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News :: Labor
Free Speech in the IWW? It will cost you.
13 Mar 2007
Welcome to the leaner, and meaner Industrial Workers of the World (IWW—the “Wobblies”), especially in Philadelphia, who just voted a member off the island—expelling him from the union,
Speech in IWW No Longer Free

One would think that an organization championed in history for free speech would at least have a higher standard then the Republican Party. Welcome to the leaner, and meaner Industrial Workers of the World (IWW—the “Wobblies”), especially in Philadelphia, who just voted a member off the island—expelling him from the union, for circulating e-mail. Even the recent scandals concerning US prosecutors haven’t seen this much intrigue.

The free speech IWW union expelled a member last week, after he did what most left-wing union activists do; he criticized the leadership. Part of a memo release by the trail committee in the Philadelphia states, “On 1/12 [he] accused the Philly GMB [General Membership Branch] of neglecting its role managing the Lit Department and asserted the Branch reprimanded him for comments he made about how the Lit department functioned. He made these accusations on the general IWW [e-mail] list.... Note-- No Branch member is allowed to circulate internal Branch business outside the Branch without first obtaining permission...”

Permission from whom? The Chairman? Moscow? Not exactly. The instigator of this “trial” and many others like in for the past 20 years inside the IWW is Jon Bekken, who is the editor of a libertarian socialist magazine called the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. Sound strange? It is, and it is merely a symptom of an organization, which has been deeply troubled for many years, even with its revival in the past 5 years. In this case, it involves nepotism, conflicts of interest, and questions of financial benefit.

The IWW is a union which files with the Department of Labor, represents workers on the West Coast of the US, and has been involved in high profile organizing such as workers at Starbucks and a failed attempt to organize truck drivers in Stockton, CA. Arguably, this is as much as what the Teamsters, SEIU, or even the UFCW is doing, only with a shoestring budget. One would think that with all of this activity, and need for funds and volunteers, that there would be little time to worry about who said what about whom, especially since the IWW’s publication, the Industrial Worker has spent many years criticizing other unions and individuals for the slightest hint of corruption. It seems as though solidarity in the IWW is built from the scraps of glass houses.

The Five Year Plan

In the year 2000, the IWW emerged on the activist scene as a visible union during the WTO protests in Seattle, with many campaign attempts under their belt, including Borders Books, Warehouse Records, and a shipyard in Kentucky called Jeffboat. The union was so strapped for cash that the former secretary, Fred Chase, predicted on a monthly basis a date when the union would be broke. The membership elected Alexis Buss of Philadelphia, with promises to reform the accounting methods and implement some kind of organizing department.

The union moved its head office from Ypsilanti, Michigan to Philadelphia, PA, and almost overnight, the image of the IWW was transformed from a historical anachronism to a small but growing activist union amongst a larger, growing (so it seemed), and younger labor movement in the US. Harkening from an organizing drive at a Borders Books in Philadelphia, Alexis Buss who was also president of a non-profit grant foundation based in Philly, would become a sort of superstar of the left, spreading the wobbly gospel, its history, and promoting a form of union organizing in which recognition was not a precursor for workers wrestling concessions from employers. She managed to hold the office long enough to bask in the limelight of the union’s 100 year commemoration.

After a couple of office terms (which are short in the IWW-one year), Buss married Jon Bekken, who as also editor of the IWWs paper the Industrial Worker on and off for the past ten years. In many unions, rules require that when officers become married or otherwise involved, one of them resigns their position. In spite of Bekken’s harsh criticism of other unions, from Carey’s Teamsters to Stern’s Change to Win Coalition, Bekken and Buss held their posts. The executive board of the IWW, also elected once per year, seemed to look the other way, and in one case, even embraced the arrangement, not foreseeing the problems that can arise.

During Buss’ term, Bekken purchased a building in a soon to be gentrified area of South Philadelphia, which consisted of a storefront and living spaces upstairs, after some renovation. The idea was to rent the building to the IWW, which would enable Bekken to make his note payments, and increase his equity in the building through the IWW’s fix and repair of the new offices and the lease payments by the IWW. A lease agreement was negotiated between the owner and the financial officer of the IWW: Alexis Buss and Jon Bekken. In effect, the union would support the joint personal finances of two officers, and would receive no criticism; the executive board went on record, approving the arrangement after the fact, except a new lease was signed, replacing the executive board chair as the trustee of the union in the lease agreement.

Trials and Tribulations

Most unions have an internal process for hearing grievances “in house” but are rarely used, and because they are highly regulated by the Department of Labor few unions would risk a lawsuit by a member that was subject to such a process, which because they are so rarely used, are also not used consistently. The IWW has a different take on their trial process: anyone who talks about another member of the union may be simply thrown out, and is spelled out in the constitution on file with the Department of Labor. Even though such violates federal labor law, the IWW has expelled two people in the past 15 years, and has attempted to expel several more. One member has consistently threatened to initiate this process on critics in the union, and in many cases has actually done so. This member is Jon Bekken.

Bekken filed papers on a union member in 2005, when it became clear through an audit that there were issues around the leasing of the building by the IWW, and attempted to have the member expelled who had complained about it. Another set of charging papers filed attempted to expel another member for circulating a story about the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review—a publication that Bekken edits, but is not funded or a part of the IWW. Bekken has also attempted to have others removed from the IWW; an organizer at Jeff Boat, a delegate in Scotland, and he regularly threatens the entire general Executive Board with expulsion if they move to make a decision with which he disagrees.

When this reporter perused internal bulletins since 1995, it was noted all of the communications that referred to “charges” that were filed or were going to be filed, or had been filed by Bekken, some written by Bekken himself.

This was the atmosphere that characterized the last two years of Buss term as Secretary of the IWW, as more issues became unraveled. A department of the union that sold pamphlets and literature stopped making reports, and orders were being filled late, sometimes over several months. The union office stopped printing financial reports. People were conducting audits with little knowledge in accounting. Accounts payable reports were being omitted. More members complained on the lack of communication, and some claimed discrimination on the basis that they had questioned Buss and her decisions.

Then the membership voted for a new Secretary, Mark Damron, who also ran on promises of reform and transparency.

The Fallout

No doubt that when the United States elects a new president, there will be a mess to clean up, and the same analogy was true for Damron. It was nearly a year before he had all of the past financial records, and even control of all of the accounts; Buss still had control. In the meantime, the General Executive Board agreed to allow union merchandise to continue to be sold out of a space in Buss’ and Bekken’s building in Philly, in a store called Bindlestiff Books, which was a non-profit started by Buss in the last year of her term. No one has been able to determine that the bookstore is a separate entity of the IWW, though it is not controlled or owned by the union. Buss’ name is filed as the owner with the state of Pennsylvania.

It was shortly after the main IWW offices moved to Ohio that the IWW in Philly began to decree their draconian mandates; no member would talk about local business to the rest of the union, including the Executive Board. No member would forward any e-mail. No member would talk about the continued mismanagement of the Book Department, lest they be thrown out of the union.

While Teamsters are arguing about cozying up to employers and the East Coast ILA is complaining about the mob, the IWW is throwing people out of their union for protected free speech. If their executive board looks the other way—again, this could be number three in recent times. The irony is obvious to any union minded person or labor historian, but seems to have been lost in the IWW. That the union seems to tolerate—almost reward—that kind of discrimination and censorship, might make Josef Stalin or Fidel Castro smile just a little bit. And if this is just a rouge local, with a few rouge individuals, then perhaps it is just a cancer that can be removed, in order to preserve hope that the IWW is still the moral beacon of the US labor movement.

This work is in the public domain
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