Future of the I.W.W. Part 2: The Structural and Strategic Roots of the Anti-GEB Movement

In the previous article I argued that the Restructure and Recall proposals were mistaken. This is for 2 reasons.

1. They don’t actually democratize the union and therefore don’t address the alleged problem of an unrepresentative General Executive Board

2. They would exacerbate the current problems in the I.W.W. which precipitated the dysfunction on the GEB and the call to restructure.

This essay will focus on the second point above.


Misguided organizing campaigns are not solely the fault of a few people with mistaken ideas. The I.W.W. hasn’t been able to organize a union (and here I mean an institution that lives beyond the dedication of its initial activist core) very well over the past 60 years. This provided the soil in which activism, both in and outside the workplace, could spring up as an alternative to Industrial Unionism. The most recent trend in the I.W.W. has been to hold up a kind of union-activism which is doomed to failure as the model for organizing.

This model is often called Direct or Solidarity Unionism. Here, the individual and their co-workers acting in concert are the union. Contracts, staff, and NLRB elections are pesky contrivances which actually impede militancy and strength. Success is defined as making every member into an organizer. Or in other words, success is impossible.

Obviously, this is a distillation of this viewpoint, and often these ideas are expressed both formally and informally. Taken together, though, they form a kind of contemporary I.W.W. common sense. This approach has attached itself with the most veracity in the Organizer Training program, which has sown this basic common sense among IWW members across the country. Aspects of this Direct Unionist approach have indisputable merit (workers must rely on themselves to win and enforce demands or a contract using direct action, committees are the building blocks of unions) while others are less convincing (Staff, contracts, elections are all useless).

The core mistaken hypothesis is that two workers acting in concert is a union. It is not. It is merely collective action. A union is a constant organization over time – an institution with a division of labor, a membership-constituency, elected officers, a slate of services provided by different departments, and most importantly – a vehicle for concentrated collective decision making and action. Put briefly, collective action is necessary but not sufficient to have a functioning union. The union exists to augment – that is, sharpen and amplify collective action.

Unfortunately, this same atmosphere of “Do-It-Yourself Unionism” has encouraged a kind of “Do-It-Your-Self Defense Work”. There is a complete lack of accountability in both houses and that is, in part what must be changed. This lack of accountability devolves from problems of administrative structure on the one hand, and strategy formation on the other.

Problems of Administration

The problems with our current administrative setup would not in the least be resolved by the proposed abolition of the GEB. We have a dues collection and reporting process from the 1910s. We have limited funds to pay a General Secretary Treasurer and none to stipend or pay officers of the union or administrators at the local level. A common point of opposition is that we ought not to pay officialdom. This ignores that it was common IWW policy to pay necessary administrators and full timers a wage equivalent to that the union had won for the membership. Perhaps more to the point, those who are principally opposed to paying members for the work they do have two unsolvable problems to confront.

The first is that if you don’t pay members with skills to do the work, it will fall to ‘those who have the time’. This inevitably leads to the informal rule of the middle class in the organization, who have the trust funds, the clueless parents and whatever hassle-free hustle to spend the time doing the work for free. Thus, refusing on principle to pay staffers is in fact an argument to keep the organization in the control of the middle and upper classes. This isn’t a character judgment on members who come from wealthier backgrounds, they may have good skills to bring to the table. But it does mean that the activist-egos of those who participate for free get privileged over concrete results, regardless of their class background. It’s just that the wealthier have the resources to stick out for longer.

The second but possibly more important problem with the refusal to pay competent members to do the work is that the work that does get done usually gets done inconsistently or poorly. If workers do take administrative tasks on, they’re doomed to overwork and burnout, even just trying to keep up with the list of tasks to complete. When volunteers fill their roles, they can easily be drawn to resign when things don’t go their personal way or when life hits them with a curveball.

Both of these point to a labor shortage problem in the organization. Anybody who applies the same analysis to our organization as they do to the rest of society can figure out pretty quickly how a firm ought to respond to a labor shortage. You recruit more labor or use labor-saving technology! So long as this labor shortage goes unsolved, switching to a “decentralized” policy will exacerbate administrative redundancy and eat up our already depleted supply of volunteer labor. Asking each branch to now have one or more members on regional and a national steering committee pulls that many members away from other work.

Unless this is reversed, the I.W.W. will remain firmly under the thumb of activist cliques in different cities which vie for predominance in the organization, rather than a union which serves its members.

Problems of Strategy

I don’t want to be misunderstood. Every solidarity union campaign has failed. I’m not trying to be cruel or dismiss them. But it’s a fact. There are multiple ways to talk about failure/success. For example, the Solidarity Union campaigns may have succeeded at bringing in 5 new dedicated IWW members. Still, there is not a union in any Starbucks in the Twin Cities, Houston, or Manhattan. Neither is there a union at Jimmy John’s in Gainesville, the Twin Cities or anywhere else. Whole Foods? Failed because the core organizers had shifting obligations and their involvement was based on volunteer labor. At absolutely none of these places is there an organization, even a bare bones one, that is daily securing the basic rights of its members and effecting better working conditions. You know where that is the case?

In Berkeley California where recycling sorters and truck drivers are unionized with a contract by the local I.W.W. They earn good wages, routinely use direct action to enforce the contract or to win on demands not provided in the contract. True, they aren’t “involved in the cultural life of the union”. But this is for two good reasons;

1. The “cultural life of the union” is to a large extent dominated by boring activist cliques
2. They have to work for a living.

