Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Appeal to the Not-So-Young

(I don't write this piece to insult or condescend to anyone. If it comes off that way, it's a fault of my lack of ability as a writer. While I am certainly not that old myself yet, I write this from several years of experience doing various kinds of work in the IWW.)

You are new to the organization. You have been in the IWW less than three years. Perhaps you joined when you were in college. You heard about the IWW in the history books or in the news, found the nearby branch and joined up. You tried to find a role that fit you while you were a student, then graduated or dropped out, and found the whole terrain of possibilities for organizing work in front of you opened up. You jumped in, taking the ideas of the IWW into your job, perhaps even finding a job specifically because it fit your notions of where the IWW should be. Now you find yourself questioning how an organization like the IWW could have ever survived as long as it has. Outdated approaches to questions of identity, of organizing, of structure frustrate you to no end. "Don't they see the possibilities of the organization, and how they're not fulfilling them?" you ask yourself.

Perhaps you joined when you were working some job. Your coworker, someone who seemed cool and genuine, approached you one day to sit down off work and talk more about the problems that you'd been having. One meeting turned into many and before long you found yourself a member of the IWW. You and your coworkers took some actions at work, perhaps raising the union banner, perhaps remaining under the radar but together in solidarity. You transformed some lives, not least of which was your own. You saw your boss realize that his power to intimidate had completely evaporated in the face of your pissed-off, united coworkers. Over time you've noticed that the IWW, which once seemed to have such great ideas about organizing, seems to have run out. You've pushed your organizing as far as the Organizer Training taught you to go, now you find yourself struggling to find new strategies to bring the boss to the table, to expand your organizing to other arenas. "Don't they see how close we are to doing something at the next level, and how they are content to stick with first-day stuff?" you ask yourself.

Perhaps you joined when you were working with, or for, another social justice project or union. You were always vaguely concerned about the project that you'd signed on, even though you recognized the intentions of your fellow staff as fundamentally good. You heard about the IWW from a friend at a party full of social justice folks. You followed up, found the local branch and you joined up. Here was an organization that took the skills you had been learning and actually did something meaningful with them, something that pushed beyond the narrow confines of what your bosses thought the movement was capable of. You took the direct actionist approach to your job, you tried to directly empower your membership, you stopped talking about "fair wages" and started encouraging people to think about a fundamental shake-up to the system. Maybe your bosses have tolerated it, maybe you've had to find yourself a different job, one where they don't yet know how different your organizing ideas are from theirs. But frequently you keep seeing how the IWW's great ideas fall apart when it comes to implementation. The ways in which the organization leapfrogs beyond conventional trade unionism inspire you but the futility of the constant shake-ups, resignations, and straight-up ball dropping drives you crazy. "Don't they see what a great thing they could have, and how they let their long-held practices get in their own way?" you ask yourself.

You have new ideas. And you're lucky, because your new ideas are probably better than the old ideas. You are experiencing the organization's limits for the first time. You are discovering where we fall short and coming up with possible solutions to push us beyond where we are. Whether its in something as dry as record-keeping and accounting, as exciting as organizing strategy, or as emotionally complex as mentoring newer members, you have critiques of the way things have been done. In many cases, you notice that things just aren't being done. Not even that they're being done wrong, rather that no one seems to be doing the pieces of work that you are realizing are so crucial to getting the organization on its feet towards where it should be going. You are becoming not just a member, but an emerging leader, not just someone who has opinions, but someone who can show why their opinions are the right ones.

You have the eyes that people who have been around for longer have lost. Our sense of the circumference of the organization has calcified over time. Where we once saw the organization's limits of the organization as constantly in flux, without real clear definition, where things could be contested and completely new approaches could be tested, time has made things more stable for us. We know who does what, we know what the IWW is and does, we know what the nature of our work is. We've seen so many projects fail, some failing well and some failing poorly, we've seen so many members come and go in the constantly churning mill of 1 month wonders, 3 month flare ups, 6 month burn outs. We still believe, we still have skills, and we still work hard, but we have lost some of the wonder and fire that motivated us in our first months and years. We may not recognize you as who you are because we've seen or talked to hundreds of IWW members once, then had them disappear back into the working class, or worse flee it, and our eyes have gotten foggy. We apologize. Please let us know who you are.

But please remember this: It is not the end of the world. The IWW is neither on the precipice of disaster nor on the edge of a great leap forward. It sometimes feels like the end of the world because this thing of ours is so important to us and any one who seems like they are threatening it must be out to destroy it. But they probably aren't. They probably just have different ideas, ideas that may even be wrong, but they are probably not out to hurt the organization. There are lots of people who have lots to say and do in the IWW. Most of it is paddling water, some of it amazing, and a very small bit is actively counter-productive. You are not the first people to recognize the counter-productive bits, not the first people to try to fix them, nor are you the first people to be frustrated at how difficult they are to solve. Believe this.

Your ideas are probably better than ours because you are new and our ideas haven't yet worked. But make sure to find out if your ideas are actually new or not. You'd be surprised. Things that I thought were cutting edge approaches to solving our problems when I joined the organization didn't work, and from time to time I hear what I thought were my ideas or my words coming out of someone else's mouth. I talk with older members and hear them say the same things were true when I was saying these things for the first time. It frustrates me to realize this because I thought that I had all the answers (sometimes I still think that I do!) but in reality things are more complicated. We need your new eyes and your new ideas to solve our problems and push our work forward. 

On the flip side, there is no magic bullet. One thing I've learned over my short seven years of the organization is that there are no short cuts, or any way no short cuts that actually work. It was incredibly disappointing to realize this but I've since taught it to every organizer who will listen to me babble about it. If short cuts worked, we'd already be in the cooperative commonwealth. If short cuts worked, our organization would already be reflective of the working class around it. If short cuts worked, we'd have a strategy that never lost, tactics that never failed us. But they don't. We need to make sure we interrogate the difference between new ideas and short cuts. If you find yourself saying "all we need to do is this one thing and everything else will work itself out," you should pause. Don't you think that at some point, some other Wob said the same thing? And yet here we are, a work in progress. (My experience was exactly that of the first paragraph of this piece. I am not better than you.)

It is on you to build something new. We will work with you. We may also spend a lot of time keeping the things that have worked well before going strong, and we invite you to join in that effort, because it's a lot of work and it's tiring. For this organization to begin to reach out at its possibilities, and for the wider inheritance that is our class's cross to bear and hopefully unshoulder, we need to build an actually revolutionary praxis. We can't import praxis, believe me it's been tried. If the academy had theorized its way towards communism, we wouldn't need real flesh-and-blood organizers. If the social justice activist scene had solved issues of identity, it wouldn't be so completely out of touch with the working class and the real world. And hell, if the labor movement had a clue what it was doing, we wouldn't need an IWW at all! Its the task of all of us, but especially those of you who have new ideas, to build an authentically Wobbly revolutionary praxis.

Don't be afraid to shake things up and don't be afraid to clearly say what you think, but remember that we're all in this together and that no one in this organization is an enemy. Differing currents, groups, circles, cohorts or factions may have differing ideas or approaches, but we are all on the same side of the class war. We need to stick together and experiment with new ideas together, collectively and reflectively, taking the lessons from the past but not allowing them to overshadow the possibilities of the future. It's a great thing that we have here but we can make it better together.

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