What’s Wobbly about it?

An article by x347979 about 'dual-card' organizing in an independent union formation.

For the last couple of years I have been involved in an organizing campaign at my workplace. The company I work for is large and there are a number of craftbased unions present in it. My craft, however, doesn’t have a union and we aren’t eligible for representation through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process. Nonetheless, we have managed to build up an organizing committee with approximately 30 active members and have begun our first public campaign around a particular set of grievances.

I haven’t tried to develop our organizing campaign into an IWW campaign for two reasons. The first is the sharply ideological nature of my craft. People have very strong opinions and are uncritical of the capitalist system. In addition, they tend to come from wealthy backgrounds and are not open to discussions around class war. Instead of changing the economic system most of my co-workers want to fix it.

My first reason, however, is significantly less important than my second one. There are several people in the organizing committee who think we should affiliate with one of the large AFL-CIO or Change to Win Federation unions. I know that if I pushed for an affiliation with the IWW, those who want to affiliate with a large business union would quickly win the argument and we would end up being part of another union. The situation that has resulted is a stalemate. We aren’t affiliated with anyone and we aren’t seeking affiliation.

Several of my co-workers know about my previous experiences organizing with the IWW. Recently, I had a conversation with one of them about what we were doing and my approach to building our organization. I told him that even though we weren’t affiliated with the IWW I thought that our organizing was, thus far, very much in the style of the IWW. So, he asked me, “What’s Wobbly about it?” Several things I told him: we run our organization democratically; we treat every member as an organizer; our organization is built on the strength of our relationships with each other; and we are not, currently, seeking formal recognition from our employer, instead we are organizing around grievances. None of this makes our organization a revolutionary union but it does make our organization one with radical potential. To see how, let me explain, briefly, how the union works.

We have an organizing meeting once a week for an hour. The meeting is open to everyone who works at our company and in our craft, who someone in the union has invited to attend. Meeting sizes range from slightly more than 10 to slightly less than 25. The meeting is run by a chair. The chair rotates week to week and while the agenda is set in advance, any member can place an item on it. Decisions at the meeting require a two-thirds majority and the meeting only has authority with respect to how the union relates to external bodies: management, the press and other unions. In other instances members are encouraged to take action around specific issues that affect them. As a result, members engage in small organizing projects that intrigue them and cooperate on the larger ones.

In addition, we hold semi-regular organizer trainings. Not everyone attends these but they are designed to help members grow into organizers. Everyone is encouraged to bring other people into the union and the emphasis on this has meant that the organization has grown organically. It also means that people are beginning to see the union not as some abstract body but, instead, as made up of the relationships they have with each other. Standing up to management becomes, in part, an issue of standing up for friends. People end up committed to the union not because they are committed to some set of abstract ideas or even improving their working conditions. They end up committed because they are committed to each other.

I hope that this structure means that people won’t think of the union we’re building as a workplace-specific organization. Instead, I hope that they will come to think of it as a way of being in the world. If being part of a union means developing a certain kind of relationship with one’s co-workers, then that attitude becomes something that is transferred from workplace to workplace, as people change jobs. And that infuses even a non-revolutionary union with revolutionary potential. And that’s what’s Wobbly about it!

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2014)