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Nov 20, 18

Building a Constructive and Revolutionary IWW Union Culture

A critical look and critique on healthy organizational structures, specifically within the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

by Lexi Owens

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is a radical and revolutionary labor union operating across the world. As opposed to traditional labor unions, the IWW is explicitly anti-capitalist, completely democratic, and seeks to organize entire industries rather than individual trades. The preamble to our Constitution perhaps articulates our aims best: “It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”

In North America, the IWW typically operates through General Membership Branches (GMBs) in which IWW members from multiple industries can come together in a branch, elect officers, conduct business, and start organizing campaigns. But GMBs can become stagnant, toxic, factional, and paralyzed. I have been a member of two extremely different GMBs: one that collapsed under the weight of factional infighting, and another that is flourishing even as it has its own internal struggles. In this article, I examine what sets these two branches apart and provide solutions from my experience being an officer in both branches.

My Experience

I moved from one city to another and transferred my membership from GMB to GMB. The cities themselves have many similarities: approximately the same size population, long histories of labor struggles, and vibrant activist scenes. But they were also fundamentally different. For instance, the new city has a long history of Wobbly activity (going back to 1905), while the old city has one large union that represents most workers in the city’s dominant industry.

I joined the IWW through a small and very young GMB in the old city. There were fifteen members in good standing and it was only a few months old. The city had had an IWW GMB a few years before, but it had been defunct for some time. One very dedicated person decided to resurrect it. The folks who originally petitioned for a charter were in two groups: half were young activists in the community and a couple dual-carders, and the other half were older men who appreciated the IWW’s history and colorful characters – and most of this second group had been part of the previous GMB years earlier. I joined while this new GMB was being chartered and was asked to take on some leadership roles immediately, which I agreed to do. The leadership at the time was three young people under 30.

Problems from the local activist community immediately spilled into the GMB. One member was sexually assaulted by another member before the GMB formed, and the GMB was then tasked with striking a complaints committee. The older men took one side while the younger people supported the survivor.

There were other clear cultural divides as well. Two older members from the previous iteration of the GMB were openly hostile towards new members (specifically young people, including the branch’s trans members). When mediation between the two groups was attempted, these two men refused to participate or even to speak to the other members. Then they battled for control over the GMB’s public presence and social media pages. And in the end, the stress of trying to manage multiple fights within the chapter caused each of the branch’s officers to resign.

Another problem was that the GMB never grew. The initial excitement to charter a GMB got a bunch of people on board, and they each took out red cards and began attending meetings. Other than a couple new people filtering in, the GMB’s membership was stagnant and then declined, until eventually the GMB was de-chartered. A GMB simply can’t survive with only fifteen members when five of them are active and everyone else drifts away. Within a year of forming, the GMB had collapsed again.

A couple months before it was de-chartered, I moved to a new city for a new job. I linked up with the local GMB and began attending meetings. I could clearly see that the GMB in my new home city had a completely different culture.

“The veterans of the branch had been in numerous labor fights, had years of experience organizing workers and GMB members, knew the IWW backwards and forwards, had developed many formal and informal processes for operating the GMB, and were welcoming and friendly towards new members. The branch definitely has its shortcomings, but we are actively engaged in fixing those things rather than giving up or letting the branch collapse.”

In its current form, this GMB has existed since the 1990s. When I joined, it had a union contract at one shop and another organizing campaign in the works. The veterans of the branch had been in numerous labor fights, had years of experience organizing workers and GMB members, knew the IWW backwards and forwards, had developed many formal and informal processes for operating the GMB, and were welcoming and friendly towards new members. The branch definitely has its shortcomings, but we are actively engaged in fixing those things rather than giving up or letting the branch collapse.

The biggest difference is how controversial issues are handled. Recently, we adopted some changes within the branch that led to months of heated debate and a lot of lost sleep. But ultimately, once those changes were put up to the full membership for a vote, the changes were adopted by an overwhelming majority. In another case, when a former member who had admitted to committing sexual assault asked to rejoin the branch, the officers and delegates convened a meeting to discuss the issue, consulted with multiple members who had experience with sexual assault survivors, and agreed to recommend a solution to the full branch. At our monthly meeting, the branch agreed with the officers’ and delegates’ recommendation to ask the former member not to rejoin, while at the same time voting to form a sexual assault and harassment working group to develop a procedure for when these questions are raised.

The emphasis was always on democratizing the decision-making process and allowing the branch to make its own decisions. Rather than relying on a small number of active members to handle issues, and rather than empowering a small number of people to work on behalf of the GMB, we have instead broadened the mechanisms of democratic control. There is a small group of members in the branch who disagree with many things that the branch has decided to do. But because we have a clear democratic process and strong culture of acceding to those democratic decisions, no controversial policy actually poses an existential threat to the GMB itself. Moreover, if we lost a big chunk of members or officers (even as many as 50%), the branch would continue to function.

