Industrial Worker (September 2013)

Articles from the September 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

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Life-long Wobblies

An article by J Pierce and Sadie Farrell about life-planning for revolutionaries and how the IWW has attempted to address this with Junior Wobblies.

Two IWW dreams came true for me at Mesaba Co-op Park this summer. One was to lead a conversation about being life-long revolutionaries. The other was to teach IWW principles to kids in a memorable way. The Work People’s College Committee approved the workshop I co-led with FW Linda called “Che Guevara vs. Mr. Rogers: Long-Term Planning for Lifelong Wobblies” (hereinafter referred to as “Life Planning”). The Junior Wobblies counselors gave me the opportunity to design some curriculum for the kids. These two experiences, as it turned out, went hand in hand.

The IWW has always been a multigenerational organization—something we are all very proud of. However, the union is entering a newer stage of retention since our gradual resurgence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many of our 20-something- year-old-members from that time are now 30- and 40-somethings with kids, partners and the stresses of being grown-up trouble-makers. Life Planning and Junior Wobblies are two exemplars of our readiness for the new IWW.

Life Planning

I’ve been promoting the idea of “IWW career counseling” for a while. In numerous conversations, fellow workers expressed their frustration at dedicating years of their work lives to IWW organizing. When it was all over, they had little to show for it: no money, no job prospects, and no marketable skills—nothing that meant “success.” The only viable career path, at that point, was to work for the business unions, which are constantly tempting IWWs with a mirage of security and respectability. Wobblies have also quit the union in order to “become their own boss,” ascend into the left intelligentsia, or graduate to being a “real” union member in a trade. This led to the idea that we should be helping each other build toward a career that allows us to stay in the IWW and work a job we might actually enjoy. Life planning combines “career counseling” and “life coaching” and draws out the contradictions and complexities that a Wobbly encounters as we progress through years of struggle.

Entanglements that we covered in the workshop included raising Wobbly kids and supporting Wobbly parents; finding life partners and maintaining those relationships; overcoming burnout, mild and severe depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illness; struggling with work, criminal records, lack of money or jobs, housing problems, prison, deportation, retirement; and more. As we invent collective solutions to these highly personal problems, we are forced to be honest with ourselves about what it really takes to be a life-long revolutionary.

Junior Wobblies

As we examined various collective solutions to life planning, we discovered that the single best “long-term plan” is already in full bloom: it’s the Junior Wobblies! A youth and family component to the IWW addresses an infinite amount of concerns, and is fun too. The first Junior Wobblies camp took place last summer, July 1 through July 5, 2012, at Mesaba. The Junior Wobblies camp is run by parents, counselors and increasingly by the Junior Wobblies themselves. Junior Wobblies programming runs at the same time as Work People’s College workshops, giving Wobbly parents the opportunity to participate in Junior Wobblies activities, attend workshops or do a combination of both!

For this year’s Junior Wobblies camp, we dreamt up an extended role play to get the kids doing the principles of the IWW. We did this by preparing a “Spanish Revolution” theme and using “living history”— playing dress-up and reenacting (an inspired version of) Spanish Civil War history. We tied the activities together with the idea that the kids were an anarchist youth collective building toward the revolution of 1936. We discussed regimentation and racism in the schools. We discussed how boring “robot” schools prepare kids for boring “robot” jobs. We practiced breaking down racial barriers and standing up to bullies. We worked in a mind-numbing paper airplane plant and had silent agitators encourage other youth to fight for the good things in life: “Stop cleaning the litter box and read!” “No—Sleep! Yes—Swim!” “Eat the rich and your pizza!” “Stand up to the bullies and join the Junior Wobblies!” “Capitalism sucks!! Join the Junior Wobblies!” We sewed red-and-black neckerchiefs and practiced union songs. And we defeated the fascists at the barricades thanks to disciplined production of water balloon munitions and the creativity, unity and spirit of the workers in battle.

