Salt: the flavor, not the meal

MK Lees examines the tactic of “salting” into a workplace in order to organize it. This is part of a series in which we reflect on organizing and the left.

Recently there have been calls for “out-of-work young socialists” to take jobs at Amazon, because of its strategic importance in the economy. I have to be honest that I was instantly transported to my own personal nightmare of a gaggle of cocky young reds with no organizing experience embarrassing themselves and fighting about politics all the way down to the moment where they all get fired or quit. But maybe that’s not fair. The idea of redirecting that Big DSA Energy away from shallow electoralism and towards a strategy that prioritizes strategic workplace-based organization is certainly a welcome development, and a united bloc of Amazon workers ready to take direct action would be a big deal.

But this call to arms to slide the left’s undercover operatives into targeted workplaces has caused me to reflect on my own experience with salting. “Salting” refers to taking a job with the specific intent of starting or furthering an organizing campaign. I salted into a small factory, and twice for a campaign in the courier industry in my early 20s. I have also recruited and helped get salts jobs for campaigns I’ve supported from the outside. My organization, the IWW, commonly uses salting as a tactic to kickstart or bolster an organizing campaign. Different unions use salts in different ways, but what I’m especially interested in is the idea of leftists taking “strategic” jobs with grand plans (the details of which are usually pretty fuzzy), and envisioning themselves at the center of those plans.

It’s a common enough tactic in the labor movement, but there isn’t much writing out there about the practice and the ways in which it is and is not useful. In a union like the IWW, we emphasize — and rely almost entirely on — the self-organization of workers, as opposed to professional staff whose salaries are paid for by members’ dues. This often means using salting strategically to, in effect, let the boss pay the wages of the organizers. Salting can look very different, based on the individual salts and their level of experience, training, and skills. For all the value it can have, salting carries with it some serious dangers that are talked about far less often. 

When we criticize a staff-driven model of organizing, it is because staff can be a substitute for worker’s self-activity and lead to a division where union professionals design the broader organizing strategy while workers are confined to more minor roles. The first time I ever tried to organize my job, at a university computer lab, an SEIU staffer condescendingly told me and my committee not to worry, the staff were going to tell us everything to do, and it would probably be confusing to us, but somewhere down the road it would all make sense. We were the soldiers, they the generals. But this begs the question, if an IWW organizer or a socialist takes a job as a salt, but monopolizes the role of strategist and organizer without building a committee and developing their, at least consciously, “non-radical” coworkers’ leadership, then what is the qualitative difference between a staff-driven model and a salting model? Even more insidious is when a plurality of salts begins to substitute for an organizing committee altogether. 

Jimmy John’s, Chicago Lake Liquors, and the “Pissed Off Projectionists”

To take an example, I want to look back at the IWW’s Jimmy John’s Workers Union (JJWU) campaign (2009-2012). The effort to organize Jimmy John’s franchises across the Twin Cities represented an ambitious step up for the IWW in general, and the rapidly growing Twin Cities branch in particular. There are tons of things to be learned from this campaign, but I want to home in on the role of salts. The super condensed story of this campaign is that IWW members organized for many years within Jimmy Johns, as far back as 2005, but the campaign really started to gain heat around 2010 when organizing branched from one store out to a couple others and the IWW began salting in organizers and generalizing the campaign. Workers engaged in several direct action / solidarity union fights around scheduling, abusive managers and other grievances, and had fledgling committees at a majority of locations in the Minneapolis St. Paul area. 

At a key moment in the campaign, the organizers made a decision to file for an NLRB election. They waged a PR battle and mobilized workers at all stores for the election, but lost the vote by just two ballots. The union appealed the results, and the NLRB ended up nullifying the vote due to the company breaking the law. However at that point, the damage was irreparable. Demoralization set in and support waned, and while the organizers tried to shift strategies back to solidarity unionism, management did what most bosses do after a lost election: clean house. After an action demanding sick days, six key JJWU organizers were fired, leading to a somewhat infamous multi-year battle to get their jobs back. This “JJ6” campaign became the cause célèbre going forward and absorbed the precious little energy the campaign had left, while the shop-level organization flatlined.

Three of those fired workers were salts. Another was an IWW activist who had begun the campaign. One lesson here is that when your union is focusing almost all of its energy to get workers’ jobs back, you’re probably in trouble. When those workers are salts, the problem is even more damning. It means the union has failed to tip the participation scale from the initial activists to the workers they were seeking to organize. They failed to build a functioning union.

