On Staff and Policy in the IWW


Bill Haywood and various staff at IWW GHQ in the 1910’s


Thinking About Policy and Staff in the IWW

In this essay I argue that the organizing policy pursued by the IWW for the past decade or so has been ineffective in large part because it’s informed by assumptions which are incorrect. The central assumption being that the IWW ought to avoid using paid staff at all costs. This viewpoint concedes that a division of labor is useful, but only by volunteer worker organizers who cannot be tempted to corruption by virtue of not drawing a salary. Certainly this assumption is itself informed by others, which I hope to address below. Most of these assumptions are not often made explicit, but are definitely current among the left today, and in the works of authors revered by many in the IWW.

In much the same way, the IWW’s organizing policy is itself not entirely explicit. Many of the formulations of principle are found across blogs and Libcom forums, as well as occasionally in the Industrial Worker. A central premise which supports my conclusion in the affirmative for paid staff is that contrary to the claims of many on the left the working class does not ‘self-organize’ or not in the sense that they often seem to imply. By this I mean that a division of labor, including full-time staff, are necessary to form any working class organization that is to be both more than ephemeral, and large, regardless of its political commitments. Obviously these political commitments matter, and that is why I take up the concept of policy as the means for the membership to direct and keep accountable staff and officers. Of course, I do not have all the answers, and I hope to invite discussion with this essay.

A Past Campaign

In the early 00’s, Wobblies helped try and organize bike couriers in Chicago. Their initial strategy was to organize a central, Industrial Organizing Committee, which would be made up of members of “shop committees” at each employer. The IOC employed an Organizer at two points in the campaign. The first, Pete, was an experienced organizer, who for about 2 and 1/2 months helped propel the campaign forward, alongside worker committees. The second organizer, Andrea stepped in after organizing had dropped off altogether and, having little organizing experience, employed a series of misguided schemes to ‘get workers involved’ (everything from yoga to zines). She had a familiarly difficult time of it. However, she was the first person to be interested in organizing the Bike Couriers, into the Windy City Bicycle Messenger Association, which lasted several months before it was dissolved. Shortly after, members met with the IWW, who began assisting them with organizing. Prior to the arrival of the the first organizer, Pete, two members of the Chicago GMB worked alongside workers, energized after a first mass meeting, to map the industry and gather contacts. Matt and Colin had begun working with the WCBMA before its dissolution, and Andrea met Pete on a trip in Portland. The idea was that upon his arrival in Chicago, Pete “would focus his energies on teaching workers how to organize, handle grievances, and strategize about the union effort.” Indeed, he did just that.

One of the organizers, Colin, wrote up a post-mortem of the campaign. But his analysis is consistently viewed through the lens of ‘activism’ current now and in the early 00’s. For example, FW Colin states,

“With Pete in town, we were able to capitalize on this information (contacts) and to organize several shop committees. However, these committees were not capable of functioning without an outside IWW organizer present. Despite this limitation,the shop committees began to build the union slowly by winning small grievances at individual workplaces.”

A bit later, after detailing the successes of grievance handlings in the campaign with the organizer’s presence, Colin notes

“During Pete’s time in Chicago, we held two organizer trainings, a program started by the IWW in 2000 to give everyday workers on the job the tools and skills (and confidence as well) to organize their workplaces…..The trainings provided messengers with the basic information they needed to organize but did not seem to provide them with confidence to be independent organizers.”

The Shop-floor committee is the first place a worker really interacts with the union.The IWW has had for at least the past 10 years an “Organizer Training 101.” This 2-day training introduces people to the IWW and trains them to form the shop committee. Colin continues,

“I speculate that MK, Pete, and I served as a crutch and that with us to rely on the messengers did not need to develop their own leadership. Pete left Chicago in June 2004, and his absence was immediately felt. MK and I lacked his experience at group facilitation, and the organizing began to falter.” (emphasis my own)

On one level, this poses a question of leadership in general, and on a more concrete level it is a question of the role of the organizer.

