Why Incarcerated Workers Should Join The IWW

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By Sean Swain
Industrial Worker - March 2015

X380847. That’s my membership number in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW has been around since 1905, making typical unions with the bosses and bureaucratic party nervous, since the stated goal of the IWW is the abolition of the wage system altogether, rather than reformist efforts to “improve” the conditions of the owners and union bosses. Unlike every other union during its formation that sought to divide the workers into trades, the Wobblies, as IWW members are called, had the ambitious program of unionizing all workers into One Big Union and thereby put the power into the hands of all workers collectively to shut down the industrial production system entirely.

Like the famed anarcho-syndicalist unions of Spain, the FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica) and the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), Wobblies promoted worker direct action. In the 1910s and 1920s, Wobblies were targeted with charges of criminal syndicalism, sabotage and sedition.

Yeah. It was treason to demand a fair shake, to imagine power wrested from the hands of Crapitalists.

Still is, of course.

After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the rise of the more reformist and industrial friendly unions like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), and the United Automobile Workers (UAW), the threat and the influence of the IWW faded. Between state repression and the major unions collaborating to squeeze out the Wobblies, the IWW was largely neutralized during a time when anarchists were evolving new strategies and approaches that didn't necessarily involve the seemingly impossible task of organizing all the workers of the entire world into the same union. But the Wobblies did not go away. They didn't become extinct. They’re still around and making a comeback, if you can call it that. Innovating to become relevant. The IWW is actively soliciting prisoner membership, something no other union—apart from specifically prisoner unions—has attempted to do. You don’t see, for instance, the UAW or Teamsters organizing prisoners, even though you've got Honda wardens at Mansfield Correctional in Ohio as just one example. There’s been a trend over the last 20 or 30 years for corporations to outsource production to prisoners who receive slave wages and lack the health and safety protections enforced in the so-called free world. That’s one of the driving engines, by the way, of the prison boom and the incarceration boom—cheap labor—leaving everyone else sleeping in their cars.

Prisons are now third world colonies; fenced off and ready for exploitation. Why move a factory all the way to Mexico or India when you can take advantage of slave labor in Alabama prisons?

Apart from simply keeping the repressive machinery of the State operating, and thereby allowing the State to ratchet up the repression, prison labor is now an integrated component of the global economy. As an indication of just how essential prison slave labor has become, in an “Each One Teach One” interview with Anthony Rayson of the South Chicago Anarchist Black Cross Zine Distro, I mentioned that if Ohio prisoners simply laid on their bunks for 30 days the state’s entire economy would collapse. It wouldn't simply disrupt the prison system, it would tank the state’s entire economy, and it wouldn't recover for a decade.

In 2008, a year after I made that observation, the State attempted to get me transferred to a supermax (supermaximum security) prison. So, if there was any doubt about my assessment of how critical prisoner slave labor is to Ohio’s economy, the State’s reaction certainly confirmed I was right.

But prison authorities can’t legally punish union membership. The U.S. Supreme Court in Jones v. North Carolina Prisoner Labor Union, Inc., made a distinction between union membership, which is legally protected, and union activity (like striking), which is not legally protected. And this is where the Wobblies can become very effective at consciousness-raising among prisoners, educating and radicalizing. Everyone can be a Wobbly. And once all the prisoners are Wobblies and act collectively it’s too late to put the proverbial poop back into the donkey. The State can shoot us to death but it can’t shoot us back to work. And they can’t put all 3 million of us in a superdupermax either.

You know where 3 million Wobblies sit? Wherever they want to sit. If you have a friend or loved one locked up or you just want more information, contact the IWW at 773-728-0996 or email them at ghq@ iww.org.

You can write the IWW via snail mail at P.O. 180195, Chicago, IL 60618. Membership for prisoners is free.

Wherever there is exploitation let’s grind it to a halt!

This is IWW X380847 at Ohio’s supermax facility. If you’re reading this, you are the resistance.

This originally aired on “The Final Straw” radio show and was published in The Incarcerated Worker Vol. 1 No. 1 February 2015. Graphic: Kevin “Rasheed” Johnson There are nearly 400 members of the IWW behind bars. Help grow this effort. Create your own letter writing group, or get involved in other ways by emailing iwoc@ riseup.net. Donate to your delegate or online at: https://fundly.com/theincarcerated-workers-organizingcommittee#. We can’t do this alone.

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