Militant Agreements: how do we negotiate?

As IWW organisers we have a good understanding of the kind of structures and strategies that help to support economic direct action and class based solidarity. However as the union expands in size and scope and we start to organise more successful campaigns it’s important to think through the next steps for union activity. This is particularly in terms of what kind of relationship a growing revolutionary industrial union aims to establish with employers. While the preamble makes clear that “the employing class and the working class have nothing in common” we nonetheless have to accept that until workers as a class are organised well enough to reorganise the economy that we will have to lay out some principles and strategies that govern how we aim to interact with employers and the best means of getting better terms and conditions for our fellow workers.

Union actions at the moment typically follow the model of case-work driven campaigns where the measure of victory and defeat are pretty clear-cut. In the case of wage theft or wrongful dismissal, for example, the fellow worker either gets their job back or they don’t, their wages back or not or maybe some kind of concession in between (such as a compensation pay out). Where contact with employers is happening here it’s driven by actions arising from the campaign. The boss has an interest in not sitting down with the union as an equal partner and will often employ third parties, such as lawyers, to do this for them or aim to deal with the worker on an individual basis. But what do we do when the work of union committees put us into a position where we can start bargaining with employers? What are our operating principles and our preferred approaches? Even in the case of single actions, thinking through approaches to negotiation can help improve the outcomes of ongoing activity and make sure we are well prepared at all stages of the campaign.


There is a popular misconception that the IWW historically did not negotiate contracts with employers. The origin of this is likely in the fact that union contracts did not become recognised in law until the National Labour Relations Act of 1937, well after the union’s foundation. As Fred Thompson makes clear in his history of the IWW, the union originally put no restrictions on contracts except that they required authorisation from the General Executive Board. A tradition of “no contracts with specified duration” was carried forward by the Western Federation of Miners but the union generally left it up to its industrial sections to establish their own rules on this issue. A proposal in 1946 ended the requirements for Executive Board approval, ruled out dues check-off and the obligation for union members to do work in aid of breaking a strike. Finally a more recent change made in 2013 explicitly ruled out “no strike” agreements. These are rarer in the UK but are essentially a clause in a contract that bans strike action for the duration of its agreement, a power that historically the IWW heavily criticised AFL-CIO unions for bargaining away. It is clear that in spite of a difference in approaches the IWW has been consistent in its understanding that agreements with employers form part of the union’s work.

In spite of this the IWW should aim to promote a qualitatively different model of negotiation and agreement than that practised by the trade unions. Agreements in the trade unions are largely done by professional, paid staffers with negotiations made behind closed doors and frequently without consultation with the wider membership. From a revolutionary unionist perspective our agreements should aim to be democratic, participatory, prioritise class interest over social partnership and wherever possible be done under our own terms. Negotiations should be made by delegates under a strict mandate who are recallable to a general assembly of the workforce and who can only authorise agreements by majority vote. The terms agreed should also aim to strengthen solidarity between different sections of the workforce. Another common feature of trade union contracts being that they often protect those most stable and well-paid sections of the workforce at the expense of the precarious and poorly paid. IWW negotiations should likewise not lock us into agreements that limit our future bargaining power.

Within the principles outlined above there are a number of approaches that an organiser can pursue. Below I give a brief overview of these with an outline of the pros and cons of each. This is not designed to be an exhaustive list and I am sure there are approaches that exist as a combination of the below or are not outlined. These are given in the spirit of further debate and discussion on this issue and the aim of collectively refining our organising method.


A/ Fight Until We Win

This is close to the approach that we currently use with many of our actions. As a fighting union we should be aiming to always walk away with what we want and anything short of that ultimately puts us in a poorer position for future struggles. In essence, we don’t negotiate; we just keep escalating and staging further actions until an agreement is made that matches our demands to the letter.

Example: A worker has been fired and wages stolen as a result of union agitation. The branch conducts a highly active and public campaign involving workers inside and outside the workplace to secure the re-hire of the dismissed worker with full back pay and the return of the stolen wages.

