Boom Without Bust: Solidarity unionism for the long term

MK Lees and Marianne Garneau describe what a solidarity union looks like in the long term, and what it can accomplish. More to the point, they argue against the popular perception that contracts are needed to lend stability to a union, or to achieve major gains in a workplace.

For the last few decades, the IWW has embraced a model of organizing different from the standard route of winning a National Labor Relations Board-supervised election, bargaining a contract, and servicing it with outside staff. Instead, the IWW uses a model called “solidarity unionism,” based on workers forming their own self-managed committees and taking direct action in the workplace, in the form of work refusals and marches on the boss, among other tactics, to win concessions and empower themselves. Grievances and demands emerge organically from the workers, who then coordinate campaigns to place pressure on the boss in pursuit of those aims.

The IWW has experimented with this model throughout its history, more recently in high-profile campaigns at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s, as well as among bicycle messengers, call center workers, and logistics workers. It is a model that has sometimes brought IWW members significant victories, but campaigns have often burned bright for a few years before dissipating entirely.

Therefore, perhaps the single most salient challenge facing the IWW today is how to build stable, long-term IWW workplace unions outside of the contractual framework — solidarity unions that can survive, grow stronger, and expand union conditions for decades to come, as opposed to the much more common picture of shop turnover, exhaustion, and often the ultimate complete erosion of the union’s strength, while the bosses regain their monopoly on shop power.

Also, ironically, within the IWW, even though we have a critique of the mainstream, contract-servicing approach, many who believe in solidarity unionism still tend to assume longevity and stability require legal union recognition and a contract. The idea seems to be: “direct action is important, but if you want to make sure the union still has presence in the shop five years down the road, the only way to get there is to hold an election and put a contract in place.”

In this piece, we would like to fill in people’s imaginations about what a solidarity union might look like in the long term, drawing from specific IWW experience.

What does a long-term solidarity union look like in a single shop?

Consistent, Dues-Paying Membership

The Stardust campaign in NYC signed up every supportive worker in the shop with a Red Card, and one of the sources of stability for their campaign over two years has been dues payment. The collection of dues gauges support, shows belonging, gives workers a voice in the IWW, and puts money in the campaign’s hands. In Stardust’s case, it also helped with legal protection, insofar as workers could show the NLRB they were card-carrying members of a union, and it contradicted the boss’s claim that the union was a social club.

Dues are a baseline measure of support for the union, especially in the IWW where we refuse dues check-off (the employer deducting dues directly from paychecks and handing them over to the union). Voluntary dues payment represents support for the union, which also pushes the union to remain relevant and active. If someone stops paying dues, that’s a signal to check in with that worker in a one-on-one. If many people stop paying dues, that’s a red flag and an indication that there is a lack of agitation in the shop, or a lack of confidence in the union or its functioning.

Dues payment is also a way of allowing members to “voice” their support for the union while taking a bit of a backseat on actions. Active militants or officers can take a step back for a few months to deal with burnout or other obligations, but continue paying dues as an indication of support for the union. Dues payment means they don’t drift away entirely.

Dues also fill the union’s bank account — the only truly democratic way. The money is the workers’ own, contributed by themselves, and for them to decide, democratically, how to spend. This got Stardust members through difficult times, like when they had legal trouble, or regular pickets, which cost money for signs, banners, PA systems, food, coffee, and so on. In easier times, they are an opportunity for the union to reflect on its priorities and even decide on how to expand. For that matter, a solidarity union in charge of its own finances should have an annual budget, drafted by a committee and approved by the membership through vote.

Rotation of Administrative Roles

A solidarity union is run by the workers in the shop. This requires some kind of structure or organization. It can take the form of a standing shop committee, and/or it can involve electing officers, including a secretary and a treasurer. Every shop should also elect delegates who sign up new hires, collect dues, and continue the perpetual process of developing the union.

