Sunday, April 21, 2013

Collective Organization and the IWW

What is a collective organization? Collective means that it is the coming-together of multiple different people to act as one, organization means that it has a structure and an existence beyond the individuals involved.

In the IWW, we are far too much of an organization and not enough of a collective. Much of this has to do with the lingering effects, psychological as well as administrative, of being a tiny crew that bears the banner of a famous union. There is a very slight continuity between the current organization and the union in its heyday. That's fine, it's not important to get caught up in concerns about the "authenticity" of repping the IWW's name and vision. But  because the organization became a tiny crew of people who supported its ideals in the mid-century and has only slowly crept back towards functioning as a workers' organization within the past decade or so we have some serious problems to overcome.

The organization, being the thing that has a structure and exists beyond us, as an entity that we create and has its own culture and practices, which can be communicated to people, is moving in more or less the right direction, as most members would probably agree. We are taking on more fights, improving our practice and our ideas, attempting to nail down our administrative practices and become more effective. We are growing, building more members into the organization, who hopefully take on new work themselves.

One of the things that is an ongoing theme in our practice is our relationship to collectivity though. We are quite effective at articulating what it means to be a collective organization on the shopfloor: workers creating their own cultural practices of resistance, taking actions that threaten the boss's dictatorship over work, putting forward ideas of alternate models of how power should flow. It's clear to most people who attend an organizer training or who are brought into a good workplace campaign what exactly the collective experience or collective action means. Yet our weakness is in employing this same sense of collectivity to the organization beyond the shopfloor.

The incongruity between attending a shopfloor committee meeting and a branch meeting or between administering a shop committee and the International is pronounced. Instead of focusing on building peoples' abilities and consciousness, as a group, our administrative structures generally emphasize individuals. Committees, at both the local level and the international, tend to be centered around the few persons that serve on them and their particular visions. Membership outside of a shop committee becomes a question of an individual paying dues (or even signing up online, the most atomized practice of all!) not a group paying dues. In organizing committees we figure out how to keep people learning, keep the good ones involved and keep the difficult ones out until we work on them. In our administration we figure out how to keep people in at all costs, regardless of what they do, as long as they pay dues.

Whereas effective organizing committees pay much more attention to the skills and abilities, the social connections and personalities of its members, the branch pays more attention to who attends meetings, who pays dues regularly, who talks the most. Obviously, different branches and different committees are variable and not all of them fall victim to the same problems to the same degree. But as a general pattern, organizing committees are collective and administrative units are organizational.

A key task in the next few years must be for the organization to figure out how to take its collective approach to solving problems with the boss and turn it into a collective approach to solving questions of the class struggle on a class-wide basis. When we were a tiny organization whose primary requirement for entry was whether or not a person believed in the ideas of the IWW and revolutionary unionism, we were necessarily oriented towards individuals. But as we grow and as we begin actually engaging in widespread collective action and organizing on the shopfloor, we must figure out how to move away from being an association of individuals who believe in the IWW's ideas to becoming a collective organization of people who are doing the IWW's work. Factors like political vision, organizing experience, links through the class, internal hierarchies, class composition and beyond both play into this problem and are perpetuated (or suppressed) as a result of this individualized nature of the organization's life. How do we go forward together?

Sunday, April 14, 2013


It almost seems facile to write it down, but I'm realizing that if organizers are not prepared to do what is necessary to win, they basically invite defeat. I say it seems facile because on its face, that should be obvious, right? It probably says so in the Art of War and a dozen other famous manuals on strategy.

And yet. Frequently this simply doesn't happen to the degree that it should. The work of preparing to do what is necessary to win is a task that I think all too often escapes organizers, because it means having real conversations with people about things that scare them and often scare the organizer. In union campaigns, we talk about inoculation as something that we do to prepare people for the boss's eventual and inevitable retaliation to our organizing. We talk about escalation, about preparing to take next steps, which are more massive or more intensive. Yet I think connecting those two ideas is something that we often don't do in the moment (or at least I've seen IWW campaigns frequently do this.) We need to both prepare an escalation plan and prepare our people for what it will feel like. Escalation requires logistical work to carry it out, but it also requires emotional work to do so.

