Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Winning or Losing

These are some comments I wrote up to hopefully work with a comrade on some kind of presentation or pamphlet, in the theme of "learning from the Teamsters/fighting to win." I'm sure that I've gotten way off the original theme of the discussion but figured I'd post these comments here for discussion.

Why do we fight? Fighting is important because it gives emotional experiences of struggle, which can be really powerful and change the way that people feel about their lives. Struggle brings people into the movement, from the periphery of our shops and our communities. Fighting the boss, taking action that puts people out there and scares us a little bit, can ultimately be incredibly transformative regardless of the result. The IWW wins an awful lot right now by losing: by that I mean that our success rate for campaigns is rather low but the number of people who come into our union as a result of those campaigns is increasing. And what’s more, many of those people become some of our strongest and most dedicated members. So regardless of the outcome of our fights, it’s really important for the organization to take on fights. Action is oxygen, as an organizer I know puts it, and it gives campaigns that crucial combustible element needed to ignite.

But as the organization continues to grow and evolve, we also need to be more circumspect about what kind of fighting we are doing and what kinds of results we expect from these fights. Membership growth and development can come from any kind of fight: if we are organizing at a shop and the campaign falls flat due to repression, it’s likely that we will pick up at least one or two new good people from the shopfloor who were excited by the campaign and engaged with the union’s ideas and continue to stick with the union beyond the struggle. But what of the majority of our coworkers who were scared away from the union due to the repression? Is it really a smart plan for growth for the IWW to invest months and months of people’s lives salting, hundreds or thousands of dollars in the media and solidarity campaign, and a huge number of hours mobilizing outside support, if the result is that we pick up one or two people? Surely we’re obliged to support campaigns that go off the rails and pick fights that aren’t successful because we need to do whatever we can to support our fellow workers, but wouldn’t it be better if we found ways of encouraging higher rates of success when taking action?

It seems like IWW campaigns, like airplanes, crash for two major reasons; they crash while getting off the ground or in the air. Like planes, most campaigns crash while taking off: bad social mapping, inability to bring important social leaders on board, lack of enthusiasm, inexperience doing 1on1s, and most often just the feelings of frustration and inefficacy associated with the long slog of organizing. When campaigns crash while they are in the air, they have the same kind of spectacular nature as their airplane counterparts, big explosions and a lot of investigators at the crash site, poring over the details, sifting through the wreckage, trying to figure out just what the hell happened up there. What we need to be able to examine in more detail is this second kind of campaign’s failure. My suspicion is that most of the time our campaigns, having gone public, had fights with the boss, and having “taken flight” fall apart because they misunderstand exactly how to apply an action plan that leads to success. We win or lose based on how ready we are to deal with the real power of the boss and how able we are to develop our own action plan that fights that power.

So here are several suggestions about practices that IWW campaigns should adopt in order to better prepare ourselves for this second type of failure, the failure of fighting:

1. One of the first things that campaigns should commit themselves to, soon after they’ve assembled their initial organizing committee, is to figure out a plan to deal with repression, specifically in the form of firings. This is most important for industries with low union density, where repression is likely to be particularly acute, but is generally important for all organizing campaigns. In numerous recent IWW campaigns, organizers have been surprised by firings, either in direct retaliation for organizing or indirectly, by trumping up some other workplace policy violations to fire an organizer. Chicago-Lake Liquors in Minneapolis and Star Tickets in Grand Rapids are recent examples of the first type, which tend to get more union buzz, but there are probably even more of the second type out there that most members never hear about.

If we are unable or unwilling to fight firings, we illustrate to our coworkers that the union cannot actually protect them and we open a hole underneath the basic assumption of organizing: that together we are stronger. Bosses know this and its part of the reason why more sophisticated ones fire organizers (less sophisticated ones just fire people because they don’t like their workers talking back or asking for things.) It’s imperative that organizing campaigns fight with all their abilities against firings that happen to their organizing committees, even if that would endanger longer-term plans of the committee. We need to be prepared to throw everything against the employers when one of our people is fired, to both seriously fight for their job back and to illustrate to our coworkers that we will not be pushed around.

That said, it’s very difficult to actually get someone’s job back after they have been fired. That difficulty rises exponentially with time. The easiest time to fight a firing is just as it is happening, either by having committee members present in or around the actual firing, or by activating a plan to oppose the firing as soon as the fired committee member leaves the meeting with management. In most cases it is impossible to stop a firing from happening, but vigilance and preparation are our strongest assets here. Regardless of when we hear about a firing, organizers need to be prepared to pull out all the stops to oppose a firing. After two weeks of escalating actions, what would an employer say to 50 people occupying a small fast food store and refusing to disperse? Calling the riot cops in is about their only recourse. While there’s no doubt that this kind of escalation would be extremely weird and probably terrifying to coworkers in the short run, given proper 1on1s it could also serve to demonstrate exactly how seriously the IWW takes our people and how far we will go to defend them.

It’s my suspicion that if we look at cases of unionists who get their jobs back through direct action, we would see that the short-term losses their campaigns take in the form of weirding-out coworkers would be overcome by the long-term benefits of demonstrating that the union is a power which can take on the boss. The fact is that it’s extremely difficult to reorganize a shopfloor after mass firings have taken place. The process could take even longer than the initial organizing drive because not only is the fear of repression hypothetical for coworkers, it is a proven fact. We need to be willing to change up our organizing strategy to deal with firings because they completely change the game as far as shopfloor conversations go.