Having workers themselves hold these positions is a fundamental way in which a solidarity union differs from a business union, which relies on paid officers outside the shop. For that matter, having these roles filled from inside the shop means that workers’ control over decision-making is built into the very structure of the organization.

These positions should change hands at regular intervals, through elections, or even sortition (choosing administrative roles via a random lot drawing). One of the biggest things solidarity unions need to fight against, in practice, is contraction or shrinking, where a few militants start to do all of the work. Resisting the service model means resisting the temptation to let a small handful of insiders “service” the shop. Likewise, it’s not enough to re-elect the same “competent” folks year after year to do the work. Instead, a solidarity union should develop new people as officers, which also distributes skills more broadly in the shop.

Good officers are often not ready-made, and the union should take it upon itself to invest in these people with skills- and confidence-building, mentoring them into the role for as long as it takes. The only criteria in electing workers to these positions is that they seem like they will be around (working in the shop) for the duration of the term, and that they show some basic responsibility and accountability.

Development, Growth and Inreach

A solidarity union cannot be identified with a particular social group in the workplace. It has to cover all social groups, bring all kinds of social leaders into the fold, and make specific outreach to new hires, new shops, or other departments or job functions if it doesn’t have these covered already.

Even in a solidarity union, as mentioned, there is a huge tendency towards contraction, where the majority of workers step back and passively expect a handful of active folks to get all the work done. It takes a lot of deliberate effort to counteract this. Putting new people into active positions — taking on tasks on behalf of the union — means ensuring the union has a broader group of workers to draw from. It is also transformative for the people who are called upon, as they take more ownership of the union. Members you would least suspect go from passive supporters to union militants, sometimes in no time.

There is also the matter of connecting workers to the rest of the IWW by certifying them as trainers, having them serve on committees, having them communicate with other campaigns, etc.

The work of expanding the workplace committee and developing members as officers, leaders, and trainers has to be happening at a rate that outpaces burnout. Sustaining and renewing leadership is not easy. It takes a lot of work, but it is essential.

Regular Meetings

One of the most tangible ways to gauge whether a solidarity union is still functioning is whether it meets regularly, whether those meetings involve an agenda and formal decision-making procedures (e.g. making a motion and voting on it), and whether minutes are then distributed to membership. These are basic practices of democratic accountability, but they’re also objective proof that the union functions at a basic level. A “union” that has good social camaraderie and militant members who like to stunt on the boss, but which doesn’t meet regularly to make and record decisions, is more of a social club, and is much more vulnerable to the booms and busts of friendships and shop turnover, and therefore to the boss’s union-busting strategy.

A System for Taking Action on Grievances

One of the most important features of a solidarity union shop is the workers’ willingness and ability to take action when something happens in the shop that they find unacceptable. Instead of relying on long, bureaucratic, and unpredictable grievance processes negotiated far from the shop floor by lawyers and technical experts (as in a typical contract shop), workers take direct action, interrupting workflow or refusing cooperation, to intervene in things they find unacceptable.

This is a matter of workplace culture, but it can and should also be formalized in a grievance process: a systematic way of collecting worker grievances, prioritizing them, and taking action on them, with an escalation plan. The entity handling grievances can take the form of a standing grievance committee, regular or ad hoc grievance meetings, a grievance agenda item on regular business meetings, etc. The important thing is that a solidarity union grievance process draws on collective decision-making and shopfloor power. This institutionalization of grievance handling in turn helps feed a culture of taking action in a disciplined way.

Note that a solidarity union doesn’t need to be an explosion of direct action and confrontation with the boss all the time. It just needs a solid means of handling issues in the workplace as they arise, including issues that individual workers have with pay, discipline, scheduling, harassment, etc. The solidarity union also doesn’t need to take on or even win every fight, but just to systematically track grievances that have been put forward, see them through, and note the resolution or outcome of the process.

What can the solidarity union model achieve?

