“The law is your shield, direct action is your sword” – Organising the Unorganised- audio & review


The topic of this talk (audio link below) was on organising unions in non-unionised workplaces, and possibly re-invigorating places where unions are ostensibly still organised. Our labour market locally is increasingly casualised, de-skilled, and less well paid. “Flexible” arrangements between employer and employee are the current code word for the slashing of security of contract and the threat of relocation of capital. Unions have historically been the only means of lower paid workers countering trends like these, so the question as to how workers organise and fight back is coming back into focus more and more. This talk intended to address just that, and the speakers put forward arguments for an alternative to the top-down trade unionism that evidently isn’t working today.


Dave is the first to speak in this hour-long talk. He is an organizer in the North of England for the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the Wobblies), and started his union activism as a worker in a Pizza Hut. A self described “gabby opinionated [troublemaker]”, was involved in left wing politics for years prior to this, and it was only in the course of a casual conversation with a colleague, after years of working there, had the thought of actually organising to confront management occurred to him. The second speaker, Dec, also an organiser with the IWW has been involved for years. Unfortunately, Dec didn’t give much away on how he got involved - from his attitude you could tell he could have kept the room entertained with stories of activism for hours.

The IWW is a radical anarcho-syndicalist union that was founded by anarchist organisers (amongst others such as Mother Jones / Mary Harris) in the United States in 1905. The union represents the most vulnerable of workers, and has its roots in organizing casual labourers in the US’s Mid-West, when work was temporary and uncertain, health and safety non-existent, and capitalists under no pressure from anyone to improve conditions for workers - conditions similar to the ones we find ourselves in today.

The common thread of the talk was how to get workers thinking in terms of “everyone’s an organiser”, rather than workers paying an organiser to be the union for them. This is the model the IWW work off, and in academic circles is categorised as solidarity unionism. The name comes from the principle that the union as a legal entity exists only as a result of pre-existing solidarity and mutual trust between workers in a workplace. The workers organise horizontally in local branches and make decisions on direct actions and negotiations themselves first, only making recourse to local organisers when they feel necessary. This is opposed to rank-and-file unionism, the model most mainstream unions (think SIPTU) work off - which is where a fulltime paid organiser with the union deals with all the day to day union issues for workers, and as such, usually makes all the decisions for them.

There were a lot of solid pointers given on getting people interested in solidarity trade unionism by both speakers:
- Avoid even the most well meaning people becoming superman/woman activists, which leads to exhaustion and can unravel lots of work;
- Get people talking to each other first about their grievances, before talking about a union
-  Innoculate people from management misrepresentation by explaining the potential unions aims before they try to misrepresent the organisers objectives,
-  Ensure you formalise structures like committees to keep people involved and keep power close to the workfloor rather than keeping things unformalised
- Workers will always want to support each other when under pressure, the goal is in changing how think about doing this.

Dave gave the example of a change in attitude that can lead to bigger changes in thinking -  instead of taking 7 minutes break instead of 10 because your colleague is under pressure and on their own, support your colleague by making sure everyone takes their ten minutes and recognises that the issue isn’t with the breaks it’s with inadequate staffing. It’s a small thing, and it’s the understanding as to why you/we/all of us should do it that makes it important.

What was stressed more than anything however, was to make sure the little victories happen, and are recognised. People need to see their work giving results if they’re not to lose heart and the hard work that’s put in dissipate.
Examples were given of where this is working, and the types of workplaces unionised is really inspiring considering where most young people work today. Three particular examples jump out - Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Jimmy Johns (a fast food company in North America).  These types of companies have a huge turnover in staff, are immensely profitable, and immensely anti-union, descriptions which cover a multitude of Irish service based companies. Why shouldn’t the model which has worked abroad work here?

Both Dave and Dec were keen to point out that this model of working is not a silver bullet though. There are a number of issues with this type of organisation that were outlined, including the high expectations of commitment on behalf of the workers, sustaining peoples interests once the initial buzz of a union drive wears off, the development of informal hierarchies between workers and applying this form of organisation on a larger scale.  One other big issue mentioned is how some of the more traditional mainstream unions in th UK are beginning to instrumentalise this form of unionising (i.e using its form, but not really believing in its philosophy of worker led representation and direct action).

There were a couple of questions and contributions from the floor at the end, centering on countering legal issues, internal IWW organisation, and how unions can act on a broader scale in countering austerity. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to really allow the discussion flow, or to even discuss other unions that organise like this (for example the SAC anarchist union in Sweden) but from the short time available it was clear that the message of the Wobblies had piqued peoples interests at the very least.

As a follow up to the discussion, there was talk of possibly an IWW training weekend being arranged at some point over the next few months. Keep an eye out for any developments.

Reviewed for the 1013 Anarchist bookfair by E McM
Download an mp3 of the talk


Organising the Unorganised in unions - Dublin Anarchist Bookfair 2013 session by Workers Solidarity on Mixcloud