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"Industrial Unionism Now!" and "Green Unionism Too!"

By x372712 - July 2, 2013

Industrial Unionism Now!

Capitalism has never been kind to us. The machines of industry have unleashed both great productive capacity and great social change, abolishing all classes but holders of the means of production and those who work those means. While the inevitable conflict of social classes has been at turns sidetracked by nationalism, concessions, and the endless attempt to turn working people against their own interests, we know well enough: there is one primary struggle in our time- the struggle of the disenfranchised, the exploited, and the disempowered against the privileged and the powerful; the struggle of labor, and the disenfranchised of every hierarchy built into the class system, against capital and whole of the establishment that enshrines it. Never since the dawn of the industrial revolution has this been more clear- in the age of globalized corporate capitalism, the velvet glove of progressive reform has been stripped away to reveal the iron fist that is the profoundly undemocratic system of capital property. Since the age of neoliberalism and 'trickle down' economics, the cut-throat dictatorial corporate rule that has been exported to the third world for decades has come back to cast its sick sights on the workers of the West, and each new crisis brings newer cuts, more austerity measures, and a further stripping of those programs and reforms that created the middle class- all the while accumulating previously unheard-of wealth in the hands of the megarich while the wages of the American laborer stagnate, the small business holders are driven into the ranks of the workers.

Let's not kid ourselves and think that ethical consumption or other indulgences is going to change the situation; fair trade and organic create a niche market selling to the sort of people who buy fair trade and organic (and, all too often, figure that this means they've 'done their part' in changing the world), but does not meaningfully challenge the paradigm of corporate capitalism. Something more is needed. Not mere consumers, we can act as producers, and exercise our power at the nexus of our own exploitation. We need the labor movement.

Unions have acquired a bad reputation, mostly unjustified, but there are legitimate reasons. Union bureaucracy and hierarchy can be a disempowering and work at odds with the interest of the union rank and file. Many unions are all too willing to sign no-strike clauses and compete with other unions. American unions worked during the second Red Scare to purge the anti-capitalists from their ranks and remake themselves as a reformist, pro-business force and have since spent a huge amount of their funds campaigning for the lesser of two evils and the anti-labor Democratic Party while ignoring the need to organize unrepresented workers and carry out the real work of the union.

Yet labor is needed, whatever the problems of modern business unions; and so, a better model must be found, and organized. A model for real effective labor must be based in grassroots union democracy (decentralized power, federated organization, and recallable, accountable delegates), industrial solidarity (meaning that the industry is not split among multiple unions, but acts as one union), and an unapologetic pro-labor agenda (no no-strike clauses, no abandoning change for moderate reformism- the goal of the union has to be workplace democracy, not just collective bargaining). We need to organize that sort of labor, and a place to organize is right here in central Minnesota.

Unionizing will not be easy. In the globalized neoliberal age, the dominant players of both our productive and consumptive forces are often controlled, not by workers, not by local petit bourgeois, but by multinational chains- chains of stores that make chains on the hands of labor. Such chains make it so any unionizing effort that has real effect on the lives of the people of this city needs to be not local, but regional, national, or international, and for this reason, this dilemma that faces every worker, the labor movement itself must be international. It is most important to note that in an age of global capital, no one community can become revolutionary. Globalization creates a race to the bottom- any attempt by a nation to institute progressive policies, or, even 'worse' (in the eyes of capital), real democracy will be met with the movement of business and capital from that nation to another, more desperate or more oppressed. As long as capitalists have people desperate enough or afraid enough not to demand change, they can always just move to the lowest bidder and make sure the labor market in the commodity of human lives works for them. Not to mention the IMF, the World Bank, and of rest of international monetary and exchange institutions set up by and for the wealthiest people in the world. Just look at what happened in South Africa or Poland after their revolutions; their entire economic reform program torn to pieces by these institutions, serving not the interest or the will of the people, but the interest and will of the capitalist class. Just look at America- you think closing the border will bring jobs? It's not immigration that's taking your job; it's globalization done capitalist style.

