Industrial unionism contrasts with craft unionism, which organizes workers along lines of their specific trades, even if this leads to multiple union locals (with different contracts, and different expiration dates) in the same workplace. Industrial unionists observe that craft union members are more often required by their contracts to cross the picket lines established by workers in other unions. Likewise, in a strike of (for example) coal miners, unionized railroad workers may be required by their contracts to haul "scab" coal.
In the United States, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) primarily practiced industrial unionism prior to its merger with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was made up mostly of craft unions. Unions in the resulting federation, the AFL-CIO, sometimes have a mixture of tendencies. But one characteristic that is quite typical of craft unions and the less radical of the industrial unions is agreeing to sign a no-strike clause, which seriously restricts the ability of the members of these unions to directly support each others' struggles by walking off the job, so long as the contract is in force. On the other hand, management may insist upon a no-strike clause as a deal-breaker, forcing a strike over this issue alone.
Some political parties also promote industrial unionism, such as the Socialist Labor Party of America, whose early leader Daniel De Leon formulated a form of industrial unionism as the mechanism of government in the SLP's vision of a socialist society, and the British Labour Party which has relations with affiliated trade unions.
The theory and practice of industrial unionism is not confined to the western, English speaking world. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) is committed to reorganizing their current union structure along the lines of industrial unionism. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is also organized along the lines of industrial unionism.
The most basic philosophy of the union movement observes that an individual cannot stand alone against the power of the company, for the employment contract confers advantage to the employer. Having come to that understanding, the next question becomes: who is to be included in the union?
The differences illustrated by these diverse approaches to organizing touch upon a number of philosophical issues:
But some philosophical issues transcend the current social order:
In short, these are questions of whether workers should organize as a craft, by their industry, or as a class. From the Knights of Labor to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with all of the industrial unions and federations in between, the nature of union organization has been in contention for a very long time, and the philosophies of industrial unionism are inter-related. The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was inspired by the industrial unionism example of the American Railway Union (ARU). Labor Historian Melvyn Dubofsky traces the birth of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to the industrial unionism of the Western Federation of Miners, and their years under fire during the Colorado Labor Wars. And James P. Cannon has observed that "the CIO became possible only after and because the IWW had championed and popularized the program of industrial unionism in word and deed.
Organizational philosophies for the labor movement grow out of observation and experimentation. Success and failure combine with the aspirations and needs of working people and, in many cases, with the role of government to determine which union concepts will flourish, and which will be abandoned.
The Knights of Labor (KOL) was a mass organization, embracing nearly any worker who wanted to join. An early advocate of producerism, the KOL was so loosely organized that it admitted physicians and employers.
The evolution and competition of labor organizations is quite complex, and there are many factors beyond philosophy or specific organizational structure that determine success or failure. The KOL's policies on a number of issues seemed more progressive than those of the AFL—organizing unskilled workers, educating against discrimination, and a dedication to broad idealism. The KOL had an enormous membership compared to the early AFL, but the AFL seemed more in touch with some of the goals of working people. The KOL began to falter when its leadership appeared to be out of touch with those goals. For example, the AFL supported the eight hour day. Although the Knights supported the concept in their constitution, they failed to provide a plan for its implementation. Perhaps in part because employers were accepted into the KOL, leadership of the Knights considered a shorter workday impractical. The KOL leadership tried fruitlessly to discourage members from supporting the eight hour movement that was embraced by the AFL.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) under the leadership of Samuel Gompers focused on "pure and simple" trade unionism. The AFL concerned itself with a "philosophy of pure wage consciousness," according to Selig Perlman, who developed the "business unionism" theory of labor. Perlman saw craft organizing as a means of resisting the encroachment of waves of immigrants. Organization that was based upon craft skills granted control over access to the job. In a sense, craft unions provided a good defense for the privileges of membership, but the offensive power of craft unions to effect change in society at large has been circumscribed by a self-limiting vision. The AFL was businesslike and pragmatic, adopting the motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work.
Craft unions have been criticized as a labor elite. Many Black workers never had the opportunity to learn a skill, and most AFL unions did not organize unskilled workers. Not only did many AFL unions exclude Black workers or relegate them into separate organizations, different groups of Asian immigrants had been excluded for decades. In May 1905 the Asiatic Exclusion League was organized to propagandize against Asian immigration, with many unions participating.
