This is another contribution to the ongoing debate about syndicalism and more specifically, the IWW. Its a response by the author of Crafty Ghosts to this piece by the Wobblies for a Revolutionary Movement (WRUM).
The generalizations and aspirations provided by WRUM in response to my arguments sound very nice, but they simplify some very complex situations, and stretch the definition of syndicalism into something so broad and vague that it’s nearly meaningless. The reality of the IWW’s activities tells another, much less inspiring story.
First, I want to clarify for Feral Dobbs and others that my “second pillar” critique was of the specific class reductionism and simplifications presented by the Radical Education Department’s piece. I’m not opposed to militant and anarchist approaches to workplace organizing, just the way RED lumped not only widely divergent workplaces into “just like any other shop”, but papered over various struggles with the simplifying logic of traditional workplace organizing. This seems to be a tendency of syndicalism, to treat every struggle with the same formula: “follow OT101 and AEIOU, build a mass and… wham bang revolution!”
That kind of organizing is outdated in the current post-industrial workplace, and its especially problematic when applied to broader community-based struggles. I agree with WRUM that workplace organizing, community self-defense and prison abolition are interconnected struggles, but that’s definitely not a reason to fight them all with the same tool. I’m also very concerned about a single organization presenting itself as the cure-all and inserting itself into every fight, especially when that organization has the kind of history that the IWW has.
Since these articles are speculating a lot about what I meant by entryism, I’ll try being very detailed. The IWW positions the GDC and IWOC to opportunistically lure in people on a overstated claim about fighting fascism or defending prison rebels. Once a person joins one of these committees, they might get involved with good organizing in that area, but IWW die-hards within will also pressure and continuously invite them to take out red cards and become dues paying members. Indeed, for many IWOC chapters, IWW membership is a requirement to vote or access email lists for between-meeting communication. For many IWW members, these committees function as recruitment tools, and they’re effective. IWW membership has been steady growing because of them.
WRUM asks “To what end are we allegedly trying to get people to join the organization, anyways?” Then answers the question with their own description of their structure: “We’re run by our own members, and funded by our own dues… This gives a basic level of accountability… if we’re not doing good work, then people leave and the organization dies.” In other words, IWW’s funding, credibility, indeed existence depends on continuously growing their membership, especially to replace all the people who burn out and DO leave. This is the basis of a syndicalist organizing strategy: amass numbers until you hit a magic tipping point and winning becomes easy. Whether the organization is all volunteer or not, new members are constantly needed for the current members to be able to think of themselves as effective or relevant.
I was a member of the IWW from early 2016 to last November. During that time I attended international conventions, held office on the IWOC steering committee, and was very active with my local General Membership Branch. Out of respect for the movement I’m hesitant to bring details and dirty laundry into this public forum. When I left, I submitted a thorough resignation letter to my branch, to national social media groups, and to IWOC’s internal discussion channels. I tried to provide detailed and constructive critiques of the GDC and IWOC. I got no private response to these critiques, instead WRUM chooses to write a public response that feigns ignorance and continues exaggerating and misrepresenting the role and history of these committees. I don’t want to leave WRUM’s misrepresentations and questions unanswered, so I’ll try to respond with minimum public airing of internal conflicts.
WRUM said that I “seem to view” things in terms of “legitimate turf” and to some degree they’re right. I seem to view it that way, because that’s often how the IWW operates.
The most egregious example is the transformation of the GDC. The GDC started as a legal defense arm of the union, but in recent years it was re-chartered and transformed into a much more expansive “community self-defense” mission. This change was led by Twin Cities IWW members, and it follows a very bitter turf war back in 2013 with local anarchists they dismiss as “subcultural” or “lifestylist.”