It’s all fine and good that we’ve sketched out what a stable solidarity union looks like in the long-term. But what can it accomplish? It turns out, if we look at the historical record, there are achievements we often associate with business unionism which the solidarity union model can secure as well, and often far more effectively. There are also things solidarity unions can accomplish that contract shops generally do not.


In solidarity unionism, we do not seek employer recognition as a legal formality. Recognition under workplace contractualism means employers have the nominal legal obligation to negotiate with the union. Solidarity unions also want to compel the boss to bargain with the union, but they achieve this through direct pressure and escalation in the shop, until the bosses surrender to their demands, thereby de facto “recognizing” the union as a competing power in the workplace. Solidarity unions recognize that using disruption to increase the cost of not bargaining with workers is the only way to win anything. And we want to win, not just sit across the table and listen to the boss tell us no.

To illustrate this point: in 2008, graduate student workers at The New School in New York wanted a raise. They hadn’t had one in many years, and were making less than their counterparts in other states, which have a much lower cost of living. They didn’t have a union, but the graduate student body put together a demand, pressured the administration with it, and later in the year, they occupied a building in protest. The raise — almost a doubling of salary — came through.

Fast-forward ten years to 2018, and graduate students are now represented by the UAW, which has won an election at the school. Students haven’t had a raise since 2008, and they want another one. Their expectation is around 80%. The UAW asks for a mere 4% from the administration, and as of this writing, after a year of negotiation, they still haven’t secured this demand, despite organizing a few stage-managed and impotent strikes.

In the first case, the workers forced the boss to recognize their organized power, in the second case, the state told the bosses they had to recognize a bargaining agent. One form of recognition was effective, the other was not, but proponents of NLRB elections usually have it backwards.

A Union Shop

Workplace contractualism usually involves making union membership a legally enforceable condition of employment, and business unions compel membership by using the mechanism of paycheck deductions for initiation fees and dues. Solidarity unionists impel union membership through recruitment and social pressure. New hires can be trained by union members and that training can involve learning the ropes of the job as well as the rights and expectations of union members. This was accomplished in courier campaigns at Transerv in Portland and Arrow in Chicago, where bosses relied on workers to train new hires. Union leaders would go over the history of the union’s development, how conflicts with the boss are handled, how membership and meetings operate, and conclude with signing the worker up on the spot.

A solidarity union can and should have a majority presence, but it does not stand or fall on every worker in the shop signing up. It also fights for gains for the whole workforce, not just union members. To resist anti-union hiring or scabbing, a solidarity union can use powerful social pressure, whether to encourage workers to join, or to force scabs out.

A Grievance Procedure

As we saw above, solidarity unions have a unique and extremely powerful way of handling grievances, because they never sign away their right to take economically disruptive action in the shop.

By contrast, the process under contractualism involves multiple quasi-legalistic steps from mediation to appeals to outside arbitration, as a way to ensure that workers “work now, grieve later” – in other words, keep production going while consigning any immediate issue to a “formal complaint.” This is why the traditional union grievance process is acceptable to both the boss and the business union.

Contract shops also often have a very narrow view of grievances, in that the only issues that are grievable are when the boss explicitly violates a provision of the contract. And even with these explicit violations, the union often fails to take them on because of the high cost (and bother) of arbitrating a dispute. On top of this, many contracts allow the boss to make use of the grievance procedure against the union!

Handling grievances is the lifeblood of union work, and this is one area where solidarity unions generally function much better.

Bread-and-Butter Gains

Workers in a solidarity union can negotiate pay increases, benefits such as a system of breaks or sick pay, or anything else that we tend to call “bread and butter issues.” The IWW’s Starbucks Workers Union won multiple raises, even as a minority union, as well as paid vacation for MLK day for baristas nationwide. Hosts at Stardust won a $2-3/hour raise. Workers at other IWW shops have secured paid breaks.

