The Next Step for Organized Labor? People in Prison

In the early 2000s, the small but militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) launched union drives at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s. At the time, many in the mainstream labor movement scratched their heads. Traditionally, labor groups believed that the high turnover of fast food workers would make them impossible to organize.

Nearly a decade later, fast food workers and the Fight for $15 are a central focus of the mainstream labor movement. And, given IWW’s ability to unionize workers who once seemed out of reach, many labor organizers now look to them as an incubator of new organizing strategies.

Now IWW faces one of the biggest challenges in its history: convincing the broader labor movement to embrace the approximately 400,000 Americans employed as prison labor across the United States.

This spring, the IWW and allied community groups organized prison labor strikes of thousands of incarcerated workers in Alabama, Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, and Ohio—all demanding the right to form a union. The IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has called for a nationwide prison strike on September 9 to mark the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising and claims it has the support of thousands of prisoners throughout the United States.

“It could really shake things up,” IWW organizer Jimi Del Duca told me. “A lot of working-class people are afraid to organize because they have a few crumbs to lose. [Many] prisoners have nothing to lose and that gives them courage. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

However, the barriers to organizing prisoners are high. Communication between prisons is difficult, as most prisoners are not allowed access to e-mail. Even within prisons, inmates are limited in their ability to meet face-to-face. While they are allowed to assemble routinely for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or religious activities, the 1977 Supreme Court case Jones v. North Carolina Labor Prisoners’ Union denied them their First Amendment right to assemble if a warden feels a gathering is a threat to prison security. As a result, wardens block most prisoners’ union meetings.

However, Elon University Labor Law Professor Eric Fink says that prisoners may have another option. The right of prisoners to form a union has never been challenged in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union certification case, and Fink believes that prisoners could use the NLRB process to push for the right to meet regularly and form collective bargaining units. He argues that prison workers—employed by private contractors in 37 states—should have the same right to form a union as other workers employed by those contractors. According to Fink, if the IWW were to bring a case before the NLRB, then the board could declare that prisoners are employees who are eligible to join a union.

“I think the Board is capable of saying there are issues that [incarcerated people] have the right to bargain for—such as hours and wages—as any other worker would have the right to do,” said Fink.

As for prison workers who are employed directly by the state, Fink feels they could organize more easily. Under federal labor law, each individual state has a Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) which governs how labor law is applied in the jurisdiction. Often, the leadership of the PERB is heavily influenced by local labor leadership. So, if a public sector union such as AFSCME were to endorse the right of prisoners to form unions, state-level PERBs might be inclined to extend that right.

However, there is a catch: Many public sector unions also represent guards, who may be lukewarm to the idea of prisoners forming unions.

“The problem is that insofar as a number of public-sector unions have prison guards as members—and sometimes in large numbers—it has an impact on the ability to have that discussion,” said Bill Fletcher, the former education director of the AFL-CIO.

Heather Ann Thompson, professor of history in the African American Studies department at the University of Michigan, believes that guards should see prisoners’ unions as a win for them, too.

“These are workplaces that are deeply unsafe and barbaric,” said Thompson. She believes that giving workers a collective voice may reduce gang violence, because it will give prisoners a structure through which they can advocate for themselves. Unions would also provide guards and prisoners with the means to push together for a safer prison environment.

Thompson also argues that it is in organized labor’s best interest to help prison workers. Some Republican governors—such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—have used prison labor to replace unionized public employees.

“Prisoners have no power to resist being employed as scab labor,” said Thompson. “Rather than resent the prisoners, the idea would be to support prison labor workers’ right to resist work.”

It remains unclear if the mainstream labor movement will support the prison-labor strike movement. Both AFSCME and the AFL-CIO declined to be interviewed, but they have indicated that they view mass incarceration as an employment issue. In April, while touring an apprenticeship program at a prison in Washington State, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “Mass incarceration has become a big business whose product is low wages and blighted lives, and the time has come for us to do something about it.”

IWW organizer Del Deluca is hopeful that the broader labor movement will support this effort. With more than 2 million people in prison, he sees potential in this new path of organizing.

“We could change the direction of history,” he said. “We could change the way our world works.”

