From Here to There: How I Became a Wobbly by Juan Conatz
During 2005, I was working in a warehouse for a somewhat large mail-order company in Peosta, IA. At the age of 22, it was the longest-held job I had at that point. It’s hard for me to remember exactly when or why, but there were issues at work I thought needed to be addressed and the only way it seemed they would be is if we had a union. The IWW’s website said a lot of things I agreed with, and so I joined them through a membership application in the Industrial Worker, sending along a letter about my desire to organize. Unfortunately, the IWW didn’t really exist in any meaningful sense anywhere nearby, so I contacted a number of local unions who all referred me to the Teamsters.
The Teamster organizer gave me very little advice or help, but I did manage to get a small committee going through 1-on-1 meetings with some coworkers. But with no real assistance from the organizer and only a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election as a goal, we fell apart because of being unable to grow that much.
For the next 2 years, being only a paper member of an organization that didn’t have a presence near me, I drifted away. In early 2007, I moved to Cedar Rapids, IA and worked a succession of various temporary jobs. My sister and a number of people I had grown up with were living there and I made new friends fairly quickly. One of those friends worked in a massive warehouse that stored and shipped products from the nearby General Mills and Quaker factories. I also worked at this warehouse, but as a temp on first shift, as opposed to my friend, who had been hired on and worked second shift. One time, visiting his trailer, I spotted a copy of the Industrial Worker on his counter. Turns out, there had been an IWW member there, attempting to organize only a couple of months before I started working at this place! This Wobbly had also sold my friend the trailer he lived in. Eventually, my friend sold it to my sister.
About a year later, in 2008, I became involved in a small anarchist group in Iowa City, IA that was formed to get people to the Republican National Convention protests in St. Paul, MN. Turns out that this Wobbly that had worked at the same warehouse as me, and whose trailer my sister was now living in, had been a member of the Eastern Iowa General Membership Branch (GMB). This GMB was now defunct, but the main people that had been involved were the primary initiators of this anarchist group I was now involved in. It’s funny to me to think about the 1 or 2 degrees of separation I had with this Wobbly in Iowa (who I met a couple of years later, finally!).
From the summer of 2008 until late 2010, Iowa City was my home. The anarchist group I was a part of eventually reformed and became reorganized. We started to talk about specific long-term things we wanted to do. I was always in favor of starting an IWW branch and doing workplace organizing, but being in the minority on this, it never happened. Despite that, I re-joined and paid dues on and off. Attending an Organizer Training 101 in the Twin Cities, I finally met active members of the IWW and planned to organize at work, which at this time was a warehouse contracted by Procter & Gamble to put together and ship merchandising displays. However, despite some small informal job actions, me and my coworkers didn’t attempt very much, and my time there ended soon after.
Finding stable and reliable employment became more difficult for me in the over-educated university town of Iowa City, which resulted in getting more or less got evicted and living wherever possible could for a few months. Around this time, while living in Davenport, IA, massive protests erupted in Wisconsin in reaction to the right-wing Governor’s proposal to abolish public sector collective bargaining, with the largest centered in Madison. The IWW branch there was heavily involved, and was swamped with tasks. Some IWW members in Minneapolis and Detroit knew I didn’t have anything holding me down, and so convinced me to move to Madison to help out with things, primarily trying to push for a general strike.
Once there, I was put on a (very) modest stipend and instructed to do various tasks. Members of the Madison branch provided me with housing. I helped plan events and trainings, fliered at marches, built relationships with other groups, wrote pamphlets, attempted to make state-wide contacts in the public sector, among other things. It was a very memorable experience.
As the movement in Wisconsin put everything into an effort to recall the Governor and multiple Republican state senators, I moved to Minneapolis for better job prospects.
In Minneapolis, I became a part of the Twin Cities branch of the IWW. I’ve helped run pickets, edit and write for the union’s publications, facilitate organizer trainings around the country and many other activities. Although small, I’ve gained invaluable knowledge and experience from the IWW. I’m proud it has been an important part of my life for the last 5 years and hope it will be for far longer.