Towards an organizational theory?

A reflection of how far the IWW has come in the last 13 years, and what might be still needed.

I have been a member of the IWW since 1999, virtually my entire adult life. During my time as a member the union has grown in both numbers and in vibrancy. When I joined the IWW, only a handful of members had any significant organizing experience. Most people joined the union not because they learned about it from a coworker on the job but because they encountered it in a history book or through labor folk music. Often it seemed like the organization functioned more as a historical reenactment society than a revolutionary union. The first branch meetings I attended could be described as meetings of the Society of Creative Anachronism for anarchists. The discussions focused more on the 1921 Kronstadt uprising and leftist soap-boxing in 1910s San Francisco than the plight of contemporary workers.

When Wobblies did try to organize, they generally followed the pattern of the big AFL-CIO unions. Attempts were made to hold National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-sanctioned elections and negotiate contracts. The majority of these efforts did not result in contracts and failed to build the union in any substantive way. Most of the workers who participated in them quickly became disillusioned with the IWW when the union election was lost.

I did not know it at the time, but the IWW was already changing when I joined. The branches in Portland and Philadelphia started organizing campaigns that did not focus on winning union elections. Instead, they tried to use direct action to make gains on the shop floor. In the Industrial Worker, then General Secretary-Treasurer Alexis Buss ran a series of articles on “Minority Unionism” advocating this approach. Through the work of Alexis and a handful of others, members of the union became aware of Staughton Lynd’s theory of solidarity unionism. Gradually, it became the union’s dominant organizing theory.

As it did, people began to have more success organizing with the IWW. The Starbucks campaign was launched. In Chicago, a couriers union was built that inspired couriers in other cities to organize, and in several North American cities workers began to win small but substantive victories under the Wobbly banner. The evidence of this increased success can be seen in the pages of the Industrial Worker itself. The paper used to be largely about organizing by other labor unions. Today, much of its coverage is about Wobbly organizing.

The shift that has taken place within the organization can also be seen the structure of the union itself. In 1999, there was no organizer training program and no organizing department. The coordination that took place between workers organizing in the same industry but in different cities was sporadic at best, and there were few real Wobbly veterans. Sure, there were people who had been members for a long time. But only a handful of them had any experience organizing as Wobblies and trying to build a fighting organization.

That has all changed in the last decade and a half. In that time-span, the IWW has moved from largely being a labor history and solidarity club to a small vibrant union. The question now: Do we Wobblies have what it takes to move our organization from being small and vibrant to large and powerful?

If we want to answer that question in the affirmative, then there are clear things we as a union, and as individual members, need to do. The first, and most important, is to commit to the union for the long haul. The strength of the union is in its members. The more committed we are to building the union, the stronger we will build it. When members with organizing experience stay with the union over the course of years, the collective knowledge of Wobbly organizing grows and becomes something that can be passed on to new members.

Second, we need to focus on developing our infrastructure as an organization. From the 1910s to today, the IWW has been vastly under-resourced for the revolutionary hopes we have for it. We have a tiny treasury and cannot effectively support large-scale campaigns. The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams used to say that if good is going to win, it has be formed into institutions. If the IWW is going to succeed, we need to figure out how to systematically develop leaders within the union and on the shop floor. We need to figure out how to aggressively build campaigns that encompass not dozens or hundreds, but thousands of workers.

Over the past five years that I have edited the Workers Power column, I have become convinced that we have a solid, and evolving, organizing theory. What we need to develop more clearly is a theory of organization. Organizational theory has not always been a strong suit of the left. This is one reason why I am so pleased to see “Weakening the Dam,” a pamphlet put out by the Twin Cities branch. “Weakening the Dam” collects a half dozen Workers Power columns, some of which start to develop an IWW organizational theory. The columns are not enough, but they are a good starting place. It is my hope that over the next five years, Workers Power can be a place for not only writing about IWW organizing theory but also IWW organizational theory.

I don’t know what such an organizational theory will ultimately look like. I would suggest that to develop it we might want to look for help outside the usual radical and historical sources. In my work as a minister I have found that business journals and religious think tanks, including evangelical ones, have excellent resources on how to develop leaders, and create powerful volunteer-run organizations. In the next few years, I will be drawing from these sources and from my own experiences with the IWW, and work for contemporary and historical radicalism to write occasional pieces for Workers Power that offer some suggestions about organizational theory. I hope that some of you will join with me in this effort and contribute your own writings to Workers Power. Send your submissions to forworkerspower[at]gmail.com.

Originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Industrial Worker