Solidarity Unionism and Dual Carding: A Primer

[This piece was originally written for Regeneration Magazine.]

There’s a dissonance at the heart of the labor movement. On the one hand, contemporary labor unions were built on the back of militant worker struggle. For example, the massive strikes of the 1930s built the backbone of the present-day AFL-CIO. Any particular long-standing union, if you go far enough back in its history, you’ll find strikes that made the union. On the other hand, the labor movement of the present has been in retreat for decades, in large part aided by the passivity and cowardice of union officials and staff who have preferred to make concessionary deals and shy away from direct confrontation.

This dissonance expresses itself most when workers in a unionized workplace want to fight for better treatment and pay but the union leadership itself is either urging compromise with employers or is just ignoring the workers altogether. What are workers in these settings supposed to do? Some fellow workers and organizers of mine have developed the idea of a spectrum of organizing models for how to relate to your mainstream union, which I’m borrowing and putting my own spin on here.

With left groups on the rise across the country, there’s a hunger for ideas about how to relate our new formations to existing ones. While the dichotomy of working within the system versus working outside of it is a helpful starting point, as an ending point it erases an array of strategic options that fall in between. With the assumed goal of doing grassroots, action-oriented workplace organizing, this piece draws out a range of organizing models of how to relate to mainstream unions and factors that might help you choose between them. This article will provide information to help choose the organizing model that best facilitates the kind of workplace organizing given the particular conditions.

The Ends of the Spectrum: Business Unionism vs. Solidarity Unionism

On the two ends of the spectrum of organizing models lie the opposing extremes of ways to relate to your labor union: business unionism and solidarity unionism.

Business unionism is characterized by its focus on collective bargaining agreements, or labor contracts, and relying on government agencies to protect workers while de-emphasizing worker activity or only using it as a last resort. I use the term ‘business unionism’ to refer to this particularly passive kind of unionism, and I use the term ‘mainstream union’ to refer to larger unions in general that don’t explicitly endorse leftist politics and which may utilize the business unionism model to more or lesser degrees. On the whole, business unionism represents the kind of conciliatory, impersonal, bureaucratic idea of unions that has increasingly plagued the labor movement over the last 50 years and has contributed greatly to the decline of worker power in the US.

Business unionism leans on union representatives to file formal grievances to enforce the labor contract and to sit across the table from employers during negotiations to try to get a better contract. These aspects of BU are called workplace contractualism because of the primacy given to the contract. In return for dues, workers are given basic protections and a slightly better wage and benefits package relative to non-unionized workers. This aspect is often called service unionism because unions are seen merely as a collection of externally provided services that you pay dues for. Union officials advocate for workers in their own bargaining unit because that’s where dues come from while often deprioritizing relations with other workers or unions in the workplace. This is called craft unionism because workers are sliced up into different unions by job class.

Union officials strive for labor peace between employees and employers to maintain the status quo, to maintain their own positions, and to keep dues money flowing. Because of these institutional pressures, union officials are often hostile to worker action, especially when it’s not directed through traditional channels.

Business unions have very little presence in the workplace other than the occasional steward, and most of the activity of the union happens in executive board meetings and at pre-scripted monthly meetings at the union hall. Even when business unions do go on strike, the strike vote happens outside the workplace, and is orchestrated by outside organizers, and there’s not a sense of collective worker power on the job itself that can contest the power of the boss on the shop floor. The relationship between the workers and the union is one that happens almost entirely outside of the workplace itself.

In contrast, solidarity unionism focuses on workers using direct action to win better working conditions and pay. The union is a vehicle for workers themselves to advance their interests through grassroots organizing and militant action. The union is the workers themselves and not some external bureaucracy tasked with legally enforcing contract clauses.

Formal contracts are de-emphasized and often avoided altogether in favor of enforcing worker concerns through direct pressure on employers. The main tactic of workers is withholding their labor to stop production until demands are met, and this can take the form of a strike, a work slow-down, a sick-out, work-to-rule, and so on. A range of other tactics are also used, like worker petitions, marches on the boss, workers collectively implementing their own policies at work or ignoring official policies, pickets, and so on.