On leadership, the left generally is stuck in a rut of ‘authenticity’. Here, a given leader is chastised as not being a part of working class, either sociologically (‘They make six figures!’) or more to the point, by the leader’s support for bourgeois aims.The question is irrelevant. It is factually true that workers can and will make up their own minds to follow this or that course. Our job then is to convincingly address the issues concerning workers and present clear paths forward. Workers may get tricked into letting someone into power over them, but they cannot trick the workers into taking power for themselves. We cannot deal with the inevitable corruption of some leaders by eliminating all leaders if that means the sacrifice of success.

In the IWW this question comes up partially in attitudes to the ‘third-partying’ tactic employed by the boss. While it is true that the union ‘is the membership’ it is also true that the union employs staff. What ought to be emphasized is that the staff of the union serve the members and that the independent nature – i.e. ‘third party’ – of the union is to the benefit of the worker. Independence from the boss is the precondition for organization against the boss.

The second question is that of the relationship between paid organizers and leadership in organizing drives. It seems reasonable to me that the first leg of the Courier campaign illustrates a healthy relationship. Workers made up the decision making bodies, and Pete and other non-worker members of the I.W.W. provided the necessary advisory roles to support workers in training, confidence, and labor. Once Pete left, and one of the IWW volunteers got a job as a courier to help form a shop committee at one of the bigger shops, the other shop committees and the jointly formed IOC (made up of one worker from each shop committee) dissolved. Colin writes,

“Toward the end of the summer, MK took a job with Arrow as a bike messenger. He began to focus his energy more and more on building a shop committee at Arrow and less on his work with the IOC. This shift in energy ultimately spelled the end for the IOC. We spent much of the autumn and winter trying to get members of the IOC to focus on building shop committees but were unable to establish functioning committee at any shop other than Arrow. I spent months working with workers from two mid-sized companies, but in both cases, neither committee developed to the point where it was able to take on a worker’s grievance and win.”

It seems clear that with the reduction of the pool of labor outside the shop reduced by ⅔, the drive was of course bound to change in nature. What followed, was that one volunteer organizer ‘salted in’ and the paid organizer left. It’s not entirely clear what specific duties they could have continued to play outside the shop committees. Why doesn’t Colin draw the conclusion that it resulted from a decline in outside support, and instead locates it in ‘worker confidence’?

Our Current Orthodoxy

Perhaps it is because the predominant sentiment in the IWW is anti-contractualist union activism. That means we don’t aim for the long ‘peace’ secured by contracts, legitimated by the NLRB. We could of course, within the confines of the current constitution, pursue contracts in our organizing. We are prohibited from signing contracts with no-strike clauses. This seems a fine provision, amounting to the outlawing of workers bargaining away their strength. That said, anti-contractualism in general does not change in any meaningful way the work that we’re required to do to remain effective. Contract or not, unions still have to provide their memberships with services. Here, I mean trainings, administration, calling people, house-visits, research, editing news media, designing agitational materials and much more. However, the prevailing orthodoxy takes anti-contractualism to mean a total rejection of the union providing almost any services. This orthodoxy amounts to IWW practice being “Join our union, and do everything yourself!”

Many have pointed out how workers are willing to go some distance, especially against their immediate material interests, in order to support their values. The union has certainly used this fact to it’s advantage over the years. But the reality is that workers just don’t have the time. Even if they think capitalism is wrong or awful, people must resign themselves to keeping their heads down and weathering the storm. The amount of effort involved is too much for one person to figure out alone. Put simply, there is a relationship between moral feeling, and ability to spend time fighting back. As the time necessary to win goes up, the ability to seriously fight back just disappears; even if people wanted to, the simple fact is they have to eat first.