Instead of fighting a constant war of attrition, as per Direct Unionist common sense, the Bay Area workers secured a contract (a good contract). They know they have to enforce it. They understand that the contract is paper, and their direct action is what gives it any worth. What’s more, they’ve created their own cultural space in the organization, holding barbecues on holidays at work, even if they have to use direct action to make sure they get the time to do so.

But this fact, that the Direct Unionist strategy is promoted against more successful organizing drives is a manifestation of a deeper problem. To put it bluntly, there is no overarching strategizing as a result of collective reflection and decision making. We have no organizing policy beyond “Come to an OT-101 and then do what you want with the info”. This has lead to failure after failure. Partly this is the result of the General Membership Branch structure of the union.

General Membership Branches foster a regional/city based collectivity and at the same time, regional/city based organizing “campaigns”. Branches aren’t accountable to the broader organization, and neither are organizing campaigns. We have no way of telling a lone “organizer-worker” that they aren’t going to organize Wal-Mart in their free time. In fact, we often do the opposite, and argue that they should try, no matter what. This is completely unjustified and borders on cult like behavior. It completely retreats from reality and inculcates ignorance as opposed to a sober consideration of the facts at hand. It also fosters a culture of rejecting accountability;  when a campaign fails, it’s for every reason except the theoretical approach.

This “branch autonomy” is in reality branch unaccountability. Failing never gets adequately reckoned with through a formal process. As a result, we haven’t been growing.

Committee Activism is Insufficient – In the Workplace and In the Streets

In the context of repeatedly failing, one-off campaigns, members of the Anti-GEB faction have asserted that the GDC Community Self Defense model offers a solution to the problem of growth. Boosted by what some have called the “Trump-Bump”, Anti-GEBers are confident that their model provides the solution.

In reality political activism is being argued as a superior recruitment strategy, that can augment industrial organizing. But where we have no effective model for building lasting union institutions, recruiting through political organizing isn’t a fix to the problem. The problem is an incomplete and contradictory model. Political activism might bring in large numbers; but primarily for the sake of doing political activism. If the union organizing  that we promise is failing, new members will soon leave, or narrow their focus to antifascist counter-demos.

What’s worse, the GDC model echoes the incoherent and decentralized structure of GMBs. Members in one city are more or less free to experiment with how they engage in “Defense Work” with very little oversight from other GDCers, let alone the membership of the union. This is a recipe for failures which fly under the radar at best, and downright harmful errors at worst. It even has it’s own core training, a picket training, which functions as the Organizer Training in the I.W.W. – the raising of a tactic (pickets, committee building) which is necessary for working class struggle, to the level of both a strategy and a principle.

The Anti-GEB faction crystallizes these problems in a perspective; the union would be growing exponentially if it wasn’t for the oppressive clique of ruling GEB members, the ‘anti-democratic structure’ of the organization with a functioning executive body able to govern in between conventions, and pesky conservative trade union principles like ‘collective decision making, collective accountability, and paying union workers for their contributions’. It’s not the outmoded administration or complete lack of a successful union model that keeps the I.W.W. small; it’s a conspiracy of self-interested volunteer petit-bourgeois, competing for the opportunity to waste their time dominating a failing organization. This is the Anti-GEB ideology, distilled. It isn’t personal and political differences on the board that precipitated the dispute, (nevermind the complete inability of the Anti-GEB faction on the board to put the membership first and accept losing votes to retain a functioning board), it’s a creeping and sinister bureaucracy in an organization that can barely pay one bureaucrat!

I.W.W.s should fight to put the I.W.W. on a firm industrial union organizing basis. The GDC has had some material successes with recruitment, but this is no substitute for organizing. The working class is dynamic and diverse. However, blustery rhetoric about autonomy and anti-fascism won’t translate into material gains without a strategy. That strategy has to begin at work because that is where workers, white or black, citizen or immigrant, cis or trans have to spend most of their waking hours. It is the locus of our oppression and exploitation. It’s the place where we can come together and assert our collective power, as a class.   

The Industrial Union faction is bringing together members interested in pursuing Industrial Organizing Drives. Our aim is to identify our strengths, pick winnable targets, draft organizing proposals, and implement them with a concentration of resources and effort. In connection with this, we’re also interested in finding members with the skills or knowledge to address some of the union’s most pressing administrative, educational, and organizing concerns including;

– Immediate Switch to automatic dues collection
– Implementation of Electronic Reporting/Database

– Building an effective Organizing Department – Hire a general organizer and pursue targeted campaigns in industries where we have strength in membership and a viable growth strategy

– Outline an I.W.W. approach to contracts – the legalization of the workplace is here to stay. We must adapt. This doesn’t mean support for no-strike clauses, grievance procedures or management’s rights clauses, as many other unions have demonstrated.

– Establish the Education Department and move the OTC into its purview alongside the GDC’s picket and other trainings. Adopt and implement new member orientation as well as an administration training.
– Move the GDC either fully into or fully out of the union – this is the only way to have an honest discussion about the direction that committee takes among the membership of the organization to which it ought to be directly accountable. Connectedly, this requires a conversation about what works and what doesn’t in the GDC, and outlining a functioning legal and direct action defense strategy, beyond the Picket-Training-and-Go-Wild “strategy” which predominates at the moment.

We also recommend that members vote no on the Restructure and Recall proposals.

Author: antonjohannsen

All I want to do is live communism and spread anarchy.

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