An organizer's overview of an ended Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) campaign in the Twin Cities.
Oftentimes as workplace organizers, we have a difficult time admitting our mistakes. We are driven and strong-willed, and though these attributes often aid us in the struggle, they can also hold us back from self-reflection and acknowledgment of our flaws. As Wobblies, how do we cope with the realization that our entire campaign was perhaps a mistake from the start? For one, we view the situation as a learning opportunity. There is no such thing as a failed campaign, for although we may pull ourselves out of a workplace without making clear, concrete gains on the shop floor, we also take away many valuable lessons regarding ourselves, our branches, and the IWW as a whole. These lessons must be passed on to fellow organizers in the union in order to facilitate a culture of skill sharing, and hopefully, if done correctly, the union will not make the same mistakes twice. Secondly, ending a campaign is not just a union issue; it is a matter of great personal importance for the organizers involved. We put our blood, sweat and tears into an organizing drive, and if we fail to sort out our feelings as we disengage from a campaign, we are setting ourselves up for failure in our proceeding endeavors. In order to succeed in the struggle long-term, it is just as important for us to face our personal issues as it is to reflect on our organizing. In this piece, I will attempt to address both of these aspects in relation to the recently halted grocery store campaign in the Twin Cities branch.
The core organizers, including myself, had already been working at the grocery stores for at least a year, and we joined the IWW in the wake of the Jimmy John’s campaign going public. It was an exciting time to be a Wobbly in Minneapolis. There were direct actions, events, and parties every week. Optimism was in the air, and there was a general feeling that we could succeed in any organizing endeavor. Before joining the IWW, I had never considered building a union in my workplace. Even for the first couple months of membership, I held onto the belief that the grocery store was not really a target for organizing, and I preferred the idea of doing solidarity work with Jimmy John’s and other fast food organizing drives. Those workers were fighting for basic things such as higher wages and sick days, things that we already enjoyed at the grocery stores. I did not think that a union was necessary, a view that changed over time as I learned more about the IWW and the class struggle. Then in late October 2010 I was at a house party following the JJWU NLRB election loss. A group of five or six grocery store workers, including myself, had formed a circle and were talking about what a union drive would look like in our workplaces. Two of us were already Wobblies and the rest were clearly union supporters. It was during this conversation that we decided we were going to try to form a union for the Twin Cities grocery store workers. There was little forethought and very little research that went into the decision, something that is extremely important to the start of a campaign. Instead, we were just a group of kids drinking beers at a party who thought that the Jimmy John’s union was cool, and we figured that it would be cool if we did the same thing too.
When we came to the branch in December of 2010 asking to become an official IWW campaign, there was no existing Industrial Organizing Committee for food and retail workers in the Twin Cities. That body was not formed for another three months. Instead, we had to go in front of the entire GMB to announce ourselves, a task that was somewhat intimidating for us as brand new members. Additionally, by telling our entire branch about our campaign, it created the impression that we were much farther along in our organizing than we actually were. Fellow workers became incredibly excited about the campaign, and many were convinced that it was “the” new campaign following the Jimmy John’s Workers Union’s NLRB loss. This brings up an interesting point about the use of resources in the union. We typically think of these as financial or material, but there are also emotional resources that exist within the union, meaning that FWs put time and energy into thinking about and supporting a campaign and its organizers. By telling the entire GMB about our organizing, as well as NOT telling them about the flaws and stagnation within the campaign, we became an emotional drain on the branch and the international. It also created a sense of guilt amongst the organizers, which was an emotional drain on us as well. This is something to keep in mind for future projects.
Not only did our campaign fail to communicate directly and effectively with the branch, we also failed to communicate with each other. Oftentimes, we were not open or direct when issues arose. Sometimes these issues were personal, and they would boil under the surface until they occasionally blew up. More often however, the issues were organizational. Without clear communication, we were unable to have solid, consistent meetings, and it was difficult to follow up with each other on assigned tasks. There was often a lack of honesty in reporting progress in each store, leading others to believe that we were further along than we actually were. If we had been honest and open with each other and ourselves, we possibly could have made more progress in organizing. Alternatively, we could have realized much sooner that this campaign was going nowhere, and we could have redirected our energies to a different project that was more worth our time.
