Solidarity Unionism I: Two Questions for Solidarity Unionism

by K. Wilson

Solidarity unionism has been a subject of much interest lately, so we thought a good way to kick off the blog might be some discussion of its strengths and limitations. This is the first of what will be three short articles. [The second one can now be found here. - Ed.]

“Solidarity unionism is a term coined by the great labor activist and author, Staughton Lynd, to describe a rank and file organization of workers who fight directly to win demands without resorting to government certification or union bureaucracy…A solidarity union is simply a group of workers uniting with each other and other workers in the community and (with the internet) around the world, to apply direct pressure around issues of concern at work.”

- Daniel Gross and Joe Tessone
An IWW Story at Starbucks, Counterpunch 2006

The concept of solidarity unionism is a relatively recent invention. Staughton Lynd wrote a short book of that title in 1992, and it wasn’t until the IWW Starbucks campaigns of the past decade that workers and organizers have ever conceived of themselves as doing something called solidarity unionism. Still, proponents of the idea argue that however new the concept, the practice of solidarity unionism has a long history – as long, in fact, as workers have been standing up together against capitalist exploitation. Looking back through the chronicles of workers’ struggles, especially in the United States over the last century, proponents of solidarity unionism have started to piece together a tradition. The examples that figure into this reconstructed history are mostly of two kinds.

First, there are struggles of workers who find ways to exert their collective power despite the resistance of an established union to which they already belong. Their official union is no longer, if it ever was in the first place, a democratic institution of and for the workers themselves. Instead, it has become an instrument of capital for pacifying, dividing, and controlling labor. These workers practice solidarity unionism when they bypass bureaucratic union structures and take matters into their own hands. This might mean a one-time action like a wildcat strike, or it might take the form of a more permanent organization such as the 1969-71 League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit. Examples of struggles of this kind are concentrated in the second half of the 20th century, when the US labor movement was dominated by unions that were more or less integrated into the capitalist power structure.

Second, there are struggles of workers in non-union workplaces and industries. Examples of this kind are usually drawn from the three great waves of worker uprisings that swept the US and the rest of the developed world in the first half of the 20th century: in the years surrounding WWI, during the Great Depression, and during and after WWII. For example, the early IWW-led strikes in Lawrence and Paterson, and the 1934 triumvirate of strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco all involved broad working class solidarity and direct action on a large scale. Some of these struggles failed, others won their immediate demands and then subsided, and others – generally those with the most lasting results – led to the formation of the industrial unions that would later solidify into the class-collaborationist bureaucracies of the postwar era.

As this brief look at history suggests, it is difficult to understand solidarity unionism except in relation to its arch-nemesis, pejoratively referred to as ‘business unionism’. Solidarity unionism is largely defined in terms of what it is not: it is against all those practices of business unionism that have served to squelch worker democracy and worker power, and against all those organizing strategies that are supposed to have led to business unionism in the first place. Depending on who you ask, these might include: professional organizers, paid union representatives, dues check-offs, no-strike clauses, mandatory grievance procedures, bureaucracy and hierarchy of all sorts, and even contracts altogether. In opposition to these, solidarity unionism is for keeping organization at the shop floor level, for direct democracy, and for workplace actions planned and carried out by workers (and their supporters) themselves.

There is a growing interest in solidarity unionism on the labor-left today, and the reasons for this are not hard to discover. The processes of globalization have eroded the established labor movement in the US and most other developed countries, leaving a huge majority of workers unrepresented by unions of any kind; meanwhile the unions that remain are ever less effective in maintaining a decent standard of living for their members. The result is an open field for experimentation with new models of worker organizing in large parts of the economy, and an increasingly pressing need for those still in unions to find other ways of exercising their collective power. The concept of solidarity unionism seems to be a useful lens through which to look back at the history of workers’ struggles. It promises to help us separate the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’, to tell us which examples we should follow and which not.

The concern for democracy, participation, and broad working class solidarity that underlies solidarity unionism is entirely right. Whatever new models of worker organizing we develop and whatever the shape of the new worker movement we begin to build today, these must be at the center. However, there are some problems with the concept of solidarity unionism too. I want to raise two questions, which I will sketch in outline here and then develop in greater detail in separate articles:

1. Are the fears of solidarity unionism justified by history?

Solidarity unionism suggests a certain way of viewing the 20th century worker movement, which goes something like this. In the first half of the century, workers were rising up in a big way. But misguided and sinister attempts to formalize workers’ struggles messed things up, and the unions and other working class institutions that organizers tried to build ended up turning into capitalist class institutions instead. Now, as we begin to organize anew, we need to learn from these mistakes of the past and be extra vigilant so that the same thing doesn’t happen again.

But this way of looking at history is too simplistic. We need to understand the practices that supposedly led to and perpetuated business unionism in the wider context of the development of the capitalist system as a whole. When we do this, we find that it wasn’t these practices per se, or at any rate not all of them, that were at fault. There are historical reasons why these practices ended up as tools to hold workers down, rather than as tools for workers to exercise and build up their collective power. This is important: we need to be able to distinguish between those practices that actually undermined workers’ power, and are therefore to be avoided, and those that, although legitimate and even essential to any serious organizing effort, were just not strong enough to resist the tide. If we reject too much, then it becomes impossible to organize effectively or on any but the smallest scale. This brings us to the second question.

