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Towards a Union of Organizers

Jimmy Johns picket

Jimmy Johns picket

by db

At present there is a large contingent of dedicated IWW members who believe in organizing but who don’t believe that their workplaces are organizable and as such, focus their efforts elsewhere.

And while I am a strong proponent of focusing our energy, I think the idea that we must organize a whole workplace or not at all is a self-defeating practice and comes more from a business union playbook than our own.

Regardless of workplace size and level of establishment, there are undoubtedly good reasons to take at least some beginning steps towards organizing your workplace. Whether there is an already existing union or the workplace is virulently anti-union, be intentional about social mapping and identifying social leaders, doing one to ones with co-workers to build relationships and maybe connect them into improving working conditions and raising their class-consciousness, while also building the IWW.

Let’s consider a few real life examples:

1. You’re a state worker and the government shuts down. You, as well as 20,000 other workers, are laid off. Your existing union is doing nothing relevant to respond to the situation and the only contact information you have for your coworkers is their work emails. If you haven’t taken the first organizing step of gathering contacts, there is no way to plan any type of collective response (outside of your union’s bureaucratic methods), or even just check in with your coworkers.

2. You’re a retail worker in a relatively small shop that is mostly composed of a group of conservative Christian workers, mostly white, male and anti-union. They have strong ties to management and many of them are actually related to the manager. There is a significantly smaller group made up of low-income black workers, some white male nerds, a queer worker and two bad-ass women workers: one white, one Latina. These workers all suffer harassment, and are at least curious if not open to the ideas of working class solidarity and struggle you’ve discussed with them. If you’re not organizing you can’t effectively respond to this harassment, or might do so in a way that makes things worse. Moreover, intentionally building and struggling with coworkers opens the possibility of transforming the culture of harassment at work. In fact, taking the first steps might just make it clear that organizing this workplace is a realistic possibility, and might at least get coworkers jazzed enough to join the IWW or stay in touch and start organizing their next job.

3. You’re a nurse in a unionized workforce and most of your co-workers are older than you. They’re counting their days until retirement and are on the high end of the pay scale. Big state cutbacks are expected down the line, but few of the new nurses like yourself know what it was like to work in pre-union conditions and are brainwashed by crazy new-hire propaganda. If you’re not organizing you can’t create a culture that welcomes in and also alerts new workers of the conditions they should expect along with the bullshit the company is putting out to confuse workers. Moreover, the possibility of setting up small events where experienced nurses share pre-union and union organizing experiences with younger nurses can help change the workplace culture to one where workers stand up and contribute to organizing in advance of massive cutbacks that are likely to come in the years ahead.

In all of these examples practiced organizing skills can help to understand and empower your fellow workers. Doing so will also make you capable of better supporting other workers’ struggles and give you experience to be able to offer others practical advice.

As such, you should get down to an organizer training to gain the skills and framework you need to begin setting and meeting workplace goals. From there, it’s useful to find yourself an organizing buddy: perhaps a delegate, another worker in your industry, a co-worker or all three to set a regular schedule for talking about work, setting goals, and making change happen.

You can do it! This is what a union of organizers is all about.

Thoughts? db[at]riseup.net.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Regardless of workplace size and level of establishment, there are undoubtedly good reasons to take at least some beginning steps towards organizing your workplace.”

    Completely agree. I’m currently temping for a month, but I’ve kept an organising notebook from day one. This came in handy as we got ahead of schedule (meaning the project would end sooner and we’d be out of work), and I was able to get us to take a tea break and agree to collectively slack off the pace. Looks like we’ve now got 2 extra days on a 20-day contract, in effect a 10% rise. If that’d happened from a standing start without having sown a few seeds, had a few preliminary one-on-ones etc I doubt we’d have pulled it off.

    April 8, 2012
    • conatz #

      That’s pretty interesting. I’ll admit, I slack off with this kind of stuff when it comes to temp work, but examples such as that are a good reason not to.