While the salts at Jimmy Johns deserve credit for doing aggressive 1:1s, developing workers’ capacities, and engaging them on committees, they took on the majority of administrative work as well as the most vocal leadership roles when confronting management, including in the media. Meanwhile, the priorities of the campaign came to be dictated by the logic of the labor relations process, which requires a narrow focus on getting out the vote to win the election, with direct action being left for some time in the future. After the loss and the firings, a full polarization of the workforce sunk in. The union had not built a strong enough structure to withstand fears, and soon the supporters sifted out, leaving only our hardcore salts and a couple activists to carry on, now with a target painted on their backs. The campaign leadership was also very media savvy, promotional materials were always telegenic, and press releases were as professional as they were frequent. But this type of combination creates the perfect conditions for a Potemkin village of a union, an impressive public image, with little-to-no concrete successes on the inside, little-to-no development of new worker leadership. When salts send themselves to the front of a campaign, this is a predictable outcome.

A concurrent campaign in Minneapolis at a liquor store fell into this same trap, but suffered from an even greater imbalance between salts and non-salt workers. Where JJWU was at least able to pull in some workers to committees and actions, the union at Chicago Lake Liquors was a less organized, fly-by-night operation that consisted of close to 100% salts or personal friends of union activists. They had one additional worker who came to a few meetings, and a couple others who were supportive, but the action stayed with the salts. Before breaking through to the rest of the employees, they met together, marched on the boss together, and promptly got fired together. This sparked a SolNet-style mob squad to descend on the store to picket and otherwise disrupt business from the outside until demands were met. Outside supporters formed a huge picket line relative to the small workplace, and the picketers were militant. But ultimately the strategy was unsustainable, the campaign failed, the fired workers took an NLRB-mediated settlement, and the rest of the workers at the store were reasonably scared off from ever talking to the union again.

Thinking back on these two campaigns, I was also reminded of an even older campaign to organize some movie theater projectionists in Boston. After some “very serious political debate” about whether unions are a good or bad thing for The Revolution, a few anarchists got their anarchist friends hired, then called up IATSE and began pushing for recognition. Astonishingly, in this case, these salts (who again comprised the exclusive organizing club) agreed to a settlement with their boss which would have them all quit in exchange for union recognition. The self-purging of the reds from the workplace worked as a decisive bargaining chip to get a contract in place, but left no on-the-job organization to enforce it.

These stories share the theme of radicals targeting jobs for the sake of a campaign, assuming the leadership of that campaign, losing those jobs, then the campaign fizzling out without having developed new working class leaders beyond the ones they started with. We see a strategy more akin to colonizing the workplace than organizing it, and the byproduct of this approach is the development or furthering of a subculture of activists that can’t break out to achieve majority participation. Without majorities, you can’t achieve control over job conditions, which was the goal. This is the hidden danger of over-reliance on salts, raising the flag above a workplace and saying: “Everyone, come apply! We’ll figure out the details later!”

Doing Better with Salts

Most workers today have little to zero experience in formal, collective workplace organization, decision-making, and organized fights with their bosses. For those of us trying to lend our own experience of how best of organize a campaign to win, whether we are outside advisors or inside salts, we have to keep our measures for success at how many uninitiated workers we can help take ownership of the organizing, not on how many militant allies we can get to take jobs and fuck shit up, or even on how many already politically conscious workers we can recruit. Most radicals say they believe workers can and should run the world, but too many times we don’t behave that way when it comes to our own organizing. Our goal is workers building their own, durable organization, which requires patience, and the opportunity for them to learn and grow and even make mistakes. Workers must be the participants, leaders, and sustainers of a union. The structures have to belong to them.

There is room for an outside-in strategy — if all we did was organize our own workplaces, we may risk sacrificing diversity or limiting our ability to make a directed strategic organizing plan. Salts are one tool to help us expand our organizing in a directed, strategic way. And salting can be useful if people are trained and accountable. But if the plan entails salts imagining themselves as heroes in a John Steinbeck novel, we’re in for disappointment down the road. When we use salts, we want to be crystal clear about what their purpose is. I offer a few suggestions for both clarifying our definitions, and employing best practices:

Let’s stop calling it “salting” if you just need a job and you ALSO plan to organize while you’re working there. That doesn’t make you a salt. That probably just makes you a Wobbly. Salting should be defined as a temporary action to provide a boost to a campaign. This makes salts categorically different from all the other workers who had very different motivations for filling out that job application, which gives them different standards for behavior and different responsibilities.