I’ll try to spare the details of this incredibly convoluted (especially once you hear the IWW’s side) story, and just summarize. People central to the re-chartering of the GDC participated in or initiated actions that: 1. attacked a non-hierarchical volunteer collective called Sisters’ Camelot, 2. created another organization to compete with and try to eliminate it, 3. took Sisters’ Camelot to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and forced them to welcome a known toxic manipulator (and recently, finally confirmed rapist) back into their project, 4. doxxed and held home demos against multiple anarchists and antifascists who they knew were being looked for on Stormfront.
That’s a turf war. When you sabotage something you deride as “a lifestyle anarchist” project and then replicate it with you own version, that’s about turf. When you use state power (through the NLRB) to coerce anti-authoritarians to re-admit a toxic dude they were trying to expel, that’s about power and control. You can’t doxx antifascists, create an antifascist organization, and then play innocent like: “who, us? We don’t think about this in terms of turf!”
You do. The Twin Cities isn’t the only example, though it is the most egregious one. I’ve heard WRUM members come back from a meeting with a newly forming Food Not Bombs project, and gleefully report: “those kids don’t know what they’re doing. We could totally take this over.” That’s a direct quote. Weeks later, the IWW was serving free food and handing out lit under its flags. This is my experience with IWW. In just a few years I heard or witnessed countless cringe-worthy stories, not only about arrogance and hostility to other radicals, but about an internal culture and tendency toward protecting rapists and toxic dudes.
With IWOC, the territorialism is less clear or intentional, though even WRUM’s essay exaggerates the “instrumental” role of IWOC’s incarcerated members in the 2018 strike. With the exception of the southeast, where prisoners who primarily affiliate with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS) might dual card with the IWW, IWOC membership does not seem to actually overlap much with participation in the strike.
This is the kind of credit-claiming mistake and exaggeration overenthusiastic wobblies make too often and it characterizes much of the role the IWW has played in prisoner organizing. The Incarcerated Worker’s Committee (IWOC) formed after the Free Alabama Movement staged impressive work stoppages in 2014. It, along with other organizations and groups, helped coordinate the 2016 and 2018 national strikes. As described so well in Nothing to Syndicate, IWOC lets people inspired by prisoner resistance to “show up to a meeting, sign a membership card, agree to a remarkably thin level of political affinity with other complete strangers, and [become] a part of things.” I was one of those people.
Like I said in Crafty Ghosts, many of the people in both these committees were (and are) very diligent, genuinely committed people, doing good work with consciousness of the fact that few of us were directly impacted. I don’t think, as WRUM ridiculously suggested, that these people are putting on a cynical act, but rather that their work was (and is) frequently undermined or manipulated by other wobblies. Those of us who were careful to put IWOC in a secondary or support role were not able to balance out the self-interested and self-promoting efforts of others.
Moreover, our involvement in the IWW frequently bogged us down in internal conflicts, bureaucratic restructuring or ham-handed debates with other, more experienced prisoner support groups. WRUM’s statement is correct, the union is its members, but only some of those members act with integrity or in the spirit of cooperation. When even those members allow others to pursue institutional longevity and expansion at any cost, the organization will tend toward the latter.
I’ll give a specific example: the IWW came out of the 2016 strike with more than $60,000 in donations given to support prison rebels. Less than one tenth of that money was passed back to FAM. Steering committee members (including prominent WRUM people) insisted that most of the rest not be spent until the spring IWOC convention. At convention, they successfully argued against multiple proposals to spend it. Meanwhile, the prison rebels who actually organized the strike were suffering retaliation on a scale too great for IWOC’s volunteers to respond to.
Instead of supporting prisoner organizers in the hole or helping FAM build their vision of a National Freedom Movement, the IWW signed up hundreds of new incarcerated IWW prisoner members on the thinnest level of political affinity and formed (and then failed to sustain) many outside IWOC support chapters. During the 2018 strike, IWOC again received a big chunk of donation money from the strike solidarity fundraiser despite still sitting on much of the money they previously raised. Far as I can tell, most of what has been spent has gone to sending ballots, the IWOC newsletter (before it was abandoned) and membership information, that is: to building the union. This money didn’t get hung up by traditionalists, but by WRUM people and outside IWOC members. When an unexpected $50,000 donation came in, they compared it to a windfall and insisted that it be used on long term growth, not on the urgent prisoner’s struggles it was donated to support.
