Workers' power

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] Submissions should be no more than 800 words.

Columns from 2007

Columns from 2007 also include:

-Goals. Then Strategy. Then Tactics.

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

A follow-up to 'What kind of solidarity forever?' which claims that activism wins out over workplace organizing due to lack of confidence.

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

Informal Workgroups

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

Other columns from 2008 include:
-Emotional Pressure And Organization Building
-Replace yourself
-What does the IWW do?

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

Patrick B replies to Nate Hawthorne's 'Forget Industrial Power'.

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

Nate Hawthorne's reply to PatrickB's response to an earlier column.

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

Pinchpoint target

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

Other columns from 2009 include:

-Know The Union, Hear The Union, See The Union
-Building Radical Unionism: Providing Services Without Creating Service Unionism
-Lasting lessons from the class struggle

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

Other columns from 2010 include:

-Charting Is Pertinent For Organizing
-Talking to Bosses: Stick to the Script!
-On contracts
-Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union: Still Good Advice

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] 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,
Colin Bossen

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)

We are all Amigos.pdf44.79 KB
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.
J Pierce, Wobbly

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

Other columns from 2011 include:

-Solidarity against sexism on the shop floor

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

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 working class? How should the IWW relate to other organizations and struggles of the working class? How should we relate to other revolutionary anticapitalists now? How can our orientation to other struggles and organizations help or hurt the IWW and the historic mission of our class? In our view there was a good start to answering these in Alex Erikson’s recent article “For A Union Of 10,000 Wobblies” in the June issue of the Industrial Worker and in Juan Conatz’s “What Wobblies Can Learn From Direct Unionism” in the July/August issue. We don’t have clear answers to these questions. We pose them questions for discussion. The two of us have written as much on all this as we’re currently able to say. We hope the principles and concepts we’ve sketched help contribute to a discussion of these questions of the direction of the IWW as a revolutionary union.

The IWW and the sorts of activities that the IWW currently carries out will not be the only things that go on during a revolutionary situation and are not the only things that will contribute to a revolutionary situation taking place. We have to do our part, but everything does not rest on our shoulders.

We believe the IWW will make a major contribution, however. The IWW will make a contribution by radicalizing workers, and by giving those radicalized workers skills and confidence and relationships that they will use to contribute to the movement of our class as a whole. That's currently what we're doing and have done. We’re helping make more working class revolutionaries. As we grow, we will periodically gather together and re-assess our course in order to refine the specifics of how we contribute to the historic mission of our class. Completing that mission is not in the cards for the relatively near future. Getting the project onto the agenda as a real possibility is not the same thing as actually carrying out that project once and for all. Our tasks for now are preparing ways to get that mission onto the agenda in a real and winnable way.

How’s the campaign going?

MK gets into the issue of burnout and how individual campaigns can determine one's outlook on the IWW and the prospects for class war in general.

Have you ever woken up and the first thing that happens determines your mood for the entire day?

There’s a phenomenon among IWW organizers that some of my friends call the “How’s The Campaign Going” syndrome. When a fellow worker calls and asks about the campaign you are organizing you take stock of the situation and give a report. Sometimes you can’t wait for this kind of phone call, since it’s an excuse to impress other organizers with the great work going on in your branch or in your industry. Other times you use the opportunity to discuss ways the union has failed your expectations.

My theory is that the margin between a “good” organizing situation and a “bad” organizing situation is smaller than we often think. We must recognize our answer to the question “How’s the campaign going?” is always subjective. We usually subconsciously answer a different question: “What are you doing right now?” To put this another way, when an organizer tries to see what the class war looks like, it’s like a soldier looking over a trench. You might see your company charging forward or you might see them gunned down and retreating, but neither image tells the whole story of the state of the battle.

In real world terms, I believe the less active I am in the union, the less active I perceive the IWW to be. The more I wade into factional email battles, the more I imagine the IWW to be plunging to its death under factional wars. If I feel demoralized— an emotion that could be affected by any number of things in my life—the more likely I will characterize the state of the IWW as grim. Conversely, if I’m excited for my own organizing, the workers’ revolution seems inevitable. When are my evaluations of our efforts truly “correct”?

I think every organizer should try to be conscious of the risk of burn out. Some confuse personal burnout with lack of organizational progress. So stay in touch with someone who is excited, someone who’s on a peak while you’re in a valley. If you don’t know someone excited about their own organizing, take a moment to seek someone out. Keep negative thoughts to yourself—a bad mood can be contagious. Everyone needs to vent, but persistent negativity does the organization a disservice. If you’re causing people to reassess their own level of activity for the worse, who are you helping? If you buy my “How’s The Campaign Going?” theory, then be aware when it hits someone else close to you. If it feels frustrating to hear about how bummed out someone else is about the campaign, remember the two of you are looking at the same thing, just interpreting it differently. Don’t argue; help them work through it.

The path to cooperative commonwealth isn’t a straight line and it isn’t free of debris. In the work we do here in the IWW, instead of two steps forward and one step back, it usually feels like ten steps forward and nine steps back. Don’t forget that the math gives the same result though, and don’t scare yourself away from the union. We’ll get there.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2011)

A Wobbly speech from Occupy Portland

A member of the Portland IWW gives a speech at Occupy Portland.

Hello. My name is Tabatha. I’m a mother, a student and a worker. I’m here as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. We refer to ourselves as Wobblies. I’ve been thinking a lot about wealth, lately, as I’m sure y’all have been as well. I’ve been thinking about where it has come from in the United States, and how it has accumulated. It started here by theft of land from indigenous peoples. Sacred land had been stolen and continues to be stolen to build up this accumulation of wealth. This is the origin of wealth in the United States in the form of real property. For each treaty that is broken, that wealth grows. Wealth is the accumulation of stolen lands.

From there this land was populated with slaves—people stolen from their families, from their land. For each child that was torn from their mother, that wealth grew. Immigrants from the world over came and continue to come to this country, driven from their own countries by poverty that has a direct line to the wealthy in this country. These immigrants worked and continue to work in some of this country’s worst conditions. When they organize, and they do, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is called and immigrant communities are torn apart. For each immigrant that suffers terrible working conditions in fear of being imprisoned or deported if they organize, that wealth grows. Wealth is the accumulation of stolen people.

Workers in this country go without healthcare. We are told that we are lucky to have a job. Lucky, while our families literally die for want of needed medicine. For each death due to negligence of our country to take care of our own, that wealth grows. As our homes are taken from us and given to banks, the wealth in this country continues to grow. Wealth is the accumulation of desperation.

Wealth, then, isn’t just an accumulation of money. It is the accumulation of human suffering due to capitalism.
I do not wish for wealth to be more fairly distributed. I do not wish for the 1 percent to be 5, or 10 or even 20 percent. I yearn with every piece of my being for wealth to stop. I ache for a world where we take care of each other and our planet. I look around at what we have now and am consumed with sorrow. But there is hope.

There’s a saying in the IWW that originated when one of our organizers was unjustly murdered by the state: “Don’t mourn, organize.”

The wealthy in this country are powerful. They have resources and they are guarded by the military and the police. We all pay for the police with our taxes. They are paid to protect us. Instead they oppress us and protect the wealth that is destroying our lives, our earth. At times, the totality of their power is overwhelming. But we know how to overcome it. We know what the path out of this is. We’ve used it in the past, as workers. We organized and went on strike. And when we went on those strikes, we got children out of factories; we fought and won breaks and weekends. We fought for this, and we took it, because it was rightfully ours. And how we did this was to join together and refuse to work for them. We refused to give them our labor for their profit. A general strike, where every worker everywhere refuses to work is the vision of Wobblies. We know that if we cease to line the pockets of our oppressors, they are weakened. They need us. We already know how to make everything we need; they don’t know how to do anything.

The people in Oakland know this. They are calling that all workers refuse to work today. And we are here in support of them. We know that when all workers refuse to work in solidarity with each other, we can change the world. We know this, because we already have.

The key to our liberation in each other’s hands: we must join together and free ourselves.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2011)

Columns from 2012

Other columns from 2012 include:

-Don't be a jerk about bad ideas

Building the IWW’s program: from workplace grievances to worker control

Joel Schwartz goes over some issues the IWW could use to advance its contract-less organizing.

There are two general categories of activity for our union. One is organizational activity and the other is programmatic activity. These two exist in a closely interwoven, and one could say dialectical, relationship.

By organizational activity I mean creating organizational structures, recruiting members, holding meetings, dealing with finances and the like. I include both organizational activities as a branch and organizational activities on the job.

By programmatic activities I mean those things that we use our organization for: winning demands from the boss; supporting the strikes and struggles of other workers; and abolishing the wage system.

Each type of activity is dependent on the other. Without an organization, no programmatic activity can be carried out. The larger, stronger, more cohesive the organization, the more it can potentially accomplish. On the other hand, maintaining an organization is impossible without programmatic purpose. If an organization doesn’t accomplish anything members will eventually fall away and the organization will dissipate. Growth in each area of activity needs growth in the other.

I think that we need to “grow” our programmatic activities. I think that we need to go beyond addressing workplace issues like arbitrary firings, sexual harassment and low wages. These issues can serve to motivate initial organizing drives, but I believe we need something more in order to sustain contract-less organizing over the longer term. After all, those are the types of issues that the business unions address through contract-based organizing. If we want to sustain a more radical vision, it has to be reflected in our program as well as our organization.

We should explicitly start to analyze how to build the bridge between addressing workplace grievances and the actual abolition of the wage system. Then we need to figure out how start walking across that bridge. In general, that bridge will be built from things that increase our power and control as a collective expression of the working class.

A few examples occur to me, but it will take a collective and concerted effort to figure this out. One idea is to make your local area a scab-free zone. Approach this with the use of propaganda, such as postering, flyering and posting videos on Youtube; declaring a scab-free zone; and educating about the evils of scabbing. Then, back it up—organize a disciplined force to keep scabs out of a struck workplace, with or without the consent of the striking union.

Another idea is to try to gain control over hiring at our workplaces. This is not such a far-fetched idea when you think about the practice in some trades of hiring out of the union hall. We may want to switch that up and take control of hiring from the shop floor rather than the union hall. We could think about ways to make this happen.

A third possibility is to increase the links between the work we do and those affected by our work, and look to control our work’s outcomes and purpose. For example, in my job in the welfare system, I have sometimes connected with the Welfare Rights Committee to try to affect welfare legislation. I could try to broaden that and organize coworkers into the effort. In education, connections could be made between educators and parents to start to redesign the education we deliver. A plan already under way in the Twin Cities, Minn.—to provide support to substitute teachers—is a step in this direction.

These specific ideas may or may not have merit in themselves, but they start to give the idea. If we aim to abolish the wage system, we have to start to figure out the steps to get there. We have ideas about a general strike, but there’s a gulf between where we are and a general strike, and a gulf again between a general strike and actually abolishing the wage system.

One never knows for sure what is possible or what might be effective in the current moment. History will tell, but we can’t wait for the backward vision of history. We need to develop a plan to move forward programmatically, as well as organizationally.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2012)

Keeping your job while under fire

An account of attempts to discipline a union organizer.

I have been publicly organizing at Starbucks for nearly five years. The fact that I have managed to stay employed is no small feat. Since our 13-month trial against the company, Starbucks has been especially careful to fire outspoken unionists via policy violations, set ups, and pushing us to either quit in a fiery rage or go off and be fired for losing composure.

The best position for organizing is being employed at the shop. Keeping your job is priority number one. Here is a brief account of one such time that I protected my job and won.

I worked at the Union Square Starbucks in New York City for years. While there, I helped develop a shop committee at the Astor Place store. After the committee went public, the majority of the shop members were systematically fired and the remaining members endured daily mistreatment from the anti-union management staff. As an act of solidarity, I decided to transfer to that location to further build the committee. I approached that store with a core focus of seeing an end to the store manager’s employment at Starbucks. He inflicted economic violence on my fellow workers; they were still looking for work after being fired for joining the union. Even a week of unemployment in a city like New York can mean homelessness. This is one of the many reasons that I take the firing of our members very personally.

After my month-long battle, which included having the store transfer turned down and filing an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge, I finally won. During my fourth shift at Astor Place I called an assistant store manager “shady” for refusing to leave proof that my vacation time had been approved. I told her that refusing to leave proof just confirmed my suspicion that management was hoping to do what I feared—schedule me so they could claim I did not show and fire me. Just hours after my argument with the assistant manager, the store manager came to the store to give me a write-up for “threatening and harassing a fellow partner.” Despite only receiving two other write-ups in over four years—one for being late and the other for a fight with a coworker who was homophobic to me—I was put on “final notice.” One more violation and I could be fired.

This would be a less than climatic end to a career of fighting Starbucks from the inside. I filed a ULP about the write-up. I went into work the next day and coworkers told me that the store manager, district manager, and regional director had been meeting all day. During my shift, I was called into a meeting with the district and store managers. The district manager said, “I’ve been going over this corrective action the store manager gave you and I’m thinkingthat it was not serious enough to warrant a corrective so I will be removing this from your file.” I said, “OK, thank you,”and started to get up to go back to work.

Then my store manager took out a new corrective action and said, “Do you remember anything strange happening with your till the last shift you worked?” I laughed and said, “That was two weeks ago, I don’t remember but I can go through my notes.” He then said that I was being written up for the till being $13.11 short. I told him I would not sign it and that in almost five years I have never had my till be short until coming to this store. I also told him I did not believe it, because he wrote all the other union members up for shortages too. I said that I would be happy to go to the Starbucks headquarters and meet with Partner Asset & Protection and go over every single transaction I did that shift while watching the camera footage to see where the money went. He said that was impossible.

I laughed again and tossed the write-up on the desk. I looked at him with a half smirk and said, “Really? After all these years and countless times you all have tried to get rid of me, do you really expect the [National] Labor [Relations] Board to believe that I would throw all my work out the window in order to steal $13.11? You must be outta your mind.”

Then the store manager started to yell at me. The district manager took the write-up away and put it in a folder, saying “Well, I’ll have to look into this and get back to you.” They never gave me that write-up. Also, after a very successful call-in campaign and union pressure, the store manager quit. Now we can push forward and add this boss to the notches on our belt.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (March 2012)

The district manager took the write-up away and put it in a folder, saying “Well, I’ll have to look into this and get back to you.” They never gave me that write-up. Also, after a very successful call-in campaign and union pressure, the store manager quit. Now we can push forward.
Liberté Locke

Supporting A Multigenerational Union

Jeff Jones talks about how he sees working class revolution as happening because of a multigenerational perspective that includes input and valuing children, parents and elderly members in the IWW.

Snap! Snap! Working-class revolution in overnight fashion. A spark lights when the general strike is struck, or so it goes in a good militant myth. Organize the workplace and the revolution will come. The first attempt at organizing may not be a win. The initial loss may lead to burnout for the young militant.

But working-class revolution does not happen overnight. It is a multigenerational continuity that supplies the working class with its resiliency, its backbone. It is this backbone that creates the cultural structures that uphold a long-term, non-hierarchical, syndicalist vision and strategy.

