A letter to our friends: some questions on the current state of organizing in the IWW

A short article from the Wobblyist Writing Group critiquing some recent IWW campaigns in the United States.

2013 has been an eventful year so far for the Wobblies – and a year rich in lessons. The front page of the May 2013 Industrial Worker featured three different articles chronicling active, Wobbly-led struggles – a notable spike in activity for our nascent union. Watching from afar, the flurry of public action surrounding these three individual campaigns has been exciting. We are certainly astounded to see Midwest comrades take a courageous leap and make public their identity as revolutionary organizers. Many of our fellow workers have accepted the risk of losing their livelihood in order to demand a higher pittance and fight for their class. The Wobblies who have led these struggles, and all of the workers who have made the formation of these campaigns possible, deserve to be commended for the hard work and dedication they have demonstrated thus far.

However, it is important that we do not read passively about our fellow union members’ struggles. We must strive constantly to improve upon previous fights, identify methods that require more fine tuning, and develop concrete ways to overcome the hurdles we consistently face. We need candid discussion regarding where our union is succeeding, where it is failing, and what steps we will need to take to overcome recurrent failures in the future.

In that spirit, we offer some clarifying questions – both for the specific members involved in these struggles, and, just as importantly, for fellow Wobblies throughout the union to ask of their own campaigns.

Will legal recognition force an employer to collectively bargain? Why fight for legal recognition, when what you really want is for your employer to concede to your demands?

In one article from the May issue, Evelyn Stone and Deirdre Cunningham discuss the retaliation faced by members of the Star Tickets Workers Union in Grand Rapids with a sense of shock and dismay that their employers would dare break US labor laws. We need to recognize that our employers will disrupt organization and solidarity amongst workers by any means necessary. Any penalties employers might face for breaking the law are just part of the cost of doing business. Legal bodies are impotent and ultimately counter-revolutionary within the context of class struggle. While we should use the law as a shield from rancorous bosses whenever possible, legal proceedings cannot be depended on to protect us from the boss. Understanding this basic class power dynamic is fundamental to successful Wobbly organizing.

Does direct action always “get the goods”? When we make demands, do we have a credible threat to back them up?

In a second article, the Twin Cities IWW highlights the struggles occurring at Chicago Lake Liquors, where five workers were fired for demanding higher wages. What we find most surprising about the situation at Chi-Lake is that these experienced workers claimed to be shocked by their wholesale firings. If these workers were acting like a union and making the ultimate demand – a wage increase – then why were they so taken aback when their boss acted like a boss: with swift retaliation? What did he have to lose by taking this action? In the future, workers who plan to make such serious economic demands on their employer should certainly back up the demand with some sort of credible economic threat. Even if the Twin Cities IWW feels they now possess an economic threat in the form of heavy pickets and community boycotts, why did they fail to demonstrate this threat to the owner of Chi-Lake before asking for a raise? Wobblies are quick to remind their fellow workers that “direct action gets the goods.” Too often we see that phrase encourage worker-organizers to replace serious, well-planned strategy with quick, eye-catching marches on the boss. If we are to build long-term power, we must phase out that trend.

What is the point of “Going Public”?

A theme that many failed campaigns seem to have in common is a focus on “going public” in itself, and a feeling that a campaign’s success or failure is judged on whether or not it goes public. We need to understand that going public is not a goal in itself, but a component of an overall strategy. If making the capitalists aware of our union for some particular reason advances our class’ historic mission, then it is obviously necessary and desirable. But if the ultimate goal of our organizing campaigns is the act of telling the boss they exist, making how this act is carried out a matter of secondary importance, it’s not surprising that we find ourselves appearing as a dog that’s all bark and no bite.

Winning isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing

Perhaps the greatest failure of these campaigns – and the IWW over the past several decades – is an inability to articulate what winning really is, and a respect for how central “winning” must be to our organizing. We cannot forget that our ultimate task is the seizure of the means of production and abolition of capitalism. All actions we take, all campaigns we start, and all donations we make must be evaluated on the basis of whether or not they advance us towards that fundamental goal. Confronting the capitalists without posing a real threat to their profits is a waste of time, and can only hurt our image in the class. If our organizing doesn’t have a clear, reasonable path to victory, wobblies need to have the courage to admit that and re-assess.

Winning is relative of course, and we don’t propose a narrow definition of winning that we expect all Wobblies to fulfill. But we need to discuss what winning means and be able to communicate that convincingly to our fellow workers and to the larger public.

Are we preparing ourselves to win?

Our current organization takes a very passive approach to recruiting and orienting new members and launching new campaigns. We aren’t in a position to be passive, if we want to be effective. We have a very, very limited capacity to develop strong, dedicated organizers, and most branches and geographic areas with any significant Wobbly concentration can not manage multiple campaigns successfully.

Let’s be honest with ourselves–most members of the IWW are not organizing their workplace and most don’t know how to. This is a fundamental problem for any labor union let alone a revolutionary class union. It follows that we need to establish more active and economical ways to recruit and train new members and be especially discerning when choosing a new target and campaign. And we should be choosing not accepting targets. We should choose campaigns based on thoughtful planning, with careful consideration given to local strengths and resources, and serious discussion regarding how a campaign will advance the working class toward its revolutionary aim.

A popular saying goes, “hindsight 20:20”. True enough. But even so, it has been rare that we look back together on what our union has done and draw lessons that inform what we do in the future. The IWW is taking on a higher public profile through publicized actions, as global class struggle is heating up. It is now more critical than ever that we mind these lessons and make careful decisions about what we do next. Our opportunity to be relevant as an organization in this historic period – or better yet, prominent – is not lost. Yet.

In solidarity,
The Wobblyist Working Group

Originally posted: July 8, 2013 at Letter to our friends

Posted By

Juan Conatz
Oct 14 2013 05:07


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