Autonomy and authority
My concern about the autonomy of the GDC and IWOC is not about the 2017 convention fight against traditionalists who vocally opposed these committees as described by WRUM, and it’s not an underestimation. My critique is based on experience with IWW members who rhetorically support abolition, but block necessary initiatives. There have been many conflicts between IWOC locals and general membership branches, and even supportive branches or members have backed down from prisoner solidarity once something is at stake. Even abstract or petty shit like theoretical purity, organizational traditions, t-shirts or the approval of trade unions (including correctional officers’ unions) has been cause for the branch I was in to reverse IWOC decisions or undermine solidarity actions.
WRUM essay describes IWOC’s “hard fought autonomy,” but that autonomy is theoretical, existing in the bylaws, but not the practices of the organization. On a local level, almost any IWOC decision could be reversed by a majority vote of the general membership. That means IWOC’s solidarity with prisoner members depends upon the approval of the broader IWW membership, many of whom may have no experience even corresponding with prisoners, let alone seriously confronting their bias against this highly stigmatized group, or understanding prison conditions.
The WRUM article poetically describes “hundreds of incarcerated workers all members of the same union” but that membership lacks substance. It’s a good talking point for WRUM and IWOC to make in public statements, but the reality is that logistical challenges of correspondence across prison walls, mail delays, monitoring by guards, and incarcerated members being dispersed and isolated by their confinement make incarcerated membership much much less substantive than other membership. Unless people have contraband phones, even keeping inside members informed about important decisions or issues requires sharing those discussions with our opponents who staff the prison mailroom and monitor or record phone and even visiting room conversations.
Obviously, the IWW isn’t to blame for the conditions that make prisoner participation in the union so challenging, but they do have a responsibility to grapple honestly with it, and they aren’t. These communication challenges would be more manageable if IWOC was actually a separate organization, solely dedicated to prisoner solidarity efforts. Then everyone involved in decision-making would have a personal relationship with at least a few prisoners and a basic understanding of their experiences. The prisoner members interests would never have to be be balanced against the union’s various other campaigns and concerns. As it stands, when an outside IWOC member does their best to represent what they believe is in the interests of those incarcerated members who cannot be present, they are easily doubted and dismissed by general members. I’ve been accused of tokenizing, of virtue signaling and guilt tripping by wobblies, even WRUM-associated wobblies, because I argued too hard for things that seemed like no-brainer benefits to our incarcerated members.
This is structural. IWOC being a committee of the IWW means prisoner solidarity falls under the authority of non-incarcerated members. Decisions are made and information shared at public meetings, which incarcerated members cannot attend. Prisoner members’ involvement is entirely dependent on lots of labor intensive correspondence labor from outside members. People will naturally write, visit and connect more with those who they tend to agree with, resulting in unavoidable filtering and gate-keeping.
Despite WRUM and IWOC’s many aspirational claims, the result of IWOC organizing has not been the creation of a prisoners’ labor union, but rather a second-class status for prisoners in a “free world” union. Many of us worked hard to prevent or overcome this, to make IWOC’s results match its aspirations, but IWOC’s structure and the IWW’s syndicalism prevented it. Meanwhile, the Free Alabama Movement was forming an actual prisoners’ labor union. They were organizing at the point of production, expanding into other states, and leading from the inside out with national goals. When the IWW formed IWOC, the stated intention was to support FAM. That intention has not been realized or truly pursued. Instead of bolstering FAM’s organizing, the IWW followed its syndicalist formula, signed up incarcerated people to the IWW and entered into, perhaps unintentional, but nevertheless very real, competition with FAM. This is hard to admit or come to terms with, but in terms of real-world results and impact, what happened is IWOC poached Freedom Movement members and pursued FAM’s national project, but under our name.