Young militants have often had to recreate the wheel with each new generation. We have had to learn not just theory and particular tactics, but how to care for ourselves and guard against burnout. In contrast, a strong, supportive and relational community helps build our strength so that we can keep fighting against the Goliath of the capitalist class for as long as it takes.

The talk of building a resistant working- class community has always been with us, but it has not been given the proper treatment it deserves. Many young militant groups will signal that young children are not wanted at their meetings. This can come in the form of straightforward comments against having children at meetings. Sometimes it comes in the form of rolled eyes, snickers, sighs, or a belief that talking about childcare is not “their” responsibility. When childcare is addressed it is usually a parent who becomes the de facto childcare provider, rendering them mute at most meetings. If it is not the parent, then we tend to see the same people volunteering for childcare over and over again, as most people will not step up for this type of help. The volunteers also tend to be the few women in each group, thus reinforcing the patriarchal norm.

Having a multigenerational union is not limited to only bringing in parents and children but needs to include our elders. On occasion older workers who show up feel alienated or disrespected, as many young militants focus only on the newest and latest tactics and theory. Yet it is our elders who hold the living memories of our past struggles. They have seen many times what has worked and what has not. We don’t need to recreate the wheel each time a new struggle rears its ugly head. We can start from the rich history of solidarity of a multigenerational union. This solidarity and respect for our historical and collective wisdom will only stimulate new creative flowers to bloom.

Wobbly parents bring to the union knowledgeable ways of learning how to adapt. Fellow Wobbly and parent Nate Hawthorne writes,

“Being a parent and being a Wobbly touch on some of the things I care about most in my life and they both involve a fair amount of friction, and friction about important stuff can be hard stuff. I’m still a relatively new parent—my daughter is two. I feel like the first two years of her life passed mostly in a blur, and for quite a long time it felt like whenever I got my feet under me in some way then she changed again and there was a whole new set of things to learn.”

A multigenerational union must include those involved in their own families. An anti-authoritarian family knows that struggle is not about an immediate win, but about the future. We know how to take a beating and how to throw a party that night. The anti-capitalist struggle moves from a day-to-day vision of a better life of wages, respect, safety and self-management, to a deeper, relational understanding that this struggle is about our children and their children and all beings.

This is echoed in the words of other Wobbly parents. Fellow worker and Wobbly parent Madelene wrote,

“I want, very much, to be more involved in the IWW; the work we do is so very important. Making a better world for my children is obviously one of the reasons our work is important, as is making the world better for the children of my neighbors, as well as my friends and people down the block, who have to work two jobs to pay rent on their two bedroom apartments.”

In short, fellow worker and longtime Wobbly parent Patrick said,

“If we take seriously the idea that we ‘organize the worker and not the workplace,’ then we need to take a multigenerational approach to developing life-long radicals. While it is nice to have superstar organizers who make great contributions for three years, it is important that we start thinking about developing a sustainable culture of resistance and organizing—with less burnout and more changing diapers, less glory and more balanced roles. The old model of the heroic male is dying. We need to move forward with a new model. It is for these reasons that I will be attending and assisting the Junior Wobblies Camp at Mesaba.”

By supporting a multigenerational union we are actively showing solidarity for all our fellow workers. Solidarity will bring in new members while supporting active members. This support will increase the continuity of the struggle—continuity because the union will not be based on a few shining personalities but on the work of a multigenerational community. One can drop out for awhile, if need be, and know that the union will be there when they come back. A multigenerational union is the bread and butter of an industrial union.

Originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker

Towards an organizational theory?

A reflection of how far the IWW has come in the last 13 years, and what might be still needed.

I have been a member of the IWW since 1999, virtually my entire adult life. During my time as a member the union has grown in both numbers and in vibrancy. When I joined the IWW, only a handful of members had any significant organizing experience. Most people joined the union not because they learned about it from a coworker on the job but because they encountered it in a history book or through labor folk music. Often it seemed like the organization functioned more as a historical reenactment society than a revolutionary union. The first branch meetings I attended could be described as meetings of the Society of Creative Anachronism for anarchists. The discussions focused more on the 1921 Kronstadt uprising and leftist soap-boxing in 1910s San Francisco than the plight of contemporary workers.

When Wobblies did try to organize, they generally followed the pattern of the big AFL-CIO unions. Attempts were made to hold National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-sanctioned elections and negotiate contracts. The majority of these efforts did not result in contracts and failed to build the union in any substantive way. Most of the workers who participated in them quickly became disillusioned with the IWW when the union election was lost.

I did not know it at the time, but the IWW was already changing when I joined. The branches in Portland and Philadelphia started organizing campaigns that did not focus on winning union elections. Instead, they tried to use direct action to make gains on the shop floor. In the Industrial Worker, then General Secretary-Treasurer Alexis Buss ran a series of articles on “Minority Unionism” advocating this approach. Through the work of Alexis and a handful of others, members of the union became aware of Staughton Lynd’s theory of solidarity unionism. Gradually, it became the union’s dominant organizing theory.

As it did, people began to have more success organizing with the IWW. The Starbucks campaign was launched. In Chicago, a couriers union was built that inspired couriers in other cities to organize, and in several North American cities workers began to win small but substantive victories under the Wobbly banner. The evidence of this increased success can be seen in the pages of the Industrial Worker itself. The paper used to be largely about organizing by other labor unions. Today, much of its coverage is about Wobbly organizing.

The shift that has taken place within the organization can also be seen the structure of the union itself. In 1999, there was no organizer training program and no organizing department. The coordination that took place between workers organizing in the same industry but in different cities was sporadic at best, and there were few real Wobbly veterans. Sure, there were people who had been members for a long time. But only a handful of them had any experience organizing as Wobblies and trying to build a fighting organization.

That has all changed in the last decade and a half. In that time-span, the IWW has moved from largely being a labor history and solidarity club to a small vibrant union. The question now: Do we Wobblies have what it takes to move our organization from being small and vibrant to large and powerful?

If we want to answer that question in the affirmative, then there are clear things we as a union, and as individual members, need to do. The first, and most important, is to commit to the union for the long haul. The strength of the union is in its members. The more committed we are to building the union, the stronger we will build it. When members with organizing experience stay with the union over the course of years, the collective knowledge of Wobbly organizing grows and becomes something that can be passed on to new members.

Second, we need to focus on developing our infrastructure as an organization. From the 1910s to today, the IWW has been vastly under-resourced for the revolutionary hopes we have for it. We have a tiny treasury and cannot effectively support large-scale campaigns. The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams used to say that if good is going to win, it has be formed into institutions. If the IWW is going to succeed, we need to figure out how to systematically develop leaders within the union and on the shop floor. We need to figure out how to aggressively build campaigns that encompass not dozens or hundreds, but thousands of workers.

Over the past five years that I have edited the Workers Power column, I have become convinced that we have a solid, and evolving, organizing theory. What we need to develop more clearly is a theory of organization. Organizational theory has not always been a strong suit of the left. This is one reason why I am so pleased to see “Weakening the Dam,” a pamphlet put out by the Twin Cities branch. “Weakening the Dam” collects a half dozen Workers Power columns, some of which start to develop an IWW organizational theory. The columns are not enough, but they are a good starting place. It is my hope that over the next five years, Workers Power can be a place for not only writing about IWW organizing theory but also IWW organizational theory.

I don’t know what such an organizational theory will ultimately look like. I would suggest that to develop it we might want to look for help outside the usual radical and historical sources. In my work as a minister I have found that business journals and religious think tanks, including evangelical ones, have excellent resources on how to develop leaders, and create powerful volunteer-run organizations. In the next few years, I will be drawing from these sources and from my own experiences with the IWW, and work for contemporary and historical radicalism to write occasional pieces for Workers Power that offer some suggestions about organizational theory. I hope that some of you will join with me in this effort and contribute your own writings to Workers Power. Send your submissions to forworkerspower[at]

Originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Industrial Worker

A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work

A look at the old labor movement slogan and what 'fair' actually means.

Last year in Lansing, Mich., the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union leadership fought a pitched battle with the Lansing City Council to push capitalist real estate developers to use union labor. When discussing the fight, Joe Davis, the union representative, proclaimed, “It’s important to have individuals work and get paid a fair wage. We have to make sure labor is valued.” We hear statements like this from the leaders of the business unions all the time. For instance, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” has now been the motto of the mainstream labor movement since at least the beginning of the 20th century. On the face of it, this general demand for workers sounds like a good thing. We have to work for a living, and so long as that’s the case, we should be paid a fair wage for our efforts. We don’t want to be exploited. We want our fair share of the pie.

However, what is a fair day’s wages, and what is a fair day’s work? To answer this we have to think about the specifics of how our economy—a capitalist economy— operates. We can’t simply ask what feels morally fair or what the law says is fair, whether that be the federal minimum wage or the often discussed and calculated “living wage.” What is morally fair, and what is even fair by law, may be far from being socially fair. Social fairness or unfairness is determined by the material facts of production and exchange.

First we can ask, from the perspective of a boss—a capitalist—what are a fair day’s wages? The answer from this perspective is pretty simple. The labor market defines the capitalist’s role as a buyer of workers’ ability to work, and the employee’s role as the seller. The employee sells her time to the employer who in turn pays the employee in wages. The capitalist pays his version of a “fair wage”—the amount required for a worker with average needs to survive and keep coming back to work each day. Some bosses might pay a little more, some a little less, but on average this is the base rate of “fair” pay.

From this same perspective of a capitalist, then, what is a fair day’s work? A fair day’s work to the boss is the maximum amount of work an average worker can do without exhausting herself so much that she can’t do that same amount of work the next day. You, the worker, gives as much, and the capitalist gives as little, as the nature of the bargain will allow. As is probably obvious, this is a very strange sort of “fairness,” and probably not how any rational person would define the word. Let’s look a little deeper into this issue.

People who praise the great “free market” would say that wages and working conditions are fixed by competition between the buyers, the capitalists. Supposedly, capitalists are all competing for workers, so that competition inevitably leads to fair wages and working conditions. After all, the seller—the worker—theoretically has several options of employers to choose from. If a buyer doesn’t offer a price that a worker thinks is fair for her labor, then she can look for another job that pays better. By agreeing to the prevailing wage, so goes this line of argument, workers have essentially made the statement: “We think this is fair.”

One problem with this “logic” is that workers and bosses do not start on equal terms when they are buying and selling. It’s not like you’re selling an iPod on Craigslist, in which you can wait until someone pays the price you want. For most of us, if we don’t have a job, we can’t pay our bills, feed ourselves and our families, or heat our homes. Having employment is a life or death issue. It may not be life or death in the short term, but eventually if you can’t find a job or someone with a job who will help you out financially, you will not be able to buy the things you need to live, let alone the things you need in order to be happy and fulfilled.

It’s a very different story for the owners of the companies we work for. They have money in the bank, and if they don’t get employees tomorrow or even this month, they might be severely inconvenienced. Although their companies might take a hit in profits, they won’t risk anything like the consequences workers do. Their worst case scenario is far better than ours, so the free market lover’s idea of an “even playing field” is, in reality, a sick joke.

This isn’t the worst part of it. Bosses lay off workers when they develop new technology to replace employees and they lay people off when their profits plunge, as is the case in the current recession. As a result, workers lose their jobs way faster than they can be absorbed into other jobs. Today, there is a massive pool of unemployed workers and the capitalists, as a class, use unemployed working-class people against the rest of the class. If business is bad and there are few jobs for those of us who find ourselves out of work, some of us can collect a meager amount of unemployment money, while some turn to stealing and some lose their homes and are forced to beg for money on the street. If business is good and jobs appear, then unemployed people are immediately ready to take those jobs. Until every single one of those unemployed workers has found a job, capitalists will use desperate job seekers to keep wages down. The mere existence of this pool of unemployed workers strengthens the power of the bosses in their struggle with workers. Anyone who has ever heard a boss say, “If you don’t like it here, there are 10 other people I could hire to do your job,” will know how this plays out in terms of respect on the job. In the foot race against the capitalist class, the working class has to drag an anvil chained to its ankle—but that is “fair” according to a free market economist.

Now let’s take a look at how bosses pay their workers. Where does a capitalist get the money to pay our very “fair” wages? He pays them from his capital, his stored up funds from all the business he’s done, from all the goods or services his company has sold. Where did those goods and services come from in the first place? They came from the workers. The employees are the ones who worked to create those products or services that were then sold to consumers. The boss doesn’t do any work—he might oversee some of the workings of the company, but for the most part he sits on his ass watching as the work takes place. So we can say clearly the workers created the value that built the fund that they get paid from—a worker’s wage is paid from the product of her own work. Now, according to common fairness, you should get out what you put in, your wage should be equal to the value that you have created for the company through your work—but that would not be fair according to the values of a capitalist economy. On the contrary, the wealth you have created goes to the boss, and you get out of it no more than the bare necessities of life—a wage as low as the boss can get away with paying. So the end result of this supposedly “fair” race is that the product of the working class’s labor gets accumulated in the hands of those that do not work, and in their hands it becomes the most powerful means to enslave the very people who produced it.

A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work! There’s a lot to be said about the fair day’s work too, the fairness of which is about as fair as these “fair” wages. It is also worth examining the role that unions play in affecting the rate of wages, but rarely the fairness of the wage process. We’ll be talking about these issues in future articles. From what has been stated so far though, it’s pretty clear that the old slogan has outlived any usefulness, and no one should take it seriously. The “fairness” of the market is all on one side—the side of the capitalist class. So let‘s bury that old motto forever and replace it with a better one: “Abolish the wage system!”

Originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker

The wages system

Nate Hawthorne and Matt Kelly on the wage system in capitalism.

We talked in our last column about the slogan “A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.” In capitalism, we can’t get many things we need unless we have money. There are really only two basic ways to get money: Hire someone to produce something which you try to sell for a profit, or get hired by someone to produce something, which they will try to sell for a profit. This is why no wages under capitalism can be truly fair. This is because the basic arrangement is already unfair. Under capitalism we are required to spend our time working for other people. Furthermore, the stuff that capitalists sell…workers made it. The capitalists’ profits generally come from the difference between the price they charge for the stuff we produce and what they paid us to produce the stuff. That difference is inherently unfair.

But it’s important to note that capitalists are constrained by the capitalist system, too. These constraints are often more powerful than the actual laws on the books. Whatever the laws on paper, the real law of the land in capitalist society is the law of profits. When the official laws line up with that law, then the official laws tend to be followed. When the official laws no longer line up with the law of profits, then the law of profits tends to win out. This is because the capitalist system rewards employers who reduce costs while keeping prices up. For workers this means that companies that pay employees less (and that spend less on having a safe, sanitary work environment) than their competitors will be more profitable. The system punishes employers who pay employees more than competitors. This will always happen under capitalism. That’s another reason why “a fair day’s wage” is always going to be limited.

