Not just “a dues collector”

Graphic: Leslie Fish, IWW IU630
Graphic: Leslie Fish, IWW IU630

An article by DJ Alperovitz on the role of IWW delegates.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 10, 2014

Over the last few months there have been several Facebook discussions about IWW delegates who have made arbitrary decisions outside of their job description (e.g. not allowing students to join and stalling an organizing campaign). Several times there have been statements made that delegates are just “volunteers to accept dues.” As a delegate who has tried to live up to high standards, I find both these assertions troubling. On the one hand, some delegates are obviously not receiving any training or even reading their “Delegate’s Manual,” and on the other hand, there appears to be a misunderstanding of the position by fellow IWW members.

Delegates have both an honorable, colorful history and an important place in their branch and the IWW itself.

In earlier days when our union was organizing mostly “home guards” (sedentary workers attached to home and a single job often with family responsibilities), prospective new members would make their way to an IWW hall and be lined up by either the branch secretary-treasurer or stationary delegate. This system worked well when building membership in cities, or mill and mine towns; however, it showed its limitations out west with its far-flung railroad and logging camps and especially with migratory harvest workers.

Almost simultaneously in both western Canada and the United States, branch secretaries in towns with IWW halls began delegating members to represent them in the camps and harvest fields. Call them what you will—camp delegates, roving delegates, or job delegates—these dedicated workers would travel, work, eat, and live with the fellow workers. In camps and harvest fields, these representative delegates were agitating, educating, and organizing not only to build the One Big Union of the industrial commonwealth, but for the day-to- day improvement of wages, working, and living conditions, too.

In her speech “Memories of the Industrial Workers of the World” from Nov. 8, 1962, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn described these footloose delegates as equipped with “…a little black case in which they had membership books and buttons and literature and dues stamps and all the paraphernalia of organization and the most remarkable thing was that there was practically no defections. Maybe one or two. One man actually stole money and then afterwards hung himself, I understand. You see there was great devotion and loyalty to this mobile organization of migratory workers.”

In another example, FW Sam Green recently came across a General Organization Bulletin (GOB) from the 1920s. In it a letter mentioned that a named fellow worker was a delegate that had run off with some union funds and if you happen to see him “you know what to do.”

Often these delegates would be holding relatively large amounts of cash, and the stories of their not having the price of a cup of coffee while having union money in their care are legendary. After the harvest when workers’ identities changed from necessary harvest worker to unwanted vagrant, “town clowns” (small town police officers) and the local (in)justice system would “harvest hobos” (a term used for arresting hobos, sometimes at the end of harvest so that the town could collect the fines and court costs, or when a town had a civic improvement project that needed to be done such as road work, sewer line, etc...). As a way of ensuring that fellow workers did not lose their funds, delegates would be entrusted with a worker’s earnings to be wired to an IWW hall where the worker planned to winter. And how did delegates avoid the perils of vagrancy laws and being harvested themselves? Some of them became travelling insurance or farm tool salesmen allowing them to travel relatively unmolested. In the case of Agricultural Workers Industrial Union delegates, they were allowed to keep the 50-cent initiation fee to help cover expenses; expenses being the cost of wiring funds back to headquarters, stamps and envelopes, sometimes renting a hotel room to hold meetings, buying a cup of coffee and a doughnut for the boys during hard times, and sometimes when necessary to protect union and workers funds by having to “ride the cushions” (pay for and ride as a train passenger). These were dedicated Wobs of the first water—class conscious, willing and able to tough out lousy camp and working conditions, and fight to help better the lives of their fellow workers.

Fast forward to today and while most delegates are not hopping freight trains or living in lousy bunk houses, they are still more than just “a volunteer to collect dues.” A good delegate is part organizer, part bookkeeper, part Literature Department, part fundraiser, and all IWW. They are entrusted not only with union funds but also with signing up and ensuring that new members understand our principles and structure. They keep up with union news through reading the IW and the GOB, and work towards connecting fellow workers in their branch to the larger union. Certainly they do much more than just collect dues.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2012)