Our union was born in July 1905 in Chicago, Illinois as a response to more and more of the economy being controlled by bigger and bigger corporations. In this context, while a few skilled workers enjoyed union protection, the vast majority were insecure, transient, low paid and low skilled, and had no voice.
In the UK today, just over a quarter of all workers – roughly six million people – are in a union. This includes men and women, young and old, migrants, workers of colour, unskilled and service-sector workers; in theory, anyone and everyone. But the devil’s in the detail:
Four million of them are in the public sector. The vast majority are in professional, administrative or skilled roles. They work in government, education, defence, healthcare, energy supply and transportation. Many left University with degrees and are now in the middle-income bracket. They are likely to have permanent contracts with pay progression, pensions, sick pay, above minimum holiday and redundancy terms (though these are massively under attack). It is true that today they are more likely to be women than men, and (just about) more likely to be black or Asian than white. But they are very unlikely to be young or recent immigrants.
Amongst the millions of private service sector workers in the UK, only a tiny minority are unionised. Here, minimum-wage – or less – is the norm and 5 million can’t afford to feed our families. Being largely unskilled and replaceable, often with short-term and ‘zero-hours’ contracts, insecurity is king. Subcontracted and on shifts throughout each of the 168 hours in every week, millions work more than one job just to get by. We rent a room from a private landlord in a house that used to be council owned and affordable. We share with other families and get kicked out at a month’s notice. We claim benefits to supplement our income – if we’re here legally – while our bosses make billions. The ‘management style’ consists of threats, aggression and intimidation while verbal abuse and sexual assault at the hands of customers and managers is commonplace. Half the time we don’t even get paid, and we get sacked with no come back.
In other words, a minority have unions, better conditions and at least the potential for resistance (whether they appreciate that or not). The rest of us have nothing. In other words, we find ourselves in a situation with similarities to that which saw Chicago give birth to the Industrial Workers of the World on June 24th 1905.
At that time just 5% of workers in the USA were unionised. If you were white, male and skilled, you might have been a member of your trade – or ‘craft’ – union. Representing only the men doing a specific job in any given industry, each of these unions “looked out for their own”, leaving everybody else to fend for themselves. They were brought together in the elitist, conservative and pro-capitalist American Federation of Labour. Women, migrants and the millions of labourers and unskilled, itinerant workers weren’t welcome. The very few black workers who were in unions were separated from the white workers by law.
That was until 1905, when the radical Western Federation of Miners gathered 300 socialists, anarchists and other radical trade unionists together in Chicago in what would forever after be known as the First Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Chronology of IWW History
- 1904 – 1911 – From Establishment to the Strike at American Locomotive.
- 1912 – 1915 – The Magonistas to the Murder of Joe Hill.
- 1916 – 1920 – The Everett Massacre to the Palmer Raids.
- 1921 – 1931 – Red Trade Union International to the Boulder Dam Strike.
- 1932 – 1944 – Grey’s Harbor to U.S. Vanadium.
- 1945 – 1971 – Bleak Years for the IWW.
- 1972 – 1977 – Revival and Rejuvenation
- 1978 – 1983 – The Founding of the IOC and its Rank & File Opposition.
- 1984 – 1990 – The People’s Warehouse to Redwood Summer
- 1991 – 1995 – Redwood Summer to Stevenson College
- 1996 – 1997 – From Borders Books to the Neptune Jade.
- 1998 – 1999 – From Applebees to Tosco.
This chronology will be updated as time passes, of course!