On Dual-Carding (Or how revolutionaries should approach mainstream unions)

The IWW is distinct from most unions — we don’t collect dues through the employer, and we rely on “shop committees” of workers taking direct action in the workplace instead of contracts serviced by a paid external staff.  Using this approach, the IWW has sometimes organized at workplaces already represented by a mainstream union. This is called “dual-carding,” in reference to workers holding two union cards.  In this piece, Nick Driedger, who participated in a vibrant and successful such campaign at Canada Post, lays out how the IWW should approach dual-carding (the article was written while he still worked at the post office).

The broader relevance here is how those oriented to class-struggle unionism should relate to mainstream unions. –Ed.

Below are some questions that have come up about dual-carding, and my answers.  Where I say “we,” I am making an assertion about classical IWW positions; where I say “I,” I’m stating my opinion. I do my best to keep those separate, though of course, like everyone, I fail at this a lot.

What is the ultimate goal of dual card organizing?

In the IWW’s Organizer Training 101, many of the modules begin with a question to participants: “Why do this?” For example: “Why agitate?” “Why ask workers to join?” “Why follow up on tasks?” etc. Then there is a list of answers.

I feel a bit ridiculous saying this but once I sat and thought about it, I found it hard to articulate the “why” of dual-card organizing. It’s not to decertify or raid the existing union, it’s not to reform it, it’s not to take over the existing grievance or bargaining machine…

I think the ultimate goal is the same as in the 101: build a functioning shop committee that can mobilize workers on the floor to take direct action in their own interests.

How does AEIOU (Agitate, Educate, Inoculate, Organize, Unionize) work differently in the context of a union environment?

It doesn’t.

I don’t think that dual-card organizing is all that different, in the steps and required skills, than organizing non-unionized workplaces. Any IWW workshop on dual-carding should deliberately be a supplement to the Organizer Training 101, because I think that the basic skills are actually covered in the 101. What should be included in a dual-carding workshop is a clear description of what the IWW approach really is about: workplace committees taking direct action. I think we need to re-emphasize this in the rest of the IWW for that matter. Business Unionism with Red Flags is a real phenomenon right now.

What sort of backlash can be expected from the existing union when the dual-card organizing is discovered? What sort of inoculation is required before the dual-card campaign is “public”? 

In the CUPW we simply made it clear that we had no interest in becoming the certified bargaining agent for the post office and that we considered ourselves loyal CUPW members. We insisted that no workers needed permission to take action on the floor and that the officers answer to the members, not the other way around. Other than that advice, I think things may vary too much union to union to give broad prescriptions — other than trying to be clear that what we mean by “union” is very different from what, say, CUPE means by union.

How do we relate to decertification? Some wobblies at Work People’s College [an IWW event] argued that wobbly organizing should focus on decertifying “business” unions and re-certifying those workplaces as IWW shops. 

I can only speak to our experience in Edmonton where we’ve been approached on a few occasions by workers desiring decertification of a union. Generally speaking, we’ve advised against it. The problem is, the IWW doesn’t occupy the same space other unions do, so it’s kind of illogical to replace one with the other. Usually if workers are looking to have an organization decertified, they are dissatisfied with the servicing they are getting. We won’t do a better job servicing on a skeleton budget, cheap dues and almost no paid staff.

The average grievance in our CUPW local, taken through all the steps to arbitration, costs upwards of $10,000 per grievance. Several hundred per grievance carried through the first couple steps. In the IWW, we have voluntary dues and low dues. Financing this level of bureaucracy on bake sales isn’t really an option.

What is the role of left caucuses? There is some feeling that left caucuses are inevitable, and could be useful. The FWs who raised this were involved in committees which are basically left caucuses: one a nascent solidarity network within OPSEU [the Ontario Public Service Employees Union], and the other working groups within CUPE [the Canadian Union of Public Employees] locals, which are hubs for activists.

I agree left caucuses are inevitable and I participate in one in a personal capacity within CUPW. I don’t report on my activities there to the IWW nor does the IWW really seem to care about that. Not everything in the world that is politically meaningful needs to happen under the IWW banner. I’m as interested in trade union reform and getting good representation for the members as anyone else. This isn’t a revolutionary commitment however, and frankly there is nothing in it for the IWW.

As for the “hub for activists,” generally “activists” are often not the best place to recruit good wobblies. A lot of them have career ambitions inside the union (not a problem in itself but it won’t further the IWW). Angry workers who are respected by their peers are more important. If they happen to be activists, great, but this is more important.

What about running slates?

Well for a start there are a lot of stipulations in the IWW’s bylaws about being officers in other unions. Not to say you can’t do it, but we do put severe limits on this. Of course, an appeal to the rules is a cop-out, but it is important to understand why we have these rules. It’s because we have an understanding that revolutionary unionism is not simply “really progressive unionism.” Just like we advocate shop committees over shop stewards, a revolutionary position over electoralism, and avoid contractualism, our structure and function embodies a commitment to a different kind of politics. In the IWW, unions are not politically neutral bodies. Instead, their structures and commitments reflect the political perspective of their architects.

This was clearer at a time when there was some ideological diversity in the labour movement. Since the 1960’s, there has been a social democratic hegemony in the labour movement, and the standard structures reflect this. Seizing these structures without some serious challenge to the structure itself will simply lead to cooptation, being placed in receivership, or both.

With regards to being a steward: isn’t it better that a militant do it, so at least the work gets done? Also having a legit reason to talk to co-workers about their job might make things less “weird.”

I’m not against folks becoming stewards, but they should do this with their eyes wide open. What does “the work” entail? If the priority is to build a committee that processes demands from the floor and helps people develop a strategy for bringing pressure on the boss collectively, then I’m all for it. If the goal is simply doing what any other steward is going to do, it still isn’t a mistake, but folks should be clear they are doing it for personal reasons and not as an IWW member. The IWW doesn’t have a clear position on this.

How can dual carding work in multi-union environments? How can we really bring One Big Union organizing into things?

We have some experience with this in Edmonton. The main thing is to start by actually communicating with people who work in the same station. Not just between unions but also between union and non-union workers. The advantage of direct action over the official channels is that attacking a unified management structure lets you put more pressure on them. Part of this is how you pick your demands. Prioritizing demands that affect everyone (human rights issues, parking, health and safety) allow for the broadest possible scope of action. Contractual tiffs are obviously much narrower and less useful. Joint assemblies (in our case, coffee break meetings) bring people together on the floor.

If wobblies can do things like get control of union newsletters, capture contact lists, etc., how should we make use of these (if we should)?

Of course you should do these things, if you can. You should be doing everything in the 101: one-on-one meetings, identifying leaders and trying and move them towards job actions and bring them onto your committee. Newsletters can be used to publicise gains made on the floor.

How can you avoid co-optation by the union? i.e. when the business union claims committee victories as its own.

The most important thing is that the workers themselves claim the victory, not the IWW. If the IWW’s role was decisive, clearly outline what the IWW did, don’t just claim credit. For example, we used education programs, promoted marches on the boss and ran an independent blog. This is different from typical lefty sloganeering which claims it was some kind of ideologically correct leadership that carried the day. Instead, it was commonsense methods used by ordinary workers.