Owen King talks about the importance of fighting over specific demands early in a campaign.
Unlike many other unions, the IWW doesn’t teach workers to rely on the law for protection, because no legislation will ever make it in the bosses’ best interest to passively accept a union. Both the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) and Starbucks Workers United have seen organizers fired in the course of their campaigns, despite this being legally protected activity. In those cases the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been punishingly slow to act. In the case of ALU, the judge ruled in fired organizer Gerald Bryson’s favor only after the election at the warehouse Bryson was organizing. The only thing that has kept those campaigns alive is the continued organizing of workers in the shop – not reliance on the law.
Since workers can’t rely on the law to protect them, the main focus of the IWW’s Organizer Training 101 (OT101) is teaching workers how to bring their coworkers together for collective action, either in the form of social pressure on the boss, the disruption of production and profit, or outright usurping the bosses’ authority over the workplace. This training is intensive because relying on one’s self, one’s committee, and one’s coworkers is harder to learn than relying on staff, lawyers, and bureaucrats. Teaching new organizing committees how to do this is made harder by the fact that labor action doesn’t get much coverage in the media. Further, within mainstream and even socialist labor journalism, stories about NLRB elections and legal battles are much more prevalent than stories about strike actions. Take for example Jonah Furman’s weekly Who Gets the Bird newsletter. Despite being exhaustively researched, in the most recent issue, the section on “Strikes and Negotiations” is barely half the length of the section on NLRB elections. Stories about workers making changes to their workplace outside the bounds of a contract negotiated by staff and lawyers and using tactics at a lower level than a strike, like a march on the boss or a petition, are rarer still.
This lack of reporting on immediate worker direct action is also a problem because it makes it harder for an organizing committee that has taken the OT101 to instill the confidence in their coworkers necessary to take initial direct actions in the organizing campaign. In any workplace there are workers who will join and build a union the first time the committee talks to them; most IWW organizing committees start out when a couple of these people come together and take the training. Then there are workers who can be convinced to join the union after an organizing conversation – this is where the problem of a lack of stories comes in.
Then there are workers who will only be convinced by successful direct action happening in their own workplace, which they can see with their own eyes. These categories are summed up in the article Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union.
In my experience, most workers fall into those last two camps of Hear the Union and See the Union. In a direct-action focused campaign, getting these people to support the union will mean more than signing a secret authorization card and believing in a promise that the law protects a worker’s right to form an organization that fights for their interests on the job, and instead proof that collective action can win. That requires the much scarier prospect of entering the thunderdome with the workers on one side and the bosses on the other. Failing to take successful direct action means potentially being unable to get a majority of workers to meaningfully participate. When a committee fails to take direct action early in a campaign they are in danger of stepping on the treadmill of death.
Burning Out on the Treadmill of Death
The subtitle of the IWW’s OT101 is “Building the Committee.” That refers to laying the foundation for taking direct action by gathering coworkers’ contact information, having one-on-one conversations with them, assessing them, and social mapping. But a problem arises when building the committee becomes a substitute for taking direct action. I have seen many committees put off confronting their boss in favor of trying to recruit more and more fellow workers into the committee. If they’re not following the organizer training program, the committee will invite coworkers they’ve only talked to a couple times to a committee meeting and attempt to recruit them to the union there.
On its face, this drive to recruit seems reasonable. Workers only have strength in numbers, so building a bigger committee is necessary. But sometimes the committee finds itself in a catch-22 where they won’t take direct action until they have more people but they can’t recruit more people until they’ve taken direct action. If the goal of organizing is just to get a contract, this isn’t a problem since direct action is meant as a last resort during contract negotiation if a deal can’t be reached, and not the first step in building workers’ confidence in themselves and each other.
With this paralysis comes the kind of burnout that can slowly kill a campaign. As organizers become demoralized due to the lack of action and the lack of wins, they leave the committee and in some cases they quit the workplace entirely. To make up for this turnover, the committee changes the emphasis of their one-on-one conversations with their coworkers to simply trying to recruit them to the committee rather than talking about issues and taking them on. Because the committee can’t grow past just the workers who Know or Hear the Union, the campaign eventually dies once all these workers join the committee, get burnt out, and leave.
How to fix this
The cure for this slow spiral of exhaustion is to take on an issue. We already do a lot to offset the danger of these low-level actions by making sure the committee doesn’t go public or go around saying the u-word or calling mass meetings with unassessed coworkers. But besides this, action can be successful even with a minority. In one of the campaigns I’ve mentored, a committee of just four workers managed to win significant pay increases and time off with a relatively low-stakes action. Management had been asking for feedback on things to change about the workplace and the committee coordinated with some early supporters of the campaign to focus on a few issues the committee identified as important. The committee won their demands, including raises and sick time, and management never even knew any formal organizing was happening. The important thing was that the committee picked issues their coworkers cared about, included their coworkers who weren’t in the committee in the execution, and carried out a direct action they thought they could pull off for a demand they could win.
A committee of two that coordinates direct action involving their coworkers is stronger and healthier than a committee of 10 which isn’t taking direct action. In the time since the action mentioned above, the campaign’s supporters have grown by 50% and the committee has fully replaced itself, with new and energetic organizers picking up the slack and the original committee able to take a break.
These small direct actions are what build towards the walkouts and strikes which win bigger demands. While it might be harder initially, the committee only has to abide by their own schedule and according to their own parameters. A business union election has its date and bargaining unit set by a third party and the result is an all-or-nothing election followed by an all-or-nothing contract campaign. Meanwhile a small committee can get wins early and can learn in the case of mistakes. These early wins can also help expand organizing beyond a single workplace. In the case of the union I mentioned above, members of the organizing committee that got those wins for pay and sick time have gone on to become trainers for the IWW’s OT101 and organizing mentors in the IWW’s external organizer program. These trainers and mentors are helping other workers in their industry put together their own committees and get their own first wins. This is how large indivisible unions can be built across entire industries.
Owen King is an IWW member and organizer in the Seattle video game industry.