Coming back to the subject of IOCs: if your branch has at least four FWs in a given industry and you are actively organizing, I highly recommend forming an IOC. I don’t care if your branch only has ten active members; just start an IOC already. For one, shop-talk has no place at a GMB meeting. Anyone off the street can come to a GMB, meaning that any culture of discretion that has been created is negated. IOCs should be open only to IWW members, and preferably those who work in that specific industry, thus preserving the privacy of campaigns and individual fellow workers. Also, GMBs are long, boring, and tedious, which can quickly turn a coworker off from the union if it is their first exposure to the IWW. Instead, bringing them to an IOC meeting is empowering. They get to meet other union members who are in a similar life situation, which makes them feel less isolated. When facilitated in the right way, an IOC creates a safe space to talk about working conditions, organizing, and the industry in a way that cannot occur at a GMB.
Our grocery store campaign was unique in that it was one of the first campaigns that came to the Twin Cities IWW and stuck around, instead of being chosen by the branch in a purposeful way. This created some interesting dynamics. For one, there was no need for us to salt into the stores, and we already had established relationships with our coworkers. We had existing contact lists, social and physical mapping was a breeze, and in some ways a few of us were already social leaders in our workplaces. However, this led to some problems. The first issue was that we immediately began to organize within our existing social groups in our own departments. In less than two weeks, grocery store W already had around six workers take out Red Cards. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, it was not that easy. All of these workers were from the same social group in the same department. It quickly became clear that, although these workers were agitated about their working conditions, many of them only signed cards and came to meetings because their friends were. It felt cliquish, which meant that it became harder to bring in new workers who were not a part of that social group, and meetings quickly devolved into complaining sessions amongst friends. And most importantly, when these workers realized that union organizing meant much more than bitching about work and going to parties, they dropped off the map. As organizers, we learned that while existing friendships in the workplace can sometimes be useful in a campaign, they are no substitute for true agitation, education, and organization.
Another issue that arose from the fact that we came to the IWW instead of the IWW coming to us was that, in hindsight, the grocery stores were just not great targets. While my own department had many issues surround pay and management, the majority of workers in the stores actually have it relatively good. The material conditions at the grocery stores are some of the best in the Twin Cities. Wages are the same, if not better, than UFCW grocery stores. Now, I’m not saying that everything is wonderful and sunny and covered with rainbows, but compared to the rest of the class in our industry, it’s a fairly cushy job. At Jimmy John’s, for example, it is easy to agitate coworkers about issues surrounding pay because minimum wage sucks. But earning ten to thirteen dollars an hour at a grocery store when you are a twenty-something without a college degree is a bit harder to agitate around. It still sucks, but the “it-could-be-worse” mentality is extremely prevalent. Additionally, from the union’s perspective, the grocery stores are not strategic in the greater picture of the struggle. While they are a major part of life in the Twin Cities (for a certain socioeconomic group that much of the GMB is a part of), the GS campaign had a limited ability to create a greater impact within the class. For example, the JJWU campaign not only affected Minneapolis, it also started a ripple effect that touched fast food workers across the country. But these grocery stores are part of an incredibly niche sector of the food chain. The potential for creating a greater splash in the industry was negligible. Also, the workforce largely consists of downwardly mobile middle-class white people, a demographic that by no means lacks representation within our union. Because of these factors, it is highly doubtful that the Twin Cities branch would ever had sought out an organizing drive at the grocery stores. But since we came to the IWW instead of the other way around, the campaign took hold. The branch was excited that a group of workers had decided on their own to organize with the IWW, and that it was finally big enough and visible enough to bring new folks around without having to seek us out. But I also believe that this excitement stemmed from the successes of the Jimmy John’s campaign. Twin Cities Wobblies were still riding the JJWU high, and they were eager to jump onto the first opportunity that came at them. Unfortunately, that excitement also in a sense clouded our strategic judgment. I’m not arguing that we should say no to groups of workers that come to the union for help. That would also be un-strategic and just plain silly. Instead, I believe that the grocery store campaign is a good lesson in setting boundaries and being honest with each other. Instead of continuing to work on a campaign that was bound to die from the start, we should have had some serious conversations about why we want to organize and what we are trying to get out of it. We were brand new to workplace organizing, and someone needed to have those discussions with us. It’s a tricky situation and a difficult conversation to have, but it would ultimately have been beneficial for the branch, the union, and us as organizers.
