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A Letter about Workplace Organizing

This article originally appeared here

Dear New Socialist Group,

A friend recently sent me issue 60 of New Socialist. I enjoyed reading it, especially the discussions of unions and union organizers. I plan to read a lot more of your writings as soon as I'm able.

In this letter I'd like to pose some respectful questions and criticisms. I also want to think out some issues I am unclear about and have been having conversations about with some close friends and comrades. Just so we're clear, and since electronic communication makes it much easier to come off polemical when that's not my intention, I mean these as a sort of "can think about this together?" rather than an attempt at the sort of point scoring that sometimes stands in for political discussion. I've only read some of your publications - I plan to read more of them - so if you deal with my questions elsewhere I would love to know. I should also say, I'm a member of the small radical union the Industrial Workers of the World and the small political organization the Workers Solidarity Alliance. My experiences in those organization shape my views, but I write in a personal capacity.

I liked the piece on the comrade who worked for SEIU. It did well in getting at some of the limits of AFL-CIO and CtW unionism. I would like to know, however, if she learned anything positive from doing that work. Perhaps she didn't. My experience working as an organizer had a lot of the negative components that that comrade described and others too, which is why I no longer do that kind of work. I ran into iterations of the same problems when I worked as a community organizer too.)

That said, as much as working as an organizer was a lousy job, I learned a ton doing that job. As much as the bosses were jerks, I learned a lot from following their orders and from the training they provided. I learned stuff which set me up to go on to organize at my own workplaces in the jobs I worked afterward, and this has enriched my IWW activity too, in my opinion. I'd like to know if NSG has anything to say about working as organizers in order to learn things for a while - not as a career path but as an educational detour. Personally, I think more radicals should so then come back to the shop floor.

It seems clear to me that we agree that there are major structural problems in the labor movement, including problems with the role of staff. People taking staff positions for a while to learn the skills that come with those positions could play a useful preparatory role. I hope it's clear, I'm not advocating for staff positions as a political activity, but I do think stints in staff positions can be useful for later doing political activity after leaving the staff job.

Staff aside, there's a lot of great stuff in the issue critical of the mainstream labor movement that I agree with. And there's a lot of great commentary on how to fight within those unions. On the other hand, organizing the unorganized gets almost no treatment at all. Sebastian Lamb's piece is really excellent on everything it talks about but it basically spends only a short paragraph on organizing the unorganized. Given that only a minority of workers in Canada (and even fewer in the US) work in unionized workplaces - and this tends to be age stratified as well, so youth are even less unionized - the idea of leftists concentrating on the unions leaves out most of the working class. Furthermore, it leaves out those leftists who aren't able to get jobs in unionized shops.

I'm not criticizing the strategy that the articles advocate for socialists who are union members. I'm not really even criticizing the strategy of socialists trying to get union jobs. I would, however, like to see an additional strategy for the rest of us who aren't able to get union jobs, specifically a strategy for organizing in our own workplaces.

I think we in the IWW are one of the only voices, perhaps the only voice, that has some details worked out on doing this actively. I wish that weren't so, I wish there was a lot more emphasis on organizing.

Following on from this, I want to be a bit more critical or make this a more urgent point. The thrust of many of the articles are about the limits of the mainstream labor movement. And as I said there's almost no talk about organizing the unorganized. The implication or de facto position here seems to be that organizing the unorganized is to be left to the mainstream unions, whatever their other flaws. There's no real alternative to this presented.

Given how bad the mainstream unions come off in these articles, that seems like a big mistake to me. As I said, I think we in the IWW are some of the only people on the left with the goal of getting workers organizing on the job (rather than staff, as described in the piece on SEIU) and with a plan and some infrastructure to actually implement this. Like I said, I wish we weren't unique on this, I wish the left as a whole was fighting to build organization on the job across the class.

A friend of mine in the IWW has recently begun to argue that we should study some of the experiences of the groups who engaged in workplace organizing (often calling it "industrial concentration") in order to have more sense of what's been tried in the past. That seems worthwhile to me, though I think the emphasis should be primarily on fighting employers and building organization regardless of whether there is a union present. The emphasis should not so much be on the labor movement and its membership as on workplaces and workers.

