This post reprints a short exchange about organizing strategies that originally ran in the pages of the Industrial Worker newspaper.
Forget About Industrial Power
The old wobbly song “There Is Power In A Union” goes “There is power there is power in a band of working folks, When they stand hand in hand.” This is the basic idea of a union, strength in numbers. We’re lacking in the numbers department in the IWW today. So our power is small, at least in one important sense. We need to recognize this if we’re going to grow quickly and efficiently, without cutting any corners in terms of member education and development.
Some people in the IWW think we should organize big companies that dictate conditions for the rest of their industry because they have such a large share of the market. If we make changes at the industry or market leaders then we make change across the whole industry. That’s true, and we should organize these companies (we should organize everywhere). But the reality is that our power is small compared to big companies.
More than that, our first priority right now should not be to make change for as many workers as possible across an industry. Our first priority right now should be to have members improve their own lives at work and to recruit other organizers out of our co-workers. That will build our pool of committed, capable organizers so that we can eventually have really enormous impacts for our whole class.
On the short term we should focus on small companies instead of big ones. We are tiny compared to a multinational company and so is our relative power. But compared to a small “mom-and-pop” grocery store or a locally owned restaurant with 20 employees, or a fast food franchise where the owned has 5 stores and 75 employees, we are huge. We have branches that are bigger than companies of that size. We can run picket lines and other actions against those companies which can really hurt them economically (as opposed to picketing, say, WalMart) because every shop is a huge portion of the company’s total income. This will maximize the relative power of our branches and make for more winnable campaigns in a shorter time frame. Those wins will result in more members with greater organizing experience and higher morale. It might also reduce organizer burnout by giving us more victories to restore our spirits in the short term.
Of course, gains in smaller companies will be limited by the conditions in the industry which are mostly set by industry leaders. We’ll have to explain this to the workers we organize and turn them into organizers dedicated to organizing their whole industry. The small shops will provide us with a larger base and more concrete examples to work from as we turn to organizing larger companies in those industries.
This piece first appeared in the Industrial Worker in September 2008. Electronic version taken from the libcom library. http://libcom.org/library/forget-industrial-power
Reply: Industrial Unionism is the IWW Strategy
By Patrick B
While I don’t think the Industrial Worker is the proper forum for debate over organizing strategy, the readers of the IW should be offered an alternative view to that presented by the September 2008 IW article entitled “Forget Industrial Power,” by Fellow Worker Nate H. In the article he argues that the IWW should avoid placing organizing efforts in large companies because of our relative weak position and that organizing large companies is likely to create failure and burnout for our organizers.
The main disagreement I have with the argument is that it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more we believe we can’t do something, the more that becomes a reality. We have refused to take on large targets for over 40 years. As a result we have grown little. It was only when the IWW took on Borders in 1996 and Starbucks in 2004, both large companies, that we saw significant increases in membership and activity.
Furthermore, the argument is grounded in circular logic. Acquiring big resources only comes after we take on big targets. It is tantamount to saying “we need resources to organize big targets, but we can’t get resources until we organize big targets.” We’ve been saying this for decades. Where has it gotten us?
The early IWW was not afraid of any targets. They took on companies and industries thousands of times larger (review the copper mine organizing in Arizona or the Textile companies in New England for example) than their membership and made not only changes for the workers of the industry but also for the labor movement as a whole.
The article further contends that we should focus our organizer recruitment at the small workplaces of our current membership. The problem with this argument is that it assumes we would not acquire organizers at large targets, which is, of course, likely. IWW-style
organizing anywhere creates new organizers out of workers. The argument also completely ignores the good possibility that the quality of the organizers recruited from large targets may be better. Because of the larger size, there is a larger pool of talent to draw from. He also believes we should focus on small companies instead of big ones. The grounding for this is that we could potentially build enough power on the backs of small capitalists to eventually fight the large businessmen. While I agree with FW H that we should not solely focus on large companies, I think focusing on small ones is just as problematic, and may even require more time and energy than a large company and may be more prone to failure.
Businesses act in predictable ways if the basic economic laws are given consideration. Occasionally these laws are broken, or a business owner will act irrationally, or outside agencies (i.e. Government) will interfere with economic laws, but the vast majority of businesses comply and therefore act predictably to internal and external pressures (labor rebellion, etc.). If we apply the pressure of unionism to small companies than we should be able to predict, given a long enough time frame, the effects on the company, the industry, or the economy as a whole.
