An interview with…a Wobbly

The Heckler continues to find out about local and national campaigns and social-change groups, this time interviewing a member of the Bristol branch of the workers union, the Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies).

Heckler: Could you briefly explain what the Industrial Workers of the World is, what you aim to achieve and how you go about this?

Wow, that is a big question, which could take many a branch meeting to discuss.  The IWW is a workers union, which organises across all trades and industries, and is open to all workers and unemployed people. It is a member-led union, with the ethos of true democracy and solidarity at the heart of it. In my opinion, we are opposed to wage labour, and hope to build a new society in the structure of the old.  As a syndicalist union, we want to take control of the modes of production, and organise ourselves as workers.  We should enjoy the profits of our labour, whilst ensuring that nobody goes without.  It is a completely different way of thinking about how we live and work together.  Profit is a complete irrelevance to us, and we would work for the common good.  To be fair, we are miles away, and our main role at present is organising our class, mainly through workplace organising, fighting for workers rights and education.  One of the major positives of the IWW, is that it is ours as member, and up to us to do the work.  With that responsibility comes ownership, and we would decide collectively as to the best way forward.

Heckler: You say it’s the union for all workers, so it’s not just about factory workers as the name might suggest?

Good point comrade, the name is a bit disceptive.  We were formed in 1905, right in the middle of Fordism.  Most of our class worked in massive factories, or farms.  It was far easier to collectively organise, it could be argued.  Now, we have members in many different occupations, and the IWW, prides itself on helping those who do not normally get trade union support, like sex workers, charity callers, and cleaners.  This also includes those who work cash in hand.

Heckler: How is the IWW different from other mainstream unions?

We are different in many ways, but our organisation does not require paid officials.  As a dual carder (a member of a mainstream trade union) I find trade unions held back by paid officials.  Their interests are differnet from the rank and file members.  Also they “service” the membership.  The IWW encourages the membership to be active.  We all have ownership of our branch.  Also we have officers under instant recall, therefore if they do not work for members interests they can be removed. 

Heckler: Judging by a quick internet search, the IWW has a long and colourful history. Could you explain it’s roots and shed some light on some of the union’s past?

The roots stretch back to the USA.  Personally I am proud of the anarchist roots, some would disagree.  The IWW most recognisable catch phrase, if you like, is ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’  Anyone who was not an employer could join.  This included black people, women and the unemployed.  As distasteful as this is, this was not the case in all trade unions, who at times progressed an open racist or sexist agenda, and membership. The IWW recognised early about the issues of our class, and gender etc are barriers constructed by those who wish to keep us apart.

IWW also celebrate direct action, because it gets the goods.  The strikes that they organised and engaged with were member led, and the violence of the employers was matched.  Also I like the way they engage with issues that might not be seen as main stream trade union issues.  The free speech movement for example.  The IWW in Britain are just about to engage in the ‘right to march’ struggle in Scotland.  This is not work based, or determined by a single trade.  But if we cannot voice our opinion or march in solidarity, we are truly fucked.

IWW rally in New York, 1914

Heckler: How active is the IWW in this country, and what campaigns is the union involved in?

The IWW is growing daily, as people turn away for the main stream TU’s and political parties, who have let us down time and time again.  We support any campaign the membership builds.  A recent victory was the John Lewis cleaners in London.  These were low paid, without proper contractual status, many did not speak English.  Many main stream trade unions would not approach this group.  Not only did the IWW secure better terms and conditions, but we have influenced the whole attitude towards this work group, and many other cleaners are getting active, and standing up for themselves.  In Bristol, the IWW are active in the anti-cuts campaign, and have just supported the national Pizza Hut campaign, but we need focus.  The Pizza Hut campaign is another benefit of the IWW. This dispute started in Sheffield.  Within a month restaurants in a number of cities were picketed, and Sheffield members got their pay increase.  It was a freezing snowy winter day; and every time the picket was breeched, we got a whiff of pizza up our hungry noses.  But nobady said that the class struggle was easy.

IWW Cleaners’ Branch members on a recent strike at John Lewis’ store at Oxford Street, London

Heckler: Last but not least, who should join the IWW and why? (And if you want to, how do you go about it?)

All workers should join the IWW, and shout ‘an injury to one, is an injury to all.’  We need to start to thinking differently about our relationship with capitalism, and our communities.  This system has had it.  The Con-Dem government are in the process of dismantling the welfare state.  This will effect everyone.  Also we have the worst employment rights in Europe, and they are getting worse.  We create all the wealth, food, services etc etc.  We need to start organising how we do this, and for what purpose.  None of us need to be working 30+ hours a week.  That is stupid, we have far better things to be doing.  But this change is not going to happen in the very near future, and will take struggle.