I'd now like to sketch some of the things that my closest comrades and I have been thinking about and discussing informally for a while when we talk. Our view is that while we are members of the IWW today, we know the IWW today is not the IWW of its heyday. As NSG members will know, the IWW was founded in 1905 when numerous groups came together to consolidate into one organization. In many respects we today are less like the people who came together at the 1905 founding convention than we are like the people who tried to build the groups which later knitted together in 1905. That is to say, we see our efforts as in many respects preparatory for a later, larger effort. In this light, we've tried to emphasize less numerical growth of membership than we've tried emphasize numerical growth of dedicated long term organizers and the qualitative improvement of organizers in terms of commitment, confidence, and capability. Of course we wish we were succeeding better, but we're proud of what we have managed to achieve.

I say all this not to brag about our activity but to raise two issues related to goals. This may be a bit jumbled as I am relating points that are not fully fleshed out or thought out. I relate these in part because writing them out helps me think, and even more so because I would love to hear what the NSG comrades think of this.

In the long term we are revolutionaries who want to end capitalism. In the more short term, our emphasis is on winning dedicated member-organizers. This means we do not prioritize right now either structural power relations/the balance of class forces nor do we prioritize material gains for workers. For us, we do not see ourselves right now as being able to truly shift the balance of class forces. We see ourselves as being able to prepare the ground work for shifting the balance of class forces in the future. In addition, we are not sure what the relationship is between winning gains and having successful revolution. We do not believe that we can simply win enough gains that capitalism goes away.

Of course we want people to have better lives, but our view is that people are not so much radicalized by what they or others win - we do not think that people are radicalized by pay raises that bosses are forced to give or seeing others get such pay raises. Instead we believe that people are radicalized by the experiences of conflict and collectivity that happen in struggles. These experiences are of course greatly shaped by outcomes - success and failure are experiential categories, so to speak - but the point is that our criteria of evaluation are not measured in the cost of concession made by employers so much as in relationships built and workers won to greater class consciousness and desire to fight.

To put it more simply, we place a pretty strongly emphasis on subjective factors over either changing the structural balance of power and over material gains. We do of course think that there is an important link between fights for material gains and class consciousness. We think that needs/desires for gains allows an opportunity to get people involved in struggles which are potentially transformative. For us, though, the true goal is not really the gain so much as the transformation of the people fighting for that gain. And of course we do recognize that eventually the working class will need to take up the issue of the balance of class forces, as I said we see our work as preparing the ground for that but don't see that as being in the cards in the short term.

I lay all this out for a few reasons. As I said, writing this to you helps me to flesh these ideas out. And as I said, I am keen to hear what NSG comrades made of this. In addition to those reasons, I think that these closing issues relate back to the matter of a needed conversation about how to organize the unorganized (rather than leaving that task to the AFL and CtW unions), as well as to the limits of the unions. In my view, concerns such as these and questions about what we are organizing for should inform conversation about how to organize. Furthermore, it seems to me that unions are incredibly important and yet they have a contradictory relationship to the transformative potentials of struggle that I mentioned and that my comrades and I have been talking about.

The way I see it, the unions are like a kerosene lamp. The lamp has components that create fire, that sustain fire, that contain fire to keep it from getting above a certain temperature and from spreading or joining up with other fires. Unions create class conflict, sustain class conflict, manage class conflict to keep it from getting too hot, and they prevent it from spreading around the class. The managerial roles are built in to the labor law, to encourage or force unions to contain workers (I don't know much about Canadian labour law but I do know something about US labor law, and the National Labor Relations Act when originally created had a preface that argued that collective bargaining was necessary for labor peace). In our efforts to organize, we should be clear about these different relationships to the fire of class struggle, and if possible seek to build organizations that have the first few functions - creating and sustaining struggle - while avoiding or minimizing the containment functions. Here too is another reason not to leave organizing to the unions.

In closing, thanks again for New Socialist. I plan to read much more of your writings. Thanks as well for taking the time to read my letter. I hope it's clear that I send this in a comradely spirit, interested in a mutually beneficial conversation and interested in hearing your thoughts, and not to engage in one-upsmanship or self-aggrandizement.

Comradely regards,

Nate Hawthorne