Adam asked me why I haven’t posted these columns here that I’ve written for the Industrial Worker. I didn’t have a real answer so here they are. All these appeared in the Workers Power column.

June 2007

What Kind Of Solidarity Forever?

There are two versions of solidarity activity: solidarity unionism and solidarity activism. Solidarity unionism means exercising our power on the job. We organize as much as possible so we don’t give our power away to lawyers, outside organizers, union staff, or anyone else. If we have to give away some power–like when we file Unfair Labor Practice charges–it’s for tactical reasons only. By getting more and more coworkers to take action based on our collective self-interests as workers we create big changes–changes in our lives on the job and changes in our coworkers by showing them our ideas in practice instead of just telling them. Solidarity unionism makes more power for ourselves, more members of our union, and more members with experience, commitment, and a vision of what the One Big Union is and should be.

Solidarity activism means showing up outside of our own jobs to help other people’s struggles to defend existing conditions or defend their attempt to build something. We hand out flyers and picket outside someone else’s workplace or some other place. This kind solidarity has helped the Starbucks organizing continue and grow. There is a long and proud tradition of this kind of solidarity in our class and in our union. If solidarity activism wins better conditions for any worker anywhere then it’s a good thing, morally and as a tactic. But it’s not good strategy.

Without power on the shopfloor, a union will not be a fighting organization that can win gains, and it’s much harder to maintain union democracy. Workers are more likely to exercise our power for something we run and control than something undemocratic and unaccountable. If power is outside the shopfloor, then the workers in the shop can be replaced. If their organization breaks down, the officials don’t lose anything. This is why many of the business unions love media heavy corporate style campaigns: they put the power in the hands of staff, officers, lawyers, journalists, politicians, and the well-intentioned solidarity activists who mobilize from the outside. While solidarity activism can build the skills and experience of the individuals who take part in it, it doesn’t build power in the activists’ workplaces. It also doesn’t build the power of the workers in the shop being supported. If a campaign is won by solidarity activism, that means the power to make change does not rest on the shop floor. Solidarity activism doesn’t build shopfloor power because it doesn’t exercise shopfloor power.

Workers’ power is like a muscle. My muscles have (pretty flabby) limits. By using my muscles within their limits, I get stronger. Solidarity unionism means exercising our power. We figure out what power we have and we increase it by exercising it. We exercise our power to build an organized shop–and eventually an organized industry and an organized working class–which increases the power we have to exercise. The point isn’t just to lift this weight (improving the job in the short term, a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work), the point is also how the weights get lifted and by who (improving the job by our own action, in a way that builds organization and builds the IWW to abolish the wage system). We need strategy, a plan to keep on lifting until we become able to dump the bosses off our backs.

We can only lift so much at a time, though. Every time I move I realize how there’s too many boxes for me alone, so I call my friends. That’s solidarity activism. Sometimes it’s tactically necessary. But our strategy should not be based on someone else constantly lifting things for us.

Imagine if my friends who helped me move stuck around forever and I never lifted anything ever again. I would get weaker and less healthy from lack of exercise. This is what the NLRB and the business unions do. They say “don’t try to lift that, just watch me.” They don’t encourage us to exercise our own power, so they don’t encourage us to increase our power. Sometimes they actively fight us when we try to exercise our power.

There are some fellow workers who prefer to be part of solidarity activism instead of solidarity unionism. That’s their right. But solidarity unionism is the direction this union should continue to move in. Solidarity activism has a place, but a secondary one. In fact, the more we focus on exercising our power in solidarity unionism–getting more members, getting more members organizing in more shops, increasing our ability to organize successfully–the more power we’ll have when we need to do solidarity activism for our fellow workers in the union and out.


July 2007

Confidence and Solidarity

In my last Workers Power submission in June I talked about what I called solidarity unionism and solidarity activism. Solidarity activism is when we show up to demonstrations and picket lines for others, to lend our power to support them in their struggles. That’s a good thing, of course. But it doesn’t build our power. Solidarity unionism is what builds our power. But it’s easy to emphasize solidarity activism over solidarity unionism.

One reason it’s easy to overemphasize solidarity activism is lack of confidence in our organization. Sometimes we don’t believe that the IWW can be or is a real union or a real step toward forming the cooperative commonwealth. We want to be active, we want the union to matter, so we push for the union to be part of something we think of as real: a real strike, a real rank and file democracy committee or movement, real revolutionaries somewhere else.

This motivation is good intentioned, but it’s not good for the union. Lack of confidence gets in the way of the most important work of the union: organizing to make us bigger and more experienced. Lack of confidence is also disrespectful to people who are organizing in shops right now, who know the union is real and are putting a lot on the line to improve their lives as part of the IWW.

