An account by Juan Conatz of an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) campaign at a liquor store in Minneapolis during the first half of 2013.
This is an account of a campaign that the Twin Cities General Membership Branch (GMB) of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) initiated. While we did accomplish some great things, overall the campaign was a failure that bred a not insignificant amount of animosity between, and disillusion among, some Wobblies. Members of the former organizing committee have different accounts and opinions of what happened. Unlike campaigns there has never been a serious, formal discussion or account of what happened. In fact, it has often been purposefully avoided. I began writing this account during the Fall of 2013. Even though by the Spring of 2014, it was nearly completed, I ended up abandoning it for the fear that it would disturb old wounds and create unnecessary conflict.
Recently, though, I’ve come back to it and have now completed the account. It is worth going over this kind of stuff. We can’t shy away at assessments of our activities, even if they can be somewhat painful to remember. We should learn from it for our next campaigns.
With that said, I acknowledge that this is my own personal account and that others involved may have different perspectives.
In the Spring of 2013, I participated in a IWW campaign as an ‘outside organizer’. I didn’t work at the business where the campaign was, but was asked to come on board by the organizing committee to help out. The understanding was that I would be pushing the committee to accomplish tasks, do 1-on-1s or 2-on-1s with their coworkers or any other work that could help things along.
The campaign was at Chicago-Lake Liquors, a liquor store in south Minneapolis. Chi-Lake claims that it is the highest volume selling liquor store in the state of Minnesota. Whether that is true or not, the store gets a lot of business, from both area residents and people from the suburbs. It should be pointed out that in Minnesota, the only places you can buy real beer or liquor to take home are liquor stores. Grocery stores and gas stations cannot carry liquor and the beer they carry can only be 3% alcohol. So the liquor stores place in the retail industry looms larger than in other places. The store’s owner was John Wolf, a former sports agent, as well as part of the family who once owned and operated the regional grocery chain, Rainbow Foods. Around 25 people worked there, with varying amounts of hours.
Before I was asked on, there had been a couple of Wobs working there for a year or so. At some point, and this has always been unclear to me, other Wobs got jobs there, too. Later they began meeting as a committee, thus officially starting an organizing campaign. Out of the 6 main organizing committee members, 5 of them had been IWW members before working there. 3 of these 5 have been commonly referred to as ‘salts’ or as having ‘salted in’. But depending on who you ask, it is unclear which of these salts were brought in because of a committee decision, through talking to an individual committee member or just taking it upon themselves.
Chi-Lake didn’t seem to have been picked as a target. It just sort of morphed into a campaign as Wobblies who worked there decided they wanted to do something about their workplace conditions.
Joining the Campaign
Towards the end of February 2013, 2 Fellow Workers (FW)1 asked if I would be interested in joining the campaign as an outside organizer. I was interested, but needed clear guidelines and expectations of my role and responsibilities. From past experience in Wisconsin, this could develop into a problem if not clear. I met up with one FW at a restaurant to get the background on the campaign, what actions had been done, the composition of the workforce, who the owners and management were and other information.
After the first committee meeting I attended, my role was expressed in the following ways: doing tasks that can be done by non-workplace organizers, keeping the committee on track, possible 2-on-1s down the line and political education.
Activity Before April 1st
The organizing committee was 5 workers who had been IWW members before working at Chi-Lake, 1 who hadn’t been, but lived with 2 of the others, and 2 other coworkers who had came to committee meetings, but didn’t attend regularly. 5 of the organizers had been involved in previous branch campaigns, such as Jimmy Johns, a grocery store, or other efforts in retail and education.
It was my impression that little to no 1-on-1’s had been done outside of work before the firings, with the exception of the coworker who also lived with 2 of the organizers. Petitions were signed on the shopfloor, often right before a march on the boss. Committee meetings were not always regular, and happened at organizer’s apartments, instead of at the IWW office. Notes were taken, but not circulated or sent out through email.
The committee itself had other issues of accountability, besides this. One organizer’s drinking had been having a polarizing effect on the committee. The drinking often was associated with behavior that either could be detrimental to an organizing campaign or would prove to be contentious and controversial to other committee members. Behavior such as talking about the union with coworkers while drunk, drunkenly trying to convince on-the-fence coworkers about the union at parties, coming to committee meetings intoxicated and having romantic relationships with coworkers. At some point the rest of the committee gave an ultimatum to the Fellow Worker: “Quit drinking or we may have to kick you off the committee.” This FW did exactly that, initially enthusiastic about the challenge, although later that enthusiasm became resentment.
There was also some issues of who was doing the tasks, with 2 of the organizers often disproportionately taking on stuff, while others often did not pick up some of the workload, or failed to complete tasks when they did.
