This piece was originally written five years ago, in response to some activity in the IWW, but never published. I learned about it a few weeks ago and was shocked by its contemporary relevance. It talks about an apparently common impulse to take the IWW “to the next level” by bringing in a large group of workers, but skirting the usual IWW organizing methods and requirements. –Ed.
It all starts with an email. There’s usually an excited tone, but also always a hint of urgency. The person sending the email is a somewhat seasoned IWW organiser, someone in their mid-twenties to early thirties who has been through a reasonably successful struggle at their job. The campaign is pitched as a chance to take the IWW “to the next level.”
The campaign is almost always something larger than anything the IWW is currently working on. Usually a few hundred workers, they are sometimes a breakaway from a business union, sometimes they are the constituency of a worker centre. They are usually older or of a different demographic than the IWW organiser they are working with.
Everyone at this point is excited. They want a big campaign with big numbers and want to win credibility for the IWW. Maybe folks on Facebook or at the bar would stop saying the IWW is a marginal political group, if we had a large group of workers holding red cards in their pockets in a real union.
In this rush we usually treat administrative questions as a liability. After all, time is of the essence and this chance may pass us by. We start looking for shortcuts: “This group has dues checkoff, can we make an exception for them?” “The workers in question want a contract, after all they want a real union.” “Can we maybe make some kind of affiliation agreement where they are members of the campaign but not the IWW?”
At this point a few IWW members start wanting to talk to the workers, but contact is filtered through the IWW member bringing the campaign and whatever inside organiser they are in touch with. Privately, some wobs will be okay with this, because they want to make sure the campaign isn’t exposed to the parts of the IWW that need work. “You know, because there are some crazies, like on the main email list or in Red Card Holders.”
At this point the more hardline folks bring forward some more concerns. Who are these workers? What relationship are they going to have to the IWW? Will they form a separate branch, or some new structure? Is that constitutional? …Every once in a while the IWW organiser does set up a functioning organisation, but as the rest of the IWW insists that it be brought into the fold, the organiser pushes back and tries to hang on to the isolation. The organisational tie is hazy and managed very carefully. The IWW is said to be “too ideological” or “purist” whereas the members of the campaign are “practical” and “actually trying to build a real union.” At this point trouble also starts to show on their side. Sometimes the numbers aren’t as big as originally presented. Inevitably at some point a split comes.
These campaigns could be best described as “Wobbly Franchises.” In these cases, the IWW is not so much an organisation with a distinct approach and infrastructure as it is a brand. But one of the greatest strengths of the IWW is that we do have a functioning and demonstrated way of building worker power. Building shop committees, mapping actions out and developing strategies on the floor with active worker participants, not outside consultants, gives us a much stronger position not only to fight bosses, but to experiment and take the risks necessary to build a different kind of union.
Now none of this should be taken as an argument against taking on different kinds of campaigns, but we shouldn’t be surprised that they usually don’t work out when we make exceptions for them with regards to all of the things that normally make our organising successful. The more we step away from our usual model, the more we should approach things with a high degree of organisation and commitment. That means being clear that the timelines won’t be fast—like months instead of weeks to get even the first steps off the ground. (This is actually typical for most organising in almost all unions anyway.)
It also means being clear about our politics and constitution, and how we are different from what a lot of people think when they hear the word “union.” It’s up to us to make the case for our own kind of unionism to them, not just in what we won’t do, like no-strike clauses and servicing a passive membership with paid staff, but also what we will do, like teaching workers to build committees and identify targets for pressure in order to build power on the floor that is held by the members themselves. And part of building that kind of capacity involves keeping these campaigns and their inside and outside organisers accountable.
If there is an opportunity to take us “to the next level” that loses this, we aren’t actually building the IWW.