Winning the War of Position: Class Unionism in the Workplace
The organizing ethos of the IWW is necessarily confrontational. We assume an irreconcilability of interests between the capitalist class and the working class. We assume that these irreconcilable interests stem from the very process of capital accumulation itself. We assume that these contradictory interests between our two contending classes can only be resolved by direct action – direct conflict. Indeed, as the Preamble to our Constitution states:
“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, and live in harmony with the earth.”
Yet what is not so readily apparent, at least to outside eyes, is that the confrontational ethos of the IWW has a flipside. Instead of capitalist competition, we argue for solidarity. In place of production designed for profit for the few at the top, we argue for production designed to fulfill the needs and desires of the millions of working people at the bottom of the social system. What we propose is not simply a restructuring of the systems of coercion and repression that dominate the lives of working people – we propose instead their abolition, and replacement. In order to abolish capitalism, we work towards building mass industrial unions – but to replace it, we must do something more. We must build a working-class hegemony.
It is well and good to speak of such things as strategic objectives, but if the strategy cannot be applied practically to the organizing work that we do on a daily basis, then it is worthless. This begs the question: how does one even begin to build a working-class hegemony? What would it look like? How might it develop?
The easiest answer to these questions is that we are already doing this.
One of the basic foundational principles of organizing within the IWW is that we must learn to think and act collectively, to view the struggles of others as just as important as our own, to treat an injury to one as an injury to all. In many cases this sort of understanding develops naturally from conflicts between bosses and workers within the workplace itself. Yet in other cases, particularly in industries where groups of workers occupy differing positions within the process of production or service, such an understanding of the necessity of solidarity and collective action is much more difficult to generate organically. In such cases, it is just as important to actively build an ethos of solidarity and reciprocity amongst one’s coworkers as it is to agitate and organize against the bosses.
An example from my own workplace experience might serve to illustrate the point.
I worked for several months at a large chain restaurant franchise as a server. The workforce was divided roughly into thirds by the type of work accomplished – servers, bussers, and kitchen staff. When problems inevitably arose, it was the typical response of management to place blame on one section of the workforce in order to maintain these artificial divisions. If servers complained that their tables were not being cleaned off quickly enough, management would reply that the bussers were being lazy and needed to work harder. If orders were lost or took too long to reach the floor, management would blame the kitchen staff, and say that they were lazy and needed to work harder. Obviously, this created friction and mistrust between the different sets of workers – exactly what the bosses wanted in order to maximize the amount of labor being done by each set of workers, and prevent us from acting collectively.
In such an environment, tackling the bosses as a first priority was simply not possible. What was necessary first and foremost was to rebuild trust between the different sets of workers, in order to make collective action even possible. So rather than simply agitating my coworkers, and trying to pin the blame for mismanagement on the bosses right away, I did something different.
I started cleaning tables for the bussers.
Within two shifts, several bussers noticed and came to ask me why I was helping them out. My response was simple: “I figure that if I help you out when you need a hand, you’ll do the same for me.” Word quickly spread among the bussers, and from that point forward my section was nearly always spotless immediately after my tables left. Other servers noticed this, and began doing the same – cleaning up tables when the bussers were busy, helping with cleaning duties that were ostensibly the sole responsibility of the bussers. Within a month, the servers on my shifts were, nearly to a man, helping out the bussers when the restaurant was busy rather than complaining about them.
It was a small step that was not overtly agitational, but it made everyone’s work a small bit easier, and successfully reconciled two sets of workers who would otherwise have been at each others’ throats.
This experience illustrated an important point – given the right conditions, and right incentives, hegemony will build itself. The culture of reciprocity and solidarity that was developed had a simple slogan – “If you bust your ass for me, I will bust my ass for you.” Beyond that, it went a long way toward clarifying what, practically speaking, can be done to build a workers’ hegemony in the workplace. In order to build hegemony, we must replace competition with solidarity, and replace retribution with reciprocity. This is not some faraway goal that can only be accomplished by a mass of working people – it is something that can, and must be done daily, in order to facilitate the direct collective action that is the stated goal of IWW organizing.
One might argue that such an approach is part and parcel of the model of organizing already engaged in by the IWW – and they would be exactly right. In fact, that is the point. But instead of viewing such actions as a tactical step toward organizing a specific workplace, we must transition toward viewing them as a strategic measure – a calculated, planned effort to disseminate the ideas of reciprocity and solidarity throughout the working class, one workplace at a time. This is the first practical step toward rebuilding a working-class hegemony in this country, and one that facilitates and augments the organizing work done by IWW members every day.
We must take our culture back, replace capitalist values with our values, and eventually replace capitalist organizations with working-class organizations. But we can only do this if we understand that, in the end, we are not fighting for a distant dream of equality – we are fighting for each other.
Let us act, and organize, accordingly.
Yours for the OBU,