Militant Tactics Against the Far Right (Audio)


In the aftermath of the shutdown of far right celebrity Milo Yiannapoulos at UC Berkeley, there’s been much debate among progressives and leftists about the use of militant tactics against the right.  Some of the questions under contention are whether militant tactics bring down repression on the most vulnerable, and whether free speech—even for fascists—is sacrosanct.  Undocumented UC Berkeley student Juan Prieto talks about why he supported the shutdown. And Kieran discusses the history of the group Anti-Racist Action and makes the case for mass militant organizing and action.

The IWW and Electoral Politics: An Historical Overview

Election Day he shouted, “a Socialist For Mayor!”
The “comrade” got elected, he happy was for fair,
But after the election he got an awful shock,
A great big socialistic bull did rap him on the block.
And Comrade Block did sob, “I helped him get his job. “

When Joe Hill wrote this verse to his famous “Mr. Block” somewhere around 1910, he was expressing a common view held by most members of the IWW that electoral political action, even in support of leftist candidates, was a futile exercise. As it turned out Hill’s words proved to be prophetic since the “bull” that arrested him, the physician who treated his wounds and later notified the police of his whereabouts, and the lawyer who misrepresented him were all Socialists. On the other hand, much of Hill’s support in Utah came from the Socialist Party or its supporters.

In any event the anti-electoral politics stance of the IWW is long-standing. Its roots go back to the very beginning when a wide coalition of individuals including socialists like Eugene V. Debs, Daniel De Leon and others, formed the IWW in 1905. Between then and 1908 when the union was reorganized, tensions between the various groups in the IWW were manifest in disagreement over tactics. Some urged the new union to establish a political component which would capture power at the ballot box. Others believed in direct action and taking power “at the point of production.” Those advocating the latter position pointed out that large numbers of workers, particularly blacks, women, and immigrant workers were legally dis­enfranchised, thus weakening the chance of the strategy’s success. Moreover, since large segments of IWW support came from migratory workers who moved fre­quently, it would be difficult to endorse a strategy which involved permanent electoral polling booths and voters residences.

The choice, these Wobblies argued, was to emphasize areas of strength, not weakness. At the union’s 1908 convention — where as Fred Thompson noted there was a “hearty disrespect for politicians” — the advocates of direct action dominated, though some sympathy for electoral politics and even cordial fraternal relations with some groups like the Socialist Party continued at different times and in different places. Indeed, some historians have argued that the union was not so much anti-political as it was non-political in an electoral sense. At the same time, the actions of the 1908 convention unified the IWW and moved it in a more coherent and cohesive direction. As Fred Thompson has observed:

In one sense this [convention] is the launching of the IWW. It is from here on that it exists as an organization with its own distinctive character … The five thousand members it had after the 1908 convention were no longer divergent groups trying to live together but a compact organization of [workers] attached to the IWW rather than to something else, largely rebels who had been organized by the new union, but who had long experience in the struggle with the employer …

In understanding the IWW’s position on electoral politics it is also important to examine the career of a founding member of the union, and its best known advocate in the years before World War I-William D. “Big Bill” Haywood. A son of the West, Haywood’s roots went back to the Western Federation of Miners, of which he was an officer. Because his experiences lay in industrial unionism, not electoral politics, Haywood never really championed the educational possibilities of electoral politics like his colleagues in the Socialist Party. Though he urged workers to vote and even ran for Governor of Colorado himself, Haywood believed that the im­portance of electoral politics existed only in so far as election to office could trans­late into the ability to protect working people. In this sense, Haywood saw politics as a secondary, though impor­tant, part of the overall attempt to seize political control through direct action. Haywood’s views on socialism and . politics are succinctly expressed in a famous talk he gave in New York entitled “Socialism: The Hope of the Working Class:”

With the success of socialism prac­tically all of the political offices now in existence will be put out of business. I want to say also, and with as much emphasis, that while a member of the Socialist Party and believing firmly n political action, it is decidedly better in my opinion to elect the superintendent in some branch of industry than to elect a congressman … Under socialism we will have no congresses such as exist today, no legislatures, nor parliaments nor councils of municipalities. Our councils will not be filled with aspiring lawyers or ministers, but they will be conventions of the working class, composed of men and women who will go there for purposes of education, to exchange ideas, and by their expert knowledge to improve the machinery so that we can use it for the advantage of the working class.

