On being eaten by the young

John O'Reilly on some organization issues he sees in the IWW.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 3, 2014

Like all organizations, the IWW has its problems to contend with. One of the ones that I've been observing recently that I think we continually cycle back towards is the problem of "being eaten by the young." Despite its name, its a problem that has nothing to do with age (I've seen people in their 20s be eaten by the young and I've seen retired people eat the old).

I can think of probably a dozen examples of members being getting eaten by the young, but they all follow the same general pattern. A member has been around for at least four years (sometimes many more), has done some organizing, and has been active in some way in the international union, either through Convention, an international committee or an officer position. During this time they've weighed in on various controversies as part of their position or just as an active member with a sharp mind. They've taken controversial stands, or pushed new and challenging ideas. Their name is known around the organization because of their activities, people may even use their name as a shorthand for a specific idea or tendency. In short, they are popular.

But suddenly, and its impossible to tell exactly when, they cross a threshold and start finding that people, especially new members, talk behind their backs. Their actions become imbued with bad motives (of any sort: reactionary, reformist, careerist, out of touch, academic, impossibilist, etc). The positions that they have taken in the past come back to haunt them in the present. The amount of knowledge they have, whether it be the number of people they know, the workings of the internal union rules, or their capacity to advance ideas in the organization, becomes suspect. And so newer members, who don't have personal relationships with them, see them as a gate-keeper and an old guard. Someone who is holding the organization back. The member's reputation is slowly stained and so in response they find themselves tightening up, becoming suspicious, finding enemies, real or imagined, and further confirming new member's beliefs about their stodgy nature, their "old beard"-yness. Before long, the member quits in frustration, provokes open conflict, or disappears into the wider world, retaining their membership just out of longtime loyalty. They've been eaten by the young.

I've been the young, eating the old. I've rolled my eyes, felt not taken seriously, condescended to, and have whispered, caucused, schemed. Now, about to celebrate my 6th year in the organization and coming off a two year officer term where I've taken controversial positions, I wonder if I'm next. I worry about when my experience will become a liability. When will I be eaten?

How do we stop having the young eat the old? Not I think with the usual prescription, which is encapsulated by the statement "Yeah he's a problem but he's done so much stuff, just ignore it." Yeah-he's-a-probleming things just means we ignore disruptive behavior because of someone's experience, which is foolish and just encourages other young people to eat him. Yeah-he's-a-probleming is the primary response to this problem today and it's use exists in perfect harmony with being eaten by the young, each supporting the other's use.

I don't have any firm thoughts about how to deal with this but want to sketch out a couple of possible directions to think through.

1. Talking more openly and clearly about mentorship and what it means. It should be an expectation that more experienced members mentor newer members, but it should also be clear to new members that everyone in the organization has learned from someone before them. There will always be more experienced people to learn from and there will always be people who are new and need to learn. We should be clear with up-and-coming organizers that they have a lot to learn, even if what they're doing is new and interesting. I feel like nobody ever really told me "Stop, listen to this person, it's important." For Wobs who came up in my "cohort" as it were, I feel like the message was, "You're great, go forth!" I don't really know how to do this, but I do think that talking more about how we learn organizing and political skills would be a good idea.

2. Save history from the historians. None of us was the first person in this organization, we're all indebted to those before us. Yet many people like myself start nodding off when someone starts talking about 1915 like it was yesterday. The fact that so many of us have come up in the organization fighting against the "Joe Hill Memorial Society" culture means that we often think of history as a kind of opponent, something against we are constantly measuring ourselves to see if we're worthy of its mantle. We fear and avoid history.

We need to talk more and louder about our recent history. An experienced member just seems like a boring person with lots of opinions to a new member who doesn't know where those opinions came from and what forged them. We need to produce more written accounts of our struggles, contemporary and historic, and have them available and accessible as part of a Wobbly's first year in the organization. If I would have known more about some members who I have taken part in eating at the time, I would have eased back.

3. Smash the gates. This ties in with both previous points, but experienced members need to do a way better job of avoiding both the appearance and the reality of gatekeeping. This is way harder than it sounds. The more time and energy you've spent on the union, the more you start using shorthands and jargon. You have more relationships with individuals who you've deemed worth your time and you sometimes ignore people you don't know, especially in an organization where turnover amongst new members is astronomical. You don't want to waste time arguing with someone with stupid ideas who you know won't be around 5 months from now.

There's a million reasons why gatekeeping is easier for experienced members, and that means we need a million ways to fight it. I don't know what they all are, but I'd be open to suggestions.