Beware the tourist. This is not always the case, but sometimes the profile for a salt is a person who has better options than the salting job. Many salts in the above examples were recent university grads who chose to forgo better jobs or career paths, either delaying the work they really want to do, or perhaps convincing themselves that this could be a more long-term sacrifice for the movement they were passionate about. This is almost never sustainable and can lead to impatience and pressures to succeed on an impractical timeline once the job starts to feel too oppressive, or salts start to wonder about what their life could be like if they were elsewhere. This creates incentives to cut corners, take inappropriate risks, or settle for less in a campaign. Having salts in leadership who just want the whole thing to end is not a situation where good choices are going to be made.

Salts should be part of a plan that others are in on. Salts should go into a job knowing exactly what is expected of them, who they’re reporting to, and how long they are expecting to work there, even if the answer to the latter is open-ended. There should be a code of conduct and salts should affirm their commitments in some concrete way. For example, in my branch of the IWW, we now ask salts to sign a document with details about different types of accountability requirements, including things like taking the IWW Organizer Training and a pledge to not have any kind of romantic relationships with anyone at the workplace while acting in the capacity of a salt.

The single best use for a salt is to gather information
. I’d like to see more use of salts for the simplest purpose of getting in, getting workers’ contact information, and getting out. This can be done by almost anyone, and can provide outside organizers, or the workers from a committee in another shop in the same industry with the information they need for cold calls. There’s all kinds of basic information that can be gathered about a job without putting the weight of building a committee on a brand new hire. If a salt is savvy they can also start to do some basic social mapping or identifying some leaders. But if a salt can manage to make contact with even just one worker who wants to organize, that person can become the seed of a committee, and it’s okay if the salt’s role is over.

Salts are better utilized for small, specific augmentations of a pre-existing campaign. This usually means there’s an objective, “artificial” barrier that is very difficult to overcome without a salt. By this I mean language barriers, geographic or departmental barriers, or access to employee lists . If the barrier is “the committee is not doing 1-on-1’s” or “people aren’t attending meetings, so we’re overworked,” these are problems that make salts a tempting shortcut, but you run the risk of just pushing more fundamental problems down the road, and inviting salts to take too large of a share of agency for the campaign. When I was salting as a bike messenger, there was no pre-existing committee, and I spent about a year helping to build one from scratch. But then the committee I helped build asked me to take an office job at the company, because they wanted someone on the inside near the bosses to feed information back to the rest of the committee, and I would also be able to swipe a full phone and address list for about 100 workers in different job classifications that we had no way of reaching at the time. I accepted the direction of the committee, but that meant I lost the privilege of going on strike with them. I was disappointed, but I had to acknowledge this form of salting helped us win.

Salts should not presume leadership, and if organizing activity is down to the salts, it’s time to hit the brakes, not the gas. Above all, salts at most should be sharing leadership equally with non-salts on the committee, and they should avoid doing an imbalance of the heavy lifting, no matter how great the pressure is. It’s of course possible for salts to be really good organizers or quickly gain the respect of their coworkers. But if activity collapses down to the salts and/or a few activists, it can be another moment where people start shrugging off fundamental problems and feeling like they need to do something or all their work will be lost. This never ends well. Setbacks are painful, but hurrying forward from a place of weakness is even worse, so better to slow down or even start over than rush headlong towards the end.

Taking The Hard Road

A handful of radicals infiltrating a workplace, burning bright for a short time, and the whole campaign crumbling to dust is a pattern that’s happened enough times for us to start calling it out as yet another dangerous shortcut, another way the left substitutes themselves for a mass movement. But we can learn from past mistakes and keep doing better, while always striving to take a cold, objective look at our campaigns’ strengths and weaknesses. The turn towards the workplace as a focal point for struggle is a positive development, but let’s bury the idea that getting a few revolutionaries into a supposedly strategic industry is going to be the secret sauce that gets a workers’ rebellion moving. We’ve already seen isolated Amazon workers fired for “speaking truth to power” while union advocacy orgs make the martyrs the centerpiece of a shame campaign against Amazon, playing right into the hands of management. It all feels very familiar. To me this speaks to the fact that we don’t need more militants on the inside to inspire people with their presumed bravery at Amazon, or anywhere else. We need, desperately, long-term organization: sustainable, representative, participatory committees of workers making decisions and taking action together. Getting there involves slow, patient, brick-by-brick organizing. It’s not flashy, it won’t be in the news, but without it even a whole stable of militants sneaking in from the outside is going to leave us with just another illusion of progress.

UPDATE: Originally I suggested that the projectionists’ union no longer existed, but was I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the union still exists today. –MK

MK Lees is an organizer with the Los Angeles IWW and a contributing editor at Organizing Work.