For A Union Of 10,000 Wobblies

An article from the June 2011 Industrial Worker, suggesting solutions to build the IWW.

“The percentage of the workforce that is unionized in the private sector is at an all-time low, and while the number of representation petitions against restaurants has increased in the past few years, the numbers are still extremely low in any given year. That being said, fast food restaurant owners and operators should take heed of the recent organizing campaign in Minneapolis against ten Jimmy John’s locations. The Wobblies are at it again.”

– Seyfarth Shaw, prominent U.S. anti-union law firm

In the year 2011, the IWW is once again feared by the capitalist class as a fighting union. Wobblies on shop floors across the world deserve to take a minute to congratulate ourselves: we are a threat again. But our work is far from done. As far as we have come, there is a long road ahead of us. We need to reflect on how we have come this far, and plan out our next steps

Our successes in the last few years were built on a foundation that was laid over the last decade. At a time when the labor movement was at a low ebb, disoriented by the realities of globalization and the service economy, a handful of visionary workers picked up the banner of the IWW and began organizing their own workplaces. The results were mixed, but lessons were learned. Now, we have distilled the lessons we have learned about shop-floor organizing into a coherent training so that they can be easily passed on to others. With the help of our organizer training program, our campaigns start out leaps and bounds ahead of where we were ten years ago. With a mastery of the nuts and bolts of organizing, our organizers are capable of waging struggles against the bosses involving hundreds of workers. While it is difficult to make generalizations about an organization of hundreds of people that has evolved over decades, it seems safe to say that the IWW is stronger than it has been in years.

However, as Wobblies, we are always thinking of ways to bring the class struggle to another level. That’s what brought us into the IWW in the first place: the belief in a possibility of a better world for workers and a desire to build a better workers’ movement to get us there. Over the years we have gained experience with a variety of approaches to organizing. We have had corridor campaigns, attempts to organize particular segments of industry with high levels of industrial power, campaigns against individual corporate chains, and many campaigns against individual shops initiated by workers who came to us for help. While we have learned a lot from all of these experiences, many Wobblies feel that we need to be more “strategic” with our next steps in order to maximize the impact we can make as a relatively small organization. There have been many several proposals for “strategic” campaigns over the years, but none of them have materialized. Why is that?

Before we are able to successfully implement a strategy, we need to build up the parts of our organization that would put a strategy into practice. We need to take one step backward and develop a plan to bring us to a point where we can implement an organizing plan. In other words, we need a strategy to implement a strategy.

In the next couple years, I think we should focus on building functioning branches of the IWW. We should look at our branches that are most effective at fighting bosses and building power, and replicate those successes. If we could take our largest branches of 100-200 members and copy that success in all of our 40-50 North American branches, we would have 4,000-10,000 members. We would have more organizers, more campaigns, and more funds to support all of our activities. We would be able to pick fights with bigger targets and organize them more effectively. We would have more brains wrestling with the question of how to build a new workers movement. We would have more workers learning more lessons about the class struggle. We would have more social leaders involved in the union, laying the basis for even broader recruitment and bringing us closer to a “tipping point” in society where our vision of class struggle for industrial democracy becomes a major current within the working class. An IWW with 10,000 members would be a qualitative and quantitative leap in the class struggle in North America.

Of course we aren’t going to build 10,000 Wobblies just by hoping it will happen. Just like in workplace organizing, we need to break this task down into smaller steps, and plan ahead so that a few years from now we will be successful. While we do need to fine-tune our approach to organizing and flesh out our solidarity unionism model, I think that we already have the knowledge in the union that would allow us to grow. We have branches that have 100-200 members. Let’s just figure out what has allowed some branches to thrive, and apply these lessons to all branches across the union.

