It takes more than direct action

Colin Bossen talks about 3 different organizing campaigns he's been a part of and why the succeeded or failed.

Over the last seven years I have been involved in three major IWW organizing campaigns. The first of these was with the Chicago Couriers Union. This campaign succeeded in building a union of bike messengers that over the last seven years has maintained a small but dedicated membership. The couriers union has, throughout its existence, managed to make a difference in the lives of the workers in the industry. Since its inception the union has: won a wage increase at the third largest courier company in Chicago; advocated for numerous workers who have been unjustly fired, denied back pay, illegally docked at work, harassed or otherwise victimized; taught novice bike messengers about safety; and improved access to buildings. The union has also organized numerous social events and bike races for members of the Chicago, national and international courier industry. These events combined with the union's victories have made the couriers union a significant presence in Chicago and in the wider industry.

The other two campaigns I have been involved with have not been as successful. The first was an effort to organize the troqueros, or port truck drivers, in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. This effort got off to a solid start. The IWW was contacted by a group of troqueros interested in organizing. As many as fifty workers attended the groups initial meeting. More importantly the group was able to organize a strike that shut down the both of the ports. Despite this spectacular job action--involving thousands of workers and disrupting a large segment of economy--the troqueros were unable to successfully build a lasting union presence in the industry.

The second failed campaign I was involved with shared similar characteristics to the troquero campaign. It involved a group of taxi workers in Cleveland. Again, there was initially great enthusiasm. Before ever meeting with the IWW the group had managed to organize meetings with as many as 80 workers in attendance. Over the course of a year, the taxi workers held a series of direct actions and protests that built some respect for them in the industry. The director of the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport met with them to listen to their concerns and they vocally presented their demands to the owners of a couple of taxi companies. After a year of this kind of activity, and despite their promising start, the taxi workers organizing efforts also petered out.

The two failed organizing campaigns had a lot in common. In both instances they took place in cities where the IWW lacked a well-organize local branch. In both instances I was trying to organize the campaign with little additional support. And in both instances the workers involved had little interest in doing institutional work of union building--people did not want to step-up to be delegates or use any sort of structure for running their meetings. This meant that the workers meetings were often dominated by personalities and there were no formal mechanisms for accountability.

The campaign that resulted from the Chicago Couriers Union provides a sharp contrast with the other two. It took place in a city with a well-organized and vibrant local branch. Between the branch and the international union, money was put together in two separate instances to fund a stipended organizer for three months. And throughout the initial phases of the campaign there were always a handful of people from outside the industry involved in organizing efforts. These differences meant that there were people to work on the campaign when the workers in the industry's interest slackened and that there was a model of organization that the couriers could refer to when building their own.

The differences between these three campaigns have led me to believe that, in order for organizing efforts to succeed in the long-term, organizers and workers must focus on institution building. I am positive that if strong IWW branches existed in either Los Angeles or Cleveland when I was working with the troqueros and taxi workers, then the outcome of both of those campaigns would have been different. Likewise, I believe that if the IWW had been able to devote a full-time stipended organizer to either campaign the results would have been different.

If the IWW is to grow into a powerful force for the working class then we must focus on making our institutions stronger. This means, at the least, better organized local branches and more resources for funding organizers. If we devote our energies to these things, we will be a force to be reckoned with. If we do not, our organizing efforts will continue to have a mixed track record and, more often than not, end in failure.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (July 2010)

Comments

MT
Jun 10 2012 13:33
Quote:
The differences between these three campaigns have led me to believe that, in order for organizing efforts to succeed in the long-term, organizers and workers must focus on institution building. I am positive that if strong IWW branches existed in either Los Angeles or Cleveland when I was working with the troqueros and taxi workers, then the outcome of both of those campaigns would have been different. Likewise, I believe that if the IWW had been able to devote a full-time stipended organizer to either campaign the results would have been different.

If the IWW is to grow into a powerful force for the working class then we must focus on making our institutions stronger. This means, at the least, better organized local branches and more resources for funding organizers. If we devote our energies to these things, we will be a force to be reckoned with. If we do not, our organizing efforts will continue to have a mixed track record and, more often than not, end in failure.

I have two comments to this:

1) author concludes that institutional building (btw, does it mean setting up IWW groups or something else?) was needed as well as more "stipended" organizers. i would say that the success or failure has also a lot to do with the industry and how direct action can be applied to stop the business. the author compares three campaigns and i think that the only one that really succeeded according to author was in a pretty specific industry - couriers are in a more advantageous position to paralyze the business. from what i understood, you need less people for that than in docks or in taxi industry. another IWW worker says:

Quote:
Every day lost in not delivering a package costs this company money. The precision of the timing and the workers' role in maintaining the schedule furthers the opportunity for strategic opposition.

http://libcom.org/library/informal-work-groups-resistance-sunrise-shift

maybe i am wrong but reading this article and the one i've just quoted it just caught my attention.

2) it was mentioned indirectly in the debate on recent IWW UK conference but would like to clarify this - does IWW US have paid full-time organizers? or aims to have them?

Juan Conatz
Jun 10 2012 18:33
MT wrote:
2) it was mentioned indirectly in the debate on recent IWW UK conference but would like to clarify this - does IWW US have paid full-time organizers? or aims to have them?

He have temporary stipended organizers. For example, in Madison for some of the time me and OliverTwister were that. And also, a Wob from here in the TC spent a month in Madison on a stipend helping with a campaign that isn't public yet. But we do not have fulltime permanent organizing staff.

As far as I know, the only paid positions here are the GST, the IW editor (gets a stipend), the head of the Lit Department (gets a stipend I believe) and the temporary stipended organizers we have occasionaly.

MT
Jun 10 2012 18:46

Thanks for the answer. Still, what does it mean in practice? Are these people paid their living costs or they have some standard hour wage or they have a a budget? For me it is a news and would like to understand how it works.

Juan Conatz
Jun 10 2012 19:31
MT wrote:
Thanks for the answer. Still, what does it mean in practice? Are these people paid their living costs or they have some standard hour wage or they have a a budget? For me it is a news and would like to understand how it works.

The GST makes about $20,000 a year. The stipend for the IW editor is (I believe) $6,000 a year. No idea about the head of the Lit Department. For temporary stipended organizers it can vary. The ones I know of it was $250-650 for a month, depending on the resources available. Also, temporary stipended organizers is not very common. It's not something that we rely on or use extensively either. It's more for bigger campaigns where the local branch or whatever doesn't have the experience or resources to handle a situation or where there is an organizing campaign but not much of a local IWW precense (for example if a groups of workers contacted us and got things moving in organizing at their workplace, but there is no local branch to assist them).