The best map in the world will not get you anywhere. Only going will get you there.

IWW2In 1918 Helen Keller described the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) as “…probably the most hated and most loved organization in existence. Certainly… the least understood and the most persistently misrepresented.”(1)  Arguably, the IWW’s “One Big Union” project is the most ambitious scheme ever undertaken within the labour movement. The organization’s founders set out to build industrial democracy worldwide, from the bottom up. However, although the IWW still exists, nobody would argue that things have gone according to plan. Is “one big union” just secular “pie in the sky”? Firstly, let’s take a look at the roots of the model. Then let’s have a look around at the scene today and see if anybody else fits the bill, or might be made to fit.

In 1904 six labour activists met to discuss how the U.S. labour movement might be radicalized (2). They resolved to bring together a larger group to form a new type of union, and in 1905 about 200 radical unionists met in Chicago. Together, this group formed the IWW (also known as the Wobblies). The Reverend Friar Thomas Haggerty was a central figure at both meetings. Among other things, he wrote the famous Preamble to the Constitution:

“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 the 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 the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”

…and ends:

“By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”

Clearly, the IWW’s vision is not a defensive one (eg unity in face of adversity). It’s about taking control of the workplace, economics, and the world.


Critical to the IWW strategy was “Haggerty’s Wheel” (pictured above, larger version here: This broke the world of production down into a series of industrial classifications. Each of these was made up of occupational sub-categories, which, over time, were to be built up into one huge, amalgamated union. The IWW leadership would form a political vanguard at the core.

In effect, this was a militant cross between “New Unionism”(3) and “Christian communism”, a revolutionary project to bring together Marxism and Biblical teaching.  However ingenious such an approach may have seemed at the time, the roots did not run deep. What happened to Haggerty that year is revealing. He was expelled from the church for industrial activism and fell out with most of the IWW, as well as a key group he called ‘the slowcialists’. He was gone by 1906. The same turmoil played out within the organization. By 1908 there had been two major splits, and angry factions had grouped around whatever tactics suited them best. But it was too late to resolve these contradictions; the tiny organization had declared a revolutionary class war and defiantly outlined its strategy. It had also rejected any link with the international communist movement. Not surprisingly, the organization never achieved anything like the mass base of New Unionism in the UK.  This lack of a base made repression a fairly straightforward matter and it came in waves, in every imaginable shape and form.

Nevertheless, by 1912 the IWW had around 25,000 members. At its peak (in about 1923) membership was around 40,000 (4). Many of the names are still familiar: Joe Hill, Helen Keller, Eugene Debs, James Connolly, Big Bill Haywood, “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, Jim Larkin… However, membership had declined to about 10,000 by 1930, after murderous attacks and huge internal ruptures. Today, the IWW is thought to have about 3,000 members. With all due respect, after 100 proud years of radical theory and practice, the IWW is one small union.

An intriguing contrast appears in the lumbering form of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Created from a merger in 2006, the ITUC can reasonably claim to represent 174 million workers in 156 countries today. It is made up of 315 affiliated national union federations, and has grown organically, rather than in accordance with some pre-ordained plan. Unlike the IWW, it makes no grand claims to an over-arching vision. There is no shared analysis. Affiliates remain completely autonomous. Rather, the ITUC’s chosen role is to serve as “a countervailing force in the global economy, committed to securing a fair distribution of wealth and income within and between countries, protection of the environment, universal access to public goods and services, comprehensive social protection, life-long learning and decent work opportunities for all” (from the Constitution, Policy is derived from resolutions, while staff members champion a rights-based approach and the ILO’s “Decent Work” agenda . The ITUC also has a functional working relationsip with the sectoral “global union federations” and helps co-ordinate the “Global Unions” network.  In this, the ITUC is something of a Rorshach test for labour. It means what we think it means, and our response says just as much about us as it does about the ITUC. In its current form (if I may borrow from a phrase from Marx), the ITUC is a battleground rather than an army. Some find this incredibly frustrating; others find it entirely appropriate.

The only other contender for “One Big Union” laurels is the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). They claim to represent about 80 million workers. In fact, they claim: “All major militant and revolutionary trade unions belong to our great family”(5). We have discussed this organization before (see End of an Error, More recently, network member Dan Gallin has published a definitive piece on the subject (The WFTU – Hydroponic Stalinism, In its current form, the WFTU is constitutionally incapable (and I mean that quite literally) of representing the majority of workers (see Constitution, Furthermore, it seems unwilling to do so. The organization refuses to reveal its funding or its membership. However, it has let slip that: “The basic economic support that the WFTU receives comes only from seven WFTU affiliates and friends” (see It seems most likely that the two main ‘friends’ are China and North Korea.

A small section of the labour movement believes the WFTU can be reformed (sometimes for cynical reasons). Whatever the case, it would take a thoroughgoing revolution, rather than a series of gradual reforms, for the WFTU to become any kind of foundation for One Big Union.