I’d also argue that because of this branch’s long history and emphasis on democratic decision making (a focus that is so strong that our business meetings are completely jam-packed with votes), we also avoid a lot of factional disputes in the first place. If we have a question, the members vote on it, and then that’s the answer. Of course, this can hamper some decisions that are urgent, but waiting until the business meeting so the membership can voice its concerns is always preferable to making a knee-jerk or undemocratic decision. Ultimately, the political ideology or agenda of any particular member is subordinated to the group, which is how a democratic union is supposed to function.

How do GMBs Get Off on the Wrong Foot?

In my experience working in two different branches and talking with members of others, there seem to be five distinct reasons why GMBs don’t develop a positive union culture: ill-defined recruitment, lack of institutional knowledge, lack of training on what it means to be a Wobbly, lack of clear expectations for how the GMB conducts its business, and reliance on key personalities.

The first problem is how GMBs usually form out of the activist impulse to do something with labor. Socialists and anarchists typically include among their political ideologies some kind of approach to organizing workers to seize the means of production. What ends up happening is that GMBs form by getting together a bunch of like-minded activists from the same ineffective local leftist milieu. No actual workers join the GMB. If organizing campaigns do start, it’s with people who are already friendly to the union or unionism. This doesn’t actually grow the power of the working class or unite workers, and the GMB’s membership is totally stagnant. As the GMB is incapable of accomplishing anything, members lose confidence and leave. For this reason, GMBs should focus on starting one really promising organizing campaign, signing up all the workers in one workplace, and growing the membership by winning shopfloor demands and proving that the IWW is an effective labor union. Our branch here grew as we signed up workers in workplaces we’re organizing and through word of mouth as other workers heard of our shops’ successes.

The second problem stems from the first: most GMBs don’t have an experienced labor organizer right away because they are started by young activists. There is no institutional knowledge about how to carry out an organizing campaign, how to sustain a union drive, how to bargain with bosses, how to use labor law, how to interact with the National Labor Relations Board or the local equivalent, or how to recruit members who are regular workers. This lack of institutional knowledge can undermine any GMB’s work by costing time and resources. Inexperienced Wobblies may get themselves and their coworkers fired, or campaigns will just fizzle out without ever growing. Experienced organizers can provide guidance on how to avoid costly mistakes, grow the union, and sustain a campaign.

“The second problem stems from the first: most GMBs don’t have an experienced labor organizer right away because they are started by young activists. There is no institutional knowledge about how to carry out an organizing campaign…”

There also seems to be a serious lack of guidance from General Headquarters on how to form a branch. Sure, there are guides on the technical stuff and how to fill out the paperwork. But there really isn’t a formal program for training new branches how to be active in a labor union. In the first city I was active in, we received emails from our contact at the GEB saying that we were putting too much stress on him to answer questions, but our concerns were legitimate and we received very little support. Even the basics like having a good meeting are left to be discovered by whomever forms the GMB. New branches don’t receive training on sexual assault and harassment (a major problem in all leftist organizations), Department of Labor or Internal Revenue Service filings, how to be a delegate, Rusty’s Rules, IWW history, or solidarity unionism. There are strong arguments for why people should figure things out as they go, but there should be a lot more guidance from the union to ensure that branches succeed from the start.

There aren’t clear expectations for GMBs either. The IWW has entrenched itself in two separate but overlapping spheres: the world of social activism and the world of labor organizing. Any good labor union should absolutely be engaged in social activism, and should do everything it can to address both internal and external oppression. And social activists must address the way labor is a crucial social factor in every political struggle. However, for many GMBs, social activism becomes their only focus because members don’t have clear expectations for how to organize labor. Many branches with no organizing campaigns hold a yearly May Day celebration, go to protests, do other activities in their communities, but never actually do labor union activities in workplaces. We got stuck in this cycle at my first GMB: we protested against a pro-Trump rally, we marched on May Day, we shouted at the Westboro Baptist Church, we attended social gatherings with other leftist organizations, but we never actually tried to organize a workplace. It wasn’t even clear that we should have been trying to organize workers because we were always doing stuff, just not the right stuff. GMBs should learn how to get organizing projects started so they can do the work of a labor union.

And lastly, there is the reliance on one or two dominant personalities without whom the GMB would collapse. At my first GMB, we relied completely on two people to do every administrative task, organize every meeting, work with every committee, and do the GMB’s business. When one of them resigned, the GMB began to collapse. No one had been trained on how to be a Branch Secretary. Most of us hadn’t even voted for him when he took the position. Tasks hadn’t been delegated fairly, and there was no culture of democratic decision making. This happens in organizing campaigns too: the main social leader or one prominent salt leaves or gets fired, and then the organizing campaign dies. Especially when GMBs are small, having a core group dominate in every sphere of its business can be devastating. It’s also just plain undemocratic. Leaders should be ready to replace themselves, and GMBs should be able to transfer administrative and organizational tasks without falling apart.

