Articles from 'Workers Power', a regular column in the Industrial Workers of the World's Industrial Worker newspaper.
All of this material is mostly taken from the For Workers Power blog, which is an archive of material from a column that appears in the IWW's Industrial Worker newspaper.
Workers Power Columns
The Workers Power column aims to offer a space to share organizing stories and thoughts on strategies and tactics for building power on the shop floor. These columns are posted here to encourage discussion. The columns are intended for members of the IWW, though non-members may find them interesting as well. The columns don’t provide all the answers, but hopefully they are thought provoking and useful. At the very least, the people who wrote them learned a lot and got clearer about our ideas by writing them.
Please consider writing for the column. Writing is a good way to think, to encourage discussion, and to share lessons and experiences. The column is mainly about ideas for building power on the job in the short term, the direction of the IWW with regard to workplace organizing in the short term, and first hand accounts of the realities of workplace organizing - in all its glory and all its failure. If you would like to submit a piece for this column in the newspaper, please e-mail it to forworkerspower[at]gmail.com. Submissions should be no more than 800 words.
Columns from 2007
Wherefore Art Thou Supervisor?
J.Pierce talks about the time they refused a supervisor position at a recycling center.
One Friday afternoon, the bosses called a big meeting in the recycling yard where I work. It was cool because I used it to count 40 workers and 10 boss types. I took the opportunity to see how many names I knew. It gave me a premonition of a large strike meeting--only the bosses wouldn’t be wearing those stupid grins.
At this meeting the bosses handed out memos that, among various threats and pomp, told everybody that I was the new supervisor for the warehouse. I laughed out loud when I read it. Meanwhile the whole place was silent as everybody read the Spanish version of the memo. The whole meeting was in Spanish so I barely knew what they were saying. Most of the supervisors (more properly called foremen) stood with their guys in the crowd instead of up by the bosses.
The various supervisors in the crowd appeared, to me, to be asking controversial questions. The bosses looked nervous. (I asked my fellow workers later but they said these comments were crap.) I couldn’t understand what they were saying so I took it for what it looked like. It seemed like people were challenging the bosses! So at the end of the meeting, the new head guy asked, “Any last questions.” I shot up my hand. “I have a question!” I shouted in English, as all eyes turned to me. “When are the bathrooms gonna be finished?” Pointing to the abandoned-construction-site-looking building behind us. Eyes lit up and everyone started smiling and chattering. Most of my co-workers have heard me complain about the locker room/bathroom situation so they knew what I was up to. One of the supervisors laughed really loud and said “When? When?” meaning “Don’t Ask!” The bosses squirmed saying “Um, we’re working on that. They’ll be done soon.” Everybody was talking and grinning. In between being called “Jefe,” I got some good pats on the back as we all went to clock out.
That weekend I fixed up a plan to give the bosses a letter saying that I was declining the promotion. My roommate translated this letter into Spanish so that I could show it to all my co-workers. I finally gave it to the bosses that Wednesday after telling all my co-workers (that were saluting me and calling me Jefe and Patron) that this whole supervisor nonsense was “Mentira, Huey!” I went around showing the letter to my co-workers and they, or I, read the Spanish translation. If the bosses inferred that I had it translated for the benefit of my companeros--Good. So be it. The conversations we had strengthened me because people inevitably ask, “Why don’t you want to be a supervisor?” That’s the perfect place to talk about how the bosses are racist and how they want you to work harder and longer for nothing. They want you to take responsibility for their incompetence and the list goes on. All my co-workers understood my reasoning and had the same thoughts themselves. The whole thing turned out to be a very solidifying and educational process.
But don't get too excited just yet. It took them two months to do it but they finally canned me. There was plenty of reason for them to want to get rid of me but you can bet that the supervisor stunt was a big factor. Is it all a loss? Not quite: There are lights in the locker room and plumbers in the soon-to-be-bathroom. But beyond that, for two months we were the only department with no one looking over our shoulder. Any new supervisor that comes in will face a situation where the workers know they don't need one.
What Kind Of Solidarity Forever?
A piece exploring how organizing on the shopfloor and activism outside the shopfloor are different and how they compliment each other.
There are two versions of solidarity activity: solidarity unionism and solidarity activism. Solidarity unionism means exercising our power on the job. We organize as much as possible so we don't give our power away to lawyers, outside organizers, union staff, or anyone else. If we have to give away some power--like when we file Unfair Labor Practice charges--it's for tactical reasons only. By getting more and more coworkers to take action based on our collective self-interests as workers we create big changes--changes in our lives on the job and changes in our coworkers by showing them our ideas in practice instead of just telling them. Solidarity unionism makes more power for ourselves, more members of our union, and more members with experience, commitment, and a vision of what the One Big Union is and should be.
Solidarity activism means showing up outside of our own jobs to help other people’s struggles to defend existing conditions or defend their attempt to build something. We hand out flyers and picket outside someone else’s workplace or some other place. This kind solidarity has helped the Starbucks organizing continue and grow. There is a long and proud tradition of this kind of solidarity in our class and in our union. If solidarity activism wins better conditions for any worker anywhere then it’s a good thing, morally and as a tactic. But it's not good strategy.
Without power on the shopfloor, a union will not be a fighting organization that can win gains, and it’s much harder to maintain union democracy. Workers are more likely to exercise our power for something we run and control than something undemocratic and unaccountable. If power is outside the shopfloor, then the workers in the shop can be replaced. If their organization breaks down, the officials don’t lose anything. This is why many of the business unions love media heavy corporate style campaigns: they put the power in the hands of staff, officers, lawyers, journalists, politicians, and the well-intentioned solidarity activists who mobilize from the outside. While solidarity activism can build the skills and experience of the individuals who take part in it, it doesn’t build power in the activists' workplaces. It also doesn’t build the power of the workers in the shop being supported. If a campaign is won by solidarity activism, that means the power to make change does not rest on the shop floor. Solidarity activism doesn't build shopfloor power because it doesn't exercise shopfloor power.
Workers’ power is like a muscle. My muscles have (pretty flabby) limits. By using my muscles within their limits, I get stronger. Solidarity unionism means exercising our power. We figure out what power we have and we increase it by exercising it. We exercise our power to build an organized shop--and eventually an organized industry and an organized working class--which increases the power we have to exercise. The point isn't just to lift this weight (improving the job in the short term, a fair day's wages for a fair day's work), the point is also how the weights get lifted and by who (improving the job by our own action, in a way that builds organization and builds the IWW to abolish the wage system). We need strategy, a plan to keep on lifting until we become able to dump the bosses off our backs.
We can only lift so much at a time, though. Every time I move I realize how there's too many boxes for me alone, so I call my friends. That’s solidarity activism. Sometimes it’s tactically necessary. But our strategy should not be based on someone else constantly lifting things for us.
Imagine if my friends who helped me move stuck around forever and I never lifted anything ever again. I would get weaker and less healthy from lack of exercise. This is what the NLRB and the business unions do. They say “don’t try to lift that, just watch me.” They don’t encourage us to exercise our own power, so they don’t encourage us to increase our power. Sometimes they actively fight us when we try to exercise our power.
There are some fellow workers who prefer to be part of solidarity activism instead of solidarity unionism. That’s their right. But solidarity unionism is the direction this union should continue to move in. Solidarity activism has a place, but a secondary one. In fact, the more we focus on exercising our power in solidarity unionism--getting more members, getting more members organizing in more shops, increasing our ability to organize successfully--the more power we'll have when we need to do solidarity activism for our fellow workers in the union and out.
Originally appeared in the June 2007 Industrial Worker
Confidence and Solidarity
In my last Workers Power submission in June I talked about what I called solidarity unionism and solidarity activism. Solidarity activism is when we show up to demonstrations and picket lines for others, to lend our power to support them in their struggles. That's a good thing, of course. But it doesn't build our power. Solidarity unionism is what builds our power. But it's easy to emphasize solidarity activism over solidarity unionism.
One reason it's easy to overemphasize solidarity activism is lack of confidence in our organization. Sometimes we don’t believe that the IWW can be or is a real union or a real step toward forming the cooperative commonwealth. We want to be active, we want the union to matter, so we push for the union to be part of something we think of as real: a real strike, a real rank and file democracy committee or movement, real revolutionaries somewhere else.
This motivation is good intentioned, but it’s not good for the union. Lack of confidence gets in the way of the most important work of the union: organizing to make us bigger and more experienced. Lack of confidence is also disrespectful to people who are organizing in shops right now, who know the union is real and are putting a lot on the line to improve their lives as part of the IWW.
Being realistic about the fact that we need to get our house in order is good. Our union has difficulties that we need to work through. But we're not going to resolve any of those problems by prioritizing solidarity activism over solidarity unionism. That won’t lead to our house being put in order. It will lead to our house turning into a squat with all kinds of random stuff going on.
This feeling of lack of confidence is a real feeling, an emotion. That means we’re not going to get rid of it via ideas. Changing that feeling can be done in part through conversation, just like the emotional experiences we have with people when we agitate them in our organizing. And just like in organizing, these conversations happen in the context of relationships. Any conversations that will be effective in changing our confidence will be conversations that are part of building and maintaining a relationship, rather than just debate with other members on ideas. Organizing definitely involves ideas, but it takes more than that. We also need experiences. To build the union we need experiences of what a union is, of what this union is and can be.
The best way to get that experience is for the union to keep organizing and organize more. Unfortunately, lack of confidence makes us less likely to be active in organizing. We need to deal with lack of confidence by inviting and pushing people - others and ourselves - to be more active. More specifically, we need to be more active in things that are likely to give us the experiences we need. People need to be offered concrete actions, like attending a one on one with a more experienced organizer, or a good shop committee meeting. We also need to share our experiences by swapping stories - just like when we agitate - and to discuss experiences with each other to find the elements that will motivate us further.
Existing lack of confidence in the union is partially due to people not having had these experiences, and not having heard about experiences they can imagine having. That means that lack of confidence indicates a failure of mentoring in the union. Doing solidarity unionism is hard. One part of it is encouraging more people to get involved, so they get the experience and gain confidence. This is a lot of work, but it's do-able and we have to do it.
Originally appeared in the July 2007 Industrial Worker
Potentials for Solidarity Unionism
Todd Hamilton elaborates on the IWW's usual mode of organizing, 'solidarity unionism'.
Simply put solidarity unionism is organizing collectively (or as a group of workers) to directly implement our desires whether that’s in the workplace, industry, or economy. It is simple, but the practice has never really been fleshed out systematically either in practice or in theory. We have a body of experiences, thoughts, and discussions and as our practice matures it leads us to look deeper into solidarity unionism. Solidarity unionism leads us to change our understanding of what the 'union’ means for us, as well as where we intervene and put our emphasis in struggle.
There is no blue print for how to organize in general, but that doesn't mean we can't develop strategic ways of pursuing our goals. Previous authors (Alexis Buss, Staughton Lynd, etc) have focused on how we can organize in the without falling back on some of the familiar features of union organizing as we’ve known it. Some of the things they take on are comprehensive contracts, election based campaigns requiring a majority of workers, and the mediating bureaucracies and institutions (the courts, union bureaucracies, lawyers, politicians and parties) that alienate workers' power. They have argued for organizing even if there is only a minority of workers who are members of the union, organizing whether or not the boss and/or state recognize the union, organizing where workers’ power is the greatest (in the workplace and community), and remaining strategic about how to avoid and selectively utilize (the generally alienating and debilitating environments of) the courts, the state and parties, and hierarchical union bureaucracy that acts for and instead of workers (often against).
These are some of the walls we have hit. Contracts have helped kill job actions through forcing workplace gripes into a mediating bureaucracy that is hostile to workers. The hierarchical institutions put struggle into realms where worker power is weakest, and where workers play a secondary role. Beyond the power of the boss, the union bureaucracy has all the power and knowledge creating a hierarchy between the workers and the means of struggle. Elections and membership-based drives have sunk huge amounts of efforts into organizing where there is often little benefit for workers privileges bureaucracies with huge resources, and reproduces hierarchical relationships between workers and the union.
Solidarity unionism is about organizing whether we're recognized or not, whether there's a contract or not, and most of all settling direct worker issues by the workers. That doesn’t mean we don’t use things like contracts, lawsuits, arbitration, but they are tactics we use not our strategy. Likewise we understand them and hold them to their strategic value, and don’t mistake them for what they aren’t.
Once we begin to think in these terms though, and begin to organize with these issues in mind, we gain a deeper perspective on strategy. For instance it is no longer necessary to fly the union flag as a hallmark in every campaign. It might be more tactical to keep the boss in the dark about union activity at a shop, or in an industry until we have already won enough gains and a wide enough base of support that announcing our presence would be strategic. Thus going another route than majority-based elections allows us to be strategic about when and how we give knowledge about the union's presence in organizing.
We can also be strategic about who and when we sign members up. Rather than having the goal of organizing being to just get people to take out cards whether they want to participate or not, membership can be an actions itself and a positive step a worker can take in further the struggle and consciousness building. We can keep dues and membership for workers who want to be a part of the organization, who are ready to join, and who have experienced class struggle and organization together with the union (this of course is a positive feature, rather than a restrictive). This can draw a line in the sand between unions that are paper tigers, and unions (like us) that exist in our actions, education, and struggle.
