crew.]

A union must do everything it can to keep full-time officials on the job some of the time. This is simpler to achieve in some sectors than others. For instance, the need for stand-by teachers and nurses makes it easier for AEU or ANF officials to spend a day a week in classrooms or wards – as should school principals and matrons.

This rule applies to research officers. A crucial part of their research has to be experiencing in their daily practices what members live out hour-by-hour. Graduates need to take a post-grad year on the job before being appointed to the back office, and to take refresher courses.

Recognise the distinctions between paid officials and job delegates. Being a job delegate is the hardest job in the movement especially now when they have so little room to move within the law. Annual elections, recall and three-year maximum terms are unlikely to develop an effective body of job reps.

Circumstances differ between types of work. Metal shops used to have lifelong employment and their delegate structures were powerful inside the unions and against the boss. These days there is more casualisation.

Hence, no blanket or permanent answer exists to the questions of how to organise around the jobs.

salaries for officials. The Communist rule was that no one got more than the average for the most skilled members. Anyone who can’t live on $120,000 should change their manner of living.

A word is called for about the IWW membership dues. The maximum dues now expected from the best-paid worker are $180 a year, whereas most unions levy one percent. The average IWW dues would not have provided one week’s strike pay of $100 for the Baiada strikers. The gap between the IWW dues and workers’ needs is a reminder that the appeal of the IWW is to certain precepts and its organs will not provide the seed that will germinate into the mass organisation it was before the 1930s.

The Wheel

A hundred years ago, the IWW adopted a plan for One Big Union. The workforce was divided into six departments which were in turn split into as many as nine sub-groups. The way forward was illustrated by a Wheel concocted by Father Haggerty. His schema looks as impenetrable as the intricate plan for One Big Union adopted in Australia in 1919. How many rank-and-filers ever absorbed its significance for their struggles?

The Wheel was utopian in 1912 and is even more so today. It summons up the Phalansteries conceived by the French utopian Charles Fourier (1772-1837). It comes from outside Australia, outside the workforce and outside current actualities.

Even if you brought Haggerty’s Wheel up to date in terms of the structure of contemporary workforces with their much larger service sectors, the circles and spokes would still be utopian in the sense of being a blueprint for a future society that plops out of someone’s head and not out of social action.

All attempts to construct socialism prove that only those who are building that future can draft the floor plans. In doing so, workers must fail and stumble. No model can protect us from unknown unknowns. That is why Marx and Engels said almost nothing about what a socialist society would be like, and still less about communism. The IWW Wheel is a denial of all the Wobblies stood for in basing their practice on learning by doing.

Such models are like the one imposed from the outside as Strategic Unionism at the 1987 ACTU Congress. That there was a need to gather together miniscule unions was one thing. The pursuit of cross-industry bodies such as the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union was another matter entirely. Its four divisions continue to go their own ways – as do the State branches within each division. One bad resultof the amalgamations was that union leaders were removed even further from the needs of their members.

The Ego and the Self

Far more disturbing than the Wheel is the slogan on the back-cover of the reprint of the IWW pamphlet from a hundred years ago. ‘IWW’ is now made to stand for ‘I WILL WIN’. This rewrite of the initials is a retreat from collective action and Kropotkin’s mutual aid into bourgeois individualism. It’s bad enough when the Canberra Labor Club promotes itself with the slogan ‘It’s all about YOU”, instead of ‘about US’. The fact that admirers of the IWW could make the same mistake is a mark of how much needs to be done to reclaim the socialist project.

The best of the IWW experience will contribute to that remaking to the extent that its promoters avoid romanticism and piety about the Wobblies’ past and adopt a self-critical stance towards the limits to their own role in coming struggles. Those cautions apply to us all.