Formal worker organization still exists, but it’s run directly by the workersby workers themselves and not by paid officials. Because direct worker power is prioritized over the financial and bureaucratic maintenance of particular craft unions, workers in different job classes are incentivized to collaborate in taking action. This is called industrial unionism because of its focus on building unions that contain all workers in an industry under the same organizational roof. The rejection of labor peace is based in the belief that conflict is inherent in workplaces between workers and employers, and that it’s the workers’ task to organize and not just sit around between contract negotiations.

A central tenet of solidarity unionism is its focus on the workplace itself as the site of struggle. It’s the relationships of solidarity between workers on the job that gives them the power to collectively stand up to the boss or walk out on strike. This requires worker-organizers to get to know their direct coworkers at and outside of work, discuss grievances that are rooted in the workplace itself, develop action-focused solutions to grievances that challenge the boss’s control of the workplace, and discuss with coworkers the political and economic causes of workplace issues. This is in sharp contrast to business unionism where the workplace presence amounts to a steward who takes on a few bureaucratic tasks and is a mere point of contact for union matters. Since disrupting work at the point of production is the worker’s most potent weapon, unions that abandon the workplace shoot themselves in the foot.

Business Unionism Solidarity Unionism
What Keeping the status quo but wanting workers to get treated fairly Building worker power to win immediate gains on the way towards long-term worker control
How Contract negotiations and grievance procedures Direct action, often in the form of withholding labor to disrupt production
Why Capitalism is good but just needs some checks and balances. Capitalism disempowers and exploits all workers and needs to be overturned.
Who Focus on outside professionals (staff organizers, lawyers, negotiators, administrators) working within the system, privileging the concerns of workers in their union over other workers in the workplace Focus on workers themselves doing the work of the union without having to jump through legal hoops, aims to include all workers regardless of job class to maximize pressure on the employer
Where The negotiation room, government offices of the National Labor Relations Board, union hall The workplace, where the worker spends their time and where production happens
When Mostly when contracts expire and a new one is needed Whenever workers need to take action
Labor strife Avoid unless absolutely necessary, prefers labor peace Class struggle
Relationship with employer Friendly, professional Antagonistic

Solidarity unionism can be used in a more pure and direct way in workplaces that aren’t already represented by mainstream unions. The workers union Stardust Family United at a popular diner in Times Square is perhaps the largest and most successful solidarity union in the US today.

In workplaces where mainstream unions do exist, the implementation of solidarity unionist principles is more complicated. You’re not just fighting against your boss, but you have to contend with an official union that might be alternately hostile or friendly to you depending on the situation. This article explores this more complicated scenario.

Labor Law and Models of Unionism

Labor law provides a specific legal framework for engaging in unionism based in legal contracts. It is not mandated that unions and workers use these labor laws, but rather the legal framework provides a channel through which unionism can be pursued if workers so choose. Solidarity unionism generally eschews the labor law-approach to labor organizing, and business unionism relies exclusively on it. In between these two poles are many options for blending labor law with non-labor law approaches. While labor law has a well-earned reputation for not being the most fascinating dimension of workplace organizing, how you decide to relate to it has profound consequences for what kind of organizing model you end up using.

The central tenets of business unionism that relies on labor law are 1) the union becoming recognized by the state as the sole bargaining agent through a majority vote election of workers in a given bargaining unit, 2) unions negotiating labor contracts with employers that serve as legally binding documents, 3) unions appealing to government agencies and arbitrators to enforce labor contracts with employers, 4) unions having specific and constrained procedures for taking disruptive action, such as votes by the executive board and then the membership of a union local and only in between contracts, 5) and unions being able to forcibly collect dues from all workers in the bargaining unit in return for the services provided. A benefit of using the legal framework for unionism is that the state regulates relations between unions and employers, which can be used to protect workers but also to subdue them.

