The IWW “Communications Strategy” is a Disaster

An IWW member argues against trying to remake the IWW in the image of mainstream unions.

Over the summer, the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) Communications Department produced a “Strategic Communications Plan,” to serve “as a guide for getting our union’s message out to the audiences we want to reach in order to achieve our strategic goals.” This is a laudable goal, as the IWW’s commitment to education and ideas is part of what has set it apart from business unions. However, the document does not reflect the type of union the IWW is or aspires to be, and does not serve to outline a strategy that will assist the IWW in organizing.

This is not meant to be a “high level” interrogation of whether or not the communications plan is suitably “revolutionary.” Nor is it simply an attempt to “sweat the small stuff,” and pick apart the document’s choice of words or its lack of sources. It will attempt to ground criticisms in the reality of who and how the IWW actually organizes.

Who is the IWW for?

Almost immediately, the communications strategy bemoans the way the IWW “is perceived to be focused exclusively on sectors that are so unstable, and either actually or de facto ineligible for unionization under US or Canadian labor law, that no other union will support them.” It goes on to bring up people with “serious careers” twice. This is not simply incidental, but reflects a desire to re-orient the IWW along a similar trajectory to that of business unions, focusing on the parts of the working class which are least precarious, and best positioned to bargain with employers along legally sanctioned lines.

To begin with, private sector unionization rates in North America are extremely low (about 15% in Canada and less than half of that in the US), so it hardly seems like other unions’ horizons of possibility should be of concern. Further, these “unstable” sectors are an increasingly large number of people ripe for organizing along unique lines outside of traditional workplace contractualism. Temporary workers are over 10% of the total Canadian workforce, 18% of workers (disproportionately women) are part-time, and up to 30% of workers are employed “under-the-table” in the “informal economy.” An early 2021 report from IBM showed that, across the world, hundreds of millions of full-time jobs are disappearing annually, 1-in-5 employees “voluntarily” changed jobs in 2020, and 1-in-4 plan to do so in 2021 (1-in-8 having already done so by the end of January). In other words, the traditional labor movement imaginary of the “stable” worker in a job long term is increasingly just that, i.e. imaginary.

More importantly, in my mind, are the groups of workers present among the “unstable” as opposed to among those with “serious careers.” Data shows that it is in these sectors that we find women, people of color, young people, and immigrants. According to a 2019 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, the average employment income of white men in Canada is over $10,000 greater than that of racialized men. The gap among women is smaller, but the gap between women and men is stark (though less-so among racialized men and women).

In practice, in denigrating unstable sectors the communications strategy precludes the development of the IWW as a union that actually looks like the working class in its diversity, rather than one dominated by white men. It also means a focus on workers who already enjoy relative comfort rather than a union of workers with the most to gain by challenging their conditions. Further, as precarious work becomes increasingly common, it is important that we orient ourselves toward what work is becoming, and not toward what it has been.

Air War ...

At a point, the communications strategy shifts gears away from communicating with workers about organizing, and toward “public relations.” It sets a goal of “[increasing] pressure on target employers in the public relations domain.” In noting challenges to this PR goal, it acknowledges that “[t]he overwhelming majority of unionization efforts in the organization are carried out in an indefinitely clandestine manner.” This incommensurability begs an important question: Which is a better strategy for building working class power, PR campaigns or “invisible” workplace organizing?

We can look to the mainstream labor movement, which has employed the former strategy in some high-profile cases, to get a pretty good idea. Campaigns that have been media-driven and heavily hyped have been, by and large, spectacularly unsuccessful. Mainstream media coverage surrounding the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) drive at the Bessemer, Alabama Amazon warehouse – which included relatively sympathetic articles in even the Bezos-owned Washington Post did not lead to a successful recognition vote, let alone strength on the shop floor. RWDSU has over 60,000 members, and is, in addition, affiliated with the much larger United Food and Commercial Workers. Needless to say, their resources for conducting a public relations campaign far exceed anything that can be mustered by the IWW.

This ineffectiveness is not simply the case with a large powerful employer like Amazon. Even image-conscious small businesses may be willing to “take the hit.” In 2013, the Service Employees International Union launched a series of public drives at cafés in Kjipuktuk/Halifax. These were quite well covered in local media, and generally with great sympathy for the workers. They also enjoyed the support of public demonstrations/rallies, statements from politicians and leftwing groups, and so-on. None of this made the difference. One drive failed. Another led to multiple firings and the business closing. The third, at a “fair trade” café which was already ostensibly a workers’ co-op, successfully led to union recognition, but the café was shortly thereafter sold and went out of business amidst another media-heavy conflict between the union and the new ownership.

In addition, all of these cases involve what was essentially successful PR, which is by no means a given. An IWW campaign at a small, popular Kjipuktuk/Halifax candy shop reached out to the local left-leaning weekly about their grievances with their absolutely loathsome bosses. The resulting article, however, quoted said bosses extensively, and hardly acknowledged the workers’ issues, and certainly didn’t present them as legitimate.

