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Why were Organizing With the IWW

By Julia Fitzsimmons April 11, 2001

My name is Julia Fitzsimmons, and I organized with ACORN for 9 months in Seattle, and for three years in Washington, DC in the early 90's. My co-workers and I organized a union because we thought this would be the best way to address some issues that we had in our office. We wanted better hours, pay checks on time (most came two to four weeks late, we wanted pay checks in full (our last pay checks before the strike were $500 short) and we wanted policies for safety and sexually harassment. We were hoping that by organizing a union we would have a stronger voice in the workplace, and that ultimately ACORN would be a stronger organization because we would be able to hire more people and have less turnover.

We chose the IWW because the organizer told us that as the workers we would have the power to make decision in our union and that we, the workers, ARE the union. We liked the idea of having control over our campaign and making decisions about all aspects of the campaign, including tactics and strategy. And this is how it has worked out.

When we presented our cards to our boss Doug Bloch, we were hopeful that he would accept our union and negotiate with us. When he refused to negotiate, we thought that we could send a strong message by going out on strike. We had heard stories about unions that were broken up in other offices (NY, New Orleans, Philly) and we wanted to show the strength of our unity and the depth of our commitment to our union. In response the management brought in scabs to replace us and they have refused to take us back.

I am confused by people who claim we want to destroy ACORN. I have given a lot time to building ACORN in my work there. In December, at our national staff conference, I was recognized as a top member recruiter, and in early February my boss told me I was "one of the best trainers in the country." We don't want to destroy ACORN at all. As I said before we wanted to make it better. We used the strategies that, as ACORN organizers, we obviously believe in: organize a union and use direct action. In fact, Doug Bloch is the one who has said he'd rather lose the entire organization and all the ACORN members than recognize our union. So the management is responsible for the damage done to their reputation. This could have been avoided had they recognized our union from the start.

Yet we have heard that our manager thinks we have abandoned the members. In talking to the members I do not find this to be true. 99% have been very supportive. They frequently say, "Oh, great. I should organize a union on my job, too." They are surprised that Doug didn't recognize our union immediately, and they don't want to support a social justice organization that doesn't recognize its own workers union. So many of them have cancelled their membership. I'm sure that if Doug recognizes our union that they would happily rejoin.

Our manager has also said that he doesn't recognize our union because "ACORN is about the members" and that we are "volunteers." I agree that ACORN is about the members. As a worker I was committed to membership recruitment, leadership development, and winning campaigns that were in the interest of the members. A union wouldn't change this. In fact, we would be able to better serve the members because we could hire more staff and keep them longer.

I'm very confused that Doug would say we are "volunteers." When I was hired no one told me this. I expected certain basic things--to be paid on time, to be paid in full, health care activated on time, for our grievances to be taken seriously. If I had been told I was a volunteer then maybe I wouldn't have expected these things. It seems like this is just an excuse for poor management. With a strong union we could push them to do better.

In the end, ACORN management is simply confirming to me, by not recognizing our union, that the real issue is power. They have it and we as workers don't. It has been extremely disappointing to me that Doug and the upper ACORN management has fought so hard to keep their control and power. It is a missed opportunity for ACORN to build a stronger and more democratic organization, and to enhance ACORN's reputation as a pro-union. Instead they are losing five dedicated and talented staff people and the progress we have made at Washington ACORN so far.