Sometimes liberal or progressive capitalists, and more generally people who are in favor of capitalism, will become concerned that wages are too low and conditions are too bad. This is because capitalists need workers. The capitalist class needs there to be workers tomorrow, and in 10 and 20 years. Smarter capitalists and people who support capitalism sometimes realize that if wages get too low then workers may have a hard time coming back to work. You may know this from your own life if you have ever dug through the couch cushions to find bus fare to get to work, or if you’ve had to work long enough hours or in bad enough conditions that your immune system crashes and you get sick and have to miss work. And if wages get too low then in the long term workers might not have enough kids and provide their kids with the sorts of education and training that will make them be what employers will want in 10 or 20 years. Sometimes capitalists behave in ways that maximize profits in the short term but which have the potential to undermine the stability of the company or of capitalism as a whole in the long term. The recent global economic meltdown triggered by financial markets is another version of individual capitalists putting the short term goal of maximum profit ahead of the long term interests of the capitalist class as a whole.

Liberal or progressive capitalists and their supporters recognize that capitalists overall will be better off if there is a balance between the short term profits of individual capitalists and the long term interests of the capitalist class. This leads these progressives to call for fair wages. Capitalist “fair wages” means that individuals get paid enough that they can support themselves in order to keep on working. In the long term, “a fair day’s wage” means that the working class gets paid enough to keep having kids and raising them up so that there continues to be a working class. From our perspective, the perspective of workers, we want more money for our work. But we also need to recognize that wages and improving working conditions for some workers is often in the long-term interests of the capitalist class. This is why there are minimum wage laws and health and safety laws. This also accounts for the motivation of some capitalists to support initiatives like universal health care. They want to ensure that healthy and productive workers are available for the production of profit.

The labor movement has a long history of fighting against the constraints that capitalism imposes on humanity. There have been important changes in the specifics of the constraints imposed by capitalism. At the same time, obviously capitalism still exists and it still constrains humanity—working-class people especially. The AFL-CIO, Change To Win and other unions have always based their struggles on the goal of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” They have never once lifted any section of the working class out of wage slavery, nor have they ever tried. Similar to what we’ve seen with the liberal wing of the capitalist class, the improvements the labor movement has won have often helped to stabilize capitalism. Individual capitalists are often willing to work against the interests of their class if it means they can individually profit, which can make individual capitalists or small groups of capitalists into a threat to the system. Unions can sometimes function as a sort of immune system within capitalism. When unions organize to check particularly greedy capitalists who put their short term needs above the needs of their class, they reduce the extreme behavior of some capitalists who threaten to destabilize capitalism.

That doesn’t mean these unions are worthless or that we should not support their struggles. The labor movement has fought for and won very important changes in working-class people’s lives. To put it another way, the labor movement is a name for working-class people struggling to improve their lives, against the constraints imposed by capitalism, and there are very important successes that have been achieved. Many people would have a much lower standard of living without those successes. These improvements in standards of living apply mainly to union members, but to some extent there are improvements that have been shared with non-unionized workers as well. The eighthour day, regulations on child labor, the right to organize, workers’ compensation laws—for these things and more we owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men and women of the labor movement.

The improvements in working-class life won by the labor movement show that the constraints imposed by capitalism are not inevitable; demonstrating that the artificial limits that capitalism imposes on humanity can be pushed back and challenged. Obviously, organized workers will generally have better wages and benefits under capitalism. But the degradation of the entire working class is not about having better or worse wages, better or worse benefits. The degradation of workers stems from the fact that the working class doesn’t receive the full value that we produce by our labors and we have to be satisfied with a fraction of that value called “wages.” The AFL-CIO and the rest of the traditional labor movement is blind to this reality, and so can only ever help to make an inherently exploitative system a little easier to live in.

In the IWW, a union where our eyes are open to recognize this stark reality, we should recognize that some improvements, even hard-fought ones, can result in more stable versions of capitalism. Being aware of this can help us plan for what comes after a short-term victory. We especially need to make connections between our fights for improvements now and the fight to end capitalism. This means we must never really settle for any improvements. We don’t simply want a better life under capitalism, because “a fair day’s wages” is still unfair. We must always point this out and educate ourselves and each other about the ways capitalism limits working class people’s lives. We must also recognize that there is a ceiling on how much things can improve in a capitalist society.

The IWW organizer Big Bill Haywood once said, “Nothing is too good for the working class.” This echoes other radical slogans: “We demand everything!” and “everything for everyone!” Whatever we win, we’ll take it. We won’t feel grateful to anyone on high who “gave” it to us. As soon as we can we’ll fight for more, and we’ll join with our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the working class who are fighting, until we take it all.

Originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker

Self-employment, or the illusion of freedom

An account of 'freelancing' and the attitude this has promoted within the author's co-workers.

I met him at a dinner party last autumn. He said, “There are a thousand girls like her,” when my friend told the owner of the small film company that I was looking for work. He was right. Six months later, he called needing urgent help. Now, I work at least 20 hours a week for him. He’d like me to do more, full-time work if possible—for minimum wage, because he can’t give me a contract.

Our initial agreement was that I would give him an invoice and “independently take care of my work.” To do that, I have to be in the office four hours a day, answering calls, running daily orders and doing stock work. This is not self-employment. I am not even sure it is legal. Still, I have gotten the boss to pay me enough to theoretically do my own taxes, buy insurance and end up with minimum wage. The union people I talk to tell me not to do it. They say that it is not technically self-employment. If I listen to them I won’t have a job.

“So, what do you do for money?” asked the company’s new intern. When I answered, “I work here,” she looked like I’d just said I didn’t like chocolate. Everyone around here is an artist, or “creative” in some way. The boss is one of us; he’s a lovely guy. We all only care about great art. Beyond the specialism of this niche, the issues are that small businesses don’t require union representation and that bosses, in terms of what they do, can appear to be “one of us.” We all have two to three other jobs, just like we did ten years ago. I make less net income now than I did then. I am not alone in this, but it is hard to get to know your colleagues between so many jobs. The film company is my best bet, because there is an office, I go there to work and other people work there too.

Even my colleague at my second job, at a delicatessen, is a budding filmmaker. When we meet to talk about work, he tells me he doesn’t “care about the other folk.” He just wants to make movies and move to California. I want to tell him that he’s not going to make a living from the films he makes and that working in a California grocery won’t be much sexier than what he’s doing now (unless you consider his potential visa troubles). I want to ask him why he insists in believing that there is some ladder that he is climbing. But I don’t say that. If you want to build solidarity you shouldn’t mock the dreams of colleagues. Those dreams are going to help us. Even if his dream is to make a film, or to move to California, he doesn’t want to be stuck here. He believes he can get a better deal. I try to believe the same.

There is a long-term trend toward being your own creative director. It pushes workers into conning themselves that they can get a better deal if they are self-employed. The whole “start-your-own-company, be-your-own-boss” racket is heavily pushed by government agencies and all kinds of employers. It was first put forth as a solution to high unemployment and then, less openly, as a route to cut costs and erode worker solidarity and class consciousness. It relies on people’s underlying hatred of work, personified by the boss, and sells the dream of autonomy by telling people that they can become their own, fake, boss. The reality is different. Companies don’t hire people full time or long term anymore. They realize that freelancers are, in reversal of the marketing image, more at the mercy of employers than regular employees. We have to compete with all the other one-person businesses and supply our own laptops, software and unpaid time to learn skills.

This scenario seems like an upgraded version of the employment structures from 100 years ago. Workers would go to a hiring hall in the morning, bringing with them their own tools and work clothes, and hope to be picked for a job. They competed with all the other workers in the hall.

The boss is away now, so there is a window of opportunity to get to know everyone a bit. I want to figure out if they can help me get a permanent contract. But even the desire for a permanent contract and the benefits that come with it—something precarious workers are organizing around at bigger companies in less “glamorous” fields—is not really part of our conversation. Still, as I talk with my colleagues I realize that most of us don’t believe in the illusions of freedom and opportunity that are supposed to come with self-employment. The more conversations we have, the more openly they talk about how our multiple insecure jobs seem to direct our lives. It feels like there is something shameful about these conversations. Shameful because the ordinariness of our jobs is something we should be above as we pursue our creative ventures.

It’s hard to see how to connect and make common cause with freelancers beyond my own small immediate job radius. While there are a myriad of associations, initiatives and networks, it is unclear how freelancers can take common actions beyond their self-imposed limits of industry, employment status and geographical area. These limits are irrelevant to the realities of the diverse range of jobs we engage in as workers.

I think that if I get the backing of my de facto colleagues, I’ll be able to ask my boss for a contract in September. It won’t be by finding some initiative to join, but by making it clear to him, IWW-style, that all of the workers on the job have my back. I am not sure I can change anything else. People will move on and come back. New ones will show up to do some work. The unending flow of unpaid interns, reminding us that we’re all replaceable, will continue.

Yes, there are “a thousand girls like me” here. It might be slow and it might be small, but we need to find ways to meet, talk and realize again that what I was told made me expendable is also what makes us stronger.

- Editor’s note: Monika works in France.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2012)

Wobblies and unfair labor practices

An article by Kevin S about the problems of using Unfair Labor Practice charges in IWW organizing.

We stand up against the boss, demanding change and stopping work. The boss fires us. We immediately mobilize, rushing to...the office of some government lawyer. What’s wrong with this picture?

When private sector employers in the United States break the law, workers can file what is known as an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Violations include threatening or retaliating against workers for lawful union activity or for acting as a group without a union, also known as “protected concerted activity.” When found guilty of a ULP, an employer may face various penalties, like an order to reinstate a fired worker with back pay.

There are many examples of the Wobblies using ULPs. The charges filed against Starbucks eventually led to a fired worker’s reinstatement. In Minneapolis, charges were filed against Jimmy John’s after a failed union election in 2010, and again last year when the company fired six union members. The NLRB nullified the election due to management’s illegal behavior. The illegal firing charges were won in court, but the employer appealed and the appeals process could take years.

ULPs are used for pragmatic reasons: we need protection against employer retaliation, and it makes good press when we charge employers with breaking the law. Protection is hard to ensure through direct action alone, especially in the IWW, since we are small, with few friends in high places and little interest in having such friends. Yet filing ULPs is precisely calling on friends in high places to solve problems for us—except the NLRB is not really our friend.

ULPs are a crucial component of the state’s most perfected instrument for enforcing labor peace: arbitration. While many Wobblies criticize union contracts’ management rights clauses, no-strike clauses, and bureaucratic grievance processes as being obstructions to direct action, all these practices predated and are far less effective at preserving class peace than government arbitration. Workers have hostile interests to employers and may force their unions to adopt a militant posture. As a result, even the craft unions of the old AFL often used violent disruption against stubborn employers and broke their own no-strike agreements, due to threats from angry workers who frequently split and formed more radical competing unions. The capitalist state’s answer to this was state-sponsored arbitration.

Labor law as we know it was a response to mass “industrial warfare” during the last century. Courts, local and state governments, and wartime federal agencies all experimented with various practices to ensure “industrial peace” in order to protect the flow of commerce and meet the production needs of the state. Federal legislation codified these practices in the 1930s, with the explicit intention of restoring economic tranquility. ULPs are a product of this period and are part of the state’s mechanism for controlling labor conflict.

Wobblies often rightly view labor law with skepticism. A while back, the Industrial Worker published some critical responses “Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper,” which criticized the “pitfalls of contractualism” and called for “organizing without contracts,” describing some historic examples and specific tactics for non-contractual organizing. The paper expresses doubt that “labor law can ever be a liberating force for workers.” It asks, “Can even defensive use of labor law, ULPs for example, disempower workers?”

While “not universally opposed to ULPs,” the discussion paper turns “a very skeptical eye,” concluding:

“ULPs and other forms of government- recognized grievance procedures... removes power from the worker’s hands. Knowing basic labor law and being able to ‘represent oneself’ are worthwhile skills, but labor law always attempts to individualize grievances, and thus lessen collective power and put up walls to effective solidarity.”

This skepticism could go farther. Wobblies ostensibly use ULPs as a last resort when other forms of escalation fail. In practice, folks often treat them as a form of escalation. In truth, they are a form of de-escalation. A phrase some Wobblies use is: “Direct action is our sword, while labor law is our shield.” A better phrase might be: “Direct action is our sword, while labor law is capitalism’s shield.” The whole point of labor law is to restrain workers’ power, encourage class collaboration, and prevent economic disruption.

It’s problematic that ULPs are treated as standard union practice. ULPs often act as a relief valve when struggles reach a point where further escalation poses hazards for the union, especially potential legal consequences. This happened when Jimmy John’s fired six Wobblies. A plan to escalate through a series of direct actions fell apart when an action was canceled due to the lawyer’s concerns about potential legal issues. The lawyer was afraid direct action would have negative repercussions for the fired workers’ court case. The decision not to use direct action transformed the workers’ struggle into a legal battle.

It can be a smart move for individual workers to file ULPs but it depends upon the situation. Workers have little power right now and sometimes the odds of winning grievances are better in court than on the shop floor or in the street. Because of this we get in the habit of filing ULPs when we want better results. Yet when the union pursues pure legalistic practices, even when individual cases are won, it does nothing to build power for the union or the working class.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2012)

In November we remember

An article by Colin Bossen about the IWW's decline and if there are lessons to learn from that period today.

For more than 100 years it has been a Wobbly tradition to remember all of those who gave their lives to struggle for a better world during the month of November. The historian Franklin Rosemont argued that this tradition predates the founding of the IWW itself, and harkens back to remembering the Haymarket martyrs. In his essay, “In November We Remember: The IWW & the Commemoration of Haymarket,” he quotes an unnamed Wobbly writer that this tradition, “gives a sense of continuity to the struggle of workers, not only from year to year but from generation to generation.”

As a young Wobbly in the late 1990s, I felt a palpable connection to that tradition when I joined the San Francisco General Membership Branch. One of the elder members, Franklin Devore, had been the long-time lover of the legendary soap-boxer San Francisco Phil Mellman. Mellman was credited with mastering the art of “windmilling.” That was the practice of speaking rapidly and dramatically in public to attract attention for the IWW cause. A windmiller like Mellman would stand at a street corner and broadcast as much Wobbly wisdom as possible before the cops came. In the 1910s and 1920s, windmilling was an effective way to spread the Wobbly gospel.

I learned a lot about Wobbly culture, history and philosophy from elders like Devore. I was privileged to know Utah Philips and Carlos Cortez, and Wobblies who joined the union in the 1960s and early 1970s like Mike Hargis, Jon Bekken, Penny Pixler, F. N. Brill and Neil McLean all passed on to me the lessons that they learned from Wobbly elders.

Recently though, I have been wondering if I learned the wrong lessons from those elders. The lessons that they taught me were primarily about the IWW’s dramatic successes: our successes organizing migrant workers in the forests and in the agricultural fields; our victories in the free speech fights in San Diego and Spokane; and our dramatic strikes in Lawrence and Lowell.

The narratives of those successes were frequently matched by the narratives around the IWW’s decline. I learned three. One was that the union was essentially destroyed around 1919 when the U.S. government jailed the majority of IWW leaders. A second was that the union’s demise came about in 1924 when it split into two factions around a debate over centralization vs. decentralization, to generalize. The third was that the union survived these two catastrophes, saw its membership recover in the 1930s with organizing amongst metal workers in Cleveland, only to finally collapse in the wake of a refusal to sign McCarthy-era loyalty oaths.

A couple of weeks ago I received some pages from the August 1950 edition of the IWW’s internal publication, the General Organizing Bulletin (GOB), that has me rethinking these narratives. A graph from that GOB depicts the union’s membership in a free fall from 1943 to 1949. Over the course of six years the union lost more than 60 percent of its membership. This means that by the time the loyalty oath controversy caused the Cleveland branch to leave the union it was already in an institutional death spiral.

