‘The Economic Argument for Industrial Unionism’ by Vincent St. John from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 9 No. 3. September, 1908.

A major article by Industrial Workers of the World General Secretary Vincent St. John defining the I.W.W. argument and attitude as is would be after the final split with Daniel De Leon’s S.L.P.

‘The Economic Argument for Industrial Unionism’ by Vincent St. John from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 9 No. 3. September, 1908.

THE SUBJECT of industrial unionism is today receiving the attention of the revolutionary labor movement of the world. And the opposite wing of the labor movement, the conservatives, are likewise studying it, but with the aim of defeating its revolutionary object.

Different schools of industrial unionism are springing up. This in itself is a proof that the subject is of general interest, and that, it is forcing itself upon those in the labor movement who formerly waved it aside as a visionary and impracticable scheme.

As the Industrial Workers of the World is to-day the only organization of general scope, in the United States, that Strictly adheres to the revolutionary principle of industrial unionism, it justly claims the right to speak with authority on the subject. Without revolutionary principles, industrial unionism is of little or no value to the workers.

The principle upon which Industrial Unionism takes its stand, is the recognition of the never-ending struggle between the employers of labor and the working class. The members of the working class, as a rule, have but one means of existing in the present capitalist State, viz., the sale of their labor-power to the employing class. The employer uses the labor-power of the worker for one purpose, to operate the machinery, or develop the resources, to which he has the title of ownership.

In employing labor he is guided by exactly the same principle that directs him in the purchase of raw materials, or undeveloped resources, namely, to purchase the labor power necessary to his purpose, and pay as little for it as possible.

The workers, on the other hand, are driven by every circumstance to strive, always, for as much as they can obtain of the values they create. For upon the amount which they as workers so obtain, depends the very existence of themselves and those dependent upon them. The necessities of life, the degrees of comfort, of pleasure, of intellectual advancement, and of physical well-being, in short, their standard of living, must inevitably depend on the amount of the weekly wage.

The employer, the buyer of labor power in the labor market, desires large returns in the shape of profits upon his investment. Large profits in capitalist production, in the last analysis, mean but one thing, low wages, and generally inferior working conditions, for the class that exists through the sale of its labor-power. Higher wages and improved working conditions, as a rule, mean smaller profits. These opposing economic forces, each striving to advance its own interests, are engaged in a never-ending struggle for supremacy in the field of production. A large majority of the working class to-day do not understand the struggle in which they are engaged, nor the cause from which it springs,—the opposed economic interests of themselves and the capitalist, class. As a result, in struggling for what they think are their interests, they fight in the dark, and thus have contributed and still contribute to their own defeat and continued subjection, directly and indirectly.

This, then, makes it imperative that the Industrial Union, to fulfil its mission as an organization of the working class, must take its stand upon a recognition of this struggle. It must educate its membership to a complete understanding of the principles and causes underlying every struggle between the two opposing classes.

That, a portion of the working class recognize the difference between their interest and the interest of the employer, is proven by the existence of organizations among the workers for the avowed purpose of gaining power, by combination with their fellow workers, to secure working conditions which, as individuals. they lacked the power to enforce. That these combinations of workers do not to-day act in obedience to the law that called them into existence, is proven by the fact that, with few exceptions, their declarations of principles commit their organizations to the program of safeguarding the employers’ interests, as well as the interests of their membership,—a program of harmonizing that which can not be harmonized. Such a program misleads their members, blinds them to the reason for the conflict, and thereby aids in defeating them in their struggles. It betrays them into the hands of their opponents, for it sets the seal of their own organization’s approval upon their condition of servitude. Out of this wrong principle flow many evils that con- tribute to the net result. To enter into time contracts with the employer is to bind certain parts of the workers in a given industry to contribute their aid to the employer against other parts of the workers. in the same industry and, in most cases, in the same establishment. Time contracts deprive them of the right to determine when an attempt is to be made to enforce better terms of employment; prevent them from recognizing the identity of interest. between themselves and their fellow workers; and divide their efforts and activities, on every field of action, thus making intelligent, concerted class action impossible of achievement, alike on industrial and political fields.