2. Is solidarity unionism equal to the task we face today?

Right now, our global system of production is controlled by a transnational capitalist class, mediated by the market and supplemented by the state. To propose revolution is to propose that we, the workers, can run society better ourselves. We can co-ordinate the productive activities of billions of human beings. We can collectively and democratically manage our whole social life. But how do we get from here to there? How do we build up a mass movement that can exert leverage against global capital, while educating and training ourselves to assume control over a global system of production, and at the same time weaving anew the social fabric that capitalism has so thoroughly unraveled? This is a constructive task of gargantuan proportions.

If, as the IWW preamble says, we want to “abolish the wage system” and “do away with capitalism”, then we have to start getting serious about “forming the structure of the new society in the shell of the old” and preparing ourselves “to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown”. None of this is going to happen easily or ‘naturally’, and primitive forms of direct democracy are not up to the job. The question for solidarity unionism is how it fits into this big picture. Solidarity unionism is not the final answer to these problems, it is only a first step.

To be continued…

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5 Responses to Solidarity Unionism I: Two Questions for Solidarity Unionism

  1. Nate says:

    Interesting article, thanks for this. I’m really tired so it’s hard to think of substantive comments. For now, in IWW circles as you may now there’s been a bit of a shift in how the term ‘solidarity unionism’ gets used. My preferred use is to see it as a vision of campaigns that don’t go for recognition or agreements but still try to build long-term mass organizations. Some of the early ideas for this in IWW circles were sketched in the Minority Report column, archived here –

    with Staughton Lynd being a big influence. By 2005 or solidarity unionism was the term of choice for most IWW organizers I know, I don’t know when the term came to prominence in the IWW. I think Martin Glaberman and Stan Weir, who Lynd also writes about, were two other big influences on the contemporary IWW understanding of this, as were the Workplace Papers of the Sojourner Truth Organization. Mostly it was worked out in campaigns, though.

    More later… the blog looks great, I’m excited to see it go on.

    take care,

    • Katie says:

      Thanks for adding those references and links. The problem, as I see it, is that the possibilities of building ‘long-term mass organizations’ that can exert power in the workplace while abjuring recognition and agreements end up being very limited. More on this soon…


  2. What is the Highlander School? says:

    “Business union vs. Solidarity Unionism”. Why is this even framed as a debate? If you debated most union staff and member leaders, after about 5 minutes of talking about when it’s helpful or not helpful to file a grievance or to lobby, most union people would ask the question “what else can we do?” Many union people have little to no experience with direct action and no one is teaching them. When you watch the news coverage from Egypt, the pundits all agree that it is a ‘leaderless revolution’. In history class, Rosa Parks was not someone with training – just a nice lady whose feet hurt! People just don’t know how to organize. And it’s risky to try to learn because people get fired. And it’s hard because corporations aren’t confused about their interests and will spend what it takes on the best union busters and other fear mongers. I know it feels good to make fun of labor leaders who do dumb things. I do it myself! It seems obvious that it’s not a good investment for a union to buy a jet! Duh! Or spend lots of money on politicians who sell you out! Duh! Or on huge salaries for labor leaders. Duh! But the problem is that even if you sell the jet, stop the contributions, and cut staff pay – what do you do next? Various groups advocating ‘solidarity unionism’ are still small and their gains have been modest. They don’t seem to have all of the answers. When they do figure out how to grow and win, I think the main stream labor movement will either emulate these successes or be taken over. For all of these reasons, I think the most helpful thing to do at this point is to figure out how to do effective organizing and then to share that knowledge.

    • Katie says:


      For those who didn’t catch the ‘Highlander School’ reference – Highlander Folk School was (and sort of still is) an activist organizing and leadership training center in rural Tennessee. It was involved in labor struggles in the 30s and 40s and later became instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement. Myles Horton, one of the school’s founders, has a wonderful autobiography called The Long Haul, which will at some point be reviewed in the pages of this blog. Everyone should read it.


  3. Syndicalist says:

    I just started reading your site…really interesting stuff. I look forward to delving into your writings as time permits.

    Brief observation: “solidarity unionism” is as old as workers self-organizing. I realize that the term is of more recent usuage and mainly by the IWW. The tradition which I come from and am most familiar with — anarcho-syndicalism — has been a proponent of what I used to call (many moons ago) shopfloor unionism. The term is not really owned by anyone specific ideological current….. it is a practice that most workers organically employ. Hobson used the phrase “syndicalism without the syndicalists” to describe militant, self-organized, self-activity and this is so true. It is a natural way to organize, but is not always kept as the main source and form of struggle due to many coopting, corrupting and bureaucratic reasons.

    Well, enough rambling for now. I look forward to futher reading and exploration of your writings.

    Good luck with your project!

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