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This page is adapted from an article originally published in Organized Grafitti, the newsletter of a union local that was smashed by a major corporation.


The IWW vs. the AFL

If the boss has the power to fire you, then you cannot win a struggle against the boss. You need a union.

When a union cannot win a struggle against a multi-national corporation, you need the community and the union movement behind you.

Effective unionism requires knowledge, thought, reflection, and-- surprise! your participation. The corporate world has changed; unions need to change too.

We all know that traditional unions have a negative image, and that they are in decline. Why? One of the reasons is that national union leadership has a vested interest in the status quo. They don't want your participation, unless they can control what you think, what you believe, and what you do-- a philosophy that makes unions soft and in some ways ineffective. This article stands as criticism of AFL style unions, and examines a different union philosophy.


You vote for the U.S. President. You vote in your clubs, in your national organizations, maybe even in your church. Why don't you vote for AFL federation leaders, or even (in most unions) top union leaders? Why don't you vote for the Chief Executive Officer of your corporation, where democratic control is the most vital to your immediate interests?

Because there is no democracy in the union, and there is no democracy on the job. In short, there is no democracy in the economic sphere. What vision is that for America? And why do we allow them to convince us that democracy is a bad idea whenever it might achieve something for us?

Shouldn't we unionists concern ourselves with changing a system festering with greed? Do we want a system characterized by outrageous political bribes to the Congress, Executive branch, Judiciary, and payoffs to all manner of bankers, consultants, auditors, pundits and political hacks, all declared legal because they are disguised as honorariums, campaign contributions and fees?


Millions in this country once shared the dream of workers supporting each other in their struggles. This very dream helped to accomplish the eight hour day, safer working conditions and higher wages because many of us were willing to act on it.

It was a dream to never fear surprise plant closures or layoffs, because workers would help to make such a decision. That dream has been stifled in part by the American Federation of Labor's limited vision of America. How would the union movement have to change in order to make such a dramatic difference in our future?


The trade unions were formed for the narrow purpose of improving the circumstances of their own little group. These unions originally opposed organizing women, immigrants, and minorities.

The 43 trade unions and other organizations which met in Chicago in 1905 to form the concept of One Big Union believed all workers should join a single, world-wide union to support each other’s struggles. They called this concept industrial unionism. And, unlike today's union movement, they preached that hard-won gains could only be protected by achieving industrial democracy-- the right of workers to operate the mills, factories and mines in which they toiled as workers' co-operatives in a workers' commonwealth.

They further believed that their dream could democratize the job in a capitalist country such as ours, or in a communist society such as Bolshevik Russia. Yes, these folks even dared to organize against the communists in the Leningrad shipyards in the 1920's. Some of them died for the effort.

The miners, the harvest workers, the mill workers, the timber workers, and the factory workers of the One Big Union saw the worst of a ruthless industrial society— the ugliness from which many trade unionists were isolated. The Rockefellers and the J P Morgans did not give up their pennies easily, and union organizing was dangerous. Thousands were beaten, murdered, or deported.

The concept that labor is entitled to all it produces was thus enshrined as a principle of political doctrine by millions who saw widespread corporate abuses and political scandals as the natural province of capital.

In contrast, the trade unions saw their role as the boss's junior partner. The deal was implicit: "give us just a bit more, and we will limit our unionizing activities. And we won't ever deign to dabble in the running of the business".

Industrial unions have influenced AFL trade unions in some ways, including lending the industrial union name to a few-- especially via merger with the quasi-industrial CIO of the thirties and forties. Modern AFL locals sometimes include different skilled groups. Race and sex are no longer the barriers they once were in AFL unions.

There have been gains achieved by traditional unions. Many AFL unionists are dedicated and loyal to working folk. Yet there is a stark contrast in organization, in methods and philosophy, and in goals.


Unions that profess a radical goal, by their actions and their very existence, tend to win gains for more traditional unions.

There is a tendency to believe that union militancy and union radicalism are the same thing. They are not the same at all. For proof, let us look no further than our own Colorado history.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) tried to organize the Colorado coal industry in a strike that lasted from 1912 to 1914. The UMWA armed ten thousand miners during the strike. Shooting occurred throughout, but the worst fighting happened after the Ludlow Massacre, in which miners' wives and children were murdered by company-hired thugs dressed as National Guard soldiers. With the cry "Remember Ludlow!" many of the union men went on a revenge spree after the massacre, killing mine guards and dynamiting mine camps. The US military eventually arrived to end the conflict, and the UMWA left Colorado in defeat.