For a time, Haywood was an active , member of the Socialist Party of America, serving on its national com­mittee. Ultimately, he was removed from that office in 1913 by a party recall, ostensibly because he had publicly advocated violence and sabotage. At the same time, Haywood had alienated segments of the Socialist Party because he promoted dual unionism, rejected the notion of gradual reform’ as meaningful to his working-class’ constituency, and clashed with important figures on the right and center of the umbrella Socialist Party. After Haywood’s dismissal, the influence of the IWW and others in the Socialist party who shared a syndicalist view was greatly diminished.

Also important in understanding the IWW’s avoidance of electoral politics is a recognition that the union has always emphasized direct action, the general strike and workers control of the workplace. In this sense, the IWW view represented in part the influence of the anarcho-syndicalist ideas of later 19th century Europe and similar trends introduced into the United States. But the IWW represented an indigenous form of industrial unionism that sought to create “one big union” through which the working class would take possesson “of the earth and the machinery of production and abolish the wage system.” In this way society would be transformed by workers control of industry. As the preamble to the IWW puts it “it is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism” through organizing the working class into an “army of production not only for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown.”

In the 1920s and 30s, the union came into conflict with the Communist Party which emerged as a proponent of an electoral approach to bringing about a workers’ government. While the Com­munists accepted the importance of industrial unionism, they also believed in the Leninist concept of a revolutionary “vanguard party.” The IWW, committed as it was to democracy preceding from the bottom up, was out of step with the Communist notion of democratic centralism. Over the years, the IWW has continued to oppose support for electoral political action and distanced itself from political solutions as a whole, continuing to stress action at the point of production.

Today, these attitudes towards electoral politics continue to be very evi­dent in the organizational work of the union, and among the members at large. At the same time, it should be noted that this has not kept Wobblies from working with others whose first priority, tacti­cally speaking, may be somewhat dif­ferent. A poll taken among Socialist Party members a decade or so ago, for example, demonstrated that there were a number of party members who had dual membership in the IWW, or subscribed to the Industrial Worker. At the same time, it should be noted that at the present, the Socialist Party national office in New York City is an IWW job ‘ shop. And indeed, there were several in attendance at the recent Socialist Party national convention in Chicago in September.

Like Fred Thompson, I think it is healthy to have a “hearty disrespect” for politicians. Perhaps the message in all of this is that there are many ways, and many strategies, to achieve common goals. November is the season of elections, and we will all be besieged with the promises and pleadings of politicians. But November is also a time when we remember Joe Hill. As he said:

“Don’t Mourn, Organize!”

The Uprising in Baja California

Magonista guerrillas with the banner “Tierra y Libertad” in Tijuana, 1911

Baja California (Lower California ) is the long finger of land that stretches down into the Pacific south of the border with California in the USA. The border towns of Tijuana and Mexicali and the coastal town of Ensanada are its chief towns. Here for six months during 1911 a major insurrection took place. Organise! Looks at this little-known event, in which the famous Wobbly Joe Hill is rumoured to have been involved.
On 29th January 1911 twenty armed Magonista militants led by Jose Maria Leyva seized the town of Mexicali. Leyva called himself the General in Chief of the Insurgent Forces and was assisted by Simon Berthold. This act threatened the rich agricultural estates as well as the water resources used by the US farmers of Imperial Valley. The Magonistas were soon joined by many volunteers from the USA, boosting their numbers to 80. A column of soldiers was sent from Ensenada to drive them out.

At the same time in the US press an eccentric businessman Dick Ferris, with backing from important bankers, began to make announcements about creating an independent Baja California, and to recruit 1,000 men to carry this out. The US press began to falsely amalgamate the Magonista actions with Ferris’s plans.

The government troops were defeated and the insurgents increased their numbers to 200. The socialist John Kenneth Turner brought them a delivery of arms over the border . A few days later, thirty Americans led by ex-sergeant William Stanley seized a border post to the east of Mexicali. The following day Leyva and Berthold declared the foundation of a cooperative commonwealth in Baja California. The insurgents now numbered 300 at Mexicali, with two thirds of them from the USA. On 1st March another Magonista column led by Francisco Vasquez Salinas and Luis Rodriguez crossed the border into Baja California and started requisitioning the big estates near Tecate.

Indecision within the insurgent ranks at Mexicali led to serious disagreements with Stanley attempting to strip Leyva of his command, which was countered by Berthold. Stanley then crossed the border into the USA with the aim of convincing the Magonista leadership in Los Angeles that he should lead an independent expedition.