Instead of instructing the kids in “politics,” the trick was to get them to feel what we feel as class-conscious workers. By using living history, role plays and interactive scenarios, the kids get to use their own thinking to arrive at their own conclusions. Simulations such as the barricade activity allow people to make mistakes and learn from them ahead of time while preparing for the real thing. Many of the kids won’t fully grasp the ideology behind the barricade activity, but they will remember the experience, the process and how it made them feel. The adventure of fighting alongside the “union” and the Junior Wobblies against these people called “fascists” and then singing “Solidarity Forever” and “A las Barricadas” in triumph— these are not political ideas. They are visceral sensations that will stay with them for a long time.

The secret is that adults need to have multi-sensory experiences, too. Adults learn the same way children do; it’s just less embarrassing if we can pretend the dress-up is for the kids. Educating children, or adults, in IWW values is not about convincing ourselves intellectually. It’s about creating experiences that engender the positive feelings of solidarity and cooperation while practicing good habits like befriending people who are different than you and standing up to the bullies together. The Junior Wobblies talked about how we needed to demonstrate the principle of solidarity by helping each other and having each other’s backs while showing each other kindness and respect if we were going to organize successfully for the revolution. The Junior Wobblies lived the principle of solidarity all week long. Older kids helped younger kids participate in activities. Veteran Junior Wobblies helped new recruits learn the ropes at Mesaba, and the kids took care of each other if one of them was hurt or upset. It’s easy to feel a sense of solidarity when working with the Junior Wobblies, and supporting our union parents is the best way to transform the IWW into the organization we all want to see.

The New IWW

At Mesaba this year, and in every branch, we have ample real-world evidence of the phenomenon of life-planning or the lack thereof. We had organizers who were stressed out, broken down, and burning out fast. We also had fellow workers who were working their plan, staying healthy, and supporting others to do the same. But the days of leaving our members to “sink or swim” on their own are coming to an end. As a union, we must find collective solutions to the challenges our members face. The more we transition to a family-oriented, healthy-habit, long-term-planning IWW the better we are going to be at building and sustaining life-long Wobblies.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2013)

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Reviews: Wu Ming express values, desires for a better world

Nate Hawthorne reviews Wu Ming's book, Altai.

Wu Ming—a pseudonym for a group of Italian authors—sometimes describe themselves as a band, just a band that makes novels instead of albums. Whatever you call it, the key bit is that these people write together and what they write is awesome. Wu Ming themselves have a fascinating history, which is so interesting it would take up too much room here to do it justice, crowding out the book, but I encourage you to check out the Wikipedia entry on them. Pay particular attention to the account of the Luther Blissett Project. Also I should mention that the group remains active in the Italian far left after many years, which means they write from a place of outrage at injustice and desire for a better world.

All of their work that has been translated into English is historical fiction. Wu Ming’s novels “Manituana,” about Native Americans who side with the British during the American war of independence, and “Q,” about peasant revolutionaries during the Protestant Reformation in Germany, are two of my all-time favorite books. I gave “Q” to my dad for Christmas a few years ago. My dad has a high school education, works in construction and is definitely not a radical. I love the guy but we don’t have a lot in common. I really wanted to have this novel in common with him so I wanted him to like it and I worried that he wouldn’t. When I asked what he thought of it he said, “Awesome book. Seriously awesome, I couldn’t put it down.” Good taste runs in the family.

I just read “Altai,” Wu Ming’s newest novel. “Altai” is also the name of a falcon used in hunting. If I knew what kind of sound those birds make when excited, and I knew how to type out that sound, I would do so now. I hope it suffices to say “hell yeah.” This is a great book. (Don’t tell my dad but “Altai”’s gonna be his birthday gift this year.)

“Altai” picks up after “Q” and the central character of “Q”—a German radical who passed through many an uprising—appears in “Altai” as well. The book’s main character is a spy for Venice who is set up to take a fall for political purposes right at the novel’s beginning and ends up working for his former enemies. I don’t want to spoil any of the plot points so let me just say that he undergoes important personal transformations and becomes embroiled in further intrigue and military expeditions.