Instead of providing power for the IWW, organizing small companies is likely to lead to eventual weakening of our union. Smaller companies are required to compete with the big companies, who set industrial standards, to survive. Any hindrance to this is likely to either limit what we can gain from employers or entirely push the small shops out of business. The larger companies will acquire the customer-base left by the exterminated businesses, the Wobblies will be out of work, and capitalism’s wheels keep on turning. The amount of real economic pressure we could apply to small businesses is therefore very little.
Organizing small companies is a bigger drain on resources. Even the big business unions, with extensive resources, have had trouble organizing the little shops. They are just too hard to organize.
However, I will not argue that the best alternative is organizing one large company either. On a long enough timeline, the end result of focusing on one large company will reflect that of the smaller ones (look at the Teamster organizing in the Nineties). Large companies can go out of business like any other and when they do, their competitors in the industry will assume their former market share.
What’s the alternative? The answer to the problem of limited resources, unemployment prevention, and organizer burnout is to organize industrially. By organizing industrially, we have a large pool of talent to draw from that is often limited in both small and some large companies. We can choose where in the industry to place emphasis to prevent firings and ensure negotiating leverage.
Moreover, taking on an entire industry eliminates the ubiquitous problem in small companies of high turnover. Turnover creates extra stress for organizers and affords little negotiating leverage to the workers. When the pros and cons are carefully considered, organizing industrially is actually much more likely to yield success with less effort than organizing small companies or single large companies. While the endeavor may seem intimidating, industrial strategy is easier and more appropriate for our current resources.
Often times, there is a tendency to fear big targets because of the size of the employment is intimidating. I used to think this way. But a close friend and fellow worker once told me I was looking at it from a “glass-is-half-empty” point of view. He said, Don’t think of all those workers as a barrier, think of it as an opportunity.
A workplace or local industry of 1000 workers should not be viewed as “1000 members until success,” but rather “this industry offers us potentially 1000 new members.” That optimism never left me. I think if it was adopted by more Wobblies, we would grow significantly.
This piece first appeared in the Industrial Worker in October 2008. Electronic version taken from the libcom library. http://libcom.org/library/industrial-unionism-iww-strategy
Response to “Response to Industrial Unionism is the IWW Strategy”
I thank FW B for taking the time to reply to my column. I disagree with FW B that the Industrial worker is not a proper forum for debate over organizing strategy. That’s the biggest disagreement we have, I think.
I argued that we should focus on small targets, because we can have more victories at small targets because our branches are bigger relative to small companies. That way we can win things more quickly and make more organizers by having inspiring victories. I think inspiring victories are important for making organizers, and making more organizers is one of the three most important tasks facing the IWW right now. (The other two are retaining organizers and getting better at organizing.)
The heart of my column, the bit I feel most strongly about, is this pair of sentences: “Our first priority right now should be to have members improve their own lives at work and to recruit other organizers out of our co-workers. That will build our pool of committed, capable organizers so that we can eventually have really enormous impacts for our whole class.” I think FW B and I agree on this.
FW B points out that this can also be done by targeting big companies and industry-wide campaigns. He points to the Starbucks campaign as an example. The Starbucks campaign is important and impressive. It’s made more organizers for our union and that’s awesome. FW B is absolutely right and this is a gap in my column’s argument.
All of that said, I still think that a new GMB that is looking for a first organizing target is better off trying to organize a smaller shop. The smaller the shop, the less resources management has to dump into union-busting and the more of their business we can shut down with pickets and other actions given our currently small numbers.
Let me put it this way. Let’s say hypothetically that three new branches form in three different counties in the great state of Minnesota and they host a joint organizer training. One says “we have a member who works at Wal-Mart so we’re targeting all the Wal-Marts in our county.” The second says “we have a member who works at a local magnet factory with 50 workers so we’re targeting that.” The third says “we haven’t made up our mind yet – we have Walmarts here and we have a magnet factory with 50 workers, and we have one member at each.”
If someone from the third branch asked my advice, I would urge them to follow the lead of the second branch, not the first. I would wish the first branch nothing but success and they would certainly deserve support. But would I predict that at least in the short term the second branch is more likely to succeed and to have more of the victories necessary for sustaining organizers.
Of course, I would be happy to be proven wrong by more victories and organizer recruitment within really big campaigns.
This piece first appeared in the Industrial Worker in October 2008. Electronic version taken from the libcom library. http://libcom.org/library/response-fellow-worker-b