It's a very different task to sit down with your coworkers and plan a march on the boss than it is to talk about staging a workplace occupation or totally crashing the company's business in order to scare other capitalists in the industry. While the three tactics may be connected in our timeline, they don't feel the same as they are being put into play. It may be easy when we're sitting down and talking over our escalation plan for everyone to say "Okay sure, after he does this and we do this and so on for awhile, then we'll just march in, sit down and refuse to leave til he negotiates." But what happens if we haven't discussed what that will feel like and the emotional fallout from it will be is that in the moment later, when we've finally reached the proper point in our timeline, people clam up. All of a sudden what seemed like such a good idea from the remote and analytical space of creating a campaign timeline seems really scary. Do I really want to risk my safety and my family's livelihood on this? So far everything we have done hasn't worked, so why should this?

In some ways the creation of an escalation plan is a project that works backwards on workers' consciousness, because it says that things will not work for a really long time and then we hope that they will. Yet while this sounds good on paper, in the course of the campaign it doesn't feel like a neatly worked-out plan, and the confidence that we had when we wrote it can evaporate. So the plan works against our consciousness in the lived-in moment of the emotional present, because all we see when we are escalating is that management refuses to meet our demands. It's only after management does so that we can look back and see ourselves at the top of a long staircase that we've mounted. From the staircase itself, the stairs look endless. And what's worse, as we get higher up them, there's a greater chance that we'll fall and falling is dangerous from this high up.

So how can we fight this problem? First, we need to inoculate workers about what struggle feels like so that they don't get scared when it looks like struggle isn't working the way we thought it would. We don't design escalation strategies because we think the first tactic will work right away, and it's important to let people know that we plan for future actions precisely for that reason. Escalation strategies should not be talked about as a series of actions that we might have to do if the bosses don't agree to our demands earlier. They must be explained as a series of actions that we will prepare for and commit to fully because we expect that all of them may need to be used to win.

A plan to win is not just a list of things that come after one another in sequential order. Escalation means anticipating what kind of pressure needs to be built to combat your opponent's moves. The assumption is that they will not react to your actions until a certain threshold of intensity, be it emotional or financial, is encountered, at which point they will cave. If that assumption is correct, then we need to predict what kind of pressure is necessary to actually get what we want and shoot for that the whole time, building up to it in a way that educates workers but that has a clear finale. This means organizers may need to do some sober analysis when creating an escalation plan, anticipating exactly how intense things may need to get in order to get what they want. Discussing this level of intensity with workers early on and frequently during organizing could help deal with the complicated feelings that people will encounter when it's finally time to put them into practice. A stitch in time saves nine, as my mother used to say.

Additionally, we should think about creating an escalation plan as not simply another committee task but an organizing task like any other. Normally when I've seen escalation plans being developed, organizers write a long list of tactics down and everyone discusses which ones should or could be used, and then assembles them into some kind of order. I think this construction of the event leads people to mentally distance themselves from the more intense actions. "Oh well that's way later on the timeline, it probably won't get to that."

Instead we should talk about escalation by asking people what they think it would take to win, and then discuss how we will build our capacity with smaller actions until we get there. Asking workers how they think they will feel if they've been on strike for a month or how they will talk to their boss on Tuesday if we do a sit-down with massive community support on a Monday might inoculate people a little bit to the ideas. I've found myself saying recently that workers should always choose the demands for a campaign but organizers should choose the tactics. This is a question of strategy because organizers should know which tactics will lead us away from revolutionary unionist ideas (running an NLRB election, relying on lawyers, etc) but they will still emerge organically from workers who don't have as much experience. I still think that's right but I think frequently organizers discussing the tactics means that the conversation is not an organizing conversation, but an academic one. I think it's SolFed that talks about associational unionism and conflictual unionism. Here's an example that needs to combine both elements to be successful. Discussing escalation seems like a detached calculus about conflict but actually has strong emotional and personal questions tied into it.

Escalation is often thrown around like it's a project that's purely a power game. And there's a strong element of truth to that, but there's also a question of how we engage people to prepare for fighting. An escalation plan with good ideas but no one willing to implement is a symptom of an undemocratic organization. An escalation plan with ideas that won't win but which gets everyone behind it is the symptom of an unorganized organization. If we don't understand the feelings that are going to accompany the long, slow battle in front of us, we will be unable to carry that battle out. If our analysis of how to win is correct, then our will to put that analysis into play must be similarly sharp.