A few years later in West Virginia company thugs murdered Sid Hatfield, the pro-union Chief of Police of Matewan, in broad daylight on the courthouse steps. Fifteen thousand armed UMWA miners attacked West Virginia coal companies in revenge. The resultant Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest civil insurrection since the Civil War. Again the US military intervened. Roughly a hundred died on both sides in these two UMWA strikes.

Official union policy in both strikes was to discourage violence. However, the reality of these armed struggles is written in the history books. Perhaps the peaceful philosophy officially articulated by the union was inadequately communicated to the miners.

To be sure, the miners were provoked by violent attacks against themselves, their supporters, even their families. Unfortunately such attacks are sometimes orchestrated with the express purpose of inviting retaliation, thereby justifying a more powerful state response which further inhibits favorable strike conditions.

The One Big Union convention in 1905 resulted in formation of a different union, an industrial union called the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). This union conducted another coal strike in Colorado in 1927. Unlike the UMWA the IWW's wobblies had no intention of using violence as a tool, whether as compulsion or revenge. Every morning, guns and knives were collected and locked up at union halls before pickets were sent out.

The IWW favored peaceful confrontation, made modest immediate demands, engaged in civil disobedience and fiery rhetoric, and advocated revolutionary long term goals—nothing less than the restructuring of society to put workers in control of their jobs.

The IWW adherence to the principle of non-violence against other humans was absolute. Even after the 1927 Columbine Mine Massacre, where more than thirty members were machine-gunned by a state ranger unit, the IWW counseled angry miners with the words of labor martyr Joe Hill—"don't mourn, organize!"

Unlike the UMWA before it, the wobblies won the 1927 Colorado strike when Rocky Mountain Fuel Company decided to sign a contract with a union. That is, any OTHER union. The company invited the militant UMWA to come back to Colorado.

The UMWA, with twenty-five thousand miners armed with rifles and dynamite in two previous strikes, was less threatening to Rocky Mountain Fuel Company than the non-violent wobblies, who believed and preached the radical notion that labor is entitled to all it creates. The RMFC contract was the first sustained win for Colorado coalminers in sixty years of struggle. This, then, is the dramatic power of an idea.

Much union progress has been achieved when companies and the government have supported or made concessions to AFL unions to avoid strengthening the radical alternative. In this view, as long as there is no radical alternative, AFL unions will bluff with an empty hand.


And what about union democracy? The IWW believes:

o The members are the union, rather than a representative administration— union success comes from direct involvement by all members, rather than back-room bargaining. As a member, you vote for the top union office. But that office is held by a worker, not a businessman insulated by layers of bureacracy.

o Subject to the wishes of the workers, industrial unions like the IWW do not believe in signing no-strike clauses in the contract. To do so would limit their abilities to support each other’s struggles.

o The IWW does not believe in building up a large treasury. A union with a large treasury is vulnerable to court injunctions when the corporation asks favors of its friends in the government. How can union officers make risky decisions in favor of their members, when they have this pile of money to protect?

The IWW philosophy suggests that unions should leave their treasuries in the pockets of the workers. If struggling workers need help, enlightened members will see that need and donate.

o Disillusioned by political scandals and government collusion with business, the IWW does not trust political activism or political parties to win ultimate justice for workers, whether they are capitalist or socialist in principle.

Yes, we do vote. But the hoopla surrounding the vote is seen as a distraction from real worker power, which is exercised through economic leverage. A cynical industrial unionist slogan suggests, "if the vote could do you any good, they would make it illegal!" Better to be prepared to exercise the struggle on the job whenever it becomes necessary than to pull a lever once every couple of years, expecting someone else to look out for our interests.

o Long before it became popular for corporations to send jobs overseas, the IWW excelled at international organizing. And finally,

o Members of the IWW are not tied to a particular job. Because all workers belong to the same union, they may keep their union cards for a lifetime.

The AFL viewpoint suggests that industrial unionists ask for too much, risk too much, and are unrealistic in an ascendant capitalist society. In this era of globalization and decreasing living standards, look where the AFL philosophy has gotten us, and millions of our fellow workers.


Many AFL unions are businesses. Their income is your dues, the product is labor peace sold to the companies and guaranteed through the no-strike clause.

AFL unions leave workers vulnerable to plant closures, whip-sawing, jobs sent overseas, union scabbing, and unions raiding each others' memberships while competing with each other to organize new groups of workers.

Unionized workers are not adequately informed of their heritage and their history. We see our solidarity slip away and our working consciousness fester in a demoralized atmosphere of corporate lies, givebacks and greed.

Only through a union built on real union principles can we hope to win real economic justice. Such a concept animates those of us who keep the flame in the I.W.W.

richard myers






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