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Ghostbusting: Exorcising the Separation Between Workplace and Community Struggles

By anonymous - It's Going Down, January 28, 2019

The following essay, written by Wobblies for a Revolutionary Union Movement, continues the back and forth dialog and discussion on the back and forth dialog about unions, syndicalism, and the IWW.

For the last several weeks, an exchange of articles has appeared on It’s Going Down, on the value of workplace organizing, including “Nothing to Syndicate”, “Aiming at Ghosts”, “Crafty Ghosts”, and several other pieces. Most of these have taken aim at “syndicalism”, and opponents of workplace struggle have insisted on using a restricted, shop-floor-only definition of “syndicalism”, accusing workers who support unions of having a narrow focus on their own workplace, of wanting to run the existing exploitative economy under their own democratic management, and of ignoring oppressions beyond class.

Supporters of workplace struggle, meanwhile, have answered with a broader definition of our organizing based in the real work that we do. Our revolutionary unionism is based in interconnected community and workplace organizing, imagines the radical transformation of the economy and liberation of people from our exploitation as workers, and sees the oppressions that we face on and off the shop floor as our shared concern. We are here as revolutionary unionists speaking about the work we actually do – not as “syndicalists” defending a workplace-only stance that we don’t take.

Several of the pieces, starting with “Crafty Ghosts”, take aim at the General Defense Committee and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, claiming that these are “entryist” projects, competing with other radical projects. “Crafty Ghosts” specifically names Wobblies for a Revolutionary Union Movement (WRUM), a caucus of the IWW that supports prisoner organizing, the community self defense mission of the GDC, and further democratization of the union. The author of “Crafty Ghosts” specifically mentions “the author of Aiming at Ghosts—and the Wobblies for a Revolutionary Unionist Movement (WRUM) in general”. We’re glad that someone wrote Aiming at Ghosts, but it wasn’t anyone in WRUM.

We are members of WRUM, writing specifically to respond to the charges of “entryism”. However, given the short length of “Crafty Ghosts”, we hope to use it as a jumping off point for clarifying some misconceptions about the IWW’s role in community self defense and prison abolition.

The author of “Crafty Ghosts” uses “entryism” to suggest three things:

– First, that the GDC and IWOC are entering into a larger movement with the purpose of controlling it or taking members from it.
– Second, that the GDC and IWOC are doing this with a degree of secrecy, obscuring our affiliations or motivations.
– Third, that the GDC and IWOC are not interested in defending our communities or in abolishing prisons, but only in gaining members and spreading syndicalism.

As Wobblies who are deeply involved in community self-defense and prison abolition work, and who have worked to win acceptance for this work in the IWW, we instead see community self defense, prison abolition, and workplace organizing as deeply interconnected struggles, all of which are necessary parts of a working class strategy to abolish capitalism, the state, fascism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression. Far from demanding that all people struggling against these oppressions join the IWW or adopt a syndicalist perspective, we support a diversity of forms of organizations for different types of work within these struggles.

Separate Turfs, or Interconnected Struggles?

The author of Crafty Ghosts claims that the IWW is practicing entryism by doing the work of antifascism and prison abolition. They seem to view these as the legitimate “turf” of other anarchist projects, such as antifascist crews, or the Anarchist Black Cross (ABC). They frame this work as naturally separate from organizing as workers against capitalism.

Frankly, we don’t find it useful for revolutionary projects to claim turf, as if we were trade unions arguing over jurisdiction. We especially don’t find it useful to frame shared struggles in terms of rivalry or competition. The GDC and IWOC work on projects that are also of interest to groups like the Anarchist Black Cross or to antifascist crews. We’re glad that we are able to cooperate with those other groups in those struggles.

The GDC was originally formed as the anti-repression wing of the union, and we work with the ABC, the International Anarchist Defense Fund, and International Antifascist Defense Fund. In fact, recent GDC motions have instructed our central treasury to grant funds to all three of those projects to support their work. Many GDC members also work with and in autonomous antifascist projects. Such affinity groups fulfill a needed role in antifascist work distinct from the GDC’s role, which is more focused on mass mobilization, anti-repression, and other support. IWOC, ABC chapters, and other abolitionist groups worked together in supporting the prison strikes. GDC members have cooperated both in action and in sharing skills and perspectives with groups like Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and Solidarity and Defense.

