Administering Hardship or Strike Funds

Recently, the Seattle branch of the IWW created a hardship fund to assist workers involved in an IWW organizing campaign (referred to in this piece as a “job branch”).  We spoke to the treasurer, a member of the committee that administered the fund, and a worker from the campaign, to get their perspectives on how things went, and their advice for other branches thinking of creating similar funds.

What was your motivation in setting up the fund? What were the circumstances?

  • A desire to help people

Years ago, there had been a campaign in our city where the workers ended up getting locked out, and many experienced hardship. At the time, our branch wasn’t in a position to do anything about that, and we regretted that.

So more recently, when another organizing campaign started ramping up, we wanted to have some kind of a fund, to help the hardest-hit people.

  • A desire to formalize that help

The other motivation was: it had been an informal practice in our branch, and probably across the union, that when a worker experiences hardship during a job action, you just put the word out and fundraise money and give it to them. But after talking to an accountant, I realized the IRS might take issue with this.

Also, how do you ensure that this service you do for one person, you can do for others equally?

Finally, sometimes people will start a crowdfunding campaign, and it isn’t legit, and someone just walks off with the money.

We wanted a formalized process, sanctioned by the branch.

How was fund set up?

We looked at a couple of examples of how hardship funds are administered, and then tried to adapt those to the particulars of our situation.

We made a proposal, took feedback, and the branch voted on it.

  • Elected committee

A 5-person committee was elected at a GMB meeting to administer the fund.

  • Conflict of interest

People from the job branch, who potentially needed to access those funds, could not be on the committee.

  • Guidelines

We set up hardship fund guidelines. One person in our branch worked in social services, and suggested there could be point values assigned: you get points if you have dependents, or if you have no other job, or your heating is going to be switched off. That was a good idea but ultimately didn’t work out [see below].

  • Application form

We had an application form that we actually left intentionally vague, so there would be some flexibility. Although it turned out that it was so vague, people were unsure how to complete it.

  • Documentation

We also asked for supporting documentation, although that requirement ended up being somewhat unclear to members [see below].

  • Funds held in branch account

The money raised was deposited straight into our branch credit union account. That way no member was on the hook with the IRS.

  • Good standing

People in the branch were pretty firm that they wanted the funds to go to people in good standing – people caught up on dues. However, the lockout, causing financial hardship, caused people to go out of good standing. Although we had put a loophole in to allow for the committee to make exceptions, miscommunications prevented workers from asking. This was a big regret of ours. So one change we would make in the future is: make the criterion “good standing as of the time the hardship began.”

  • Record-keeping

The treasurer recorded all money coming in, and where it came from: crowdfunding (GoFundMe), personal contributions, or branch assessments.

  • Confidentiality

The only people who knew that a request had been made were the secretary of the job branch, the treasurer of the GMB, and the members of the hardship committee. But those records needed to be stored in case someone needed to look at them later. So we didn’t put names, just “Request 1,” “Request 2,” and then elsewhere we put names, and the reason they got money.

  • Reporting

The hardship committee was supposed to report regularly on what had been distributed, but they didn’t, and the GMB did not hold it accountable. The treasurer did report income and expenses to the GMB.

Where did the money come from?

We started a GoFundMe and we shared it in a bunch of IWW groups, as well as on It’s Going Down, and in our networks.  We raised about five thousand dollars total.

We also made a branch assessment.

At the very end, we passed the hat.

What did the hardship fund do well?

We had requests come in, and we filled them. People got money who needed it.  We helped people with rent, bills, groceries, student loan payments, etc.

There was some difficulty in the beginning with making it to clear to workers that the funds were available.  But once we got requests, the fund was fairly easy to administer on a day-to-day basis. We would review the request based on criteria. Most we approved, some we approved for slightly less than they asked for.

What were some of the problems and challenges with administering the fund?

The really hard part was deciding who would get what money.

  • Logistically hard to prioritize

For one thing, we had this idea that requests would be prioritized according to need (hence the points system). The trouble was they came in in a random order, and at different times. There were also no deadlines attached to requests. So requests came in sporadically, and we had no way of knowing if others were going to come in, and as a result, no way of assessing which requests were priority.

  • Emotionally difficult

The other thing was, people had a hard time saying no. It was an emotionally difficult thing for the committee. Nobody wants to be the asshole who says “no,” especially to someone who clearly needs money, but we also needed to make sure the fund still had money in case someone needed rent the next week.

It can also be hard to apply.  It’s hard to say “I’m in need,” and give financial documentation of that.

Some resentment built up. The amount raised looked bigger than it was. And there was a breakdown in communication that led to some misunderstanding about how much was in the fund.

It also gives people power over each other in a way that can be awkward.

  • Not necessarily distributed according to need

There were people who were more comfortable asking for money than others, but it doesn’t mean they were experiencing the worst hardship.  

Some people who needed money didn’t request it, partly because of the good-standing requirement.

That dynamic played into tension in the campaign, and that affected us very negatively.

The biggest challenge was saying what the role of this pool of money was, and making sure that the hardship was connected to organizing, and not “we live under capitalism and it sucks.” It was challenging parsing that out for members. A worker contacted us wanting help paying for a course. Another contacted us saying, “I just had a baby, can the union help me?” We had to turn them down, and it was awkward and difficult.

  • Influenced risk-taking

A big fund can make people reckless in overestimating what they think the union can do for them.

As workers, we got really full of ourselves because we got a few thousand dollars in a short time. This encouraged us, and we went on strike, and next thing we knew, the boss had fired us all.

We thought “we can just start another fundraiser and get five thousand more.” When we put on a second fundraiser after they closed the office, we didn’t collect nearly as much money.

