IWW Assembly looks to future

An account of the 1998 IWW General Assembly. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 1998)

Organizing dominated a packed agenda at the IWW's 1998 General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, over the Labor Day weekend. More than 87 members attended, making this year's the largest such meeting in many decades.

General Secretary-Treasurer Fred Chase reported that membership has more than doubled since the 1995 Assembly, and is up 34 percent from last year. Over the last year the IWW has chartered Industrial Union Branches in Sedro Woolley, Washington (construction), Toronto (public service), Portland (entertainment and public service), San Francisco (marine transport) and Winnipeg (general distribution). Fourteen new General Membership Branch charters have been issued, and several new charter applications are in the works.

The IWW now has members in 12 countries, with the largest concentrations in Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. There continues to be strong interest in the union in Latin America and Africa. This international growth offers exciting possibilities for building an IWW truly capable of taking on the bosses on a global level, but it also raises financial and organizational issues which the union will continue to grapple with over the next year.

Indeed, the strains of our rapid growth were evident throughout the Assembly. So many branches were represented that the time allotted proved insufficient to allow for reports on the abundant organizing and other activities now underway despite the firm but understanding efforts of co-chairs Missy Rohs and Tim Acott. More than two dozen proposed constitutional amendments and other resolutions also overwhelmed available discussion time, and an ad hoc committee was appointed to continue the process of reviewing and refining these proposals before they are presented to the membership for a union-wide vote.

The highlight of the two days was probably the talk by IWW and ILWU member Robert Irminger, who is facing a lawsuit in retaliation for his alleged role in organizing picketing of the Neptune Jade last year in solidarity with Mersey dockers. Irminger was singled out by the bosses because he served as picket captain during the four-day action. (See report above) He told delegates that IWW members played an critical role on the picket line, constituting half the pickets at one point. The recent organization of the San Francisco Bay Ports Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union 510 Branch is, at least in part, an outgrowth of our efforts to build solidarity for the Mersey dockers in their long struggle.

The ongoing drive at Skagit Pacific in Washington state was also reported on, as was the recent organization of IWW branches in Edmonton, Alberta, and Victoria, British Columbia. Fellow Workers from Austin, Texas, reported on their successful fight to force a local developer to pay some $28,000 in unpaid wages to 125 mostly undocumented workers there.

Members broke into smaller groups Saturday afternoon for more focussed discussions on organizing strategy, working within the business unions, constitutional revision, international structure, the Industrial Worker and other topics. Sunday morning, we broke into industrial meetings after nominations were completed. Maritime workers from San Francisco brought copies of their new newsletter to spark discussion. Many Wobs work as casuals on the Oakland docks, and the MTW is undertaking health and safety training to educate casuals on their rights.

Public Service IU 670 workers discussed organzing within the already largely unionized public sector, which has many legal restrictions including making strikes illegal and not being able to bargain over pay. 670ers also discussed the nature of working for private and publically funded non-profits, where workers are often expected to make wage concessions and other sacrifices for a "common good" which the bosses do not allow them to shape the vision of. Because of the nature of IU 670, it was generally agreed that the democratic principles of the IWW would be embraced by others in the industry, especially non-profit workers and government employees saddled with undemocratic or lazy unions. We will be developing literature to address this issue.

Education workers shared stories of efforts to organize their workplaces and discussed the prospects for iwwue-based organizing where there was little prospect of winning a job branch or job control in the near future. Education workers at the University of Memphis are launching a local newsletter as part of their efforts to organize the campus' low-paid workers. Other meetings brought together construction, restaurant and entertainment Wobs.

Spreading the word

A proposal by the Literature Committee to develop an indexed archive of material to better support organizing drives was approved, while a workshop on international issues proposed that the IWW return to our earlier system of regional administrations. The Radio Committee reported that the first episode of the "Soapboxing the Airwaves" show has been produced, and that several stations have agreed to air it. Future programs will be distributed on compact disk.

The Internet Committee reported on the dramatic growth of the union's online resources, which now includes six servers in three countries. While the network makes possible a much wider geographical distribution of IWW information, the burden of maintaining it falls fairly heavily on the shoulders of a few branches and individual members. FW Deke Nihilson noted that the small number of volunteers maintaining the network leaves the system vulnerable, and called for volunteers to take on a variety of support tasks ranging from helping members get on-line to more advanced technical support. Nihilson also noted the need for increased financial support, both to maintain the existing service and to enable the San Francisco Branch to secure more band-width to accomodate growing usage.

