The demand of the IWW is the “abolition of the wage system,” a radical-sounding proposal. Given the changing nature of work, I hope to convince you that abolishing the wage system is a reasonable path forward.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, we saw an explosion of workers in factories and saw a sharp decline in agricultural work. As the concentration of labor increased, the exploitation of labor at the hands of employers became increasingly apparent. This led to hard-fought labor wars around the globe and workers died for the right to be safe at work, sick leave and to a reasonable work week. The concentration of labor was conducive to organizing. Your coworker was next to you - suffering the same indecencies.
At the end of the 20th century and into the 21st, work moved to the office, the retail floor, the hospital room and the home and the mistreatment took new forms. More workers were salaried - and expected to work overtime. Hourly workers moved to the service industry. Workplaces in the service world are smaller, and workers are seen as disposable making them hard to unionize.
Along with the nature of work, the nature of trade changed. Innovations such as the shipping container made it a rational trade-off for companies to move their production to the cheapest labor. The digital revolution made it easier than ever to move money to low tax areas. This puts downward pressure on wages and taxes as countries compete for capital. Both wages and taxes are key defenses against out-of-control wealth inequality. This competition leads to declining union membership.
Trade unionism, which is the type of union most people have interacted with, fails to meet the challenge of pressure from globalist competition. A trade union tends to have a very narrow focus. They want to increase wages and benefits for their members. I will never argue against bettering the lives of workers - but we can do better. Trade unionism often operates by limiting access to a workplace, making membership a scarce resource. Also, this type of unionism, instead of eating into the owner’s profits, pass higher wages onto consumers in the form of higher prices.
In this new world, the OWNERS of capital have benefited the most. Even in unionized industries, profits have soared, and wages have remained mostly stagnant. Production costs and taxes haven’t been lower for generations. Profits and productivity are rising, and wages are not. What, then, is the solution?
Let’s return to the IWW concept of the abolition of the wage system.
With solidarity unionism - membership is not restricted, members strike across industries to support efforts to better conditions everywhere, and the ultimate goal is for WORKERS to own the companies. The hope is - when workers own their workplace - that we solve many of the challenges that trade unionism can’t address. Profits belong to the workers, and therefore there isn’t as much upward pressure on prices. Also, workers do not need to put up artificial barriers to employment to protect their benefits.