Possible Solutions

There is no easy or one-size-fits-all way to build a positive union culture. But I think there are some steps that new GMBs can take to make sure they get off to a good start, and that existing GMBs can take to help build working-class power and ensure long-term stability of their branches. I also think there are procedures that the North American Regional Administration (NARA) can consider for when groups do petition to form a GMB.

  • GMBs need to focus on labor organizing and not the activist scene. From a pragmatic standpoint, we will never build One Big Union for All Workers by only recruiting like-minded activists from multiple industries. We have to build a union before we can build One Big Union. Making sure that the GMB is engaged in labor work also gives a well-defined mission with achievable goals, which serves the dual purpose of actually building working-class power while uniting members in a common task. At-large members who have no GMB as well as folks within GMBs who aren’t actively organizing their workplaces have told me “I don’t get anything out of the IWW.” Whether or not this statement is true, it’s certainly true for a lot of Wobblies who see $11 a month going to an organization that doesn’t seem to directly benefit them. Organizing marches and protests is free; organizing a labor union is not. Give these members a reason to believe in the IWW by getting involved in labor organization, whether it’s at their workplace or someone else’s. Make that $11 a month work for them.
  • When a new branch forms, nearby members need to be flown in to provide help, training, guidance, etc. GHQ needs to pay for this travel. And representatives from the NARA alphabet soup should also be a part of the process–members from the General Executive Board (GEB), Gender Equity Committee (GEC), General Defense Committee (GDC), Organizing Department Board (ODB), Organizer Training Committee (OTC), and others who have amassed a wealth of experience in the IWW. Parallel to this training, new GMB members should be told what it means to be a delegate or a Branch Secretary/Treasurer before there are elections.
  • One of the longest tenured Wobblies in my current branch has argued that we should consider having a stage between signing a petition for a charter and the GMB being granted that charter. This incubation period would help build the necessary structures to make sure that the GMB functions well and has processes in place for when things inevitably go badly. For instance, What happens when a member is assaulted? What is the mediation and complaints process? Who can be consulted for help on these issues? If a branch can’t answer these questions, then the IWW has failed to live up to its own policies and should therefore intervene–either by delaying the charter or providing some kind of oversight. Other procedural questions can be worked out during this period as well, such as ensuring that branch officers have attended the OT101, know Rusty’s Rules, have had some kind of sexual harassment training, etc.

This incubation period might also help the GMB demonstrate its ability to grow. The requirement for chartering GMBs used to be 20 workers, but that was reduced to 10 several decades ago. This incubation period could be used to get GMBs over that 20 worker threshold. If in 6 months the proto-GMB has shown that it can keep 20 workers in continuous good standing, then it can be chartered. Meanwhile, the proto-GMB can be doing organizing work, building committees, holding Organizer Trainings, and otherwise doing the work of an IWW local, so that once it is granted that charter, it’s already doing the things a GMB should be doing, only now with members who have more guidance, confidence, and skills necessary for that GMB to last. This is just a rough idea and may or may not work in practice, but considering how many GMBs form and then dissolve within two years, it might help save the union a lot of time, resources, and energy.

I’m trying to provide proactive solutions to inevitable problems rather than having inexperienced Wobblies try to react once these problems occur. It’s clear that every branch in the union has some kind of problem: sexual assault, transphobia, gatekeeping, toxicity, authoritarianism, precarity, interpersonal feuds, factional disputes, stagnation, and others. It’s also clear that many branches don’t have the infrastructure to handle them, at least not yet.

However, building a positive union culture is more than just taking proactive steps to handle crises. It’s also about ensuring that we are building solidarity in our own branches. We do not have to agree on every policy, tactic, constitutional amendment, bylaw, or goal. But we do have to agree to work together democratically, to engage in open and honest discourse, to seek solutions together, and to build power to fight the bosses. Toxic leftist infighting is doing the work of the capitalists and the state by dividing and weakening us. Refusing to do actual labor organizing because our energy is spent hamstringing ourselves is damaging what little credibility this union has.

The difference between my first GMB and my current GMB is that culture of solidarity. That’s what holds us together and allows us to grow. But that culture of solidarity doesn’t just materialize from nowhere, it’s born from struggle and experience, nurtured by democratic engagement, and sustained by continual evaluation of the way we do things. That’s how we fight the bosses: we unite, we fight together, and we honor the words, “Solidarity Forever.”

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