The AFL frequently enforced its agenda upon its member unions with an imposed exclusivity. For example, the United Brewery Workmen (UBW) was affiliated with both the AFL and the KOL from 1893 to 1896. Their purpose in dual affiliation was increasing the breadth of the boycott, which they had found a useful weapon. The AFL threatened to revoke the charter of the national UBW, and they withdrew from the KOL, while urging their individual members to keep their membership in the KOL.
Six weeks after formation of the Asiatic Exclusion League, the Industrial Workers of the World was formed in Chicago, created as a rejection of the narrow craft unionism philosophy of the AFL. From its inception, the IWW would organize without regard to sex, skills, race, creed, or national origin.
An outgrowth of the struggles of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the IWW also adopted the WFM's description of the AFL as the "American Separation of Labor. While the IWW shared the concept of a mass-oriented labor movement—what the IWW would call One Big Union—with the Knights of Labor, the idea of workers having much in common with employers was discarded by the IWW, whose Preamble declares that "the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.
According to Eugene V. Debs, "seasoned old unionists" recognized in 1905 that working people could not win with the labor movement they had. Among the critiques of the AFL were organized scabbery of one union on another, jurisdictional squabbling, an autocratic leadership, and a relationship between union leaders and millionaires in the National Civic Federation that was altogether too cozy. IWW leaders believed that in the AFL there was too little solidarity, and too little "straight" labor education. These circumstances led to too little appreciation of what could be won, and too little will to win it.
For many, organizing industrially is seen as conferring a more powerful structural base from which to challenge employers. Yet this very power has sometimes prompted governments to act as a counterweight to maintain the existing power relationships in society. There are historical examples.
Eugene Debs formed the American Railway Union (ARU) as an industrial organization in response to craft limitations. Railroad engineers had called a strike, but locomotive firemen, organized into a different craft, did not join that strike. The firemen kept their engines running, helping their employers to break the strike. In June 1894, the newly formed, industrially organized ARU voted to join in solidarity with an ongoing strike against the Pullman company. The sympathy strike demonstrated the enormous power of united action, yet resulted in a decisive government response to end the strike and destroy the union.
Within hours of the ARU lending support to the boycott, Pullman traffic ceased to move from Chicago to the West. The boycott then spread to the South and the East.
A statement was issued by the chairman of the General Managers Association, a "half-secret combination of twenty-four railroads centering on Chicago," which acknowledged the power of industrial unionism:
We can handle the railway brotherhoods, but we cannot handle the A.R.U.... We cannot handle Debs. We have got to wipe him out.
The General Managers turned to the federal government, which immediately sent federal troops and United States Marshals to force an end to the strike.
One union leader who closely observed the experiences of the ARU was Big Bill Haywood, who became the powerful secretary treasurer of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). Haywood had long been a critic of the craft unionism of the AFL, and applied the industrial unionism critique to the AFL's role in a strike called by his own miner's union.
The WFM had sought to extend the benefits of union to mill workers who processed the ore dug by miners. Miners and mill workers walked out to support the organizing drive. The 1903-05 Cripple Creek strike was defeated when unionized railroad workers continued to haul ore from the mines to the mills, in spite of strike breakers having been introduced at mine and at mill. "The railroaders form the connecting link in the proposition that is scabby at both ends," Haywood wrote. "This fight, which is entering its third year, could have been won in three weeks if it were not for the fact that the trade unions are lending assistance to the mine operators.
A craft unionist might argue the miners would have been better off sticking to their own business. After all, both the miner's union and the fledgling mill worker's unions had been destroyed. But Haywood took away from this experience the conviction that labor needed more, not less, industrial unionism. The miners had struck in sympathy with the smeltermen, but other unions—notably, craft unions—had not.
Haywood went on to help organize the Industrial Workers of the World, which was itself nearly destroyed by government action during and after World War I. But the more basic principles of industrial unionism were adopted by the very successful CIO in the 1930s.
In the aftermath of the federal government crushing the American Railway Union, Eugene Debs, who had put his prison time to good use reading Marx, turned to politics, seeking solutions to the problems of working people through socialism. Some railroad workers in Indiana, Kansas, and Illinois who had been a part of Debs' ARU in 1894 resented the fact that Debs turned to socialism for,
...[Debs] had left them without a fighting industrial union and forced them to enter the scab craft movements after he changed the ARU to a political movement...