However, whilst I have been in the IWW I have met some of the best comrades you could hope for.  They give me hope, a solid network of people willing to stand up for each other and organise for themselves in the workplace and beyond, and their comradeship makes me happy.  This is important, and is a start for building a new society in the shell of the old.

If you want to join, please see the links below.  If you live in or around Bristol, pop into the Hydra Bookshop at 34a Old Market.  We also have regular meetings at the shop.  If you look hard enough, you will find us.

For more information or to join the IWW you can visit:

Bristol IWW blog :

UK IWW website:

International IWW website :


*The Heckler previously interviewed a Hunt Saboteur in our ‘An interview with…’ series.

**The views represented in this interview are those of the individual interviewed and not necessarily those of IWW as a whole.

May Day! International Workers’ Day is on the horizon

A fortnight today will see scores of marches, demonstrations, and other protest actions take place across the world, in recognition of May Day, or International Workers’ Day. Too few people know why May Day became International Workers’ Day and why we should still commemorate it.

It  began over a century ago when the American Federation of Labour adopted a historic resolution which asserted that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1st, 1886.” It is widely seen as the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, when Chicago police fired on workers during a general strike for the eight hour workday, killing several demonstrators and resulting in the deaths of several police officers, largely from friendly fire. To save going into too much length and detail here, you can read the full story of it’s history in this great piece on the Libcom website.

Marchers assemble for speeches at Hereford May Day Rally - 2011

Last year saw a May Day anti-cuts march through high town, with members of Hereford Solidarity League joining with members of the Anarchist Federation, Herefordshire Green Party and others. After taking a detour to give Vodafone a quick passing picket, the march ended at the Shire Hall, where a number of speeches were made on the history of May Day and the importance of working together to stop the ConDem cuts and defend our services. You can read our full report of the march here.

This year the ‘Bristol 1st of May Group’ are taking the lead, planning a number of protest actions to take place in Bristol. They have released a call-out to groups and individuals across the country to mark International Workers’ Day in their own way.

“Reclaim The Beach – May Day 2012
A National Call For Action

This is a national call-out for a week of anti-capitalist action, events and celebration throughout the UK in the first week of May 2012 to show resistance to capitalism and remember all those workers who lost their lives for a better life for us all.

Beneath the road, the banks, the shopping malls and prisons lies the Beach,
Behind the politicians, the bureaucrats, the cops AND the robbers lies Freedom,
Outside wage and debt slavery, false democracy, capitalism and state control lies our Future.

This call is for the parents who can’t buy the shopping they need,
For the migrant workers who wont take their bosses abuse,
For the people of colour sick of institutionalised racism,
For the disabled people marginalised and ignored,
For the elderly who can’t afford to pay their bills,
For the women exploited and objectified,
For the students in perpetual debt,
For all the workers and the unemployed; the downtrodden, and the alienated.

We call now for expression of justifiable rage.
We call to the unionised to remember your proud history of militant labour,
We call to the students and workers in struggle,
To all anti-capitalists, anarchists, communists, rebels, and revolutionaries.
We call for direct action, subversion and creativity,
noise, colour, courage and diversity of tactics.
Celebrate International Workers Day with Love and With Rage.

In the spirit of all who fought and died for the emancipation of the working class.
This is a call to reclaim the streets, the fields, the forests and the beaches.
To break from control, to liberate and to occupy EVERYTHING.
Together, we can achieve the impossible.

Bristol 1st of May Group”

You can view their website.

Another ‘day of action’ against workfare

Saturday 31st March was called as the ‘M31 European Day of Action Against Capitalism,’ which included protests across the continent and a general strike in Spain.

Closer to home, a second ‘national day of action against Workfare’ was called, with over 20 protests being held in towns and cities across the country.

Workfare means unemployed people being forced to do unpaid work for their benefits. Tens of thousands of people are being forced into unpaid work,household name firms are profiting from free labour and disabled people face unlimited unpaid work or cuts in benefit. Workfare began under Labour with the New Deal in 1998, which became the Flexible New Deal in 2009. It is now being expanded by the Conservative-Liberal government under a number of different schemes including: ‘Work Experience’, ‘Mandatory Work Activity’, ‘the Community Action Programme’, ‘Sector Based Work Academies’, and ‘the Work Programme’.

