Practice involuntary recognition

An old pamphlet holds some contemporary wisdom, argues Marianne Garneau.

A few months ago I was in a meeting with a worker I have mentored as an organizer. This is someone who came out of the Stardust campaign in NYC, where the workers have refused an election and instead use direct action to solve workplace problems and get their demands met. The meeting was about supporting a group of workers who are newly organizing. Someone else in the meeting mentioned “voluntary recognition” as a possible path. My mentee asked what that was (it is when an employer recognizes a union, say on the basis of workers signing union cards, without workers having to file for and win a supervised election).  “Oh,” my mentee laughed. “At Stardust, we practice involuntary recognition.”

I’ve been giggling and beaming with pride at this since. It’s such an apt characterization: the workers at Stardust basically constantly terrorize the employer with direct action or the threat thereof. Years ago, the employer tried to force them to have an election, alleging that they were acting as the “exclusive bargaining agent” (something the law says you are only supposed to do if you are certified through an election or recognition agreement). In other words, the employer tried to force them to color inside the lines drawn by labor law – possibly because they thought the workers would lose the election. The Stardusters quashed this employer move even though they would have won the election. They wanted to go another way: to settle issues on the shop floor, in an open-ended process they controlled.

People often think of labor law as restraining employers but notice that the employer in this case wanted what the law wants. The law wants recognition to be a formal process and a legal question. It wants to substitute the rollicking disruption of production that comes from “direct bargaining” with an orderly exchange of proposals at a boardroom table. It misdirects workers from the shop floor where they have leverage to what the law says or what is on paper.

I recently dug up a 1912 pamphlet by IWW organizer A M Stirton. Stirton was a one-time Socialist Party of America member (and candidate for governor in Michigan) who came to believe that leverage in the workplace was more important than winning elections. The pamphlet is a biting criticism of the quest for formal recognition and remarkably relevant to debates in the IWW today.


“Recognition is all we want. We’re not on strike for higher wages or shorter hours. All we want is for the company to recognize the union and sign the scale.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Very important, too; this matter of recognition.

The workers can get it, too; just as they can get anything else they want, when they go at it in the right way.

The way to get recognition from the employers is the same as the way to get any other concessions from them – compel it. Take it by the strong hand.

That can’t be done very well by one little craft union going out on strike while three or four other little craft unions in the employ of the same company stick to their jobs, or by all the little craft unions going out while the unorganized laborers around the mill stick to their jobs and if need be are ready to take a hand at filling the strikers’ places.

The way to get recognition for the union is to get a union that the bosses can’t help recognizing, one that organizes all the workers in any industry into the same union, one that ties up the whole plant when there is a strike, one that says, “An injury to one is the concern of all.”

That’s the IWW.

The bosses recognize the IWW without being [page torn]… they did in McKees Rocks.

If a highwayman held you up on your way home on pay day and attempted to take your wad and you knocked him over with a club you wouldn’t think of asking him to sign a paper saying that he recognized that you had a club would you?

So long as you can put him out of the business of robbing you, you’d take it for granted that that was sufficient recognition, wouldn’t you?


Well, build up that kind of unionism that will put the robber capitalist out of the business of going through your pockets in withholding from you what you earn, and what more recognition do you want from him either?

The IWW will do it.

Getting the capitalist to sign a piece of paper saying “recognition,” isn’t worth anything.

After the paper is signed he will only live up to it on condition that the union is strong enough to enforce it; and if the union is that strong, it doesn’t need the piece of paper.

The way to make an enemy recognize the fact that your sword is made of steel — if it really is — is to let him feel the edge. If it isn’t made of steel, his saying that it is won’t make it so, or make it one whit easier for you to defend yourself against him. The only probable result will be that it will furnish you with a false hope and throw you off your guard.

Get the union that will get you the goods and you’ll have the recognition.

If you bought a sack of potatoes and had them on your shoulder ready to take home you wouldn’t think of bantering with the storekeeper to give you a written certificate saying, “This man has potatoes,” would you?

Still less would you think of taking the certificate in place of the potatoes. What would you expect your wife to think of you if you came home with an empty sack on your arm proudly flourishing a scrap of paper saying, “This man has potatoes.” “Why sure I’ve got ‘em. Tates. Got him down here in black and… [illegible] Signed statement [illegible]

… get it and picket the store besides. Threatened to boycott. Badly handled by a policeman, but I made the old fellow give in and sign this. See, here it reads, “This man has potatoes!” “Glorious victory! Nobly waged the class struggle! Tates! Whoop, Hoaray!” “This man has potatoes. Great isn’t it?”

Your wife would be justified in thinking that you had been partaking pretty freely of that which made Milwaukee famous.

I guess you’d want something more than that to put in the pot for dinner. You do, too. You want the goods. Shorter hours and better pay. More dinner and less work. Build up the union that will get them for you and secure them to you by organizing all your fellow wage slaves so that they will move together and you needn’t worry about the boss recognizing it.

We’ve got recognition now. Got it in chunks. Got it to burn. The bosses all over the country have already recognized the IWW. So have the employment sharks. So have the labor fakirs. So have all the parasites that have been sucking the blood of the honest toil. They recognize the fact that the IWW is the organization that is destined yet to brush them aside and win for the producers of wealth not simply the scanty pickings of a shabby existence but all the wealth that they produce.

That’s the kind of recognition that the workers need. That’s the kind of recognition that amounts to something.

Recognition? Yes: that’s the word. But the first step for the workers is to recognize their own class interests and organize accordingly when they do that the recognition by the bosses will follow.

A year after Stirton wrote this, IWW’s Local 8 took control of Philadelphia’s docks, ended the “shape up” and won raises and safer working conditions without signing a contract. Three years later the IWW had job control over wide swaths of the Midwest harvest, again without formal recognition. Harvest wobblies would go so far as encouraging workers under threat of blacklist to tear up their card in front of the boss (then send for a replacement in the mail). They never demanded recognition from the employer; they demanded wages and better conditions.

The IWW didn’t cook up its approach from nowhere. Over and over again workers come to the same conclusion: they notice you can win on demands and lose on recognition and come out stronger. You can also win on recognition and lose on demands and come out weaker. What motivates workers to struggle isn’t what the boss thinks of them but what they think of their ability to do something about the problems they face. When you win on demands you win the only kind of recognition that really matters.

Read other pieces critical of labor law here.

Or just take it from Lucy.