Thursday, December 2, 2010

Renewing the industrial union

This blog is fortunate to have several contributors who approach the issue of feminism from different perspectives. My co-contributors are seasoned Wobblies whose presence is felt within the larger organization in a variety of ways. In comparison, I am a newcomer with very little Wobbly "cred." And that's actually an awesome thing to be, because lots of people are in the same situation -- or else we want them to be as soon as possible!

There's a real advantage to be able to look at an organization like the IWW, which appeals to so many on the basis of its history, practices, and ideals; and give an unsloganed opinion about how well it functions in practice, at least for us. Newer members, who still haven't found their place in the organization, or who still haven't overcome the hurdle of making the sort of lasting commitment which defines veteran Wobs, can provide us with vital information about what the union looks like from their perspective. And that's important, because these people are the most important within the organization if we want it to grow.

If the IWW is going to grow as a popular organization it will have to defer in some ways to popular preferences. In many ways, it already does -- in its vision for a world without bosses, for example. What could be more popular than that? But in other ways, a sister Wob said it best when she recounted the description that other, non-Wob women organizers conveyed to her: to them, the IWW was male-dominated and "anachronistic."

If I'm honest with myself, almost nobody I know who isn't already well-versed in radical left history is going to understand the possible relevance of the IWW in their life -- not even with the benefit of someone like me as a family member, laying it out in 10-minute tutorials every time I see them; hammering the points in a blog everyday of my life; or otherwise attempting to patiently make the case. Of course, I'm open to the possibility that I am not the most effective salesperson, or that workers who self-identify as "professionals" and who never quite learned what a "union" is will require extra effort. The problem is that this is the situation that so many of us find ourselves in: if we don't have the skills to make the case to the average person, we need to develop them quick.

We need to turn to newcomers and outsiders for what they can teach us. If we aren't appealing to people effectively enough then we should be thinking about what we can do to change that. This has nothing to do with questioning our fundamental principles: our principles are among the few things that have consistently seen us through. But if our language or our practices or our general presentation to those who are more likely to identify as "consumers" than "workers" isn't viable, we have to think more about how a revolutionary industrial unionism can thrive in a culturally "post-industrial" age. To this end, feminism is an essential practice.


Anonymous said...

I don't think I really agree with this. I think the thing we do to grow is organize at the waged point of production, in such a way that gains us more and better organizers than we had after each drive. I don't think it's particularly complicated, just really, really hard. The feminist component of that agenda is relevant to the degree that it helps with that goal. I'm not sure how much feminism really is a necessity for our growth - sexist organizations grow, so it's possible to grow without being feminist. The reasons for a feminist agenda are, in my opinion, less that it will grow the IWW than that it's the right thing to do.
take care,

JRB said...

Hey Nate! Thanks for your thoughts.

I think that your arguments about workplace organizing as a feminist activity are very persuasive. They underscore the importance of 1) workplace organizing, and 2) doing it in a way that acknowledges different struggles, not just "one." I would like to see your work on this appear in the Industrial Worker, because it doesn't deserve to be buried in the usual avalanche of my random thoughts. We should have a sidebar to reference the series here.

What you are arguing for would address many of the concerns raised in this post: the IWW's relevance should be demonstrated in the workplace. I suppose the only question this leaves is the culture of the union at the level of the organizers themselves; or in the case of branches which aren't primarily engaged in organizing.

Anonymous said...

hey JRB,
You're kind, thanks.
On the non-organizing branches, well, I think we need a plan to turn them into organizing branches and build more new organizing branches. That's not to say that 'organizer' is the only relevant role in the IWW, far from it, organizing needs a variety of roles I think, as does building the IWW we want. But to my mind the IWW we want is a fighting workplace-based organization.

I want to add, on the relevance of the IWW, for me the IWW is really important, but it's not the only thing that matters. Maybe that's obvious, but I feel the need to say that because of what I said before. I'm also going to paste below an old fragment from a thing I never finished.

take care,


Tasks Of The Class And The Organization
“It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.”
I think it’s important that we don’t confuse the struggle of the class with the tasks of this organization. The IWW is tiny. The people who do the real work of making the IWW exist are even fewer. For us to say we’re going to take on everything, to be responsible to the entire scope of class struggle, is ludicrous.

I want an IWW that builds power at the waged point of production. If we were kicking ass and taking names left and right on that front I might be more receptive to other work but for now I think it’s a distraction. For this organization. Not for the class. The class can have more than one organization working on aspects of its interests as far as I’m concerned. Given the divisions in our class it’s probably good to have more than one working class organization. I’m a pluralist for the class, a purist for the organization.

JRB said...


I take your points.

I just tend to think a lot about organizing the working class in whatever context I encounter the working class. In other words, not only in the workplace, but as I encounter people in my daily life. And that's because it happens constantly; I might as well take advantage of those opportunities.

Because I'm in the IWW, I think about what we could be doing in any context to promote the concepts which are surely relevant for so many. The cultural aspect of these things interest me in particular.