Some limitations of the legal contractual approach is that when and what kind of action workers are allowed to take can be very restricted. 99% of mainstream collective bargaining agreements contain “no strike” clauses that legally forbid the union from engaging in the disruption of normal business for the duration of a contract. Workers can be fired and disciplined for taking action in violation of the contract, and union officials can be fined large amounts or even put in prison for advocating or supporting action in violation of the contract. Union officials then have financial and legal incentives for actually suppressing worker action whenever a contract is in place. For those who see worker action as the locus of all worker power, agreeing to a no-strike clause in your labor contract is like wearing a straight-jacket into a boxing ring. Worker action only becomes legal after the contract expires and before a new one is negotiated and ratified, while worker grievances that demand action don’t always fit neatly into these timelines. Business unionism channels worker action into the legal realm of courts, arbitration, and government agencies.

Solidarity unionism typically avoids the legal framework of labor contracts and legal action. There’s nothing strictly illegal about taking this approach, it’s just a choice to not use laws surrounding labor relations. When you avoid using those laws because of their limitations, you aren’t breaking them but you also aren’t then offered some of those laws’ advantages and protections.

What this looks like in practice is that solidarity unionists don’t seek authorization to be a sole bargaining representative of workers in a workplace and often avoid using government-enforced contracts to consolidate and enforce gains. There is some security in contract-based organizing knowing that what you win in a contract can be backed up by the state, but on the flip side, employers break contracts all the time either because the penalties are light, because the state does not always decide in favor of workers, and because bosses can easily get away with breaking the contract in small (and big) ways when there’s not an organized presence of workers on the job. The solidarity union perspective holds that working conditions and wages are a direct function of worker power and that the formalities of labor contracts don’t offer as much protection as they are purported to and often lull workers into a false sense of security.

While business unionism and solidarity unionism both present opposite approaches of how to relate to labor law, the circumstances workers find themselves in often lead to situations where a mix of legal and non-legal approaches are available. The kind of organizing model you choose is as much a choice of how to relate to your mainstream union as it is of how to relate to labor law in general.

A Spectrum of Organizing Models

In surveying the different possible organizing approaches, I’ll start with those that are structurally closer to business unionism and proceed to those that are closer to pure solidarity unionism. It will become obvious that many of these different models have many overlapping features. Despite my bias against business unionism as an idealized type, I recognize that the same critiques of business unionism don’t apply straightforwardly to any model that makes use of the structures of mainstream unions. I think any of these models may be strategic and preferable depending on the circumstances.

Also, in each of these examples, I’m assuming that the choice of model has as its end goal the advancing of grassroots, militant organizing. For the sake of brevity, each of the organizing models are merely summarized here, and I include some further reading suggestions at the end.

Militant Mainstream Unionism

The approach of many leftist worker-organizers is to take the legal and organizational frame of the business union and use it for more worker-based, militant, action-oriented purposes. There are a handful, certainly a minority of all mainstream unions, that use this approach to actually fight and win better conditions for workers.

The most prominent theorist and practitioner of this approach today might be Jane McAlevey, who presents her approach in her book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (summarized and discussed in this book review). While SEIU nationally belongs squarely in the business union model, outliers exist, and local chapter SEIU 1199 New England exemplifies militant mainstream unionism and was where McAlevey learned her trade by organizing nursing home staff.

As McAlevey argues, mainstream unions should be constantly organizing the unorganized, finding and developing worker-leaders, building up worker power through gradually escalating actions, and preparing to strike at every contract negotiation period. Workers in 1199 have among the highest wages for their job class in the country, and workplaces where workers have won first contracts through 1199 strikes have seen large gains.

Militant mainstream unionism takes a grassroots organizing and militant action approach to workplace contractualism. There’s a focus on both actions and contracts, both worker leaders and outside union staff organizers.

The strengths of militant mainstream unionism in general are 1) a track record of applying massive pressure through large strikes and winning improvements in conditions and wages, 2) working within the legal framework of labor relations feels more secure and is easier for many workers to wrap their heads around, 3) while agitating and striking under any model is risky for workers, using the legal approach provides slightly more legal protections. Limitations of this approach are 1) relying on forces beyond the workers themselves in the form of staff organizers creates power dynamics and hierarchies, no matter how well-executed and well-intentioned, 2) the focus on the legal approach to worker action binds you more fully to the constraints of labor law, 3) this model is still often confined to craft union divides among classes of workers.

