A column by Colin Bossen about long term IWW membership.
About 10 years ago, when I was a member of the Chicago General Membership Branch, I got to know a Wobbly who had been a member of the union since the 1960s. In his decades as a Wob he had seen many people come and go. He had a term of scorn for people who took out a red card briefly for reasons of ideology or nostalgia. He called them “thirty-day wonders.” Thirtyday wonders join the union, pay their initiation fees and a month’s dues and then disappear.
I have been a member of the IWW long enough now that I have seen my share of “thirty-day wonders” come and go. I have also watched multiple cohorts of Wobs develop who are committed to the union for the long haul. I expect Fellow Workers like Liberte Locke, Nate Hawthorne, Adam Weaver, Erik Forman, and the Industrial Worker’s editor, Diane Krauthamer, to be part of the union for decades to come. Watching them, and the development of my own life, I have started to think about what it means to be a Wobbly, not for 30 days, but for a lifetime. When I joined the IWW I was 22, filled with youthful militancy, just entering the workforce and totally naïve about workplace organizing. Today I am 37; I have a family, a career and have had the privilege of being involved in four significant organizing campaigns. I also chaired the committee that reformed the union’s Organizing Department in 2006 and have been editing this column for close to eight years.
My experience has helped me reach a few conclusions about what long-term commitment to the IWW requires. First, and perhaps most importantly, it requires the ability to take care of yourself. The better world that Wobblies seek isn’t going to come anytime soon. Committing to the IWW for the long haul means making time for family and friends, for exercise and whatever else you need to maintain your health. There will always be another meeting, another organizing campaign, and another picket line. It is alright to miss something or step back for a while from organizing. If you don’t take care of yourself chances are you will burn out pretty quickly.
Second, be kind and compassionate towards other workers. We have a range of ideologies and experiences in our organization. It is easy to “be a jerk about bad ideas.” Resist the temptation. If you are kind towards others chances are they will be more willing to listen to you. Also, if the IWW is about “building the new society within the shell of the old,” then one of the things we need to do is learn to treat each other as if the new society has already come.
Third, organize the worker, not the job. Jobs come and go. One of the big advantages the IWW has over the large business unions is that when Wobblies leave a job we take our union membership with us. If we are going to continue to build the union we need to exploit this advantage. We can help each other develop skills and networks of solidarity that we can carry with us no matter where we end up. We can do this by continuing to improve our organizer training programs and building a strong culture that people want to be part of.
Finally, commit to building the organization. Workplace struggle comes and goes. Most workers don’t want to be in a constant state of conflict with their employers. Many people think this desire for stability can be solved by contractualism. I have my doubts about that. Instead, I think building the kind of organization that we activate to defend past gains and win new ones is the solution. Such an organization almost certainly transcends specific workplaces.
I suspect that other longtime members of the IWW have their own lists of things that they believe are necessary for a longterm commitment to the union. I would be interested in seeing those lists and starting some collective reflection on what it means to be a Wobbly for the long haul. If you have thoughts please send them my way. I would be delighted to put them in a future “Workers’ Power” column.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2014)