There are certainly external circumstances that impact branch growth, but it’s more important to focus on the things we can control. I would say that there are a few key areas of competency that have allowed some branches to thrive:

1) Stable Administration. Having regular, efficient meetings makes it easy for people to get plugged in to the union. It also allows us to begin accumulating funds and personnel that can be used to build up our projects. However, stability is not an answer in and of itself. It is also critical that branches rotate tasks such as Secretary-Treasurer, allowing all members to take ownership over the administration of the branch.

2) Focus on Organizing. Our most successful branches are the ones that have active organizing campaigns. We need to make sure that all branch members understand that the IWW is an organization of working-class fighters who are building power on the job. We are not a social club or a political organization. There is room for folks who are not always actively organizing at their own workplace, but union campaigns waged by the workers themselves are the core of what we do. That means you need to organize in your own workplace or get a job somewhere where you can organize, and push your Fellow Workers to do the same.

3) Supporting Each Other.
Organizing is tough. There are often setbacks and things rarely go as planned. That’s why it’s important to support and help each other get through the difficulties we face while organizing. If there is no one with organizing experience in your branch, then get plugged in to networks of organizers in your industry from across the country. The greatest strength of our union is the enormous wealth of experience that Wobblies have in the class struggle.

Those are some general ideas. Here are a few specific proposals to strengthen the IWW in these areas:

1) Build More and Better Branches. The General Administration should create an updated manual on building IWW branches and set up a funded commission to fast-track the chartering of new General Membership Branches (GMBs) and Industrial Union Branches (IUBs) across North America, and help members who are seeking to revive stagnant GMBs. This commission would be made up of members who have experience successfully building GMBs and can help new branch-builders overcome the pitfalls of building the IWW from scratch in their area. In addition, branches could integrate themselves more fully into the IWW by making sure they have liaisons to the Organizing Department, International Solidarity Commission, General Defense Committee, and other union-wide bodies.

2) Build Regional Networks. Begin building stronger regional IWW networks with email lists and regular face-to-face conferences in each area of the continent. It is exciting to feel that we are part of a growing movement. Also, this will help cross-pollinate good ideas between branches. In the Twin Cities, we have started an email list to put us in more frequent communication with other branches in the area. The connections we had established over the last year helped us respond effectively to the situation in Madison, Wis.

3) Build a Corps of Trainers in Each Branch.
The Organizing Department has been a major success story for the IWW. Let’s build on that success by establishing a corps of trainers in each branch in the IWW to cut down on the time and expense of sending trainers to different cities to do trainings. This would also help ensure that the most important lessons of organizing are imparted to each and every branch.

4) Build Industrial Networks.
In order to maintain a union culture that is focused on organizing, we need to develop stronger networks between workers who are organizing in the same industry. Ultimately, these networks would form the basis of Industrial Unions. They could also conduct industry-specific recruitment, much in the same way the Starbucks Workers Union has recruited amongst Starbucks workers. Also, building networks of workers in the same industry across geographic areas could allow us to spread “best practices” in different types of organizing campaigns between branches more easily.

If we implement these ideas, I think we have a chance of building 40-50 functional branches of 100-200 members in the next five years with networks of workers ready to take on industry-wide organizing campaigns across North America. An IWW of 10,000 Wobblies is within reach. This would position us to initiate bigger and badder organizing campaigns than ever before, bringing us one step closer to One Big Union of all workers. Whether you agree with these specific proposals or not, it’s clear that we stand on the cusp of making substantial gains in building our organization and increasing the power of the working class. It’s time to think big and it’s time to act.

Taken from

For A Union Of 10,000 Wobblies.pdf173.24 KB

Posted By

Juan Conatz
Jun 8 2011 19:19


Attached files


Jun 10 2011 04:08

God damn, this got online quick. Nice.

Jun 10 2011 06:56

I think the only change I would make in this is for the abolition of the current GMB system with them being changed into proto-district councils. The GMB form encourages members not to look to build the IWW long-term. ORganizing committees given many of the same functions/rights of the current GMBs would be encouraged to develop Industrial organizing, participate in networks, etc.

