Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Politics Behind the London IWW Split

The cleaners won at John Lewis, but what does their future hold?
There can be no doubt that the gains achieved by the London cleaners branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) have - together with those won by the Sparks rank-and-file electricians - have been a beacon of light in a year of otherwise deepening austerity gloom. But in mid-August, the branch announced it was breaking away from the IWW, to relaunch under the long-forgotten name of the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB). Initial statements from both sides hinted at little more than personality clashes, but I can now reveal the political schism which has fed into this split.

As many will know, the IWW is an international, grassroots-controlled organisation aiming for 'one big union' of all workers, which will - so the theory goes - be able to abolish the wage system. Whereas corporate unions have well-heeled bureaucracies which negotiate with the bosses and eventually sell out their memberships, the IWW operate on the basis of recallable delegates, and all decisions are taken by the membership as a whole. The Wobblies - as they are often known for reasons lost in the mists of time - have an extremely colourful history, and at their 1920s peak could boast 100,000 members. Although many members identify as anarchists, this is not a condition of membership.

Nowadays the membership figures are far smaller, but the successes of the London cleaners were beginning to demonstrate the potential of rank-and-file organising to a new generation. As Chris Ford's IWGB (re)founding statement declared with justifiable pride:
"Over the last year, starting with the wildcat actions at Guildhall in August 2011 up to the seminal strikes of cleaners at John Lewis – the IWW Cleaning & Allied Industries London Branch have co-ordinated with bus-drivers, TfL [Transport for London] workers and others in the London Regional Committee in an organising campaign. We have engaged in disputes, which have resulted in major gains by workers in defeating cuts, and securing significant pay rises. These achievements are not minor – they are almost unheard of in the current period of austerity."
But the document went on:
"[...] we have found ourselves in one conflict after another with elements inside our own union. Through our own self-organisation, we have sought to overcome this hindrance. However, the conduct of a small number of members in and around the London General Members Branch, and some bodies outside the IWW, during the recent dispute at John Lewis was the straw that broke that camel's back."
There were also claims of "deeper political disagreements", although few details were given, beyond references to "hubristic anarchists" contributing to the original IWW-IWGB split over a century ago. When he initially agreed to an interview, I asked Chris Ford a series of questions via email. After asking what publication the article was for (Freedom), he declined to answer further, citing concerns over spreading "hysteria". However, the IWW were more forthcoming, and several members offered their help.

One individual in particular, who does not wish to be named, told me that:
"We think it is a personal project of Chris Ford (CF). I think CF reckons we are not worthy of him. At a special conference we held in the spring, CF attended and failed to have his submission accepted. He misjudged the meeting. I think he hoped to be met with acclaim, but the dominant current in the membership was anarchist and he failed to allow for it. I think at that point he realised we were not going to adopt his programme."
According to IWW documents, Chris Ford proposed the establishment of an "Executive Committee" within the union, which would have been a radical break with its long-established federal structure. Though the Executive would be recallable, it would have powers to convene an "extraordinary delegate conference", as well as elect a "Disputes Committee" and three "National Organisers" representing English, Scottish and Welsh members. There would also be "A dedicated worker on a part-time/full-time basis to be employed by the union to administer membership".

So it appears there was a springtime dispute over organisational structure between Chris Ford - who describes himself as a communist - and the majority of IWW delegates, who saw his proposals as tending towards the introduction of a hierarchy within the union. Over the past few months this dispute has become personalised, to the extent that my IWW correspondent described Ford as having "messianic tendencies", and Ford made that "hubristic anarchists" jibe. Furthermore, if Ford is to be believed - and there doesn't seem to be any reason to doubt his word on this - the rancour has impacted on the effectiveness of the cleaners' campaigns.

So where does all this leave us - and perhaps more importantly - the cleaners? Well, the IWGB exists, at least in name, though the IWW are concerned that "many of the 'members' of the IWGB do not realise that there is no IWGB union registered. So they are not able to benefit from the meagre advantages that a registered union has." The IWGB is organising protests, including against the Société Générale bank for cutting hours and making contradictory statements on the London Living Wage. And the IWGB has a website, which bizarrely claims that someone with the name of a prominent Glasgow member from its original incarnation in the run-up to World War One - is "Asst. General Secretary".

Much about the IWGB is still a mystery, but time will tell just what sort of organisation it is.
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