Luis Rodriguez seized Tecate on 12th March, whilst Stanley again seized the same border post and built up his forces to a hundred. Meanwhile the US government, affrighted by the perceived threat to its interests, massed 20,000 soldiers on the border. Fighting now broke out between the government troops and the insurgents , Tecate was retaken and Leyva and Berthold failed to retake it. Antagonisms between the Americans and the Mexicans within the insurgent ranks continued, with Leyva being blamed for the defeat. He was dismissed as commander and replaced by Salinas. Disobeying Salinas, Stanley launched an attack on government troops and was defeated dying a day later. He was replaced by Cary lap Rhys Pryce, a Welsh “soldier of fortune” who accused Salinas of having betrayed Stanley.
On 13th April Berthold died of an infection of a wound he had sustained in the previous month. The election of a new commander aggravated the conflicts between Mexicans and Americans and a group of Indians led by Emilio Guerrero quit the detachment. Meanwhile the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) delivered arms to the insurgents.

Salinas arrived in Los Angeles to meet with the Magonista leadership but was arrested by the US authorities. Francisco Quijadas replaces him. Meanwhile Mosby was wounded and replaced by Sam Wood, who was joined by Pryce at the retaken town of Tecate. They seized Tijuana after fierce fighting. Tijuana was and still is, a playground for Americans to come over the border to spend their money in saloons, casinos and brothels and at the racetrack. The capture of Tijuana led to great enthusiasm in radical circles with 30 deserters from the US Army crossing the border to join the insurgents.
However media attention went to Pryce’s head. He set up a system where for 25 cents American tourists could visit the sights of battle. He allowed the saloons and gambling dens to continue their activities, taxing them and sending 850 dollars to the Magonista leadership. Pryce became more and more out of control and started talking about uniting Baja California to the USA, in several interviews to US papers. He regularly crossed the border, dining at the best restaurants in San Diego and establishing contact with the businessman Dick Ferris.

The Madero regime had now come to power on 21st May. The Magonista leadership refused to cease hostilities, and Pryce, who was favourable to a ceasefire, went to L.A. to argue for this. He was dismissed. His place at Tijuana was taken by Louis James, also under the influence of Ferris. James called for an independent republic and the new regime used this as a pretext of accusing the Magonistas of serving US interests. Fortunately, James was ousted and forced to flee. Mosby attempted to control the situation and closed down the saloons and casinos. However he still looked for tourist revenue and set up a Wild West Show in the style of Buffalo Bill!

The Mexican government convened with the US authorities, which allowed 1500 Mexican troops to cross and re-cross the border and attack the insurgents. The detachment of Guerrero, who as we have seen, earlier separated from Leyva, was massacred. For their part the US authorities arrested the MAgonista leadership in Los Angeles. Leyva, who had gone over to the Madero regime, negotiated a surrender of the insurgents at Mexicali. Leyva later made a career in the Mexican army.

The forces led by Mosby at Tijuana refused to surrender and were attacked by government troops. The insurgents fled, Mexicans and Indians disappearing into the countryside and the Americans fleeing over the border where they were disarmed by the US Army.

The attempt at revolution in Baja California, had proved to be a fiasco, with the insurgents crippled by dissensions between Americans, Mexicans and Indians, and with opportunism and lack of political principle rife among some of its leading actors.

This article originally appeared in issue No 77 of Organise! the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.

Are you sure we’re talking about Syndicalism here?

By Steve Ongerth

“It seems to me, then, that the real transgression that the IWW committed, in the eyes of Lenin and his followers, is that it refused to align itself with Moscow. It wouldn’t have made any difference if the IWW had been syndicalist, communist, or Satanist (or all three), the results would probably have been the same. The IWW might have even been willing to affiliate (debatable as that decision might have been), had the demands of Comintern not stipulated that the IWW cease to function as it was intended, and while it’s true that there had hitherto been some debates and disagreements between anarchists and communists (most famously between Bakunin and Marx, though it should be noted that the political aspects of their quarrels have been somewhat overstated and their personal competutiveness with each other vastly understated as motivations for their animosity), the deep schism that exists between us really didn’t happen until the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Of course, it goes without saying that the ISO, today being Fourth Internationalists, has its own problems being aligned with Comintern (or what’s left of it!)”