Jun 11 2011 03:04

Respectfully, i don't find appeals to form convincing and I think the category 'form' doesn't shed much light much of the time when used as a causal explanation. Maybe I'm missing something, though and this is a terminological issue (i'm also in what is currently a highly functional branch, and maybe we're acting sort of like what you describe). What do you think folk should do different?

Jun 11 2011 05:27

From my experience - which is becoming somewhat dated, I haven't been very active in maybe 5 or 6 years - is that isolated branches don't get how to transform from a GMB to industrial organization. My thesis is that creating organizational forms which are explicitly meant to grow into IUBs, networks, etc would be better than one that tacitly stops at an existence based in mixed IU/locality. I don't mean this as a universal but as a discussion point and one older/experienced IWWs observation. One I would also happily accept to be proven out of date.

Jun 11 2011 15:35

Ah. No, I totally get you and thanks for the clarifiation. I know Alex well and I think he'd agree. I don't remember the exact wording but my branch has bylaw language about IUBs as a goal. I know from talking w/ Alex that what he's got in mind is that the branches are cross-cut by networks that support them and that they eventually become a resource for (that's what pts 2-4 are supposed to convey though the bit on trainers could be more explicit: trainers need to be networked across the organization and across industry); like my branch, at one point we were drawing down resources from the training network and informally from other people in the form of mentorship and support. At this point we certainly do still get great stuff from the rest of the organization but people in my branch are heavily involved in those efforts so if someone quantified it somehow I'm sure they'd find a net flow of resources out of our branch into the rest of the organization (via campaigns, training, and mentorship/support of other branches and individuals). Implied in all of this as well, I think, or at least I would argue for and I think you'd probly agree, is that there should be at least informal networks of support and mentorship (these already exist anyway but could be more and better and systematic) as well as networks for revolutionary unionist political education.
About IUBs specifically I agree with you here and expect Alex does too though I'm in the go-slow camp. Transition to IUBs ups administrative workload when it happens. So it should happen at a point when it's an net gain (there's enough people around to do the work without other good stuff being too hampered by the additional workload) and we should try to keep that administrative work as efficient and minimal as possible. Typing this out now this too is another argument for another crosscutting network - administrative support and mentorship, which should come via the GEB or some group (formal or informal) within the general administration, in order to help branches administer stuff with minimal time and headache.

I think the transition toward IUBs in food service could happen soon. I think that this should best happen - in that industry and in general - via networked groups across various GMBs, not within just one locale/one GMB. I think that contact with folk across the organization excites people, at least the people who are already fired up (people here are excited about the contact they've had with people in Portland in the industry, for instance, it makes them feel part of something bigger among other things). So I'd say part of the goal is to get several branches moving toward IUBs in similar industries (which requires identifying whose doing what where) in a process that they're engaged in together. Know what I mean?

Jun 11 2011 19:51

agree completely. Sorry work has left me not my most articulate. And we should probably take this onto a new thread if we want to go in depth.

Do remember there is a lot of experience in my branch with the strengths and weaknesses of how to build IUBs and council structure. For example, that IUBs don't necessarilly have to provide the adinistrative staff, which can be volunteers from other less-likely to grow industries. In my experience moving away from a local focus in most important act the IWW can do.

Jun 13 2011 04:00

Dude! You should write a reply that picks up the ball and runs with it (phrase it as "yes, and..." instead of "yes, but...") and publish it in the IW. Use your final three sentences as the outline for about an 800 word thing. I'm dead serious, I think it'd be a good contribution.

If you use some terms and quotes from this piece it might also help make it a bit of meme (I think that's the word, I mean like... you know... a THING, like "This is our thing! we are into THIS!" [my turn to feel inarticulate due to work).

And Juan - you should similarly write a reply that draws on this piece and makes the case for how another piece is the need for a dual card training.

It'd be great to see more discussion along these lines in the paper.