What is great about the solidarity union approach is that, unlike with most contract shops, gains are not limited to bread and butter issues. These days, most companies refuse to negotiate over much else, especially in a first contract, and anything that isn’t in the contract, they consider to be their own prerogative. They wouldn’t even consider putting a provision in a contract for, say, allowing servers to choose what section they work, instead considering that to fall under “management rights” — the idea being that only the boss gets to decide how the business is run. But a well-functioning solidarity union can rack up a number of wins, using direct shopfloor pressure, in an extremely short amount of time. Workers at Canada Post, in an IWW dual-card campaign, secured safe parking facilities and an end to forced overtime completely outside of their contract renegotiation process. Workers at Stardust accumulated a list of victories in the space of a year and a half, including replacing unsafe equipment, ending wage theft, ending filming without their permission, and giving kitchen workers a laundry service, that would likely have taken years to gradually work into a contract.

Other Shop Norms

Contract campaigns attempt to enshrine legally enforceable rights through collective bargaining. But the bargaining process obscures the power relationship between workers and bosses, by implying that improved working conditions come from something other than workers in action. The idea that bosses and unions sit down at a bargaining table, divorced from the context of the shopfloor power struggle, and simply trade proposals until they meet in the middle, is a fantasy. The fact is that every workplace, regardless of whether a union is in place, is defined by some things the bosses can get away with, and some things they can’t, some things the workers can get away with, some things they can’t. Workers build a union to take new terrain for themselves.

Solidarity union campaigns do this by beginning with direct action fights over grievances, and with time, constricting the boss’s actions in general. In the IWW we call this “job conditioning,” and it involves repeated battles to show the boss that he is not, in fact, the final authority. Some examples of the arenas we want to affect through job conditioning include the following:

  • Health and Safety

Violations of workers’ health and safety in a solidarity union shop are met with direct refusals of unsafe work, up to and including walk-outs. This has been practiced repeatedly at Stardust, over issues including high temperatures inside the restaurant, carbon monoxide leaks, and unsafe equipment. Over time, we build up the expectation that bosses will provide a safe, clean place to work for fear that otherwise they will face a slow down in, or halt to production if they don’t act in compliance with workers’ needs.

  • Weingarten-type Rights

Weingarten Rights refer to a union member’s right to have a union representative present in any meeting with management that might lead to discipline. The NLRB has vacillated between interpreting these rights as being applicable to all workers or just those under a collective bargaining agreement. But that’s of no consequence to solidarity unionists if we can enforce an even more powerful norm that no one-on-one meeting with the boss is ever to take place without a union rep: in our case, a member of the shop or grievance committee, or even just another union member.

  • Shopfloor Meetings

Any union in a shop will hold meetings to plan, make decisions, and reflect, off the clock. But we can do one better. At our recycling shops in Berkeley, workers are known to walk off their posts to hold what they call a “stop work” meeting in the event that the boss tries to implement some policy the workers haven’t been told about. Workers at Canada Post also held on-the-floor “coffee break” meetings to address issues such as discipline or forced overtime. At these meetings, plans can be made for any immediate next steps the workers might want to take.

  • Discipline and Just Cause Rights

Solidarity unions can negotiate their own discipline practices for the workplace, such as requiring the boss to constructively address behavior before taking disciplinary action, verbal warnings before written warnings, a certain number of infractions before termination, etc. As with any grievance, solidarity unions can use a direct-action escalation plan to address arbitrary discipline, including firings. At Frites Alors in Montreal, IWW workers and supporters occupied a shop and successfully negotiated a committee member’s rehiring. Direct action also got a pastry chef rehired at Stardust after the boss initially told him he had no job to return to upon completing his chemotherapy. Mainstream unions sometimes grieve firings and discipline. If they are active about grieving those things, they make management think twice before handing out discipline or terminating workers. However, the same can be achieved by an active solidarity union. Before the IWW solidarity union formed at Stardust diner, management was firing one to two workers a week, sometimes for the most minor of infractions (a busboy got fired on Christmas Eve for throwing out a single coffee creamer). After the union became active, firings virtually stopped completely. When the boss knows he will face the organized resistance of his workforce, we move towards implementing a standard of just cause, and overturn the practice of at-will employment.