Here we get into messy territory on the left. On the one side, we have the DIY attitude of many anarchists and ultra-leftists. This suggests that decision making (ALL decision making!) must be in the hands of everyone involved at all times. This is somewhat of a caricature. In reality, it is mostly the phenomenon of seeing formal structures doing the work that substantive democratic movements would otherwise take care of. For example: We must decentralize the powers of the I.W.W. GEB because then it will allow locals to make their own decisions and flourish. It will keep officers accountable (rather, it will get rid of officers!) and will forestall any ‘incipient bureaucracy.’ This logic is very similar to that of classical political economy. Here, a ‘civil society’ of independent private property owning producers, would work out their exchanges and grievances with each-other efficiently, if not for the interference of the heavy hand of the state. This also has considerable purchase among ideologists of neoliberalism writ large. States (the main form of social authority) ought to only pursue those efforts which lower the costs of transaction and communication or disappear altogether,save for enforcing the property rights of the idlers!

On the other side we often find some variant of Comintern inspired ideology, which clings tightly to forms of ‘democratic centralism’ that in reality are essentially bureaucratic centralism. That is, a small clique of bureaucrats, continually elected to the same or similar positions, rules on most issues, and dissent from their line is cause for expulsion. Ultimately, purity of political line becomes the goal, with organizational ‘purging’ or splitting, the main form of activity. While these organizations have some semblance of policy and program, they suffer from a combination of bad politics and bad organizational imperatives.

A Better Way?

But what does this have to do with organizing a union in fast food? Or the IWW? Well, the suggestion is that both strategies are ultimately wrong. If the union is going to have campaigns that go beyond DIY shop-level resistance efforts, it’s going to need the consistent help of staff in administration and organizing. While this is embraced to a fault by the bureaucratic sects, it is rejected by the ultras. We saw how in the case of the couriers, when the organizer left, it became difficult to sustain the campaign. What’s needed then is a staff and administration – in a word, a bureaucracy – but one which is subordinate to the will of the membership.   

Here we get into the troubles that the union has had in the recent past. While being successful at building shop committees and maintaining them for a short amount of time, the volunteer salts often suffer burnout. Further, we lack a more concrete medium/long term vision for a union with stable membership in one area. Contemporary efforts regarding unionization in the mainstream labor movement are completely geared toward contractualism. It secures dues income for the union, and secures some benefits for workers. It’s cutting a deal. If we’re going to refuse this route, then we need to think seriously about what it is that we offer. And it can’t just be a “value-system.” If that’s the case, how are we better than a church?

Part of going beyond the shop committees, and using resources outside them effectively, is having a model of how to build the union as a local social/political force in the city or area where the organizing is taking place. This is necessarily outside the ongoing workplace activity. This requires social events, educational events, canvassing and a number of other activities involving the union in order to cement it as a social force.

The old IWW did this in numerous ways. Until 1913 when Big Bill Haywood was formally expelled, the Socialist Party’s left-wing and IWW members often shared resources, published complimentary literature, and directly helped in organizing strikes. This even continued in some areas after Haywood left the Socialist Party.

The IWW also had its own robust publishing department, with paid editors for various newspapers and journals in several languages. Agitation, Education, Organization were constant processes. IWW organizers, paid and volunteer, would leaflet working class districts, soap-box, pamphlet shift changes, hold meetings, etc. This Agitation on the outside helped workers on the inside carry on Education about what was possible if workers stood up on the job.

But this was all possible because workers had previously stepped up and chipped in their money to hire staff to coordinate an organization. The IWW could speak authoritatively on questions of wages and safety, and also social and political questions; the role of the working class in society, why the bosses can’t be trusted at work or in the government.

One way that this has been thought about is in terms of “legitimacy.” As in, traditional US unions get their ‘legitimacy’ from the state securing and enforcing their contracts to some degree. This, plus their well organized nature. (We may disagree with their politics, and a lot of their strategy, and even some aspects of how they’re organized, but they have resources, and they sometimes use them effectively). John O’reilly writes:

The legitimacy of the union springs from struggling together, from the relationships that grow from struggle, and from showing that the union and our vision is just as viable a thing to believe in as the boss and their vision. If we can show workers that our organizing can make their lives better, or at least give them powerful emotional experiences associated with trying to make their lives better, it is reasonable for them to believe other things that we say, like that we are fighting for the whole pie. ”

While the question is interesting, it seems to miss the point. Legitimacy, something we do need in order to organize effectively, will ultimately only come from organizing effectively. But we can be clearer about what that means. As noted above, if workers are not going to be forced to pay dues to to us, but do it voluntarily, then they really have to benefit from what we’re selling.

