What Solidarity Unionism Also Isn’t (A Reply to Don White)

Healthy debate is the lifeblood of progress, in unions too. Here, we have a spirited rejoinder to the last piece we published, by Don White: “Solidarity Unionism: What it is and what it isn’t.” MK Lees argues that, in practice, contracts and solidarity unionism are totally opposed. For technical terms, see the glossary at bottom.

I agree with much of what Fellow Worker Don White has to say in his most recent piece for Organizing Work, where he frames solidarity unionism as more than just direct action, but as workers’ self-organization, without reliance on staff. However, I think a lot more needs to be said about White’s head-scratcher of a remark that “solidarity unionism is not necessarily opposed to contracts.”

I think even a cursory look at the literature we have to date developing solidarity unionism as a concept shows that the whole strategic idea emerged as an alternative model to contract-oriented organizing. We live in the era of the no-strike clause* as baked into the very notion of bargaining a contract with an employer; the same goes for management rights** clauses, and binding arbitration*** as a final step of the grievance procedure. These clauses are the sine qua non (“that without which”) of the contract. With a few minor, fringe exceptions that prove the rule, they are the water we’ve been swimming in since at least the 1950’s.

Perhaps I can find common ground with FW White in that I believe it’s possible to envision a contract that does not limit workers’ power on the job: a contract that only enshrines our victories without trading away the tools that gave us those victories in the first place. I could also imagine a political candidate who is so accountable to the working class that they do not become corrupted, and whose actions only serve to strengthen the power of the working class, and never their own power. But this goes against our lived experience of how political campaigns function, just as a contract devoid of the boss’s right to uninterrupted production goes against our lived experience of how the contract functions on the current terrain of the class struggle.

Having a bold vision is good. After all, we can envision a world without bosses, why not a contract without carving out management’s rights, without “work now, grieve later,” without the elevation of stewards and business agents (the very problem FW White’s article rightly steers us away from)? But a vision without strategy is just coordinates without a map. So until we develop that strategy and win somewhere, we have to be careful that our visions don’t turn into magical thinking — lest we find ourselves on the path to more of the same tired, old collective bargaining arrangements of business unionism.

Solidarity unionism means no contracts, de facto if maybe not de jure: in reality, if not in theory. It doesn’t mean the IWW can’t experiment with contractual strategies, but we’d be more honest to define that work as outside of the concept of solidarity unionism. If we use direct action and we succeed in surviving to build a long-term shop presence, the solidarity unionist’s “contract” will come to us from the boss on his knees, not because we simply managed to get him to sit across the table from us.


*A no-strike clause prevents workers from taking action that disrupts workflow or profits during the life of the contract.

**Management rights clauses give the company the exclusive right to organize production and run the workplace.

***Binding arbitration, as a final step in a grievance procedure, means that an outside arbitrator decides what outcome both the boss and the union must legally abide by. The decision cannot be appealed.