More IWW writing, strictly in a personal capacity as usual. As I mentioned a bit ago (this reminds me I need to categorize my posts, instead of having them all filed under miscellanea) I stepped down recently from a role in the international of the IWW. I’ve got a number of thoughts about that. I also want to lay out what it’s been like for me and how I got here. Self-absorbed, I know.

How I got into that sort of work

I’ve been in the organization for I think 5 years. Maybe 4. I joined in Chicago. I took a while to get active. To me, the organization was entirely a local entity. I didn’t pay attention to organization-wide publications, had little-to-no relationships with people outside Chicago, and had little real interest in changing that. After a year or so, I moved to Minneapolis. As I was preparing to move I made plans to try to start a branch here. I had become very attached to the organization locally in Chicago and the types of activity I was involved in. I wanted to continue that kind of activity, I wanted to have some way to collaborate with my friends and comrades in Chicago, and I wanted to contribute to the organization somehow. As it turned out, luckily, as I showed up a branch was already underway.

Sort of hedging my bet, on some advice from friends and comrades, I also got involved in international. I don’t remember who said it but someone told me that doing stuff in the international would be a way to keep working with the people I knew and tied in to the organization since I didn’t know what I was walking into. More than that, though, I got involved because a friend pushed me. I wasn’t motivated to be on a committee of the international. My friend pushed me saying that he could used the help and said something along the lines that it would involve getting to know the organization better as it existed on paper and getting to know more members around the organization. That made sense. I served on that committee for a year and a half or so and built relationships with people around the U.S. and to a lesser extent Canada.

That committee worked on getting to know some of what was going on in the organization that a lot of the organization didn’t know about – activities in local groups that weren’t reported much, which resulted in part in not drawing lessons from our experiences, so a lot of re-inventing the wheel, and in not having a clear grasp of what the organization in total was really doing. As part of that we gathered opinions and ideas on reforming parts of the organization and creating a new body within the organization that would do work on needs identified in the process.

At the end of that committee I was ready to not do work in the international. The chair of the committee got married and had new family responsibilities happening/pending. He asked me to serve on the body that came out of the committee’s work. I didn’t want to but my friend said he wanted some more continuity between our committee and the body that came after. That made sense. It was a one year appointment. I was chair of a subcommittee in that body. Stuff went pretty well but the subcommittee I chaired failed under my watch. That sucked and I felt (feel) bad about it.

I don’t remember the chronology but somewhere in there I became an organizing trainer for the organization. I liked and still like that work. I became (and remain) convinced that that work, training, was incredibly important. I had ideas that the foundation laid by the training program could be built upon and extended so I put my name in the hat for that body. That was a two year appointment. I worked on that for about a year and a half then decided to step down.

Burn out

Over the course of all that time I felt like my life had gotten busier and harder. I also was doing what felt to me like a lot of work in the international and local work. I’ll get more into some of this in a moment. In short, I mostly burnt out, as I mentioned a bit before. I counted at one point and I was doing between 15 and 50 hours a month of this sort of work, I was feeling tired a lot and as I’ve said had started to feel like I didn’t get back from the work what I used to. This feeling intensified later, I didn’t know where the floor was though I thought I did. I also am pretty sure that my work and my marriage suffered from all this, and I know other friendships did. I decided to slow down in April or June, having recognized a problem, but then stuff really heated up with this and I felt compelled to stay involved. My work in that has been peripheral but my small role in that is among the stuff I’m most proud of and I really love the people involved so I felt like I had to be part of it. I don’t know how good of a job I did or how much I was around after that stuff went down (definitely could have been better, that’s for sure) but I know I put more time in. Anyway.

Disconnections and Connections

I got involved in the international right as I moved to Minneapolis. I think I came up with some habits from my prior experiences that weren’t super helpful in the new branch. I also felt a bit out of place in the branch-to-be. Everyone else seemed to know each other and had been here for a very long time, had local ties and relationships and a sense that Minnesota was theirs. I’ve had periodic feelings that the local group up here has insufficient ties to the international and that people in the local don’t have enough ties to people outside this area. I think I’m right about that but I’m not only right about that. I’ve tended to under-emphasize the importance of local work and relationships with people locally outside the organization. I mean that personally (I know a fair amount of people here but not in the left outside the organization much and I have relatively few real friendships outside the organization and nowhere near the time I want/need/feel I should have to put into the relationships I do have – to be totally honest, I feel lonely a lot as well as feeling like I can’t maintain the ties I want to and thus I sometimes act as if relationships are a burden) as well as organizationally (I underemphasize the value of the ties that members of organization have to others locally). I’ve also used my friendships with people around the organization outside Minnesota to cope with and feel better about the feel of disconnect locally. Part of this is also that maintaining long term relationships is easier in a sense, timewise… it’s more flexible. I can call and email for that, rather than meet up face to face. I like to see people face to face, quite a bit, but the times of the week available for that tend to be times that are competing for times with other people, other friendships with people locally to the extent that I have them and time with my wife (and now, my brother) because of her work schedule.