Solidarity Unionism presents its own challenges, and poses new questions to us. The rough model I am working off is one in which experienced workers assist in workplace struggles where demands are won through direct action. Workers are brought into the organization and developed through these struggles and move towards revolutionary understanding and practice. At a certain level of strength and roots through these worker organizers can apply deeper pressure in their industry. That is, we seek to build a foundation to respond and deepen struggle that otherwise might emerge but deflate through familiar mechanisms.
Originally appeared in the August 2007 Industrial Worker
A brief look at informal work groups, which the author sees "as the seeds, and the tiny cells within a larger muscle of organization."
In every workplace throughout all of history, workers have come together and worked together for their common interests. This takes many forms. Sometimes its at the level of two workers next to each other in cubicles who support each other and make work less miserable by being able to laugh with one another; other times it forms into a group that encompasses enough people that they can informally control the speed of production and the work conditions that surround them; and sometimes it grows into a union a group of workers within a shop, ideally across and industry who can directly exercise power in relation to the boss. In whichever form it takes it is significant. In each form it challenges the isolation that exists in other aspects of our lives as workers. In these relationships we begin to see the possibilities of what it means to take collective action and what it means to control the means of production. We are empowered by these relationships, and where we can build on them we can have success and begin to make changes.
These bonds we form with our fellow workers are the basis of our organization, the basis of Industrial Unionism and the basis of a working class movement. Where these bonds originate and where they are most intense is in our workplaces, where they come out of our day-to-day interactions and struggles.
The first two forms mentioned are incomplete. Little can be done if our work group remains isolated in a group of two or three; and if we begin to informally control production we still may be isolated within a larger company or industry. These have to be expanded through organization. But look at these small groups as the seeds, and the tiny cells within a larger muscle of organization (a muscle that must be constantly exercised).
Through organization these small work groups branch out, around an issue or as part of a campaign. They encompass other workers, get further defined through this organization, and identify workplace or industrial issues to struggle against. Again this often happens informally and we should not overlook it or believe that workers are not capable of acting outside of formal organization. Small informal actions are happening all over the place, and even in this context workers begin to see their power, but in small ways. It has to grow and it has to become formal in order to grow to a position of strength and push forward demands.
As the struggle grows it becomes more formal, the definition it gets is one of class. It moves from a group of friends or acquaintances that want to make things better on the job, to a group of workers making a demand on the boss and having an action to follow this demand up. In this action we must come together and confront things directly ourselves. This means not relying on a third party, on the government, a lawyer, or the press to enforce our demands, but doing it ourselves, with other workers inside our workplace and outside of it. This is direct action and is present in informal struggle and in formal struggle.
In this struggle we as a group are defined by our relationship to the boss and to production, in a way that is not possible when we act as individuals. This is when we become the working class, a group acting in its own interests.
We all identify ourselves as part of this group, the issue we have been organizing around now becomes one of the working class verse the employing class. And though these actions we begin to see what is possible, not just for ourselves and our families but also for our fellow workers, for our organization and for our union. Out of these small seeds, informal work groups, organization, direct action, our class is defined. We cease to be individuals, left to the whims of the bosses and become a force that can push our own issues and agenda.
Originally appeared in the December 2007 Industrial Worker
Who Can Say?
Recently I received a call from Seth, someone I have been advising on how to organize a union for his workplace. Seth has been diligently slogging away for months, reaching out to his co-workers and organizing them to improve their working conditions. Over the course of the past few months he and his co-workers have had some small victories-they forced management to replace unsafe equipment after someone was injured, to staff shifts appropriately and to give them an unpaid holiday for Christmas. However, when I received a call from Seth he was depressed. His efforts to bring his co-workers together were not going well. The company had brought in a new manager to break the union by bribing the workers. The tactic seemed to be working and previously staunch supporters were telling Seth that they weren't interested in the union anymore.
We spent a few moments talking about Seth’s feeling of hopelessness. I shared with him how hard and depressing I found my own organizing at times. I also told him that in organizing it is always difficult to know what people are thinking or what they will do next. The most important thing, I suggested, was to be persistent. When workers try to form a union employers almost always try to break their spirits. If you don’t let them break your spirit you’ll probably win in the end, I said. And then, I offered him a story from the Taoist tradition to illustrate my point about not knowing what will happen next.
I said: “Long ago in China there was a peasant whose horse had run away. His neighbor commiserated with him. He replied “Who can know if it’s good or bad?’ The very next day the horse returned bringing with him a herd of wild horses. The peasant was suddenly very rich. When his neighbor commented on his good fortune he replied “Who can know if it’s good or bad?’ The next day the peasant’s son tried mounting one of the wild horses. He fell off and broke both his legs. Again the neighbor offered the peasant his sympathy and again the peasant replied “˜Who can know if it’s good or bad?’ The very next day the army came to the village to draft soldiers into service for a far away war. The peasant’s son was exempted from military service because of his injuries. So you see you can’t always know in the midst of things what is helpful and what isn’t.”
Seth told me that he found the story helpful and that it improved his spirits. A few days later he called me to tell me that he’d gotten five of his co-workers to join the union. A few of his co-workers had been talking things over without Seth and realized that all of the bribes--the better shifts and safer working conditions--management was giving them were because of the union, not despite it. He felt that things were going well and thanked me for the story I had shared with him.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2007)
Columns from 2008
Health Clinic Organizing
Todd Hamilton's account of building committees and acting on grievances through direct action in health clinics.
Workers have been organizing at a low income reproductive health clinic for the past few months. It all began when the company, which was on solid footing, had gone on a hiring spree and improved a lot of working conditions. The federal government began requiring any recipient of aid (the majority of our patients) to prove citizenship. Undocumented workers don't actually need to strangely, all they need is to indicate that they're permanent residents. The net effect on the industry has been to cut 30% of the funding to all low-income clinics generally. That is the real target of this federal assault, to cut social funding under the guise of racially based nationalist sentiments.
Management's response was mass layoffs of departments, internal restructuring, productivity increase measures, and a hiring freeze. The workers responded actively and vocally. At first the resistance was individualized, emails and phone calls to management expressing agitation. As this method was fairly ineffective, workers began using staff meetings and other such channels to confront management in spontaneous groupings around the natural social circles at work. As the heat continued to escalate, management rolled over on a number of demands. The hiring freeze was lifted, yearly raises were returned, and management made an effort to meet with workers to hear concerns and supposedly to incorporate ideas for solving problems. Part of this came from the fact that management is split by their commitment to serving patients as people, but without organization these demands were systematically ignored.
The spontaneous groups were easily distracted by small concessions (e.g. changing the color of toilet seats), divided by quibbling, and diffused by management. Management began engaging in a propaganda campaign to try and win the hearts and minds of workers, who are vocally angry and resistant. Many of the senior staff quit, leaving a fresh workforce who are largely ignorant of the context of struggles going on. Amidst this, workers at two clinics organized as a group, and demanded a meeting with the CEO in order to air grievances. These ended up with management dodging demands (when workers, ill-prepared, fragmented during the meetings) and focusing on the easy-to-fix trivial demands.
Conditions at clinics vary wildly as well, and despite general anxiety over layoffs and restructuring, not all clinics feel the same level of frustration. At my clinic a similar meeting was friendly with management to the point of offering personal sacrifices (such as paying more for health insurance). This is in part due to turn over (90% of the workers have been at my clinic less than two months), and also due to the beliefs and positions carved out by the one or two senior staff.
The most successful was a meeting with a clinic where a small committee had been built with myself and two IWW sympathizers who have been organizing. A one page list of demands was prepared, and the clinic as a whole endorsed it. The organizers in the shop inoculated their coworkers about management's potential responses, and got together to make sure everyone stayed on their collective message. Their crucial demand was more staff at their horribly understaffed clinic. The meeting went well with management taking their demands seriously.
After the meeting more staff were hired, and the way staffing is allocated was modified somewhat. The workers feel like they got what they wanted, but the systemic issues remain untouched. They decided that they needed to next time be less conciliatory, and to have a plan to escalate actions if they don't get what they demand.
Management's strategy has been to try to listen to worker concerns, without giving a place to actually be able to implement them, and to roll over on the easier demands that improve the business anyway. For example, our use of the internet had been taken away from all staff on a whim citing a few individuals using myspace too much. Widespread protests about needing such basics as maps and bus schedules for patients eventually won back full internet usage rights. Likewise protests over a bizarre rule to do pelvic exams on all women who enter the clinic, quickly overturned the policy.
The most hopeful turn of events is the building of a cross-clinic organizing committee, which has workers from four of the five greater metropolitan area clinics. The first meeting was held recently, where it was decided to build an organizing committee, map all the clinics, identify leadership, begin pushing demands across the company, and eventually have an independent workers organization that implement and negotiate our grievances directly. As management has caved on our demands so quickly, and turn-over is so high, we've exhausted much of our agitational issues. For this reason the committee decided to begin building the relationships and solidarity through social activities and education that will provide a foundation for the next grievances that surface. With a committee already in place, and a structure to work with, we can prepare to act collectively and implement our desires.
Originally appeared in the February 2008 Industrial Worker
Wage Theft Picket
An account of a campaign to win a worker's back wages through pickets and the threat of escalation.
One day I told a friend of mine about an action the General Membership Branch did where we got someone a few shifts' worth of wages after he got fired quickly from a new job. We called for a picket. It didn't actually happen. The boss caved as soon as the first two guys showed up with a stack of signs. Then another former employee who had left town, and had been trying to wrestle her last two weeks pay from the boss caught word of it. She talked to the boss and said something to the effect of, “Heard there was a picket, shame if there was another one.” She had tried for months to get her money, after the picket she got it right away.
My buddy said, “Hey I know someone in a similar situation.” He passed on our IWW contact details. His friend had worked at a club for a few weeks. She was fired because the boss couldn't afford all of the staff he had. She had already contacted the employer to ask for her back wages. No matter happen, no matter how many phone calls she made, she was stonewalled by her ex-boss.
She joined the union and asked for help. Her ex-boss is emotionally manipulative and unstable. She wanted us to go for her initially. I volunteered with another Wobbly to meet with her ex-boss. I was initially reluctant to be a representative because I'd never done it before. But the thing needed doing so I put on a suit. We went to the business. We hung around waiting for the boss to come and open up. He was unwilling to talk to us. The other fellow worker gave the boss his cell phone number. We told him we are going to have a picket but he can phone us if he'd like to reconsider. We left and a little while latter the boss phoned us. He wanted to meet. He said he would call but later with a meeting time. He didn't.
We learned from this action not to do everything for the worker. In planning the next steps we made sure she was involved... we aren't a service union after all. We tried to help out with the stuff that she couldn't do. This way we did a better job of helping the worker be the organizer. Still, it's hard to teach what you're just learning. Neither of us who were being representatives have much experience in this stuff.
A picket was called for 9:30 p.m. one night. The worker invited a bunch of her friends. I sent out a facebook invite. A bunch of People's Global Action folks were having a meeting around the corner. They came by after that was done. When I got there, there were about 10 folks. I'd say there was a total of maybe 35 people coming and going, with about 20 at any one time. It was a solid picket.
The guy I was working with made up a little leaflet briefly stating that the business doesn't pay it's staff and people shouldn't patronize the club/restaurant. The headline was “FREE DRINKS.” The text explained that if workers aren't getting paid the owner shouldn't be charging. Most folks got the joke but one woman apparently went in, ordered a drink and presented the flyer, thinking it was a coupon. She came out angry about that, screaming and swearing. I felt bad that someone had to get upset but outside of that the leaflet worked well. The boss called the cops saying we were starting fights with customers. They left quickly when they saw what was going on.
At first the employer wouldn't meet with us to talk unless we told the picket to leave first. We said no. Eventually he came out to talk. In addition to us three who were involved in negotiating, one of the bigger, burlier members of the branch was also present. There was a feeling amongst the wobs that we needed some sort of physically imposing presence “in case of trouble”. As he had no experience with the boss he said something that made the guy upset and he left. I personally didn't feel at all like I was going to be physically threatened in this situation and as the picket wore on and we had subsequent conversations with the owner, I became more firm about not needing anyone other than the three of us who were involved around. It was too difficult to deal with strategy-wise, and bringing machismo into things seems like a bad move in general.
As time went on and his nightclub stayed empty he began to come out looking increasingly concerned. He wanted to talk again. This time just the three of us went upstairs with him. We were obviously hurting him, as the club was almost empty.
We won half the wages owed in cash and a written statement promising to pay the remainder next Saturday. If he didn't pay there would be another picket. We were promised by the head of the District Labour Council that they would support us on this matter (unprecedented in my knowledge). We are using the possibility of an even bigger picket, with media this time, as a guarantee.
This may not directly lead to any organized shops, but actions like this are helpful to folks, including ourselves. We gain valuable skills we can use when there are bigger fish to fry. Taking actions like this builds real solidarity. We can point to these actions when someone asks, “What does the IWW do?”