What more need be said in proof of the correctness of the principle of industrial unionism? What further proof is necessary to demonstrate the unsoundness of the principles of craft unionism? The craft plan of organization is a relic of an obsolete stage in the evolution of capitalist production. At the time of its inception it corresponded to the development of the period: the productive worker in a given industry took the raw material, and with the tools of the trade, or craft, completed the product of that industry, performing every necessary operation himself. As a result, the workers combined in organizations, the lines of which were governed by the tools that they used. At that period, this was organization. To-day, in view of the specialization of the process of production, the invention of machinery, and the concentration of ownership, it is no longer organization, but division. And division on the economic field for the worker spells defeat and degradation.

Take a leading industry of this country today, as a concrete example, and see what craft division means to the workers in that industry: the railroad industry, for instance. In order to operate a railroad the labor of many workers is required. That labor is specialized in different groups, each performing the operations necessary in one department, in order that traffic and transportation may be accomplished. There are the men engaged in keeping the track in repair, the engineers, the firemen, the conductors, brakemen, express messengers, baggagemen, porters, cooks, waiters, switchmen. yardmen, flagmen, wipers, machinists, boiler-makers, repairers, wheel-tappers, tower-men, freight and baggage handlers, ticket agents, telegraphers, book-keepers. dispatchers, track walkers, and general workers around the various buildings of the industry. They are divided into the following organizations operating upon the theory that the interests of the railroad corporation and of their particular organization are identical: The engineers in the R. of L.E.; the firemen in the B. of L.F. & E.: the conductors in the O.R.C.; the brake- men in the B.R.T.; the switchmen in the S.U.; the freight handlers in another organization: the telegraphers in another: the section men in another; the machinists, boiler-makers. car-repairers in separate organizations. The rest of the workers are, for the most part, without organization at all.

The reason for this is that the organizations above named make no attempt to fortify their own position, by organizing such workers in their industry, under the false belief that their own organization is sufficient in and by itself.

Each of the above named organizations is working under a contract for a certain length of time. Their membership is bound to remain at work so long as the railroad company lives up to the terms of the contract, and, for the most part, the contracts of the different organizations expire at different periods. The railroad management is thus insured against having to subjugate more than one portion of its employees at any given time. The result of this condition of affairs is that whenever part of the workers in this industry enter into a conflict with the employer, they have not only to combat the resources of that employer, but also their fellow workers in the same industry who remain at work, and assist the employer in the operation of the railroad. In every instance, the defeat is due to the lack of united action on the side of the workers, part of them being compelled to remain at work in observance of their sacred agreement with the employer. They are simply blinded by the wrong principles and methods of their organizations.

Contrast this state of affairs with what would be the case, were these workers organized on the plan of the I.W.W., and educated in the principles on which it is based. The railway workers operating at any given point would be organized under one charter, covering that industry for that locality, a local Industrial Union of Transportation. The workers composing that local Industrial Union would be the following branches: Engineers and Firemen, who would meet as such to discuss-and decide upon the conditions they would want to enforce in their work; Conductors and Brakemen, with other men of the train crew, who would do likewise ; Cooks, Waiters and Porters, forming another branch for the purpose of legislation as to their working conditions; Depot Employees. as another branch for the same purpose; Telegraphers, Dispatchers and Towermen, Machinists, Boiler- makers and Repairmen, Trackwalkers and Sectionmen, Yardmen and Switchmen, Flagmen and Crossing-tenders, —until all employees in that industry were organized in the branches to which they belonged by reason of the particular kind of work they were performing in the operation of that industry. All of these branches would be integral parts of the local Industrial Union. As such they would have full power to discuss and decide with regard to the working conditions in their particular department. Each branch would be represented in the Industrial Union by a delegate or delegates. They upon meeting would discuss the instructions received from the branches, confer together as representatives of the industry, and formulate the working conditions for the industry into demands. A representative of each branch would constitute the committee that would appear before the railroad managers, receive their reply and report back to the membership they represented. The membership would then decide upon their course of action, and instruct their local industrial union through its committee to proceed to carry such decision into effect. Wherever necessary, the questions would be taken up to the National Industrial Union, composed of all local Transportation Industrial Unions. Thus, when necessary, united action of the workers would result in the entire industry. If, in order to enforce their demands, it became necessary to cease work, a vastly different state of things from that first mentioned would confront the railway management. No part of the workers would be found as union men assisting in the operation of a scab railroad, for the simple reason that correct principles, backed up by correct and up to date organization, would have prepared the way for united action on the part of the workers in that industry.