Accompanying the graph is a list of 20 questions drafted by William Henkleman and Kenneth Ives, entitled “Groups of Questions on IWW Problems and Policies.” One group of questions runs:

“Can the IWW make progress best by:
a) Trying to educate and organize individuals, isolated workers as it mostly has done in recent decades..? (sic)

b) Trying to organize individual shops, as we have some times done in the last fifteen years..? (sic)

c) Trying to educate within some inde pendent unions, such as the Confedeated Unions Group..? (sic)

d) Trying to set up an affiliated but self-supporting organization for edu cation as distinct from propaganda... for former members, sympathizers and other workers want to study the extension of workers control and operation, union democracy, etc., who may feel that the IWW as a union can’t help them on their present job..? (sic)

e) Or some combination of those pro grams..? (sic)

For each of the above methods, what amount of activity by members, what skills, what trained organizers, what funds, what programs are needed, and what types of situations will these be likely to succeed in..? (sic)”

When I read these questions I thought that they were quite contemporary. That observation, coupled with the 1940s membership statistics, has prompted me to ask: How can we learn from the IWW’s failures? The IWW’s membership now is close to what it was in the early 1940s. Our organizing over the last decade-and-a-half has been quite similar to the organizing that Henkleman and Ives complained about in 1950. It has been targeted at individuals and individual shops, and it is rarely industrial.

This observation leads me to want to know how we can break these patterns. They have haunted our union for most of its existence. They are as much a part of our legacy as the wonderful stories we tell about free speech fights and textile strikes. Studying our failures is the way we learn not to repeat them. This November, instead of just celebrating the rich legacy of the IWW, take time in your branch or at your workplace to think about the ways in which you have been stuck in your organizing. Look to our organization’s failures and ask the question: What could have been done differently to avoid the mistakes that were made? It is not an easy question to ask but in its answer may lie what we need to move the IWW up from 2,000 to 100,000 members. And that would be the best way to remember all of our Fellow Workers.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)

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Columns from 2013

Other columns from 2013 include:

-Average Wobbly Time

Christmas at Starbucks - Liberté Locke

An account by Liberté Locke about working at Starbucks in New York over the Christmas season.

Starbucks is a job in which the boss is so shitty that he can lose everything in Hurricane Sandy and his sympathy only lasts a couple weeks. Workers roll their eyes and those unable to bite their tongues can’t help but utter the word “karma.” Disrespectful employee reviews bring everyone swiftly back to remembering that while their aunt, cousin, lover, or babysitter is still living in the dark, 27 flights up in the projects, wondering why the Red Cross is ballin’ and they’re living on scraps—paying for Metrocards that equal crowded shuttle buses on lines yet to be restored—this guy was inconvenienced, but only briefly. It’s a victory to get to work only 20 minutes late, but of course the boss doesn’t think so. Out-of-towners are more understanding about what we’ve gone through than the boss who felt its effects. He’s stable soon enough—a quick recovery while we struggle. The boss can’t make a latte—the one who gave everyone low scores on “customer focus” when he couldn’t remember a single regular’s name when asked. His paycheck would imply he makes every drink himself.

Beverage sales go up, transactions skyrocket, retail sales climb while hours are cut, breaks are “forgotten,” reviews are late and offensive.

A female co-worker of mine had taken enough. She settled it the way things get settled in New York. She punched the boss and broke the glass door in the store. When I came into work the next day I was sure I’d somehow be blamed for the door. The day before, Corporate (Starbucks’ headquarters) finally forced me to remove all but one union pin on my uniform. This moment came after five years of court battles over wearing multiple union pins on the job (and fighting for the reinstatement of our members, including Daniel Gross). After losing four appeals, Starbucks finally won, once—and that was enough. I threw all my Starbucks-issued pins in the garbage and got a lot of sympathy from coworkers who especially respected my Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pin that I was no longer permitted to wear. I had assumed it was some middle of the night vandalism that most Starbucks workers have become accustomed to—globally they’re used to much more than broken glass. I inquired with the openers and learned of our newest folk hero. The woman who did what justified fears of firing and jail time prevented others from doing so many times before. If karma was real (and it’d been someone higher up), I’d think that punch was for FW Daniel.

Last I heard, Starbucks was still looking for her. I don’t know where she is but I know she has my respect and gratitude. How does Corporate respond to the store doing well financially and, simultaneously, the manager being reported by workers and then finally attacked by one? They send emails applauding his “leadership.” These emails are posted for everyone to see that our credit has been stolen— probably turned into a bonus that we’ll never get.

Just before Christmas, Corporate decided to “thank” us. Almost every district manager (DM) in Manhattan barged into our store during the morning rush, and loudly and badly sang a Christmas carol. Our DM came behind the counter (in the way of drinks being made) and held up a giant laminated board signed by the DMs and just said “Thanks for your…(blah, blah, blah).” She read it loudly—more to the customers as a ploy than to us as an actual “thank you.” I shouted from my register, “That doesn’t look like a giant check to me?!” My coworkers at the registers turned back to taking customers and said to each other loudly, “Yeah, where’s our Christmas bonus, huh?”

To add insult to injury, the DMs commandeered two big tables to sit for lunch— a crowd of 10 people that have spent years trying to fire me, three of which have individually attempted, in vain, to have me arrested at pickets. They jumped the line, ordered several complicated drinks and bought most of our sandwiches—of course they wanted them warmed and some without cheese. It was on the company card, they overworked us, piss off regulars and, unsurprisingly, they DID NOT TIP. It’s clear they were celebrating our hard work with a free lunch. Some workers nibbled on the shitty grocery store-bought box of star-shaped cookies they left us. I told folks that Kinkos makes those signs for 40 bucks and it’d be nice if they put $40 in the tip jar instead. We didn’t feel appreciated— we felt shit on as grown people with bills, children, and college to pay for with star-shaped cookies. Then a customer in a maintenance uniform handed me and a co-worker each a $20 bill and said, “It’s for you, Merry Christmas.” We were reminded that workers take care of workers.

|Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (March 2013)

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Taking creative action

An account by a Pizza Hut worker in the UK about remembering to be creative in workplace organizing.

There is no denying that organizing, and class struggle more generally, is hard work—it can be boring and really tiring. However, we need to remember not to get stuck in a pattern that keeps it that way. There is no reason to stick to the old models of action. Let’s be creative, let’s try new things and most important of all let’s encourage new fellow workers to come up with ideas and take the lead on them.

While at Pizza Hut we got creative about taking action, over health and safety and over management belligerence.

My first example is how we dealt with poor safety standards, particularly oven gloves. In the 10 years that I have worked at Pizza Hut, safety has always been issue— the burns on my arms can attest. Oven gloves with holes were a constant issue. Despite it being raised by multiple workers, multiple times, nothing was ever done. So we essentially created a game: binning gloves! As we got in on each shift I checked gloves, and if they were “sub-par,” they would end up in the bin.

The trick to making it fun in this case though was through involving other Pizza Hut workers, active fellow workers or not. That meant taking a risk that they could have dobbed us in, but the reality was we knew it was an issue that annoyed everyone. We also made a game of getting away with it. At the core however, this action was real and meaningful. It represents two classic tactics: dual power and workplace sabotage. Although both were on a small scale, it meant a lot to workers in a historically unorganized workplace.

The second example I would put forward was a matter of accidentally discovering a weak spot. For some months, we had been trying to push through a grievance. A grievance forms a part of a labor dispute in British employment law and in practice; it is a pretty decent way of putting your bosses on notice.

Despite our best efforts to talk, we had been completely ignored. So we began to plan our next move. Our dispute was over Bank Holiday pay, which is usually time-and-a-half, but at Pizza Hut this is standard pay, as well as delivery drivers’ commission, which they receive on a per delivery basis.

The plan was to organize a walk-out on the next Bank Holiday, which would have been on the day of the illustrious royal wedding (a nice note of celebration if you ask me). However, the plan fell apart when an unpopular loud mouth thought it would be funny to catch us out. In front of a manager and several other staff we didn’t yet trust, he shouted out, “What’s this about, this strike next week then?”

We had been caught, we hadn’t planned for this. What would happen? I would be fired for sure. Would others be too, had we just lost the lot? No, it was quite the opposite. Management was desperate to talk to us. Suddenly we found ourselves very popular and looked after. Before we knew it our area manager came down to meet with us and tried to settle the dispute, in his “I am just one of you guys” manner. Obviously we didn’t get what we wanted but we managed to sort some other issues around the moped drivers’ safety gear.

Tactics may sometimes come from where you least expect them. Keeping an open mind about ways to deal with issues and not letting yourself be held back by preconceptions of what falls under proper methods allows for some interesting results. Central to this is remaining open at all times to the input of your fellow workers, using the skills around you and encouraging involvement.

Neither of these examples came about spontaneously; they grew naturally out of the culture of cooperation that we managed to build in our shop, or “Wobblying the job.” This is something that we can do as organizers before we even “out” ourselves as such. The boss might want a car driver to take a long delivery to keep the times down and win themselves a cash bonus; the car driver doesn’t want to be out of pocket on fuel. A moped rider can turn directly to the car driver, ignoring the boss, and offer to swap for their shorter delivery. Depending on the workers and bosses involved this may not work but it will always create a bond outside of the boss-worker hierarchy, it is this bond which will see us through any action, large or small.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2013)

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Expanding your congregation of Fellow Workers - Colin Bossen

An article by Colin Bossen about membership growth and how the IWW might deal with it.

If you have been active in the IWW for a while, you have probably come across a pamphlet called “Rusty’s Rules of Order”— the pamphlet that serves as a guide to running effective union meetings. It attributes the following pearl of wisdom to Rusty, “an old Wobbly,” who served as a mentor to many younger Wobblies in the 1970s and 1980s: “Always conduct your meeting as if there were 100 people there, to be ready when the time comes when there are 100 people there.”

The IWW’s growth over the last decade has caused me to think a bit more about these words. The union now has more than twice the membership it had 10 years ago. More importantly, the union’s level of labor organizing has increased dramatically. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen pickets and a strike in the Twin Cities, a successful union election in Grand Rapids, Mich., a victory in a struggle for back wages in Portland, Ore., and a wage increase for cleaners in London. What’s more, all of this growth has been matched, or maybe fueled, by the creation of new IWW infrastructure. Since 2000, we have created the Organizer Training Committee and the Organizing Department and revamped the Work People’s College. In addition, the Industrial Worker has become an important place to reflect on organizing theory and methodology.

All of this is great, but it still has me thinking about Rusty’s advice. Why? Because in my time with the union, only rarely have I attended any sort of meeting that was designed for 100 people. Most meetings I have attended are exactly the opposite. They are run like discussion groups between friends. The rules of debate are frequently opaque and difficult for newcomers to follow. New members are seldom instructed on how to participate. Long-time members often dominate the debate.

If the IWW is going to continue to grow, our meetings will not only have to be designed to accommodate 100 people but hopefully 1,000 someday. Maybe that is optimistic thinking. Or maybe it is good planning. The Occupy movement attracted thousands to democratically-run encampments in New York, Oakland and other major cities. I meet more politicized and militant workers in their teens and 20s now than I ever did when I was that age or even in my early 30s. Recent upsurges of organizing by fast food workers and others who have long been considered unorganizable by business unions suggests that the possibility of a revitalized labor movement is on the horizon.

I hope that the IWW will take a major role in this revitalization. In order for that to happen, we will need to think seriously about how we behave organizationally. We will need to ask questions like: What does an IWW branch with 500 members look like? What does one with 2,000 members look like? How are branches of this size different from branches of 10, 20 or even 50 members? How can a branch with 10 members grow from 10 to 50 to 500 members? It might seem strange, but one place I suggest we look to for answers to these questions is the religious community. Organizations like the Alban Institute focus much of their energy on helping congregations address the organizational challenges they face at different sizes and figuring out how to transition between sizes.

There are two things that the institute has observed that might be particularly useful for members of the IWW when thinking about the culture and growth trajectory of branches. First, folks at Alban have noted that different size congregations have different kinds of cultures. Broadly speaking, they have identified five types of size-based congregational cultures: family, pastoral, program, corporate and mega. Each of these cultures has their own characteristics. The description of the family sized one might sound familiar to some Wobs because it “functions like a family, with appropriate family figures... matriarchs and patriarchs [who] control the church’s leadership needs.” While the fit isn’t exact, this might describe many smaller branches where long-time or founding members set much of the agenda and make it difficult for new members to integrate or develop in leadership roles.

The second thing that the people at Alban have observed is that organizational culture is generally stable. Religious communities face developmental tasks if they are going to grow from family to pastoral size for example. Most of these tasks are centered on creating new leaders, increasing programming and developing infrastructure for integrating new members. They are also usually accompanied by conflict. People who had power in the smaller congregation are asked to share it with the new members of the now larger congregation. The details are probably irrelevant for the IWW’s purposes, but the point is crucial: for a branch to grow, intentional changes in culture and infrastructure are almost certainly necessary. And those changes are usually accompanied by conflict. If those intentional changes are not made, or if conflict is avoided, then growth will almost always be temporary, and the organization will revert to its stable, smaller norm.

If we were to apply these observations to the IWW, we could study the different size branches that exist in the union and look at how their cultures differ. We could try to figure out if there were particular patterns of conflict, cultural or organizational change that occurred when branches moved from 10 to 50 or 100 members. And we could begin the process of imagining the kinds of conflict and culture change necessary to grow a branch from 100 to 500 members.

So maybe Rusty’s advice shouldn’t be taken quite so literally. Instead of thinking about how a meeting with 10 people should be run as if it were a meeting with 100 people, maybe we should be thinking about how to grow a branch with 10 people to a branch with 100 people. That might mean we are intentional about how we function within branches of both sizes.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2013)

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What is working class culture?

An article by a Wobbly who went to Spain about political subcultures and how the IWW should avoid marginalizing themselves within them. We do not necessarily agree that the CGT, with their model of representative unionism, are the best example of accomplishing this, but agree with the overall with the thrust of the piece.

If you’ve ever met me, you probably don’t think I look like a radical. I frequently wear button-up shirts. I own penny loafers, several good suits and a dozen or so neckties. My hair is neat and short and I don’t own any clothing advertising the name of a band. In sum, I am not punk at all. Nonetheless, I identify as a militant. I have been a member of the IWW for almost 15 years. I have been involved in several organizing campaigns, committed civil disobedience and spent long periods of time doing solidarity work in Chiapas, Mexico.

I was reminded of the dissonance of my politics and my appearance recently when my wife and I were in Spain for a sort of second honeymoon. While in Barcelona, we stopped by an anarchist squat and visited with workers from the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT), Spain’s largest anarcho-syndicalist labor union. At the squat, we were received with suspicion. Punk music was blaring, people were drinking and there were four dogs that seemed to be constantly on the edge of a dramatic fight. It took a few minutes for us to find someone to talk to and even after we did the young woman who decided to show us around had to repeatedly explain to her comrades that we were anarchists from the United States. In truth, it was a somewhat awkward experience. All of the squatters were in their late teens, 20s and, maybe, early 30s and dressed in a similar fashion. A visit with them felt more like a visit to a subcultural bar than a visit with a political movement. I got the sense that if you didn’t look the part you weren’t quite welcome.