Originally appeared in the April 2008 Industrial Worker
3 years of organizing under Right-to-Work
An account of organizing with teachers and the small successes and failures that had happened.
I live and work in a “right-to-work” state in the United States where all workers have the right to quit at anytime, yet they can also be terminated at any time. Where’s the benefit in that type of work environment?
For the last three years, that work environment has had a huge influence on my unionizing efforts. At my place of employment I am the only IWW member. At times, it can be very discouraging, but I have learned that persistence is a must if anything is to be accomplished.
1. I have been able to get my fellow teachers together at a restaurant or someone’s house a number of times where we have developed and agreed to a list of concerns that have been presented to our boss and her boss.
2. We have had three meetings with management with all teachers present.
3. We have all resorted to using work-to-rule tactics, i.e., we do only the absolute minimum by following the rules exactly.
4. If management tells us to do something more, “speed up”, we ignore it. We make management get off their asses and come to us with their concerns and then we ignore them again. Management frequently doesn’t ask again because it makes them work harder.
5. We keep labor journals and compare notes daily. For example, management will play favorites with employees. They’ll say one thing to one teacher and say something completely different to another teacher. When we compare notes, we find the most advantageous “saying” and then hold them to it. They hate that because not only does it limit their ability to talk to workers, it also limits their ability to pit one worker against another. They lose power and control.
Learning from failure
Unfortunately, everything hasn’t been bread and roses. Here are some examples of failures.
1. I have succeeded in signing one co-worker to our union. She then moved on and discontinued her membership.
2. I have been unable to sustain my fellow workers’ interest in being more militant. Once something improves they stop.
3. I have not been able to keep coworkers together. They leave as soon as they can for a “better” job. Consequently, there is a high turnover rate that hinders worker solidarity and makes it harder to keep the gains we have made together.
4. Beware the Canary Letter. Once a year the company has all employees fill out a survey. The teachers made sure they were negative and unsigned. Our boss wanted us to turn them in to her. Instead I mixed them up with non-teaching staff then slid them under the Human Resources door unseen. Within 30 minutes our boss was running around asking all the teachers why everyone was so upset, etc. How did the bosses know? It’s called the canary letter. Each department will have a different survey. It could be a different question, misspelled word, different numbered pages so that the boss can know at least what department it came from, even if it is not signed.
5. The most hurtful episode was when we had a labor faker in our midst. He came out all gung ho for everything union. He expressed the same sentiments as everyone else. He had some good ideas. All that changed when we were having a meeting with the two bosses. He acted like Rambo by expressing opinions that were either not agreed upon or were designed to sidetrack our demands and place the meeting into chaos. That was the first inkling that we had a faker.
The last episode was when he got in trouble for something that happened in his class. From what we can gather, he unloaded his guts about what the teachers really thought about everything. In consequence, the teaching staff attended two “mandatory meetings” where the management asked everyone “what was really going on?” while the labor faker sat there with us.
None of us admitted to anything and the faker remains employed. Needless to say but we treat him as someone not worth our trust or loyalty.
Originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of the Industrial Worker
SOAP for Workers Power
A column advocating a system of assessing people that is used in health care be utilized in our workplace organizing.
Healthcare workers have a way of note-taking called SOAP. SOAP stands for Subjective, Objective, Assessment, and Plan.
In the subjective section, the clinician will write down the general condition of the patient, usually based on what the patient says about their health. All the vitals and observed information are collected in the objective portion of the note. This could be blood pressure, pulse, skin discoloration, whatever. An assessment is a skeleton of the main symptoms and corresponding diagnoses in the order of most to least likely. Based on the evidence and assessments, the provider then gives a plan for correcting the problems.
This way of documenting interactions with patients and coming up with a game plan is a useful tool for workplace organizing. It can help us think critically about the conversations we have, the conclusions we draw, and how to move forward out of our one-on-one discussions. As organizers, we are trying to get a handle on the situation in a workplace and what we have to do to build an organization.
How do we get from where we are to where we want to be? With this in mind, our subjective assessments are the conversations and things our co-workers say around the shop. Our objective section is the actions that we can see our co-workers taking part in. This allows us to see the difference between what people say and what they do. This isn’t to judge people or harass them about what they do or don’t do, but just to get a sense of what we can rely on, what we need to help along, and what motivates people so that we can effectively build a real democratic group effort to change our workplaces.
In the assessment section, we lay out our take on the person, situation or action planned. We come to that conclusion based on the evidence we have (written in the other sections). Our plan gives the next steps to build more workplace power. The idea with all this is that we use objective standards for the conclusions we draw and the plans that we cook up. People naturally rely on their instincts and impressions of others around them, but our instincts tend to be filtered through our personalities and where we are at, which can color our organizing.
By separating out observations and activities, like we do in healthcare, we can get a better sense of the situation. They are also accessible to other organizers working on the campaign and can be scrutinized, altered, and revised. This allows others to see how the work is done, hold each other accountable, and have concrete documentation should we need to use it against the boss.
Originally appeared in the July/August 2008 Industrial Worker
Forget industrial power
A piece advocating that the IWW should concentrate on organizing small shops, rather than large companies.
The old wobbly song “There Is Power In A Union” goes “There is power there is power in a band of working folks, When they stand hand in hand.” This is the basic idea of a union, strength in numbers. We're lacking in the numbers department in the IWW today. So our power is small, at least in one important sense. We need to recognize this if we're going to grow quickly and efficiently, without cutting any corners in terms of member education and development
Some people in the IWW think we should organize big companies that dictate conditions for the rest of their industry because they have such a large share of the market. If we make changes at the industry or market leaders then we make change across the whole industry. That's true, and we should organize these companies (we should organize everywhere). But the reality is that our power is small compared to big companies.
More than that, our first priority right now should not be to make change for as many workers as possible across an industry. Our first priority right now should be to have members improve their own lives at work and to recruit other organizers out of our co-workers. That will build our pool of committed, capable organizers so that we can eventually have really enormous impacts for our whole class.
On the short term we should focus on small companies instead of big ones. We are tiny compared to a multinational company and so is our relative power. But compared to a small “mom-and-pop” grocery store or a locally owned restaurant with 20 employees, or a fast food franchise where the owned has 5 stores and 75 employees, we are huge. We have branches that are bigger than companies of that size. We can run picket lines and other actions against those companies which can really hurt them economically (as opposed to picketing, say, WalMart) because every shop is a huge portion of the company's total income. This will maximize the relative power of our branches and make for more winnable campaigns in a shorter time frame. Those wins will result in more members with greater organizing experience and higher morale. It might also reduce organizer burnout by giving us more victories to restore our spirits in the short term.
Of course, gains in smaller companies will be limited by the conditions in the industry which are mostly set by industry leaders. We'll have to explain this to the workers we organize and turn them into organizers dedicated to organizing their whole industry. The small shops will provide us with a larger base and more concrete examples to work from as we turn to organizing larger companies in those industries.
Originally appeared in the September 2008 Industrial Worker
Industrial Unionism is the IWW Strategy
While I don't think the Industrial Worker is the proper forum for debate over organizing strategy, the readers of the IW should be offered an alternative view to that presented by the September 2008 IW article entitled “Forget Industrial Power,” by Fellow Worker Nate H. In the article he argues that the IWW should avoid placing organizing efforts in large companies because of our relative weak position and that organizing large companies is likely to create failure and burnout for our organizers.
The main disagreement I have with the argument is that it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more we believe we can't do something, the more that becomes a reality. We have refused to take on large targets for over 40 years. As a result we have grown little. It was only when the IWW took on Borders in 1996 and Starbucks in 2004, both large companies, that we saw significant increases in membership and activity.
Furthermore, the argument is grounded in circular logic. Acquiring big resources only comes after we take on big targets. It is tantamount to saying “we need resources to organize big targets, but we can't get resources until we organize big targets.” We've been saying this for decades. Where has it gotten us?
The early IWW was not afraid of any targets. They took on companies and industries thousands of times larger (review the copper mine organizing in Arizona or the Textile companies in New England for example) than their membership and made not only changes for the workers of the industry but also for the labor movement as a whole.
The article further contends that we should focus our organizer recruitment at the small workplaces of our current membership. The problem with this argument is that it assumes we would not acquire organizers at large targets, which is, of course, likely. IWW-style
organizing anywhere creates new organizers out of workers. The argument also completely ignores the good possibility that the quality of the organizers recruited from large targets may be better. Because of the larger size, there is a larger pool of talent to draw from. He also believes we should focus on small companies instead of big ones. The grounding for this is that we could potentially build enough power on the backs of small capitalists to eventually fight the large businessmen. While I agree with FW H that we should not solely focus on large companies, I think focusing on small ones is just as problematic, and may even require more time and energy than a large company and may be more prone to failure.
Businesses act in predictable ways if the basic economic laws are given consideration. Occasionally these laws are broken, or a business owner will act irrationally, or outside agencies (i.e. Government) will interfere with economic laws, but the vast majority of businesses comply and therefore act predictably to internal and external pressures (labor rebellion, etc.). If we apply the pressure of unionism to small companies than we should be able to predict, given a long enough time frame, the effects on the company, the industry, or the economy as a whole.
Instead of providing power for the IWW, organizing small companies is likely to lead to eventual weakening of our union. Smaller companies are required to compete with the big companies, who set industrial standards, to survive. Any hindrance to this is likely to either limit what we can gain from employers or entirely push the small shops out of business. The larger companies will acquire the customer-base left by the exterminated businesses, the Wobblies will be out of work, and capitalism's wheels keep on turning. The amount of real economic pressure we could apply to small businesses is therefore very little.
Organizing small companies is a bigger drain on resources. Even the big business unions, with extensive resources, have had trouble organizing the little shops. They are just too hard to organize.
However, I will not argue that the best alternative is organizing one large company either. On a long enough timeline, the end result of focusing on one large company will reflect that of the smaller ones (look at the Teamster organizing in the Nineties). Large companies can go out of business like any other and when they do, their competitors in the industry will assume their former market share.
What's the alternative? The answer to the problem of limited resources, unemployment prevention, and organizer burnout is to organize industrially. By organizing industrially, we have a large pool of talent to draw from that is often limited in both small and some large companies. We can choose where in the industry to place emphasis to prevent firings and ensure negotiating leverage.
Moreover, taking on an entire industry eliminates the ubiquitous problem in small companies of high turnover. Turnover creates extra stress for organizers and affords little negotiating leverage to the workers. When the pros and cons are carefully considered, organizing industrially is actually much more likely to yield success with less effort than organizing small companies or single large companies. While the endeavor may seem intimidating, industrial strategy is easier and more appropriate for our current resources.
Often times, there is a tendency to fear big targets because of the size of the employment is intimidating. I used to think this way. But a close friend and fellow worker once told me I was looking at it from a “glass-is-half-empty” point of view. He said, Don't think of all those workers as a barrier, think of it as an opportunity.
A workplace or local industry of 1000 workers should not be viewed as “1000 members until success,” but rather “this industry offers us potentially 1000 new members.” That optimism never left me. I think if it was adopted by more Wobblies, we would grow significantly.
Originally appeared in October 2008 Industrial Worker
Response to Fellow Worker B
I thank FW B for taking the time to reply to my column. I disagree with FW B that the Industrial worker is not a proper forum for debate over organizing strategy. That's the biggest disagreement we have, I think.
I argued that we should focus on small targets, because we can have more victories at small targets because our branches are bigger relative to small companies. That way we can win things more quickly and make more organizers by having inspiring victories. I think inspiring victories are important for making organizers, and making more organizers is one of the three most important tasks facing the IWW right now. (The other two are retaining organizers and getting better at organizing.)
The heart of my column, the bit I feel most strongly about, is this pair of sentences: “Our first priority right now should be to have members improve their own lives at work and to recruit other organizers out of our co-workers. That will build our pool of committed, capable organizers so that we can eventually have really enormous impacts for our whole class.” I think FW B and I agree on this.
FW B points out that this can also be done by targeting big companies and industry-wide campaigns. He points to the Starbucks campaign as an example. The Starbucks campaign is important and impressive. It's made more organizers for our union and that's awesome. FW B is absolutely right and this is a gap in my column's argument.
All of that said, I still think that a new GMB that is looking for a first organizing target is better off trying to organize a smaller shop. The smaller the shop, the less resources management has to dump into union-busting and the more of their business we can shut down with pickets and other actions given our currently small numbers.
Let me put it this way. Let's say hypothetically that three new branches form in three different counties in the great state of Minnesota and they host a joint organizer training. One says “we have a member who works at Wal-Mart so we're targeting all the Wal-Marts in our county.” The second says “we have a member who works at a local magnet factory with 50 workers so we're targeting that.” The third says “we haven't made up our mind yet - we have Walmarts here and we have a magnet factory with 50 workers, and we have one member at each.”
If someone from the third branch asked my advice, I would urge them to follow the lead of the second branch, not the first. I would wish the first branch nothing but success and they would certainly deserve support. But would I predict that at least in the short term the second branch is more likely to succeed and to have more of the victories necessary for sustaining organizers.
Of course, I would be happy to be proven wrong by more victories and organizer recruitment within really big campaigns.
Originally appeared in the October 2008 Industrial Worker
A column by Nate Hawthorne, arguing against the IWW presently prioritizing what some see as key industries.
Some people think the IWW should pour all of its resources into organizing in an industry which is particularly important to the economy, to maximize our impact on capitalism--I call this the “Pinchpoint Target” idea.
Pinchpoint Target is the idea that there's one key sector or a few key sectors of the economy where organized workers could shut down capitalism. This means workers in that sector or sectors have a certain level of objective power, at least potentially. For instance, if every dockworker in the United States went on strike the global economy would stop. Dockworker strikes stop an incredibly valuable amount of machinery and goods. Every minute of the strike costs the bosses of the world a great deal of money. This analysis is correct. It does not mean that the IWW should focus only organizing dockworkers.
The problem with Pinchpoint Target is that it takes a correct objective analysis of the economy--some sectors are more important to the global economy than others--and argues that the analysis should dictate organizational strategy. The mistake is that Pinchpoint Target says that we'll organize that key sector or sectors and then be able to end capitalism. That is, the idea is that workers in that sectors or sectors will lead the charge for everyone else.
There are at least three problems with this idea. One is that workers in other industries need unions too because their jobs also suck. Some of those workers are currently IWW members and not all of them can change jobs to some key industry. The IWW needs to support and train and develop those members too. To do otherwise would be undemocratic.
A second problem is that the current level of training, experience, and dedication in the union is insufficient. The procedures for educating news members and developing a sense of Wobbly culture and community need to be better. I don't mean to put down the hard work of my fellow workers. I simply think that we still have a lot of work to do in this area. If we're talking about key sectors where we want to not only build unions but push forward revolutionary transformation then we will face tremendous repression. We have to be prepared for this repression. That means we have to develop better networks of solidarity and union infrastructure and a stronger Wobbly culture. The union busting we face when we organize image conscious restaurant chains or in the public sector is nowhere near as fierce as in manufacturing. We still have a hard time handling this in our campaigns. If we organize dockworkers or oil refinery workers the union busting we face will be much more intense than anything we have seen before. We need to get better at winning smaller campaigns in less important sectors of the economy before we charge up the mountain.
The level of repression which workers in pinchpoint industry face is an argument for not prioritizing those sectors for another reason. If workers in those industries are isolated, they will be more easily defeated. If organization and revolutionary consciousness is spread throughout the working class across different sectors then we will have a better chance at defeating that repression. If it's not, then the struggles in the pinchpoint sector or sectors will be more likely to lose--and the workers in other sectors may be less likely to unite with the workers in the pinchpoint sectors.
The experience of class struggle on the job can have a radicalizing effect. I've argued that we should organize in a way that maximizes this effect. This is important to counteract divisions between parts of our class. More important sectors of the economy are more likely to be well paid, and one response to major unrest is to improve conditions. The difference in income between the pinchpoint and nonpinchpoint workers can lead workers in the non-pinchpoint sectors to be less disposed toward solidarity.
I want to close by saying that the Pinchpoint Target is motivated by a sense of urgency. The idea is that prioritizing one sector or some key sectors will move the abolition of the wage system along faster. That's a worthwhile goal and that impatience is totally understandable. The world is a bad place in many ways and it needs to change. I'm not convinced that the Pinchpoint Target will help us, but I respect and share the sense of urgency of the fellow workers who hold to this idea.
- Nate Hawthorne
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2008)
Columns from 2009
Building a Ship
Nate Hawthorne briefly goes over the topic of burnout, looking at it from a perspective of long-term and short-term.
I recently stepped down from an international officer position in the IWW. In thinking about this, I remembered something I wanted to share.
I feel lucky to have had the privilege to meet Fellow Worker Utah Phillips before he died. FW Phillips sang a song with the refrain, “building a ship/ may never sail on it/ gonna build it anyway.” That’s an important idea.
“Building a ship.”
The IWW is a sort of ecosystem where several elements depend on each other, and move at different paces. Trainings and administrative work are the main things I do in the IWW now. This is important, but it’s hard because the payoffs don’t come quickly and often happen elsewhere, out of my direct sight/experience. This is different from helping organize a picket or a job action or moving a coworker in a one-on-one.
On a personal note, I’m happy to report that my wife is pregnant and that our daughter is due to be born at the end of August. I am very excited to meet my daughter and to raise her. At the same time, I know parenting will involve being stressed, missing sleep, being afraid, and a lot of hard work. Along the same lines, I used to think that revolutionary activity should always be joyful or make us feel good. I no longer feel that way. Obviously, this stuff should have enjoyable and/or joyful elements, at least sometimes, but that’s a different matter. The work we need to do is often hard, trying, tiring and involves sacrifices. Many things worth doing are hard and are not immediately rewarding. But it is unjustifiable not to do them because they are a challenge—and this applies to parenting too. It’s both rewarding and really hard at the same time.
“May never sail on it.”
I told FW Phillips that his music and stories were a big part of my introduction to the IWW, and that I had really enjoyed talking with him and hearing his stories. He said thank you. He said something like, “I was your age when I met the people who got me into all this, and they were about the age I am now. Someday you’ll be my age and will be getting new people into all this.” It was a sobering thing to say, and definitely felt like shoes I can’t fill. It’s also an important reminder to think long term: Utah was, I think, 73 when I met him. I had just turned 30.
All this ties in to the reasons I decided to step down. In short, I was—and am—feeling burnt out. On the one hand, I need to make sure I do not burn out entirely, so that I can continue to play a somewhat positive role for the long term. On the other hand, what the song says is important. This stuff is not about immediate returns—or, at least, not about being able to see our really big goals accomplished. I find that to be a useful reminder. This work matters. We have to keep doing it. Right now, hanging in for the long term means stepping back for the short term, taking on less in order to be able to accomplish the things I am doing in the IWW.
“Gonna build it anyway.”
Originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of the Industrial Worker
The Employee Free Choice Act, Class Conditions, and Class Power
Tom Levy shares his thoughts on the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposed bill (since killed)that would have made it easier for U.S. workers to unionize under labor law.
Not since Ronald Reagan and the Air Traffic Controllers strike has America seen such debate on the future of organized labor. Although the worsening recession, stagnant (and often decreasing) wages, and the victory at Republic Windows have all contributed to this growing dialogue, the main impetus for such discussion has been the election of Barrack Obama and his support for the bill known as the Employee Free Choice Act.
If it passes, the EFCA will do a number of things. First it will give legal backing to card-check union elections. Second, it will increase the penalties when bosses fire union supporters. Finally, in the event workers choose to go union, the EFCA will allow either party—the company or the union—to call in government arbitrators to impose a contract.
At first glance, the EFCA may appear to be labor’s savior. After all, the big business unions have been trying to secure legislation such as this for years and are widely singing the EFCA’s praises. The bosses, on the other hand, are poised to spend millions on a PR campaign opposing the bill. Just recently a high-profile anti-union lobbyist was quoted warning industry executives that the surge in unionization the EFCA could bring would lead to the “demise of a civilization.” In light of such sentiments, let us, as committed unionists, examine the implications of the EFCA.
Surely, a card check election is a much fairer way for workers to secure a collective bargaining agreement. Instead of elections being held on company property where the boss can coerce, intimidate, and fire union supporters, in a card-check election workers simply sign a card authorizing a union to act as their bargaining agent. If 50%+1 of workers sign, the company is legally obligated to recognize the union. Likewise, increased penalties against union-busting will make the bosses a bit more law-abiding and offer increased protection to union supporters. Finally, a collective bargaining contract—even one imposed by the government—will improve the wages and conditions of workers. By removing these barriers to organizing, the EFCA could potentially usher in an era of widespread unionization. This state of affairs will put upward pressure on wages and improve the lot of even non-union workers. In the process, the unacceptable and wholly immoral gulf between the rich and the poor will be diminished. In these ways, the EFCA will not only increase the numbers of organized labor, but will improve the class conditions of America’s workers.
However, beyond class conditions, there is another angle we must consider. That, my brothers and sisters, is class power. Of the many lessons history has taught the working class, few are as important as this one simple truth: anytime the government offers what appears to be a concession to unions, it comes at the expense of the ability of workers to act in a militant, independent manner. Keeping this in mind, let us re-examine the EFCA.
First, the EFCA assumes contracts and elections (of any sort) are the only means of establishing a union in a given shop. Gone is the time when workers announced the formation of a union with a recognition strike. Government injunctions and feeble union leadership put a stop to that long ago. Along much the same lines, workers have been systematically prevented from enforcing union work rules and remedying grievances through “quickie strikes.” Nearly all union contracts now contain a “no strike clause” that prohibits strikes during the life of the contract. Instead of the union being the vehicle of workers’ collective action, the union becomes responsible for policing worker militancy. It is a sad fact, but many much needed strikes have been stopped by union officials more concerned with protecting their own status as guardians of the contract than with improving the conditions of their membership.
Finally, we must consider the implications of government arbitration. To begin, arbitration is inherently anti-democratic. Workers will not have the ability to vote on an arbitrated contract. Worse yet, arbitrators will almost inevitably include no-strike clauses and “management rights clauses” in contracts. Management rights clauses prohibit workers from taking part in decisions of who to hire and fire, how and where a company invests profits, and other such crucial business activities. Government arbitration, combined with no-strike and management rights clauses, severely limits the ability of unions to function as democratic, worker-run social institutions. Instead, under the provisions of the EFCA, service unionism will become the legally enforced norm.
No doubt, under the EFCA union workers will make higher wages, receive better benefits, more vacation time, and work under better conditions. However, this will come at the expense of class power. Put another way, the EFCA will remove from workers their autonomy vis-à-vis the capitalist state. Workers will be legally prevented from controlling their own unions. Union bureaucrats, government arbitrators, contract lawyers, and politicians will stand between workers and their ability to use direct action and solidarity to secure better wages and conditions.
Instead of politicians and union bureaucrats, workers can and should take matters into their own hands. We should use direct action techniques such as refusing to cross picket lines, engaging in “go slows,” boycotting non-union and scab goods, occupying our workplaces, holding mass pickets, and above all, going on strike. In such ways we act as a class and rely only on class solidarity to make such actions successful. Of course, it goes without saying that increased class power will inevitably lead to improved class conditions. By using direct action and solidarity we make sure we achieve better class conditions and that we do so on our own terms.
The IWW should not oppose the EFCA, but we should certainly not campaign for it either. Instead, we should use the opportunity opened by the EFCA to educate our fellow workers on the need for class power. Our ability to act independently, democratically, and autonomously as a class will see America’s workers achieve far more than we ever could through the EFCA. Even more than material gains, however, only by exercising class power can workers begin creating a society that always puts human need first.
Originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of the Industrial Worker
What We're Changing
M.Jones shows how organizing on the job changes the job.
In our organizing we are trying to establish power on the job. This power can be seen and felt in different ways depending on the job. But what we want from our organizing is control over our day to day lives on the job, this control will come from the power we can establish through collective action.
The collective actions we take on the job change the conditions on that job; they change how we daily interact with our bosses and with each other. This results in a bettering of conditions. I believe old time Wobblies called this job conditioning. It comes out of workers collectively and directly confronting the boss on an issue, and sticking up for one another. It is done with or without a contract; often the contract is an impediment to actions that can condition the job.
One of my first experiences with this came on my first job out of high school, throwing boxes at UPS. The workers here, although only informally organized exerted strong control over the job, and had no fear in voicing their opinions to the boss. The workers rallied around one or two strong leaders on the job. These leaders were the first workers to extend a hand to me and the other fellow I got hired on with, these were the workers when there was an issue would between two other workers would get it worked out, and these were the workers who were the first (but not the only ones) to bring up an issue to the boss. These confrontations often happened on the post break discussion session, they were often loud and confrontational. In this I saw the first application of our power as workers, and what it meant to be organized. The result was we worked the pace we wanted, worked with who we wanted, and stuck up for on another. Eventually, this experience would culminate in a threatened strike sticking up for a fellow worker who was in danger of being fired.
When I moved on to another job, this one at a truck manufacturing plant, I found a much different situation. Workers did not condition the job in the same way. They did not stick up for each other. Moreover, the leadership that had existed on the job at UPS did not exist here. The leadership that did exist was found in the “team lead” who often was a good leader and a company man. This of course led to workers following this person, falling in line, and not sticking together. In this situation our job conditions were much different. We were more at the mercy of the company. They had us out organized, and because of this we had no control over our daily lives on the job.
On my current job we are early on in a long process of organizing. One of the first tasks has been to get my fellow workers to take action together and to stick up for one another. Most of them are decent folks, willing to help each other out but with no experience of being organized. Most want to confront problems as individuals, thinking they may get a fair hearing from the boss. In small ways though, I can already see some changes, from a willingness to be critical of how things are handled to having each other's backs and helping each other out. These are some of the small changes that can lead to larger ones.