The IWW also faces a uniquely uphill battle because, unlike other unions seeking positive attention from the capitalist press, the IWW explicitly articulates workers’ struggles as a zero-sum game. While “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” (or far less, e.g. $15 an hour) might play well in mainstream media, the IWW’s practical emphasis on workers and their bosses having “nothing in common” is extremely unlikely to get a fair hearing.

… Or Class Struggle?

Even if public relations campaigns were a winning strategy, they constitute a step in the opposite direction from the way the IWW is headed in its on-the-ground activity. The communications strategy explicitly acknowledges that the “official unionization course [the Organizer Training 101?] often encourages people to remain clandestine indefinitely, without ever identifying themselves publicly as members of the IWW, or as an IWW union local.”

The Organizer Training program has been developed out of the hard-won experience of IWW members putting theory into practice. It has been a living work-in-progress for decades, synthesizing the lessons of countless wins and losses, and it is the starting point for virtually every organizer.

In contrast to the method taught to IWW members and practiced in the majority of IWW organizing, the communications strategy describes a campaign’s “lifecycle” as “going public, voting, certification, strike votes, winning concessions, [and] collective bargaining phases.” None of this corresponds to the methods of building a workplace committee and taking direct action that IWW organizers are taught and employ. While there are admittedly some instances of particular IWW campaigns taking this route, it is a strategy the majority of the union was explicitly moving away from.

This strategic orientation isn’t simply a case of making a virtue of failure. The IWW’s record for winning elections is relatively similar to that of other unions (about 68% between 1980 and 2008 according to an article in the September 2008 General Organizing Bulletin). And the IWW’s success in bargaining contracts – doing so in about 39% of shops where the union is certified, according to the aforementioned article – is, again, in step with mainstream unions’ averages. In addition to the fact that these numbers are somewhat less than heartening, contracts are not a guarantee of stable, long-term membership, let alone militant membership. In some cases, contract-oriented campaigns have led to a “two-tier” system, in which a small number of workers are active red-card carrying IWW members, and a greater number have simply signed authorization cards and are legally entitled to representation by the union. Since the IWW is member-driven and focused on direct action, rather than staff-driven and focused on servicing contracts, these shops have been subject to raiding, voluntary dissolution, or otherwise not enduring.

The communications strategy fails to emphasize the IWW’s biggest successes have been in non-contract, demand-based direct action campaigns. Demand-based campaigns not only secure material wins, but in doing so cultivate more active involvement, building the engaged membership that is necessary for a truly democratic organization. Recognition-focused campaigns on the other hand often face significant retaliation and end up locked in battles with the employer over formal status, which is hardly a basis for shop floor engagement.

This comes around to what makes the IWW unique.

Product Differentiation

When the communications strategy refers to our “[c]ompetitors in the established labour movement,” it misses that the vision, strategy, and tactics of the IWW are fundamentally different from those of the established labor movement. Competition in this field is less like that between Coke and Pepsi than between Coke, Pepsi, and unpasteurized apple cider from your local farmers market. Sure, all are sweet beverages, but the similarities don’t really go beyond that.

The IWW places a unique emphasis on direct democracy being put into practice by workers, prefiguring the means by which we will “carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown.” The mainstream labor unions may count membership in the millions, but this membership is not being prepared for any such ambitious task. It is by and large workers whose dues are collected from their paychecks (usually by the boss) and whose other engagement with the union is virtually nil. Looked at from another angle, the IWW aims to make every worker an organizer; to empower workers to transform themselves and their immediate relations, and to realize their potential to run society.

In contesting how society is run, the IWW recognizes a power struggle between workers and employers. This is not simply highfalutin’ talk – it has strategic implications. It means that the IWW should not be overly concerned with collective bargaining agreements, which decrease rather than increase the space for workers to exert force, whether through no-strike clauses, restrictive mandatory grievance procedures, or other means. While such a “ceasefire” may be desirable in certain cases, it is not, as with business unions, an end in itself. In cases where business unions have agreed to such terms, IWW members should actively defy them, building autonomous decision-making structures and taking action outside of contractually mandated procedures. Were the IWW the certified bargaining agent in these situations, this type of autonomous activity would open the union to fines, arrest of officers, and other severe legal repercussions.

The IWW’s tactical repertoire is consequently far more broad than other unions, unconstrained by labor peace demanded by law and tailored to the needs of workers. Where the big unions say, “work now, grieve later,” an IWW organizer asks, “how can we fix this?”

The communications strategy utterly fails to emphasize these irreducible differences and particular strengths. It does not mention solidarity unionism a single time. It does not mention direct action a single time. It does not mention democracy a single time. One must ask, what makes this a strategy for the IWW?

This Ain’t It

In summation, the IWW’s “Strategic Communications Plan” is not actually strategic at all. It puts forward a public relations plan that has been unsuccessful even when used by larger, better-resourced unions. It does not advance the IWW’s vision for the labor movement. It does not correspond to the actual strategy and tactics employed by the union. In its worst moments, it implicitly disparages the people who the IWW has focused on organizing.

The plan the IWW needs is one that reflects what the IWW actually does, who it actually organizes, and why the IWW is a real alternative to the business unions which dominate the labor movement.

x362014 is a grocery worker and IWW member living in Mi’kma’ki.