What we have, then, is a rather idealistic goal and three unpromising paths. And of course, each of the candidates has a membership made up of unions, rather than of working people. This means that the three nominees for One Big Union do not qualify as: groups of workers organising themselves internationally.

Does this mean we need to start again, on some different footing? I would argue not. At its core, the construction of One Big Union depends on two things: building workers’ unity and developing an alternative social vision. We cannot simply pretend that these things are in place, and then proceed as if. As the ANC used to say: “We must pick up the spear from where it has fallen”. Irrespective of grand schemes on the left, working people are not united and no clear labour agenda is on the table. No matter what frustrations and reverses occur, we must continue to build our organizations and networks in both areas (ie unity and vision). On the bright side, we will certainly know when we are approaching success — history has many examples of rapid shifts in power, as the process of “quantative-to-qualitative transformation” leads to sudden victories in peoples’ movements and national liberation struggles.

Over the last 20 years the NGO movement has grown exponentially, in direct inverse to the decline of unionism (in rich countries, at least). It would be naive to dismiss this as coincidence. The shift towards business unionism has gradually depoliticised the labour movement, creating the conditions for a rapid expansion in the non-profit sector that mobilises around rights, solidarity and social justice issues.  We have seen a huge increase in people’s activism around the world, but unions are now generally seen as supporters (or bystanders!) rather than leaders. I find myself in full agreement with the IWW in this respect: we need to respect our members’ aspirations and reach beyond business unionism. Unlike the IWW, though, I believe we need to develop the process through listening, rather than telling. The papers in the New Unionism series on global unions are almost unanimous in this respect. In order to take the next step we need to flatten our structures, reduce our layers of representation, and create more direct forms of worker participation and representation. We need to discover our democratic agenda, rather than creating it. There are any number of technical exemplars to learn from in this respect… how is not the problem.

That said, global unionism is not just a game of joining human dots. Are we ready to take the next step, and to start “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old”? Or are we still too divided and unsure? The fact is, we do not know. Amazing though it may seem, we have not yet developed an objective understanding of our own strength, our influence, or even our hopes.

Recent advances in the theory of evolution suggest an analogy that might be useful in this respect(6). In short, it is argued that “today’s individuals are yesterday’s groups”. If it is relevant, then we have no need for Haggertys. One big union, as a dynamic and conscious entity, can evolve directly from its own constituents.

According to ‘group selection’ theory, organisms come together because co-operation leads to advantage. This, in turn, leads to increasing strength. This produces spare capacity for the evolution of senses, which in turn leads to influence over the environment. And finally (rather than firstly!), the newly-constituted organism develops consciousness.

If the analogy is relevant, then it may suggest where the IWW went wrong. Haggerty’s early work, although brilliant, served as a ball and chain. His opening salvo: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common” became a kind of communion wafer. Like so much of his legacy, it had to be swallowed whole in advance, like an act of devotion. This and other impositions of faith meant that the membership of the IWW were excluded from their key historical role: building the organization’s consciousness.

While the IWW could fix this problem, the WFTU appears to be in a bleaker position. Their ideology and funding are determined at senior level, by an orthodoxy that insists on remaining anonymous. There is no genuine policy-making over which the members can contend. In fact, membership of the organization requires tacit consent to this state of affairs. Participation requires complicity. Because of this, the whole structure can only ever be a chimera. Not to put too fine a point on it, the WFTU is a flock of sheep in wolves’ clothing.

If group selection theory holds true, then the smart money must be on the ITUC. Yes, there is much further to go than some might wish. However, this should not be seen as a failing. Our awareness of the need for progress is a measure of the evolutionary pressure that is building. We have created a preliminary structure, but we have not yet moved in.

What would happen if affiliates were to approach the ITUC with a resolution calling upon them to develop a plan to take this next step? I would like to suggest that such a plan should involve:
a) facilitating direct worker-to-worker communication across borders
b) using the communications process to generate input for a new political programme?

At present, working people are milling around outside the ITUC as if the main show had not yet begun. It is far too late in the day for this kind of disengaged trance. Our own unions have created the ITUC structure; they now need to open the front door.



(1)  Helen Keller,  What Is The IWW?, Speech at the New York City Civic Club, January 1918. Accessed 6/3/13.

(2)  The group was William Trautmann, George Estes, W. L. Hall, Isaac Cowen, Clarence Smith, and Thomas J. Hagerty. Others, including Eugene V. Debs and Charles O. Sherman, cooperated with them without being present at this meeting.

(3)  “New Unionism” was a transformation in the labour movement of the UK, beginning about 17 years before. For further information see:

(4) Saros, Daniel Earl (2009). Labor, Industry, and Regulation During the Progressive Era. Taylor & Francis US, ISBN 0415996791

(5) From the WFTU website: Downloaded 15/3/11.

(6) A good overview of this thinking is available here: