John O'Reilly and Juan Conatz talk about 'shotgun organizing' which they define as an individualized way of thinking every problem needs to be solved in the most intense and forceful fashion possible, regardless of whether or not it can be handled differently or of the effects on a workplace organizing committee.
About a year or so ago, one of us was having a one-on-one conversation with a member of the union involved in a campaign that was not public at the time. When the discussion switched to one of the more active committee members, the fellow worker said, “You know, I love and respect him, but every problem we encounter he wants to shoot down with a 12 gauge.” This gets to an issue we sometimes have that we will call “shotgun organizing.”
The “shotgun organizer” thinks that every problem needs to be solved in the most intense and forceful way possible, regardless of whether or not it can be handled differently or of the effects on the committee. If things are bad, they need to be blasted away. For the shotgun organizer, the union is amazing and the boss is evil and anyone who disagrees is a reactionary. The shotgun organizer takes a blunt, noholds- barred approach to union activity, and has no room for nuance or collective decision-making. Getting in fights about the union, badgering co-workers who are on the fence, being the first person to stand up to management over grievances, the shotgun organizer knows what they think and makes sure that everyone else does too. It can be good to have folks like this on your side. The willingness to “go to war,” to stand up for people, and be a voice for no compromise is an excellent quality. However, it often can be destructive and alienating.
One of the most difficult parts of organizing is dealing with the problems we encounter with the right response for the right problem. Sometimes we make honest mistakes, misjudging the size or importance of a problem or minimizing something that should be taken more seriously. Part of becoming better organizers is recognizing that we simply will make mistakes no matter how prepared we are, and anticipating how to come back from them. Shotgun organizing is a common style of dealing with problems that come up because, rather than dealing with the complexity of the organizing situation and learning from mistakes, it turns all problems into the most important problem and, predictably, uses a 12 gauge to blow them away.
Part of how shotgun organizing manifests as a problem is that the campaign can become about the shotgun-toting worker rather than the issue at hand. For instance, if a certain anti-union co-worker keeps trash-talking the union on the job, a shotgun organizer’s first response might be to confront that worker and start yelling at them about how they’re wrong and stupid. Instead of considering the issue as a committee and coming up with a solution that might work, like having a pro-union friend approach the anti-union person privately, the shotgun organizer turns the dynamic from being about one problem worker to two people yelling at each other. Most co-workers are going to back away from that. Nobody wants to choose between two people yelling. Our co-workers who back away from the conflict are, by default, choosing against the union and doing exactly what the anti-union worker would have wanted. Sometimes the right way to deal with the problem might be just confronting the anti-union worker. By doing it as one individual instead of as a group, the focus of the controversy is on the shotgun organizer and their yelling, not on the content of the union message. The change we seek doesn’t happen because of individuals. That’s a common, yet mistaken, vision of history and one that shotgun organizers often see as justifying their behavior. For every “Big Bill” Haywood or Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, there are numerous Henry E. McGuckin’s. For every Durruti, there are hundreds of lesser-known Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) militants. Struggle is a collective process that doesn’t solely depend on the initiative of individuals willing and able to approach every situation as if it was a full-scale battle. We may remember the names of the “famous” revolutionaries, but we do so because of the quiet, day-to-day work of many around them who are lost to history. Organizing at work is no different. Rather than be One Big Organizer who does everything by themselves, we strive to build up others as organizers. We do this by sharing work and responsibility and encouraging other people to express their opinions. When we do this we see that all organizing work need not be done by one person and that the intensity need not be “turned all the way up” all the time. Change at work and in society has high and low points of intensity, but it operates most effectively when that intensity is brought on by a group, not a lone wolf wielding a big shotgun.
Like anything else humans do, there can be underlying reasons for shotgun organizing. The person may want to rush things because they are feeling burnt out and want to “get it over with.” Maybe they are very excited about the IWW or unionism in general and are letting this high amount of energy drive them completely. Maybe this person could feel like they are the only one “getting things done,” and therefore have to overcompensate for what they feel is less effort from other committee members. These are just a few of the numerous possibilities that might explain this conduct. We should be careful not to assume, though. Instead, we should talk to the fellow worker to get to the heart of the problem. Discovering the underlying reasons why people behave like this can be the first huge step to a solution.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2013)