Building relationships and community in an IWW workplace committee

A fellow IWW member sent us this article about the importance of relationship building in our organizing, and the importance of not limiting our relationships to being narrowly about work.

Submitted by Recomposition on October 11, 2012

When I first started out as an IWW a number of years ago my organizing was very detached with my co-workers and the thought of focusing on them never crossed my mind much. Because of that I kept the majority of my co-workers at a certain arms length and even with my fellow committee members I was emotionally unavailable.

As a young Wobbly, I was too inexperienced, uncomfortable, and uninformed about integrating the seemingly disparate spheres of my life (‘home,’ ‘friends,’ ‘work,’ ‘IWW,’ ‘family,’ etc.) to see between and beyond the ‘stages of a campaign.’ Instead I was fixated on a numbers game of growing the committee, and ultimately the union.

At the time, I didn't realize that it is the process—developing dynamic individual relationships, sharing skills, experiences, lessons and laughter with co-workers—that will ultimately determines quality, character, and content. Instead my organizing was concentrated singularly on rushing to obtain an end product, which was going public with the campaign, but without focus on building tight relationships and strong militants.

Organizers Not Agitators

Reflecting on the historic Bread and Roses strike, early IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn said “[they] were wonderful agitators, but poor union organizers” and despite the importance of the strike in the imagination of the US labor movement, its outcome was a reflection of short-term gains that didn’t build long term organization. The IWW enjoyed a radically democratic and inclusive structure with a revolutionary aim, but we were still ill equipped to systematically develop new organizers/leaders and weather the fluctuations of mass militancy in the class struggle.

While IWW’s were beginning to improve and mature their organizing going into WWI in agriculture and along the Philadelphia waterfront before facing massive repression, they were still making first steps towards overcoming the ‘hot shop’ approach of organizing; and in many ways we’re still overcoming this today. A ‘hot shop’ is a workplace or industry were workers may be fired up and ‘red hot’ over an immediate grievance (such as pay, policy changes, or treatment by management), but not committed to work of long time organizing and likely to ‘go cool’ as quickly as they went hot when the immediate issue is addressed.

Lesson Learned

What I’ve learned over the last several years is that, in order to build a revolutionary union movement we need to identify and implement more nuanced Wobbly practices that contribute to developing and strengthening organizers. The Organizer Training 101, along with the lessons and concepts laid out in IWW pamphlets like “Weakening the Dam” have provided us with excellent reference points by focusing on the individual organizer in the workplace.

But I’d like to magnify the discussion by homing in on the level of conversation and organizing that takes place amongst co-workers and between committee members. I believe we need to better understand how to form new individual relationships, particularly those that transcend the personal/political dichotomy that compartmentalizes our lives and limits our connection and contribution to our co-workers, our community, our class, and the struggle. We need to place greater emphasis on the process of building the kind of relationships necessary to developing a revolutionary organization.

The Committee as Community

The paradigm shift for me occurred when I began to organize alongside an IWW with years of on-the-job organizing experience. He quickly began mentoring me—introducing me to important IWW history and struggles, pointing out interesting parallels and lessons from different revolutionary union movements like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and Italian auto workers in the 1970’s, and generally pushing me to think about the larger class context “beyond the campaign,” as we like to say. More importantly, we began to develop a more intimate relationship by getting to know each other as friends.

We hung out together often and got to know each other’s partners, close friends, and family. We talked about our backgrounds and experiences growing up, cooked food, went on camping trips, and generally made it a point to socialize and do things together outside of organizing. Over the course of several months we forged a strong friendship, one that transcended our initial connections as union organizers and co-workers.

It was during this time that we started to think more deeply about methodically building our Wobbly workplace committee, what that process should be like and how it should reflect and inform the revolutionary product we strive for.

Decompartmentalization: A framework for Developing Relationships

What developed out of our work was a concept that we added to our organizing philosophy which we began calling decompartmentalization, which is simply a many-syllabled way of actively integrating the different spheres of our lives into the class struggle. At its core, we see decompartmentalization as an approach to the type of relationships we want to develop as Wobbly organizers. The practice is a reciprocal one. Dynamic working class social relationships inform how and why we struggle and struggle informs, nurtures, and transforms our relationships to one another in a flexible process. Our lives are complex and our organizing should fit into all the aspects of our lives, as capitalism doesn’t end when we leave the workplace nor are we no longer human when we’re at work.

Working class intellectual Stan Weir coined the term ‘singlejack solidarity’ to describe the nature and significance of developing a close bond with co-workers and other working class organizers on your committee (the term is also the title of a great edited compilation of Weir’s essays). From this I would argue that ‘Singlejacking’ should be a principle method of Wobblyism because it draws out the underlying commonalities we have in class struggle by penetrating the personal and breaking through the ‘compartmentalization’ that tends to separate our lives into separate spheres of work, personal life, identity and politics. Babysitting, helping someone move, and going camping might not at first seem like things we would associate with workplace organizing, but they are essential to building a broader and mature sense of solidarity, comradeship, and community in our workplaces and within our committees.