The author frames community self defense work and prison abolition work as separate from a broader class struggle, or as separate from our workplace struggles. We couldn’t disagree more strongly. Class in the US is built on a foundation of racist settler colonialism – a system where European workers and peasants, including many refugees, colonized people, or dispossessed poor of Europe were used by the capitalist class to settle and colonize the continent, and granted the status of “whiteness” along with certain privileges to encourage loyalty to the US. This racist hierarchy is built on the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of black people. Even after generations of hard fought struggles and reforms to this system, the racial gap in wealth and political power is enforced by discrimination, the generational effects of structural racism, and mass incarceration.

Racism shapes a divided, tiered class structure. Workers most oppressed by racism are generally easier for capitalism to exploit. For example, workers in the former colonized nations are often faced with authoritarian governments backed by foreign capital. The richer nations through institutions like the IMF promise “development” in exchange for an investor-friendly labor market, meaning the suppression of unions. So, workers trying to organize in those countries face company unions, repression, imprisonment, or even death. Workers who are incarcerated can be compelled to work for pennies on the dollar. Workers who face the threat of deportation because they are undocumented can be more easily subjected to sub-minimum wages, little or no workplace safety, and wage theft, because if they complain or organize, the boss can report them to ICE.

White workers, workers with citizenship, and workers in the richer countries are granted certain privileges by this racist system. However, that system also limits the demands that those workers can make, because they are placed in competition with more vulnerable and oppressed workers. Part of the reason for de-industrialization, spelled out clearly in corporate documents like the Ford company’s “The Way Forward”, is to move production to cheaper labor markets (i.e., more brutally repressed workers) so they can continue busting unions overseas in order to weaken unions here.

Many companies accomplish the same just by moving their production to the South, where stronger anti-labor, racist forces have traditionally defeated union drives. Or, they move production to prisons. Those prisons are themselves expanded as part of a campaign of mass incarceration to police the communities, especially communities of color, left gutted by de-industrialization. Competition with more vulnerable workers is also a familiar experience to construction workers, resulting in internal struggles within the building trades, as more conservative workers support ICE deporting undocumented workers, while other workers push for the union to protect and organize undocumented workers.

When white, citizen, first-world workers object to their working conditions being made worse by this competition, they are told to blame blacks, undocumented immigrants, and foreign workers for stealing their jobs, and to blame greedy unions for driving those jobs away. When white workers complain about taxes that largely go to fund the wars and cops that keep the rest of the working class policed and oppressed, they are told to blame their high taxes on minorities taking welfare. Fascists recruit among white people by using these familiar scapegoats, and promising to give white workers a better taste of all that white supremacy has to offer.

When working people mobilize against our bosses, and organize into unions and other organizations, racism is again used to divide us more directly. The racial system in the US had roots in breaking early alliances between black and white indentured servants, leading the colonial planters to create a stronger division between servants and slaves. Later, racial division was used to pit workers on the job against each other to stop demands for higher wages or better conditions, or to break strikes by bringing in scabs of a different race and playing on the prejudices of workers to divide us. Even within the labor movement, segregation was accepted by the AFL until the CIO, following the IWW’s example, integrated its locals- and racism within the labor movement still weakens us all to this day. When workers do unite across racial lines to make radical and transformative demands, the police forces built up to police people of color are brought up to suppress us. When revolutionary movements pose the greatest threat to capitalism, the capitalist class has historically accepted and supported the rise of fascists and other far-right, nationalist, and racist groups to protect their interests. It is important not to forget, that in addition to being anti-black, anti-Jewish, and anti-immigrant, these fascist formations are violently anti-labor and anti-leftist, and always target labor and anti-capitalists when they come to power.

The IWW, since its foundation, has fought to oppose the state and fascist suppression of our fellow workers.. This has been true from our earliest days, when IWW workers faced down threats from the Klan and the American Legion, to the 1930s, when Wobblies and former Wobblies fought in Spain against Franco or fought fascist sympathizers in New York City or in Minneapolis, and it is true today, through our General Defense Committee. The IWW has always organized people outside of “traditional workplaces”, whether it be itinerant workers in the early union, the unemployed councils of the Great Depression, or the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee today.

