On the Revolutionary Union Movement Faction in the IWW

Recently, the Revolutionary Unionists have formalized their caucus in the I.W.W. While this is a welcome step toward understanding exactly what it is they’re after, we’re disappointed that their essays struggle to cite what we’ve written accurately and contain several baseless accusations. 

We were confounded at the prospect of responding to a lot of vague insinuations and frankly, things we’ve never said nor believe. So we decided to put what we did say right next to what some in the RUM claim we say. Following that is a brief response to their essay on “white workerism”.

RU Silliness 1.3RU Silliness 2.2RU Silliness 3.1

The Industrial Union Caucus believes that to call ourselves a revolutionary union, we need to have an effective union building model. Until we work that out, even well organized community self defense will deliver only partial gains. The General Defense Committee has made a lot of  progress on this front. The IUC’s focus is on developing our union organizing. As we say in our Aims and Principles, this isn’t because we think other work is wrong, but because we recognize our own limitations.

At several points the Revolutionary Union Movement seems to confuse our arguments for what would help the union be more effective, with mere assertions. Typically, an argument establishes a set of premises and connects them to a conclusion. Quite often, the premises involve evidence. For example, if I want to say that Hillary Clinton is opposed to a 15$ an hour minimum wage, I might be expected to quote her.  It’s not clear that the RUM understand this. Instead, they insinuate that we or our positions are consonant with racism and homophobia, and are therefore discredited. This fails on two counts.

First, they fail to advance any evidence for one of their fundamental premises; that those who have strategic disagreements with them or those who want to make the I.W.W. more effective at forming Industrial Unions also hold racist or homophobic views. No evidence is advanced on this front. It’s hard to imagine that any could be, but were it possible, we also abhor the thought that rather than bring this information to light via a charges process with the aim of expelling or disciplining the alleged racists, the RU caucus would rather argue with them. Making allegations of racism and homophobia are not political toys, they’re serious claims. Too serious to be abused for political ends.

If the IUC is not guilty of its members holding racist views or engaging in racist acts, then the second count is that some of its aims, principles, or arguments logically lead to racism. This is completely possible, but nothing on the RU Caucus website demonstrates this.

Instead, the article “White Workerism or Revolutionary Unionism” sets up a false dichotomy by which their ideas are inherently revolutionary (through repeated assertion) and the strawman of “white workerism” is knocked down. The piece feels justified implying the IUC is white workerist as a result of the fact that we think that our union should focus on building….unions.

The first step in this argument is contrasting “economism” with revolutionary unionism. Their historical point of departure is Frank Little’s dispute with the GEB of old about hesitance to to declare opposition to conscription for World War 1. By economism, it appears that the authors mean a focus on winning wages and benefits, over taking revolutionary action.

Is economism purely a white worker phenomenon? Ironically, the historical I.W.W. provides the answer. The Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union Local 8 in Philadelphia has been characterized as one of the most successful unions in I.W.W. history. The workers there controlled the docks, were well organized, were integrated across lines of race (black, native white, and immigrant eastern european etc.) and relied on direct action and solidarity to wring concessions from their employers. They also took out war bonds and did not make clear and direct  pronouncements against the war. Then again, they also refused to pledge not to strike during the war. The Local’s lead organizer and overall leader was a black longshoreman, Ben Fletcher.

Many in the IWW at the time were critical of Local 8’s “economism”. But their logic echoed that of the GEB; why make political posturing and pronouncements where we could focus on getting concrete gains? They took the more narrow road of arguing that the war was a bosses war; they were making record profits, why shouldn’t the workers strike? While they didn’t make an official pronouncement against the war, they didn’t stop debate in the union about the very issue either, and plenty of Wobblies circulated anti-war literature. By 1916  This contrasted with the AFoL wartime policy of strike breaking and scabbing.

Local 8 voted not to strike throughout the war. While their purchase of War Bonds was a mistake, and greater opposition to capitalist war would have been ideal, the concrete roots of their drive not to declare open opposition must be addressed. We cannot simply claim they were reactionary bigots. We need to ask; What would have made them more confident to declare opposition to the war? What would have better educated the membership about the importance of taking an anti-war stance? What would have made an anti-war position practically viable?

The longshore workers in Philadelphia made a strategic miscalculation. They understood that they were essentially brokering a truce between themselves and their bosses; the Local’s more anti-war leaders understood that the support for the War was so strong, and the government so virulently anti-IWW that any posturing could draw them unnecessary repression. Unfortunately, the reward of the Wobbly longshore workers registering for the draft, refusal to strike, and general support for the War was aggressive repression beginning in September of 1917.

The first lesson from this is that “economism” and patriotism are not the raw or natural provenance of the “white working class” exclusively. Workers in general can be taken in by economism. Even workers who are themselves discriminated against (immigrant eastern Europeans) can be taken in by anti-black rhetoric and politics. The idea that economism or bread and butter unionism are exclusively “white workerist” echoes the right wing of the Democratic Party which, rather than reach out to organize the working class across lines of race, seeks to pit white and black, native and immigrant, workers against each other. Democrats demonize and blame the white working class rather than seeking to Educate and Organize it.

The second thing is that the capitalist state is a tool for the bosses to repress working class organization, regardless of the deals workers think they’ve struck with the bosses.

The third thing, is that working class self-defense extends beyond extra-workplace activities. Organized into fighting unions, workers are as strong as they can be. But if those unions don’t extend beyond one city, one state, one country, even they can fall victim to repression.

We don’t claim that Local 8’s fine line between a clear anti-war position and a strategic focus on “economism” is the way forward. The purpose is to demonstrate that economism is not a purely “white” phenomenon. Workers in general need to focus on wages and healthcare for the benefit of their loved ones and themselves. As a result, they’re more liable to pick a safe road, regardless of their race or gender. It’s up to us as Wobblies working to overthrow capitalism to help them chart a course that delivers on their safety, but also outlines a concrete revolutionary strategy.

Because we don’t argue for economism, RUM struggles to make this assessment of us stick, and therefore the authors move onto other terrain. They equate economism with “pure workplace organizing”, and then point out that this ignores fights outside the workplace. This ends with alleging we take the vantage point of white, able-bodied, male workers. This is absurd.

First, for the reason cited above, it’s clear economism doesn’t equal “white workerism” historically. Furthermore, many workplaces have been pretty thoroughly integrated. Where they haven’t been effectively integrated, it’s our job as a union to fight for that.

Second, the article doesn’t quote what we’ve said or written a single time. It doesn’t do this because everything we say contradicts the authors’ fundamental premises. Instead, they attribute to us a set of positions we don’t hold, and then argue against them. The positions they attribute (white supremacy) are so serious that it becomes hard to disagree with the authors. To disagree risks being labeled as a white supremacist.

It’s primarily for these reasons that we’re disappointed in the Revolutionary Union Movement. With the exception of one or two other pieces, their articles contain more of the same kinds of baseless accusations and logical slips.

Our aim from the first is to look for strategies that can be successful and reach out to other union members for help in the work we’re doing. We don’t have all the answers and we don’t claim to. We aim to stick to principled debate using logic and evidence; we’re not interested in bald assertion and un-provable statements. With their proposals, the Revolutionary Union Movement has at least advanced something substantive to discuss. We’ll stick to that in the coming weeks.

Further Reading:
Wobblies on the Waterfront – Peter Cole


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