Paid Staff in the Union – A Discussion Document
FWs, we were disappointed to note that the proposal to phase in part-time paid administrative staff to fulfil roles currently staffed by volunteers was almost unanimously rejected by branch delegates at the recent annual conference. We acknowledge in retrospect that this reaction could have been expected given that, in spite of some very considered discussion between the national and branch officers, this is an issue that really hasn’t been fully broached with the union membership at large. Some discussion occurred at the strategy conference between small sections of the union membership but even then this was largely lost within a raft of other proposals and debates. This was a failing on our part. It is, however, our feeling that the issues that prompt the proposals are still pressing and increasingly critical at a time of union growth. We feel that there is a need to answer many of the misconceptions we believe drove the opposition to these proposals. We also want to put our own case forward more clearly in terms of the benefits, practicalities as well as the points of political principle for both paid administrative staff and paid organisers and how they inform our future vision of the union.
N.B. We understand that there are some clear practical limitations to financing these initiatives and it is not our belief that these proposals should come either at the expense of devoting resources to ongoing organising drives or before the union can both afford it and has put sufficient measures in place to conform to employment law. Our case here, as was with the original proposals, concerns the implementation of paid staff as and when the union can afford them and whether these things should be rejected or supported on principle. We also believe that these debates cannot be dismissed as purely hypothetical as they inform the goals to which the union aspires, things that are of ongoing concern for all members.
De-bunking the Myths
First, we believe it is necessary to de-bunk some of the myths that are associated with the opposition to paid staff in the union. The following represent some of the most common misconceptions we have heard repeated on this issue:
1. “The IWW doesn’t use paid staff”
Yes it does. In fact there are highly prescriptive sections of both the Constitution and General By-laws designed to regulate the union’s use of paid staff.
General Headquarters (GHQ) has found that, much like us, the administrative work associated with the oversight of union activities is too high of a workload to expect volunteers alone to complete it. GHQ, based in Chicago, currently has 4 paid workers. The General Secretary-Treasurer (GST), who is paid $30,600 per year, the Industrial Worker editor, who is paid $300 per Issue, the Literature Dept. coordinator and an office admin. Their combined wages comes to $20,000 per year. The GST and IW editor are elected roles. The GST carries out the day to day administration of the union, and is responsible for hiring the Literature dept. coordinator and any other staff at GHQ. All of these staff are directly accountable to the General Executive Board (GEB), this is where the pay rate is set and reporting is done. The GST is given a large amount of free will as far as focus and job role go, but is responsible to the GEB who represent members’ interests. All paid workers and GEB members are elected on a yearly basis by the entire global membership.
In respect to organisers the IWW is prohibited from hiring any permanent paid organising staff and the IWW should also “seek to avoid using paid organising staff as much as possible” (Article VIII, “Speakers and Organisers”). These are two points (as will be made clearer below) we do not have any disagreement with. Nonetheless, the point is clear that for temporary and fixed terms paid organisers are permitted to be staffed for specific campaigns.
This is the contemporary picture.
Historically the IWW has also utilised both paid organising and paid administrative staff. The Agricultural Workers Organisation (AWO), for example, utilised a roving field delegate system where delegates were compensated by a commission for every new member. The relevance of this particular example to our contemporary practice can be left aside for the purposes of this argument, but it should be noted that it certainly wasn’t an unsuccessful practice with AWO membership growing to over a hundred thousand within two years of its establishment.
This is also not a picture exclusive to the IWW. SAC, our sister union in Sweden, both has and continues to pay administrative staff and organisers. There has long been repeated a myth that the anarcho-syndicalist Spanish union the CNT only had one paid official. In fact it paid its national secretary, the clerical staff of the national committee, the editor and staff of the union’s daily papers and the secretary of the industrial union for commercial fishing.
The IWW utilises has and continues to use paid staff and in a way that is consistent with comparable unions.
2. “won’t we just be paying for a bunch of bureaucrats?”
In the trade union movement officials of almost all levels, from organisers, to officers, to regional secretaries, are selected by interview, not by election. They are selected by the standard of a professional union man (and we say man as it is mostly men who are selected for these roles).
These people are employed by the union to negotiate on behalf of members. It is because of this that the IWW objects to bureaucrats. These paid officials take power away from the collective decision making power of workers and they do this in the name of advancing their careers as a union professionals.
Contrary to this, in line with the constitution and true to the spirit of its traditions, any IWW paid staff are stripped of any decision making power. Paid staff are servants of the union, aiding and supporting organising through administrative or other practical support.