Some fellow workers have pointed out that we as organizers should not abandon the grocery store campaigns because they are “low-hanging fruit” in the sense that they are doing very well business-wise, are socially tied to our existing networks, are a winnable size, and that a victory in the stores would put the Twin Cities IWW firmly on the labor map. With all due respect to those making these arguments, I would have to disagree. While its true that these stores are doing incredibly well financially, because of the unique nature of the ownership structure, many workers and other members of the community feel as though they actually have a stake in the economic success of the businesses. I will not go into further detail as doing so would easily identify the stores in question, but this mentality has greatly influenced organizing on the shop floor, and if the campaign were ever to go public, it would also affect the community’s reaction towards unionization in a negative way. In response to the statement that a clear victory would put the IWW on the Twin Cities labor map, I would argue that the campaign at Jimmy John’s was incredibly successful in that sense, and that further campaigns in that sector would achieve the same desired effect as a campaign at the grocery stores. I’m not particularly interested in putting in more time and effort into attempts at radicalizing the petty-bourgeoisie in South Minneapolis.
An issue that has risen in the Twin Cities branch is our affiliation with the South Minneapolis youth subculture. The Jimmy John’s campaign was closely tied with the punk and bicycle scenes, which was not necessarily a negative thing, but it definitely made it more difficult to organize outside of those social groups. However, it did bring in many new members, including myself. The issue now is that we are having a hard time reaching into other segments of the working class. The grocery store campaign did nothing to help with this issue. The sub-cultural identities of workers at Jimmy John’s and at the grocery stores are very similar and the social scenes often overlap. The Twin Cities branch is becoming, or already has become, the union for young, “hip” twenty-somethings in Minneapolis. Of course, that is not a completely realistic picture of our branch, but it is what the public sees. We want to be seen as a union for ALL workers, which is what we are in theory, but unless we actively work to make that a reality, we will forever be raising money at punk shows and dance parties attended by largely white, downwardly-mobile middle class kids.
On a similar note, I think it is important to reflect on the differences between those who stayed around in the union from the grocery store campaign and those who came and went. I would put the total number of workers who either signed a red card or came to a committee meeting at around thirty since December 2010, but now the current number is around six. Two of those remaining workers salted into the campaign and were previously highly involved in the IWW and had experience in workplace organizing. The rest of us worked there before the campaign began. What prevented the other 24 workers from sticking around? Some moved to other cities, some quit or were fired and got new jobs, and others just dropped out of the committee. None of these are valid excuses that we as organizers can make. Most workers who moved away went to Portland or New York, both cities with IWW branches to plug into. And if we are organizing correctly, workers should be going to another job and organizing there as well. Once again, this stems back to our lackluster attempts at agitation, education, and organization. However, the most important workers who fell off the grid are the ones who are still working in the grocery stores. What made them not want to participate? Of course, I cannot speak for all of the workers, and there are probably various reasons why they left that they are not willing to disclose to us. But I know that at least one worker was turned off by the party culture that has developed amongst food and retail Wobblies in the Twin Cities. The post-meeting drinking that often occurs made this worker feel uncomfortable, and although I suspect that there were other contributing factors that I will refrain from delving into, it was enough to make this fellow worker want to renounce their involvement with the IWW and the grocery store campaign. Ironically, since this worker dropped out, our IOC has drastically cut down on our post-meeting parties for reasons unrelated to this worker’s departure from the union. However, the incident is still a lesson in the importance of creating sober spaces and non-late night social activities.