“Altai” is a spy novel, full of gripping suspense and tension. There’s enough mystery to captivate, but it never gets confusing. And while there are militant moments, this is not a book that glorifies war—far from it. The book expresses a profound skepticism that military measures can achieve human liberation, and rightly so in my view.

The book is set largely in Constantinople, contemporary Istanbul. As Istanbul’s been the scene of vile repression and heroic protest lately, it seems to me that the publication of “Altai” in English is appropriately timed. While the earlier book, “Q,” had more scenes of ordinary people in rebellion than “Altai,” “Altai” is still concerned with issues of power and social change. If the world is a chess board, we are the front row, the pawns, and they the back row, the kings, queens, bishops, who are willing to see us suffer and die for petty rivalry and profit. Except at its edges, “Altai” doesn’t depict people in rebellion against their positions, but rather it focuses on the people in power and the terrible things they are willing to do. The sympathies of the novel, however, lie with the pawns, or with the movements that aim to kick the board off the table and begin a new game altogether.

The book is resonant with the present moment as well because of the central role that Jewish identity, anti-Semitism and struggles for a Jewish homeland play in the novel. I would describe the novel as anti-Zionist and anti-racist, which is to say, certainly not anti-Semitic. This theme is obviously relevant to the present given continuing conflicts and tensions, as well as popular rebellions, in the Middle East and the role of Israel and U.S. support for Israel in shaping that region.

I often feel unsophisticated as a reader of fiction (I read for enjoyment, not profundity), so I’m not totally sure about this, but I think the falcon, the Altai of the novel’s title and a few scenes, is a symbol. At one point in “Altai,” a character named Ismail, the revolutionary who was the main character in “Q,” argues that the methods used in a struggle shape its goals: “If you want to catch a hare, whether you hunt it with hounds or with a falcon, on foot or on horseback, it will always be a hare. Freedom, on the other hand, never remains the same; it changes according to the way you hunt. And if you train dogs to catch it for you, you may just bring back a doggy kind of freedom.” The novel’s narrator, as a spy, then former spy, then spy for another master, is not a dog. He’s a kind of falcon, with more freedom and sophistication than a hunting dog. And yet, falcons are leashed and hooded by the hunters who own them, and hunters set their agenda and take the results of the hunt. The narrator finds a limited kind of freedom and fulfilment via playing that role, but at significant cost. He tells Ismail, “Machiavelli wrote that you must keep your eye on the end, not the means.” Ismail replies, “Over the years I’ve learned that the means change the end.” Perhaps the difference between dogs and altai is not so great; if our route to freedom involves hoods and leashes, it may end up not being the freedom we wanted.

“Altai” is a rich novel and not a simplistic political fable, so I don’t want to reduce the book to a simple set of political lessons. Instead, I would like to end by talking about the importance of stories like this. As radicals, I think we need stories that express our values, both our hopes and our outrages, our desires for a better world and our rejection of this world. Wu Ming writes those kinds of stories.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2013)

Solidarity network or solidarity service?: on the challenges of building a solidarity network

The following originally appears in September 2013 issue of the IWW newspaper, the Industrial Worker, with the title “Building a solidarity network is harder than it seems.” Written by WRC member R. Spourgitis, it is a review of the pamphlet Build Your Own Solidarity Network, by two Seattle Solidarity Network members, and is based on our experiences with this project in Iowa City.

The Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol) is a “workers’ and tenants’ mutual support organization that fights for specific demands using collective direct action.” SeaSol has a dedication to direct action and emphasis on empowering workers and tenants, and they have a very high success rate. Given this, the “SeaSol Model” seems to embody an inspiring new mode of class struggle for the increasingly precarious—it is no wonder it has been exported all over the world and become a popular project for many, anarchists and other anti-capitalists in particular.

The 2011 pamphlet “Build Your Own Solidarity Network,” written by SeaSol members Cold B and T Barnicle details SeaSol’s strategy for taking on fights well (the pamphlet is online at http://libcom.org/library/you-say-you-want-build-solidarity-network).

