Principles of Organization

Below you find an excerpt from One Big Union, the key pamphlet describing the organizing principles and philosophy of the IWW. You can find the complete PDF here.

Union Democracy

The purpose of the IWW is to establish democracy in our everyday life on the job, and in the economy as a whole. Its practical policies are directed toward that end, and are essential to its achievement. They are determined by two basic principles: solidarity, and democracy within the union. It is necessary to avoid any practices that will interfere with the unity of our class, and it is even more necessary to make sure that the union, instead of running its members, is run by them.

To leave democracy out of such an organization as the IWW is building would leave it open to becoming a device for fascism or other authoritarian political groups, and a tremendous handicap to labor. Authoritarian leadership around the world and throughout history found it necessary to herd labor into an organization very much of that sort. The power of One Big Union must be wielded by us, not over us.

As protection against any clique running this union to suit themselves, the following safeguards have been devised:

  1. No officer is elected for more than one year.
  2. No officer may be elected for more than three successive terms.
  3. All officers are elected by referendum, on which all members they represent may vote — all members in job branches for the officers of the industrial union branches that unite them; all members in the industry for industrial union officers; and all members of the IWW for officers of the general organization.
  4. All officers are subject to recall by majority vote.
  5. Election, not appointment, is the uniform policy.

No Dues “Checkoff”

The business methods within the union are further assurance of democracy. “The power of the purse” must be kept in the hands of the members in both the collection of dues and in the control of expenditures.

The IWW does not accept the dues “checkoff” system, where the bosses act as bankers for the union by taking union dues out of the worker’s wages and handing them over to union officials. We believe that the checkoff short circuits direct control between union members and their elected representatives.

It reinforces the idea (which management would like to foster) that union dues are just another unpleasant tax deduction from the paycheck. It makes the union seem more like an outside thing (such as an attorney) that we hire, rather than our own organization that we participate in and control. Furthermore, it involves management in internal union relationships that are none of its business.

If union treasurers receive a check from the company for dues collected by checkoff, they might be more concerned with the goodwill of the company than the goodwill of the members. With that revenue they could hire their friends to control the union meetings, and keep themselves in power running the union as a mere dues-collecting agency in the interests of the company and union officials.

On the other hand, where there is no checkoff, the way dues are paid is a direct indication of the members’ satisfaction (or lack of it) with their representatives. Union officials who don’t want to listen to members, or who don’t want to try to serve their members most often want the dues checkoff. Then, if they do something the membership doesn’t like, they are not faced with lagging dues payments and delinquent members. Direct collection of dues establishes that much more contact between members and officers. For all these reasons the IWW does not accept the checkoff.

Instead, the IWW has devised a simple and convenient system for the collection of dues by delegates on the job — a system which is proof against dishonesty in handling funds and which permits shop committees and job branches to know the union standing of every member on the job. All delegates and officers must make a report to the branch meeting. They have their accounts audited by a committee elected at each meeting. With this practice it is necessary to handle business to the satisfaction of the members.

No assessments can be levied except when approved by a referendum of those who have to pay them.

No Clique Control

These constitutional provisions and business methods to guard union democracy are reinforced by the removal of all motives that could lead any clique to seek control of the union. This is done by these additional safeguards:

1. There can be no financial gain in clique rule because the pay for officers must not exceed the average pay of the workers they represent, and efficient record-keeping and rigidly honest accounting are enforced with monthly as well as annual financial statements, all audited. “General Expense” accounts are forbidden.

2. No powers are given officers except those needed to carry out the instructions of the members. Strikes cannot be called or called off by officers. This can only be done by the members concerned. Settlements can only be negotiated by committees of the workers concerned. Committee members and union officials are not allowed to confer with employers except in the presence of the committee.

3. Political or similar cliques seeking control of the union to subvert its facilities, resources, or reputation to their own ends are prevented by the nonpolitical policies that have been adopted by our ranks to ensure our own unity.

No Politics in This Union

It is sound unionism not to express a preference for one religion or one political party or candidate over another. These are not union questions, and must be settled by each union member according to personal conscience. The union is formed to reach and enforce decisions about industrial questions. Its power to do this can be destroyed by the diversion of its resources to political campaigns.

So that all the workers regardless of their religious or political preference may be united to get every possible benefit out of their job, the IWW must be nonpolitical and nonreligious. It lets its members attend to these matters as they personally see fit — and with the additional social consciousness, regard for their fellows, and general enlightenment that they derive from union activity.

This does not mean that the IWW is indifferent to the great social and economic questions of the day. Quite the contrary. We believe the IWW provides the practical solutions to these questions. When the industry of the world is run by the workers for their own good, we see no chance for the problems of unemployment, war, social conflict, large-scale crime, or any of our serious social problems to continue.

With the sort of organization the IWW is building, labor can exert any pressure required to restrain the antics of politicians and even more constructively accomplish through direct action what we have often failed to do through political lobbying.

Job Action and Legislation

For example, as workers and as members of communities, we want oil storage and chemical plants kept to safe places, away from where we and our fellow workers live. One method is to try to get laws passed, and then try to have them enforced.

Much simpler, much more reliable, and certainly much more helpful in developing our capacity to solve our own problems, would be for us to refuse to build in what we consider unsafe places, and for us to refuse to work in plants that endanger any community. Laws are usually based on actual practice. It is best for labor to concern itself with controlling actual practice; that makes good lawmaking easy and bad lawmaking hard. The lawmakers are mindful of the powerful ones in society.

