Nick Driedger talks about what is at stake when one union tries to “raid” another, in other words steal its membership.

A lot of people feel that if everyone in the labour movement could just get along, we would be stronger. The IWW, too, uses the concept of the “One Big Union” to evoke an image of all workers being in the fight together.

What, then, are we to make of political disagreements in labor? Is it all big egos and stubbornness? Or are there principled differences at stake?

Politics in the labour movement gets nastiest between unions when it comes to raiding. Raiding is when one union starts trying to convince the members of another union to join it instead. A raid looks a lot like an organising campaign, and if the raid is successful, the officers of the one union find themselves cut off from their previous influence.

For mainstream unions, the principal check on raiding is the labour centrals – the AFL-CIO in the US, and the Canada Labour Congress (CLC) and provincial federations of labour in Canada. Unions within these bodies are prohibited from raiding each other. It still happens, but there are rules governing it, and it is kept to a minimum. More importantly, though, there is no prohibition against raiding outside the federations.

Unions and political parties

Unions coexist in the same federations of labor, but different unions have different political affiliations. In Canada, the main tension is between those who support the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), and those who support the centrist Liberal Party, with a smattering of more conservative unions supporting more right-wing, conservative parties. Some union officials talk about being “apolitical,” but if you scratch the surface, usually there is some kind of political sympathy. In the US, the unions largely fall behind the Democrats, with a few unions sometimes backing Republican candidates.

In all of these cases, the relationship between the union and the party is the same: the union provides money, volunteers, and institutional support during elections, and the party provides policy and candidates who try to insert themselves into the legislative bodies of the state.

The state supports this arrangement by giving sole bargaining unit rights to individual unions, so that there is only one union per workplace – unlike, for example, in Europe, where you can have multiple unions, each with their own political affiliation, at the same job. The argument for the winner-take-all system is that this prevents unions and workers from being pitted against each other on the job. But the actual outcome is that it removes a field on which substantial disagreements about labour strategy could play out. Instead the only “disagreement” becomes about who can administer the grievance procedure and bargaining process in the most technically competent manner.

When political differences mattered

At one time, unions were actually much more politically diverse. There were unions tied to socialist parties running third-party tickets in the US, some of them with big names like Eugene Debs. There were also unions tied to the Communist Party, like the United Electrical Workers or, in Canada, the Canadian Seaman’s Union. The Communist Party in Canada had a strong presence in municipal politics, and part of their electoral strength rested with their trade union base.

The unions that prevailed are the unions with the politics we see today. If they seem to disagree, it’s despite the fact that the range of opinions has narrowed, and they are fighting less over the substance of their ideas and more over shallower things like the personalities and character of the various leaders. So while the labour movement started out as a sort of laboratory for working class politics, over time it developed into a monoculture where the officers, staff, and contracts are largely interchangeable.

The labour centrals led to a steady process of political homogenisation: unions that were inside the political mainstream were safe from raiding; unions outside of the political monoculture were either raided out of existence, induced to merge, or forced to change their politics. Unions like the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, the Canadian Seaman’s Union, the One Big Union (an IWW breakaway group run by the Socialist Party of Canada), and the IWW all dried up over the 20th Century. The only radical unions that remained were the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) and the United Electrical workers, but without a coordinated political centre of their own, they too have drifted away from generating something different from the social-democratic compromise of the mid-twentieth century.

How do you fend off a raid?

The Industrial Workers of the World have been on the business end of raiding since their inception. In the 1920’s in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada, the IWW and then the OBU were beaten out by the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) after a few bitter strikes that were broken by the bosses signing contracts with the UMWA to break the more radical unions. Eighty years later, in the early 2000’s, a drive at Powell’s Books by the IWW was ended by the ILWU coming in and signing up most of the shop.

In general, when faced with a union that is considerably larger and has significantly bigger resources, a smaller union doesn’t stand a chance against a raid. They don’t have the same legal resources, communications resources, or organizing capacity.

But a story that came out of an organising drive at a call centre in the Midwest is worth considering. That campaign had an IWW committee of about 30 people in a workforce of several hundred, which was pushing for concessions from management. They had some modest successes under their belt, and the campaign was definitely getting results. The workers on the floor were paying attention.