Being realistic about the fact that we need to get our house in order is good. Our union has difficulties that we need to work through. But we’re not going to resolve any of those problems by prioritizing solidarity activism over solidarity unionism. That won’t lead to our house being put in order. It will lead to our house turning into a squat with all kinds of random stuff going on.

This feeling of lack of confidence is a real feeling, an emotion. That means we’re not going to get rid of it via ideas. Changing that feeling can be done in part through conversation, just like the emotional experiences we have with people when we agitate them in our organizing. And just like in organizing, these conversations happen in the context of relationships. Any conversations that will be effective in changing our confidence will be conversations that are part of building and maintaining a relationship, rather than just debate with other members on ideas. Organizing definitely involves ideas, but it takes more than that. We also need experiences. To build the union we need experiences of what a union is, of what this union is and can be.

The best way to get that experience is for the union to keep organizing and organize more. Unfortunately, lack of confidence makes us less likely to be active in organizing. We need to deal with lack of confidence by inviting and pushing people – others and ourselves – to be more active. More specifically, we need to be more active in things that are likely to give us the experiences we need. People need to be offered concrete actions, like attending a one on one with a more experienced organizer, or a good shop committee meeting. We also need to share our experiences by swapping stories – just like when we agitate – and to discuss experiences with each other to find the elements that will motivate us further.

Existing lack of confidence in the union is partially due to people not having had these experiences, and not having heard about experiences they can imagine having. That means that lack of confidence indicates a failure of mentoring in the union. Doing solidarity unionism is hard. One part of it is encouraging more people to get involved, so they get the experience and gain confidence. This is a lot of work, but it’s do-able and we have to do it.


March 2008

Emotional Pressure and Organization Building

We want to do two things on the job at the same time: build organization and improve conditions. We could do these separately. For instance, we could build organization with no plan to improve conditions, like setting up a poker night or a knitting circle. Or we could try to improve conditions without building organization, by bribing or kissing up to the supervisor. Neither of those has much to do with being a union. Being a union means union builds organization by improving conditions, or improves conditions by building organization.

To build organization and improve conditions we have to take actions on the job. Action is the oxygen of a union. We start off by taking the existing informal organization on the job – the current relationships and communication and level of agitation – and directing this against the boss in the form of an action.

In planning an action, pick an issue that people care about. Ask, “who has the power to change this issue?” For instance, the nightshift supervisor in the receiving department at a factory probably can’t control the health insurance plan or introduce a new health plan. But they can control how they enforce policy on bathroom breaks and how respectfully they treat employees.

List the issues people want improved and who has control over each issue. List the lowest level boss with decision-making power on each issue. Generally speaking, the lower they are on the food-chain, the less it will take to make them do what you want. This is important early on when you only have a small group. Five people in one department probably won’t win much for all 100 people in the plant. But they could win improvements in that department that can be used to recruit more people in order to take on bigger issues and do more outreach. That’s building organization.

Early in a campaign it’s useful to focus on what could be called emotional actions or emotional pressure. Here’s what I mean. Work is a headache for us, and to a lesser degree it’s headache for our bosses. Generally it’s more of a headache for the boss the lower they are on the food-chain at work. Emotional action is when we offer our boss a choice: make work less of a headache for us or we will make work more of a headache for the boss. This is easier the lower the level of the boss. If the boss is a supervisor we see everyday, then they will care more about our opinions and how how we treat them.

When we collectively confront the boss about conditions make our lives unpleasant, we give the boss an unpleasant experience. Think of this as sharing the wealth of misery that our jobs give us. By giving the boss a taste of their own medicine, making the boss take a helping of what our jobs force on us, we can start to force the boss to make small improvements on the job. That in turn helps us explain to our coworkers that we can improve our jobs by organizing together, and that if even more people get involved we can win even bigger improvements.


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.


Industrial Unionism is the IWW Strategy
By Patrick

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. In the article he argues that the IWW should avoid placing organizing efforts in large companies because of our relative weak position—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 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.

My reply:

I thank FW Patrick for taking the time to reply to my column. I disagree 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 we agree on this.

Patrick 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. Patrick 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.


What Does the IWW Do?
People become IWW members in two ways. Some people join because of ideology and people join because of the union’s activity. Along the same lines, the IWW does two main things. First, it helps workers solve problems at work by helping them organize. Second, it transforms people. That is, the IWW improves some people’s live on the job and radicalizes some people through collective action alongside discussion. In doing so it gives them practical skills and confidence to do things. Another way to put this is as a pair of principles: building industrial power and building organizers.

We need room for both of these principles. Our organizing should radicalize workers. And our organizing should make people who think of themselves as radicals more effective in fighting bosses and capitalists.

