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Josh DeVries Responds to Staughton Lynd

By Joshua DeVries - October 2002

Dear readers and fellow workers at IMPACT,

I am writing in response to the extracts from brother Staughton Lynd's talk to the IWW General Assembly he published in your September issue. I also write as IWW General Executive Board Chair (January 1, 2000 - December 31, 2002). I consider Staughton a friend and a comrade. He is not a member of the IWW, but he is a dedicated revolutionary and offers much to the IWW not only indirectly through his and Alice's books, but also advice from years of experience as activist and lawyer.

Staughton's presentation to our Assembly hit the mark in his vision for the direction the IWW should go. His criticisms of the contractualism of the CIO and of its leaders' top-down structures hit the nail on the head. His inspiring historical counterexamples to that model provide a view of what is possible.

However, I have to take issue with his lumping of Labor Notes, Teamsters for a Democratic Union and what has come to be known as the "Rank and File Strategy" of the former is and current organization Solidarity as Social Democracy with the primary aim of simply replacing leadership. I will limit my comments to Labor Notes, TDU and New Directions in the Transport Workers Union (which Staughton leaves out). I will not talk about Association for Union Democracy and New Directions in auto simply because I don't know as much about them.

To begin with, it is simply not true that these organizations put forth candidates for office in the Teamsters and TWU as "latter day reincarnations of Eugene Debs who would lead workers to the promised land." I have sat in intense TDU meetings and talked with the TDU and ND-transit national leadership about the very question of holding leaders accountable. It is something they grapple with constantly. I share some of Staughton's concerns. Why did TDU not comment when Leadham criticized Hoffa for not keeping Mexican truckers out of the US? However, there was no hero worship of Ron Carey, and although he is a step up, I have not seen it of TDU's Tom Leadham either. In ND-transit, when the right wing of the caucus won the nomination and then the election, the radicals who are close to Labor Notes and Solidarity continued doing what they always do: fight for shop floor power and against unresponsive leadership.

Brother Staughton seems to assume that because these reform caucuses do run leaders, that they have a strategy that is solely about leadership. TDU has been involved in building shop floor militancy and democracy for many years. Gaining leadership positions is helpful in preventing powerful central unions from quashing locals. It is possible to fight purely at a local level, but it is much harder, and it would be foolhardy to ignore the national or international unions.

What is also disturbing is Staughton's labeling of Labor Notes, TDU, etc. as "a variety of ex-trotskyists." This looks like red baiting. Since I'm fairly certain Staughton considers himself a socialist (non-denominational I believe), it is something more complicated that this. I hope that he doesn't mean it this way, but his comments on this subject come across as downright sectarian.

The modern IWW has a vision of direction for labor movement. It is democratic. It is militant. But it also includes community struggles not only around class but recognizes that for revolution to be successful all variety of social struggles must be connected. When the workers control productive work democratically, the barrier between labor and the rest of life will fall away, so as a revolutionary labor union, we must make the connections now to other struggles.

This means we cannot afford to be sectarian in our fight. Not only must we have ties to women's organizations and anti-racist groups, but we have to consider where other radicals in the labor movement are. The IWW must not engage in a campaign of raiding, but should help those in other unions fix their organizations. In addition, the IWW membership is fairly young and we can learn much from radicals with more experience. This doesn't mean we are their foot soldiers. We have our own aims and our immediate primary goal is still to organize unorganized workers into the IWW. But along the way, we can work with other revolutionaries.

The prime reason for this letter is to clarify: the IWW does not have a(n official) position on TDU, Labor Notes, and similar organizations. Staughton's comments are his own. We generally do not take formal positions on such groups. Some of us such as myself work with them and support them. Some of our membership is vehemently opposed to working with non-revolutionary unions at all. But the IWW does not have a tradition of centralized decision making. We leave the choice of participation in religion or party politics to the individual member, but demand they leave it at the door at union meetings. Similarly as an organization we neither ally with nor refuse joint actions with TDU, Labor Notes etc. The IWW of today does not seek to pick fights with other revolutionaries, even if we have disagreements as to the best course for radicals to take. We reserve our vengeance for the structures and defenders of capitalism, and expect other revolutionaries to do the same.

Yours for the General Strike,
Joshua DeVries
IWW General Executive Board Chair (2000 - 2002)