Predictable friction in the IWW

gears and shit

Hola, amigos. I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but things have been pretty fucked up. I came back for a minute because I found some old stuff on my computer today that I wanted to put up here. I think it would be good for those of us in the IWW if we could make the life-cycles of our organization clearer. That would help make the organization more predictable for all of us. There’s a kind of literature about this for parents and soon-to-be parents, stuff that tries to make pregnancy and parenting more predictable and tries to give people a heads up about the kinds of difficulties and anxieties they’ll face pretty soon. It would be great to have material like this for IWW members. (“After their first Convention many people start to have new and strange feelings…”) This blog post is my attempt to contribute a little to all this. I focus in particular on friction among members and things that I think help create it.

One source of predictable friction is that people work in different work areas. There are differences in location: organizing at work, playing a role in a local branch, playing a role in the in general administration. And there are differences in kinds of work. This is my take on the kinds of work there is in the IWW. I see it terms of these categories: vision, goals, strategy, tactics, and logistics. By vision I mean our core values, like the fact that we’re against the unjust society we live in and believe in creating a new and just society, our analysis, like our understanding that electing officials to state political office won’t help us, and our self-awareness, like how well do we understand what we’re actually doing and accomplishing. By goals, I mean what we want to achieve, in the short term and in the long term. By strategy I mean the plans we make to achieve those goals. By tactics I mean the smaller steps that make up our larger plans. By logistics I mean how well we enact those steps and plans. By institutions I mean things like branches, committees, general administration, and convention - places and events where IWW members interact collectively to make the IWW happen. All of that rests on a foundation made of institutions and relationships. That’s all pretty abstract but it’s my best take on capturing the different aspects of work.

As people we only have so much attention and energy available. At any given moment we can only put so much into IWW activity. This means that as individuals and groups of members we often end up focusing more on some categories of activity than others. This is normal and appropriate, and it also generates tensions, because people tend to think the activity they’re focusing on is particularly important. Over the long term, it’s good for IWW members to pay attention to and get up to speed to some degree on all of these kinds of activities. We don’t rely on professional staff and officers and we rotate officers regularly, and our organizing changes and develops quickly. All of this means many of us are learning new things continually. That’s a challenge, and it’s rewarding, and again it generates tensions or friction among members. Having a sense of those frictions and how they are a normal part of organizational life can help us respond constructively and patiently to these frictions.

One source of friction is I think in differences in the kinds of work people are doing. I think people doing similar work in different locations tend to have interesting conversations. I think people doing different work in similar locations can sometimes have good conversations – in a shop committee one person may be focused on how to best win a demand while another may be focused on increasing member participation – and can sometimes have conflicts. I think people doing different work in different locations – someone focused on developing a strategy to improve a branch and someone focused on accountability in the general administration – might have conflicts or just see each other as focusing on projects that don’t really talk to each other. It’s also worth mentioning that some organizational locations will tend to have people emphasizing more of some kinds of work than others. (I should also note that each of these categories includes debates and differences of opinion - the IWW has a core set of values expressed in our Preamble, and there are a lot more ideas around among us as members. We have multiple short and long term goals. We pursue multiple strategies and tactics, and so on. Each of these categories is less the name for a fixed body of ideas than for a list of activities we’re currently figuring out and discussing.)

Sometimes IWW members will spend a few years focused on one or a few kinds of work (putting lots of energy into organizing strategy, or finance) or in one kind of location (work in shop committees, or work in the general administration). This kind of specialization is good because it’s how we learn, but creates friction when people disagree over how their specialist areas should relate. Friction here is unavoidable. In the long run I think it’s good if people rotate through multiple types of roles, because it will help people be better able to see where each other are coming from and to pose their points more constructively. In the short term, though, people just will argue over these differences.

Another source of organizational friction is in the style or manner in which people do IWW work. One way I think of this is in terms of raising the ceiling and shoring up the foundation. By raising the ceiling I mean taking the organization to a new level in some way – creating a new and innovative tactic, for instance. By shoring up the foundation I mean remembering and keeping alive good ideas and practices, and sharing them with newer members. Generally speaking people tend to emphasize one of these styles at a time, and there tends to be friction between people with differences in emphasis.