In November 2010 a group of us in Iowa City, Iowa, began forming a solidarity network. Thinking strategically about what you can or cannot accomplish in a project, and the steps taken to get there, were not things I was used to when we started our own solidarity network. Building a solidarity network was part of an important shift in my politics. It meant going from issue-based activism and one-off campaigns or protests to direct action work on immediate economic demands at the point of exploitation. This work aligns with IWW practice. The descriptions of demand-delivery and section titled “Agitate – Educate – Organize” will be familiar to those who have been through the Organizer Training 101.

The guide has nuts-and-bolts information about group-based tasking and organization, which many of us spend years learning the hard way. Granted, only reading about it falls short of doing it, but the importance of these lessons should not be understated. Seemingly small items like encouraging group members to take on key tasks, following up with them, and running efficient, well-moderated meetings are necessary to a functioning organization of any sort, and it is refreshing to see this plainly laid out.

My experience building a solidarity network substantially differed from what was described by the SeaSol organizers in this pamphlet. There were difficulties we did not anticipate, and while we did not expect to adapt the model whole cloth to our area and be immediately successful, there were recurrent issues that hampered our ability to build fights from the network that the pamphlet does not address. I suspect that our experiences with this solidarity network model are not wholly unique and I hope that others will write more about their experiences with these types of projects so that we may refine our strategies and tactics. In Iowa City, we experienced tensions within the solidarity network model and these experiences are probably similar to others who have not had the successes with this model that Seattle has.

“People wanting to know how SeaSol got started often ask whether we had funding, whether we had an office, or whether we had extensive legal knowledge. We had none of these things, and we didn’t need them.”

It is a strength of the model that a solidarity network can begin with few existing resources. One thing the pamphlet stresses is that a key strategy to success is identifying what you can win, which is perhaps harder than it sounds and often requires a kind of resource. Specifically, it requires at least some legal knowledge of tenants’ and workers’ rights. In Iowa City, not having much familiarity with the specifics of our state and local law, particularly housing, quickly became a problem. We realized early that we needed to know if what people were contacting the solidarity network about could be built into a fight, and the law was a factor in this. Through online research we found relevant housing code and labor law to our area. We then produced a booklet that went into an on-call book of sorts, with a notepad for people’s information, and a list of area aid agencies.

The vast majority of our calls were housing related—around 90-95 percent of them. It became apparent that the tenants contacting us were usually not experiencing illegal actions on the part of their landlords, such as refusal to renew leases, hiking rents with lease renewals, giving bad referrals or threatening to call the police for minor infractions. In our area these are legal actions, even as they are terribly exploitative and oppressive for these tenants. As the SeaSol model is based on being winnable, this meant not taking on these cases. The emphasis on taking on “winnable fights” in effect translated to fighting against illegal actions and it was rare that this was blatantly the case.

“…the activists who started the project did not have to see ourselves as something separate from the group we wanted to organize. We were part of that group.”

The solidarity network model seeks to embody the principle of “solidarity not charity.” The fact that we work together as fellow tenants and workers to put pressure on those bosses and landlords screwing us over, instead of mediating through official channels, is a powerful thing. In practice, I found this is somewhat misleading about the realities of this work. Contrary to the principle underlying the model, we often fell into a distinctively service-led approach. None of the organizers’ workplaces or housing situations were built into fights, and so instead of fighting where we live and work, we ended up trying to assist others to fight where they live and work. We encouraged those who contacted us to become involved in the network, but this was never sustained beyond a meeting or two. One lesson here may be that when an individual meets with a network devoted to resolving their grievance—even if this network has a combative class-struggle approach—he or she is not unfairly expecting specialists of some kind. If the network explains that it does not specialize in this particular grievance, that does not change what the individual is expecting from that network.

This service role was exactly what most people who contacted us expected from us. It was notable that when we told contacts we want to follow their lead and described the demand delivery and escalating tactics approach, there was a sudden drop-off in interest. Although the authors of the SeaSol pamphlet say “people who have taken the initiative to contact us are more likely to be people who are prepared to play an active role in a campaign,” our experience was almost anything but this.