Our experience with the CGT was quite different. The CGT has more than 50,000 members and through Spanish labor law, represents significantly more than that. The union’s office in Barcelona was a hive of activity. It takes up two floors of a large office building and includes a library and cafeteria. There were easily 50 people there when we visited.

The union members were more age diverse than the squatters. But more importantly, they were united not by their adherence to common subculture but by their commitment to the union. Their style of dress was diverse and so was their taste in music. What clearly mattered most was people’s commitment to the union, and that commitment was significant. The Barcelona CGT has around 12,000 members. But with that large membership it has only four paid staff, none of whom are elected officers. Everyone else whom we met, including the gracious Àngel Bosqued, the Secretary General of the CGT in Catalonia, was an unpaid volunteer.

The contrast between the squatters and the CGT has had me thinking about my own organizing work. Currently I am involved in an organizing campaign at my workplace. We have been at it for less than six months and have managed to build a solid organizing committee of 20 members. I have more experience organizing than most of the other workers and I am also a bit older. I was not one of the initiators of the campaign. One of the things that I have noticed about it is that, initially, those who helped start the campaign were most successful at bringing in people like them—in their case young, hip, and formerly involved with Occupy.

We can’t build the union we want to build if we only stick to one demographic. It has been a major task of mine to get people involved in the campaign to think about recruiting people outside of their social circles. We have started to have some success. In the last few months we have added a number of workers to the committee who don’t fit the profile of the initiators. Some of them even profess conservative politics. We have managed to get them involved not by assuming that we all share the same cultural references but that instead we share common grievances and that those grievances have a common solution: a democratic and powerful union.

Ultimately, I think that this is the key to building the IWW into large radical union like the CGT. Rather than assuming that Wobblies share a common culture, we should think of every worker as a potential Wobbly. The task of each Wob is to teach our fellow workers that we all have common problems and that those problems have a common solution.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (July/August 2013)

What is working class culture.pdf1.29 MB

Job Conditioning

An article by a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) about 'job conditioning', which is when when workers slowly and subtly change the practices or the culture in their workplace, to their advantage.

An important Wobbly concept is job conditioning. This is when workers slowly and subtly change the practices or the culture in their workplace, to their advantage. Job conditioning doesn’t involve an explicit agreement with the boss to change workplace conditions. It’s more like creating “facts on the ground” that make our job better.

Because job conditioning doesn’t involve an outright confrontation with the boss, usually even more timid coworkers will join in. It can build solidarity on the shop floor, change how everyone feels about going in to work and build up our confidence in relation to the boss.

Here are some of my favorite memories of job conditioning:

I worked part time in a mom-and-pop retail store, getting paid in cash. We had no water cooler, or fountain, or kitchen. Our only source of water was the tap in the bathroom, which was gross. However, we sold cases of bottled water. The owners helped themselves to these but never offered them to us. In the mornings on the way to my shift, I didn’t have money for both a coffee and a water, so I just bought a coffee. Some days my thirst would overtake me, though, and I would cave and buy a bottle of water from the boss, noting it in my book where I recorded my hours, so that he could deduct it from my pay. One day my co-worker said that this was ridiculous; we shouldn’t have to pay for water. So we started telling him when we were taking water, but “forgetting” to write it in our books. And then we just stopped telling him altogether. This let us stop agonizing over whether to drink some water when we were thirsty.

I worked in one of those first class airline lounges—the private ones where the first class travelers get to chill before getting on their planes. Catering and janitorial services were contracted to Sodexo, which was the company that my coworkers and I worked for. We kept the bar stocked, put out cheese platters, cleaned the bathrooms, and so on. We didn’t have a break room of our own. One day we heard we were getting a new manager. Before he came on the job, my co-workers and I installed a full-length mirror in his office and put a bunch of boxes of tampons in there. When he arrived we told him that his office doubled as our break room. To reinforce the point, my co-worker and I ate our lunch in there every day, while playing cards on his desk. He got the point and started leaving when it was our break time. It was fun to pull one over on the boss and it was nice to have a break room. We also now had access to the company’s labor manuals, which showed us all kinds of benefits we were supposed to be getting but weren’t.

I worked a full-time, 9-to- 5 job for a government department. I was one of seven interns or entry-level young people there. We did things like answer letters from constituents using boilerplate formulas. We had plenty of work to do, and even more during politically heated times. We had a one-hour paid lunch break, but the more ambitious or more guilt-prone among us would work through it, eating at our desks. One particular co-worker was a friend of mine. I started insisting she come for lunch with me, using it as a chance for us to socialize and catch up. Then we started inviting more people to join us. Eventually, all seven of us would go for lunch for the full hour, every single day. We’d try out the restaurants nearby or chill in the park. Our workplace culture had changed so that everyone took the breaks we were entitled to, and our bosses couldn’t pressure us to work through lunch because we simply weren’t there. Plus, we got a chance to build camaraderie and to talk about our bosses.

Job conditioning can involve a lot of things, whether it’s appropriating more free stuff for yourself, getting some flexibility in your schedule, ensuring everyone gets their breaks, or pushing back on the constant supervision we often face on the job. You can start it on your own, or just involving one co-worker, and then radiate out from there. You can talk about your reasons for doing it with your co-workers, or just start doing it. But it can really make a difference in terms of how you relate to each other, and to your job. It’s a way of making work a little more human, and it’s a subtle way of pushing back against the boss’s power to dictate everything in the workplace. Once those “facts on the ground” are established workers will instinctively defend them.

We’re trained at work to think that the boss has all the power. Ultimately, job conditioning is a way of reminding both ourselves and the boss that we don’t need them, they need us.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2013)

Shotgun organizing - John O'Reilly & Juan Conatz

John O'Reilly and Juan Conatz talk about 'shotgun organizing' which they define as an individualized way of thinking every problem needs to be solved in the most intense and forceful fashion possible, regardless of whether or not it can be handled differently or of the effects on a workplace organizing committee.

About a year or so ago, one of us was having a one-on-one conversation with a member of the union involved in a campaign that was not public at the time. When the discussion switched to one of the more active committee members, the fellow worker said, “You know, I love and respect him, but every problem we encounter he wants to shoot down with a 12 gauge.” This gets to an issue we sometimes have that we will call “shotgun organizing.”

The “shotgun organizer” thinks that every problem needs to be solved in the most intense and forceful way possible, regardless of whether or not it can be handled differently or of the effects on the committee. If things are bad, they need to be blasted away. For the shotgun organizer, the union is amazing and the boss is evil and anyone who disagrees is a reactionary. The shotgun organizer takes a blunt, noholds- barred approach to union activity, and has no room for nuance or collective decision-making. Getting in fights about the union, badgering co-workers who are on the fence, being the first person to stand up to management over grievances, the shotgun organizer knows what they think and makes sure that everyone else does too. It can be good to have folks like this on your side. The willingness to “go to war,” to stand up for people, and be a voice for no compromise is an excellent quality. However, it often can be destructive and alienating.

One of the most difficult parts of organizing is dealing with the problems we encounter with the right response for the right problem. Sometimes we make honest mistakes, misjudging the size or importance of a problem or minimizing something that should be taken more seriously. Part of becoming better organizers is recognizing that we simply will make mistakes no matter how prepared we are, and anticipating how to come back from them. Shotgun organizing is a common style of dealing with problems that come up because, rather than dealing with the complexity of the organizing situation and learning from mistakes, it turns all problems into the most important problem and, predictably, uses a 12 gauge to blow them away.

Part of how shotgun organizing manifests as a problem is that the campaign can become about the shotgun-toting worker rather than the issue at hand. For instance, if a certain anti-union co-worker keeps trash-talking the union on the job, a shotgun organizer’s first response might be to confront that worker and start yelling at them about how they’re wrong and stupid. Instead of considering the issue as a committee and coming up with a solution that might work, like having a pro-union friend approach the anti-union person privately, the shotgun organizer turns the dynamic from being about one problem worker to two people yelling at each other. Most co-workers are going to back away from that. Nobody wants to choose between two people yelling. Our co-workers who back away from the conflict are, by default, choosing against the union and doing exactly what the anti-union worker would have wanted. Sometimes the right way to deal with the problem might be just confronting the anti-union worker. By doing it as one individual instead of as a group, the focus of the controversy is on the shotgun organizer and their yelling, not on the content of the union message. The change we seek doesn’t happen because of individuals. That’s a common, yet mistaken, vision of history and one that shotgun organizers often see as justifying their behavior. For every “Big Bill” Haywood or Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, there are numerous Henry E. McGuckin’s. For every Durruti, there are hundreds of lesser-known Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) militants. Struggle is a collective process that doesn’t solely depend on the initiative of individuals willing and able to approach every situation as if it was a full-scale battle. We may remember the names of the “famous” revolutionaries, but we do so because of the quiet, day-to-day work of many around them who are lost to history. Organizing at work is no different. Rather than be One Big Organizer who does everything by themselves, we strive to build up others as organizers. We do this by sharing work and responsibility and encouraging other people to express their opinions. When we do this we see that all organizing work need not be done by one person and that the intensity need not be “turned all the way up” all the time. Change at work and in society has high and low points of intensity, but it operates most effectively when that intensity is brought on by a group, not a lone wolf wielding a big shotgun.

Like anything else humans do, there can be underlying reasons for shotgun organizing. The person may want to rush things because they are feeling burnt out and want to “get it over with.” Maybe they are very excited about the IWW or unionism in general and are letting this high amount of energy drive them completely. Maybe this person could feel like they are the only one “getting things done,” and therefore have to overcompensate for what they feel is less effort from other committee members. These are just a few of the numerous possibilities that might explain this conduct. We should be careful not to assume, though. Instead, we should talk to the fellow worker to get to the heart of the problem. Discovering the underlying reasons why people behave like this can be the first huge step to a solution.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2013)

Struggle is a collective process that doesn’t solely depend on the initiative of individuals willing and able to approach every situation as if it was a full-scale battle.
John O' Reilly & Juan Conatz

You might just be a Wobbly: a speech from the 2013 IWW convention

The words of welcome which a member from the Edmonton General Membership Branch delivered at this year’s IWW delegate convention.

My name is Phinneas Gage and I, like all of you, am a Wobbly. But what does it mean to be a Wobbly?

Well, if you think a wildcat by the members is better than a deal cut by the leaders, you might just be a Wobbly.

If you think it’s better to have 10 members who are in the union because they believe in it, than 100 who are in it because they legally have to be in it, you might just be a Wobbly.

If you think there is more radical potential in seeing a co-worker stand up for herself than a $1 raise, you might just be a Wobbly.

If you think the phrase, “We are the union” isn’t just a way of deferring criticism but needs to be the driving force behind every action we take as workers on the job, you might just be a Wobbly.

A very experienced trade unionist once told me, “A union is only as good as the people in it.” Now without falling short of flattering the audience I would have to say this room full of Wobblies is proof we have the best union going.

If you took chemistry in high school, at some point your teacher probably explained that a lump of coal is more or less the same as a diamond as far as the actual parts that make it up. However, coal and diamonds don’t look the same. Why is that?

It’s because of the way the pieces are arranged, the way they fit together, not just on a small level but pretty much on the smallest level possible, on the level of the molecules that make up the object itself. This is why a piece of coal crumbles in your hands and diamond is pretty much the hardest thing there is.

You see diamonds come from coal; they are just lumps of carbon. But if you apply pressure, heat, and time to a piece of carbon it packs down. Slowly the bonds between the component parts become stronger and stronger until what comes out is something very different than what went in.

Well, I think it goes without saying that as one of the oldest, un-reconstituted revolutionary organizations in North America, we understand time.

If there is one thing we know as Wobblies it is heat, heat from the state, heat from our bosses and heat from a culture that rewards kissing ass over standing up for others.

If there is one other thing we know as Wobblies it is pressure. The pressure of loved ones getting injured at work, the pressure of making ends meet, and the pressure of making a union that conforms and bargains within the constraints that the bosses and mainstream unions say legitimate unions accept willingly.

Now I just want to start wrapping up this introduction to this weekend by saying one last thing. A revolutionary union is not different just because it preaches a revolutionary message. As a revolutionary union we need to represent something different. This means we don’t just talk differently, it means we must act differently. We won’t always get this right but it needs to be our goal.

As many of you know these conventions are a lot of work, but the face-to-face contact and the experiences we will gain over the weekend by sharing victories and trading arguments are the foundation of a working-class democracy. This democracy is what will form the structure of the new society within the shell of the old, as the old saying goes.

So, one more time, I would like to thank all of you for making this long trip out to Edmonton. It means a lot to us because we know you being here means a lot to you and we are honored to host you in our homes and in our city this weekend.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2013)

Strategy And Tactics

On Tactics

We need a good framework for judging the usefulness of tactics and more discussion about strategy. Discussions about strategy are probably some of the hardest to have. Strategy is difficult to teach. It is almost always abstract. Instead of involving fixed objects taking on particular actions, it involves trajectories, power imbalances and timing.


The German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz gives a good definition of strategy:

“The conduct of War is, therefore, the formation and conduct of the fighting. If this fighting was a single act, there would be no necessity for any further subdivision, but the fight is composed of a greater or less number of single acts, complete in themselves, which we call combats... From this arises the totality of different activities, that of the formation and conduct of these single combats in themselves, and the combination of them with one another, with a view to the ultimate object of the War. The first is called tactics, the other strategy.”

So tactics are static; strategy is dynamic. Some tactics fit well with a certain strategy. Some tactics do not fit well with a certain strategy. In the movie “Braveheart,” the English king orders his longbowmen to fire into a melee between English and Scottish infantry. At first his generals are disturbed by how bad of a move this is, until it becomes clear the tactic of sacrificing some lower-class infantry fit with his strategic interests in decimating the Scottish infantry. This also generally fits with a theme in the movie of principles versus pragmatism and how those with principles are actually at a disadvantage in war.

A phrase that is used a lot in activist circles is a “diversity of tactics.” Any clear strategy is going to have a diversity of tactics. However it will also have to rule out some tactics as counterproductive. So we often see a debate about tactics reduced down to the usefulness of a particular tactic in a particular instance. This debate leads to both sides confusing, to return to Clausewitz, a “single act” with the “combination of [many acts] with a view to the ultimate object of the war.”

It is not about the justifiability of the individual action. Rather, the question is, how does the action fit with a chain of actions and build towards a general plan?

Politics by Other Means

Revolutionary industrial unionism was a strategy in 1905. For the sake of simplicity we’ll reduce this down to a monolithic idea of the IWW; this is bad history but a good thought experiment. Within the IWW there was a diversity of tactics within certain parameters: sabotage, the general strike, the sympathy strike, job conditioning, free speech fights, and revolutionary education and agitation.

There were also tactics that were ruled out: electoralism, contractualism and arbitration. A diversity of tactics did not mean “anything goes.” Tactics should be examined based on their usefulness to the broader struggle.