It also seems to me that when we hit a new level or an important innovation happens in one category of activity, that puts pressures on and raises questions for other kinds of activity. This is somewhat like with physical activity: if one muscle group gets stronger it begins to require more of the surrounding connective tissue, and it interacts differently with other muscle groups. I think often when we see serious innovations or improvements in one area it is very easy to think we need to continue to press on that and see further innovations. That’s usually true - when we hit a new high point we begin to see how much further we really need to rise - but it’s usually true for the long term, not the short term. Often when we hit a new high point on one area what we need to do organizationally and as individuals or groups of members is to put our energy into other areas of activity that are not currently raising the ceiling as much. That is, if we see major innovations in our campaign tactics, we should continue to pursue tactical improvements but even more so we should ask ourselves what those improvements mean for our logistics, our strategies, and so on. To use an exercise metaphor again, if we’re seeing important developments in one particular activity and muscle group, it’s important to do other activities and exercise other parts of our bodies in order to avoid injuries. That can seem like we’re taking a detour but actually in the long term changing to other areas of activity actually helps create further innovations in the areas we most want improvement.

It’s also important to point out that we don’t just want to raise the ceiling. That is, we want innovations in various aspects of our activity, but we also want to maintain the things we have figured out work well. And, because we believe in democracy and participation but also because in the long run this is the most effective way for a working class radical organization to proceed, we need to bring new members fully in to the life of the organization so that members can participate as much as they want in the various kinds of activities. This means we need to periodically go through the current issues and activities in the organization and sum them up and figure out what members need in order to participate in them - what are we doing? who is involved in what activity? what helps members participate in those activities?

To put it another way, there is a learning curve for most activities in the organization. We should help each other move along the learning curves of activities as quickly and painlessly as possible. What I’ve called innovation or raising the ceiling tends to happen when people are pretty far along in the learning curve of some activity. The more people we can get far along on a learning curve, the more people there are to create innovations there. It seems to me that there are often important differences between what is involved in raising the ceiling far along on a learning curve and what is involved in moving along the earlier parts of a learning curve. The activities are often different, and so are the rhythms and the emotions. An organizer training is not an organizing campaign; organizer trainings mostly help people move through the early parts of a learning curve. Organizing campaigns involve passing through a learning curve but they also are the places where we raise the ceiling on our organizing. The differences in rhythm and feelings between the two, and between being the people who make one or the other happen, are a lot of the differences between these two kinds of styles - helping people along curve vs raising the ceiling. I think it’s likely that people who are used to one style will sometimes run into disconnects or just have different impulses and priorities than people who are used to the other role. In my view, over all, the organization needs both and what’s most important is how these things relate to each other. At any given moment, though, members have to make decisions about where to put their time and energy and that will involve short term decisions about priorities, which often involves tensions and conflicts.

**

(Two asides in parentheses at the end. First off, I’m posting this now because I just found some notes on this stuff, some of it from about a year ago and some of it older than. I spent some time this morning trying to rework this a couple different ways. I wasn’t into any of the different versions so I was tempted to put this back in the deep freeze of my computer. I decided to just post this as-is because I’d rather have conversations about this stuff than not. Plus also this way I don’t have to work on this anymore. Second off, and more importantly, there are several pieces from Workers Power that were on my mind as I wrote this, too many to list and at this point I’m not sure I remember exactly what idea came from where so I don’t know that I could find them all if I wanted to. I would just like to encourage fellow IWW members to read through those columns, which are online here: http://libcom.org/library/workers-power)

Posted By

Nate
Oct 6 2014 17:09

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OliverTwister
Oct 6 2014 20:59

Hey Nate, good to see you online again!

Interesting post! I'd like to discuss some of the ideas. It's wrestling with some of the same issues as a piece I published recently: Getting your second five-year card: six tips for lifelong wobblies

I found your metaphor of muscle groups really useful. There's plenty of weight lifters who work on their pecs and vanity muscles but sprain their wrists cause they've never exercised them. I think some of our muscle groups are severely atrophied, such as our functional democratic structure; our ability to nurture new/weak branches in less trendy parts of the US; and our ability to discuss, set, and act on policy.

888
Oct 7 2014 09:55

FW Anchower

Y
Oct 7 2014 14:00

Just concentrate on implementing the Preamble. Everyone in the IWW agrees with one thing, the Preamble. In other matters, Wobblies are as different as all individuals are different and those differences can cause friction, faction fights and disintegration. Unless Wobblies are mature enough to realise this and accept the reality of it, they will never be able to organise One Big Union of the individuals who make up the working class.