Caucus Electoralism

Building left caucuses in unions is perhaps the most widely used strategy of left labor organizers across the country. A caucus is just a sub-organization of workers within a union who want to push a specific agenda. For caucus electoralism the strategy is to run campaigns for elected union leadership positions in order to turn the union into the kind of fighting force described above as militant mainstream unionism.

The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, or CORE, of the Chicago Teachers Union is perhaps the most dramatic success story of this model from recent years. CORE won a solid majority of the leadership positions of their union in 2010, started planning for a strike on day 1, and then in 2012 pulled off one of the most dramatic and (mostly) successful strikes in the US up to that point since the beginning of the century. Teachers in LA used a similar playbook in the lead up and execution of their big strike this year.

Some differences between caucus electoralism (CE) and militant mainstream unionism (MMU) is that CE often has more of a grassroots orientation to it when it’s done successfully. Instead of being as heavily staff driven by outside organizers, CORE leadership and organizers were almost entirely homegrown from their bargaining unit. But the end result of CE and MMU done right is similar: organizing the largely unorganized mass of workers, building up leaders, and then leading militant strikes.

Many of the same strengths and limitations of MMU noted above also apply here. The additional strengths of caucus electoralism are 1) with strong leaders in top positions you can use the apparatus and resources of the mainstream unions to build powerful leaders and actions, 2) it being less dependent on staff organizers makes it more democratic than MMU in its decision-making, leadership accountability, and leadership-development. A limitation of this approach beyond what’s noted above about MMU is 1) electoral campaigns for union officer positions can be a distraction from concretely addressing workplace issues, and if lost, there’s little in the way of a consolation prize, 2) electoralism often incentivizes shallow relationships based on getting workers to vote instead of the deeper relationships and trust needed to take action and go on strike.

Caucus Grassroots Organizing

Union caucuses aren’t restricted to seeking victory in union leadership elections. A caucus in a union can use its access to union structures and resources to organize coworkers without necessarily having an electoral focus. This could look like groups of workers organizing under the banner of a caucus within the union but without the official support of union leadership or staff.

In some ways this can certainly blend together with caucus electoralism. The question for those interested in a caucus approach is whether they focus their efforts on organizing exclusively, on organizing first and winning leadership positions later, or on winning elections first and only making an organizing effort after the leadership of the union is secured. Here again there’s a spectrum of options depending on how resources are shifted between electoral campaigns and direct action campaigns and at one point in the caucus’ existence.

Nonetheless, a grassroots organizing approach can be taken by a caucus without explicit electoral goals. The strengths of organizing as a caucus are 1) by using your status as members of the union, you have access to some union resources (trainings, office use, potential access to some funds, the union name) though not necessarily the full access that would come with winning the majority of the executive board seats of a union, 2) avoids the traps of electoralism noted above, 3) by being separate from union officials, this model might not be as tightly bound to labor law restrictions. The limitations of this approach are 1) you might find yourself in conflict with union leadership and have to spend time organizing against them instead of against bosses, 2) some of the legal and contract limitations noted above also apply here, 3) you don’t have the institutional power as a caucus without leadership positions to really steer the union as a whole.

Hybrid Solidarity Union and Mainstream Union

Any type of unionism that doesn’t use just the mainstream union structure must make use of some other organizational structure. Caucuses within unions are one such approach.

Another approach is to build independent unions entirely outside of and parallel to the mainstream union apparatus in your workplace. Above I defined solidarity unionism, and a solidarity union itself is any union organization that’s separate from the mainstream union structure and that practices solidarity unionism. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is an explicitly anti-capitalist union that’s been the flagbearer of solidarity unionism in the US in recent decades. An exciting recent development with the rise of the left in general in the US and with leftists being more willing to push organizing strategies that exist outside of mainstream institutions is that other organizations, like the Marxist Center, are also now pushing a solidarity unionism approach to labor organizing.