But, if we’re not selling health-insurance, a grievance arbitration procedure that is ultimately useless, and an admonition to vote for Sanders, then what are we selling? The things which immediately come to my mind are:  Effective offensive and defensive organizational support.

Working class organization means having a clear and reliable source to go to with your problems at work. It means that they will be dealt with in a reasonably consistent and effective fashion, and it means that the worker aggrieved will have a role to play in addressing a grievance. Concretely this means having the infrastructural, administrative, and organizational abilities to turn out hundreds of workers in support of a local grievance. This itself would require an initial level of organization, as well as a degree of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of the participants. It also would require local bookkeeping, administration, reports filing and public relations work. This would likely would require the local or regional establishment of shop committees across an industry, campaigning by the same to win some public demands, and then their spread outside of that framework. What the worker would get in exchange for their dues is membership in an organization that has some material benefits for them (increased wages, job protection, actual grievance handling, better schedules, etc.) but that also offers an alternative political institution to the ones that dominate American politics (membership in an organization where the members set policy, vote, hold office, draft proposals, defend each other etc.). The second feature is no less important, as it is the last resort method of defense we will have to make use of in our efforts. That is, reliable, effective legal support, and other forms of defense where powerful organization is not yet possible.

Up to this point, the organizing work that the IWW has done has relied almost *entirely* upon small committees made up of volunteer salts. I do not for one minute doubt the dedication of these members, but I do suspect that we might chart a better course.
Let’s think about organizing at 6 grocery locations with 100 employees each, in the context of the prevailing orthodoxy. That would mean at least 1-2 initial Salts per store. Finding and orchestrating the hiring of 12 wobblies into a chain of grocery stores would itself take work to do. Once inside, these salts have to talk to coworkers, set up and do 1-on-1’s, socially map the workplace, physically map the workplace, do research about suppliers and the workers involved there, identify grievances, and begin thinking about recruitment from the shop-floor onto the shop committee. Further, they would have to identify production choke-points in their own stores, devise consistent and useful tactics for settling grievances, train newcomers in the practice, research the business’ growth strategy to identify tactical moves to pinch growth as a means to get concessions (as one example), engage in graphic design and PR, administer and manage funds, etc. That is, under our current model, we expect 12 people, working full time hours for little pay, to take on these tasks.

Alternatively, a union which places rank-and-file committees as it’s core, could delimit the activity they must engage in, and provide them with resources for building on their struggles. While those shop committee’s begin to recruit, the staff of the union could help lay the basis for local growth. They can train and coordinate door-to-door campaigns with volunteers to get the word out about the union when the time comes. They can host the trainings needed for the emerging shop committees (OT-101) on how to use direct action to solve grievances and build the ‘underground unionism’ phase of the campaign. They can work with other parts of the IWW to do industrial research (research staff) to help flesh out possible tactics and strategies for engaging with an employer, especially going public. They can handle educational and advertising initiatives to help newly forming locals (graphic design, pr, educational staff). They can help with the maintenance of web interfaces which allow members to debate and publish writings and arguments in a transparent fashion (web admin and publishing staff).

Instead of volunteer committees of workers handling every aspect of an organizing campaign we could augment the efforts of those workers with a division of labor using employed staff. Workers on the shop-floor would still settle grievances, and would still set organizational policy but they’d be assisted by staff that would utilize discrete skills to implement aspects of policy.