At some point, if escalation is not working, it’s okay to step back and say “Alright, we did what we could, anything else will look to coworkers like sour grapes,” assuming the campaign still has a strong presence on the shopfloor. If all or most of your committee has been fired though, we have nothing to lose and should fight as hard as we can to destroy the capitalists’ business. We cannot let it become the bosses’ common sense that the easiest way to disrupt an IWW campaign is to fire a lot of people. We need to show them that there are real consequences to firing our people.

2. Far too often in organizing campaigns we get narrowly focused on carrying out our tasks, bringing members into the fold and agitating and educating our coworkers and lose track of the basics that the Organizer Training 101 teaches. The most frequently forgotten task in our campaigns is a serious dedication to a complete contact list. Outside of campaigns with less than 10 workers in the shop, I have seen very few examples of IWW campaigns actually committing to and achieving even 75% of phone numbers of their coworkers and almost no attempts to actually get home addresses of coworkers.

It’s baffling that this most basic step of organizing is so consistently skipped by our campaigns. Perhaps it’s that this piece of organizing is something perfected by business unions and sometimes IWW organizers feel like it’s not something that we should work on because as workplace militants we often an easier time getting ahold of coworkers’ contact information at quick notice. This mindset is an error. Getting complete contact information is not only the easiest task to assign new members to work on but it also has tremendous implications for campaigns after they go public (even more so after retaliatory firings). While no victory or loss is ever reducible to a single factor, I can personally attest that the lack of a complete address list and a reliance on the employer’s doctored and incorrect Excelsior list in the 2010 Jimmy John’s election in Minneapolis held us back from having conversations that could have put the union up the two votes that were ultimately decisive in the election loss.

Further, contact information is a necessary element in any campaign that expects to have support from IWW organizers who do not work at the firm after going public. Outside organizers cannot simply ask for someone’s contact information while at work. Having a complete contact and a plan about how and to whom that information is available is a critical piece of building an escalation strategy that relies on organizers beyond just those on the shopfloor.

3. Our organizing campaigns do not exist in a political vacuum and if we ever seek to actually organize the whole working class, we will need to eventually leverage our power beyond organizing one shop at a time. At least two salts in a shop, organizing away for at least a year, may eventually lead to a campaign. If that’s our only model for growth, the IWW is doomed to remain a tiny presence within the labor movement.

Much of the reason why we are unable to break outside of the “one shop at a time” model is that often do not engage with the political dimensions within which our workplaces operate. Going public with a campaign is an exciting time, because it allows workers to fight directly against their immediate bosses. But in the intensity of that moment, we miss the opened doors to consider how the immediate employer operates within a larger context of the capitalist economy, how that context can be used to mobilize against the specific capitalist and conversely how the specific struggle can lead to broader struggles throughout the working class.

Other IWWs have written about the need to operate not just as a labor union but as a class union. When we think about being a class union, we see the ways in which classes, workers and bosses, are involved in our struggles through their connections. What is the context of a given struggle? Are there bosses in different firms within the same field who have something against our boss and can we use that hostility to our advantage? Who are the players beyond the specific capitalist and how can we use them to put pressure on our boss? Politicians, other organizations, non-profits, and many more players may both benefit from a relationship with our boss or be opposed to them. Mobilizing, or demobilizing, various forces within the economy and the locality can be a way of putting more pressure on the boss or depriving them of key allies. Here also we should consider what role our “community allies,” meaning various progressive non-profits, rank-and-file unionists or radical staffers, student groups, etc, actually play. Do we need them just to mobilize and show up for demonstrations or are there pieces of the work that their involvement can help us with? Organizers should see the workplace as one piece of the capitalist economy and think about how the other pieces fit together.

We also need to consider what a class union means for our side of the class struggle. How does the struggle at one work site effect conditions within the industry? When a higher profile struggle breaks out, it’s important for organizers within the union to create conversations about the struggle in other shops. When Jimmy John’s workers organized with the IWW and went public in 2010, fast food workers around the city were heard talking about the campaign. We need to think about how to mobilize support from other workers into concrete actions to help the union at the specific work site while also considering how to broaden the terrain of the struggle at places where we don’t currently have a presence.

Finally, we need to consider the political dynamics of our struggle. The capitalist’s hold on the workplace is only enforceable through the hard and soft power of the state. Taking on the state can be a practicality (the aforementioned example of occupying a fast food store and refusing to leave may leave the police with too high of a political cost and they may try to find another way to defuse the situation outside of straight brutal force, especially in a liberal municipality) but it can also serve as an important political lesson. All too often I think IWW organizers forget how the state functions as the armed wing of capitalism on a practical level and demonstrating that fact to working people has an useful illustrative function. This needs to be considered as just one piece of a campaign obviously; it would be foolish to try to pick a fight with the police, the judicial system and local politicians over a campaign that we are already having trouble with. But if there are ways to bring the state into the fight, organizers should consider it and the role it plays in the economy, both broadly and specifically at the firm we’re targeting.

I don’t know if these three pieces are particularly special, I am sure there are other elements of organizing campaigns that I am not thinking of, but they are three things that I have seen recent IWW campaigns where we have had trouble keeping our organizing in the air after it has taken off. More consideration on what these three things mean and why we continue to miss them would be important, and of course it’s quite possible that comrades will disagree with my assessment of these shortcomings here. Further debate would be great and could help clarify how we can turn things like these from small discussions between close comrades into wider conversations within the union, focused on creating programmatic and educational changes that could steer us away from making the same mistakes.