There were a handful of people we met with who had very clear, winnable-sounding fights. In these instances, the individual either handled it themselves or went through another channel to resolve their grievance. There were also those who contacted us and we waited too long to respond. Sometimes, we followed up with them immediately and never heard back. Given the immediacy of their need and seriousness of the living situation, it was understandable that we were not always equipped to help, even in a charitable, service-led capacity.

It should be pointed out that we were aware of these problems at the time. We worked on improving our response time. We did some of the things suggested in the guide, such as changing the wording on our flyers and flyering more consistently. Since we seemed to get many people in tough situations but which we couldn’t help, we changed them from saying “Problems with your landlord?” to “Stolen deposits or unmade repairs?” This did not have an appreciable difference in the type or volume of calls we would receive.

Being that so many of the contacts were renting units in apartment complexes, something we discussed was the need to build collective action with committees of tenants from the apartments—much like described in the “Inside Organizing” section at the end of the guide. Unfortunately, we never connected with a single tenant willing or able to build such a committee, let alone a group of them. This is not to say those tenants are not out there, but they did not contact us.

Our area is like many places in the United States, there are no tenants’ unions or associations. There is a Housing Authority directly complicit with the police and the major property management companies, and a handful of neighborhood associations devoted to immediate need programming and state social workers. As a result, there is little to no recourse for the injustices dealt to tenants. I have to wonder if such a lack of social services and mediation, as disempowering and meager as they are, differs from other places and led us to be expected as another service.

Additionally, our immediate region is undergoing big changes in its racial composition. As gentrifying efforts have stepped up in major metro areas, recent years have seen an increase in Black and Latino residents in Iowa City (67 percent and 97 percent increases respectively between 2000-2010). There is a more complicated picture behind these demographic shifts and their causes and effects than I can do justice to in this brief review. Still, it is clear that for many new residents to the area that the structural racism of local power is felt from the police, schools, city services, and, of course, in housing.

I illustrate this local context because nearly all of the few contacts we met with were Black women. Conversely, our solidarity network was made up of a majority male, entirely white grouping. This is not intended to lament our group’s dynamics or to advocate retreating into inaction based on white guilt, but it would be dishonest to omit such marked differences of race and gender between solidarity network members and our contacts. This fact comes to mind when the authors suggest door-knocking and more heavily flyering apartment complexes with known problem landlords. At times we did flyer specific areas, but taking that recommendation to its fullest extent in my opinion would have amounted to some of the worst kind of white radical paternalism. While efforts were made to include the women we met with in our organizing, these could have been stronger. However, an individual or two does not represent a community, and the divide of white radical activists and a majority people of color service community remain as a fact of this organizing experience.

The Iowa City Solidarity Network operated for a little more than a year. In that time, we learned about our area and the reality of engaging local struggles to a depth unappreciated before. Occupy Iowa City emerged in late 2011 and our efforts shifted to that project. Given the frustrating and lackluster experience of the solidarity network, it was something we decided to close in December of that year.

Reflecting on this model, I think there are aspects indicating more individualized service work than is appreciated, as the single individual with a legally legitimate grievance calls in for support and the solidarity network organizers act as specialists in struggle. There is more at work here than the SeaSol model, though. There are bigger issues with the project which span the anti-capitalist left: organizers lacking real connections to working-class communities—not forced or imaginary ones—the lack of a recent shared history of collectively fighting back, and the lack of a material support system for those willing to take risks in their jobs or living situations, to name a few.

The SeaSol model may be useful in other places. IWW people considering a solidarity network may want to find out what services already exist for tenants and workers in their area to determine if they are prepared to handle people in crisis mode looking to them for service and if they are equipped to mobilize a number of people for a public showing of solidarity. Additional questions or criteria are probably needed for an IWW branch to consider it, such as if fights will come from their own membership or outside and if the latter how to handle people new to the IWW coming in for their workplace or housing grievance.

At this stage of class struggle, different approaches in different places are worth trying and a solidarity network might be a useful one indeed.