Nate
Oct 7 2014 19:10

Thanks Oliver, I'll check that out.
888, you hit on my favorite part of this blog post.
Y, I'm not sure what to say to you. I somewhat agree with you but I think that's neither here nor there. To put in terms of your comment, I think the IWW could agree to "just concentrate on implementing the Preamble" but all the stuff I'm on about in this blog post would still be the case. The blog post is sort of about how people could agree across the board on almost everything but the life of the organization will still involve serious interpersonal friction none the less. I think in analogies generally so here's another one -- it's a bit like having a first kid. Of all the couples I know that had a kid together, all the ones I've talked about this with, once they had a newborn in the house they got into a fight at some point in a way that they didn't expect. Because having a newborn just involves interpersonal friction, in ways that often catch people by surprise but that are actually pretty predictable. Telling them "just focus on how much you love your kids/focus on your relationship/just work really hard to be good parents" or something -- whatever the analogous thing would be to saying "just concentrate on the preamble" to IWW members -- is fine. It's good to get a reminder of our core values sometimes. But that's different from being like 'here are some of the predictable ways that conflict happens' which is what this blog post is trying to do a bit of.

Matoska
Oct 8 2014 00:50

There is an important element that is NOT raised in the article. In a word: comradeship. The issue goes beyond simple solidarity to a grasp of our common stake and common bond to fellow Wobblies. This is what will enable us to engage in free speech fights without equivocation. This is the quality that will motivate us to aid the struggles around the world, in other shops and stand as a united force. There is an inherent risk in this. But, lacking that, those discussions and debates that are characterized in the article, will degenerate quickly and become divisive and contentious. Comradeship will be gained and need not be presumed before it is demonstrated in struggle. Class struggle demands sacrifices. It means fighting alongside our sisters and brothers. We learn about each other and we are all vulnerable. Trust is a characteristic of comradeship. Trusting the motivations of fellow Wobblies means we accept their intentions as positive. It means willing to integrate ideas from others into our own visions regarding the road forward. It means learning as we go. We need not promote the cult quality of a Leninist party. We are a revolutionary union, with many particular issues of what exactly THAT means in this day and age to address. With so many anarchists, it is not surprising that there are such strong aversions to leadership, but we need to look at the collective aspects of leadership that evaluates input, assigns tasks, develops strategies and focuses on the class struggle. It is not as easy as it may seem, and it is not as difficult as we ourselves may make it.

syndicalist
Oct 8 2014 03:42

Sounds like life changes

Chilli Sauce
Oct 8 2014 12:07
Matoska wrote:
There is an important element that is NOT raised in the article. In a word: comradeship. The issue goes beyond simple solidarity to a grasp of our common stake and common bond to fellow Wobblies. This is what will enable us to engage in free speech fights without equivocation. This is the quality that will motivate us to aid the struggles around the world, in other shops and stand as a united force. There is an inherent risk in this. But, lacking that, those discussions and debates that are characterized in the article, will degenerate quickly and become divisive and contentious. Comradeship will be gained and need not be presumed before it is demonstrated in struggle. Class struggle demands sacrifices. It means fighting alongside our sisters and brothers. We learn about each other and we are all vulnerable. Trust is a characteristic of comradeship. Trusting the motivations of fellow Wobblies means we accept their intentions as positive. It means willing to integrate ideas from others into our own visions regarding the road forward. It means learning as we go. We need not promote the cult quality of a Leninist party. We are a revolutionary union, with many particular issues of what exactly THAT means in this day and age to address. With so many anarchists, it is not surprising that there are such strong aversions to leadership, but we need to look at the collective aspects of leadership that evaluates input, assigns tasks, develops strategies and focuses on the class struggle. It is not as easy as it may seem, and it is not as difficult as we ourselves may make it.

So, I don't want to this to come across as snarky, but Matoska have you been involved in many organizing campaigns? Because - and I'm talking from personal experience here - it's really easy to come to the IWW ideologically and have these ideas about how we should relate to each and the grand unifying ideas of the preamble.

Where things get a bit tricky is within the actual nitty-gritty of a campaign (or within the actual functioning of the union itself). When it begins to be a matter or strategies and personalities, ideas of what the class struggles means become far more academic. And I think those are the kinds of issues this article is seeking to address, if you know what I mean.