3. “the system we have at the moment is working fine”
No it isn’t. National administrative and organisational roles are consistently left vacant. For many years we did not have a national secretary, and at this year’s conference we almost finished up without a treasurer. The time required to fulfil some of the more central administrative roles are close to that of a part-time job. This is not inclusive (as we outline below) and hugely restricts the pool of volunteers that can be drawn from. As the IWW, hopefully, grows and takes on more campaigns we can only expect this workload to increase and the vacancies to rise.
De-centralising roles is equally not an option. The institutions that we deal with (like the certification office) and the legislation we must conform to (like the need to protect members information) means we have to adopt a specific organisational structure. De-centralisation also involves introducing new problems to navigate such as cross-national co-ordination and a clear delegation of roles and accountability. It would also involve having to introduce more volunteers, not less, and to take more Wobs away from organising (see below). We are already short of volunteers for these roles, increasing the number we need is not the solution.
4. “but wont’ this make ERA a boss? Aren’t we opposed to bosses?”
Our opposition is to profit and the means by which profit is generated – by unpaid labour performed by workers for the gain of bosses. This is because of the ownership of the means of production by the employing class. Our union neither controls the means of production nor does it generate profit from the activities of its members. We don’t aim to profit from our union staff either but to meet their subsistence needs with voluntarily contributed union dues. That is not to say they shouldn’t also be protected as employees.
We live under the realities of capitalism and that means people need to pay bills, pay rent and eat. As an act of solidarity with those making greater sacrifices for our union we should be willing to offer financial support. The tasks currently carried out by volunteers build the union, and carry out its day to day functions. These are things from which we all gain. Administrators and organisers are giving up their time, and exposing themselves in a way that can damage their own job prospects, and because of this they should be supported.
Making Our Case
So, why do we believe accepting the proposals for paid staff to be so important at this time? In itself this idea is not going to cause drastic changes in the way that the union functions and operates. It will make the lives of a few people easier, open up the positions to a wider pool of volunteers (letting the more experienced Wobs get on with the more essential work of organising) and gift organisers with greater time and resources. These basic arguments are outlined in more detail below. We believe that these arguments make a good case in themselves.
Why these are important is its part within a broader vision of how we see the union answering the challenges of capitalist crisis and the collapse of organised labour at this time. It’s about moving towards a union that has the capacity to make tangible and long-term impacts within workplaces and working class neighbourhoods. That means taking ourselves seriously but also building that capacity within our union. We see paid staff as a part of building that capacity.
Administrative jobs are a boring but a necessary part of the union’s functioning. They keep us certified, ensure that members are paying their dues, they make sure that branches are accountable and reporting amongst a whole host of other things. Some of these jobs in the IWW require so much work that people cannot be expected to do it on top of studying or working. That restricts those who are able to do them to those who are able to live on part-time pay, are unemployed, studying with low contact-time, retired or able to devote all their free time to the post. It would not be realistic to expect people with dependents or with higher economic commitments to take on these roles. This makes them exclusive by nature. These roles are increasingly not open to your average worker. This is something that should be deeply troubling to a union for all workers.
2. Building an organising union with capacity
The standard trajectory for many long-term and committed Wobs within the European Regional Administration (ERA) is to evolve from being activists “on the ground” to become more deeply involved with the central activities of the union. This usually means taking people away (or splitting time between) their organising activity and devoting their energies instead to the wider, national administrative work. This is entirely the wrong direction for a union aiming to build its capacity to organise campaigns. It’s also often really arduous, de-motivating work and de-mobilises good organisers!
Organisers also often find themselves struggling on both fronts as they try to juggle the time and resources required to kick-start an ambitious campaign while also facing the economic pressure from their workplace that a campaign aims to tackle in the first place. The union should be a supportive structure in this regard and an organising stipend is a reasonable course of action for well planned campaigns where a volunteer structure is simply untenable.
3. A stable and tangible union
Volunteer posts are, by definition, based on the capacity to volunteer free time. But free time is limited under capitalism and we have to accept this as a basic operating reality. People’s circumstances change. The over-riding principle of our union should be to cultivate volunteer activists and organisers. Yet we should also acknowledge the benefits of a solid and stable core of essential activity that keeps the structure of the union intact. Paid administrative posts offer this security.
We ask that branch officers please highlight this document in their delegate meetings in the interest of the fullest debate on this subject.
For the One Big Union.
FW C. Wellbrook x360929
FW D. Pike x369002