One Big Union makes labor all powerful. Once labor is properly organized, the lawmakers will be duly mindful of it. If they aren’t, it will not matter, for what happens from then on is what the organized working class decides to make happen. To unite the working class industrially, it is of course necessary to avoid such practices as high union dues, closed books, racial, religious, or political discrimination. What is needed is One Big Union of all workers no matter what their language, what their beliefs, or what the color of their skin may be. In the union all are equal because we are all equally used by the same system. What the majority decides about any industrial question is the decision by which all must abide. For that reason it is out of order to attempt to reach decisions about questions not related to industry.

Efficient Unionism

The principles underlying these policies are those of solidarity and democracy within the union. Another aspect of the same two principles is effectiveness and efficiency. Our effectiveness is achieved by our united strength. It is measured solely by what we can do. Our efficiency is measured by the relation of our gains to the cost of those gains, whether in time, money, trouble, or the other sacrifices that labor must often make. To smash a fly with a sledge hammer is no doubt effective, but it is hardly efficient. We want maximum gains at minimum cost.

That the IWW is efficient is well attested to by the fact that despite its relatively small numbers it has made disproportionate gains for labor. Its efficiency is achieved by its democracy, its rank-and-file control. There is a myth that democracy makes for inefficiency. Union experience disproves that myth.

In the first place, to get the results we want, we have to aim at those results. To let the direction of the union be in other hands than those of the members would be like trying to chop wood with someone else holding the axe handle.

In the second place, the more members have to say about union matters, and the more directly we attend to union business ourselves, the greater is the union’s source of strength. We do not win our fights just by paying dues into a union treasury. Money can only pay for the facilities of the union. What makes the union go is the effort and enthusiasm of its members — something that cannot be bought.

It is this direct participation in the union business, and the system of managing that business by elected union delegates on the job and job committees rather than by full-time officials or business agents, that develops the abilities of the members. It makes the IWW a force with which we can organize our own future.

And third, it is the organized self-reliance or autonomy of the component parts of the IWW that goes with this control, that enables us to handle problems in the most convenient and least costly way. This union is built like the hand, each joint of which can move separately, but all parts of which can be brought instantly into an effective clenched fist.

Direct Action

The direct control of our union business is reflected in the direct action on the job for which the IWW is famous. Many years ago the IWW modernized the west coast lumber industry in the United States and Canada. Our members established the eight-hour day by blowing their own whistle at the end of eight hours and quitting work then instead of carrying on for the additional two or four hours the bosses expected. Some crews were fired, but the next crew hired blew their own whistle too, until the eight-hour day became established practice. (Later a law was passed.)

The old practice had been to sleep in double-deck, muzzle-loading bunks and for workers to carry their own blankets when looking for work. IWW-organized lumberjacks made bonfires of the bunks and the bedding, and told the companies that thereafter if they wanted men they would have to provide decent cots, mattresses, and clean sheets and blankets.

Long strikes may, at times, be unavoidable; but as far as it can the IWW avoids them. We prefer a series of short strikes timed to do the most good; to get the same results or better at less cost to us. Why walk out because the company refuses to get rid of an unsafe foreman? Why not have the workers under him elect one of themselves whose judgment they trust to best direct the work, thus carrying out the instructions of their own instructed delegate rather than the instructions of the company-appointed foreman?

With the backing of the workers on the job this can usually be done. Why walk out because a fellow worker is fired? It costs us nothing and costs the company a lot if we go to work expressing our sorrow for such treatment in the way we work.

The logic of direct action is simple enough. If we stop doing what we are told to do and start doing what we collectively decide to do instead, there isn’t anything much that can stop us. The IWW expects to build a decent world in that simple way.

Briefly, these are some of the policies that the IWW has found best in the wide and varied experience it has had in the struggles of industry since it was started in 1905. Out of the experience of the many good members who have built and maintained the IWW, it is able to offer the working class a rational plan of industrial organization, a set of trustworthy principles, a body of policy and method, of strategy and tactics that assure success. It assures success not only in the ordinary struggle for better wages and working conditions, but also in the struggle to establish a sane social order.

At an IWW-organized textile strike in Lawrence, Mass., some of the women strikers picketed with a banner saying “We want bread and roses too.” When the IWW says it wants more of the good things in life, we’re not just talking about getting the bosses to come up with a bit more cash — we want a better life here and now, the new society in the shell of the old.

What To Do

A sane world run by producers for the common good is an aim that should be achievedand can be achieved. The IWW can build the sort of labor movement to achieve this. There is really only one big problem in the world: a working class too disorganized to act for its own good. The IWW has the solution to that problem. It is a disgrace to be part of the problem; it is an honor to be part of the solution. It is up to you to do your part.

If your job is unorganized, get in touch with the IWW and we will help you and your fellow workers organize. While you are fighting for shorter hours, higher wages, better working conditions, and democratic grievance procedures, you will also have the satisfaction of helping to build the good world and solve the problem of labor.

If you are already a member of another union you can still take your place in the One Big Union movement. Many members of the IWW belong to other unions also. They belong to the IWW because otherwise they would add to the problems of the working class and not to the solution, and they believe the IWW’s approach offers more complete solutions and greater inspiration. And they are among the most militant members of their other unions. The IWW’s concern for solidarity and union democracy is satisfactory guarantee against any fear that their preference for the IWW would lead them to seek control of other unions or otherwise seek to disrupt them.

Of its members the IWW asks that they continue their membership no matter to what job they may go. It asks that they make themselves fully acquainted with its ideas and policies so that they can be even more useful members. It asks that they be able and willing to explain these ideas to other workers, and that they watch for every possible opportunity for this union to grow and to be of more service to their fellow workers on their own and other jobs.