Members of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO, a socialist outfit that had some points of agreement with the IWW and a lot of points of disagreement with us) also worked at that job. Seeing the militancy at work, and presumably the increasing organising prospects, they began to put forward to the IWW committee that the shop would be well-served by a “real” union. The IWW members of course objected, pointed to their solidarity, and pointed to the concessions that they were winning, and said the union was already quite real.

From this political difference came a conflict, based on a genuinely held difference of perspective and strategy, and a genuinely held difference of interests. The members of the ISO called in organisers from the Communications Workers of America (CWA), a mainstream union with a presence in call centres in the US.

The CWA organiser did his research and started looking into the company and quickly discerned that the IWW group was a group that he needed to meet with, so he arranged a meeting with representatives from the committee. He laid out what other call centres had got in similar situations, gave them a general outline of his plan, and proposed that the IWW people line up behind the CWA drive.

In any other circumstances, with a union already organising on the job, this would be considered a raid. But the IWW is not in any of the labour centrals, was not pushing for a contract, and nor were they aiming to be the certified bargaining agent. Their model was: sign members up, train them to take action on the job, push for concessions, and build the power of the workers directly.

From the perspective of the CWA and the ISO, this wasn’t a real union drive. “Real” drives end in a contract, and they end with a membership base that can bring money into the Democrats or some other sympathetic party or candidate.

The reply from the IWW organisers on the job was brilliant. They stated they wouldn’t contest any attempt to build the CWA at their job. If it came to a vote, some of them may abstain but most of them would probably even vote in favour. They simply said that they would continue to build the committee on their job and would refuse to honour any no-strike clause the CWA signed. If a situation called for a wildcat or any other kind of direct action, they would favour that over any grievance procedure that was implemented. They would not commit to any labour peace, and they would be as clear about that to the employer as they were to the CWA.

In short, the CWA could have the bargaining unit, but the IWW would continue to hold the shop floor.

The reaction from the CWA was to pull their staff from the campaign. The organiser complained that he had never before, in years of organising, encountered a situation like this. The CWA, in deciding not to conduct the raid, said it wasn’t a good business move on their part, meaning the campaign carried risks and liabilities that outweighed the revenue that would come from dues. The threat the IWW posed was deemed credible from the job actions they had already pulled off.

The IWW, for its part, is still active at the company years later, though at a different location. They have a strong committee there and are continuing to push back against company policy and continuing to win concessions, including an across-the-board wage increase for hundreds of workers.

The IWW succeeded in fending off the raid where the other smaller mainstream unions would not have stood a chance, because they took their strategy from a different playbook. Where the IWW played the same game, like at Powell’s books in Portland Oregon, they lost. Where they played by different rules, they won.

Differences that matter

The real political diversity of unions has narrowed at pace with unions becoming more legalistic. Despite differences in individual unions’ party affiliations, the federations of labour have a loose political consensus. They see labour relations as a technical field, and the point of labour law is to promote resolution of disputes in a way that is good for the overall economy.

Recently, in Canada, Unifor (a very large private sector union) quit the Canada Labour Congress over accusations of trying to raid hotels organised by Unite Here. This threatened to create a power vacuum in provincial and municipal labour bodies (membership in the CLC is required to be in provincial and district labor councils), as many officers from Unifor held executive positions in the “House of Labour.” How was that power vacuum filled? The Unifor officials simply maintained their roles by signing up with other unions, even though they had never worked under the contracts of those unions, nor had they ever been elected to represent those workers. These career labour politicians just got new credentials as a flag of convenience to continue politics as usual.

Prohibitions on raiding are flimsy and based on a sort of legal thinking. So is raiding a good thing? Mostly not. Employers will obviously pit unions against each other at any possible moment. However, if workers can’t change unions, then they can’t realistically use leaving their union as a tool to keep their officials honest either. Insofar as unions are a monopoly on the right to strike, this creates a corrosive dynamic, as the union itself, in order to maintain its standing in front of the labour boards, will often do what it can to prevent direct action, except in the most dire of situations.  

The IWW needs to watch out for raiding because we have different politics than the rest of the labour movement, so they consider us fair game. The best way for us to handle raiding is to stick to what makes us different. Unions don’t know how to deal with a mobilised and active workplace, so dealing with more conservative unions is mostly the same as dealing with the boss: build the committee on the job and build the power of the workers.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Unifor was expelled from the Canada Labour Council. They disaffiliated.