      April 9, 2012
  2. John Reimann #

    Several examples given here are of workplaces that are already organized by a business/mainstream union. There are a couple of questions that beg to be answered. One is what is the difference between the IWW and the other unions. Related to this is how we organize in such work places? Do we expect to replace the mainstream union? Do we ignore it? And related to this — in some ways the most important question of all — is how our co-workers see that union.

    April 8, 2012
  3. Rosa Luxemburg #

    I agree 100%. My workplace is corporate and white collar. People automatically assume that everything is perfect or too good to agitate and build a workplace committee at. That is absolutely, undeniably false. In the corporate world there are issues of bullying; most high level managers are straight, white males and former jocks. Most of the white collar workers are women. There are issues of sexual harrassment and a culture of a “good old boys club” where promotions and raises generally go to the straight, white males that belong to the good old boys club. Is pay horrible? No. But it’s not great either. Do we have benefits? Yes, but their not great. Is our job dangerous? No. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to organize off of a solidarity unionism model and to build power on the job to make that job better.

    April 8, 2012
    • Organizing a white collar workplace for better wages does nothing to get rid of the wage system and capitalism. Instead it embraces the system. I’d be interested in what your organizing strategy would be since most white collar jobs are highly competitive and workers are not only not supportive of one another but are looking for ways to step on each other to get ahead. Am I missing something here?

      April 9, 2012
      • conatz #

        White collar work encompasses a lot of jobs, and I don’t think one can write them off like that. Your description of highly competitive and workers stepping on each other to get ahead could be applied to a lot of jobs, in my opinion.

        April 10, 2012
    • To conatz: My question pertains more to the how than the why. White collar jobs tend pit workers against each other in order to defeat each other in wage wars. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m just curious about the strategy and whether it would be embracing capitalism or reformism to increase one group of workers wages over another group of workers?

      April 10, 2012
  4. This is a great article! Organizing is not a zero-sum game, it’s a long-term approach to building workers power through creating relationships. The only tiny criticism I have of this piece is in example #2. I don’t know if this is based on a real situation, but if it isn’t, I think it’s important to not perpetuate a stereotype that all white, male, Christian workers are anti-union, or that all people who are socially marginalized are pro-union. I have had a number of straight, white, male, evangelical coworkers who were strongly in favor of solidarity against the boss, and a number of coworkers of color or queer coworkers who were happy to throw coworkers under the bus. It seems like the dynamics of worker solidarity and identity vary widely from shop to shop and individual to individual. All of that said, I think the idea in this piece is right on.

    April 8, 2012
  5. db #

    Re: Erik, thanks! And in relation to example #2, this is a real example (from a FW), but I agree that dynamics are not always one way or another. After all give that the union movement is perhaps too white and male it would be foolish to believe that all white men are anti-union : )

    Finally, do any branches have any good tools for supporting their FWs setting these types of goals? I know this can happen just fine informally but particularly for people or branches who don’t do much organizing this could be useful…db

    April 9, 2012
  6. Labored #

    Cesar Chavez did not call himself a union leader or organizer. He thought of himself as a relationship builder. A critical way to “frame” what needs to be done to gain a meaningful voice in the employer/employee relationship.

    Keeping records to know the workplace issues of your co-workers is critical as well. Identifying the issues that are widely and deeply felt helps get the largest return on organizing efforts.

    Social-network mapping is critical. Identifying leaders lets an organizer know how to get the greatest return on the investment of time in bringing democracy to the workplace.

    I also agree with Erik about stereotypes. The passion that people carry around regarding their religion can be be brought to bear in the workplace when the union is smart enough to talk values and not merely dollars and cents.

    April 9, 2012
  7. Roger #

    I would also confirm that not all christians identify as evangelicals or conservatives or straight or white. Many are actually from the radical/progressive end of the religious spectrum and they may be mennonites, socialists, queer, latino. etc. I also happen to know a queer identified person who identifies as a Republican (mainly for “fiscally conservative” reason, so you never know…Other than that, great article…good thoughts on how to approach the idea of making changes on the job.

    April 10, 2012

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