That being said, workers who were the most involved with the campaign at various stages also had the strongest social ties to the Twin Cities branch. I think this reflects as much on us as organizers as it does on the workers. We often fell into the trap of letting our socializing do the organizing for us, and when the balance between socializing and organizing falls too heavily on the former, the worker is not going to have the skills or knowledge of the IWW to become an organizer themselves in the fullest capacity. When they leave the shop, which is a common occurrence in the high-turnover food and retail industry, it’s likely that their union involvement will wane as well. Another grocery store campaign is in the process of developing a mentorship program within their shop committee, and I think that something of that nature could have been extremely helpful to our campaign. However, at the height of the campaign in my shop last summer, I know that I did not have an adequate level of political education or organizing experience to be able to serve as a mentor for a new member. In such a case, the IOC would be a great resource to use.
Thus far, I have only discussed negative aspects of the campaign that we can learn from, but there were many positives as well that I do not wish to gloss over. One of the most successful outcomes was that we built up four solid union members who previously had very little to no experience in workplace organizing. Not only did we gain valuable skills, we also grew as radical, class-conscious workers. We now have knowledge that we can bring with us to new campaigns and projects, and we can share our experiences with others in the IWW. We became strong, committed members of our branch, and we have also become involved in the politics of the international, whether through the founding and administration of Food and Retail Workers United, working as branch Organizing Department Liaisons, writing for the Industrial Worker, or by becoming trainers. Without the grocery store campaign, there is a good chance that most, if not all, of us would have dropped out of the union following the height of the JJWU campaign. The grocery stores gave us something to plug into, a project to call our own. The best way for workers to stay involved in the IWW is to organize, and that’s what we did.
Another reason that I am proud of our campaign is that it was started, led, and ultimately finished by women and gender-queer fellow workers. Because of this, our committee was predominantly made up of non-males. IWWs from other branches often ask me why the Twin Cities branch has so many women who are involved, and my answer to that is that we already have a strong non-male presence, and that in turn makes it easier for new women and non-gender conforming folks to join and become involved. It may seem like a chicken-or-the-egg situation, but its really not that difficult. Non-male identified organizers are better at organizing non-male identified workers. It’s that simple. I’m not saying that men can’t also organize these workers or be great allies, it’s just that we are better at it. I have seen this firsthand, and I firmly believe it to be true. Some may disagree with this statement, but I would challenge those folks to look at the gender make-up of the Twin Cities branch, and then compare it to their own branches. Which branch has more involved and committed women and gender-queer organizers? With few exceptions, the answer is going to be the Twin Cities. Of course, we still have a long way to go in terms of achieving gender equality within our branch, but I would say that we have built a solid foundation. So, my message to all the union ladies and non-gender conforming rebel workers out there is GO OUT AND ORGANIZE. Seriously. Your branch will thank you, the union will thank you, and you will thank yourself.
I often view the grocery store campaign as a child. My fellow organizers and myself brought this child into the world, and as a consequence, it had to be nurtured or it would die. Ultimately, we were bad parents, as the campaign failed in many respects. We did not do our best to raise it in the best possible way. It was often neglected, and that is part of the reason why it did not mature into a fully functioning campaign. During the meeting in July 2012 when we decided to end the campaign, the words that I actually used to describe my feelings were “throwing our baby into the garbage”. This is indeed a graphic and disturbing analogy, but I cannot deny that this was how I felt. I had become incredibly attached to the idea of unionizing at the grocery stores. I had been around these stores my entire life (my mother has worked in that industry since the mid-1980s), and it became a very personal struggle for me. The changes that have been occurring in the grocery stores for the past 5 to 10 years were, in my mind, not only attacks on the workers and working conditions, but also attacks on my childhood and all of the work that my mother and her peers put in throughout the years. It is difficult to describe, but I believe that this feeling contributed greatly to my attachment to the campaign. Thus, there is a sense of guilt that I have about abandoning our organizing.
