Beware the one-man organizing show

Marianne Garneau describes the volatility of organizing campaigns that revolve around a single, big personality.

The goal of this website is to help all of us become better organizers. That’s why we don’t shy away from criticism: we have to learn the lessons from hard-won experience — really learn them, and grow stronger.

Today, that criticism means airing a bit of dirty laundry. This is an IWW-sympathetic blog, but we have a particular pattern in our history that I want to bring to light, and stop.

Unlike with other unions, there are basically no barriers to entry in the IWW. You don’t even have to be currently employed to join. And there is nothing to stop you from organizing, either at your own workplace, or with other workers.

On the one hand, that has allowed us to organize workers that other unions generally ignore, including independent contractors and freelancersfast food workers, and small-scale workplaces.

On the other hand, that lack of central authority means that we can attract a certain type of organizer: the hotshot, or maverick, or one-man show. This type of organizer is usually charismatic and full of energy. Their organizing explodes right out of the gate, and often succeeds in the whipping up a workforce in a short amount of time. But they act single-handedly, never really building a committee in the workplace, and eschewing any oversight or help from the rest of the union. They drive the entire campaign based on their own whims and judgements.

This type of campaign almost always ends in disaster, even if there are a few gains made along the way. Whether the hotshot is organizing their own workplace, or acting as an external organizer, things quickly collapse. Not only do the workers then pay a price, but generally few positive things come from the campaign, and the IWW suffers reputationally as a result as well.

Any number of examples can be given. Some involve NLRB elections, and some do not.

A devastating loss

In 2017, a member of the IWW in Humboldt County, California, began talking to workers at a kidney dialysis center. A friend of his was a patient there and had learned of terrible working conditions. The IWW member – we’ll call him Sean – began speaking to workers about the benefits of having a union. He made IWW authorization cards, convinced a number of workers to sign them, and then filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). He did not put workers through the IWW’s organizer training program, nor did he strategize with the Organizing Department Board. He did not involve nearby branches, or reach out to other campaigns or organizers in the IWW. The rest of the union only found out about the campaign when a press release was issued a few days before the election was set to take place.

Sean seemed simultaneously unfamiliar with the resources available in the IWW, and disdainful of them. He believed the IWW wasn’t serious enough as an organization, that “IWW materials look like punk rock zines” and he was “tired of the IWW looking silly.” In fairness, the union was pretty subcultural up until a few decades ago, before we began waging successful workplace campaigns, and created our organizer training program and better campaign support. But that was the image that Sean, who was a bit older, and isolated out in Humboldt County, still had in his head.

Sean saw himself as competing with the SEIU and other nurses’ unions. In fact, a number of the workers at the dialysis center had previously had experience with mainstream unions, and had found them to be bureaucratic and unresponsive. Sean wanted to offer the workers something better. He told them that in the IWW, “we save you money, because we won’t spend your dues on lobbying, and we don’t have paid organizers.”

While passionate about helping these workers, Sean lacked experience, and the election was an abysmal loss. Workers were not properly inoculated, and the company, a multi-billion-dollar, publicly-traded entity with a lot of union-busting experience, quashed the effort. They held a meeting shortly before the election, where they told workers they had no idea there were problems, and wanted to fix them, but if staff voted in a union, conditions couldn’t change during contract negotiations, which can take up to 5 years. Only three workers ended up voting in favor of the union. Upon hearing the results, one dejected worker quit on the spot.

A string of boom-and-bust campaigns

Sometimes, a hotshot organizer can engage in a prolonged pattern of whipping up volatile workplace campaigns before being held accountable. Such was the case with at least two individuals in the IWW, one in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Portland, and the other in the mid-00s in New York.

In Portland, “James” was a good enough organizer to stir up entire workplaces. He was a bright, young anarchist who had graduated from the AFL-CIO’s “ Union Summer ” training program.

One of his early campaigns took place where he was doing stand-up comedy at a local spot called Choices Pub, in 1998. The pub was experimenting with putting on stand-up shows, but the comics got paid terribly, if at all. James signed the other comics up with IWW memberships, then showed them to the pub owner and demanded concessions. Tim, a delegate at the time, remembers a rowdy and drunken meeting with the comics, and a mess of a campaign. The pub did agree to give them some minimum compensation, but as with other James campaigns, Tim notes, “you turn around and there’s nothing left of it.” Within months, all of the IWW memberships had lapsed, and no other organization, such as a workplace committee, remained. The pub soon changed formats and abandoned stand-up.

Over the next few years, James spearheaded perhaps a dozen organizing drives, at an oil change place, a gas station, grocery stores, youth programs, non-profits, a pizza place, a courier service – many of them happening simultaneously. Says Morgan, another member of the Portland branch at the time, “He was really hyper-active and would have probably four or five jobs all at once. And he’d be organizing all of them.” Many involved snap elections with the NLRB. Some were won and some were lost, and almost none resulted in negotiated contracts. For a simple reason: the campaigns didn’t build durable organizing in the shops, and did not prepare the workers to wage long-term bargaining with the boss. They were one-man shows.

Says Morgan, “There was no there there, and as soon as the boss fought back, people would just leave or be fired. And it would just collapse.”