Protests and pickets took place in Brighton, Bristol, Bournemouth, Edinburgh, Kilburn, Glasgow, Halifax, Hastings, Huddersfield, Inverness, Lincoln, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Northampton, Stroud, Swindon, Truro, Wakefield and York.

Here are a few selected pictures of protests from around the country-






-You can see more about the protests on Solidarity Federation website

-For more info about workfare visit Boycott Workfare

Let’s celebrate a real jubilee

As municipal authorities desperately cast around for ways of celebrating the Queen’s diamond jubilee, let’s remember what a jubilee is meant to be.

Many ancient civilizations, aware of the burden that permanent debt could impose on a society, celebrated a special year (in Egypt the 30th year of a pharaoh’s reign) when debts were relieved and slaves freed. The Hebrews developed this into a year when the land was to be rested and the return of all property to its original owners of their heirs.

“The land is not to be sold for ever, for the land is mine, for you are strangers, my tenant farmers.” Leviticus 25:23

The Christian church took this even further. In 1300 Pope Boniface VIII declared a holy year, when sins would be forgiven and debts annulled for all who undertook a pilgrimage to Rome.

In modern times the Jubilee Debt Coalition called for the unpayable debts of the poorest countries to be cancelled.

Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman, one of the few to see the debt crisis coming, has argued that the only way to prevent the world suffering a twenty year depression would be for all international debt to be cancelled.

However, it is going to be difficult to persuade the rest of the world that, just because her Gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has been sitting on the throne for 60 years, all debt everywhere should be cancelled. Just cancelling debt in the UK will achieve little, although it would solve my problem of how to pay for Christmas 2010.

Instead I propose the more modest solution of abolishing slavery in this country.

Illegal immigrants perform the work traditionally done by slaves, the unpleasant things that the indigenous population no longer wants to do: care work, cleaning, vegetable and fruit picking. Being illegal they cost us dear. In the London Review of Books immigration expert Jeremy Harding quoted a study from the National Audit Office estimating that it costs £28k to remove a family of failed asylum seekers so that the bill for deporting all unauthorised migrants and their dependants could be as high as £8 billion and, at current deportation levels, would take between 15 to 30 years to achieve as well as causing crisis in the industries who depend on their labour.

In 2009 a report commissioned by the Mayor of London and carried out by the LSE suggested that an amnesty for irregular immigrants could produce £846m extra a year in tax and insurance revenues.

So let’s get back to basics. By all means plant a tree for the Queen’s jubilee if that’s what you want or swell with pride as a Herefordshire made barge carries Her Maj down the Thames. But also let’s have a real jubilee and free the slaves that are amongst us.

David Phelps

Managing down the pensions struggle

On Monday, the National Executive Committee of the Public and Commercial Services union voted not to call a national strike on 28 March. This, despite a ballot that specifically named that date and endless rhetoric around “M28,” naturally left many feeling deflated. But the consequences of this decision are far broader than that.
Before I go any further, I’d like to lay my cards on the table. This won’t be a secret to regular readers, but I’m a member of PCS and a lay rep in my office. I do a low paid clerical job in the civil service and I’ve absolutely busted my balls organising around the pensions issue, often despite a significant clique of reps in my branch whose ambitions don’t tally up with members’ interests. In other words, I am not writing this as an outsider observing the struggle, but as an active participant in it.
Returning to the main issue of March 28, the PCS decision was informed by the fact that “the NUT executive had voted not to proceed with the one day national strike on March 28 as previously discussed.” The teachers union are striking on the day, but only in London. This “may provide a platform for a decision on national action at the end of April,” but until then PCS “must now work tirelessly to build the alliance of unions willing to take the serious national action we need to defend pensions.”

All well and good, but there are too many ifs and maybes. The PCS executive insists that it is looking at a “clear and unambiguous strategy” of “joint national strike action with other unions in the civil service and education sectors; joint national, regional and local protests; lobbying of Ministers, MPs and other politicians; and coordinated targeted industrial action in some sectors.” However, when grilled by lay reps at a pensions briefing in the North West ahead of the recent ballot, PCS Vice President Paula Brown was forced to admit that no details of this had been discussed and the old favourite of a one day strike was still the only concrete action PCS had ready.

On top of such a lacking and reductive strategy, even if the union lives up to its own hype, there’s the delay. Joint action was first mooted for February. Then 1 March. Then 15 March. Finally, 28 March seemed to be concrete. Now it’s the end of April. Maybe. In the meantime, members are seeing the government press ahead with its attacks whilst the unions offer next to no opposition. Because three days of strike action in a little over a year, even if they’re really big, are never going to defeat austerity.