I believe some of the dysfunction in the committee created a desire to speed the campaign along more quickly, so that it would be ended or result in forcing others to accomplish their tasks. A very premature ‘going public’ date was set for May 1st, and a tentative timeline was set-up that would lead up to that date. Although the May 1st date was, in my opinion, unrealistic, the timeline did begin to force the committee to formalize what they were doing in a useful way. Meetings became more regular, 1-on-1s were assigned, notes were circulated through email and there became a shared understanding of what was needed to be done.
Before April 1st, there were 3 ‘march on the boss’ actions, which involved delivering petitions on workplace issues. Each one involved a greater number of people signing them, with the third and last one getting a majority of the workforce. The first 2 marches on the boss were over more minor workplace issues, such as scheduling. But the third one was over wages. Going forward with this was decided at a committee meeting I didn’t attend, due to being sick. I would have argued against doing this, because once you take on the wage issue, you’re basically a public union effort. It should also be noted that the participants of the marches on the boss were mostly restricted to committee members, with 1 of them in particular usually doing most of the talking. In retrospect, it wasn’t very difficult for management to figure out who the ‘troublemakers’ were.
On April 1st, a couple of days after the third march on the boss, 5 committee members were fired from Chicago-Lake. We held a hasty meeting, which in addition to the 5 fired workers and 2 IWW members who weren’t fired, had 4 others coworkers in attendance. We never again had this level of active participation from the workforce at Chicago-Lake.
While we figured out a response to the firings and whether we should ‘go public’ or keep our heads down, we wanted to do something ASAP. We thought we could possibly prevent further firings by showing management we wouldn’t go away quietly.
The next day we filed Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). We also used the GMB meeting that happened that night to mobilize the branch for an action at Chi-Lake.
In a initial show of strength while still not publicly IWW, around 40 Wobblies came to the store, got in line and asked to speak to a manager. Once a manager arrived, each person asked why the 5 workers had been fired and urged management to hire them back. It ended up being pretty disruptive to the store.
In the flurry of meetings, both official and informal, that followed, we set up a solidarity committee, so the workload could be spread outside of the overburdened organizing committee. We decided that once we were public, we would be as Food & Retail Workers United, rather than Chicago-Lake Liquors Workers Union, because we wanted to specifically break with the IWW practice of naming a union after one enterprise.
We also immediately set-up an online donation fund for the fired workers and started planning pickets, phone-banking the entire branch to turn out.
The pickets were the best part of the Chi-Lake campaign. Using the then still-in-development Twin Cities General Defense Committee (GDC) picket training, we put on 4 well-run and organized pickets.
The first picket, on April 6, corresponded with us ‘going public’ as an IWW campaign. This ‘informational picket’ was mostly focused on informing customers of Chi-Lake’s labor practices, showing management we wouldn’t go away and announcing our demands, which were: rehire the 5 fired workers, pay a living wage to all employees and stop union busting.
The two following pickets, held on April 13 and May 4 were ‘soft pickets’. They were not necessarily directed at the public, but at disrupting business. Using a liberal interpretation of the somewhat contradictory Minnesota picketing laws, we blocked the two main parking entrances with multiple, constantly moving pickets. Picket captains stopped each vehicle that came to the entrance, while someone else walked up to the vehicle, handed the driver a flyer, and asked them to shop elsewhere.
For the stretch of time we did this, which was at vital business hours, we turned away ⅔ to ¾ of incoming customers. Police, who were quickly called, argued with our police liaison intensely over the legality of what we were doing. In the end, they grudgingly allowed it, but it seemed that could change at any time.
At the end of May, we held our fourth picket. I was out-of-town and can’t remember now what kind of picket it was, nor how it went. After this picket, there were rumors in-shop that the company and police had reached an agreement on interpretation of state picketing laws, and that blocking any of the entrances, for any amount of time, would result in arrest. We also heard from the NLRB that any action we did that would be considered ‘unprotected’ (such as breaking the law in a picket) could result in our case being thrown out. We didn’t end up finding out what would happen with these issues, as the late May picket was our final one.
Solidarity Committee/Food & Retail Workers United IOC
As mentioned, the solidarity committee was set-up to take on tasks that it wasn’t important for the organizing committee to do. Outreach to other unions, writing articles for The Organizer and Industrial Worker, planning the pickets and daily flyering at Chi-Lake were some of the activities that became the responsibility of the solidarity committee. The idea for this came from the Jimmy Johns campaign.
Although some members of the solidarity committee sometimes felt overwhelmed and undersupported, splitting up the workload this way was felt to be important because the organizing committee needed to focus on talking to workers at Chi-Lake.
