Future of the I.W.W. Part 1: Does the I.W.W. Need to Be Restructured?

 

The following is my own argument and does not necessarily reflect the views of everyone in the Industrial Union Caucus. It is the first of a two part essay. 

Does the I.W.W. Need to be Restructured?

The current controversy in the I.W.W. is posing the question quite starkly; are we a union founded on the principles of class struggle or the disorganized political project of small handfuls of activists?  This controversy in the I.W.W. has its roots in the inability of the organization to effectively make collective, union-wide decisions about organizing and implement them. This is of grave importance because we are so resource strapped that a concentration of our limited resources is the only way we can effectively build Industrial Unions.

The General Defense Committee of the I.W.W. was originally founded to raise legal defense funds for the union after the World War I era FBI raids. Now it is a semi-auxiliary vehicle for political activism in the name of the I.W.W., primarily focused on anti-fascist activity. The GDC has it’s own dues and local-chartering structure. Bosses and people who are not members of the I.W.W. can be members, and they can vote for the officers of the GDC, though those officers must be I.W.W. members. The GDC is supposed to report activities and financials to the wider union, but I’ve not been able to find a financial report for the GDC for this year yet.

There are several questions posed by the need for working class self defense and the existence of the GDC. It’s worth it to recap them in order to keep things in perspective. What is the relationship between the GDC and the I.W.W. exactly? What is the purpose of the GDC today? How is right wing violence effectively combated? What strategy is the GDC currently using to fight the right wing and how was this strategy formally adopted? Are these strategies effective? If not, how can we change them?

Recently, to ask these questions is to court acrimony. Instead of treating these questions of tactics and strategy, our organization is mired in an almost manufactured debate; Defense vs. Union Organizing. If most members want both, what’s the rub?

In January there were wide protests against the incoming Trump Presidency. The GDC participated in these activities. Presumably this was a part of their strategy to defeat fascism. In one of these protests an I.W.W. and GDC member was shot by a right winger. The GDC responded by flying out organizers to help the Seattle branch deal with the fallout from this event. The money used to pay for these flights was paid out of a GDC member’s own pocket. The GDC then petitioned the General Executive Board for reimbursement, and the Board voted against it. This is the major impetus for the current controversy in the I.W.W. A key question here is; how have we been duped into asking “Why didn’t the GEB give the GDC the money it wanted” and not “How did the General Defense Committee’s organizing and policy fail to defend a comrade in Seattle?“ Any question to this effect might get you shouted down for the moral failure of showing an ounce of critical reflection.

It’s worth it to give some background on the structure of the I.W.W., since the union has no educational module or training in place that helps new members get a handle on how the union works. The General Executive Board is the highest authority in the organization next to the membership at convention. The membership in general elect the GEB. That is, every member in the I.W.W. casts a vote for every seat on the General Executive Board. The board is then tasked with making decisions throughout the year until the next convention and the next election of Board members. They primarily support particular work in the organization by approving the budget. That is, they control the purse-strings and in accordance with their vision, allocate the budget accordingly.

Their other tasks include auditing, inspecting, and checking on all subordinate bodies of the union, including the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and the GDC. The GEB also charters branches, I.U.s and so on. Put bluntly, the GEB is tasked with safeguarding the organization and its interests as a whole.

In their original manifesto the Anti-GEB faction alleged that the GEB was dysfunctional primarily as a result of several board members’ “lack of support for the membership”. They argued that this took the form of one Board member raising concerns about the legal ramifications of IWOC’s organizing, another board member expressing disagreement with the organizing strategy of a campaign in Chicago, and three board members abstaining from voting on whether to reimburse the GDC for the cost of a flight to Seattle. It is also alleged that there is a an Anti-GDC Faction of the GEB, though this falls flat under even cursory scrutiny. If there was, and they have the majority on the board, why would they then vote down almost all of the proposals of a member of their own “faction”, in the person of Jimi Del Duca? Why would they have abstained from the vote to repay the GDC member?

This raises the central question; are reasons for recall and restructuring a result of GEB members violating constitutional rules or duties or because of political disagreement? Nowhere does the Anti-GEB faction allege violations of the constitution as far as I have seen; instead they’ve pointed to behavior deemed to be “not in the interests of the membership”. This is certainly one type of ground for recall, and if they could get 5% of the membership to support the recall (they cannot) then they could have affected that process.