Pros: As the basis of the opening phase of an organising campaign this approach communicates a very clear message to the boss about the seriousness of what the union wants. It also reinforces the activity that is most important for agreements to be successful. It’s not about the piece of paper that the boss may or may not sign but a shift in the balance of power in the workplace. Giving the boss any room to manoeuvre in terms of concessions on union demands is a concession on who is in control of the process and potentially setting yourself up to fail in the future.

Cons: This is a high stakes, high risk strategy. You need to be sure that the workforce is not only fully supportive of the campaign goals (and won’t accept anything less) but they are also willing to participate in a protracted campaign that could mean considerable hardship. When the measure of victory is so clear-cut, so is the measure of defeat. Organisers will also need to reflect on how to move forward when escalation becomes more difficult or the boss takes on a siege mentality.

B/ Partial Victory – consolidate and upscale

Campaigns put forward a mixture of short, medium and long-term demands all of which cause the employer varying degrees of “economic harm”. A campaign then aims to push hardest on those issues which it considers to be the easiest concession for the employer to make. When an agreement is made on these it is followed by a period of consolidation and preparation for up-scaling to the next campaign goal.

Example: Organisers in a chain of pubs campaign and agitate around the issue of the late scheduling and availability of workplace rotas. This leads to a concession by managers to release rotas earlier and with greater sensitivity to workers needs. Upon securing this victory the organisers escalate their demands to the issue of reducing the number of workers on zero-hour contracts across a set of key work sites. Their long-term plan is to build a living wage campaign across the entire chain.

Pros: This is a more developmental approach to union organising. It is difficult to build the organisational clout needed for an all or nothing campaign without workmates seeing the union in action. A series of small victories can help grow the union as well as act as a testing ground for new strategies and tactics.

Cons: Once you are out and public you are in a state of open conflict with the employer, is it worth entering these kinds of conditions on the pretext of more minor workplace issues? Small demands are potentially less persuasive to workmates and less demonstrative of the transformative potential of the union. How organisers operate during periods of consolidation will have to be carefully handled by lead organisers as these are typically the points when employers will aim to single out and minimise the influence of “ring leaders”.

C/ Recognition as Victory

This means focusing the campaign less on bread and butter issues and more on the status of the union branch itself. This could take the form of legal recognition or a position of de facto recognition due to strength of organisation in that workplace. The union doesn’t accept any form of concession until the employer is prepared to consult the union on workplace issues.

Example: An employer makes a change to the contracted conditions of workers. The union should measure its success on the degree to which it and its lead organisers are seen to need to be consulted on and, ideally, sanction any new changes.

Pros: In order to grow the union on an industrial basis we need to be thinking more long-term. Campaigns help to mobilise workers for a short periods of time but too often they fizzle out or leave little organisational legacy. Workers need strong and permanent union branches fighting on a day-to-day basis.

Cons: A potentially very legalistic route that ties us into legislation that may limit our future capacity to effectively fight for our fellow workers. Some employers would rather close up shop (or move elsewhere) than sit down and negotiate with a union. A recognition agreement is only as good as the actions that are prepared to back it up. This kind of bargaining is based on an understanding of social partnership between trade unions and employers, the IWW fits poorly into this model.

D/ Workers Control

The union doesn’t ask for concessions from the employer it simply takes them.

Example: If workers are being offered limited breaks on a shift they simply organise a break rota themselves or if work pace is too fast they organise a mass slow down of the work process.

Pros: It’s in the spirit of the IWW vision – a producer’s commonwealth run by the principle of economic democracy. It has a direct and immediate beneficial impact on the conditions of fellow workers. It shifts the balance of power in the workplace away from the boss and towards the workforce.