Using a solidarity union is called “dual carding” because, at least in the old days when physical union membership cards were more common, it meant you had membership cards from two separate unions. Some organizational features of a typical solidarity union include that decisions are made from the bottom-up, paid staff are rarely if ever used (especially not in the way mainstream unions use them), and the union is not defined using the blueprint of traditional labor law. Rather workers create their own organizational structures (like meetings, roles, trainings, etc…) and take action for themselves outside of the workplace contractualism framework.

In a workplace setting where a mainstream union exists, one approach is to use elements of both the solidarity union and the mainstream union in your organizing, which I call a hybrid model. I’ll describe a workplace I’m familiar with but is not my own. The workers have a workplace organizing committee that is formally made up of stewards of the mainstream union. Some of the stewards are IWW members and some are not, though even most of the non-IWW members have taken IWW trainings. This workplace committee has taken autonomous action to put more pressure on both the employer and the mainstream union to get a better contract for the workers, but the workplace committee didn’t do so through the official channels of the mainstream union. The committee has also taken action and won demands on issues not covered in the contract, including workplace cleanliness and the unfair firings of probationary employees.

The strengths of this hybrid approach are 1) you have access to various types of resources (e.g. funding, meeting spaces, trainings, etc…) that both unions provide, 2) while a solidarity union might seem too radical and foreign to some, working simultaneously within the mainstream union gives an air of legitimacy and familiarity that can be helpful in organizing, and 3) by using the mainstream union you might have more protection from firings and retaliation than if you were working entirely apart from it. The limitations of this hybrid approach are 1) having to navigate and maintain two different sets of organization structures and networks, 2) paying dues to two unions, 3) you may have to spend time mediating and resolving conflict that arises between the two unions, 4) associations with the mainstream union actually might give some coworkers a bad impression of the workplace committee if they are critical of the mainstream union’s practices and policies, 5) you might be put in situations where you can’t take a purer solidarity unionism approach, which in turn makes it hard to build the solidarity union as its own entity while working with the mainstream union.

Independent Solidarity Union

When there is a mainstream union present in the workplace you can still build up an entirely independent solidarity union and apply solidarity union ideas in much the same way as when there’s not a mainstream union present. You can agitate coworkers about workplace grievances, build up a workplace committee, work together to come up with solutions based in collective action, have your own meetings and trainings, and so on. The focus on relationships and direct action over bureaucratic and contractual channels are the distinguishing features of this kind of union.

In many workplaces the mainstream union is so inactive and the bureaucracy so rigid that creating your own independent union is not only strategic but even just easier than trying to revive and retool the existing union. Moreover, if the goal is to build worker power in the workplace, going through a caucus, officer elections, or any other channel of the mainstream union can just be extra steps when your coworkers who you aim to form relationships and take action with are right beside you every day.

Yet, some might balk at the idea of sidestepping the mainstream union altogether. Don’t they have all the resources, the authority, and the expertise? In a certain sense they do, but the kind of resources, authority, and expertise they have is most often the kind that maintains business unionism. When it comes to actually building up networks of solidarity and taking action to advance worker demands, union officials are often useless and instead try to redirect effort back into bureaucratic dead ends.

If business unionism is so toxic, you might think it’s important to vote out the conservative leadership that keeps things that way. It might not be a bad idea, but it’s important to remember that who holds formal leadership positions is a lot less important than if workers have organizing committees capable of taking action on the job. Conservative union leaders and employers can be pressured into conceding to demands by large numbers of workers disrupting production, but radical union leaders can do almost nothing without an organized membership. The independent solidarity union model goes all in on grassroots worker power and bypasses entirely attempting to win mainstream union leadership positions.

The strengths of the independent solidarity union approach are 1) you have the freedom to make your own decisions and take action when and how you want, 2) you’re free from the baggage of being associated with a sluggish and unresponsive mainstream union, 3) you’re not restrained by many of the legal confines of operating through workplace contractualism. Some of the limitations are 1) building up your own solidarity union from scratch in a workplace can take more work, 2) there’s a higher risk of your committee not having the full support of the mainstream union and its legal protections if your committee is targeted for retaliation, 3) a fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar for coworkers who are totally new to solidarity unionism, 4) it’s easier to be red-baited and third-partied (“they’re just outside agitators” or “they’re not a ‘real’ union”) by the bosses, 5) you might lack access to resources that the mainstream union might otherwise provide.