In my mind this type of organizing implies a strong emotional component. For example, having just organized a successful workplace victory around a leave of absence policy involving a co-worker—a strategy in which the co-worker was a principle architect, and which moved management to change their position by allowing the co-worker time off to visit grandparents in Mexico before they passed away—the co-worker opened up to me in a way I will never forget. With tears pouring down their face, they expressed how much we (another committee member and I) had opened their eyes to the systematic injustices at work and how empowering it was to realize our collective strength as workers in a way that allowed them to take what they described as, one of the most important trips of their life.

If we can agree that building a powerful and sustainable workplace committee depends on organizing that practices and promotes a decompartmentalized approach to relationship building, we are able to release the pressure to rush quantitative growth in our campaigns. We are able to devote more attention to our own qualitative development and to ensure that new organizers receive the skills, capacity, and competence to be leaders. This approach required unfamiliar patience for me but the rewards were immediate.

After spending several months agitating and educating the aforementioned co-worker on issues at work and relating them to broader class relations, and spending time together socially and getting to know each other on a personal level (family, life outside of work, interests and aspirations, etc.), we developed an emotional connection, won a deeply significant workplace victory, and recently became fellow committee members!

To me this emotional component should be emblematic of Wobbly organizing. There is a reason why much of our rich history and other thoughtful accounts of class struggle are couched in spiritual language: Revolutionary organizing requires an understanding that working class solidarity must transcend the daily forms of isolation and alienation reproduced under capitalism. In crafting a spirit of revolutionary community with our co-workers and within our committees we are actively “building a new society” by forming new types of relationships “in the shell of the old.”

Social Experimenting from the Shop Floor

Some of the more methodical ways we’ve tried to develop these kinds of relationships and decompartmentalize our organizing is to devote time in our committee meetings to ‘go arounds,’ which allow organizers the opportunity to open up to the group about what’s going on in our lives, where we need support, what’s bumming us out, what’s really exciting us, where the party’s at, where the picket’s at, etc. We also intentionally plan social events or invite each other and co-workers to events our friends and comrades plan. More recently, we’ve created a structured mentoring program where more experienced organizers pair up with other organizers in the committee and with co-workers who are in the que as potential committee members.

One of the most technologically innovative ways we’ve decompartmentalized our organizing as a workplace committee is communication through a ‘text loop’, which works like an email list for texting. We use the loop to communicate on the shop floor about workplace issues, arrange lunch meetings, and coordinate 2-on-1’s with prospective committee members. We also use the loop to tell jokes, plan spur-of-the-moment parties, and offer words of encouragement if someone’s having a bad day. The ease and informality of this type of group communication has really strengthened our connection to each other by allowing us to have daily interactions in spite of unpredictable and conflicting work schedules.

Of course, there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Ultimately we need to know our co-workers, not just know about them. Whether you’re a committee of one, or one member in a larger committee, the method of decompartmentalized organizing is universally applicable. Building one strong relationship is one of the most difficult things to do as an organizer. It is also the most important.

Thank you to FW Adam Weaver who made editorial contributions to this piece.

Originally posted: October 11, 2012 at Recomposition


klas batalo

11 years 7 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by klas batalo on October 11, 2012

This is a really great article, and I hope it will contribute to further discussion about this within revolutionary workplace organizing. I know this used to often be a criticism I'd hear from Unite-Here salts saying in the IWW we didn't try to learn people's "story" or build relationships enough. I can see after going to a T4T that this is getting more worked into the union, if slowly, so good job on bringing this important topic up.

I don't have much to say other than in previous organizing collectivities I've had good experiences with the group texting/text loops you describe. You just have to be careful that all your group members can afford texts, and don't mind being connected to the lol "hive mind" like my group called it.

Juan Conatz

11 years 7 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 13, 2012

So I like this a lot. It's important to not separate the 'political' and the 'personal' in a mechanical way. I've come around on this. I remember reading something about WSM having a prohibition on members being friends. Not sure if this was a joke or not, but either way, there's for sure those that approach revolutionary politics that way where organizing is supposed to fall on the side of being impersonal.

But, there's also a danger of the personal becoming too much a part of what we're doing, or happens in a way that's counterproductive. Someone who was part of a nonpublic campaign here in the TC whose committee just recently decided to fold wrote an account (not published yet) of her experiences and she talks about this. Some of the critical writings about the Jimmy Johns campaign have touched on this as well. Basically, while the personal relationship thing is important, it can create alienating subcultures that define the union. This goes for any group, but for the IWW this group is usually young, white, hip twentysomethings that are disproportionatly educated and revolve around bar or party scenes. Usually there's also some relation to arty or music scenes as well.

This isn't necessarily bad automatically. That is not my background at all, but I've adapted and can maneuver relatively alright within it (although sometimes I struggle). But that's me. Others will not always have that type of ability.

Also though, people like me, instead of building within the demographics and cultures we're more familiar with or grew up out of, adapt to the dominant. I for sure have done this, and during my 4 years involved on the radical left, I still have a major apprehensiveness in bringing the type of people I work with, grew up with or non-politicos around to the radical left folks I'm cool with.

Anyway, its 4AM and I'm tired, but what I'm trying to say, that yes, it's correct to reject the impersonal 'professional revolutionary' stance, but at the same time, making a goal of also having tangible personal relationships doesn't necessarily aid what you're doing if it merely falls along familiar demographics and cultures you're already comfortable with or a part of.