Solidarity Unionism: What it is and what it isn’t

Don White clears up a common misconception: solidarity unionism is not just direct action.

There is quite a bit of confusion around the definition of solidarity unionism. When I speak to people, long-time IWW members included, there seems to be the assumption that solidarity unionism and direct action are the same thing. They are not. I want to clarify the difference because I believe this confusion hinders actual organizing and I hope to help people be able to communicate solidarity unionism to their co-workers.

I recently had a conversation with the main organizer at Thomas Train. Thomas Train Solutions is an organizing campaign in which the IWW won certification as the bargaining agent in 2013, but still has yet to negotiate a contract. The organizer was frustrated that so many people in the IWW were “solidarity unionism purists.” By that he meant that he didn’t think that the shop should have to rely solely on direct action; they wanted to sign a contract. As we were discussing this further I came to realize he was confusing solidarity unionism, an organizing model, and direct action, a tactic.

Thomas Train workers had engaged in a successful strike and the organizer kept pointing to that as an example of them using solidarity unionism. But going on strike is a tactic, and it can be organized by a paid staff, or a charismatic leader, or it can be organized worker-to-worker. When mainstream union leadership calls on its members to go on strike because of contract negotiations stalling or some major perceived injustice by management, this is a paid staff organizing the strike. At Thomas Train, the strike was more or less driven by this one charismatic leader. Direct action was used, but it was not organized through solidarity unionism. For it to be organized through solidarity unionism would mean it was organized worker-to-worker. This was the organizer’s confusion. Direct action and solidarity unionism are not the same thing.

This would be my definition of solidarity unionism: workers organizing a democratic workplace committee to develop strategies and tactics to further their material benefits, defend themselves from managerial discipline, and create a workplace culture where people care for one another and don’t buy into capital’s logic of worker competition. This generally includes workers in the same workplace. However, it can also include people working for the same company, but in different physical locations; people working in different companies, but in the same industry; and people working in different industries, but along the same supply chain. An important requirement for solidarity unionism is that a committee is organized, and what determines whether or not their plan succeeds or fails mostly depends on the abilities of that committee; not on staff (staff-driven unionism) or a single charismatic leader (leader-driven unionism). Put even more simply, solidarity unionism is workplace committee-driven unionism.

Another piece of confusion is that solidarity unionism is not necessarily opposed to contracts. This idea has permeated the IWW since we first started to think about what solidarity unionism is and what it looks like in 2002 with Alexis Buss’ Minority Report articles, when we were still referring to solidarity unionism as minority unionism. Generally, staff-driven unionism pushes for an NLRB certification election and then a contract that is mostly negotiated by and enforced by union staff. But in theory, a workplace committee can organize for a contract, with or without an NLRB certification election, and without this being driven by staff. The difference is that with staff-driven unionism the staff negotiates and is responsible for the enforcement of that contract. With solidarity unionism the workplace committee would assume those responsibilities.

The successes and failures of the Thomas Train campaign hinged on the main organizer. What some people in the IWW were being critical of wasn’t that they had an NLRB certification in place and that they were negotiating a contract. They were critical that since the main organizer was no longer working at Thomas Train, the positive trajectory of the union campaign had stalled, even with the IWW being the certified bargaining agent, because there was no workplace committee in place. Now the successes/failures depended on outside organizers and volunteers (staff) driving the union campaign. There was no empowered workplace committee in place to push contract negotiations.

In summary, first, solidarity unionism is not opposed to contracts. They just have to be negotiated and enforced by a workplace committee. Second, direct action and solidarity unionism are not the same thing. I don’t want to discourage people from using direct action and discussing the possibility of using it in their workplace. I just want to try and help clarify what solidarity unionism is and what it’s not. Direct action is a tactic, solidarity unionism is an organizing model.