Perhaps this is what WRUM meant when they described the GDC and IWOC as “imperfect,” but that seems like a serious understatement. They also claim to be open about shortcomings, but then present rose-colored simplifications that don’t acknowledge these realities.
Strategy and Leverage
It’s unlikely that IWW can change course, or if they do, that will require veering further from syndicalism. There are deep contradictions that come with trying to apply syndicalist or workplace organizing models to a prison environment. A workplace strategy is about leveraging economic power against bosses, but in prison, most people don’t work. The institutions definitely exploit those who do work, but they economically depend far more on taxpayer money than on their captives’ labor and are happy to remove organizers from the prison factories and into segregation units. The most common complaints from prisoners (especially outside of the deep south) are about freedom, awful conditions and torture, not economic exploitation. The most aggrieved people are in solitary confinement, where they lack any leverage against their bosses short of self-harm and voluntary starvation. Meanwhile, the bosses are appointed by the government, or elected to office, and are therefore most effectively pressured by political, rather than economic leverage. IWOC can do phone zaps all day long, actually negotiating demands, changing conditions and making gains with the boss is going to require engaging politicians, because that’s who the boss is. FAM and JLS recognize this and are working to build and expand their political influence, while the IWW remains either ideologically opposed to lobbying and electoralism or woefully inexperienced in it and unwilling to progress.
In the face of this challenge, most IWOC strategy is all over the map. Some chapters follow other organizations’ lead (like JLS, or FAM) or to join reformist projects (like bailfunds, jail shutdowns or re-entry support), but sometimes IWOC tries to ram forward with the IWW’s workplace model. That is: sign up members, demonstrate collective economic power, force the boss to negotiate. I only ever saw the first step really occurring. Trying to congeal dozens of isolated and tortured individuals into a collective action via mail correspondence is incredibly labor intensive and emotionally exhausting. People burn out on IWOC faster than any other radical project I’ve seen. This is not an “effective model of organizing that can be expanded upon” as WRUM describes, it is an effort that builds IWW’s credibility, but harms or disappoints everyone else.
Many anarchists share the IWW’s unwillingness to work with politicians, but they don’t pretend to pursue sweeping changes to the prison system which only politicians can grant. Some Anarchist Black Cross chapters approach this challenge by focusing on prison rebels, treating them as political prisoners to deter retaliation and empower more rebellion. Such efforts will long-term reshape the prison environment, but not through wrangling and negotiations. The IWW rejects such efforts though, because they depend upon distinguishing political prisoners from the incarcerated masses. Other anarchists support large numbers of prisoners, but do so by limiting their engagement to something they can reliably provide, like sending books and zines to expand radical consciousness.
IWOC needs to stop raising money and doing interviews until they figure out a similar way to be coherent and effective in this work. It is deeply irresponsible and unethical to take in these resources when IWOC’s solidarity is spread so thin to be nearly meaningless for most incarcerated members. Moreover, they need to separate from the IWW. Amassing resources intended for prisoner support under the final decision-making power of people don’t deal with or understand prison is wrong. Asking general IWW members to balance prisoner concerns with the union’s other projects is unfair to both the prisoners AND the outside members thrust into that position. It shouldn’t be happening, and IWOC’s syndicalist structure is why it does.
GDC v antifa
Outside of the obvious turf war origins of the GDC described above, my more important concern about the GDC is it’s strategic effectiveness. WRUM needs to not just wax poetic about interconnected struggles to justify GDC’s existence and absorption of anti-fascist energy. They need to prove that the GDC is a better response to rising fascism than already available alternatives. I do not believe they can.