Don’t believe me? Ask the Greeks.

The answer to this point is always one about “the will of the membership” and how we “must take the members with us”. In other words, the nonsense of a radical or militant officialdom held back by conservative or apathetic members. But that idea is demonstrably untrue.

I’m a member myself. I work in an office with 1,000 other members and I speak to them – both individually and in union meeting settings. I know that the appetite for a real fight is there, because the people who declare that we need more than a one day strike, like going out for a week, aren’t socialists or anarchists. The people who actively started talking about wildcat action at members meetings aren’t far left militants waiting for revolution. They’re not even reps. They’re ordinary workers and union members who can see themselves getting screwed over, who want to do something about it, and who more often than not are sold only passivity by the trade union leadership.

You can see it in the wider working class, too. The trade union movement lumbers on, bolstered somewhat by the escalating struggle. But any pretence of militancy is thrown into stark contrast by the students in 2010, by UK Uncut, by the Sparks, and most recently by the incredible anti-workfare movement. A growing minority of people – often new to struggle – are punching above their weight and giving the working class what they haven’t seen in a long while: victories. The unions continue to punch below their weight and to win only the concessions that take the most moderate out of the game.

It is in this context that the PCS position needs to be seen. Sure, by the standards of the official union movement as a whole, they’re “militant”. But this isn’t the level of militancy that can win struggles – indeed, it can’t be by the nature of the trade union structures. Rather, in most government departments and nationally PCS members have been sold out on various issues by the Left Unity leadership. I’ve documented the sickness absence and privatisation disputes in the Revenue & Customs group, for example, whilst nationally the union already conceded a two-tier pension scheme several years back under a Labour government. Far from being a “fighting left leadership” (is there such a beast?) they are simply more hard-nosed than some of their compatriots within the same structures and facing the same interests and pressures.

What we are seeing with the decision to postpone the strike is not exactly a “sell out,” as some have termed it. More, it is the latest increment in a gradual winding down of the struggle.

When it began, the PCS ballot mandate was for jobs and pay as well as pensions, with “fair pensions for all” being the answer to the attempt to play up a public/private divide. Over time, pay and jobs disappeared from the rhetoric. In the recent ballot, we weren’t even fighting for fair pensions for all, just “concessions.” Now, the date that is actually mentioned on the ballot paper is set to simply pass us by.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is undoubtedly that the capitulation of Unison et al knocked the wind out of a lot of people’s sails. As a result, this will have dampened the rank-and-file pressure that forced strikes over the issue in the first place, giving the leadership some breathing room. Add to this that the thunder and enthusiasm has been stolen by the more vibrant and exciting struggles led on the ground, like workfare and the Sparks as cited above. All of which will have meant that N30 was a peak in this fight that has now passed.

But this was not an unpredictable occurrence. The fact that Unison dragged its heels so long told everyone that they would always be the most reticent to strike and the first to capitulate. That could have been planned for. And if action is only effective if “coordinated,” in a “coalition,” where was this sectional and targeted action going to come from? The unions and the left have been good at picking up buzz words to sound militant, but it is clear that they have no appetite to actually fight and win.

If more coordinated action does take place, it will only be after a hard fought battle within the unions. Even then, it will be after the first pension contribution increases have been imposed and enthusiasm will dampen further. We then face the prospect of a “deal” that can be sold as a win but isn’t, somewhere down the line, and an open door to privatisation, job losses and attacks on workers’ conditions across the board. In short, not only a defeat in this dispute, but a crushing defeat for the working class over a whole raft of issues relating to austerity.

There is no easy answer to this, of course. A rank-and-file movement like the Sparks simply doesn’t exist amongst public sector workers, and whatever strategies we come up with will not be implemented by the leadership. Though of course we should try to build that rank-and-file movement, and re-apply the pressure to force the union tops that very short distance they will actually budge to the left. The fight goes ever on.

Whatever happens, this incident serves as yet another example of why talk of “left leadership” is a red herring. The spectrum of left to right is very narrow, and on opposite ends of it the union structure still has its own interests as the keeper of industrial peace. Putting all our energy into propping up one end of it for supposedly being “left” or “more militant” only takes us away from what we really need to start scoring victories – the confidence to take control of our own struggles at a rank-and-file level.

Republished from Truth, Reason & Liberty