One interesting thing we experimented with was having the Food and Retail Workers United Industrial Organizing Committee (FRWU IOC) create a newsletter for liquor store workers called The Broken Bottle2 . One of the thoughts behind this was to use the publicity of the Chi-Lake campaign to get contacts of other liquor store workers and possibly scare the owners of these stores into pressuring or instigating divisions between them and the owner of Chi-Lake. We did not receive any contacts from this distribution, although it was generally well received.
The justification of distribution in order to possibly create pressure within the apparently tight knit group of liquor store owners was based on a conception of historical industrial union campaigns. In some situations, such as various CIO or pre-CIO strikes and organizing efforts, one of the reasons they won was that they created a split among employers in a certain industry.
It was rumored that the owner of Chi-Lake was a bit of an outcast among liquor store owners, primarily because he bought in bulk to undercut other store’s prices and because he supported Sunday liquor sales, which most owners do not. We thought that it was possible to isolate him even further, which would result in him being more willing to agree to our demands.
There’s no way to know how successful this was, but it is worth thinking about the relationships between groups of employers and how we can exploit them to our advantage.
FRWU IOC’s attempted look wider than this single shop also had them trying to identify the distribution network. They talked to delivery drivers and eventually the driver’s Teamster local business agent with the idea that at some point we may ask them to honor our picket lines. The Teamster business agent initially reacted with hostility when 2 Wobblies met with him. He claimed he had never heard of the IWW, calling us a ‘rogue outfit” and tried to claim jurisdiction because we were organizing at a store that received deliveries from Teamsters. FRWU Wobs also followed the delivery drivers and talked to them about possibly honoring a picket line, although they referred the Wobs to the business agent.
Media + Fund
While not getting any attention from the big news stations and newspapers, we received pretty favorable coverage from City Pages, the local free cultural newspaper. Also, some sympathetic people from Occupy Minnesota made short videos from 2 of our pickets.3
There’s not much we could have done better with this, other than build relationships with individual, sympathetic reporters. Most of the press contacts we had were from the Jimmy Johns campaign and Wobblies who had been involved in Occupy. The organizing committee mostly understood that there would probably be limited coverage of their efforts, and that media wasn’t the most important thing we were doing.
The online donation page for the fired workers we made ended up raising several thousand dollars, which we dispersed to the fired workers to help them get-by while they were unemployed.
In-shop after the firings
With a lot of effort going towards the response to the firings, there were still 3 organizing committee members working at Chi-Lake. None of them were public. Only 1 had been to an Organizer Training or regularly attended meetings prior to the firings. This person, along with the fired workers, continuously attempted to meet up and talk to Chi-Lake workers so that the committee could grow and the campaign continue.
Regretfully, with a few exceptions, no one would meet with us. Those that did were understandably scared. Very little successful groundwork in establishing a base at the store happened prior to the firings. For most people, the April 6 picket was their introduction to the IWW. Some workers were momentarily impressed. But as ‘the union’ and ‘fired workers’ became more closely associated, that excitement waned.
We never quit trying to continue the in-shop campaign at Chi-Lake, but as time wore on, it became clear to some of us that it wasn’t going to happen.
The Settlement Offer
At the end of May, the NLRB found that our complaints had merit, which means they think that Chi-Lake broke the law and were going to pursue the case. We were weakly pushing on with a July 4th boycott plan. The solidarity committee was down to basically two people. 1-on-1s and house visits weren’t happening. There was growing concern from the organizing committee members still at Chi-Lake that we were doing too much outside stuff.
At the beginning of June we heard back from the NLRB, who said that Chi-Lake was interested in offering a settlement.
The settlement offer proved to be the most internally divisive, and, the way it was handled, the most destructive issue of the campaign. At first it broke down between the 3 who wanted to hear the settlement offer and the 2 who did not want to hear it, apparently equating it with a desire to take a settlement and end the campaign. They made a principle out of rejecting even hearing the settlement offer based on an assumption, that at that point, was not correct.
While it is fine and inevitable to have disagreements on a committee, the way the anti-settlement folks conducted themselves virtually guaranteed that what they were against eventually happened. Before there was even explicit support for taking an offer, they made it an issue to ‘die on the hill’ over. They threatened to leave the union, avoided meetings and refused, for a time, to talk to other committee members.
I personally spent around 10 hours total doing 1-on-1’s with a few of the committee members that mostly revolved around merely whether we were going to hear the settlement offer. While I believe this did help overall, it was too late. The conduct of the anti-settlement folks polarized the committee, pushing others from merely being curious about a settlement offer, to wanting to take it.
For the, now, pro-settlement workers, the committee conflict intensified worries about a NLRB case that would drag on for years and a dead-end campaign that would as well . For the anti-settlement workers, the conflict made them feel as if a clique ran the committee and the branch, and that they were abandoning their coworkers for money.
