The Upside-Down Pyramid

An organizer and a worker describe a direct action campaign that won on demands but soon went awry because it hadn’t built a solid foundation. Image © Emé Bentancur.

Anyone who has taken the IWW’s Organizer Training 101 will be familiar with the organizing “pyramid” that we share there.  If you haven’t seen it, or need a refresher, it’s pretty simple; it shows a narrow point of direct action built on top of a broader layer of practicing democracy in the workplace (e.g. meetings), which is built on top of workplace relationships (built through one-on-ones), which all rests on a broadest base of “understanding your workplace” (lists, mapping, etc.).

This is sometimes contrasted to the upside-down pyramid, where a few highly motivated workers try their hand at direct action before (or instead of) building the solid organizational base. There are several reasons why the upside-down pyramid is tempting; first, for many workers, who are likely not confident in their ability to be persuasive, or of their co-workers’ ability to help with the organizing, a concrete, successful, direct action looks like a great proof of concept – something they can point to and say, “here, collective action works!” Second, building a shop-floor committee involves a lot of long, sometimes boring, work, whereas direct action is fast and exciting – it can bring about the changes that are presumably the reason you actually want to organize your workplace in the first place.

One obvious objection to trying this is that direct action is probably going to fail if you don’t have organization to back it up – this is, after all, why we organize in the first place.  This is a solid objection. However, there’s another deeper problem: even if you win the demand, without the rest of the pyramid, there’s not much that can be done to leverage your action into enduring organization anyway, and without organization, whatever you won is probably going to be pretty fleeting — dependent on the whim of the boss rather than your continued presence in the shop.

To illustrate this, I wanted to share an example from an organizing campaign I supported. This is written in the workers’ own words.


I inadvertently used the upside down pyramid model when I was a baby organizer working on my first campaign. I was relatively new to the IWW and even though I had attended some trainings on how to have organizing conversations, and read some books about labor organizing, I hadn’t yet managed to attend an Organizer Training 101.

The company I worked for was a family business, and the different family members held their respective departments as totally different businesses. They had different companies on the paystubs even though they operated on the same lot. Instead of seeing this for what it was, an attempt to separate the workers, I viewed my “department” as the full extent of my shop. So, I looked around at my coworkers and started having one-on-ones with those I felt would be most receptive to the idea of organizing. Even though I had a rough idea of the social landscape at my job I did not do much analysis of social relationships and soft leadership before beginning.

I allowed the seasonality of the job, the fact that it closes each winter, to cloud my judgment and justify an accelerated approach to organizing. I was able to quickly rope together a group of 3 out of the 6 coworkers to have a march on the boss about a couple of key issues, including pay and scheduling. I didn’t know the IWW teaches a specific methodology for this tactic in OT101, but we got lucky and the tactics our boss tried didn’t work, and we happened to follow a lot of the methodology such as making (relatively) specific demands and setting a deadline. During the march on the boss, one of my coworkers aired grievances I didn’t know about, because I hadn’t spent adequate time talking to her. None of those grievances ended up getting resolved.

A few days after our march on the boss we won several important demands: Everyone except the manager was awarded a raise and the workers took over the schedule and handled it without any input from the owner and no input from the manager except as to his own schedule. We had also complained about people being sent home early and missing out on hours and this was stopped. We also wanted a return of the “dollar days” program from the previous summer which gave us a cut of the sales and we got it. 

I was over the moon. I excitedly bragged about our successes at the next local branch organizer committee meeting. Then the questions started. “What specific questions did you ask your coworkers during your one-on-ones? What did they say?” I hadn’t bothered to keep a detailed job journal and couldn’t provide very specific answers, so I wasn’t able to bring that much of what I’d learned back to the group. “Did you do X, Y, and Z at the march on the boss like we teach?” I didn’t know we had established best practices for that.

As we finished the season, the campaign unraveled. I found out that one of the participants in the march on the boss had been sexually harassing the other all summer. The boss installed increased surveillance, which had a chilling effect in the workplace. He told everyone who was working under the table that he was going to have to 1099 them. He pulled people aside and sowed distrust in the group. He accused me of trying to start a union and threatened me.

Meanwhile, realizing the error of my ways, I had been trying to gather contact info and get one-on-ones with people in the other “departments.” Unfortunately, the cat was out of the bag and the coworker I had been having committee meetings with, who was best situated to talk to them because she had previously worked in those departments, was now too intimidated to try.

I ended up having to move away and didn’t return the following season. One of the coworkers I organized with couldn’t return due to a longstanding health condition that had worsened. One of the others did return and kept her raise, but she was no longer interested in organizing. I hadn’t built up any other contacts at the job to keep the campaign going, and it died.

Looking back, I can identify the key factors that made me choose to rush the campaign.

Lessons learned: against adventurism

I wanted to accomplish something before the season ended, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back the next season. It’s better to organize at a job you won’t mind staying at for a few years, so you don’t feel tempted to rush the process. Remember that the point of organizing is to turn your job into one that’s worth staying at and caring about. If you nonetheless can’t stay at the job, that’s not a good reason to rush the process. It’s better to complete workplace mapping and social charting, and gather information about the hiring process, and then maybe find someone to replace you as the organizer internally, whether that’s a coworker or a salt.

I was anxious to “prove” myself to the members I looked up to in the branch, and I thought deviating from the script was needed because of particularities to my workplace. If you want to impress people in the wider IWW, building a successful and lasting committee will accomplish that better than just about anything else, but the only people you should ever worry about proving yourself to are your fellow workers on the job. Labor organizing is risky and your coworkers deserve an organizer who is committed to following best practices and using time-tested methods that are known to work. Just about every beginner organizer thinks their shop is unique and just about every shop seems to present unique conditions that justify deviating from the script, but time and again we see the same issues arise when this is tried.

I had a very adventurist view of labor action. I thought it would be awesome to have a march on the boss, or a walkout, sit in, or other direct action and to win gains, and it was. Remember that we are never organizing alone. We have a duty to look out for our coworkers and to follow the strategy that is most likely to produce a sustained committee capable of improving our working conditions in the long term. Participating in direct action is one of life’s most exhilarating experiences, but that’s not why we do it. We do it to build lasting power on the shop floor. Rushing to action before you’ve organized a firm foundation is not the way to accomplish that.

What if…

What if a spontaneous job action is going to happen whether you participate or not? Sometimes, especially in a hot shop, a group of workers may decide to confront their supervisor with grievances, or they may walk off the job together, slow down, or start complying with the boss’s unreasonable orders in a way that will cause a disruption. If you haven’t yet built the organizational capacity at your job to responsibly conduct a workplace action, you also probably haven’t built enough organizational capacity to stop one that has widespread support on the shop floor.

In a situation like this, your best option might be to join in on the action, and offer your support and direction as best you can to maximize the chances of the action’s success while minimizing risk to your fellow workers. Situations like this can develop quickly, and you may only have enough time to discern who you think the most influential leaders of the action are, and to pose to them a few key questions: “What should we ask the boss to change/do/ stop doing? How much time should we give the boss to (do or stop doing the thing we want)? Who else might want to be part of this? Is this the right supervisor to go to? Do they have the power to make the changes we want? Who else might want to be part of this discussion? What if the boss fires one or all of us? What if the boss singles out one of us as the ringleader?”