One tactic may fit an overall strategy better than another one. In the old IWW you could see this clearly. Free speech fights, while bringing prestige and attention to the organization, also put a lot of good organizers in jail. It’s hard to organize the job from jail. Tactically, it may have made sense, and it was part of a bigger plan to create more public space for organizing, but it also meant other tactics suffered as a result. There are stories of effective sabotage and stories where sabotage turned out to be a liability. Being in favor of a tactic in one context does not mean you have to be in favor of a tactic in another context. Why is this so? Because, as Clausewitz puts it, strategy is about advancing “with a view to the ultimate object of the War.”

This brings up a bigger question: what is the ultimate object of our war? No doubt as revolutionary unionists this means some kind of socialism. As folks who sit outside the traditional left this means a socialism that is based on free initiative and not state planning. As our struggles become more intense we will need more discussion on what this actually means.

Winning the Wobbly Way

If we evaluate our tactics based on our strategy and our strategy is a reflection of our politics, every step of the struggle needs to be seen politically. Do these actions promote the politics we claim to hold based on our views? I don’t think this is an absolute value. Some tactics may contradict some of our values but reinforce others—this may make them useful as secondary tactics. A good example is the phone zap: it is participatory but mostly by people outside the struggle on the job. It isn’t based on an appeal to the good nature of authority so it empowers those involved.

Here’s criteria for a good tactic that fits with our political vision:

1) The action is participatory. The action needs to have group participation and a division of roles that allows for a broad degree of genuine participation.

2) The action is autonomous. It does not appeal to the better nature of those who typically hold power but rather holds the threat of further disruption.

3) The action builds the confidence of those involved. When done right, even if you don’t get what you want, you should walk away feeling stronger. We want to avoid substitutionism, in which we substitute the power of an activist subculture in the community for the power of the direct participation of those affected.

The question is not whether we are in favor of a diversity of tactics. No doubt any clear strategy will have a diversity of tactics within it. The question is: what is our strategy and do these tactics fit with our aims?

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2013)

Columns from 2014

When organizing your workplace feels utterly impossible

A column by Liberté Locke on some of the hurdles and frustration one encounters in workplace organizing.

You’ve gotten your red card, attended several organizer trainings, countless branch meetings and union socials. You’ve gone to events where you have heard organizers tell their stories and have subscribed to their blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. You’ve read all the labor books you can find. You’ve signed every petition and attended every picket. All this and you still feel like everything is two steps forward and six steps back in your workplace organizing. You want to proudly work wearing that union label. You want success for the big reasons: capitalism keeps us enslaved. And for the smaller reasons that nag you in your sleep: people who matter to you think you’re ridiculous for doing any of this. Sharing victories adds legitimacy.

We have to believe that we can do this work. We have to know that as fact. We all have our feelings of isolation in this world: feeling not good enough, that our bodies or minds aren’t right, and that we made the wrong choices. We have lifelong battles to accept ourselves or to ignore how much we don’t accept ourselves. Confidence is not something focused on in U.S. culture. This society relies on making you not feel good enough in order to push you into spending your last dime on something that you believe can make you stronger, prettier, smarter or sexier.

Then there’s the very nature of subservient work: you’re placed into a job with “superiors” that are younger than you (I’m 31 and have a 19-year-old supervisor) or have less experience than you. We’re told that these people are inherently worth more than we are to the job and the world in general. We’re supposed to follow work orders without question, often to the point of injury or death. You have been told that you are worth little but actually believe in your bones that you are worth something. You have contributions to make to the world through your community, your family, and your job(s). You can act against capitalism. It serves the bosses to hate ourselves.

In order to get our co-workers to fight together, we have to believe we can. The majority of your co-workers, like you, have had a lifetime of having their self-esteem chipped away at. We have been broken down by authority figures our whole lives, be they police, classmates, housemates, intimate partners, parents, teachers, social workers and our bosses. We’re broken and molded into participating in this system that we never chose. We work ourselves to death in order to buy goods and services that we then use to keep ourselves functioning enough to keep working. Working students are working their way through school in order to get that next job, if careers even exist anymore. They are often disheartened to learn that all the crap that they went through at their old job exists at their new one. For folks that grew up poor, confidence is much harder to come by. We grew up watching our parents struggle. We promised ourselves and them that we would find a path out of this poverty and that we would take them with us. We feel guilty for not doing better by ourselves and by our families. We swear to everyone that we’ll work hard and it will “pay off.” We pull hard at our bootstraps to watch the system snip the line time and again and we keep pulling.

This cycle can end with us. We have to believe. We keep looking up for instruction when we should be looking to those at our side: our neighbors, our friends, and our co-workers. Their ideas, like ours, are worthwhile. If you don’t believe you are capable of organizing then your co-workers won’t believe it either.

When I came into the IWW Starbucks Workers Union I had some large shoes to fill. I was afraid. I felt alone and ill-prepared. For the first couple of years of organizing most of my actions were decided by asking myself what I felt could turn into a “badass story.” Will I be the mouse or the lion? I don’t care about how arrogant that sounds. I needed some arrogance to counter my low self-esteem.

I also don’t care because it worked. I found myself shaking when talking to the boss. I was saying things I knew we weren’t “allowed” to say and refusing to be mistreated. These showdowns with bosses led to getting what I wanted on the job. Once a busser overheard a district manager say that they needed to make sure the union knew “whose house this is.” The shop committee then started declaring at work, “Whose house is this? This is our house.” We made constant references to the bosses being “guests in our home.” It was a huge confidence-builder.

Walk into your job like you own it. It can’t operate without you. It’s important to exude confidence, even if you don’t feel confident. Try, even if it feels hopeless, because without the effort you’ve accepted defeat. And if you feel unable, then what hope do you have to offer your co-workers? Workers have been organizing in various forms for hundreds of years. Many of them haven’t had the resources and support you can have access to in the IWW. If they could, and can, do it, then so can you.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)

When organizing your workplace feels utterly impossible.pdf448.72 KB

Domestic workers organized in the IWW 100 years ago

Excerpts from a letter detailing an IWW domestic workers union a century ago.

Fellow Worker (FW) Jane Street’s letter to Mrs. Elmer S. Bruse is one of the most profound pieces of IWW history. FW Street, of Denver, sent this letter to a domestic worker organizer in Tulsa, Okla., in 1917. It was stolen by federal agents and was only discovered in FBI files in 1976.

It shows how the IWW went about organizing a very marginalized section of the working class. It also addresses the sexism encountered by the Domestic Workers Industrial Union from other IWW members. I’ve always been inspired by this letter because it has practical lessons for us today. I can see a similar effort being made in restaurants and other workplaces, especially in medium-sized towns.

We had to cut a great deal of the letter for space. I encourage you to look at for the full text.

- F.N. Brill

Letter to Mrs. Elmer S. Bruse

Your letter of the 28th received, also the one of several weeks ago, which was read at our business meeting with great applause.

I am not so presumptuous as to suppose that no method of organizing can be used successful with the domestic workers than the one which was used here. However, I can give you the benefit of my experiences and observation in the work here and the conclusions at which we have arrived.

My method [of organizing] was very tedious. I worked at housework for three months, collecting names all the while. When I was off of a job I rented a room and put an ad in the paper for a housemaid. Sometimes I used a box number and sometimes I used my address. The ad was worded something like this, “Wanted, Housemaid for private family, $30, eight hours daily.” I would write them letters afterwards and have them call and see me ... Sometimes I would engage myself to as many as 25 jobs in one day, promising to call the next day to everyone that phoned. I would collect the information secured in this way. If any girl wanted any of the jobs, she could go out and say that they called her up the day before.

I secured 300 names in this way. I had never mentioned the IWW to any of them, for I expected them to be prejudiced, which did not prove the case. I picked out 100 of the most promising...and sent them invitations to attend a meeting. There were about 35 came. Thirteen of the 35 signed the application for a charter. So don’t get discouraged.

We have been organized [for] about one year. In this time we have interviewed personally in our office about 1,500 or 2,000 girls...placing probably over 1,000 in jobs. We have on our books the names of 155 members, only about 83 of whom we can actually call members.

How they organized

However, we have got results. We have raised wages, shortened hours, bettered conditions in hundreds of places. For instance, if you want to raise a job from $20 to $30…you can have a dozen girls answer an ad and demand $30—even if they do not want work at all. Or call up the woman and tell her you will accept the position at $20. Then she will not run her ad the next day. Don’t go. Call up the next day and ask for $25 and promise to go (and don’t go). On the third day she will say, “Come on out and we will talk the matter over.” You can get not only the wages, but shortened hours and lightened labor as well.

We keep a record of every job advertised in every paper. As when they advertise in the papers, a girl can go out to them without their knowing that she is in the IWW at all. We make a note of the wages, the size of the family and the house, etc. To give girls this information is to save them a great deal of time.

If a girl decides to shorten hours on the job by refusing to work a rule her employer does not fire her until she secures another girl. She calls up an employment shark ...with the union office in operation, no girl arrives. The employer advertises in the paper. We catch her ad and send out a girl who refuses to do the same thing. If you have a union of only four girls and you can get them consecutively on the same job you soon have job control.

However, it is necessary to have rebels who will actually do these things on the job.

It is a hard matter to get girls outside the organization to attend a meeting. We have formulated no scale of hours or wages, for the reason that we could not enforce them. We are able however to raise wages and shorten hours on individual jobs by striking on the job and by systematic work at the office.

Sexism within the IWW

The Mixed Local [similar to a General Membership Branch] here in Denver has done us more harm than any other enemy. They have cut us off from donations from outside locals, slandered this local and myself from one end of the country to the other...they gave our club house a bad name because they were not permitted to come out there, and finally they have assaulted me bodily and torn up our charter.

At present we are without due[s] stamps and without membership books. Meanwhile the work of fighting the boss goes merrily on. We have taken in about 28 new members since our charter was destroyed.

I am telling you about this, not because I think there will come a time when you will profit by my experiences, but because we need the support of the IWW every place.

What I am telling you is not merely a personal matter with me...but now this opposition has spread not only in this local but to all domestic workers’ locals. For a domestic workers’ local to spring up anywhere and achieve success is a monument to their treachery and false prophecy against us.

I am so sorry to tell you of these things. I have tried to keep out of this letter the bitterness that surges up in me. But when one looks upon the slavery on all sides that enchain the workers—these women workers sentenced to hard labor and solitary confinement on their prison jobs in the homes of the rich—and these very men who forgot their IWW principles in their opposition to us—when we look about us, we soon see that the Method of Emancipation that we advocate is greater than any or all of us and that the great principles and ideals that we stand for can completely overshadow the frailties of human nature.

Stick to your domestic workers’ union, fellow worker, stick to it with all the persistence and ardor that there is in you. Every day some sign of success will thrill your blood and urge you on! Keep on with the work.

Jane Street, Sec. of the Denver IWW Domestic Workers Industrial Union

P.S. We are having some interesting times collecting bills. There is a lawyer here who has volunteered his services. Most of our bills are settled out of court. In compiling information on jobs it is well to put the name and business of the employer’s husband on the card. To send a business man a “dun” bearing the IWW seal is to become a first class bill collector. This will help you to get girls to do delegate work. Such a girl boosts the union to the skies.

You must open your employment office to all domestic workers regardless of whether they join or not, if you would cripple the employment sharks.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (March 2014)

For the long haul

A column by Colin Bossen about long term IWW membership.

About 10 years ago, when I was a member of the Chicago General Membership Branch, I got to know a Wobbly who had been a member of the union since the 1960s. In his decades as a Wob he had seen many people come and go. He had a term of scorn for people who took out a red card briefly for reasons of ideology or nostalgia. He called them “thirty-day wonders.” Thirtyday wonders join the union, pay their initiation fees and a month’s dues and then disappear.

I have been a member of the IWW long enough now that I have seen my share of “thirty-day wonders” come and go. I have also watched multiple cohorts of Wobs develop who are committed to the union for the long haul. I expect Fellow Workers like Liberte Locke, Nate Hawthorne, Adam Weaver, Erik Forman, and the Industrial Worker’s editor, Diane Krauthamer, to be part of the union for decades to come. Watching them, and the development of my own life, I have started to think about what it means to be a Wobbly, not for 30 days, but for a lifetime. When I joined the IWW I was 22, filled with youthful militancy, just entering the workforce and totally naïve about workplace organizing. Today I am 37; I have a family, a career and have had the privilege of being involved in four significant organizing campaigns. I also chaired the committee that reformed the union’s Organizing Department in 2006 and have been editing this column for close to eight years.

My experience has helped me reach a few conclusions about what long-term commitment to the IWW requires. First, and perhaps most importantly, it requires the ability to take care of yourself. The better world that Wobblies seek isn’t going to come anytime soon. Committing to the IWW for the long haul means making time for family and friends, for exercise and whatever else you need to maintain your health. There will always be another meeting, another organizing campaign, and another picket line. It is alright to miss something or step back for a while from organizing. If you don’t take care of yourself chances are you will burn out pretty quickly.

Second, be kind and compassionate towards other workers. We have a range of ideologies and experiences in our organization. It is easy to “be a jerk about bad ideas.” Resist the temptation. If you are kind towards others chances are they will be more willing to listen to you. Also, if the IWW is about “building the new society within the shell of the old,” then one of the things we need to do is learn to treat each other as if the new society has already come.

Third, organize the worker, not the job. Jobs come and go. One of the big advantages the IWW has over the large business unions is that when Wobblies leave a job we take our union membership with us. If we are going to continue to build the union we need to exploit this advantage. We can help each other develop skills and networks of solidarity that we can carry with us no matter where we end up. We can do this by continuing to improve our organizer training programs and building a strong culture that people want to be part of.

Finally, commit to building the organization. Workplace struggle comes and goes. Most workers don’t want to be in a constant state of conflict with their employers. Many people think this desire for stability can be solved by contractualism. I have my doubts about that. Instead, I think building the kind of organization that we activate to defend past gains and win new ones is the solution. Such an organization almost certainly transcends specific workplaces.

I suspect that other longtime members of the IWW have their own lists of things that they believe are necessary for a longterm commitment to the union. I would be interested in seeing those lists and starting some collective reflection on what it means to be a Wobbly for the long haul. If you have thoughts please send them my way. I would be delighted to put them in a future “Workers’ Power” column.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2014)

What’s Wobbly about it?

An article by x347979 about 'dual-card' organizing in an independent union formation.

For the last couple of years I have been involved in an organizing campaign at my workplace. The company I work for is large and there are a number of craftbased unions present in it. My craft, however, doesn’t have a union and we aren’t eligible for representation through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process. Nonetheless, we have managed to build up an organizing committee with approximately 30 active members and have begun our first public campaign around a particular set of grievances.

I haven’t tried to develop our organizing campaign into an IWW campaign for two reasons. The first is the sharply ideological nature of my craft. People have very strong opinions and are uncritical of the capitalist system. In addition, they tend to come from wealthy backgrounds and are not open to discussions around class war. Instead of changing the economic system most of my co-workers want to fix it.

My first reason, however, is significantly less important than my second one. There are several people in the organizing committee who think we should affiliate with one of the large AFL-CIO or Change to Win Federation unions. I know that if I pushed for an affiliation with the IWW, those who want to affiliate with a large business union would quickly win the argument and we would end up being part of another union. The situation that has resulted is a stalemate. We aren’t affiliated with anyone and we aren’t seeking affiliation.

