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(en) Review of An Oral history of IWW Strikes 1971-92

From Jura Books <a-infos-@chaos.apana.org.au>
Date Sun, 24 Dec 2000 04:16:26 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

Review  of Nothing in Common: An Oral History of IWW Strikes 1971-1992
edited by John Silvano, Published by Cedar Publishing, Reviewed
in Rebel Worker, Paper of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network
Vol.19 No.6 (168) Dec.2000-Jan.2001 Subs. $25 Aust. Airmail (overseas)
in Australia $12 per year Postal Address PO Box 92 Broadway 2007 NSW

This slim volume consists of a series of accounts of strikes and associated
organising drives by members of the Industrial Workers of the World, an
anarcho-syndicalist oriented grouping  mainly based in the USA.
The contents of the book particularly focus on the nitty gritty of  on-the-
job organising in mainly small unorganised shops.  Certainly the impression
gained is of militants serious about labour organising rather than sect
building and associated unwholesome introversion, fascination with rituals
of micro organisation and nostalgia. A malady which characterises some
contemporary groupings which adopt the IWW label.
The accounts of the mostly unsuccessful organising drives in the book throw
light on a variety of organising issues and obstacles to these efforts.
One key issue and stumbling block which looms large in the various accounts
is the use of relying on the NLRB (National Labor Relations  Board)  to
assist gaining employer recognition for wobbly shops and settling
grievances over contracts.
The consensus of opinion amongst most wobbly militants was that the NLRB
procedures are too long drawn out and cumbersome and favour employers
considerably. These NLRB features contributed significantly to the
crippling of organising drives.
Another contribution to the failure of some of the drives, recounted by the
militants was the phenomena of very hard line bosses which the wobbly
militants collided with in their organising efforts. These small business
bosses were willing to allow considerable losses to their businesses rather
than agree to union recognition.
The financially marginal situation of small shops/businesses presented
major obstacles to the IWW maintaining permanent shops.
In the case of the organising drive in Ann Arbor, Michigan during the
period 1972-86  discussed by Fred Chase, wobbly organising drives did
secure IWW shops in several businesses at different times. However the
financial difficulties of the University Cellar Bookshop, the most
important wobbly shop in the town, led to its closure in 1986 following its
failure to secure a new loan.
The focus on individual shop organising is particularly criticised by Frank
Callahan in his account of organising at Kentucky Fried Chicken, State
College Pennsylvania in 1973 and Arthur Miller's account of the organising
drive at International Wood Products in Long Beach, California in 1972.
Both argue on behalf of what they consider to be an industrial style
approach - focusing on shops in the same industry in the same region/city
and the need for adequate research and preparation prior to the organising
drive. Arthur Miller emphasised the lack of power of single shops and need
for solidarity from neighbouring shops in the same industry which would be
critical for campaigns and resistance to management attacks.
The question must be raised is how appropriate to the objective of
establishing mass syndicalist unionism in the USA or elsewhere is the IWW's
focus on incremental organising portrayed in this volume?  If all the
organising drives in this volume had been successful, what exactly  would
be achieved in regard to this objective? 
The key obstacles to the attaining of this objective certainly would not
have been overcome - the contract system and the associated tight web of
restrictive  labour legislation which cements in place the dominance of the
business unions - AFL/CIO, and the employer offensive.
At the most, outposts of democratic alternative unionism entangled with the
fixed term contract system would be achieved, similar to the situation at
Ann Arbor, which melted away in the longer term due to the dynamics of the
capitalist economy.
Such outposts which defied the NLRB and the associated industrial
legislation are likely to be overwhelmed down the track by ferocious state
and employer counter attacks. In the case of the IWW Cleveland metal
industry shops through which the IWW achieved a stable substantial base
from the early 1930's to the early 1950's and the majority of  members of
the organisation, this base was lost due to the cave-in of these members to
restrictive Taft Hartley Act  industrial legislation style contracts. 
A tendency governing the dynamics of revolutionary movements is that if
they fail to spread and sweep away their conservative opponents, they are
likely later to be encircled and crushed by these opponents.
The wobbly activists who participated in this volume appear oblivious to
this big picture reality affecting syndicalist activism and the problems it
raises. They display a lack of a broad strategic focus and an understanding
of the critical importance of the psychological dimension to organising on
the grand scale. This is certainly one reason why the resurgent IWW since
the 1960's has lost its way in developing a serious challenge to corporate
capitalism and business unionism.
In contrast to this broad strategic myopia displayed by this generation of
militants, IWW militants of earlier generations displayed an acute insight
into this key strategic problem. The daring organising drive by the IWW
involving such militants as Fred Thompson during the early 1930's in the
Detroit auto industry displayed tremendous appreciation of how to establish
the IWW as a key industrial force. Unfortunately, this organising drive
which looked quite promising initially, with the IWW rapidly recruiting a
1,000 auto workers, from a tiny handful, an astonishing achievement, failed
due to a strike defeat. Should this drive had been successful leading to
the IWW becoming the key force in the auto industry with a head start over
the AFL/CIO (which later on did achieve this objective), an important step
in raising morale in the American labour movement could have been
achieved. This raised morale together with the industrial prestige and
resources acquired through auto organising would have facilitated IWW
drives in other key industries. Allowing the IWW to become a major rival to
the business unions and defy restrictive industrial legislation and State
and employer counter attacks. The IWW could have also become a pole of
attraction for other anti-capitalist non vanguardist labour organisations
enabling a new militant union confederation to form. In Fred Thompson and
Patrick Murfin's book "The IWW its first 70 years", Fred Thompson refers to
such a possibility developing associated with  the IWW's Cleveland Metal
Shops, just prior to the loss of these shops in the early 1950's. 
The curing of this strategic myopia and the development of the corps of
militants necessary to carry out this type of precision long range
strategic organising would involve much more broad theoretical and
strategic discussion/debate and analysis than currently appears to exist
amongst  those in the IWW and its orbit. This discussion would need to
spread to and involve the grass roots and periphery of vangardist
anti-capitalist groupings as well. Effects of these developments would
involve  the IWW moving away from being an "exotic left party/sect" which
seems to characterise key components  and a general syndicalist hegemony in
the anti-capitalist movement enabling a much greater cooperation of
militants of different groups on IWW/syndicalist projects which could reach
the main road of industrial  organising and not get lost in cul de sacs
which affected many organising drives of the post 1960's IWW.
In conclusion, the book under review certainly throws some light on post
1960's IWW organising drives and the obstacles faced by IWW militants
engaged in them. Unfortunately no light is thrown on how the IWW and
revolutionary syndicalism can achieve a predominant position in the labour
movement in the USA and elsewhere and the issues of industrial strategy on
the grand scale which must be tackled to attain it.
Mark mcGuire

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