I think the local group has more ties to the rest of the organization than is typical and members locally have more ties to members outside Minnesota than is typical in the organization, from what I know about the organization. That’s important and I don’t recognize that enough. I still think we have some habits and tendencies toward localism in a way which isn’t just a good thing, and that this is reflective of a dynamic across the organization (it’s odd but many locals, especially bigger cooler ones, tend to be overly localist). I don’t get where it comes from. Reaction to localism in … uh…. my local and locale fed into my doing more work in the international, emphasizing member to member connections. I think that was right about that, but what I’ve often forgotten is to be intentional about building connections between people locally as well. I also have to admit that since I put so much time into stuff in the international and to building ties between people across locals, I sometimes have taken what I felt was a localist vibe too personally, as if folk didn’t value the work I did. That wasn’t productive.

Back to work in the international….

Upsides and Downsides of Work in the International

There are some clear upsides of work in the international. It can help lay groundwork for important stuff to happen, creating relationships between people, structures for carrying out work, spreading ideas and lessons. This stuff can also improve member retention. This may be simplistic but I think that when the going gets rough we need things that keep people tied in. A lot of this is people’s individual personalities and drive and so on, but another huge component is relationships. If people have a web of relationships with various people in various places, operating at various speeds (people we talk to daily or weekly, monthly, less frequently) and in different ways (talking differnet parts of the organization and the work, and different ideas and different aspects of our lives) then all of that can help serve to keep people around for the long haul. It can be especially helpful for when people change jobs or otherwise change their roles in activity in their own workplaces, and when people move. Relationships also help us deepen our ideas and reflect on our activities to do them better.

I don’t know that that’s very clear. I’d really like to hear from other comrades about their experiences in doing roles in the international.

I care deeply about the work I’ve been involved in in the international (locally too, but I think that goes without saying, and, sadly, I’ve cut down my local work a lot) and as I mentioned in some ways it’s easier to do that kind of work than local work. I can do that work on the phone from home or on the bus or on a break at work, or on a computer at home or at work. This is true of local work of an administrative character; a friend told me he became secretary or treasurer or both for his local shortly after his daughter was born, because he wanted to be involved in work that needed to be done but had to be able to do so from home while caring for his daughter. That’s an important avenue for participation and as I become a parent it’ll continue to be important. All of that said, though, this work carries some risks and downsides.

As I’ve said or at least suggested, it’s hard to balance with local work. That balance can feed into some weird or uncomfortable emotional dynamics, at least for those of who are given to such dynamics. (I think it’s like family. I love my family very much and that’s part of why they can get to me in a way that no one else can; people in the organization are a close second, I’ve got a similar love and a similar way of folks getting to me, particularly the ones I love and respect the most.) I’m not sure if this is really happened with me or not, but I think there’s also a risk of coming off like a mover and a shaker – “I know all these people, look at me, I’m important” – to people who aren’t as connected across the organization. That’s a real danger, and could have the opposite effect to what I want to achieve, which is always (at least consciously anyway) to get people to broaden their relationships numerically and across different locations beyond the local (again, I’ve tended to underemphasize the value of doing something similar within our local area, something I hope to take steps – only a few, as I’m taking it easy – to rectify over the next year and a half or so [I want to make a goal of mostly taking it easy until the end of 2010, if I’m to do any projects I want them to be short term with clear and finite end dates and manageable well-defined commitments rather than long term ones]) as well as to deepen the relationships they do have.

Another risk is just burn out. While I value this work and think the format allows participation in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible or wouldn’t be as easy for me, the pay off and rhythm to this work is different from face to face work and work that’s more directly involved in actions. As I said, I think trainings are incredibly important, that’s why I worked on helping make them happen. But coordinating trainings even though important, it’s … well… helping coordinate the training program usually involved a lot of voice messages and email messages to get dates set and make sure people worked out their travel and got reimbursed for their expenses, and checking in to see how the training went and if there’s any needed follow up. I rarely got to really see an immediate result. As important as trainings are, some of the payoffs are long term. And coordinating other people doing trainings is different from doing trainings myself, because doing the training involves face to face interaction, another sort of payoff. What I’m trying to say is that this work doesn’t provide as immediate and as obvious of rewards, even though it’s really important.

Another risk, and I think there are elements of this with local work too but for me I think I’m better at this with face to face stuff, is reducing conversations to just nuts and bolts. With face to face stuff it’s much easier, for me anyway, to do the ‘hi how are you’ stuff, which really matters a lot, and to talk in more detail with people about stuff beyond the immediate work and the organization. With the distance interaction it’s much easier to narrow the range of material we talk about, making the interaction really narrowly goal driven and without some of the types of pleasantries and niceties and open ended conversation that matters so much in sustaining relationships. I think elements of this are necessary for being efficient with our time, but it’s a balancing act, something to be conscious of.