The most important takeaway is that the union not give the employer the right to unilaterally change anything that has been won or otherwise established. If they want to take something away, the union will fight. If they want to modify something, they must bargain.

One point of clarification: a solidarity union campaign does not preclude putting some things in writing. It may be to workers’ advantage to make employers lay down the specifics of a discipline policy, a scheduling procedure, a ban on drug testing, a wage table, or other policies, on paper. This can be done in the form of a “memorandum of agreement” signed by both sides. This is still part of a solidarity union approach, rather than a contractualist approach, because it is still a matter of workers using shopfloor power to extract concessions, rather than the intermediary of legal recognition, and without signing away their right to disrupt workflow.

The Long Term and The Longer Term

It’s also worth acknowledging that there are limits as to what we can achieve in a single workplace. Really big gains, such as quality employer-based health care and pensions, will often require changing industry standards, especially for the low union density industries in which the IWW typically finds a foothold.

However, two things should be noted: first, benefits and working conditions have been getting worse for workers who are covered by union contracts. Very few workers today have pension provisions, for example, and workers are seeing takeaways in negotiations. It is a distortion to fault solidarity unions for not living up to standards even some of the largest business unions are failing to meet. Second, some of the biggest material gains that have been made in the last decade have been achieved by working outside of existing union infrastructure, essentially using the solidarity union model. This includes the West Virginia teachers’ strike, which resulted in a 5% pay increase, after organizing teachers into ground-level committees and taking direct action, essentially the solidarity union approach. Even our own SJEM (Social Justice Education Movement) in Minneapolis finds itself having to organize workers outside of their union framework in order to win substantial gains for teachers and staff.


Because of our historical experience in the IWW, we tend to identify solidarity unions with intense, bombastic confrontations with the boss. Our solidarity unions have rarely progressed past the phase of winning a few concessions, going public, and then having a knock-down, drag-out fight with the boss for some kind of recognition, while they clobber us with firings and other forms of retaliation.

But we need to stop thinking of solidarity unions as synonymous with that kind of initial, all-out war, for one thing because no group of workers can sustain that exhausting level of conflict for more than a year or two. It’s also a standard we arbitrarily hold solidarity unions to and not contract shops. We’re fine with contract shops being quiet and involving little to no action, but we expect solidarity unions to always be “popping off.” In reality, there is nothing wrong with a lull in a solidarity union as workers take a breather or regroup or quietly keep an eye on conditions, as long as they have a durable administrative infrastructure, and the ability to take action again, when necessary.

We hope to have shown that there are concrete types of infrastructure that solidarity unions can develop, which do not involve paid staff servicing a contract, or contracts that deaden shopfloor power. These include dues collection, an active committee, rotating officers, regular meetings, the development of leadership among members, a connection to the broader IWW, and a shopfloor grievance procedure. These are not abstract things; they are just as “real” and measurable as contract extensions, shop stewards, and business agents. The bottom line is, we think it is more powerful to keep power in the hands of workers, rather than shifting struggles off the floor and into closed boardrooms, in discussions between company and union experts like lawyers and paid officers while the workers work now and learn the outcome of the grievance process later.

We have here focused exclusively on the level of the single shop where a solidarity union has established itself. But we also recognize that we have to get off the path of shop-by-shop organizing if we are ever going to return to the true strength of the IWW’s approach: organizing from the standpoint of the industry. Concessions can only be squeezed from a single employer for so long, until you hit the wall of industrial standards. Sometimes this hits us in the most painful form, when the owners of an organized shop decide to close it down altogether. This is why we have to think laterally if we want to win much of the above and more. By linking organizing across shop lines, not only can we envision the power to dramatically increase compensation for our work (the workers’ share of profits), but we can enforce a minimum code of conduct for an entire industry as a cost of doing business. We can do it without offering the bosses a contractual limitation on our own power. We can do it because we will offer no such limit.