Building the One Big Union

In this article Alex Erikson suggests some points for IWW members to emphasize as we continue to build our organization. A version of this piece appeared recently in the Industrial Worker newspaper.

Building the One Big Union: A Strategy for A Strategy

“The percentage of the workforce that is unionized in the private sector is at an all-time low, and while the number of representation petitions against restaurants has increased in the past few years, the numbers are still extremely low in any given year. That being said, fast food restaurant owners and operators should take heed of the recent organizing campaign in Minneapolis against ten Jimmy John’s locations. The Wobblies are at it again.”

-Seyfarth Shaw, prominent US anti-union lawfirm

In year 2011, the IWW is once again feared by the capitalist class as a fighting union. Wobblies on shopfloors across the world deserve to take a minute to congratulate themselves, we are a threat again. But our work is far from done. As far as we have come, there is a long road ahead of us. We need to reflect on how we have come this far, and plan out our next steps.

Our successes in the last few years were built on a foundation that was laid over the last decade. At a time when the labor movement was at a low ebb, disoriented by the realities of globalization and the service economy, a handful of visionary workers picked up the banner of the IWW, and began organizing their own workplaces. The results were mixed, but lessons were learned. Now, we have distilled the lessons we have learned about shopfloor organizing in to a coherent training so that they can be easily passed on to others. With the help of our organizer training program, our campaigns start out leaps and bounds ahead of where we were ten years ago. With a mastery of the nuts and bolts of organizing, our organizers are capable of waging struggles against the bosses involving hundreds of workers. While it is difficult to make generalizations about an organization of hundreds of people that has evolved over decades, it seems safe to say that the IWW is stronger than it has been in years.

However, as Wobblies, we are always thinking of ways to bring the class struggle to another level. That’s what brought us into the IWW in the first place- the belief in a possibility of a better world for workers, and a desire to build a better workers movement to get us there. Over the years, we have gained experience with a variety of approaches to organizing. We have had corridor campaigns, attempts to organize particular segments of industry with high levels of industrial power, campaigns against individual corporate chains, and many campaigns against individual shops initiated by workers who came to us for help. While we have learned a lot from all of these experiences, many Wobblies feel that we need to be more ‘strategic’ with our next steps in order to maximize the impact we an make as a relatively small organization. There have been many several proposals for ‘strategic’ campaigns over the years, but none of them have materialized. Why is that?

Before we are able to successfully implement a strategy, we need to build up the parts of our organization that would put a strategy into practice. We need to take one step backward and develop a plan to bring us to a point where we can implement an organizing plan. In other words, we need a strategy to implement a strategy.

In the next couple years, I think we should focus on building functioning branches of the IWW. We should look at our branches that are most effective at fighting bosses and building power, and replicate those successes. If we could take our largest branches of 100-200 members and copy that success in all of our 40-50 North American branches, we would have 4000-10,000 members. We would have more organizers, more campaigns, and more funds to support all of our activities. We would be able to pick fights with bigger targets and organize them more effectively. We would have more brains wrestling with the question of how to build a new workers movement. We would have more workers learning more lessons about the class struggle. We would have more social leaders involved in the union, laying the basis for even broader recruitment and bringing us closer to a ‘tipping point’ in society where our vision of class struggle for industrial democracy becomes a major current within the working class. An IWW with 10,000 members would be a qualitative and quantitative leap in the class struggle in North America.

Of course, we aren’t going to build 10,000 Wobblies just by hoping it will happen. Just like in workplace organizing, we need to break this task down into smaller steps, and plan ahead so that a few years from no we will be successful. While we do need to fine-tune our approach to organizing and flesh out our solidarity unionism model, I think that we already have the knowledge in the union that would allow us to grow. We have branches that have 100-200 members. Let’s just figure out what has allowed some branches to thrive, and apply these lessons to all branches across the union.