Several of my co-workers know about my previous experiences organizing with the IWW. Recently, I had a conversation with one of them about what we were doing and my approach to building our organization. I told him that even though we weren’t affiliated with the IWW I thought that our organizing was, thus far, very much in the style of the IWW. So, he asked me, “What’s Wobbly about it?” Several things I told him: we run our organization democratically; we treat every member as an organizer; our organization is built on the strength of our relationships with each other; and we are not, currently, seeking formal recognition from our employer, instead we are organizing around grievances. None of this makes our organization a revolutionary union but it does make our organization one with radical potential. To see how, let me explain, briefly, how the union works.

We have an organizing meeting once a week for an hour. The meeting is open to everyone who works at our company and in our craft, who someone in the union has invited to attend. Meeting sizes range from slightly more than 10 to slightly less than 25. The meeting is run by a chair. The chair rotates week to week and while the agenda is set in advance, any member can place an item on it. Decisions at the meeting require a two-thirds majority and the meeting only has authority with respect to how the union relates to external bodies: management, the press and other unions. In other instances members are encouraged to take action around specific issues that affect them. As a result, members engage in small organizing projects that intrigue them and cooperate on the larger ones.

In addition, we hold semi-regular organizer trainings. Not everyone attends these but they are designed to help members grow into organizers. Everyone is encouraged to bring other people into the union and the emphasis on this has meant that the organization has grown organically. It also means that people are beginning to see the union not as some abstract body but, instead, as made up of the relationships they have with each other. Standing up to management becomes, in part, an issue of standing up for friends. People end up committed to the union not because they are committed to some set of abstract ideas or even improving their working conditions. They end up committed because they are committed to each other.

I hope that this structure means that people won’t think of the union we’re building as a workplace-specific organization. Instead, I hope that they will come to think of it as a way of being in the world. If being part of a union means developing a certain kind of relationship with one’s co-workers, then that attitude becomes something that is transferred from workplace to workplace, as people change jobs. And that infuses even a non-revolutionary union with revolutionary potential. And that’s what’s Wobbly about it!

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2014)

Working for a hypocritical business union

An account from a paid staffer of working for the AFL-CIO and dealing with petty management.

Recently, I worked for a business union. I knew this was going to be a lousy job before I even started; it was slated to be a part-time temp job in the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Before I started working there, two of my future bosses gave me three different answers on what my start time would be on my first day of work. I arbitrarily came up with a time that would work best for me. When I walked into work on my first day, my primary boss, Bonnie (one of five bosses), told me that we would use the “honor’s system” to keep track of my hours, which were not to exceed 20 per week. That was the moment I decided to start a workplace journal and to keep track of the hours myself, because this was not the first business union I had worked for, and it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard the “honor’s system” line.

Hours and scheduling were ongoing issues throughout my time working there. I spoke with a fellow worker from my local branch about these problems and she helped me determine that a large part of the problem at my job came from a lack of paper trail.

When I started this job, Bonnie told me to work nearly full-time hours during what was a particularly busy time in my life. Bonnie didn’t confirm the hours I worked, she did not even write them down, so as far as I knew I would only be paid for a 20-hour work-week even when I was working 30-plus hours. When I sent Bonnie emails about this to either confirm in writing that I would be paid for the overtime, or confirm in writing that I could work only the 20 hours she allotted, she responded by calling me. In fact, she called my personal cell phone when I was off the clock, and I knew I had to put a stop to this. I blocked her number, and she eventually stopped trying to call my cell phone.

The following week, again when Bonnie asked me to work nearly 30 hours, I again sent her an email telling her I could not work more than 20 hours that week and every week from that point forward. Through inside sources I saw that Bonnie immediately forwarded my message to her colleague and close friend, Julie (who also was another one of my bosses), with snarky commentary, as though I was not entitled to ask that I be able to work the hours I was slated to work.

Following this, Julie called me into her office for a closed-door meeting. She told me that Bonnie was taken “aback” by my email—not because of my scheduling request, that was fine, but she didn’t like the “tone” of my email. Julie then suggested that I send Bonnie a new email to apologize and ask for her permission to work these hours. Julie proceeded to give me a lecture on the difference in how old and “younger” people communicate—as though the problem was because of generational differences.

I did a little research and found that there was a union representing union staff members. I did not know if the workers in my workplace were covered by a contract. If we were then this union was the union to which we would belong. After frantic phone calls, I found the person who would have been my shop steward if we had a contract. She told me that the workplace was not represented. The last time they had a contract was 20 years ago, before the organization “let go” of everyone working there who was on the bargaining committee. I was not surprised to learn that another business union could not help resolve the problems with the business union that I worked for.

After persistently sending emails to Bonnie demanding part-time hours, I was able to secure a 20-hour work week. I secured this over email so that I had this agreement from my boss in writing. A few weeks later, after additional verbal abuse and other workplace issues which are too numerous to discuss here, I quit that terrible job.

Quitting that job was important for my sanity, but the underlying problems were not resolved. There remained the issue of the hypocrisy of working for a place which claims to fight for the things that they don’t provide for their own employees. Still, it is possible to gain a certain sense of victory for fighting for something that you deserve. We cannot solve the problems of business unions overnight. If we are union staff members or business union members it is important that we learn how to deal with business unions. Through organizing on the job for ourselves and our fellow workers, we can set powerful examples for the struggles ahead.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2014)

Preventable mistakes - Juan Conatz

An account by Juan Conatz of a failed attempt to respond to a firing at work.

A lot of the knowledge and skills we pass down in the IWW are the basics, the initial steps, the first things you do. We try to institutionalize this stuff so members learn and then build off them. Rather than leaving people to themselves, making it necessary to reinvent the wheel every time, we promote member education through programs like the Organizer Trainings 101 and 102. The idea is that once you become familiar with what needs to be done, you’ll do those things automatically. And as you get better, you can assess how you’ve done or whether the steps and skills handed down need to be altered or improved in some way. But even those of us who know better make mistakes.

Like FW db said in his article “Toward A Union Of Organizers,” there are certain things that are good to do regardless of whether or not a Wobbly plans to organize at their workplace. Maybe organizing isn’t in your plans now, but those plans could change. Plus, sometimes situations arise and you need to react. Just such a situation happened to me recently, where simple mistakes and lack of preparation hurt my efforts.

At a warehouse on the south side of Minneapolis, I was employed at a small company that specialized in buying overstock and customer return loads from large online retailers. For a good part of the day, we would break down the pallets from these loads and sort through the items. While sorting one of these loads, a co-worker made a joke about taking a PlayStation 2 home with him in front of the warehouse supervisor. Such jokes were common, even by the supervisor, but this time it was different.

The next day, the owner of the company was in the building, and there were rumors that there were items missing from the load. This was actually pretty common. The packing lists rarely matched what actually came off the truck. Sometimes there were things missing, sometimes there was extra. This was known by everyone, including the owner.

Regardless of this fact, my co-worker who had cracked the joke was fired within the hour. Three years working at this company and he was out the door because of an offhand remark. Pissed off, two other co-workers and I confronted the warehouse supervisor about this. We quickly picked up that personal reasons between him and the fired co-worker were the root of all this. All eight of us on the floor were mad and very little work was getting done. A few hours later, the owner called a meeting, where he tried to explain why he fired the guy and why we should understand it. This ended with the two co-workers and I getting into a shouting match with him.

Tempers were flaring and you could cut the tension in the air with a knife. This was now a “hot shop.” I never planned on organizing there, but that was now irrelevant. We had to try and get this guy’s job back and to establish some meager concerted activity protection for the two others and I who stood up. I tried to push that anger toward a conversation later, rather than loud complaining that would eventually dissipate and collapse into hopelessness. After texting the fired coworker, we agreed to talk on the phone after work. With another co-worker I set up a one-on-one meeting for the next day, so we could talk about our options and so I could get contact info for everyone.

There was a preventable mistake with the planned one-on-one though: no firm date and time. As we got off work and entered the New Year’s Eve break, no one would get back to me. The timing was off, but my failure to do a simple thing like agree to a specific date and time led it to not being a priority on a busy holiday. If I had better prepared by sticking to what I’ve been taught and know how to do it, things may have turned out differently.

In the end, a few of us ended up quitting and finding other jobs, a Band-aid solution that solves nothing but transferring our misery to another low-wage job.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2014)

Three ways to win your IWW campaign - Daniel Gross

An article by Daniel Gross on some IWW organizing strategies.

The IWW has made dramatic strides in the last decade, returning to its roots as an effective and transformative labor union. Unique campaigns in diverse industries have won important gains for workers and significantly influenced the broader labor movement. Still, the building of enduring worker-led and operated industrial unions, a founding mandate of our union, has not yet been fully realized.

With the IWW’s strong recent track record, unparalleled experience in rank-and-file organizing, and rich learnings from our work, we are positioned to get to the next level of building durable industrial unions to scale.

Here are three ways we can get to the next level:

1)Take a step back. Too many Wobbly campaigns start with a group of workers deciding they are going to talk to their co-workers and organize their shop. The idea is after the shop or chain is organized, they will then figure out how to organize the industry. This approach is not working because a shop is not a significant unit in our economy; industries are.

Instead of jumping right in to organize your shop, take a step back and look at your industry. Your job as an IWW organizer is to organize your shop, but more so, it is to co-found a successful industrial union of workers in your industry. Understand the industry, its workers, employers, customers, investors, supply chain, distribution, and so forth. Build a model to win in the industry, including at your job.

Once you have taken a step back you might decide that your industrial union building effort actually should start with organizing your shop or chain, and that is totally fine. You will have the roadmap to do it right and the mission’s clarity in that your ultimate project is to build an effective industrial union. On the other hand, you might decide on a totally different path into an industry that at the moment does not directly involve your employer. That is fine, too, as then you have just avoided years of misdirected effort.

It is completely understandable to want to get the ball rolling, fight injustice at your shop or company, and then figure out the bigger picture as you go. But, by taking a step back you will avoid the fate that has felled many Wobbly campaigns and instead, you will be investing in big, durable victories to come.

2)Get clarity on your strategy. Many IWW campaigns have faltered for lack of a viable strategy or even a lack of any articulated strategy. We need to learn strategy-making in the IWW. Without finding a strategy that works for your industrial union building effort, the most courageous and hard-fought efforts will be beaten.

The two essential questions to formulate strategy are: where will we struggle and how will we win? “Where to struggle” means things like which industry, sector, geographic location, employers, or other stakeholders that will be our focus. “How to win” means the unique choices we make to achieve our winning objective in the field of struggle we have picked. These two strategy questions are adapted from the work of business school professor Roger Martin, which we modified in New York for use in worker organizations. A good way to start practicing with the “where to struggle” and “how to win” questions is to apply them to various worker organizing campaigns that you are familiar with, successful and unsuccessful, inside and outside the IWW.

More than anything, your strategy must assert the power you will need to win your demands. Asserting sufficient power is extremely difficult and will not come from generic formulations. Each industrial union effort will have to do its own thinking about this question. Different industries, sectors, workers, employers and geographies pose varied challenges and opportunities for power assertion. Always include secondary targets or influencers in your analysis. A common success factor for many worker organizing campaigns has been the ability to move those stakeholders.

Several IWW campaigns today have only an employer-level strategy, which is related to the need to step back, which I have discussed. Do not fall into that trap. The mission is to build an industrial union and that requires a cascade of strategies beyond your shop or employer.

Many industrial union building efforts will need an overall organizational strategy, an industry-level strategy, a sector-level strategy, and an employer-level strategy. You will answer the where to struggle and how to win question for each level. And each level is interrelated.

You should be able to write down the core of each strategy level in the ballpark of 25 words or less. This short statement will not replace a strategic plan; but, the best engines of power assertion are amenable to simple and brief articulation. It is much easier to remember and align a team of founding fellow workers around 25 words than it is 25 pages.

Scared you will assess and test several strategies but still choose the wrong path? You probably will. However, with a system for regular strategy reviews and the will to keep the struggle alive, you will adjust until you find the strategy that works. And adjust again if it stops working. With effective strategy-making, you and other workers will see big and game-changing results in IWW organizing.

3)Build a model. A strategy to win is necessary but not sufficient to create an industrial union. In casual conversation, we often interchange strategy and model. We cannot afford to make that mistake in the high-stakes and incredibly difficult project of founding an industrial union. Strategy is a component of an organizational model. A model includes all of your organization’s fundamental building blocks and how they interlace.

Which set of workers in the industry will you and your fellow workers seek out first? What channels will you prioritize to reach those workers? How will leaders develop?

If you are able to successfully assert power, what mechanism will use to define and hold the gains you win? A collective bargaining agreement? A code of conduct with large brands? A non-contractual standard, which was for example IWW Local 8’s approach on the Philadelphia waterfront?

How will you tie the value created by the industrial union to being a member of the organization? How will you retain members? What will you measure to see if your vision is making progress in the messy world of reality?

These are some key questions that a model must seek to answer and test. Though interrelated with strategy, hopefully, it is clear they require their own thinking and formulation. It takes a complete model for an industrial union to win, scale and endure.

Like strategy, the model almost never works right off the bat and that is fine. The key is to dialogue, debate, and document your model as founding co-workers and to stay alive. You will refine the model as you go and even transform it dramatically if needed. When it does click you will change your industry and your workplace, and maybe even the labor movement and the world.

A member of the New York City IWW, Daniel Gross founded the worker center Brandworkers and helped launch the IWW Starbucks Workers Union while he was a barista at the company.

Columns from 2015

What does it mean to be a Wobbly? - Colin Bossen

An article by Colin Bossen that sees CNT member Federico Arcos as an example of what it means to be a Wobbly.

Last year I interviewed Staughton Lynd a few times for an essay I am writing on his religious ethics (given that Fellow Worker Staughton is a Quaker). During one of our conversations I asked him what he thought of the recent essay, “Wobblyism.” I can’t remember his exact response, or even if he had read it. But one thing he said in response to my question has stuck with me. I paraphrase, “The most important theoretical question that members of the IWW can wrestle with is: What does it mean to live a Wobbly life? What does it mean to commit yourself to 20, 30, 50 years of struggle?”

I have thought about Staughton’s question a lot in the intervening months. It has particularly been on my mind since I learned a couple of weeks ago that my friend Federico Arcos was in the hospital after suffering a heart attack. Federico will turn 95 this year. A lifelong anarchist and member of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist labor union Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), Federico has lived in Canada since the 1950s, when he fled fascist Spain. By the time he left Spain he had spent close to two decades fighting and organizing against the forces of Spanish fascism, first as a union militant, then as a militia member, and, finally, as part of the antifascist underground.

Federico has never joined the IWW. The CNT, of which he is still a member, is a bit like a Spanish version of our union. It is committed to the vision that people can run the world without bosses, cops, or soldiers. Like other members of his union, Federico believes that working people have everything that we need to create a peaceful, sustainable society. All we need to do is get together and organize. At the same time, he is very practical. Since moving to Canada he has been involved in the Canadian Auto Workers—for years he was a tool and die maker at an auto plant—and in countless efforts to create and sustain the anarchist movement in Detroit, Windsor, and throughout the world. When I think of living a Wobbly life, Federico is one of the people I think of.