If the reasons are political then there is good ground to give the GEB members their fair hearing. What were their opinions and concerns? With respect to the GDC, the concern was a legitimate one about the legal strategy that committee had (or hadn’t) developed in order to minimize blowback from the state. With regard to the GEB member suggesting that a local campaign on the verge of being defunct had strategic problems, they argued that it didn’t reflect wobbly organizing principles. Without a clear organizing platform adopted by convention to outline the mandate, the fact of the matter is that Board members must make up their own minds. The same is as true for determining to what degree the union as a whole is supposed to bail out an auxiliary committee (GDC) that is supposed to secure its own funding. If these are problems of structure, then they’re problems of the strange and semi-auxiliary nature of the GDC, not the GEB. 

In the following section I will treat the Twin Cities proposals in turn.

The proposals are as follows;

a) Restructure the union to get rid of the General Executive Board. Replace it with Regional Sectional Councils and a Regional Executive Council made up of the chairs/secretaries of the Regional Sectional Councils.
b) Recall the Current GEB Members except for Brandon Sowers (The other Anti-GEB board members resigned)  

Restructure Proposal

The first proposal and the one receiving the most attention is the Restructuring Proposal. The general outline is that the Anti-GEB faction want to replace the current GEB with a GRB – a General Rubber Stamping Board, and Regional Sectional Councils. These regional councils will consist of delegates from branches. These delegates will be standing members of the Sectional Councils and pick from themselves a secretary who will then serve on the Regional Executive Council (REC). This Executive Council is meant to replace the current GEB, minus “legislative” powers.

Anti-GEBers argue this will make the organization *more* democratic. But the problem is that the GEB didn’t represent the interests of the membership as a whole. If that is what is meant by “democratic” then this proposal actually worsens the problems.

The Proposal states the following:

“(a) The Regional Executive Council is strictly a coordinating and executive body, to carry out the priorities set by the General Convention and the Regional Section Councils.

(b) The Regional Section Councils are legislative and executive bodies for their Regional Sections, to carry out the priorities set by their respective Regional Conventions and General Convention as well as to govern their Regional Sections and the North American IWW as a whole in between Regional Conventions, General Conventions, and General Referendum.

(c) NARA-wide statements (e.g. endorsements, resolutions), approving the annual NARA budget, all business pertaining to the GST, GHQ and the Literature Department, business pertaining to General Convention, amendments to the Regional Administration section of the MPP, and any emergency business which Regional Section Councils or other bodies are unable to be tasked with shall be voted upon by all of the RSCs. Votes shall be tallied by the RSC Secretaries and the REC Chair. In the event of a tie, the General Secretary-Treasurer shall be the tie breaking vote.”

Perhaps the “General Rubber-Stamping Board” joke doesn’t have a basis in fact – the proposed Regional Executive Council isn’t even a rubber-stamping agency because its decision making power is devolved completely onto referenda!

There are other problems. Where RSC officers violate the constitution or their mandate, are they only answerable to their “constituencies” or to the union as a whole? That is, can a member or branch from Region A initiate a recall on a delegate to Region B’s RSC? This is especially important for issues pertaining to RSC secretaries who will make up the REC, meant to represent the union as a whole.

Another issue; Why have layers of bureaucracy? If the problem is that there are political differences on the GEB and no clear actionable mandate, how will giving more autonomy to branches and regions address the problem of a lack of unified focus? The answer is that it won’t. Instead, the decisions of the REC, to the extent that they *aren’t* merely referenda of the membership on a standing basis, will reflect the regional drift being amplified by this structure. By regional drift, I mean that the larger branches with enough volunteer labor to carry the administrative water will outweigh the decisions of smaller newer branches. Their ideas will dominate political, as well their formal representation.

Indeed, it seems as though this proposal will bake this kind of conflict into the everyday structure of the union. This is tied to the point I raised at the outset; the I.W.W. needs to have conversations about how it’s Departments and Committees are working and how they could be working better and together. That is, we need to outline comprehensive strategies by which we aim to apply our organizational limbs in concert with one another.