Job conditioning, I have learned is based on the small confrontations that happen everyday. When the boss comes out ready to tell us a decision he or she has made and is not confronted by workers as a group, they set the conditions for that day. If we workers confront them, stick up for one another, and lay out our demands for what we want, we set the conditions for that day. We are making a point with our action. The boss is learning their role. Workers are learning our power.
Originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of the Industrial Worker
Columns from 2010
Responses to 'Sowing the Seeds"
Two letters to the Industrial Worker about a piece called 'Sowing the Seeds of Workers Power'
“Workers’ Power” Column Should Be About Workers’ Power
Dear Industrial Worker,
This letter is in response the article “Sowing the Seeds of Workers Power” that appeared in the “Workers’ Power” column on page 5 of the November 2009 Industrial Worker. Let me start by saying that I’m a devout gardener. (I even help teach horticulture at the school where I work!). Despite this, there are some issues that need to be addressed in “Sowing the Seeds.” Most importantly, the article seems to be aimed more at building consumer power rather than workplace power. As I’m sure most Wobblies will agree, workers’ most effectively exert class power not as consumers (or ‘citizens’) but through our control of the means of production; or, in other words, through workplace-based organization. Accordingly, stories and analysis of how to this ought to be the main focus of a column entitled “Workers’ Power”.
The article states, “Workers can organize a factory and kick out the bosses. A very practical, relatively simple, and often overlooked opportunity for taking possession of the means of production is in the agriculture.” The author is correct that if agricultural workers take over the means of production from the bosses, then these are analogous situations. However, this does not apply to home (or even community) gardens. The first example challenges class relationships; the second, while healthy and fun, does not directly challenge the validity of the capitalist system. We shouldn’t pretend it does and the Industrial Worker should not promote it as such.
Statements such as “the potential for a union to support a bountiful community harvest through urban gardens,” speak to the consumption-based premises of the article. Community gardens are great and could be a tool for building contacts and solidarity, but they’re no substitute for workplace organization and action. Along the same lines, statements such as “I do not need to rely on an agribusiness for that part of my sustenance” are problematic. The goal of the IWW is not for our members to somehow avoid or “drop out” of capitalism (an impossible goal in any event—even co-ops exist in a capitalist market) but for workers to take over industry from the capitalist class.
There is a very valid class interest in boycotts at the point of production in the name of sustainability. For example, taking inspiration from the Australian green bans, workers in meatpacking factories could refuse to process animals that were not raised in a 300-mile radius of the plant. Actions such as this would be much more effective at both building class power and increasing the sustainability of the food supply.
X364060 concludes the article by proclaiming their support for “small farmers.” I’m curious if s/he has ever worked on a small farm. Small farms are still capitalist and, indeed, a small farmer is just as ‘petit bourgeois’ as a small shop owner. In fact, when the IWW created the Agricultural Workers Organization in the nineteen-teens it was precisely small farmers whom we were organizing against. Then, just like now, small farmers employed immigrant laborers seasonally.
Finally, the IW and the IWW in general needs to be very careful in making statements regarding individuals’ food choices. Personally, I’m a vegetarian. But, when I was involved in the Motor Transport Workers Industrial Union 530 campaign in North Carolina, we had meat at every single meeting. North Carolina is a ‘hog’ state and meat (and hunting) played a very real cultural role in the lives of those truckers. I’d be very wary of handing them a newspaper that took a prescriptive and/or judgmental stance on their eating habits.
For Workers’ Power,
X361737 London, UK
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January 2010)
“Workers’ Power” Column Defended
Dear Industrial Worker:
I am writing in response to the letter titled “’Workers’ Power’ Column Should Be About Workers’ Power,” which appeared on page 2 of the January 2010 Industrial Worker and which critiqued the November 2009 “Workers’ Power” column. I have been editing the “Workers’ Power” column for over three and a half years and the November column generated the strongest response of any of the submissions that I have published. The response to the column has been uniformly negative. I received about half a dozen personal emails as a result of the column, all expressing similar sentiments to x361737. Pretty much everyone seems to agree that the column was not about organizing for economic power at the point of production and, therefore, had no place in the “Workers’ Power” series.
I cannot quite agree. In my mind the purpose of the “Workers’ Power” column is to spark debate and discussion, to give Wobblies tools to improve the quality of our organizing and organization, and to push us to think about the ways that working-class people can build power. In that the column clearly sparked debate and discussion, I think that it fit these criteria. I hope that future columns will be as provocative and challenge people to think about what types of activities IWW members should be advocating.
If any readers of the Industrial Worker have ideas for future “Workers’ Power” columns please send them my way. I can be reached at cbossen[at]gmail.com. Submissions must be less than 800 words in length and will be edited for clarity but not content.
In the spirit of love and solidarity,
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (February/March 2010)
We are all “amigos"
J. Pierce talks about expectations of white workers to accept racism and division in the workplace.
In most of my experiences in the working world, I have felt as if the bosses expected me, a college-educated white guy, to relate only to them. I’m supposed to want what they want and believe what they believe. Many of my previous employers, often despite their own backgrounds as people of color, were willing to express some pretty racist and anti-worker sentiments. They expected me to agree.
When they find that I have befriended co-workers of color on the job, they are usually dismayed. At the cafeteria, befriending Abraham, an older African- American, made Jean (the “hatchet lady” brought in to do the firing) quite angry. Soon enough, both of us were fired in the bosses’ quest to break up our informal control of the pace of work.
Before I got hired at the recycling yard, the bosses asked me, “Are you sure you can take orders from a Spanish speaker? These guys aren’t even from Mexico. They’re from, like, Guatemala!...[ insert more racist blather].” But befriending all the Latinos (95 percent Mexicanos, by the way) made Ted, Andy, and Chaz pretty red in the face. After refusing a “promotion” to a supervisor position and building trust among my co-workers, management canned me after three months. Before that, because of our friendship, however, we enjoyed the only supervisor-free department and had some fun to boot!
“When we get bigger, and start to hire some amigos,” joked the widget boss, “I’m going to need you here managing them.” Eventually new people were hired and I treated them as compañeros and ignored the boss’s intended hierarchy. We enjoyed relatively stressfree working conditions, won expensive jackets, and orchestrated raises and equal pay—all out of our collaboration.
The thing I have learned from my time in the IWW is that I, myself, am an “amigo.” I am the cheap and vulnerable laborer who the bosses chase after. As a white guy, I have better access to jobs and I enjoy better treatment, relatively speaking. But if I don’t play their racist game, I quickly become the “lazy American” who wants more leisure time, safer and more meaningful work, and thinks everything ought to be free. (Wait ‘til they hear how the IWW intends to get it!) When the grocery bosses ask me to help save on “labor,” it is code for cutting back my hours so I can barely pay the rent. When the widget boss goes on an impromptu rant about how “the unions” screwed up the country, he’s scolding the people who comprise his “labor,” entreating us to expect a grim future for our children.
Every night before bed, the capitalists pray that we continue to identify with the rich instead of uniting with our fellow workers. They want us to continue on the path of racial segregation, exclusion (ostensibly) based on “citizenship” status, and delusions of joining the upper crust. But despite the bosses’ best efforts, IWW members in half a dozen countries insist on identifying with the oppressed ranks of labor. We insist on building links across color lines as we fight to bring the new society into existence. But that’s just what friends do.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2010)
The battle of the sandwiches: what does the bosses' offensive look like?
Alex Erikson talks about a new manager who came into his workplace with the intent of breaking worker solidarity through small, winnable issues.
If you read stuff about the labor movement of the 1970s and 80s, there is a lot of talkabout the “bosses’ offensive,” an aggressive attack on workers movements by capital.
A friend of mine from Italy told me that in 1977, the bosses and pro-boss workers (we call these people ’scissorbills,’ because their words cut you) staged a march of several thousand people in opposition to the continued wildcat strikes, sabotage, and occasional kneecapping, kidnapping, or assassination of bosses in the plants of northern Italy. This action was sufficient to change the climate and turn the cultural tide against the workers’ insurgency.
In my own workplace, we have seen an ebb and flow of class struggle on a micro-level. Initially, when the union went public, the boss was so afraid of us that he would sneak in and out the back door of the store without us knowing. We actually had a hard time planning actions because we could never find the boss to make demands.
The company replaced our boss with a new, more authoritarian manager. She set about breaking the union. Many of our fellow workers quit of their own volition before the union-busting really started, so we were already weak when the boss went on the offensive against us.
How did our new boss attack us? The same way we attacked our boss. She picked a winnable issue- something that we cared about but that we would be unable to defend. An issue that would isolate us from our coworkers, where we would not have “common sense” or the moral high ground behind us. In this case, it was the day-old sandwiches. We used to keep the sandwiches we didn’t sell at the end of the night for the workers who would come in the next day to have for lunch. Since we’re all so damn poor, this small gesture of solidarity meant a lot- it saved us money, and sometimes meant we got to eat when we would otherwise miss a meal.
The boss took away our sandwiches and put a note in the back room instructing us that we were no longer allowed to keep the sandwiches.
We were outraged. She was taking food out of our mouths. Immediately, two workers confronted the boss and demanded we be able to keep the sandwiches, explaining how important it was to us, how we didn’t make enough money to buy lunch every day, and how upset all the other workers would be.
The boss had prepared an answer in advance. She said it was against health code to keep the sandwiches, and that her boss would not allow it. We went back and forth a bunch of times to no avail.
The next day, I packaged up the sandwiches and put them in a stapled-shut bag, labeling it for a coworker who worked the next morning. He got the sandwiches and shared them with others on his shift. This was a direct action, directly contradicting the boss’ wishes.
I got called in the back room the next day. I was informed that if I did this again, I would be written up. Two writeups and I would be fired.
What could we do? We could do another march on the boss. A strike? A picket? A phone-in? We couldn’t figure out how to escalate. Our coworkers were not comfortable openly disobeying the boss, especially with the supposed legitimacy of “health code” behind her.
Our boss won. We lost the sandwiches. We did not have the organization we needed to defend ourselves.
This was the first defensive battle of a long retreat. Once you lose once, the effect can be devastating. People lose confidence in their ability to win and your organization crumbles. The boss gets increasingly brazen in their attacks.
But their brazenness generates agitation. You might have to bide your time, but eventually, the time will be ripe for a counterattack. It’s important to understand this dynamic in order to be able to beat back the bosses’ offensive, but also to be able to take the occasional loss in stride, pick our battles, and stay on the offensive more effectively.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2010)
It takes more than direct action
Colin Bossen talks about 3 different organizing campaigns he's been a part of and why the succeeded or failed.
Over the last seven years I have been involved in three major IWW organizing campaigns. The first of these was with the Chicago Couriers Union. This campaign succeeded in building a union of bike messengers that over the last seven years has maintained a small but dedicated membership. The couriers union has, throughout its existence, managed to make a difference in the lives of the workers in the industry. Since its inception the union has: won a wage increase at the third largest courier company in Chicago; advocated for numerous workers who have been unjustly fired, denied back pay, illegally docked at work, harassed or otherwise victimized; taught novice bike messengers about safety; and improved access to buildings. The union has also organized numerous social events and bike races for members of the Chicago, national and international courier industry. These events combined with the union's victories have made the couriers union a significant presence in Chicago and in the wider industry.
The other two campaigns I have been involved with have not been as successful. The first was an effort to organize the troqueros, or port truck drivers, in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. This effort got off to a solid start. The IWW was contacted by a group of troqueros interested in organizing. As many as fifty workers attended the groups initial meeting. More importantly the group was able to organize a strike that shut down the both of the ports. Despite this spectacular job action--involving thousands of workers and disrupting a large segment of economy--the troqueros were unable to successfully build a lasting union presence in the industry.
The second failed campaign I was involved with shared similar characteristics to the troquero campaign. It involved a group of taxi workers in Cleveland. Again, there was initially great enthusiasm. Before ever meeting with the IWW the group had managed to organize meetings with as many as 80 workers in attendance. Over the course of a year, the taxi workers held a series of direct actions and protests that built some respect for them in the industry. The director of the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport met with them to listen to their concerns and they vocally presented their demands to the owners of a couple of taxi companies. After a year of this kind of activity, and despite their promising start, the taxi workers organizing efforts also petered out.
The two failed organizing campaigns had a lot in common. In both instances they took place in cities where the IWW lacked a well-organize local branch. In both instances I was trying to organize the campaign with little additional support. And in both instances the workers involved had little interest in doing institutional work of union building--people did not want to step-up to be delegates or use any sort of structure for running their meetings. This meant that the workers meetings were often dominated by personalities and there were no formal mechanisms for accountability.
The campaign that resulted from the Chicago Couriers Union provides a sharp contrast with the other two. It took place in a city with a well-organized and vibrant local branch. Between the branch and the international union, money was put together in two separate instances to fund a stipended organizer for three months. And throughout the initial phases of the campaign there were always a handful of people from outside the industry involved in organizing efforts. These differences meant that there were people to work on the campaign when the workers in the industry's interest slackened and that there was a model of organization that the couriers could refer to when building their own.