It’s an unrealistic thing to think “the union has our back forever.” The union can give a couple hundred bucks.

When and why did you decide to disband the hardship fund?

It was five months after the lockout. About $700 had been sitting in the hardship fund for about three months. We would have liked to distribute it, but we were no longer getting requests.  After the lockout, there had been some challenges with the NLRB, and we had waited to see what would happen there, so there was a kind of tapering off of involvement. But the job branch wasn’t meeting, so finally we decided to vote as a branch that the campaign was closed.

We had previously put it in our rules that if the job branch closed, or if we voted to do this, the money would revert to a general branch hardship fund. So we had a meeting, and then we finally got input that people hadn’t applied for funds because they had fallen out of good standing and thought they were ineligible.  We were finally all in a room together, and we explained that we wanted the money to go to them.

At that moment, five months after the lockout, there were a lot of requests.  So we ended up spending the remaining money plus some more. We passed the hat among members of the GMB, and one of the members of the committee contributed a bunch out of their own pocket, raising about $750 more. Some of us felt really uncomfortable with that as a procedure just because of not wanting to say no.

What’s going to be your system going forward?

We’re still in the process of developing this, but we may move to a strike or lockout fund rather than a hardship fund, meaning that the funds get distributed evenly.  

That may mean that people who don’t need funds as urgently are going to get them, but that kind of happened in our case anyway: we weren’t able to strictly allocate the funds on the basis of need, because the requests came in in a random order.

Payout to everybody would probably be more equitable. And if folks feel they don’t need it, they could always give it to someone else.

What advice do you have for other branches?

  • The branch must control the funds

For tax reasons, for accountability reasons, and for equity reasons, the branch should control and administer the funds, not individuals within the branch, not other organizations.

  • Reporting is important

The branch, treasurer, and/or committee should collect all funds and track where they came from, and note how funds were spent.

Hold committees and treasurers accountable for reporting.

Something to think about: everything you do is going to impact the treasurer, and the next treasurer. You may have an experienced treasurer now, but the next one may find the workload difficult.

  • Be realistic about what people can expect

When you think about what needs people have — rent, food, bills, health care – it’s not feasible for a small union, or even a large union, to take care of people like that. We can’t even really make a dent. We raised almost five thousand dollars, and that sounds like a lot, but this lockout went for a long time. $5,000 wouldn’t even have been enough to cover expenses for one person for that time.

It’s really important to clarify to workers that they can’t rely on this. There is no way to raise enough money. The best we can do is provide this little bit of solidarity.

Whenever workers take job action, they are taking a risk, and the GMB has a responsibility to inoculate them about that, and about the limits of the support it can provide.

  • Be clear about eligibility and procedures, to minimize emotional discomfort or power relations

Have really specific criteria for what constitutes eligibility. Consider having somebody vet applications to make sure they meet the basic criteria before they even go to the committee.

If you’re going to do a hardship fund based on need, be really explicit about what is and is not proper documentation. People were showing their bank acct with a zero balance, which was inappropriate for us to see, and also not enough info.  We needed to see the thing they needed to pay, like the bill.

Prepare people that they’ve got to say no. You can’t satisfy everybody’s needs. People have to be prepared to take their emotions out of it and do what is best for the branch.

  • Whatever you do, it has to benefit organizing

Think about what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it: how does it benefit organizing? Our hardship committee struggled with what its purpose was. There was one person who came to us and didn’t know the hardship fund was specifically for the GCI campaign, and he had lost his job or a roommate.

The strike or hardship committee should be coordinated with a campaign’s organizing committee.

We don’t recommend having a standing mutual aid fund.  Most people are experiencing hardship on some level, but we’ve got a long way to go to abolish capitalism. However, “pass the hat” is a great way to build solidarity.

  • Consider tax liabilities and other legal considerations

Here are some things you might need to consider. We aren’t experts, so please research all this for yourselves.

For social media campaigns, the IRS wants you to say, on the donation page, that donations are not tax-deductible. If someone tries to deduct their donation on their taxes, and you haven’t told them they can’t, the IRS will be grumpy at you.

With the IRS, unions have a lot of leeway for this kind of thing. But it’s got to be related to the tax exempt purpose. So anything about workers fighting on the job, that matches our tax exempt status. If you’re just giving money for rent, apart from a hardship from a job action, you’d want to talk to a lawyer. Even if the money isn’t coming from dues: even if you put out a call and people send money to your branch’s PayPal, and you give it to that person, you have spent that as an expense, and it needs to match your tax exempt purpose.

In the case of a strike fund, the union might have to notify members that they have to file with the IRS for the money they receive from the union. And the branch may need to file something as well.  Strike/lockout funds make people picket for the funds, in which case you’re actually working for the union, and then you have an employer relationship.

As for the Department of Labor, they ask if you have a fund, and they want the address of it, and so on. We still have more research to do on this.

Should branches maintain a standing fund for strikes/lockouts/hardship, or should they raise funds ad hoc?

Most branches – even us, and we are a big branch – don’t have enough of a dues base to put into a standing hardship or strike fund.

A standing fund might not be possible to fundraise, because people donate less money in between campaigns.

Then again, it’s hard to tell people “we don’t have a pool of money, but we can fundraise it if we need to, just trust us.”

The other problem with standing funds is that, whenever you’ve got money, it seems like everyone has their own thing they want done with it.

Or, people can become protective of it. In a GMB / job branch relationship, this could result in members of the GMB second-guessing or questioning the strike actions of a job branch because they want to save the strike fund or don’t want it spent frivolously, thus breaking the job branch’s right to determine their own course of actions.