That's why labor movement doesn't only need to be democratic- it needs to international. It must be a labor movement that can fight capitalism on every front, can make sure that every stage of the production and industrial process is beset by the forces of labor, can, as labor movements have historically done, prove a dynamic force against totalitarian regimes, and can maintain itself as a genuinely democratic engine of popular power.

The IWW is the ideal union for the modern age- based in worker's democracy, industrial organization, international solidarity, and an unabashed yet inclusive revolutionary agenda. The IWW also is one of the few unions that really thinks outside of the box- recently, the Wobblies have lead the way in unionizing the food and service industries (for example, Starbucks and Jimmy John's), showing a drive to take up the cause of workers other unions are all too willing to ignore.  Ten IWW members in a community are all it takes to form a General Membership Branch, the basic organization from which further labor action, both local and, in solidarity with other communities, regional and international action can be taken. I urge readers, activists, and workers to join the IWW and building genuine labor resistance, across the world!

Green Unionism, Too!

[Now I will] highlight a second great injustice of the capitalist system: the degradation our common home, the pollution of our air and water, the waste of both finite and renewing resources, the devaluing of nonhuman life, and the permanent altering of our habitat in such a way that it is no longer hospitable to that life which has heretofore adapted to it- in short, the ecological devastation that has seized the world in its deathly grip since the dawn of our current economic epoch.

Capitalism lays waste to our common home. Some would be inclined to blame industry, or the concept of civilization itself, as the source of these problems; this is ignorant. While there is no doubt that the specialization of labor allowed by the agricultural revolution has enabled our species to construct a myriad of technologies, which have in turn enabled us to expand our footprint within the ecosystem, to blame technology is to ignore the power that chooses how we use that technology.

In capitalism, that power is the capitalists, both as individuals and a class. To understand how we have reached our ecological crisis, we must understand how capitalism has forcibly guided the hand of industry in the short-term interest of the few at both the short and long-term expense of people and the Earth.

The capitalist system places value only in what is both owned and can be sold. For example, to this system, air quality is an 'externality', because it is a damage to our common resource- air cannot be owned nor sold and so does not count in the economic calculations of capitalists. While this is called, by the apologists of exploitation, a 'tragedy of the commons', we know it for what it really is; a tragedy that occurs when the needs of private holders takes precedence over the needs of those who use the commons; it is a tragedy of privatization and commodification.

The response to this tragedy, enforced on the global south by the World Bank and their ilk, and increasingly coming to invade and dismantle the scant protection of progressivism in the north (all in the name of 'free trade'), is to further privatize what is commonly held; already, they have privatized land, water, fisheries, and even 'genetic information'- seeds. Such privatization serves only to further consolidate wealth into the hands of the capitalist class, to be further mismanaged.

Capitalism mismanages because it and the privatization scheme places the power to make decisions in the hands of a tiny class, disregarding the needs of communities. Consider the suffering of Appalachia: Who decides that it is most 'efficient' to blow up mountains, dump the mud and rock into the valleys, choke the air with carcinogens, and poison the rivers with acid runoff, all to extract coal to power some capitalist's machines in some other place, choking that town's air and poisoning its water, and at every step of the way spewing forth carbon, contributing to the deathly toll of climate change?

It is the capitalist (or, in the modern corporation, the Board elected by the capitalists), safe in his office, away from the poisons he commands- the capitalist who can afford to keep his own home relatively free of pollution, and keep some crude semblance of wilderness alive in his estates for his enjoyment.

The needs of the people of Appalachia do not factor into the mining company's decisions, nor do the needs of the people of Manchuria factor into the decisions of the manufacturing bosses or the State's party bosses- so can the absentee bosses shift the ecological burden to the working classes, and ignore the costs of production, making a false efficiency from willfully blind industrialism. To the people who live and work in Appalachia or Manchuria, however, the pollution of their air and water, the loss of habitat and wildlife, the losses to public health, are all pressing concerns.

Had the workers, living with the consequences of industry, their say, would such degradation be tolerated? Common sense, and the growing alliance of labor with the environmental movement, dictates that it would not, but as long as the decisions are made in the board room, dictating the will of the capitalist class without regard to the consequences suffered by workers and their communities, such degradation continues.