When we speak of class struggle, we do not imagine the working class to be made up only of white, male, blue collar industrial workers, the likes of which one might find in a New York Times piece taking readers on an exotic tour of “Trump Country” by way of every dive bar in an Ohio steel town. The working class is majority women, queer, and nonbinary people. It is disproportionately people of color. Worldwide (and as revolutionaries and industrial unionists, we think globally), the working class is mostly in colonized or formerly colonized nations. The working class is disproportionately disabled because capitalism uses, abuses, and neglects our bodies and minds. The working class is made of real human beings who experience intersecting oppressions, both inside and outside the workplace. Marginalized workers- immigrants, women in service, healthcare, and education industries; workers in former colonies, and prisoners- all are repeatedly at the front of today’s most militant labor struggles.

When we say that “An injury to one is an injury to all”, we do not only mean this as a slogan, or as a moral statement- though it is a catchy slogan and a deeply resonant moral statement. We also mean it in a material sense. The oppression of any part of the working class weakens the power that we have together. The liberation of any part of the working class is bound up in the liberation of each other. Our solidarity is built with this understanding. Because of that, our struggle as revolutionary unionists can’t stop at issues of wages, hours, and conditions. Our oppression doesn’t stop when we punch in or punch out, and neither can our struggle against it.

Secrecy and Autonomy

The author actually acknowledges that the GDC and IWOC don’t hide our affiliation with the IWW, writing “Unlike the countless ML issue-based front groups, people know they’re joining committees of the IWW when they join GDC or IWOC. They’re just told these committees have autonomy, when in fact they don’t.”

The author is correct in stating that these committees don’t operate in secret. Part of the whole point of the GDC and IWOC is that we support a mass organizing outlook, and that requires openness. We want people to become involved in working against fascism and prisons, even if they haven’t been to “the right” reading groups, know “the right people”, and hang out in “the right” scene. We think that the work of defending our communities and fighting mass incarceration needs to involve the active participation of the people affected by police brutality, fascism, and mass incarceration. So, we openly declare that we work against these things, and we openly declare that we do so as a radical labor union. Because we don’t view this work as separate from the work of a radical labor union, we have no reason to hide our affiliations.

However, the author greatly underestimates the level of autonomy that the GDC and IWOC have within the IWW. Like all IWW projects, the decision making power within the GDC and IWOC is devolved to locals, and those locals elect delegates that help coordinate national decisions for both committees. In other words, local level decisions are decided by the membership of the Locals, while more central decisions such as how to spend the defense funds at GDC Central are decided by a delegate council chosen by the Locals.

There has been a minority position within the IWW that has been vocally critical of the GDC and IWOC, and has at times attempted to curtail their autonomy. This grouping has been called the “Conservatives”, or the “White Workerists”. In 2017, an internal conflict happened in the IWW, largely over the conservatives and their allies on the General Executive Board pushing against the GDC and IWOC. A member of the General Executive Board spent part of 2016 and 2017 trying to enforce a US federal labor regulation that prevents former prisoners from holding elected union offices by harassing IWOC organizers about their history of incarceration. This same GEB member, in 2017, accused the GDC of being a “militia”. Another GEB member, who would go on to write the widely panned piece, Antifa is Liberalism, and a handful of others, made repeated denouncements of GDC involvement in antifascist work. There was also an attempt by the GEB to overturn a GDC motion to disburse funds to send members to Seattle to help respond to the attempted murder of an antifascist during protests against Trump’s inauguration. All of these issues coalesced into a conflict that resulted in the formation of formal caucuses, including the Industrial Unionism Caucus and the Wobblies for a Revolutionary Unionism Movement.

However, at the convention in 2017, the grouping critical of the GDC and IWOC lost a number of motions to the votes of the broader membership. In the convention and the referendum that followed it, the IWW’s membership voted overwhelmingly to support the GDC’s expanded role in community self defense, to endorse former prisoners holding elected positions within the union, and to expel the member of the GEB who had harassed IWOC organizers about their incarceration. The membership of the General Defense Committee, the incarcerated members of IWOC, and members of the Wobblies for a Revolutionary Union Movement (three projects singled out in “Crafty Ghosts”) were the main force behind these votes. The autonomy of the GDC and IWOC are hard-won, and supported by the great majority of the rank and file of our union. The author of “Crafty Ghosts”, by staking out anti-racist and prison abolitionist work as separate from unionism, and calling on the IWW to get out of that work, actually ends up reaching the same conclusions as the more “workplace only” voices within the union.