Originally posted: December 1, 2013 at Better Problems



10 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by coyote16 on January 3, 2014

As a wobbly geezer, I think this article (and John O'Reilly's other article about Not being Jerks) brings up many good, albeit problematic, questions. I've seen the issue from youth, active and elder's perspectives.

1) I agree that mentoring would be a healthy policy, but there are too few wobs past "Active" stage who would be good for mentorship. Most members pre-2000 most likely had little direct unionism style IWW organizing experience. I can only think of a couple in North America.

Why post-active? We need the active members to continue to be active and focus on what they're doing - the organizing.

As a geezer, I can say the best method of getting information/mentorship is for younger members to ask the older members. There are 10x as many of you than me. Just fn ask.

In my case, I never lost interest, but family took away from my ability to participate day-to-day. It's an age old story of the home guard. Giving up being active daily involvement in the IWW was one of the hardest things I had to do.

And this is why older IWWs wind up being apparent cranks/jerks/dismissive. You don't have time to monitor all the discussions, but you have some of the experience/knowledge/etc to explain why it's wrong/problematic. So you come on for your 2 hours a month check in on the IWW and you see a huge potential problem. What do you do? Let it go? Or spend your very limited time getting into the nuances of the issue knowing you'll not be able to back up your arguments.

The transition to senior/mentor wobbly is a learning experience we need to discuss at some point.

2) John's comments on history are the most problematic for me. For me, and my branch, history has always been very important. Not because we wanted to replicate the past. Far too many mistakes were made. But we wanted always to learn from our mistakes and go beyond our past.

While I don't believe this is John's intent, how this issue is raised comes across as dismissive to me. We cannot not respect and honor the experiences of the working class. And the best way of doing that is investigate what actually happened and learn/discuss their lessons.

I think one of the best works the contemporary IWW has done is disengage from the Communist Party's history of the IWW. For example, the historical work being done by Peter Cole and others around the Philly MTW local is inspiring many labor activists inside and outside the IWW.

A recapturing of our history from the liberal and Communist labor historians has informed the tendencies for solidarity and direct unionism with in the contemporary IWW.

Again I don't think that's what FW O'Reilly had in mind, but it must be more clearly be articulated.

3) Gatekeeping: I've had to give up years ago. As well as fight against. My method to do this has been to stop gate keeping per se because, hell, the IWW has lived this long little I can do to protect it.

When I was a young wobbly I got to meet/hang with a number of pre-1920s wobs who had never stopped. What was most useful to me in the 35+ years since is why things/descisons happened and their outcomes.

What I can/do do is explain my experiences to the younger members of my branch. Recently several of the founders of our branch gave a talk on our history. Whether we agreed or disagreed with what had happened, we attempted to give a fair and impartial attempt to discuss the logic and reasons why things happened.

Thanks against for writing this.


8 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by blaird on June 1, 2016

Here are some suggestions for addressing this matter:

First, general and the various specific systems theories and group dynamics theories are useful constructs understanding the processes that nurture groups functioning and dysfunctions. When informed by practice, they become a part of a powerful nurturing praxis.

Second, having a dialectic in group process, i.e., experiences in several groups brings and understanding of group process in general and tools to borrow from other groups and pitfalls to be avoided.

Of the dozens of groups in which I'm operating the three that are most bottom up, more or less anarchist in polity, are the IWW, twelve step, and unprogrammed Quakers (I could include my immediate family here too). Each of them benefit from my operation in the others. I have been the lead person in starting and sustaining groups in all three structures, and similarities and difference emerge. Some of the most powerful elements for groups that accomplish their intention are:

1. Letting each comment, whether written, spoken, sung, or danced, become the groups' possession and the group's responsibility. The person initiating the comment letting go of ego ownership, and the group taking possession while still honoring the source person's contribution, a delicate balance to be sure.

2. Simple commitment and stick-to-itiveness. New groups need 18 to 24 months of a committed few to make it go regardless of who is there. The sustaining structures need to be practiced consistently so that the trust that the process will continue as others engage will develop.

2. Recognize the different skill sets persons in the group have, uses them, and honor them.

3. More experienced persons mentor with a minimum of ego, and individuals who seek this out is crucial.

4. An ongoing effort to experience critique as constructive rather than as an attack (no matter how unskillfully or badly the critique is delivered), and tempering our critique to consistently include kindness.

5. Have a regime of self-care that includes the biological, psychological, social, familial, and community aspects of ourselves: the IWW cannot do all of this or even most of this for us.

Brad Laird
a Wobbly Quaker