These insanities of capitalism, among others, ensure that any attempt to 'green' the system is doomed. The public can try, as they have and as they should, to introduce public regulation of pollution. But, the hand of the boss class, kept powerful by the labor of the dependant workers, has ways of breaking down, bypassing, and rewriting these regulations. Unopposed by the organized power of the workers, the bosses can make these regulations mean little or nothing, and continue with more or less regular capitalist relationships to the environment. The other action people can take is direct and economic; they can refuse to purchase unsustainable products. This is a popular and welcome strategy, but again, it is not enough- it does not change the fundamental nature of the industry, but only creates a niche market, a sub-section of that industry, still controlled by the capitalists, but selling organic or 'fair trade' (less exploited) goods- often, with the money flowing to exact same corporate despoilers to be reinvested in their deadly industrial processes.

Consumer pressure alone is not enough, because it requires the huge majority of consumers to choose not to support industries that are poisoning people and destroying ecosystems. While it seems obvious that it is no more acceptable to pollute someone's air and water or otherwise destroy their environment than it is to outright assault them, there are enough shortsighted blockheads and scissorbills in the world who don't realize this and will continue to buy whatever good is cheapest in commodity price, regardless of its cost to the world. There is another course of action, an effective and powerful course that addresses the problem directly at its primary source. This is the course of green unionism. Labor addresses the threat to the environment where it is greatest; in the factories, fields, and mines of industry.

A capitalist may work around the other two strategies of environmental defense, and can even recuperate the losses of direct action, but what can they do, when the labor that keeps their industry running, refuses to work until real change is made? Though any union will help to bring the environmental needs of the community into the question of economic decision-making, industrial unionism is especially suited to this job.

An industrial union, such as the IWW, does not believe in shifting the burdens from one group of workers to another, as some business unions do. We don't believe that getting rid of a polluter is progress, if they just move their pollution to a poorer side of town. We don't think that putting solar panels up to power a business is sustainable, if the copper was gotten by ruining someone else's home. We recognize that industrial pesticides hurt not only the workers in the field, but all the workers and communities downstream. Moving towards sustainability means solidarity not only with your own local community, but with people all over the world; this is a value that both bosses and too many business unions lack, but that forms the foundation of industrial unionism- a harm to one, whether through economic or ecological injustice, is a harm to all.

An industrial union is suited to green unionism because it is democratic. As we've already seen, hierarchical power relationships mean that the goals and values of one party take precedence over the values of others. While business unions are certainly better than no union, even they can form a controlling clique, and ignore the needs and desires of the rank and file. Industrial unions like the IWW don't allow this centralization of power.

The IWW structure is radically democratic- each shop, industry, and local is its own center of power, with the IWW general body serving as a coordinator, not a commander, of activities. This structure, whether applied to a union, an activist network (for example, Earth First!, which the IWW has worked with in the past and which uses this grassroots, federative organizational principle), or a society, ensures that people get a voice in what affects them; a central goal of designing an ecologically just society. Finally, industrial unions are key to the defense of the environment in the workplace, because unlike business unions, the IWW and other industrial unions are openly and proudly advocates of economic democracy. Economic democracy is the negation of the capitalist method of organization, and the expansion of those things that make industrial unionism great; it is worker and community control of the factories and fields, the primacy of the people's needs, both for constructed goods and for a healthy world, in the economic process, and the replacement of top-down control that benefits the owners without regard for the workers, with worker's control, which benefits the workers and the community. In an ecologically conscious economic democracy (almost a redundancy), all value is considered; not only the value of commodity goods and stocks to the capitalist, but the very real value of our common resources and the people who depend on them, our children's futures, and habitats and lives of non-human species- values that capitalism, in its commoditization of human and non-human life and devaluing of the wants and needs of the dispossessed, can never realize. Whatever other measures are taken to ensure the continued well-being of our environment, the power of industry will exploit and recklessly plunder the world, unless guided by the hands of all those who share that world, and not a privileged few.

Sustainability requires economic democracy and green unionism, and these demand industrial unionism. The IWW, with its commitment to sustainability and real change, is just the union we need, to make ecological and economic democracy come to life.

The Fine Print I:

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The Fine Print II:

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