Eventually, around the middle of June, the organizing committee decided to hear the offer. Chi-Lake offered $20,000 to drop the ULPs. None of us thought that was good enough. We counter-offered with $50,000 and that our in-shop wage demands be implemented. They responded with $26,000. We replied with $40,000 and dropped our wage demands. Finally, they offered $32,000, which we accepted.
At the same time, with no ground gained in-shop, we dissolved the organizing committee. A few days after we accepted the settlement, the solidarity committee was dissolved, and the campaign officially ended.
Friend or organizer?
Some of the conflicts in this campaign were related to a lack of distinction between the expectations you have of friends and the expectations you have of fellow organizers. While it is perfectly fine to be both friends and fellow organizers, sometimes we need to recognize when a situation calls for the separation of the two. Ideas that were shot down sometimes got taken personally. The ultimatum given to the FW to get clean or leave the campaign eventually turned into resentment.
Complicating the distinction were conflicts in the housing situation where 3 of the fired workers were living. Some of these conflicts were clearly personal, the type that arise when people live together. Others had their roots in one of the fired workers’ partner, who was seen as being anti-IWW in the Sisters Camelot strike, creating tension both within the housing situation and the committee. This culminated in one of the fired workers spitting in the face of the other fired worker’s partner.
Drinking and sexual relationships
I don’t want to exaggerate the previously mentioned issue about sleeping with coworkers or drinking culture when you’re in an organizing campaign, but as this seems to continuously come up in the union, it deserves some attention.
There really is no easy answer. Work is where we spend a good portion of our day and we build relationships with people. This happens all the time and is a normal part of life. However, it becomes complicated in an organizing campaign, where we need to carefully consider how we conduct ourselves and how it helps or hurts the campaign. In actuality, it is a sort of image control.
The politics of sexual relationships in the workplace often reflect the worse of society’s prejudices, which break down differently according to gender. Straight men who sleep around may be seen as union conquistadors, utilizing the campaign to sleep with as many women as possible. Straight women may be seen as using sex to temp and lure coworkers into the union. Both may be taken less seriously because of these impressions, not to mention the trouble dealing with expectations because of this reputation when it comes to 1-on-1’s. For our queer and trans FW’s, some of this may apply, but an additional issue is that, depending on the workplace, the leeway they have for sexual relationships and the reputation associated may be vastly smaller than their straight/cis comrades.
This is not easy to navigate. There comes a point where we have to pick and choose which of the wider society’s prejudices to be aware of and alter our behavior accordingly, and which ones deserve actively barreling through on principle. These are also not just moral platitudes either, what we do can affect the morale of an organizing campaign and how our coworkers and committee members feel about it.
The assumed and rumoured company and police response highlighted some contradictions a losing campaign centered on a retaliatory win may face.
Ideas were thrown around and seriously considered such as trying to get other small capitalists to exert ‘community pressure’ on the owner of Chicago-Lake Liquors. There were also plans to contact the local ‘progressive’ city council member for the ward the store is in to also apply pressure.
While these tactics may or may not have been successful, it is questionable to seek these solutions as a union. Capitalists, even small ones, are our enemies. The state and its representatives, no matter how local level, are our enemies, too. Seeking alliance with them, even temporarily, is something that should be avoided. A win as a result of small capitalists or a local politician is not really a win.
Outside organizing help
Although generally I think I did what was possible as an outside organizer, some members of the organizing committee did later reveal problems with my efforts.
One organizer said that I mostly stayed in an administrative function, always taking minutes and doing tasks like that, but not pushing committee members to actually do their tasks.
This is a valid complaint. I often struggled to deal with how, when and if I should push committee members. Most of them had been in the union longer than me, had been involved in previous campaigns, were certified trainers for the OT101, etc. Many times I assumed people would do tasks because they already knew how. In retrospect, letting someone’s organizational credentials prevent me from pushing them was a mistake. But at the end of the day, I didn’t work there. There’s only so much an outside organizer can do or push if the people actually working there are not willing, motivated or serious enough to take on and complete tasks.
Two organizers thought I should have come out in support of them during the dispute over the settlement and, in general, pushed my opinion on things more.
I don’t agree that I should have taken a side on a contentious decision that primarily affected the organizing committee and not myself. However, when the decision to hear the settlement was reached, I did argue that those who didn’t want to take it needed to propose a realistic, alternative plan of going forward.
Like with everything, there were things I did well, and things I could have done better with.
The organizing committee at Chi-Lake, despite involving a number of Wobblies with experience, lacked accountability and made serious mistakes. The committee did the opposite of key points that we teach in our Organizer Training 101 and suffered because of it. Disagreements turned into conflict and conflict was handled poorly. Overall, the response to the firings plotted out by both the organizing and solidarity committee was impressive, worth noting and at least got us over $30,000 for our trouble. But if the goal is to organize workers and build the union, we didn’t get that done.