They try by talking about how “mass antifascism and clandestine affinity group actions are complimentary tactics,” but this is not a unique innovation made up by the GDC. It’s how antifa has functioned for decades. As an unstructured tendency, rather than a formal organization, antifa is tactically flexible. Crews can throw up stickers, throw antifascist shows or cookouts, or throw punches, depending on how folks arranged their personal engagement and relationships. The GDC on the other hand, isn’t based on direct interpersonal relationships, but on membership in an over-arching organization. Members can easily sign on, but lack training in security culture and can’t engage in tactics like doxxing or getting physical with fascists because that puts the public members of GDC and IWW at risk of either law enforcement response, or retaliation.
Indeed, a strong GDC presence could deter other antifa activities because the GDC members could be blamed for anything that went down. If a total stranger beat up the local alt-right troll in my city, he’d certainly blame the GDC, and members would be hard pressed to prove they didn’t do it. The public association between the union and this committee also means GDC activities reflect on IWW as a whole. WRUM dismisses this concern by associating it with reviled “workplace only” traditionalists, but it is actually a valid concern, which does constrain GDC activities and tactics. If you believe in both mass antifascism and clandestine affinity group antifascism, as WRUM describes, GDC is not the right choice. Antifa is the approach that enables both options and does so more safely for everyone, except the nazis.
Thinking strategically about this matters a lot. We’ve seen a dangerous rise in fascist and ultra-right organizing. There have been many victories against this scourge, and the GDC has played a role, but I often wonder what would have been different had the GDC not played that role. What if all the people who wanted to fight fascism had to pick up an antifa how-to primer and take the responsibility of learning security culture, forming an affinity group and practicing? There’d likely be fewer people involved, but they would be deeper, tighter, more secure and better prepared to take whatever action – from mass demonstration to no-platforming to physical confrontation – was contextually appropriate.
Anarchist labor organizing, yes!
I want to be clear that I recognize the value of militant anarchist workplace organizing. Feral Dobbs was right to point out that I failed to affirm good anarchist labor organizing in my overly specific (and frankly, bitter) response to RED. Thing is, I don’t often see syndicalists actually engaged in that work either. Many dual card with trade unions, where they simply push harder for the same demands, including things like retirement benefits invested in accounts that earn returns based corporate profits, the exploitation of workers and the destruction of the planet. Nothing to Syndicate’s central critique is that syndicalism seeks to continue the destructive and exploitative economy, but under worker control. Many anarchist workplace organizers have come here to emphatically reject that critique, but their rhetoric is empty and aspirational if in their actual organizing, they’re already fighting for workers to get a bigger piece of the action.
Many syndicalists I’ve known also organize with teacher’s unions, where they seek to protect public education. This is one of the institutions most responsible for reproducing the social conditions of capitalism and to indoctrinate (or in-debt) young people. Again, the rhetoric and aspirations fail to match the organizing reality, but more importantly, it is strategies other than syndicalism that show an actual way forward. The heyday of alternative education in the US, when Paolo Freire and student-centered learning were mainstreamed followed from years when organizers with the Black Panther Party and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were operating neighborhood schools and alternatives to public education. They were helping kids drop out of white supremacist society, and posed a growing threat to public education. The system responded by recuperating their efforts and embracing alternative learning techniques in K-12 curriculum. In recent decades, all that has steadily eroded and public education is back to being rote and conformity-driven. Rather than repeating the successful creation of alternative and community-centered learning, syndicalism digs in to defending workers who are invested in the status quo. [Editor’s Note: To us at IGD this seems like a pretty classic trope; it’s not wrong to organize where people are at, and we also find the so-called tension between organizing within workplaces and schools and building alternatives to be a false one. We feel like many of these things are addressed in Standing Tall: An Anarchist Approach to Workplace Organizing.]
People doing that work should also feel welcome and encouraged to fight the police and the prisons and the nazis, of course. But I suspect those fights will go better if you don’t reduce every struggle to a “worker’s struggle,” and don’t try to absorb those struggles under a single, stretched thin and largely dysfunctional organization. We do better when we fight together, but each bring our own unique weapons and experiences to bear, rather than lumping ourselves under a single banner or program.