And the Organizing Strategies workshop discussed the different conditions facing organizers in the U.S. and Canada and the need to provide better training and support, particularly for first-time organizers. Participants agreed that the key to successful organizing was not winning Labor Board certification, but rather establishing a functioning union presence on the job. Even where the union remains a minority presence, real improvements can often be won through workplace struggles and the union can build legitimacy and broader support. A variety of strategies for sharing organizing skills were discussed, including regional tours, training sessions incorporated into regional meetings, and videotaped presentations on labor law and organizing tactics. Participants also discussed the need for more reflection on our organizing efforts, perhaps in the form of a regular section in the General Organization Bulletin.

Members attended from Austin TX, Boston, Butte MT, Cincinnati, Detroit, Edmonton, Eugene OR, Gainesville FL, Hawaii, Louisville, Memphis, Mendocino, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Monterey, Olympia WA, Philadelphia, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, The Dalles OR, and Victoria. Greetings were received from the British Isles, Baltimore, Greensboro NC, Lancaster PA, New York, Tacoma, and Washington D.C.

IWW members can look forward to a bulging referendum ballot next month, addressing issues ranging from a dues hike to changes in the provisions for membership eligibility to our international structure.

Members will also be asked to endorse the I-99 International Solidarity Conference being organized by fellow workers in the San Francisco Bay Area for June 1-5. The sponsors hope that the conference - open to all who agree that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, that the working class should take over the economy, and that workers must organize into unions to fight the capitalists - will replace factionalism with mutual aid, and explore the possibilities for coordinated international efforts against our common enemy, the employing class. Many other proposals were left on the table for further debate and discussion.

Nominations

Fred Chase and Alexis Buss accepted nomination for General Secretary-Treasurer. More than three dozen candidates were nominated to serve on next year's General Executive Board, and are currently being contacted to verify eligibility and to determine if they accept nomination. Nominees include: Joshua Freeze (Austin), Morgan Miller (Portland), John Persak (Seattle), Denny Henke (Memphis), Monica Berini (San Francisco), Kevin Brandstatter (Swindon), Mark Damron (Cincinatti), Fred Lee (Leicester), Nathan Smith (Asheville), Liam Flynn (San Francisco), Mike Garcia (Salt Lake City), Mickey Valis (Atlanta), Dennis Georg (Butte), Rick George (Eugene), Heather Harmon (Mendocino), Harry Siitonen (East Bay), Susan Marsh (San Francisco), Chris Wall (Seattle), Bob Rivera (Michigan), Mark Janowitz (San Francisco), Colin Dewey (San Francisco), Penny Pixler (Chicago), Hillary Yothers (East Bay), Jason Justice (East Bay), Malini Cadambi (East Bay), Jen Kortright (East Bay), Steve Kellerman (Boston), Pete Wilcox (Oahu), Robin Walker (East Bay), VT Lee (Florida), David Christian (Atlanta), Frank Devore (San Francisco), Eric Chester (Boston), Obo Help (San Francisco), Mike Reinsborough (Los Angeles), Bob Helms (Philadelphia), and David Collins (East Bay). Several other nominees declined on the floor.

Nominated to edit the Industrial Worker for the next two years were Jon Bekken, a Detroit, Michigan-based collective, and Brian Wiles (San Francisco).

Members will also choose between Memphis, Tenn., and Winnipeg, Manitoba, for the site of the next General Assembly.

On a personal note, it seemed clear to your editor that we will need to rethink how we handle our Assemblies, given our ongoing growth. Requiring that resolutions and proposed constitutional amendments be circulated to all branches well in advance of the Assembly could have made it possible to resolve many wording issues in advance, and perhaps to consolidate proposals addressing similar issues. Similarly, by more strongly encouraging advance registration for the Assembly, it would be possible to mail out agenda packets a couple of weeks in advance, so that delegates would arrive already familiar with the content of the reports and proposals to be considered. These modest changes might lead to more focussed discussion, and reduce the inevitable confusion resulting from trying to address proposals which many delegates are seeing only for the first time.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 1998)