On this count, the proposal aims to have the various Departments be governed by Boards containing one officer per region. The problem is that this doesn’t deal at all with directing these Departments toward particular ends. It simply reshuffles their makeup, and roots them as ‘constituent representatives’ instead of representatives of the membership as a whole, as is the general trend in the proposal. Right now, the collectively elected boards are assigned regions to coordinate with. This is meaningless because the Organizing Department does very little, until a campaign reaches out to *them* for money requests. Changing how the board is elected won’t fix the problem of a passive Organizing Department.

In general, the root of the current crisis in the I.W.W. is mainly that it has no formal collective decision making body with regards to organizing strategy and tactics. This is an effect of several cultural and structural problems; no language outlining Organizing Department responsibilities on this score, generous “autonomy” given to General Membership Branches, and the predominance of an organizing strategy based on individual committees, isolated and without resources. I’ll treat these issues more in depth in part 2.

The proposal to restructure makes the organization less democratic. Instead of having a board accountable to the whole organization and it’s program, we will have a fractured I.W.W. with less collective accountability.

Recall Proposal

The core problem with the recall proposal is that it appears to be formulated to fail on purpose. If this isn’t the aim, then it was at least poorly thought out. The constitution says:

Sec. 2 (a) A referendum on any organization question, including constitutional amend- ments, may be initiated by the General Executive Board, or by a petition of 5% of members not in bad standing. The number of members at the beginning of each calendar year will be used for the entire year in determining total membership.

In order to recall officers according to the Constitution, you need to 5% of the membership to support the recall initiative. In the case of the GEB, I believe that would be roughly 148 people. Why couldn’t they have garnered support for a recall between GDC local 14, the Twin Cities General Membership Branch and supporters at other branches?

As formulated, the recall would go to convention, at which point recalling the GEB members would reduce it to being a non-functioning body for the few months left in the year. This has already partly been accomplished by two of the board members stepping down in protest adding to the perceptible dysfunction of the GEB. Of course, had they stayed on the board in spite of political disagreements, they could have possibly secured compromises on other questions and continued to help the work along on a core union body which everybody in the organization accepts has an intense workload.

The questionable precipitation of events, the refusal of GEB members to work out differences or move on, the structural as opposed to political response (why not simply run a slate of GEB candidates to replace these “bad ones”?), and the delayed referendum on recalling the GEB, all suggest what one of the Anti-GEB groups most outspoken members, ShugE made explicit; “The GDC is going to do what it wants and anyone who disagrees needs to shut up and get out of the way”. This should raise doubts about the nature and intent of the recall proposal.

The above, combined with the fact of the central involvement of the anarchist political organization May 1st Anarchist Alliance points toward a disappointing type of factionalism emerging in the I.W.W. Factionalism per se isn’t the problem. Factions can help clarify concrete problems and help members better understand where they fit in. But instead of announcing their aims and ambitions publicly, the M1 faction hasn’t done this. When the influence of M1 is pointed out, members of that organization deny that it has any effect or influence, but when the faction remains informal, one is left to assume that the dictates of what is a formally organized political group comprising many of the core members of the Anti-GEB faction is in some way at play. I’m not opposed to Wobblies belonging to political organizations, but when they advance broad proposals for deep transformations of the Union on a coordinated basis without announcing their aims and principles, it becomes difficult to believe that we’re not dealing with the ambitions of these political groups. (This was written before the announcement of WRUM)

It’s also worth pointing out that the structural reform proposal would give a wider latitude to local groups who pursue failing strategies without accountability. Let me be clear: this is not a unique problem of the GDC in principle. The Anti-GEB faction is not the same as the entire GDC and does not represent that group. What’s needed is a union wide discussion about strategy, tactics, and how a committee of the union can best serve it’s members, right alongside a more comprehensive organizing discussion. 

The restructure proposal would create an additional layer of bureaucracy in an organization already struggling to take it’s administration into the 21st century. This would decrease organizational democracy and force more members to spend time on bureaucratic infighting, rather than organizing. Rather than shrink the bureaucracy, increase it’s transparency, and create a mechanism by which the membership can clearly instruct officers and staff as to the policies they need to implement, the proposed structure would fragment and deaden the organization to membership input. This is why I encourage people to vote no on the restructure proposal.

In the second part of this essay I will discuss what I feel are some of the long terms challenges faced by the I.W.W. that led to this current controversy.

Author: antonjohannsen

All I want to do is live communism and spread anarchy.

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