These railroad workers formed the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees (UBRE), with George Estes as president. Estes came from a faction of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers.
In 1904 the largest industrial union organization, the Western Federation of Miners, was under significant pressure from employer association attacks and the use of military force in Colorado. The WFM's labor federation, the American Labor Union had not gained significant membership. The AFL was the largest organized labor federation, and the UBRE felt isolated. When they applied to the AFL for a charter, the Scranton Declaration of 1901 was the AFL's guiding principle.
Gompers had promised that each trade and craft would have its own union. The Scranton Declaration acknowledged that one affiliate, the United Mine Workers was formed as an industrial union, but that other skilled trades—carpenters, machinists, etc.—were organized as powerful craft unions. These craft unions refused to allow any encroachment upon their "turf" by the heretical industrial unionists. This concept came to be known as voluntarism. The federation turned the UBRE down in accord with the voluntarism principle. The Scranton Declaration acknowledging voluntarism was adhered to, even though the craft-based railroad brotherhoods had not yet joined the AFL. The AFL was holding the door open for craft unions that might join, and slamming it in the face of the industrial unions who wanted to join. The following year the two thousand member UBRE joined the organizing convention of the IWW.
The craft-based AFL had been slow to organize industrial workers, and the federation remained steadfastly committed to craft unionism. This changed in the mid-1930s when, after passage of the National Labor Relations Act, workers began to clamor for union membership. In competition with the CIO movement, the AFL established Federal Labor Unions (FLUs), which were local industrial unions affiliated directly with the AFL, a concept initially envisioned in the 1886 AFL Constitution. FLUs were conceived as temporary unions, many of which were organized on an industrial basis. In keeping with the craft concept, FLUs were designed primarily for organizing purposes, with the membership destined to be distributed among the AFL's craft unions after the majority of workers in an industry were organized.
Industrial unionism has sometimes been considered a more radical—or even revolutionary—form of unionism (see below.) The CIO and to a lesser extent, the AFL (which was already more conservative) purged themselves of radical members and officers in the years before they merged, as part of what came to be known as the (second) Red scare. Some entire unions, perceived by the labor federation leadership as incapable of being reformed, were expelled or replaced.
Tied closely to the concept of organizing not as a craft, or even as a group of workers with industrial ties, but rather, as a class, is the idea that all of the business world and government, and even the preponderance of the powerful industrial governments of the world, tend to unite to preserve the status quo of the economic system. This encompasses not only the various political systems and the vital question of property rights, but also the relationships between working people and their employers.
Such tendencies appeared to be in play in 1917, the year of the Russian revolution. Fred Thompson has written, "Capitalists believed revolution imminent, feared it, legislated against it and bought books on how to keep workers happy. Such instincts played a role when the governments of fourteen industrialized nations intervened in the civil war that followed the Russian revolution. Likewise, when the Industrial Workers of the World became the target of government intervention during the period from 1917 to 1921, the governments of the United States, Australia and Canada acted simultaneously.
Therefore, in order to significantly improve the status of working people who sell their labor—according to this belief—no less than organizing as an entire class of workers can accomplish and sustain the necessary change.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), formed in 1905, organized more broadly than did the CIO or the Knights of labor. The IWW sought to unite the entire working class into One Big Union which would struggle for improved working conditions and wages in the short term, while working to ultimately overthrow capitalism through a general strike, after which the members of the union would manage production (also see anarcho-syndicalism which has some similarities...)
Verity Burgmann asserts in Revolutionary industrial unionism that the IWW in Australia provided an alternate form of labour organising, to be contrasted with the Laborism of the Australian Labor Party and the Bolshevik Communism of the Communist Party of Australia. Revolutionary industrial unionism, for Burgmann, was much like revolutionary syndicalism, but focused much more strongly on the centralised, industrial, nature of unionism. Burgmann saw Australian syndicalism, particularly anarcho-syndicalism, as focused on mythic small shop organisation. For Burgmann the IWW's vision was always a totalising vision of a revolutionary society: the Industrial Commonwealth.
The IWW's politics in 2007 mirror Burgmann's analysis: the IWW does not proclaim Syndicalism, or Anarchism (despite the large number of anarcho-syndicalist members) but instead advocates Revolutionary Industrial Unionism.