There are certainly external circumstances that impact branch growth, but it’s more important to focus on the things we can control. I would say that there are a few key areas of competency that have allowed some branches to thrive:

1) Stable administration. Having regular, efficient meetings makes it easy for people to get plugged in to the union. It also allows us to begin accumulating funds and personnel that can be used to build up our projects. However, stability is not an answer in and of itself. It is also critical that branches rotate tasks such as Secretary-Treasurer allowing all members to take ownership over the administration of the branch.

2) Focus on organizing. Our most successful branches are the ones that have active organizing campaigns. We need to make sure that all branch members understand that the IWW is an organization of working class fighters who are building power on the job. We are not a social club or a political organization. There is room for folks who are not always actively organizing at their own workplace, but union campaigns waged by the workers themselves are the core of what we do. That means you need to organize in your own workplace or get a job somewhere where you can organize, and push your Fellow Workers to do the same.

3) Supporting each other. Organizing is tough. There are often setbacks and things rarely go as planned. That’s why it’s important to support and help each other get through difficulties we face while organizing. If there is no one with organizing experience in your branch, then get plugged in to networks of organizers in your industry from across the country. The greatest strength of our union is the enormous wealth of experience that Wobblies have in the class struggle.

4) Healthy relationships. People tend to like to be around people who make them feel good about themselves. We need to avoid negative social dynamics- particularly those fueled by sexism, competition, or arrogance. We all should constantly push ourselves and our Fellow Workers to be better people who bring the spirit of organizing- the idea that everyone is equal and everyone can be a revolutionary leader- into our everyday lives and interactions with others. We cannot get sidetracked by petty disagreements, personality conflicts, and negative social drama. Be all you can be in the Army of Production!

These are some general ideas. Here are a few specific proposals to strengthen the IWW in these areas:

1) Build More and Better Branches. The General Administration could create an updated manual on building IWW branches and set up a commission to fast-track the chartering of new GMBs and IUBs across North America, and help members who are seeking to revive stagnant GMBs. This commission would be made up of members who have experience successfully building GMBs and can help new branch-builders overcome the pitfalls of building the IWW from scratch in their area. In addition, branches could integrate themselves more fully into the IWW by making sure they have liaisons to the Organizing Department, International Solidarity Commission, General Defense Committee, and other union-wide bodies.

2) Build Regional Networks. Begin building stronger regional IWW networks with email lists and regular face-to-face conferences in each area of the continent. It is exciting to feel that we are part of a growing movement. Also, this will help cross-pollinate good ideas between branches. In the Twin Cities, we have started an email list to put us in more frequent communication with other branches in the area. The connections we had established over the last year helped midwest Wobblies respond effectively to the situation in Madison.

3) Build a Corps of Trainers in each branch. The Organizing Department has been a major success story for the IWW. Let’s build on that success by establishing a corps of trainers in each branch in the IWW to cut down on the time and expense of sending trainers to different cities to do trainings. This would also help ensure that the most important
lessons of organizing are imparted to each and every branch.

4) Build Industrial Networks. In order to maintain a union culture that is focused on organizing, we need to develop stronger networks between workers who are organizing in the same industry. Ultimately, these networks would form the basis of Industrial Unions. They could also conduct industry-specific recruitment, much in the same way the Starbucks Workers Union has recruited amongst Starbucks workers. Also, building networks of workers in the same industry across geographic areas could allow us to spread ‘best practices’ in different types of organizing campaigns between branches more easily.

If we implement these ideas, I think we have a chance of building 40-50 functional branches of 100-200 members in the next five years with networks of workers ready to take on industry-wide organizing campaigns across North America. An IWW of ten thousand Wobblies is within reach. This would position us to initiate bigger and badder organizing campaigns than ever before, bringing us one step closer to One Big Union of all workers. Whether you agree with these specific proposals or not, it’s clear that we stand on the cusp of making substantial gains in building our organization and increasing the power of the working class. It’s time to think big, and it’s time to act.