Why Do We Organize?

The author seems to claim that the GDC and IWOC are not genuine in our work for prison abolition and antifascism, writing that other anarchist projects “have developed… a focus on action rather than on growing membership which is objectively superior to the GDC and IWOC’s approach.”

We guess the author means that GDC and IWOC put recruiting members above doing the work. Yet the author also acknowledges that ”people within these committees are doing very good work, in deeply committed ways”. So, are we doing all of that dedicated, difficult work in a cynical bid to… recruit more people to join us in doing that work? To what end are we allegedly trying to get people to join the organization, anyways? The IWW has almost no paid staff, so it’s certainly not a professional motive. Could it be, in fact, that we are committed to the work, and that as such, we welcome those who help the work along?

To paraphrase the Community Self Defense talks in 2017, which two of the authors of our piece here helped to give:

“One of the most important things about the IWW and GDC is that we’re a dues funded organization that relies on volunteer work that we ourselves put in. We’re run by our own members, and funded by our own dues, without a layer of paid staff or a big-money donor that we answer to. This gives a basic level of accountability. A lot of mainstream unions can skimp on pursuing grievances for workers so long as the contract still gets passed and they have their dues check off. A lot of nonprofit organizations can do projects that don’t really serve the community, or that look better to donors than to people on the ground, because they can rely on grants instead of on community support. if we’re not doing good work, then people leave and the organization dies- as it should, if we’re not doing the work. If we’re not fulfilling our purpose, we should fold and let other projects take our place”

We don’t struggle in order to grow our organization. We organize the union to further our struggle – and when the fight is better waged outside the union, then that’s where the fight should happen. People do not put in the dedication, energy, and care that GDC and IWOC members put in to our work, without caring deeply about that work. The author seems to claim that although the people in the GDC and IWOC are deeply committed to the work, the union is not. But, the union is made of people, and those people are the ones “doing very good work, in deeply committed ways”. We are the union.

For us, opposing fascism is not a fun game, or a side project that we do to recruit people into workplace campaigns. Everywhere that fascists gain power, they attack revolutionary and working class organizations. Fascist regimes in Italy, Germany, and Spain brutally suppressed independent unions, anarchists, and anti-capitalists there. Fascists in North America have attacked and threatened IWW and GDC events, DSA meetings, anarchist book fairs, and even IWW union halls. Fellow workers have been assaulted, doxxed, threatened, and even hospitalized by fascists. This is not an elective struggle for us. By being a radical labor union, we are already a target for fascist violence. Our motive in opposing fascism is the defense of our communities, the working class, our union, and our own lives.

Class War on Every Front

The IWW, GDC, and IWOC are by no means perfect organizations. We make no such claim. In fact, we try to be very open about the shortcomings in our organizations, which we think is necessary in order to be able to improve. What we do claim is that there is an effective model of organizing that can be expanded upon. Some argue that the GDC should abandon its role in organizing mass antifascism, and the people doing that work should organize in clandestine affinity groups. We, on the other hand, respect a diversity of tactics and offer no fundamental criticism of the affinity group organizing model. In fact, we see the use of both mass antifascism and affinity group antifascism as complementary tactics to one another. We have seen that in the cities with the strongest GDC locals, fascists have been significantly hampered in their organizing. We also see the power in having hundreds of incarcerated workers all members of the same union. These members were instrumental in the 2018 prison strike, the largest of its kind in history. We engage in the networks and communities we live in, work in, and rely on. We organize on issues that affect us personally and collectively, to better our own lives and support one another. This isn’t for show, social capital, or ideology. We do what works for us.

We reject the artificial division of workplace and community struggles, which has weakened both. We face our exploitation as workers on the job – but our lives don’t end when we punch out, and neither do our intersecting, interconnected oppression. The system exploits us is an interconnected web of oppression, we believe in an interconnected web of struggles to confront it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

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