Cons: It’s a very high risk strategy that potentially leaves workers open to sackings and other legal charges. It’s only really applicable to certain workplace issues and exposes the limits to workplace (as opposed to economic) control. Wage rates, for example, are necessarily controlled by employers in a capitalist economy and there’s no way to organise around this without a mass mobilisation of workers.

4 thoughts on “Militant Agreements: how do we negotiate?

  1. This article raises good issues and lays out different campaign types in a useful way. On a historical note the author is wrong about the IWW and contracts. Pre-1930s there was outright hostility to contracts. IWW writings are filled with this and you don’t see any real discussion till the 1930s when the organization was severely struggling. They did adopt contracts after the NLRA but after some real debate and the outcome wasn’t clearly a step forward. Today is a different debate now that world wide a state-mediated labor regime has become victorious and that’s the norm. In 2013 in the Industrial Worker there was a debate around this that is up on libcom for those who are interested. On the historical tip check out the following pamphlet for a traditional IWW position pre-NLRA.


  2. A bit of clarification…

    It’s not a misconception that the IWW ‘in its heyday’ did not sign contracts. For the most part, they did not. This was not because contracts were not recognized by law. Although it is true that labor law as we know it in the United States today didn’t really become codified and united until the 1930s, plenty of unions signed contracts. The IWW was against them for political reasons.

    There was a de facto ban on them until the late 1930s, which was around the time the Metal & Machinery Workers Industrial Union # 440 in Cleveland started signing contracts. This was a very controversial move. Shortly after, the IWW changed its rules to allow Industrial Unions to sign contracts if they wanted to. There were stipulations added to that in the 1940s and 2010s.


  3. Maurice Zeitlin and Judith Stepan-Norris have argued since the 90’s about the relationship between union democracy, socialist/communist union leadership, and the quality of contracts won in the U.S. Their findings corroborate basic wobbly principles; democratic unions tolerant of factions (not quite the I.W.W. at times) and without extremely powerful executives tend to promote class solidarity and support among membership. Democratic unions tend to yield more pro-labor contracts when compared with oligarchic unions. And those unions which tended to be democratic, tended to be ‘red’ unions.

    By pro-labor contract, they mean those without no-strike clauses, management rights clauses or complex drawn out grievance procedures (on this last bit they argue that grievance procedures with less steps, and that include a union rep or steward from square one are more pro-union/labor. IWW’s should fight for those which don’t proscribe shop-floor action at all).

    The IWW has no current organizing model. The OT program is not a model. (I havent been to a 102, but if it is indeed “the committee in action” and that action doesn’t involve basic membership stabilization, then it’s still not a model, or an effective one anyway). Many in the IWW who are anti-contractual, often criticize business unions. Many of those criticisms are on point. But many of them miss the mark, and even the correct ones come off as childish and pedantic when we can’t do what many of the business unions can; defend workers from firings for union activity and maintain gains or presence for more than a year.

    I think we could take a cue from Zeitlin and Stepan-Norris and outline a concrete vision of “IWW Organizing” that builds on the committee building tools we already have. I’m thinking this should take the form of ‘ideal-contracts’ or rights-based gains at work that encroach on boss power, rather than general palliatives (though there is a power aspect there). For example, we could embrace the above principles regarding specific provisions (Zeitlin and Stepan-Norris), and as the OP argues, flat out reject any job-tiering for same work (temps, etc.).

    Establishing some sort of general vision would run counter to the OT-101’s current ideology which suggests that demands arise ‘spontaneously from the floor’; in reality they are largely determined by working conditions and are fairly predictable given any particular industry under a particular legal regime. This might seem ‘paternalistic’ but it’s just empirical/materialist analysis. To be clear, this isn’t a justification to ignore the particular grievances of workers, or restrict their input; I agree with the article that members should be the center of bargaining and determine relative priority of demands in negotiations. It’s just that the idea of ‘spontaneously generated demands of workers’ as more authentic or whatever is often used to justify not having some sort of plan or program altogether which is a mistake.


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