Factors that Affect Your Choice of Model

The Political Context of the Mainstream Union

Among the most crucial factors influencing what kind of organizing model you adopt in your already unionized workplace are the politics and approach of the existing mainstream union. If your mainstream union is already using a militant mainstream unionism strategy and is successfully leading strikes and raising wages and improving working conditions, it probably makes little sense to try to build up a parallel organization that would have many of the same tactics and goals. In that case, working within the mainstream union and trying to alter the politics or the model from the inside can make the most sense.

However, if the union at your workplace uses a strict business unionism approach, is largely inactive in everyday workplace affairs, and is even buddy-buddy with the company, this likely skews your preferable approach more towards the hybrid or independent solidarity union.

But let’s say your mainstream union is only partly characterized by business unionism, and they also have some good politics and organizing and a relatively engaged membership. In this case, taking an approach nearer the middle of the spectrum may be the most practical. If there’s a foundation of some good organizing already in place, starting there and trying to improve it through a caucus or hybrid approach could be the most efficient way to build worker power.

The Political Context of Your Own Beliefs

The politics you hold are also a big factor in choosing between models. While all the models described above have been and are today being used by various socialists, your interpretation of socialism could nudge you more towards some organizing models than others.

Some socialists like to work exclusively through existing mainstream institutions to push for left politics. Most prominently, there are socialists and progressives who advocate working through the Democratic Party in order to push it left rather than through an already existing or new leftist political party. A similar logic can be applied by those who want to take the existing big unions and push them to the left and make them more militant.

Some socialists, often of a more anarchist flavor, tend to prefer building and using organizations outside of mainstream institutions. The IWW is an example of an explicitly radical labor union that is independent of mainstream union or non-profit funding. The implicit strategy with these autonomous institutions is that by building them we create a labor left directly.

Your views on solidarity unionism in particular may be influenced by your views of the state. Some socialists see the state as not necessarily or essentially bad. They believe that if the state were taken over by socialists through elections then the state could be used for socialist causes. Political views favorable to using the state as a tool for change are likely to be more comfortable with using the legal framework around labor contracts as cornerstones of an organizing strategy as exemplified in militant mainstream unionism.

Those who see the state as a fundamentally repressive institution are likely to be more friendly to a kind of solidarity unionism that eschews legal frameworks for worker protections and action. These kind of anti-state socialists believe that even when socialists do win control of the government through elections they are bound to not live up to socialist principles because the state itself is inherently authoritarian and anti-democratic. Likewise, this kind of politics sees labor law as fundamentally repressive and a tool of the state to channel class struggle into bureaucratic quagmires that are more designed to maintain labor peace than empower workers. To avoid these trappings, some workers may prefer solidarity unions.

And yet, these nuanced political differences can be overstated as well. For example, many non-anarchists may prefer solidarity unionism and many anarchists may see working within the big labor unions as strategic. Many of the pros and cons of these organizing models noted above have purely practical consequences apart from their coloring by larger political ideologies. Our politics shouldn’t be used to tie us down to rigid formulas but to inform our choices in complex environments.

Timing Context

If you’re starting your organizing from scratch by yourself, you have more leeway to define the model. As more people get involved with your organizing, you build them into the model that you’ve been using. However, if you start organizing in your workplace in a context in which there’s already autonomous worker action happening or in which there are other groupings of workers organizing formally or informally, then the choice of model might involve discussions among a group of the currently active workers. Or maybe the already organizing workers have chosen their model and it’s up to you to join them or chart a separate course.

Your relationship with your mainstream union might change over time. If your committee is using a caucus grassroots organizing model, but then a conservative leadership is elected to head the mainstream union, maybe your caucus would disaffiliate and become independent of the mainstream union. Or, if your independent solidarity union becomes so prominent in your workplace, at a certain point it just might make sense to decertify the mainstream union from representing the workers at all.