Commitment, love, and memory are three important principles that he has emphasized throughout the years that I have known him. It might seem odd, but probably the most important of these is love. He believes in its transformative power and often says, “Life without love is like a long death.” Federico has quite a romantic spirit and was devoted to his wife Pura until her death almost 20 years ago. For him, love is what makes life worth living: not just the love one might have for a partner but the love that one can have for one’s comrades and for all of humanity. This love is what has sustained across more than 80 years of struggle.

Throughout that time he has remained committed to the vision of the CNT and the ideas that working people have power to change the world. No matter how harsh the odds, he hasn’t given up on his ideals. This is an essential element to the Wobbly life. I doubt that revolution is coming anytime soon. If, and when, things change for the better, it will be because people organized for and stuck with their vision over decades.

As for memory, our union is more than 100 years old. We embody the hopes of those who came before us. There’s a story that Federico has shared with me that I think expresses this well. On the day of the fascist coup in Spain, it was the workers who rose up in the streets and resisted. While the government did nothing to defend itself they seized arms from the army and the police and distributed them to the masses. When Federico went to the Anarchist Defense Committee to get his gun he was given an old rifle and six bullets. He and his friends demanded new weapons. They were told, “There are people here much older than you who will need the newer rifles. When they die you will take their place. That is your responsibility and our trust in you.”

What is a Wobbly life? I admit that I am still trying to answer Staughton’s question. But I think there’s something in studying a life like Federico’s. It provides a model for the rest of us to follow and a reminder that, as Brazilian popular educator Paolo Fiere used to say, “We make the road by walking.”

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (March 2015)

Nobody said this would be easy - Norma Raymond

A column by Norma Raymond about the difficulty of workplace organizing.

I work for a big, dumb corporation which has a virtual monopoly on the industry. Since escape is an unlikely dream, I have developed many coping mechanisms. I hope these techniques are not actual proof of minor league Stockholm syndrome. It’s hard to justify this employment, so I do what I can to sabotage while trying to form a union.

Daily, I encourage people to slow down production. I urge them to call off when they’re sick. I plea with them to speak up when there is a problem. I offer to accompany them if this would be more comfortable for them. I brainstorm with them about what would make the job more fulfilling. I point out work-related problems, and encourage open dialogue. These are not extraordinary acts. They are naturally occurring, everyday responses to corporate employers.

A sick worker is told, “Well, it’s not really convenient for you to go home early,” (as if we can schedule illnesses) or “You haven’t earned enough paid time off to call in sick.” A sexually-harassed employee is told, “Well, we like people to be able to joke around and have a good time here,” or “Boys will be boys.” It’s difficult to have hope when some people being harassed refuse to speak up. It’s frustrating when the people told such ridiculous things get fed up and quit. The bosses tell them to, “Lighten up” as if they are to blame. The boss will usually not protect you, so you need to learn how to protect yourself. The boss is unnecessary, but will imply that you are the one who is expendable. That’s why we need to stand up, union up and know our rights.

I was told, in the IWW’s Organizer Training 101, that when trying to form a union people will disappoint us. A great friend who claims to support the union may chicken out. The guy who’s 100 percent on board may quit. But I was also told that someone you may never suspect has a serious grudge and is a union member in waiting. Another, when enlightened, will be eager to join quickly.

I try to be an example of advocacy, hoping that by setting an example others will step up. I listen to people and take them seriously. I stand up for my fellow workers and stand up for myself. I have hope that they will stand up for me, but maintain carefulness because I know they may not. I think critically about what the bosses say and what they actually mean. I have learned their games and I’m always strategizing.

It’s a paradox. The fight is difficult, yet completely natural. It’s slow, but encouraging. The fight can make you feel very alone but also very empowered. It can break your heart or it can make your heart soar with pride. It’s not easy—and yet, it is! The one constant though, is that it is always way too important to give up hope. It’s not only for yourself, but your co-workers, friends, family and generations to come. So many people before you, people you have never met, fought for you. People may argue, “Things used to be so much worse,” but don’t let that blind you to how much better it can be.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2015)

My first Organizer Training 101 - Josh Fleck

A short account by Josh Fleck of the IWW's Organizer Training 101.

It’s the Monday following the weekend of the IWW Organizer Training 101 (OT101), and my soul and limbs are refilled with a fire that I cherish. Before I was filled with weakness and despair regarding my situation, and now I have a newfound confidence in myself and my fellow workers. I, a lone individual, can only accomplish so much, but with the aid of my fellow workers we have the power of all the individuals that comprise our collective ideals and actions.

It was only a short drive up, yet the hour of our departure was far earlier than my normal rising time. I rode up with a fellow worker, inexpressive outwardly of their elation to drive, seeing as they do not have ownership of a car and I, slow to wake and not often a passenger in my vehicle, was able to provide. And little was the conversation up, but great was the conversation nevertheless. In our passing we mocked sardonically the suburbanite housing divisions in the fields, spit fire about our situations, and shared ideas and dreams of our little Indiana town.

Upon arriving at the place of our meeting, a strange structure—half-house above and union hall below—we were greeted by 15 or so Wobblies and the aroma of coffee, that nectar of the working class pressed from the labor of Earth and workers’ blood. The silent grogginess of the morning hours slowed our speech, yet we would come around to introducing ourselves by circling the room stating our names, gender pronouns, department within the union, and what we would change about our workplaces.

Now, much was spoken and disseminated at the meeting, and I would strongly recommend you get in touch with a Wobbly about attending one someday; however, we’ll spare what was spoken lest some boss-heads snitch to the masters. Besides, while extremely interesting to share stories of our workplaces and how we might help our coworkers in organizing them to our ends, it is the evening following the workshop that was magical.

A fellow worker opened their house for room and board and grub, the alcohol flowed freely and the mist was wafting. Choruses of solidarity were sung, refrains of love and struggle were shouted, gospel readings of IWWism were had in that garage before the hour of compline and matins. I will not be able to forget that night, it gave me a renewed sense of life and the knowledge that through all my struggles, I struggle not alone and there is a community and oasis for me to travel to.

“Workers Power” is seeking submissions! The longest running regular feature in the Industrial Worker, the Industrial Workers of the World’s monthly newspaper, “Workers Power” is a curated monthly column that features reflections on workplace organizing and the strategies and tactics necessary to build a democratic, radical, and anti-capitalist labor movement. Contributors have included many unsung heroes and well-known Wobblies and militants like Liberte Locke, Staughton Lynd, and Daniel Gross. Submissions should be around 800 words and sent to Colin Bossen at cbossen[AT] The column is archived online at http://

Originally appeared in Industrial Worker (May 2015)

Building workers' power in the United Kingdom - New Syndicalist

A column by New Syndicalist describing the recent growth of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the UK.

A few months ago New Syndicalist (a group of Wobblies from the United Kingdom writing about worker-led, anti-capitalist theory and strategy) was approached by the Workers’ Power column with a request to write a reflective piece on the recent growth of the IWW in the United Kingdom. People who have been following our online media presence will know that the U.K. IWW hit an important milestone this year—exceeding 1,000 members. This was celebrated recently at our annual conference in Bradford, England. An older member recalled attending the 2005 conference in the same city that had just seven members in attendance. In 2015 most branch delegations were larger.

We have seen fantastic growth over the past decade, particularly in the case of some of our larger branches that now have between 100 to 300 members. What is it like to have branches of this size and how did they get built? These were the key questions posed to us. These are obviously very big questions and have by no means simple answers, particularly in terms of attempting to represent the dedicated and patient work of IWW organizers across the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. Nonetheless, we did put our heads together at New Syndicalist and decided to focus on what we thought were the five most important factors in helping to grow our branches in the North (where we are based), some of which have doubled in size over the last year.

The list is by no means exhaustive, and some more experienced Wobs may feel we may be trying to teach them to “suck eggs” here as they will recognize many fundamental concepts within our existing organizer training program. We nonetheless present them in the hope of solidarity, shared dialogue and spirited debate.


Monitoring the quality of your membership is as important as (if not more than) keeping tabs on the quantity of red cards being taken out; in an ideal world, paper membership would make up a very small portion of overall membership! Regular training allows us to turn every red card holder into an active, participating member. Participation is a difficult thing to track—aside from clear-cut measures like attendance at branch meetings and rate of reply to emails, we’re often left relying on gut feelings about how connected to the union our membership is feeling. There are, however, things we can do to keep our union connected.

Running regular trainings is a really good way of keeping union culture healthy. Formal training like the IWW’s Organizer Training 101 and union representative training allow members to collaborate in a way that branch meetings don’t. It gives people practical skills that, when applied, reinforce the sense of connection to the IWW and to our broader struggle.

Informal training, like teaching people about the IWW, current campaigns, and the nuts and bolts of running a union, is just as important. Whether members are encouraged to take minutes, understand motions, chair meetings, or just share knowledge, contributing to the culture of the union is what gives our branches strength. In the Sheffield IWW we’ve started running a mentoring scheme (see below) for new members, pairing them up with experienced Wobs who work in their industry. By taking this lower intensity, longitudinal approach to training, we bump up our paper membership into fully fledged Wobblies.

Growing your branch internally means that the die-hard Wobs can step aside and avoid burning out, knowing full well that they’ll be replaced by someone competent. It also means that people are more likely to take on roles if they know there are other people around to help if things get tough. We’ve all seen bottlenecks and we know that they’re not healthy.

In sum, pushing internal growth with training is essential for diversifying, decentralizing, and steadily building union culture.

Striking a balance

Advocates of solidarity or direct action unionism frequently contrast the organizing methods and tactics that build confidence and solidarity on the shop floor with the legalistic, top-down approaches allowed through labor law. It is true that such a division exists in organizing, and our preference as Wobblies is always to push campaigns into militancy and through means that collectively empower the workforce. Nonetheless we have found a certain degree of flexibility in our organizing approaches that do not necessarily cast the above as a simple either/or route for growing campaigns. This is particularly the case where we have built campaigns in response to workplace grievances and unfair dismissals.

Taking an employer to tribunal is both costly and incredibly risky in the United Kingdom. Fees can range from £300 to over £1,000 (GPB) (or approximately $467 to $1,556 [USD])—a pro-business measure introduced by the recent government due to the growing success of workers winning compensation through this route—and success rates are slim. As a result, when it comes to the opening stages of any grievance, much case work effectively relies on bluffing employers when they first meet with a union rep, playing on their fears of litigation, and, occasionally, their lack of confidence with employment law. A healthy threat of direct action gives you a bit more to bring to the table and allows a divergence from that legalistic path should it reach unsatisfactory limits.

This legal shell also allows us to build credibility with employers when and if we need it. Employers will sit down and negotiate with accredited union reps and branch officers—even though these distinctions in the IWW are largely functional— while refusing to talk to picketers and protesters. An impromptu phone call from the union’s national secretary has likewise proved an important tactic in ramping up the pressure on an uncooperative boss in this strange game of smoke and mirrors.

Ultimately, is it going to win the war? No. Is it really our preferred tactic? No. But it does help secure a few battles along the way, and with a solid base of social mapping and committee building it can help secure victories for some of the toughest campaigns.


As previously mentioned, the Sheffield IWW runs a mentoring program where all new members are paired up with a more experienced fellow worker, ideally one who works in the same industry.

The purpose of the mentor is to provide a source of organizing advice to new members and to help them familiarize themselves with the workings of the IWW. The mentor keeps the new Wob informed of upcoming union events and is meant to encourage them to gradually take on a more active role in the union by moving up a checklist of activities (called “The Wobbly Ladder”).

The principle is that this develops new organizers in the spirit of replacing ourselves, and reduces membership turnover. It also encourages more communication and cooperation between Wobs in the same industry, contributing to the formation of industrial organizing committees and workplace-specific campaigns.

So is it working? It’s a bit early to say, but in the six months since the program was created, we haven’t had any mentored members drop out, and we now have former mentees mentoring new members. Two new members and mentees are also now active members of a newly-founded education workers’ organizing committee, something that was facilitated by the connections established through the scheme (note: feel free to contact the Sheffield IWW for more info about mentoring and to see the graphic designs of the mentor and new member packs).


In the last year we have been trying to expand our branch outreach. In the past a lot of our outreach activities have been focused on the city center—for example, holding stalls on the weekend, attending protests and rallies, or distributing our literature in central venues. However, due to this, we have missed out on a lot of recruitment opportunities in communities and industries where workers live and work outside the commercial centers.

We initiated our new outreach project by physically mapping out the whole of our potential recruitment area in Sheffield. Having understood the scale of the potential activity that could go on in this space, we then divided our map into manageable chunks to be assigned to individuals or committees of organizers. These areas are typically based on geographical features, such as residences forming their own distinct neighborhoods, major industries, or pre-existing homogeneous communities.

Organizers or committees then carry out further research into their assigned areas to understand the economic activity, social life, and other features of these communities. This is done with the aim of tailoring appropriate outreach activities to the needs of these particular areas. Typically, organizers are drawn from the neighborhoods they live in, so aspects of these will already be known.

Volunteers are provided with a support handbook that helps guide their outreach activities. This begins with preliminary research into “passive” outreach activities, such as leafleting and touching base in social hubs, and building toward our goal of active and visible outreach in the form of public meetings and training sessions in those neighborhoods.

Part of the drive behind this project was a desire to encourage diversity in our branch membership. It was also informed by the growing realization that many of the largest industries in the North, including so-called “pinchpoint” targets, draw their workforces largely from local neighborhoods outside the commercial centers. Our conversations with members from the Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation (SAC, the syndicalist union in Sweden) on their “travelling organizer” model also provided many useful ideas and approaches. A recent book from AK Press, however, on the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) Defence Committees in 1930s Barcelona, proved a particularly inspirational example of how geographical and community-based outreach has the potential to assist mass mobilization of industrial unions.


We’re lucky enough to have some very technically-skilled fellow workers in the Sheffield branch. We’ve had high-quality video coverage of our main public campaigns this year. These videos have really helped provide a concise, accessible introduction to the IWW and our current campaigns for members of the public who find us on Facebook or bump into us on the street. When we’ve run fundraisers or stalls we always have one of the videos playing. They have become part of the union culture very quickly, and serve as proud reminders of all the good work we’ve done.

We don’t use social media in any unique way, but it is worth noting that our online support has been growing very steadily for the last year. We use social media to publish every public event and every bit of branch news, as well as links to other groups in the United Kingdom who share our vision for a better society. It means that even when it feels like things aren’t particularly busy (like when we don’t have an active public campaign), we’re letting everyone know that we’re still working away on IWW projects, such as New Syndicalist.

During our last public campaign we had a press officer tasked with interacting with local radio and television, national newspapers and other major media outlets. It paid off brilliantly. We ended up getting coverage in The Telegraph, Pink News and a load of other newspapers that we frankly didn’t expect to be interested in such a small union in a small city like Sheffield.

New Syndicalist is a group of Wobblies from the UK writing about worker-led, anti-capitalist theory and strategy. They keep a blog at

Originally appeared in Industrial Worker (July/August 2015)

Building workers' power in the United Kingdom.pdf1.87 MB