The myth of the “present moment”

Marianne Garneau argues that organizing isn’t any easier in “ripe” historical conditions.

Any time someone starts talking to you excitedly about the “present moment” or the “ripeness of conditions,” hold on to your wallet.

The left press is exuberant about a surge in worker activity related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Coronavirus is bringing a strike wave to America,” VICE news says, one it sees “snowballing into something more, which the U.S. hasn’t seen for 75 years.” Joann Muller at Axios reports “The coronavirus pandemic has had a big impact on working people, who are increasingly banding together,” something she describes as “a new labor movement” reversing “years of declining union membership.” Mike Elk at Payday Report comments that “many labor observers believe that the labor movement has found itself unexpectedly in the early stages of a mass general strike wave in the era of COVID-19.”  

While it is clear that some workers are, rightfully, taking action — and some are even winning — it is very difficult to tell from the sidelines whether this represents a significant uptick.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to argue that organizing isn’t fundamentally different, and certainly isn’t any easier, in “ripe” historical moments.

The world is a “hot shop”

In the IWW, we talk about “hot shops”: workplaces where the workers are very agitated about conditions and spoiling for a fight. These volatile situations seem perfect for organizing, but in reality they are worse than going in cold. The volatility doesn’t translate into committee-building or discipline or even taking action. Surprisingly, people who swear that they don’t care if they get fired tomorrow are actually pretty reluctant to march on the boss with a simple demand. Usually, if you circle back to a hot shop a month later, half of those apparently very eager workers have quit, and the other half have been fired.

Having said that, if you can somehow corral those workers into following a plan and taking some collective action, they most often win. I’ve seen a lot of quick wins with what were in truth loosely organized groups of workers. Direct action really does scare the shit out of employers and landlords, especially when coming from a group of workers who don’t usually act up.

The problem is what happens after: usually the “committee” falls apart from infighting, workers get bought off by the boss or intimidated by retaliation, people still quit or get fired because there are still major issues in the workplace and there’s no real plan going forward.

All the world is a hot shop right now, which means workers and tenants are especially ready to spring into action. And as long as it involves a disruptive enough tactic, and enough worker participation, they may well prevail.

But what matters even more is what happens the next day. You need to debrief with workers, check in with them now that the adrenaline has stopped pumping, claim the win, talk about next steps. Most importantly, prepare for retaliation. I’ve never met a boss, who gave in to a worker demand, who didn’t immediately start organizing a counteroffensive. If they’re smart, they bribe and promote leaders, isolate and fire troublemakers, and reestablish “good relations” with the rest.

In the big picture, organizing is about building up our power to be greater than the boss’s. It’s about being able to take action again and again, being able to escalate, and persevering through retaliation and yes, losses.

The only way workers can shift the balance of power at work long-term is by steadily and solidly building up stable relationships of trust between coworkers, and reliable, democratic processes of decision-making. Hot shops have none of that.

There are no exceptions

If you hang around people who call themselves organizers, you will hear two things: that there are no shortcuts, and here is a shortcut.

The “present moment” is no reason to throw our hard-earned lessons about building power out the window. Exceptional approaches to organizing, based on some notion that the usual realities have been suspended, are irresponsible and bad.

Workers should absolutely organize during the coronavirus crisis, to address the urgent matters they are dealing with on a daily basis. They should talk to each other, safely, one-on-one — either in person if they work together already, or via the phone. They should map out as many coworkers as they can, and work their way through that list, talking about the issues and about having each other’s backs in confronting management. And then they should vote democratically on demands, actions, and accepting employer counteroffers.

A good organizer doesn’t look at a crisis with giddy enthusiasm, but with an added measure of caution. Workers taking action without having built real strength in numbers just as often show their weakness. And these extraordinary times also come with extraordinary union busting.

The outcomes of coronavirus-related work actions so far seem to be tracking the same trends as in ordinary times: turnout for work actions depends on a personalized ask, greater participation yields better results, disruption of work is more effective than media “air war,” and the ability to escalate is critical. The thing to seize on in the present moment is the same as always: worker power, not big talk.