In practice these principles are closely related. For instance the NYC warehouse campaign really got running because of the hard work and dedication of a handful of IWW members. This is basically true across the board for the IWW. The bulk of the work of maintaining and building the union rests on a relatively small percentage of IWW members. In this we’re like most unions I think. So, we build industrial power by using our current organizers. These principles work together.

While these principles overlap, it can be useful to think about them separately sometimes. This gives us two different ways to evaluate success and set priorities. Let’s say in one shop we win an awesome contract for 100 people and develop no members of that shop into class conscious workers and active IWW members and organizers. Let’s say in another shop we lose and the campaign dissipates. But five people who were already IWW members become better organizers and five new members join from the shop and become organizers. The first hypothetical is better if our main priority is industrial power. The second is better if our priority is developing organizers.

Personally I think if someone only cares about one or the other principle then the IWW may be the wrong group for them, depending on what industry they work in and what role they want to play. If someone wants to organize and all they care about is industrial power, other unions do a lot better at building industrial power most of the time. If someone wants to organize in a way that only focuses on developing class consciousness I think there are groups that do a better job than us. However, the IWW is one of the only groups I know that does both at the same time and is reasonably good at both.

While both of these principles are important, my personal view is that right now the priority for the IWW should be to develop organizers. This doesn’t mean neglecting industrial power, because we can only meaningfully develop organizers by aiming at industrial power. But the reality is that the IWW relies too much on people who joined with their vision and values already formed and their skills already developed. Plus, turnover in the IWW is far too high. We need to get better at creating organizers, improving organizers over time, and retaining organizers for the long haul. This is a key part of building the One Big Union and ultimately abolishing the wage system.


December 2008

Pinchpoint Target

Some people think the IWW should pour all of its resources into organizing in an industry which is particularly important to the economy, to maximize our impact on capitalism–I call this the “Pinchpoint Target” idea.

Pinchpoint Target is the idea that there’s one key sector or a few key sectors of the economy where organized workers could shut down capitalism. This means workers in that sector or sectors have a certain level of objective power, at least potentially. For instance, if every dockworker in the United States went on strike the global economy would stop. Dockworker strikes stop an incredibly valuable amount of machinery and goods. Every minute of the strike costs the bosses of the world a great deal of money. This analysis is correct. It does not mean that the IWW should focus only organizing dockworkers.

The problem with Pinchpoint Target is that it takes a correct objective analysis of the economy–some sectors are more important to the global economy than others–and argues that the analysis should dictate organizational strategy. The mistake is that Pinchpoint Target says that we’ll organize that key sector or sectors and then be able to end capitalism. That is, the idea is that workers in that sectors or sectors will lead the charge for everyone else.

There are at least three problems with this idea. One is that workers in other industries need unions too because their jobs also suck. Some of those workers are currently IWW members and not all of them can change jobs to some key industry. The IWW needs to support and train and develop those members too. To do otherwise would be undemocratic.

A second problem is that the current level of training, experience, and dedication in the union is insufficient. The procedures for educating news members and developing a sense of Wobbly culture and community need to be better. I don’t mean to put down the hard work of my fellow workers. I simply think that we still have a lot of work to do in this area. If we’re talking about key sectors where we want to not only build unions but push forward revolutionary transformation then we will face tremendous repression. We have to be prepared for this repression. That means we have to develop better networks of solidarity and union infrastructure and a stronger Wobbly culture. The union busting we face when we organize image conscious restaurant chains or in the public sector is nowhere near as fierce as in manufacturing. We still have a hard time handling this in our campaigns. If we organize dockworkers or oil refinery workers the union busting we face will be much more intense than anything we have seen before. We need to get better at winning smaller campaigns in less important sectors of the economy before we charge up the mountain.

The level of repression which workers in pinchpoint industry face is an argument for not prioritizing those sectors for another reason. If workers in those industries are isolated, they will be more easily defeated. If organization and revolutionary consciousness is spread throughout the working class across different sectors then we will have a better chance at defeating that repression. If it’s not, then the struggles in the pinchpoint sector or sectors will be more likely to lose–and the workers in other sectors may be less likely to unite with the workers in the pinchpoint sectors.

The experience of class struggle on the job can have a radicalizing effect. I’ve argued that we should organize in a way that maximizes this effect. This is important to counteract divisions between parts of our class. More important sectors of the economy are more likely to be well paid, and one response to major unrest is to improve conditions. The difference in income between the pinchpoint and nonpinchpoint workers can lead workers in the non-pinchpoint sectors to be less disposed toward solidarity.

I want to close by saying that the Pinchpoint Target is motivated by a sense of urgency. The idea is that prioritizing one sector or some key sectors will move the abolition of the wage system along faster. That’s a worthwhile goal and that impatience is totally understandable. The world is a bad place in many ways and it needs to change. I’m not convinced that the Pinchpoint Target will help us, but I respect and share the sense of urgency of the fellow workers who hold to this idea.