No Policy in the Union? Come Off It

A big concern for paid staff in the IWW is accountability. But what do we mean by accountability? Accountable to who? And in what manner? In contrast to the traditional activist mode of accountability, where ‘organic leaders’ are championed alongside a hodgepodge of democratic mechanisms (recallability), I’d argue that policy is the core of an effective accountability process. Mechanisms (recallability) are necessary in order to execute the rescinding of support for elected officials and staff which deviate from policy.

As it stands now, the IWW has a fractured, franchised organizational policy. One off campaigns devised by upstart members and branches, are meant to demonstrate success and seriousness before requesting resources from the Organizing Department. The Organizing Department acts as a networking tool for people who happen to be organizing on similar turf. That is, if the Tampa GMB and the Atlanta GMB happened to both be involved in organizing at a regionally prominent grocery chain, the ODB would, ideally, forward contact info.

This policy, in line with aforementioned tendencies toward neoliberal thought, presupposes (correctly) a general atmosphere of labor unrest in the capitalist U.S., but responds (incorrectly) with a policy of ‘limited authority’. The unrest merely needs to be ‘unleashed’ by the removal of stubborn ideology, a task best suited to ‘worker organizers’ on the ground. This will lead linearly to growth of resistance and fight back, when the pendulum of ‘high struggle’ finally swings back in a favorable direction.
This viewpoint often treats problems of approach, what might be termed ‘qualitative’ problems, as problems of quantity. Workers simply need the ‘tools’ of resistance (in the form of the OT-101) to unlock their potential to fight back. If we increased the OT-101, with the use of volunteer trainers, we’d lead to organizational growth and an increase of working class fightback etc. But if the issue, as stated above, is not simply putting the right frame of mind in the hands of workers, but of pursuing tactical and strategic ends, then a quantitative increase in the OT-101 is besides the point. It would certainly help us to some degree, but would not grapple with the failures of past campaigns.

What’s more, it would not grapple at all with the above mentioned need for a technical division of labor within the organization. Volunteer work, and member activity is necessary but not sufficient. Instead of a passive policy, of keeping tabs on local organizing carried out by ‘self-starters’ the union ought to pursue an active policy of identifying key industries and targets for growth, that put the union in a better position than today.It is the job of the members to develop a general organizing policy, and the job of national officers to direct staff to help implement policy alongside the membership.

I don’t mean to attack the OT-101, it’s to a large degree responsible for my membership in the organization and what success the IWW has had in the last decade or so. But it is limited.

By way of conclusion, I’d suggest that the following principles could guide the development of paid staff within the IWW.

1) Paid Staff are conceptually different from paid officers.
2) Staff serve the membership. As such, they are subject to the will of the membership. 
3) Staff work on projects as directed by membership, or where organizing more generally, directed by policy developed by membership, in consultation with officers.
4) Policy should be a central feature of the IWW, as oppose to simply resolutions and constitutional amendments; policy sets tasks to be undertaken, and directs specific bodies to undertake them in given timelines.

While mechanisms for ensuring compliance with policy are vital, in the absence of policy, they function as idle tools, or worse, weapons in ideological factionalism. Constructing a system of hashing out and implementing policies through the vehicles of officers, staff, and the membership, give substance to mere ‘democratic mechanisms’.
There are further questions. I touched on these above, but what are the roles we need filled in the union? What is the role of the organizer? Publishing? Web administration? Industrial research? Education and training? We have to figure which roles, if given our preference for initial investment, will yield us the resources with which to build. We have to view hiring an organizer as a growth strategy for our organization. Will this organizer, applied to this drive, yield an increase in membership sufficient to spread our organization? This is a perfectly reasonable basis for measuring our finances and budgeting appropriately, and does not in the least approach a Faustian compromise of socialist principles – unless poor management of finances is to be raised from the level of ‘common socialist habit’ to ‘foundational socialist principle’!   

Referenced Texts-

Colin Bossen, Chicago Couriers Union: A Case Study in Solidarity Unionism Working USA
Andrea, The Making of An Organizer: A History and Analysis of the Chicago Couriers Union


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