We often only speak of organizing in logistical terms. In trainings, we are inoculated about issues that we will face in a campaign, but it is usually only in a practical sense. As Wobblies, we often gloss over the personal stresses on our emotions and mental wellbeing that arise as we organize. Over the course of the grocery store campaign, I came to realize that addressing these issues are just as important as learning how to run a meeting, have a one-on-one, or asking someone to join the union. For example, after a particularly heightened point of struggle in my shop, a coworker was fired. We learn how to do a march on the boss or file a ULP, but we are never taught how to deal with the emotional fall-out of such a situation. I now bear the burden of responsibility for this coworker’s firing, and that fact is forever on my conscience. I was the one who agitated her, I was the one who convinced her to participate in an action, and as a result, she lost her job. I’m trying to come to terms with this, and it is an issue that I will have to continue to work out emotionally for some time to come. We need to be better at collectively addressing these sorts of situations, and I think writing about our experiences is a great way to do that.
My involvement in the grocery store campaign also led to some serious mental health issues in my life. Last year, I was going to school full-time, working 25-30 hours a week, and organizing on my job. Between classes, homework, wage work, one-on-ones, meetings almost every night, and keeping up with my social life as a 20 year old, things were going faster than I could keep up. I loved it and thrived on it, but it was incredibly demanding physically. Instead of taking a step back and trying to cut something out, which is what I should have done, I turned to less-than-natural ways to cope with the situation. By the end of summer 2011, I was completely addicted to Adderall, and I couldn’t function without it. When I first began using at the beginning of 2011, it seemed like a godsend. I could do everything and I was on top of the world, but it eventually caught up with me. As I continued to use, my body would adjust to the dosage and I would have to keep taking more and more. I was barely eating, lost close to thirty pounds, and even collapsed during a meeting as a result of a panic attack. I realized that not only was I hurting myself and those close to me, my dependence was also affecting the grocery store campaign. Sure, I was doing some hardcore organizing and direct actions, but what I didn’t realize was that everyone, including my coworkers, could see that I was in an altered state. Who would want to join a union when the organizer is in an induced manic episode? By September 2011, I was off of the medication, but as a result I experienced an immense drop in energy and drive. The campaign at my store stagnated, and my work in the branch tapered off until I was barely holding on. Once you get into that state, it is hard to pull yourself out. It wasn’t until Work People’s College this July that I felt like I had finally rebounded from that low point. The lesson here is that we need to watch out for our fellow workers, not only on the shop floor, but in our personal lives as well. Our current society teaches us to go harder, longer, and more intensely than we should, and in our fight against capitalism, we must also confront those unrealistic bourgeois expectations.
In conclusion, the grocery store campaign, despite its flaws, was in a sense incredibly successful. The IWW doesn’t just organize shops, it organizes people and it builds up workers into radical militant unionists. The grocery store campaign created a space in the Twin Cities branch for that to occur. It also taught us valuable lessons about what not to do in an organizing campaign. Through our mistakes, we have become better organizers and we now have the opportunity to share those lessons with others in the union, as well as to bring our skills to new union projects. In the aftermath of the grocery store campaign, we are now equipped to build the union in a more purposeful and organized way.
Originally posted: January 21, 2013 at Recomposition
I found this a really
I found this a really interesting article, and I think it's great that the person took the time to write it. As we need to learn from our failures, as well as our successes.
It reminded me in some ways of this piece about IWW organising efforts in the 70s: http://libcom.org/history/iww-organising-1970s
but a couple of things come to mind. I guess partly this is to do with the "organising" and unionising model of the IWW which I don't exactly agree with. But if the person who wrote this is still working in retail, then surely their organising efforts are ongoing? I.e. the campaign hasn't died?
Because of course even if a unionisation campaign had been successful, it wouldn't mean much. Loads of workplaces are unionised, but working them is still exploitative and crap. For us surely the "campaign" only "ends" when we take over and shut most of them down!
Taking the example of Jimmy Johns, if that ends up being "successful" in terms of getting recognition and improving people's conditions, then there will have to be an ongoing struggle to prevent the workplace organisation becoming a bureaucratic, representative union like all the others. Which will be as difficult as the initial struggle in the first place - and unfortunately far more long-term…
Anyway, I guess these are more thoughts on the very concepts of success and failure with these types of efforts. And the author is right to point out that the mere fact they pulled more workers into being part of "the class for itself" is a success in itself.