When all this is said and done, we can recognise that the itch to revive the IWW is spurred on by revulsion at the mess and muddle that the organs of labour have become: the ALP as an Anti-Labour Party; the strategic bankruptcy of the ACTU since the disaster of the Accord process; the tame-cat tactics of most unions as their leaders attempted to ward off shrinking membership by dangling free movie tickets before recruits; the recruitment of recent undergraduates with next-to-no workplace experience as organisers; and the carbuncle of corruption throughout the NSW Right that burst in the Health Services Employees Union.

On top of these burdens from within the movement, working people confront aggression from the boss class and its state apparatuses being driven to extremes by the global economic catastrophe in the accumulation of capital.

The temptation to leap over these realities is as understandable as it is perilous. Nothing can be wished out of existence, no attack defeated by sloganeering against bureaucrats, no evils eradicated by fantasising about some noble past, no ground reclaimed by mindless militancy. As was the case when the Wobblies were at their most effective a hundred years ago, the task is to combine the opportunities for audacity with patient rebuilding brick by brick. Since the educator always needs to be educated, the relevance of the above comments will be enriched by criticisms of them drawn from the experience of many activists. The benefits from the legacy of the IWW will be decided in practice informed by continuing investigation.

Maoism was the Trotskyism for a cohort of activists in the Vietnam era.

But they are now over. Walking corpses will not lead us into socialism.

IWW-ism also over.

Take out the best from all the past attempts.

A lot of un-learning has to take place.

We have to distinguish what is living from what is dead and both from what is merely idiosyncratic.

We all carry baggage but we have to recognise that load for what it is and not elevate it to a principle

To state capitalism or deformed workers state –

Danger from the saints who have never accepted responsibility for a government.

No one governs innocently, said Saint-Just.

A partly reconstructed Stalinist is a safer bet than a Trot who thinks that they would never commit a crime. We are safe from the latter because they are never going to hold power over more than their own cult.

Humphrey McQueen

5 thoughts on “IWW – then and now

  1. http://unionsong.com/u005.html

    ACTU (Australian Class Traitors United) Congress in Sydney 2012 : Priceless … Bon Hawke as Prime Minister was the union buster who fucked over the BLF in 1986, sent in the air-force to break the pilot’s strike in 1990 has the bloody nerve to sing Solidarity Forever ? “Bump Me Into Parliament” wold be more appropriate.
    Note: The song was written by Ralph Chaplin IWW.
    The IWW in Australia was made illegal in 1917 for anti-Trade War conscription campaigning. Persecuted and jailed organisers by Billy Hughes the ALP Prime Minister – like Hawke former union bureaucrat.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FXIRoE1h2I&feature=share

    Socialist Alternative Marxism 2011’s Got Talent Star sings “Bump Me Into Parliament”

  2. If the Industrial Workers of the World are that much of a waste of time why bother making the effort to point that out? A pretty one-sided article considering you failed to engage at all with the reasons why some of us choose to be members and are in fact very passionately so.

  3. You know you could have maybe talked to some of the people involved about what they are trying to do and why, or you could have looked at what the IWW in the US and UK have been doing over recent years. But you just made a bunch of assumptions, and rather silly scratch-leads-to-gangrene ones at that, based on not very much.

  4. IWW has grown inside USA and beyond eg in UK with cleaners organising in London; interest from Iceland, Uganda ad South Africa too 🙂
    Australia wide IWW continues to expand in most cities now; Melbourne IWW members meet fortnightly, did a stall at May Day last weekend and are involved in a diversity of community and workplace struggles and educational campaigns. Some of us also like to sing not only the IWW Joe Hill & Ralph Chaplin classics but new songs and perform new music too. Travelling Wobs continue to spread the news that despite everything we are still here. Some as musicians like Tom Morello are known to younger generation others like George Mann performed on Victorian nurses picket line in Geelong and other working class events.

    This may be of interest to some of your readers.
    http://www.radicalsocialist.in/articles/statement-radical-socialist/news/481-magan-desai-1929-2012?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+radicalsocialist+%28Radical+Socialist%29

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