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Direct Unionism: A Different Approach to Union Activity

By Allan Hansen - Industrial Worker, August 31, 2023

It is no secret that the strength of labor unions in America has been waning in recent years. Union representation in the labor market has hit an all-time low, labor laws are more and more being drafted in favor of employers rather than workers, and employer-driven anti-union activity has all led to our unions growing weaker and unable to stand up for workers’ rights in the workplace. Despite these weaknesses, most people support unions in principle, and so we must discuss how to advance the labor movement in the face of these challenges. One such tool workers have at their disposal for such action is Direct Unionism. 

When most people discuss unionism they tend to think about it in a very contractual and bureaucratic way, and this is largely how unions operate today. Union activity is focused on the election of union officials and the passing of contracts. This idea of unionism faces several limitations. For starters, with a focus on collective bargaining, contract change can often be a lengthy process, and change can only be implemented when the time comes for a contract negotiation, which usually lasts for several years, and since the bosses are aware of when the contract ends and when negotiations are to happen they know when to expect an uptick in union organizing and activity, thus the workers’ bargaining power is diminished as a result of this predictability. If an issue of mistreatment arrives but no such policy is outlined in the contract, the union usually can’t do much to address the issue or seek restitution from the employer. The best the union can do in such cases is to fight for it during the next contract negotiation. The importance of the election of union officials also presents some potential problems in the advancement of union causes. While there are many honest and hard working people involved in labor unions, it must be addressed that our union leaders are not infallible. Many union leaders make a staggering amount of money more than the workers they represent. While this is not to say that union leaders do not do good work, the further that union officers get away from the workers they represent, the more they run the risk of being alienated from the realities that these workers face. It is also much easier for employers to put anti-union pressure on a handful of individuals, than an entire workforce. 

An example of such pitfalls can be seen in my own experience in the workplace. I work in a manufacturing plant under a typical union with representatives and a contract. Our previous contracts drew a line between the workers through a tier system where employees that were hired prior to a certain date are “Tier 1,” while those hired after are “Tier 2,” with the Tier 1 employees being paid more than the employees that fell under Tier 2, which was the vast majority of employees. This creates an immediate problem, if a union’s strength comes from the unity of its members, then by dividing the workers the company has already dealt a massive blow to employee solidarity. Furthermore, all the union representatives are Tier 1 employees. At the beginning of the negotiations the bargaining committee had no interest in abolishing the tier system, when pressed on this matter during union meetings, which are also primarily attended by Tier 1’s, the secretary of the union defended this lack of action by stating “in a few years us Tier 1’s will be retired and then you can do what you will.” This presents a clear conflict of interests, the bargaining committee wanted to keep the tier system in place since they benefited from it, at the detriment to the union as a whole. And since the union leadership does very little in encouraging participation from union members, in an effort to keep their power, the majority of the Tier 2 employees were unaware of the committee’s stance on the tier system until the first contract vote, which was overwhelmingly voted against until the committee and the company relented and abolished the tier system in the new contract, albeit they abolished it in such a way that the pay gap would decrease each year until finally evening out by the final year of the current contract. All of this effort to abolish a policy that never should have been accepted in the first place, and it still takes the course of the entire contract to actually end, all at the behest of union leadership.

Direct Unionism takes a different approach to unionism, focusing instead on direct action being done by workers to implement change. Instead of relying on contracts that are negotiated between employers and union representatives, Direct Unionism calls for workers to do the work of making change on their own. If workers are able to organize themselves, without concern with being seen as an official union by the employer, workers can mobilize themselves to take direct action towards their employers and fight for the necessary change to improve their working conditions. 

Perhaps the most prominent example of direct action can be seen in the strike. When workers refuse to work the bosses feel it in the one place that matters most to them, their bottom line. As much as they might try to deny it, employers are well aware that it is the labor of their employees that generate wealth for the business, which is why employers fight so ardently to prevent workers from going on strike. We can see this happening in real time with the current SAG-AFTRA strike. Writers and actors in the entertainment industry have been striking against the production companies that need their work to thrive, over several grievances ranging from unfair pay to streaming service residuals, to the role of artificial intelligence in productions. One such studio fighting the strike was Universal Pictures. Right before the workers were set to strike during a particularly hot week,the studio trimmed the trees the picketers were walking underneath for shade, in an attempt to dissuade workers from picketing in such harsh conditions. Strikes have long been the most effective tool in the workers’ arsenal in implementing change, so it’s clear why bosses fight so hard to discourage strikes. It is for this reason that workers need to begin to look at this type of direct action as a legitimate method of union action, regardless of contracts or representative permission. 

Of course direct action does not always need to be a strike, and in many instances there may be little reason for workers to escalate their action to such a high-risk endeavor. Any time workers get together and make their demands known is, in essence, direct action. Sometimes a large group of workers simply speaking to the boss about some desired change could be enough, as previously mentioned, employers tend to want to avoid strikes, so if they see a high amount of workers banding together over some issue could be sufficient enough threat. 

One example is the “slowdown,” where workers do not technically go on strike, but instead fulfill their job at a slower rate, resulting in less work being done. In 1899, dock workers in Glasgow Scotland did just this. The workers had just returned to work after they unsuccessfully striked for a ten percent pay increase. Instead of listening to the demands of the workers, the bosses brought in scabs from the agricultural sector. These agricultural workers were not as efficient as the unionized dock workers, so when the workers came back they worked as slow as the agricultural workers and after a few days the bosses relented and granted the ten percent raise. A mental hospital in New England was able to get a fired union member rehired, when many workers planned on calling in sick at the same time, the supervisor got the hint and rehired the worker in a tactic that has been referred to as a “Sick-in”. In New York City I.W.W. Restaurant workers were able to have their demands met after an unsuccessful strike; upon returning to work by charging customers less than what they ordered and giving them more food than usual, resulting in profit loss for the bosses. In all of these examples the workers did not go on strike, but collectively they took action that negatively impacted the companies they worked for and when faced with a loss of profit, they had no choice but to meet the demands of the workers.

Direct Unionism calls on workers to take a more active role in the labor movement. Rather than rely on contracts or representatives to speak for them, Direct Unionism calls on the workers of the world to take matters into their own hands and secure the changes they seek in the workplace for themselves. The strength of unions has never come from heavily litigated contract agreements, or in elections that decide which members get to have a seat at the negotiating table. The strength of unions comes from the solidarity of its members, and when workers band together for any cause in any form of action, it makes little difference whether they have hats or badges, their collective voice will be heard.

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.

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