Conclusion

Leftists and organizers who find themselves in a workplace with an existing union face a complex decision about what kind of organizing model to use. The choice of model is not so simple as being determined by any one piece of context discussed above. Rather, a range of models can be evaluated across a range of factors when selecting the best option. Lazily using whatever structure came before or blindly copying some other union’s structure is unlikely to meet your needs. Just as creativity is important in drawing up effective tactics and strategy, so is it essential in drawing up the organizing model that will best advance your goals.

In my own organizing committee, we have a city-wide IWW committee of workers organizing in an already heavily unionized industry, and the committee is made up of workers who are each trying to build organizing committees in their workplace. At the city level the committee is 100% an independent solidarity union via the IWW, but the relationships between committee members and the mainstream union can differ at the workplace level. One workplace has a hybrid model, but another might have an independent solidarity union model. The choice of model might vary across the different levels you’re organizing across.

My own views lean hard in the direction of the independent solidarity union end of the spectrum because of the direct democratic control it gives workers and because of the total focus on workplace power and action. But I also know that my own organizing context favors that as well and I don’t want to minimize other conditions that might lead other organizers to make use of models on other parts of the spectrum. I’m personally aware of IWW members in different workplaces making use of all of the above models, and maybe their choice of model in each case is the best for their situation.

However, I think many socialist organizers mistakenly shy away from the solidarity unionism part of the spectrum because of a lack of experience with and confidence in that model in the face of a more traditional framework that’s already well established. Building your own independent or hybrid solidarity union is undoubtedly difficult in an already unionized workplace, and there are not as many other recent examples to help guide you, but I think it’s a model with tremendous potential and that offers unique advantages for building a revolutionary labor movement.

When CIO head John Lewis was asked why he lets communist organizers on staff in his unions, he said, “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” As radical unionism takes shape across the US, we have to be ever vigilant about not falling into the same trap that the CIO communists did. We must not only build up workers to have real power in their workplaces but also build up the left to have real power in the labor movement. The spectrum of organizing models described above is one set of tools that can help us navigate mainstream unions. In the context of dual carding, building “a new world in the shell of the old” takes on an additional meaning.


Further Reading:

The Sick-Out: Education Workers take Direct Action (2019). Retrieved from http://organizing.work/2019/01/the-sick-out-education-workers-take-direct-action/.

This is a narrative account of sick-outs that were lead by a hybrid union at a few schools in protest of low pay, lack of respect, and insufficient staffing. It describes some of the complexities of the relationships between a solidarity union, the mainstream union, the rank-and-file, and the employer. It’s also an example of how all of these dynamics don’t necessarily imply confusion and apathy on behalf of workers but can be just as ripe a situation as any other when conditions are bad and organizers are prepared to push for direct action.

Bradbury, A., Brenner, M., Brown, J., Slaughter, J., Winslow, S. (2014). How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers. Detroit, MI: Labor Notes

This book looks at how the Core of Rank-and-File Educators organized first to take over leadership in the Chicago Teachers Union and then lead the largest teacher strike in decades in 2012. It’s an in-depth examination of the politics, strategy, and most of all the impressive logistics of organizing a strike in a district with 700 separate school buildings.

M., M. (2019). How West Virginia teachers defied the state–and their unions. Retrieved from http://organizing.work/2019/04/how-west-virginia-teachers-defied-the-state-and-their-unions/.

In this article, West Virginia teacher organizer discusses the ongoing teacher struggle in his state as well as the formation of a statewide caucus of teachers who want some separation from the mainstream unions in the state. The caucus is an example of the caucus grassroots organizing model described above.

McAlevey, J. (2016). No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Jane McAlevey presents a compelling case for labor organizing based in workers getting organized and going on strike that above I call Mainstream Militant Unionism. At the same time, much of the theory and organizing under the banner concept of solidarity unionism is an attempt to look beyond the legal confines of mainstream unionism that McAlevey still subscribes to.

Walter, N. (2018). On Dual-Carding (Or how revolutionaries should approach mainstream unions). Retrieved from http://organizing.work/2018/10/on-dual-carding/. 

This is an interview with and IWW member about dual carding from someone who spent years organizing within the already unionized Canadian Post office. He discusses how building a shop floor committee differs from ways that union members go about building up mainstream unions.

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