The differences between these three campaigns have led me to believe that, in order for organizing efforts to succeed in the long-term, organizers and workers must focus on institution building. I am positive that if strong IWW branches existed in either Los Angeles or Cleveland when I was working with the troqueros and taxi workers, then the outcome of both of those campaigns would have been different. Likewise, I believe that if the IWW had been able to devote a full-time stipended organizer to either campaign the results would have been different.
If the IWW is to grow into a powerful force for the working class then we must focus on making our institutions stronger. This means, at the least, better organized local branches and more resources for funding organizers. If we devote our energies to these things, we will be a force to be reckoned with. If we do not, our organizing efforts will continue to have a mixed track record and, more often than not, end in failure.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (July 2010)
In November, we remember: Vicky Starr
Staughton Lynd remembers a working class organizer, Vicky Starr.
When my wife Alice and I interviewed Vicky Starr in 1969 and 1971 for a collection of oral histories called Rank and File, Vicky called herself "Stella Nowicki" because she didn't want her employer at the time (the University of Chicago) to know about her radical activities in the 1930s. When we interviewed her again for a second collection more than a quarter century later, she had retired and had no problem in using her real name.
Vicky Starr was the child of Eastern European immigrants. She grew up on a farm in Michigan. "We had no electricity. We had outdoor privies." Vicky ran away from home at age seventeen because "there was not enough money to feed the family during the Depression."
Vicky's father had been a coal miner and had "bought a few books about Lenin and Gorky." She recalled that when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed "the foreign-born people were in mourning for a week." The family practiced what Vicky's father described as a socialist idea, "No work, no eat."
Agnes, a woman from Chicago, had come to the farm for her health. Agnes invited Vicky to go back to Chicago with her. Vicky at first lived with Agnes' family and through them met a member of the Young Communist League named Herb March.
Vicky did housework for $4 a week and hated it. Herb March suggested she get a job in the stockyards.
Vicky began in the "cook room" where women cut big chunks of meat into smaller pieces to make hash. She worked six-hour shifts at 37 1/2 cents an hour.
On the floor below women made hotdogs and one day a woman got her fingers caught in putting meat into the chopper. The fingers were cut off. All six floors stopped work and sat down. The company put in safety devices. But Vicky was identified as a leader and fired.
A friend was recalled to the stockyards but had another job and didn't want to go. Using the friend's name, Vicky got back in.
Communist leader William Z. Foster and other full-time organizers passed through Chicago and held meetings. Leaflets were written. Students from the University of Chicago, who couldn't be fired, passed them out at the gate before work. The International Workers Order, which helped people with sickness benefits and insurance, gave union organizers access to large numbers of potential sympathizers. Vicky joined the Catholic Sodality and the Young Womens' Christian Association.
At work, the women with whom Vicky worked practiced solidarity by restricting output within agreed-on limits. But they didn't want to pay union dues. Again it was health and safety that opened a door. One of the women became paralyzed because of the intermittent freezing air to which the line was exposed, and died. "Within a week we organized that whole department."
Women often did harder work than the men and were paid less. Within the union, staff jobs went only to men. "I would be approached by men for dates and they would ask me why I was in the union, so I would tell them that I was for socialism." Vicky learned to play pool and bowl, and got men into the union that way.
In 1938, 1939, 1940 the Packinghouse Workers didn't yet have bargaining rights. There was "tremendous ferment." Vicky recalled:
"You had this sense that people were ready to get together, to protect each other... It did happen that people were fired but when people were fired the whole department just closed down."
By the 1940s the union would bring a sound truck and thousands of people would show up for meetings in the middle of the stockyards at noontime. "The union leadership would be negotiating within a particular plant on a grievance [and if] the matter wasn't settled by a certain time, the whole department would walk out."
In 1945, with the union recognized and the war over, Vicky left packing. She married a linotypist for the Chicago Tribune and had three children. About 1950 she went back to work as a secretary at the University of Chicago.
The NLRB decided that the "appropriate bargaining unit" was clerical workers throughout the whole university. There were 1800 of them. More than eighteen buildings had to be organized.
After other unions tried and failed, the Teamsters launched a campaign. Vicky had no use for the local union president who made $200,000 a year. But twenty-one stewards were elected by secret ballot before the NLRB election and Vicky, by that time working for the Department of Education, was one of them. Eighteen of the new stewards were women.
As in the stockyards, grievances were pursued and won before union recognition. And after union recognition "the stewards became the bargaining committee."
Vicky worked for another ten years after the union was recognized. She remembered going to the university hospital for medical reasons after she retired. Gregarious as always, she got into conversation with the secretaries. She said, "We helped to organize the union," And they said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Vicky introduced us to two friends and fellow spirits, Katherine Hyndman and Sylvia Woods, and the three became the protagonists of the documentary movie, "Union Maids." Sylvia, an African American, helped to organize a UAW local at Bendix during World War II. Memorably, she stated in her interview in Rank and File:
"We never had [dues] check-off. We didn't want it. We said if you have a closed shop and check-off, everybody sits on their butts and they don't have to worry about organizing and they don't care what happens. We never wanted it."
In these later years Vicky Starr also separated from her husband and became an ardent proponent of womens' liberation.
Vicky says at the end of "Union Maids":
"There's some tremendous potential in people, in labor people, in working people, and in union people... They are very democratic... There's a tremendous militancy that's below the surface and that will rise and come up."
Vicky Starr died in November 2009. Vicky Starr, presente.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2010)
The pamphlet as passport
A piece about a disruption of traffic action at a Barcelona university.
Spain in June was hot. Not in the temperature sense, but in the “labor struggle is heating up” sense. The rhetoric in Europe isn’t about “recovery” the way it is here in North America: everything is “crisis,” “austerity,” and “we must all sacrifice.” “We,” of course, means “workers.” The first target was the militant public sector workers. This sector includes staff in hospitals, schools, and government offices. My first question upon arriving in Barcelona to my host was, “What’s going on, and how do I help?” His response was, “Come to our action.”
The action was an information picket at a university outside of Barcelona. We had a two-sided pamphlet in wordy and less wordy form. There were multiple access points to the campus, but it was possible to occupy them all with about three groups. I was initially confused about the objectives, and clearly others were as well. Before arriving I thought we were doing a full blockade. Then I later thought we were just handing out pamphlets; later still I was informed that our objective was to ruin traffic around the university. We were to functionally block the university without announcing it. That didn’t require actually stopping every driver. This was an important distinction.
During the initial phase, when we were just handing out pamphlets, the drivers began treating the pamphlets as their passport to the campus. After a while we started getting cars that already had a pamphlet. It was almost cute the way the drivers would desperately wave it in order to get past us. What I realized was that this was an assent to our power. Whether or not they acknowledged the legitimacy of our makeshift passport, they acknowledged our power. Legitimate or not, we controlled access to the campus. Not only that, we had a lasting effect with the “pamphlet as passport.” If these people planned on leaving campus and returning, they had to carry that pamphlet with them the entire day. All of a sudden a disposable piece of propaganda had acquired the status of one of those critical things you carry around with you every day, like your driver’s license.
Realizing the power we had and seeing how we could use it shocked me. We speak a lot about class consciousness, but we rarely talk about power. Raising class consciousness needs to have a component that acknowledges the fact that we are using and wielding power. We don’t really have the ability to be surgical with that power. Mostly it takes the form of “we can do a lot of economic damage if we don’t get what we want.” This is the core of the strike action. Recognizing this truth is critical. The “what we want” part can be fair and equitable, but it is utterly irrelevant without a foundation of “we can do a lot of economic damage.”
Class consciousness is not just “my buddy and I at work have the same grievances.” It is the acknowledgement of our collective power and our willingness to use it for our benefit. Exercising that power, even in small ways like pamphlet-as- passport, demonstrate the kind of class consciousness that is the bread-and-butter underpinning day-to-day class struggle. Without this experience and understanding of collective power we risk crippling our own class consciousness.
Originally appered in the Industrial Worker (December 2010)
Columns from 2011
A class action
Michael Edwards talks about how we should also consider worker's control even in our actions and organizing that are aimed at disruption.
In the last “Workers Power” column, “The Pamphlet As Passport,” which appeared in the December 2010 IW, I discussed an information picket that blocked access to a university in Spain and some resulting thoughts on the nature of class power, namely the threat of and willingness to disrupt production. Class consciousness cannot simply be “Oh, my buddy and I at work have the same grievances.” We must acknowledge our collective power and promote our willingness to use it. Exercising that power involves being disruptive, sometimes to a degree that we find uncomfortable. However, workers cannot win demands and improve their position without being prepared to significantly upset the status quo.
As a revolutionary organization, the IWW has a vision beyond just a society where the producers are simply in a better bargaining position. We want to switch the balance of power between classes entirely to ultimately abolish the wage system. Here I think a second event from the action is instructive.
Eventually the cars trying to get through the information picket started getting backed up. Being the foreigner who couldn’t speak the language, a good role for me was to direct traffic. So I directed traffic effectively for a while. When one of the organizers came to check up on me I queried whether we were trying to disrupt traffic or distribute propaganda. I asked because while we were doing an excellent job disrupting traffic I wasn’t sure about the effectiveness of our propaganda. I didn’t think that people really cared about what we had to say when they had to wait 10 to 20 minutes to get anywhere. The organizer told me that our objective was to disrupt traffic and we were doing a good job of it!
If that was the case, why bother with traffic direction at all? Not managing drivers would have created additional havoc that added to our existing disruption, thereby adding to the basis of our class power.
Unconsciously, my comrades and I wanted to prove that we were capable of managing and maintaining some sense of order at the picket because how we act now reflects on how we will act when we become dominant. If the population at large only ever sees us causing a mess then they will inevitably turn to the forces of reaction to defend them from demonized revolutionaries.
I’m not saying a more cautious attitude should stay the cudgel of the working class. We should still come down like a pile of bricks on our target and when the dust has cleared I am happy with leaving the mess for the “haves” to clean up. But managing the unintended consequences of actions should be part of any strategy which has a goal of fundamentally altering the balance of power. In the case of our action, we could have let the drivers eventually cause a traffic accident. Without our intervention it was not a question of if, but of when.
If our objective is to solely cause enough havoc to force bosses and bureaucrats to cede to our demands, then sure, let the cars crash and burn. But the secondary function of revolutionary unions has always been to prepare its membership to assume the duties of a functional society. I’m not sure we are doing that in the IWW. We must be more capable at brinkmanship while simultaneously being able to manage the potential fallout of it. Within revolutionary unions we understand the need and execution of brinkmanship better than mainstream unions, but I’m not convinced we’re preparing ourselves or our fellow workers for control.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2011)
Direct Action? Who Cares!
An article that appeared in the April 2011 issue of the Industrial Worker that explains that direct action isn't solely used for its effect on 'bread and butter' issues. Also takes up the question of contracts.
The old slogan goes “Direct action gets the goods!” This is sometimes true, it depends. Obviously, not all direct action gets the goods. That is, direct action is not a guarantee of success. Just as obviously, sometimes people get the goods without direct action. It’s undeniable, though, that in some settings direct action really is the best route to success. Sometimes direct action really does get the goods.
But who cares? Who wants goods anyway? Let me put it another way. I used to argue for non-contractual workplace organizing, or “solidarity unionism” as we usually call it, in the following way: If you’re strong enough to get a good contract, you don’t need to go for a contract. If you have the organization to get what you want via a contract, you can get it without a contract. Good contracts that contain real gains are the result of good organizing. You get a good contract when you have a dedicated, well-organized group of workers with good tactics and strategy. If you have all that, what do you even need the contract for? The basic perspective here is that you don’t need recognition or a contract—you can get just as much or perhaps even more without it. That’s false in at least one important sense. One of the things that goes along with contracts and recognition is an agreement that limits (or, an agreement to limit) the struggle. In the United States, the National Labor Relations Act (or the Wagner Act) explicitly argues for unionization as a way to maintain labor peace. No strike clauses and similar things express this idea as well. That agreement is worth something.
Imagine two different groups of workers in contract negotiations with their employers. Imagine that there is basically no difference between these groups, their work, and their employers. One group of workers wants a contract that does not contain a no-strike clause. The other group is not concerned with that. Other than this difference, the groups are basically the same: well organized, serious, etc. Let’s say they both succeed. All things being equal, the group that gets a contract without a no-strike clause will probably come out with less other gains. The group with the no-strike clause will probably have a contract with more other gains. That is to say, the no-strike clause is worth money. Refusing it will come at a cost; accepting it will come with benefits.
The IWW is a radical union. As radicals, we are generally motivated by morals and emotional impulses that make us care about other people—that’s part of why we’re radicals. Of course, we want people to have better lives. But people having better lives is only sometimes an issue for radicals. Radicalism is not simply “we want people to have better lives.” There are non- and anti-radical ways to get better lives, for some people. My point is that “getting the goods” is not the most important goal. If asked why we should we focus on direct action, our answer should not be “because it wins more stuff, more often.” Not only is that not always true, even if it was true that would not be sufficient to recommend it.