Morgan admits that James “did some good things.” At a youth shelter, people were working ten- to twelve-hour shifts without a break. James helped the workers rewrite the schedule so that workers would get breaks, and they forced management to respect it. Tim remembers that at the oil change place, James helped workers get rid of a bad manager, and secured a pay raise, before the campaign fizzled.

“He was extremely charismatic,” Morgan says. “He would draw people in, mobilize them, but he never had a strategy, especially for direct action.”

James also refused any discipline or oversight from the branch. Tim, who had been around the Portland IWW since the 1970s, admitted that the branch was a mess for a long time, and James was the first to come along and actually organize. That made it difficult to marshal the political will to discipline him. Tim admits that he himself was among James’s last supporters.

Eventually James’s own track record did him in. His poor advice began to anger the workers he was organizing. After his losses began to rack up, people realized he was making the IWW look bad. Morgan says “it got to be a real drag on the branch.” They first tried to rein James in, by at least having him hand his organizing off to a committee. When that didn’t work, James simply quit.

Gambling with other people’s money

On the east coast, Bob (not his real name) in NYC had a knack for signing up large workplaces of mostly migrant workers. He would come into contact with these workers as a trucker servicing food processing and distribution facilities in Long Island City, Maspeth, Bushwick, and Williamsburg. Although the New York branch was already organizing at Starbucks, “we were starry-eyed” when it came to Bob, recalls Ben, a member of the NYC IWW branch who was around at the time. “Bob wore a bandana with skulls and straw cowboy hat and work glove on his right hand. There was an eccentricity and toughness about him. It was a perfect storm.” On top of that, “he was able to do what we couldn’t: meet with workers during the day, and speak Spanish fluently.”

Most importantly, says Ben, “If we saw some deficiencies [in his organizing], we kept quiet, because it was such a noble effort, to help out immigrant workers, who are so exploited and have all these issues in the workplace like wage theft.”

Bob was so good at chatting workers up that he could pull together meetings of 50 to 75 people – so big they had to be held in church basements rather than the branch’s office space at the time. He would make a speech, and soon workers would be handing over dues money. Not long after that, they would be marching on the boss.

The problem was, Bob’s rapid-fire organizing didn’t build real workplace committees, didn’t inoculate properly, and didn’t develop real shop-floor strength before pulling the trigger on action. As a result, he frequently got workers fired en masse, and retaliated against in other ways as well, such as employers revoking their work papers (official or not). Bob blitzed through four or five workplaces like this. One IWW member estimated that he got 170 people fired over the years. (Later on, a worker center led by an IWW member helped secure restitution for many of these workers.)

Bob’s tactics were always explosive, and style over substance. Says Ben, “At one point he got a coffin – I don’t know where he got it — but the idea was to set it out outside of this target.” At pickets, Bob “would be standing to the side with his arms crossed, very arrogant, just watching everything. He would always be the first to run up and talk to the cops or boss. We were his minions.” Ben remembers almost paying the price for Bob’s brashness: “One time when we were outside, he told me to grab a water jug and put it under the wheel of this delivery truck. Twelve seconds later, over the hill comes a cop car. They would have arrested me.”

Bob always played fast and loose with the rules – more so as time went on. He never involved the rest of the branch in campaign plans, and eventually stopped signing workers up. At one point, unbeknownst to the branch, he even secured a loan of several thousand dollars from IWW’s General Headquarters, allegedly for a strike fund.

Says Ben, “There was no mechanism to stop this, to pump the brakes on it. And it didn’t help that none of us were really that experienced, or confident enough to put our foot down.”

Eventually, as with James, the campaigns collapsed, sentiment turned against Bob, and he moved away.

Learning our lessons

On a smaller scale, a lot of IWW campaigns have been started by a single worker. At Insomnia Cookies in Boston in 2012, Chris, who had already given his notice that he was quitting, convinced his coworkers on the night shift to walk out on strike with him with a list of demands. All were fired. The branch rolled up its sleeves to help, mobilizing dozens of people for a support picket, filing ULPs about the terminations, and even salting into the workplace to keep the organizing going. They were eventually able to win some decent gains, including getting delivery workers put on payroll instead of classified as independent contractors, thus upping their wages by several dollars an hour. Also, the fired workers eventually prevailed at the NLRB, winning back wages and the right to reinstatement (which, having moved on, they declined). But those gains happened in spite of the lack of preparation before the original strike action, which was led by one charismatic individual.

Jake, who worked on the Insomnia Cookies campaign, reflects on why the IWW is vulnerable to hotshot organizers. “We’re really concerned with not being like most unions, and it’s like we’re afraid of anything institutional,” he says. “But there’s something to be said for using best practices.”

He makes a further important point: campaigns led around by a hotshot organizer run “contrary to how we in the IWW pride ourselves on worker democracy.” They are not collaborative, but subject to the whims of a single individual.

The alternative is to build broadly-based committees that are representative of the workforce and capable of deliberating together on collective action. It’s also important to involve the broader union, drawing on the resources it has to offer in terms of training and strategizing, and reporting to it, honestly, about wins and losses, and membership. Campaigns that have managed to do this have fared much better.