It is necessary to state here that the branching of the different workers here stated is not by any means arbitrary. The workers in the industry affected will decide that matter as the special conditions, of which they have full knowledge, may dictate. The tendency will be to have as few branches in the Industrial Union as conditions will permit; at the same time making it possible for every worker in the industry to take part in the affairs of the organization. Usually the investigator of industrial unionism will at first glance see, in the branches of the Industrial Union, craft unionism under another name. The opponent of industrial unionism will insist that such is the case. Does not the branch mean a division? the investigator will ask. Not at all; no more than the division of an army into companies, battalions, regiments and brigades means division. An army is so organized in order that it can be handled to accomplish its mission. In industrial unionism the Branch will be the company, the Industrial Union the battalion, the Department of National Industrial Unions of closely allied industries, as for instance steam, electric, marine, and team transportation, will be the brigade, while the combination of Departments will constitute the army of the working class on the economic field.

Again, the defenders of craft unionism will assert that the tendency of such organization is along the same line. They will justify their contentions by pointing to the recently formed Building Trades Department and Metal Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor. The student of Industrial Unionism also will be inclined to agree with that view, as a proof that craft unionism is gradually evolving to conform with the present state of industrial development. Such is not the case. The very essence of craft unionism is craft autonomy. Craft autonomy. means that each craft organization, as such, has the power to treat and make terms with the employer. The craft organizations teach this, and they deny it also, but in struggles with the employer they invariably practice it, regardless of the fact that crafts as such are obliterated in modern industry.

The power claimed for each craft to make separate terms with the employer is the fatal defect in the craft form of organization. It can never be remedied by any combination or agreement between organizations, so long as it is allowed to remain. Imagine, if you can, an army in which the integral parts had autonomy to treat with the enemy and enter into peace pacts, regardless of the whole. To learn its fate you need only observe the craft unions of the workers in the industrial wars of our time.

The branches of the Industrial Union have no such power, no such object. Their sole function is to assist in systematizing and simplifying the drilling of the army of production. This self-imposed drill, discipline, and education is the method of the Industrial Workers of the World. Its purpose is to gain control of the machinery of production, and then to operate it, distributing the wealth so produced to all who by brain or muscle have contributed in the production thereof, in exact proportion to the amount of labor each has contributed in producing the joint product. To achieve this result the Industrial Workers of the World is in existence. To make possible the achievement of this result it offers the following Preamble as a statement of its principles:


The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor through an economic organization of the working class, without affiliation with any political party.

The rapid gathering of wealth and the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands make the trades union unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class, because the trades unions foster a state of things which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. The trades unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

These sad conditions can be changed and the interests of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries, if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.

Therefore, without endorsing or desiring the endorsement of any political party, we unite under the following constitution:

And as a working program by which to build, it proposes the following rules:

All power vests in the general membership through the initiative and referendum and the right of repeal and recall.

Universal transfer system and recognition of cards of union workers of all countries; one initiation fee to be all that is required, and this to be placed at such a figure that no worker will be prevented from becoming a union man or woman because of its amount.

An universal label, badge. button and membership card, thus promoting the idea of solidarity and unity amongst the workers.

A defense fund to which all members shall contribute.

The final aim of the industrial union will be to place the working class in possession of the wealth-producing machinery, mills, workshops, factories, railroads, etc., that the labor of the working class has created.

This aim can not be accomplished while the workers are divided upon the field of production as they have been in the past and are to-day. It can not be accomplished until the workers, in an organization of and by the working class alone, educate themselves to carry on production in their own behalf.

Until sufficient numbers of the workers are educated to accomplish this task, the battle of the worker in capitalist society must be fought, and industrial unionism offers the only weapon with which the worker can hope successfully to combat the power of the employing class, on the economic field. All hail Revolutionary Industrial Unionism! Speed the day of its advancement and ultimate triumph!

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v09n03-sep-1908-ISR-riaz-gog.pdf

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