Let me try another hypothetical example. Imagine that the global economy recovers in a big way. Prosperity is the new order of the day. A rising tide begins to lift most boats. There are increasing opportunities for electoral politics and in the United States, National Labor Relations Board elections begin to genuinely improve many people’s lives. In that case, we could “get the goods” in a variety of ways other than direct action. Would this change how we orient toward electoralism and recognition? I would say no, because our main motivation is not getting the goods. We don’t just want more under capitalism. We want a different type of society.
In order to get to a new society, we want more people to be class conscious and committed to creating a new society. We should not care about direct action because it gets us goods. It doesn’t always, and besides, with the time it takes to organize, people could probably get more goods by putting that time into a part-time job. We should care about direct action because direct action moves more people closer to class consciousness and commitment to having a new society.
Taken from iww.org
Their interests and ours
Scott Nappalos talks about union-management cooperation at a hospital he works at.
“The employers interests are our interests. We are all in a circle with the patients in the center,” a union president told us at the first meeting of nurses in my moribund hospital local. The union administrator had been sent from out of state to develop a labor-management partnership committee and try to create a collaborative relation between the bosses and the union. At my workplace, management routinely reminds aging workers they would fire a third of them if they could to achieve a “change in culture.”
The union administrator wanted us to develop programs that would cut costs for management and help our working conditions. After exploring options management would not accept and ones that would not help us, I halfjokingly suggested we fire all the managers and run the units ourselves.
A veteran nurse who usually is a union yes-woman told us a story. A hurricane swept into our state. All the hospitals initiated their emergency plans. At her hospital, the director of nursing ordered everyone to go home in the middle of the storm because she wanted to save money, and was hoping it would be a small storm.
The workers disobeyed and carried out their own plan to run the hospital without management on board. They successfully cared for the patients in a disaster situation. No one was disciplined for refusing to go home. Health care is special in that we need the services it provides. In a sense we all have common interests in keeping it running. At the same time having a class analysis of society as a whole helps us understand where management and workers’ interests diverge even in health care. Management is a class that earns its living through managing and increasing the labor of others. That pressure leads to interests against our own, and against humanity as a whole.
My coworkers at the meeting instinctively resisted the administrator’s attempts to sell partnership. Every day we face dehumanizing behavior and a factory model of lean production that turns our caring labor for others into a mechanized form of assembly labor. Our bosses routinely tell us they want to eliminate us, and would see us on the streets if they could. They do not put forward any concept of working together for the patient—instead their position is that we are the problem. Managerial organization is directed at solving the problem posed by workers unwilling and unable to conform to their engineered designs. At best, they offer us apologies for the health care system, but emphasize discipline, subservience and utilize heavy threats.
At the same time my coworkers were not inherently opposed to the idea of a partnership. We care about the patients so we see the need to have some way of moving forward. The union leadership had to pitch the idea. The workers rejected it but did not spontaneously propose class struggle as an alternative, or any alternative for that matter. This dynamic, being pulled between worlds, is not an aberration but is a part of our experience in work.
Workers are torn between two worlds—the ideas and practices of the dominating classes and our own—stunted and held back by the constant reproduction of class relationships all around us. As organizers, it is our job to draw that process out, and contribute to building the struggles that can rupture that teeter-totter and facilitate our coworkers becoming conscious of their power and interests.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2011)
Industrial unionism and one big unionism
This is a series of four articles that appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper discussing the ideas of the One Big Union and Industrial Unionism. These ideas have a long history in the IWW and are part of the organization's vocabulary. Like many such terms, they sometimes mean different things to different people. In this article series, IWW members John O'Reilly and Nate Hawthorne explore different things these terms can and should mean. In the process they make arguments about the direction and core values of the organization.
Industrial unionism and one big unionism part 1: Two concepts for IWW organizing
The question “how do we best organize the working class?” has been on the minds of many of our members recently. Our organization is small, but we have made great strides towards creating a model that actually builds power for working people. We have one of the best member training programs in any union in North America and Europe, we are building solidarity with working people's organizations in our communities and around the world, and we are continually raising our own bar by taking on and winning bigger fights with bosses. As we continue to build the IWW, sometimes the ideas we have about how our organization ought to function come into conflict with the way that our organization actually functions. These conflicts require us to develop our ideas about revolutionary unionism in the long-term and in our day-to-day activity.
In this article, we reflect on ideas that have been around in our organization for a long time: One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism. Reflecting on the relationship between these ideas and how they relate to our organizing can help clarify both our thoughts and our actions. By understanding how these ideas both overlap and conflict, we want to set the stage for a larger discussion about our organization.
One Big Unionism is the idea that guides us in the work of building the IWW as a revolutionary organization. It is a way to think about the organizing work that we do and the reasons we do this work. The One Big Union is the idea that we want the entire working class to be united to act in our interests as a class and against capitalism. The united working class must cross geographic, cultural, and industrial boundaries, be democratic, and be able to coordinate and marshal the forces of us workers against the united power of the bosses and their rule over our lives and communities.
We in the IWW believe that the working class needs to be unified to fight the battle for economic democracy. We are One Big Unionists because we are committed to uniting all workers across industries and crafts and because we believe all work under capitalism share basic, fundamental similarities. While we do different kinds of work, we have the same basic role in the economy: we’re the people that make our society run but who have no power over how it is run. One of the most important lessons that we have learned in the last few years in our organizing is that because we all occupy the same place in the class system, the basic framework for organizing workers does not change depending on what kind of work they do. Regardless of craft or industry, the basic skills and tools and techniques of organizing are more or less the same. We organize by talking with workers, asking questions, building relationships with them, getting them to build relationships with each other, having frank discussions about the problems they and we all face under capitalism, building solidarity as a group, and taking action to fight the boss. These basic elements of our approach to organizing, based on our commitment to the revolutionary principle of One Big Unionism, come from the fact that all workplace organizing uses basically the same set of skills and practices that any working person can learn and do.
Industrial Unionism, on the other hand, is the idea that we need to build labor organizations connected to each other logically based on the way that the modern economy runs. By organizing unions in this way, we can strengthen our power across connected industrial chains. While One Big Unionism is a set of principles that guides our work, Industrial Unionism gives us practical suggestions about how to best implement our ideas about how to fight the bosses and win.
Industrial Unionism is understanding how we carry out our principles in action. Industrial Unionism is fundamentally about how to build and exert power in the most effective way possible in the near future. Organizing along the supply chain amplifies our power: a union of agricultural workers, food processing workers, truckers, and fast food workers in one chain has more power against the employer or employers on that chain than organizing all the fast food workers in one city. Industrial Unionism builds upon the strength of workers whose jobs are related as way to win fights. We use these fights to win membership to our union and use our membership to win these fights.
If we de-link One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism and only pursue one of them, we become lopsided. If a branch or a group of organizers focus too much on One Big Unionism, they build bodies and activities that only work to build class consciousness, or worse, only gather together people who have already become class conscious through experiences outside the IWW. Class consciousness is important, but consciousness alone does not fight or build organization. By thinking only in the One Big Unionist model, we are unable to shape our world and build industrial democracy because we have no power. There’s no way to stage and win fights in specific shops if we are everywhere at once; leaflet a Starbucks on Monday, talk to truckers on Tuesday, a hospital workers’ forum on Wednesday, etc. By the end of the week, we have not made progress in building shopfloor organizing in any one of those workplaces. Plus, if we overstress the idea that all workers are fundamentally the same, we will miss the concrete differences that do exist right now between shops, crafts, and industries and make them distinct: demographics, legal rights, concentration, forms of oppression, etc.
The other side of the coin is equally or perhaps even more important. If we focus too narrowly on Industrial Unionism, we get cut off from the revolutionary idea that forms the basis of the IWW: all workers, as workers, are fundamentally in the same place in relation to the capitalist class and therefore can and should organize together to make improvements today and end capitalism tomorrow. When branches or groups of organizers focus only on one industry without seeing how all workers need to participate in the work of building the IWW, we lose our ability to learn from workers in different industries, from their successes and failures, tactics and ideas. Many of the best lessons implemented in our most active campaigns were learned from other IWW campaigns across a variety of industries. Additionally, turnover and firings associated with our union drives mean that if we only look at one industry, we will lose our members who change jobs. In the low-wage sector where many of our current campaigns are taking off, many workers move between different industries very quickly. Finally, if we only focus on Industrial Unionism, we lose our ability to turn workers into Wobblies and miss the big picture of our organization, a united working class movement fighting to not only for a better life for ourselves under capitalism but also fighting to end capitalism and replace it with a better society.
Within the IWW as a living organization, One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism should be linked together as ways of thinking about our organizing. The balance of the two allows us to build our organization and move our class forward. One Big Unionism allows us to visualize a united working class and sets our sights on organizing all workers. It’s a vision of association which thinks about how more workers can be organized and work together for our class, as a class. It is the idea that all workers have interests in common as workers, have interests opposed to employers, and includes a commitment to building a new society to replace capitalism. Industrial Unionism is a vision of short-term conflict, expressing our commitment to creating the most effective organization possible for accomplishing goals. Industrial Unionism is about building an effective means to challenge the bosses’ power under capitalism.
Only by carefully balancing the perspectives of One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism can we push forward the work that needs to be done. Our organization has great ideas about how to organize and why, it’s up to us to implement them and build up our class.
Part 2: In the history of the IWW
We in the IWW, like many others, have long tried to link two types of struggle - struggles for short-term improvements under capitalism, and the struggle to replace capitalism with a better society. For years now the IWW has used two ideas to think about the connections between these types of struggles. These ideas are Industrial Unionism and the One Big Union. These ideas have meant many different things but they have always been related to the IWW's revolutionary vision. These ideas relate to our vision of a future revolution that ends capitalism and to our vision of our organization under capitalism before such a revolution.
In this piece, we discuss some of the ideas in the early IWW about the IWW, One Big Unionism, and Industrial Unionism. The IWW's preamble famously states that "by organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old." For the early IWW, the idea of building the new within the shell of the old had two facets. Both were all about revolution. One was a matter of organizational design and the other was a matter of preparing the working class. In its organizational design, the IWW's structures were supposed to be set up to form the basis for running a future society democratically. The idea was for the working class to be able to run the economy as quickly as possible after a revolutionary change, to get the post-capitalist economy going again after the tremendous disruption caused by the revolution. In terms of preparing the class, the IWW was intended to radicalize workers by making them want revolution and make them more capable in acting on their urge to end capitalism.
We can see the notion of structure in some documents from just before the IWW's founding. A letter that helped bring about the IWW's founding convention described the need for a new type of union. The letter called for "a labor organization builded as the structure of Socialist society, embracing within itself the working class in approximately the same groups and departments and industries that the workers would assume in the working class administration of the Co-Operative Commonwealth.” In the words of another letter, this union should “represent class conscious revolutionary principles." A manifesto issued in January 1905 described the goal as an organization which would “build up within itself the structure of an Industrial Democracy - a Workers’ Co-Operative Republic - which must finally burst the shell of capitalist government, and be the agency by which the working people will operate the industries, and appropriate the products to themselves.” In the words of the people who created the IWW initially, that's what the IWW was supposed to be.
An article called “How the IWW is Organized” published in an IWW magazine later tried to sum up the IWW’s aims in three points. “(1) To organize the workers in such a way that they can successfully fight their battles and advance their interests in their every-day struggles with capitalists. (2) To overthrow capitalism and establish in its place a system of Industrial Democracy. (3) To carry on production after capitalism has been overthrown.”
In addition to structure, the IWW's activity was supposed to prepare workers for revolution. One issue of the Industrial Worker newspaper said that conflict under capitalism helped get the working class ready to end capitalism. This conflict was "training" of a sort "most necessary to prepare the masses for the final ‘catastrophe,’ the general strike, which will complete the expropriation of the employers.” The Industrial Union Bulletin wrote that "the very fights themselves, like the drill of an army, prepare the worker for ever greater tasks and victories.” An early IWW leader named Daniel DeLeon wrote that one function of the union is “to drill the membership of the working class in the habit of self-imposed discipline” - or, to train the class to use its capacities for self-organization. The idea was that workers would learn how to run society through running their own organization -- specifically, the class conscious and revolutionary industrial union, in struggle against the capitalist class.
An Industrial Union Bulletin article called “Industrial Unionism" stated that the IWW “teaches its members that each dispute in which they are involved is merely an incident in the great struggle between capital and labor - a struggle which can only be brought to an end by the overthrow of capital” and “this supreme end must be ever kept in view.” As a result “every incident in the life of the union, every skirmish with the employers is made the text for proletarian education.”
Sophie Cohen was a child during a major strike in 1913 in Paterson, New Jersey, in which the IWW played an important role. Cohen said that “the IWW left people with a taste for organization. Every time workers win a strike, it helps straighten out their backs a little bit more and lifts their heads a bit higher. Even though the big strike was lost in Paterson, there was a feeling of togetherness among the workers. (…) From then on, there were a series of strikes and every shop had to be reorganized. Every shop refought the eight hour day all down the line.”
