Revitalizing a United Working Class

The IWW Model

Labor unions in the United States of America are growing dangerously close to extinction. As a result, the working class will be inherently threatened by the loss in union leverage to combat corporate interests. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports labor union membership in America has declined from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 11.9 percent in 2010. A more devastating statistic is that only 6.9 percent of the private sector is part of a union, a figure which pales in comparison to the 36.2 percent of the public sector that is unionized. This bleak reality could be changed if only more workers saw unions through the lens of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an organization solely dedicated to promoting the rights and dignity of the working class, and dismissed the mainstream business unions, which are often just special interests groups tangled in bureaucracy.

The heavy decline in union membership reflects an increasing number of citizens who are viewing unions in a politically negative light and assuming the worst for the future of organized labor. In 2011, Gallup documented a 52 percent union approval rating with 42 percent disapproval, revealing the currently anemic state of unions, especially when compared to the 72 percent approval and 20 percent disapproval of labor unions in 1936. Unions have been struggling to gain public support and their growing disapproval ratings present an even greater threat to union influence and, potentially, to their very existence. Unfortunately, these recent statistics reveal that unions today are unable to maintain the image of working class champions, despite historically having transformed the landscape of labor and having been an integral part in the creation of the middle class.

Furthermore, over 60 percent of Americans believe that labor unions hurt non-union members, meaning unions face a toxic combination of the vast majority of citizens being non-union members and a majority belief that unions hurt non-union workers. Consequently, in the public’s mind, a labor union becomes just another concentration of power outside of the working class majority, equivalent to self-interested corporations and the capitalist state. For powerful unions today, such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), these recent polls ought to be a clear warning of their bleak future. More importantly, the results also speak to the notion that now is the time to reinvigorate the labor movement.

In Decline of U.S. Labor Unions and the Role of Trade, author Robert Baldwin examines the various causes of the dramatic decline in unionization. One of the most conflicting discoveries Baldwin mentions is that the worker demand for unionization has declined despite corporate America’s aggressive profit increasing tactics that have resulted in lower wages. Given the current economic times, the safe assumption would seem to be that if more workers were facing uncertainty about their future, then more workers would be demanding a greater resurgence in unionization. However, as much as union decline has occurred as a result of outside factors such as government action and corporate interests, overly bureaucratic unions themselves have made few advances in creating greater solidarity amongst workers and are now reaping the consequences.

An examination of the historical context in which this narrative is situated reveals many of the underlying circumstances that have placed mainstream trade unions in the desperate situation they are in today. For example, though the AFL-CIO is perhaps the most powerful union in America, the Socialist Labor Party claims, “even a brief survey of the AFL’s history reveals that from the start it was built on the false premise of the brotherhood of capital and labor. Rather than uniting workers, it has divided them.” The very formation of the AFL, which would later merge with the CIO, occurred in opposition to the Knights of Labor, a union designed to unite all branches of labor in a fight against capitalism. Since its conception, the AFL-CIO—and trade unions in general—has gone against the founding principle of unionism: solidarity above all else. The violation of this most basic principal of unionism renders a crippling reality: the AFL-CIO is a union in name only.

The failings of the AFL-CIO do not remain in the past. As the IWW claims, “[t]he ethics of the labor bureaucrats are those of the depraved business community of which they consider themselves a part. With its huge membership, its bulging treasuries and its political influence, business unionism, as represented by the AFL-CIO, is an unhealthy movement.” Fortunately, even though the AFL-CIO is as large and powerful as a corporation, the worker has other options like the IWW, for instance, which remains the purest definition of a union to this day.

“The Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World” clearly outlines its solitary goal to advance the working class by extinguishing capitalism, a system that forces the many to struggle to benefit only the few. The IWW believes that unions can function “only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.” Within the founding of the IWW, unwavering solidarity to the entire working class is evident. The ultimate goal of the IWW is to have “the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production and abolish the wage system.” The IWW is obviously and openly more radical than mainstream trade unions. However, their radicalism always remains within the hand of the workers.

Beyond the extremism of the IWW, it differs from trade unionism in four other fundamental ways: the IWW is democratic, it organizes strictly in the industrial fashion, it remains a class struggle union, and it only organizes on its own terms. By the very fact that the IWW remains member-run, and wholly dedicated to the concept of solidarity, IWW members are provided with the power that would have otherwise been dispersed throughout union bureaucracy in the mainstream. In “What is the IWW and What Does it Want,” the IWW defines itself most simply as “a labor union, the very latest in labor unions,” claiming to be “an entirely new departure in the domain of social organization,” which has the hope of “revolutionizing the whole world.” The IWW wishes not only to win the small struggles of workers, but also to instigate an entire workers’ revolution. Unlike major trade unions with less democracy and more collaboration with the employing class, the IWW aims to create a world entirely run by the majority, and therefore completely beneficial to the working class. With such ambitions the IWW stands as a small but threatening force not only to the employing class, but also to trade unions stifled in bureaucracy.

Another distinguishing feature of the IWW model of unionization is that the IWW refuses “all alliances, direct or indirect, with any political parties or anti-political sects.” Furthermore, Father Thomas J. Haggerty, the original author of the first draft of the Preamble declared, “[t]he ballot box is simply a capitalist concession. Dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation for the working class, and to my thinking it never will.” The IWW continues to express this firm conviction that workers rights are won through union organization rather than by dependence on government action. Given today’s dysfunctional and gridlocked political system, the knowledge that hard earned dues will be put towards political campaigns can be damaging to the union appeal. Even though the IWW may lose out on the strength political connections provide, by remaining outside of politics it becomes a free agent purely dedicated to the worker, instead of to the political class, a group that is nearly synonymous with the elite class.

The decline in unionization is not just a threat to unions, but also a threat to the American worker. However, when workers see unions like the AFL-CIO doing little to create solidarity and continually supporting a pathetic political system, union presence seems more of a nuisance than a savior. On the other hand, the IWW is completely worker led and free of political obligations, with no interest in any other class besides the working class. While the IWW is small, it is fierce in its convictions and it remains truest to union values. With an economy riddled by widening inequality, a political sphere in a dead gridlock, a wave of anti-worker policies pouring from big business, and mainstream unions descending further into irrelevancy, the necessity of a renewed labor movement is needed now more than ever to secure the future of all working peoples. Undoubtedly, the unity and power the working class requires for such a movement can be found in the Industrial Workers of the World.


Nora Dwyer is a FCRH 2014 Social Work major and she may be contacted at 

53 thoughts on “Revitalizing a United Working Class”

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