Finally, doing work in the international can sometimes lead to not seeing the forest for the trees (and at the same time, the branches for the trees, so to speak), getting overly concerned with practical or technical problems or disagreements going on between a few people in the organization and not seeing both the bigger picture of what we’re doing and why as well as the smaller picture of the individuals involved and their relationships.

Some possible lessons and goals?

I’m not sure what I’ve taken away from all this, I’m still processing (as all this meandering demonstrates, and to some extent facilitates). One really basic point is that this work is necessary and rewarding but has costs. It’s not something someone should do for a very long time. It’s a role to take on some times, for limited time periods. I think that’s probably true of much of the work involved in the organization.

In terms of connections beyond the local level, and actually within locals, I already talked about how I think this is important and some of why it matters, beyond it being intrinsicly valuable. I think we need to always be intentional about this, and in some ways we need to always act like organizers. There are communities or networks of relationships that are … I want to say natural or given but that’s not really it. Pre-existing, I guess. People walk into the organization with ties to some people and with tendencies toward some people. People know whoever signed them up, and whoever they work with in the organization (on the job or otherwise), and if people don’t do work they know less people (and if someone knows less people they’re likely to do less work, it’s a sort of chicken and egg issue).

What I mean is, there’s a sort of inertia. People move in the orbits their in. We don’t move into other lines or cross into other paths than the regular ones our lives take unless we make decisions to do so. If we have people to pay attention to these dynamics those people can help others cross paths and build relationships.

Organizing isn’t just this, but a big part of organizing is the following. Organizers build new relationships with new people then use those relationships between those people among themselves. So, an organizer builds a relationship with person 1, with person 2, with person 3, and person 4 in one locale or workplace. The organizer tries to get folk to do various things for various reasons. A critically important piece of organizing – someone is not an organizer as far as I’m concerned, to the degree that they’re not doing this, and I mean that as a criticism – is that the organizer tries to become obsolete by developing other people to be able to do what the organizer does/can do. The organizer wants others to learn to do all the needed stuff that the organizer can do. Similarly, equally critical, the organizer wants to multiply relationships. An organizer does not collect relationships for personal power (there are times when this is appropriate, tactically, but it’s a tactic and not a strategy that’s any good), the organizer collects relationships to build relationships between others and then step back, ideally when others begin to take on a more active role in relationship building. So, the organizer with ties between persons 1-4 uses those ties and the tasks of organizing to get person 1 and person 2 to deepen their already existing relationship, and to get one of them to have more of a relationship with person 3 and person 4, and tries to get at least one of these people to build ties to people in another locale. A web of relationships, like I mentioned before. The organizer initially creates relationships which have the organizer at the center, then uses those relationships to create a web which does not center on the organizer. Ideally, over time the organizer becomes less and less important in that web, and the other people in it or at least some of the people in it become more and more capable of doing what the organizer did, running the web themselves, intentionally, and cultivating new people. (In short, make some people into organizers. This ties to what I meant before when I was talking about developing people.

This same dynamic has to go on within our organization, not just in workplaces. We need people to be internal organizers of our current (and growing) membership. Without that, we have inertia, which is often centrifugal force – a tendency for people to fall out of relationships and for parts of hte organization to fall apart. Internal organizers are one of the centripetal forces that keeps the organization together. (I had to do an internet search to remember which was which, centrifugal and centripetal force.) We can’t expect that because people are already in motion in some ways, and already members and so on, that they’ll just do stuff. We have to be conscious of dynamics and act with and on others. (Likewise we can’t expect that we just know what we’re doing and that stuff is working like we want it to, we have to reflect and we have to connect so other people can hold us accountable and give feedback. Put another way, people are often unconscious or do things unconsciously, and need other people to be conscious of and for them, this applies both ways – it’s good for others when we assess and push them, but we need that role for us too. Organizers need to be organized too.)

So, we need to have people who are deliberate and intentional about building ties between members in and across locals on an ongoing basis. Activities within the international are an imperfect but useful way to do some of this. Doing this involves first building ties between the individual person and many others, then building ties among those others. Individual ties between one person and others is an end in itself but treating it as an end in itself is not organizing: my ties to others are an end in themelves, but when I say that I am not thinking like an organizer. Thinking like an organizer, ties between other people are an end in themselves; my ties to people are a means for me to help build relationships between those people. Balancing these perspectives is difficult sometimes. I think as we transition roles part of what goes on is transitioning what our ends are. As I step back and step down, I hope to enjoy more of my relationships as ends in themselves, even while I think part of what we continue to need is the use of relationships as a means to create more relationships. For now I’ll be taking it easier on that front. In any case, we need people to be aware of this in the international and act as internal organizers, to be deliberate about continuing to knit webs of relationships – more broadly and more deeply/strongly – and to try to cultivate others as active knitters of these webs (to cultivate others as organizers), and to build ties across the different webs that compose the organization.