The education of individual members occurred through direct action, defined by James Kennedy as “use of their economic power by the workers themselves." Jack Terrill, the secretary of a Montana IWW branch put it this way: “If something should happen tomorrow so that the workers would have to run industry when they go to work tomorrow, there would be chaos. They are not educated up to that point, but the IWW is trying to organize them into one big union and educate them so that they can run industry when the time comes.” This education could not happen without the day to day and month to month struggles against bosses.
“[T]he revolutionary character of the working class is best developed while the workers are engaged in actual struggle against the masters,” stated an article from the IWW magazine the Industrial Pioneer. The article said that a “well conducted strike will do more towards developing class-consciousness and radical sentiment than ten tons of revolutionary propaganda of a general nature.” The idea here is straightforward: struggle changes people. Being involved in struggle, instead of delegating one’s power to another, makes that struggle more meaningful to the worker
Readers may have noticed that we have spent more time on one facet than the other. We agree strongly with the idea of struggles preparing the working class for revolution. While we respect the idea of early IWW members that the organizational design of the IWW should be the structure for a post-capitalist society, we don’t find it very compelling. Particularly in today’s economy, so many workers labor on products or services that are irrelevant or unnecessary for our society if we free ourselves from the bosses’ rule. For many people in the early IWW, however, these facets were not separable.
The article "Industrial Unionism" argued that the IWW's organizational structure was linked to both functions. Under capitalism, the structure was meant to coordinate effective struggle and to maximize the preparatory role -- to make the IWW radicalize as many workers as possible as effectively as possible. After capitalism ended, the same
structure would take on a new role. The article stated: “Under capitalism, the functions of the union are militant and aggressive; under the Socialist Republic they will be administrative only. This change of function will involve no internal transformation of the union, as it is precisely those powers whereby it can inflict injury upon the capitalist that will enable it to take up the work of production. It is precisely its control over production (…) that give[s] its power for militant action.” The idea was that after militant action ended capitalism, the IWW and the working class would immediately deploy its power for cooperative production.
We can see the idea of the One Big Union as having three different roles: a vision of a future society, an idea of revolutionary change, and a structure for coordinating struggles under capitalism. As a vision of a future society, the One Big Union meant a democratic society where workers cooperated freely. As an idea of revolutionary change, the idea was that workers would form one big union and then that union would end capitalism. This could mean a few things concretely. It could mean that the IWW literally became an organization that included the entire working class. Or it could mean the IWW had enough workers in it that it kicked off some major social upheaval. In those two scenarios, the IWW would be the One Big Union. The idea could also be more metaphorical - the working class united together, but without any single organization. In that case, the IWW would be one organization among many who makes a contribution.
The One Big Union was also the name for an organizational form for workers to coordinate activities against specific bosses and the capitalist class before the revolution. In that sense, the One Big meant a structure to work under capitalism. The One Big Union was made up of Industrial Unions, which were meant to be the fighting divisions of the IWW. The Industrial Unions were supposed to concentrate workers in particular industries in order to maximize the power they could exert. The IWW's One Big Unionist administrative structure was supposed to join struggles across Industrial Unions in order to make them more effective. The organization as a whole was also intended to spread the idea of One Big Union as a revolutionary vision. This was supposed to help keep the Industrial Unions from focusing simply and entirely on the day-to-day and month-to-month struggles.
In 1913 Paul Brissenden described the IWW's doctrine as Revolutionary Industrial Unionism. He noted that the IWW didn't invent the idea of industrial unionism or of revolution. “The Industrial Workers of the World is not the first organization of workingmen built upon the industrial form. Even its revolutionary character can be traced back through other organizations." He named other organizations that had helped influence the IWW and that held one or both of these ideas: the Knights of Labor, the Western Federation of Miners, the American Labor Union, the United Metal Workers International Union, the Brewery Workers, and the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance. Still, Brissenden argued that the IWW was part of "the most modern phase of the revolutionary movement." For the early IWW, the One Big Union served to keep the organization aimed at revolution while Industrial Unionism helped make this revolutionary vision practical instead of just wishful thinking.
Part 3: What industrial unionism and one big unionism mean today
In this series we’ve discussed One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism as ideas and activities within the IWW. In this article, we turn our attention to how carefully balancing our emphasis on One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism allows us to build the IWW in the short term. While none of us has a magic bullet answer that will make organizing easy, we can think out and discuss possible solutions to ongoing issues that we face as a way of approaching our work more strategically. How can One Big Unionism and Industrial Unionism guide us towards better practices? They do so by pushing us to both build members up and build members out.
When we talk about building members outwards we mean developing practical units of struggle within the industries where we are organizing that most effectively share the message of our union and get more people involved in our work. That is: more members, organized to fight more effectively. Building out is like laying railroad tracks into the vast, unorganized working class; the act of laying the tracks means placing one railroad tie after another, each of which advances the line out farther and each of which is an individual task that can be completed. Yet each tie allows us to lay another tie and we are unable to lay the next tie until we’ve completed the one we’re working on. Even as we lay tie after tie, we continue to find that there’s further to go and more ties to be laid. After all, if the destination for our rail line is Industrial Democracy, we have a long way to go!
Concretely, building outwards means several things. Using the social networks that we find in our jobs and our industries and finding ways to tie them together are important aspects of building out. This plays on the importance of Industrial Unionism in our organizing. When a group of fast food workers organizes in their restaurant chain, they may find that they have contact with workers who transport food and supplies to their stores. These delivery workers may work for a different company but likely have grievances of their own. Good organizers can take these contacts and begin a campaign with the delivery workers. By using the relationships that form during work itself, we can grow our membership out across the industries we work in as well as up and down the supply chains within our industries and amplify the union’s power.
Industrial links aren’t the only way that we can build our membership out. During an organizing campaign, we seek to understand social groups in the workplace as way to identify and win over key social leaders – that is, people respected by their co-workers and whose opinions carry a lot of weight – in order to move groups of workers to support the union. These same social groups can be useful outside of organizing in one shop. For instance, if an active part of a campaign is made up of members of a certain church, we can use those cultural connections to meet and link up with other workers in the same church. Perhaps the church members in the union could speak about the importance of their campaign and the vision of the IWW during a service. Or members could convince a social justice committee of the congregation to put pressure on their boss in a way that involves church members and allows organizers to have conversations with different workers and agitate them about conditions on their jobs. Using our members’ access and participation in social networks and cultural groups is a great way for us to build our membership outwards in ways in addition to organizing shop by shop and reflects our ideas about One Big Unionism.
While organizing outwards, we cannot neglect another lesson of One Big Unionism: just because our fellow workers leave a job or an industry does not mean that they become less important as a Wobbly. To move our organization forward in the short term, we need to focus more strongly on retention of members who switch jobs. Finding ways for these members to plug in to campaigns in a new industry or job is integral to keeping them in the union. If one considers how much time organizers spend building relationship with each of their coworkers, agitating and educating them into becoming an IWW member, and helping them acquire the skills necessary for organizing successfully, its clear that washing our hands of members so that they leave the union when they leave a job is a huge waste of our limited energies.
While we build members out, we must also focus on building our existing membership up. In fact, by doing one thing we also do the other. As members become more involved in the IWW, participate and learn, they increase their ability to do the work of the union, and so they help bring in more members, and begin to build others up. At this point in time, we would argue that it’s more important to focus on building members up than out because it allows us to win more fights and improve our organizing strategy, which will lead us to reap the greater rewards further down the line. In any case, by educating members into the IWW – getting them to take part in the democratic process, meeting and sharing ideas about our directions and goals, taking on tasks at different levels of the union including local, regional, craft, industrial, administrative, and international – we amplify our ability as organizers by producing more organizers who can do more work. These new organizers in turn help produce more organizers.
One crucial way that we can build our members up is by training them to organize. This work, undertaken by the Organizer Training Committee of the Organizing Department, constitutes the most important work of the union right now outside of shopfloor organizing. It highlights one of the most important values of One Big Unionism: organizing is an interchangeable skill, regardless of industry or craft, and is something that workers can and should do for themselves instead of leaving these skills to specialized professionals. While there are some concrete legal and structural differences between industries, the work of organizing is basically the same. Organizing means the work of creating relationships with fellow workers, building organization, and fighting bosses together to improve our lives. Whether in an eight worker café with one boss or a giant factory with thousands of employees, organizing is the same basic skill set. When we give our members the confidence they need to organize in their shops, we teach them skills that they can use anywhere they work. This fundamental insight of One Big Unionism cannot be overstated in our approach to organizing in the short term.
Currently, more of our campaigns are going public and need support to push to the next level. Here, we find many opportunities for building our members up. We can create connections between workers in different industries as a way of sharing ideas and experiences about organizing and to create networks that support our organizing work. Starting solidarity committees for public campaigns, providing food or childcare for campaign meetings, discussing important IWW campaigns with coworkers, raising funds or organizing pickets: these and many more are ways that we can give our members tasks that deepen their relationship with the IWW and build new bonds across industries. This builds members up and allows them to grow as Wobblies and push themselves to further heights.
Like a staircase, the IWW can grow both outwards and upwards at the same time. When we stand on the top step of a staircase we are not just standing on that step, we are standing on all the steps below as well. Depending on the moment, we may emphasize growing out or building up, but the two factors develop together. Each step is built on top of the last one and creates the basis for the next one. As we walk up the staircase, we have to step carefully, the two feet of Industrial Unionism and One Big Unionism guiding us, always in balance and working together.
Part 4: Three big unions: The IWW and revolution
This is the fourth and last in a series of articles on Industrial Unionism and One Big Unionism. In this piece we talk more about the One Big Union and revolutionary change. We suggest that we should not think about One Big Union as the IWW coming to include the entire working class. Instead we think that this is a three-part metaphor or three big unions. The One Big Union is a metaphor and name for our hope and vision of a unified working class acting together – acting in union – in a revolutionary situation. The One Big Union is also a formal organization, the IWW. Finally, One Big Union is the name for the relationship between the IWW as an organization and the rest of the working class. In our view, this understanding orients us toward questions about what we think revolutionary change looks like.
We believe, with the IWW preamble, that it is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. Only the working class can end capitalism, and in certain moments the working class has a greater chance to move closer to carrying out this important task. That kind of moment is a revolutionary situation. We need to have a serious IWW-wide discussion about what a revolutionary situation looks like. We should also talk about what we think is the IWW's role in preparing for and acting within a revolutionary situation. This not an exercise in fantasy but as part of being serious about believing in a revolutionary future.
Think a moment about the size of what we're talking about. A genuinely revolutionary situation where we could end capitalism, even if it happened in one U.S. state or even in just one major metropolitan area would involve millions of people. (And really, this is actually too small of a scale: a working class revolution that ends capitalism must be truly global.) This means we need to be thinking in huge numbers of people. This is not something anyone can control, but we need to figure out ways to make our struggles self-reinforcing and self-expanding. As an organization and as a class we need to see struggles that expand to involve hundreds of thousands people.
In this series of articles we have been discussion revolutionary unionism through the concepts of Industrial Unionism and One Big Union. The meaning of “One Big Union” is closely related to the role of the IWW in the working class’s historic mission. Here are a few scenarios:
1. The IWW grows to become the One Big Union that all members of the working class are members of. This kicks off major social upheaval.
2. The IWW grows to become One Big Union in the sense that it is very large and includes a whole lot of workers, and this creates major social upheaval.
3. The IWW grows to become One Union Which Is Very Big, including a whole lot of workers. Other groups wage important fights as well. The IWW and other groups cooperate and have good relationships. This combination is One Big Union, metaphorically speaking, and makes for major social upheaval.
We can see different versions of the idea of One Big Union in each of these scenarios. In the first scenario the IWW literally becomes the One Big Union for all workers. In the second scenario the IWW becomes One Big Union that's really big but we're not literally all the workers.
The third scenario seems more likely to us than the other two. In this scenario, One Big Union means three different things. We somewhat jokingly call this “three big unions.” One Big Union is the name for the IWW and expresses our commitment to revolution. One Big Union is also a metaphor for the working class as a whole - that is, for millions of workers around the world, acting together in solidarity - in action against capitalism and for a better world. That's not an organization, really, though it is an organized class-wide process. One Big Union is also a metaphor for how the IWW should act within the working class. We should act in a way that is open to struggles outside our organization and we should wage our own organizing drives, trying to both support our fellow workers in their struggles and building our own struggles where we are -- acting in a way that both builds organization and fights the capitalists.
A revolutionary situation in our day (or, within our lifetime) will involve millions of people in a complex ensemble across the class. No single organization will lead or control this. The working class can have more than one organization working on aspects of its interests. Given the divisions in our class it’s good to have multiple types of organization (such as unions of waged workers, committees of unemployed people, tenants' organizations, etc), and multiple organizations of each type. In all likelihood the IWW will be one working class organization among many who make an important contribution to working class revolution. As the working class takes action in a revolutionary situation there will have to be different practices developed than those that the IWW practices, and different kinds of organization - including both formal organizations and informal organizations.
These issues open onto a few key questions which apply both to the ‘normal’ operations of the capitalist system and to revolutionary situations that will develop. How can the IWW become an organization that exerts a strong and revolutionary pull within the wo