Why Direct Action
By M. Jones
The goal of the IWW is to create the “future society in the shell of the old.” It is important we keep this goal in mind as we go about our organizing. This goal helps define how we organize for the daily struggles and it shapes our perspective on future organizing. As IWW's we accept that this goal means we put certain principles forward in our organizing. One of these, Direct Action is the basis of this article.
Direct Action is a principled tactic that will help us build revolutionary industrial unions, because it builds revolutionary industrial unionists. Backed by solid organization it can enforce our demands whatever they may be: better wages, more time for ourselves, subsidized childcare, etc. At the same time it prepares us for larger battles and struggles as it develops us into a collective force. It has the ability to change our conceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Old prejudices, the shit of capitalism, that has kept us divided as workers can get shed. Ways of feeling, isolated, alone, depressed with the weight on you shoulders fall away. This happens because we are involved in action, doing things in a way that is not passive. We are a force with our own agenda and goals.
As the IWW, we emphasize direct action in our organizing. Simply put, direct action is any tactic that addresses an issue directly, that a group of workers themselves control, and that does not depend on a third party. Direct action does not rely on the state through the National Labor Relations Board, legislation, politicians, or bureaucrats. Instead it is based on us acting collectively and directly on an issue. Sometimes it is aimed at the boss or bosses. This is the first thing that comes to most of our minds. This is the classic image of the workers marching out of the factory or sitting in. But it is also simpler actions, refusing to participate in employer meetings unless they are on the terms of the workers. This happened with a group of massage therapists out in Portland recently. Or bringing in the proper safety equipment paid for by the group when the bosses refuses to provide it (as happened recently at a Chicago Starbucks). Sometimes it is aimed at other pieces of the capitalist system. In Portland a social service workplace for victims of sexual or domestic violence was in danger of getting its funding cut by the county. The workers organized, and with a large group of supporters showed up at the county commissioners' meetings demanding the budget not be cut. They had their funding restored because of the action they took together. Another example of direct action is a group of women workers that confronted a sexist co-worker (or co-workers). The target can vary but the method stays the same.
It must be said openly that Direct Action is not about violence or destruction despite what the bosses or the media may say. Anyone who advocates individual violent acts, as “direct action” is sorely misunderstood on it place and purpose and does a disservice to the working class, for whom there is no need for such posturing.
We recognize direct action takes discipline, planning, and follow through. The foundation however is the solidarity that exists among workers in the shop. Here is the basis of the action. We begin at this point and organize the action from there, bringing others in as necessary. Solidarity is how we support each other around an issue, it is a measure of how strongly we as workers feel towards one another and how much we will support each other. Solidarity is developed out of our shared experiences on the job and our common grievances. It is both the foundation of and broadened by Direct Action.
Our organizing around an issue succeeds or fails based on how good of a plan it was and how well it is carried out. To ensure that it is carried out well we assess our situation before hand, keeping in mind our desired outcome and possible responses. As workers we come together and democratically decide what we want and what we are going to do. Outside organizers can help develop a plan and tie it in with larger strategy. But the decision to act and how to act must be carried out by those directly involved. It is important that as many of those impacted are involved in the planning and decision-making. It is in this way we maintain a democratic organization. We also increase our strength as a group by sharing skills, planning together, and testing our abilities. And most importantly we further the solidarity we feel towards each other.
Direct action requires that we overcome the divisions amongst us by deciding on a plan and moving on it. We stop taking complaints to the boss one at a time, hoping for some sympathy or a fair hearing. Instead we list out the problems, our demands to fix them, and through an action confront the boss directly. This challenges us to do things many of us are not used to, things we are discouraged from doing by capitalism. First we think critically about the situation around us. We have to organize beyond ourselves and bring people in. We strategize as a group to ensure our plan is as fool proof as can be. And lastly up for each other and for ourselves.
It is obvious how this differs from the other days at work. Instead of driving in think how miserable to day will be, hoping things will move by quickly, that the speed of work or your numbers of cases to solve won't be too difficult. That the pay will seem worth it, there won't be as much inventory to stock. The boss won't come by and demand that we work overtime. Instead we show up focused, with a plan, a sense of community with those around us. We have a say in our lives on the job and we have power. Organizing puts this into play; direct action takes it to the next step.
This tactic can only be effectively accomplished by those directly involved. It is a key to keeping our organization democratic, making sure those most impacted and with the most to gain or lose are the primary actors in an action. They are not necessarily the only ones with a stake in the action, but they are the most effected. Work should be done to make sure anyone potentially impacted is consulted on the action, especially with large actions (except of course the boss). Everyone involved is accountable to each other during and after the action. This means that if the designated Fellow Worker who is to speak to the boss during the action is unable, someone else steps up, or we have a second speaker appointed. Or if during a slow down action, where we have all decided to work at our own speed the whole day, a fellow worker begins to work faster, we work things out with them. We figure out what is up and work with this person and ensure next time this mistake won't be made. Any mistakes made can be worked out and any problems resolved as a group, sometimes with the aid of external organizers there to walk us through. Here it is clear how this is different than a handful of “organizers” calling the shots.
Direct Action is useful to our organizing because direct action is the only way to continue to build upon our success and to ensure that our gains are not whittled away. Organizing in the IWW is not merely about winning demands. Yes, winning demands, improves our lives as workers on and off the job. We do not lose sight of this, but we recognize it is not an end in itself. If our only goal were to win demands, we would have no reason to be different than the business unions. If this were our goal it would be fine to hire picketers to stand outside to shop, while the workers toil inside. It would be fine to use only “public” pressure to force the boss to sign a contract as some business unions do. But this is not what we want. We want workers and ourselves as workers, to be conscious of themselves and to be organized. This means being active, not passive. This means building up our skills and our confidence. Out of this comes our real strength.
This is why we need not be the largest numerically to have the biggest impact. We, as workers, decide how to take care of an issue: not unaccountable leaders disconnected from the situation, not the state through appointed judges, not the union president and her cronies miles away. We are not passive in this. We are making the moves and the decisions.
We aim to build a new society. Building a new society requires us to change as workers. Collective Action challenges the alienation that breaks us apart and makes us feel like isolated individuals. People do not change when they are spectators who watch someone else get things for them, or are given things to keep quiet. We change when we are acting on something, when we are experiencing things ourselves. Through direct action this is possible. Here we are seeing what is possible, what limits exist, how we can be stronger next time. This happens again and again as we build the One Big Union, until our strength can match that of the bosses and larger things are possible.