Learning from Our Mistakes: IWWs Criticize and Reflect on Their Organizing

Mobile Rail workers marching the picket line on strike outside of Chicago.

Mobile Rail workers marching the picket line on strike outside of Chicago. August 2013.

The other day a friend posted a question along the lines of “The IWW seems to put out a lot of criticism of other union’s organizing, but it doesn’t seem like they are willing to criticize their own organizing publicly.” I thought that would be a fair point- if it was true of course.

There’s actually a pretty robust level of discussion in the IWW around the failures, victories and the organizing models the IWW uses. Naturally not every member is engaged with these discussion and as well some of that discussion takes place in internal forums. For instance in Portland members circulate a booklet called “Learning from our mistakes” that discusses their campaigns and their pitfalls but this would be an example of something not circulated publicly.

But most important is that these criticisms have helped shaped and evolved the IWW’s model of organizing. As well many in the IWW see this as contributing towards a working class intellectual culture- one where shop floor organizers and participants in the organizing are creating the lessons from their experience instead of relying on professional thinkers and academics to do this work for us.

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Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union

Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union

Appeared in Indusrial Worker, December 2008

By Adam W.

 

 photo-7-small.jpg picture by adam_freedom

  On a 100 degree summer day I was in Stockton, at the Sikh temple meeting room. A middle aged trucker with a long, flowy beard asked me “How do we show the other drivers who weren’t at our meeting today what the union is and why they should join?” I struggled to give him a good, clear answer on this one. I improvised an analogy on the spot. I think it paints a picture of our Solidarity Unionism organizing model in practice: “Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union.” Let me break it down.

  First you give the whole saying: “Here’s how our organizing works. Some workers will know the union, some will hear the union, but others have to see the union.” If you have a marker and paper, draw three circles around each other (like a bulls eye target). In the middle one write “know,” the next “hear,” and the outer most circle “see.”
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Services, Service Unionism and Building Radical Unionism

Building radical unionism: Providing services without creating service unionism

Appeared as “Building Radical Unionism”
Industrial Worker, Jan 2009
 
By Adam W.
 
ACTU-Brochure-copy.jpg picture by adam_freedom  In the IWW many of us have a critique of the service unionism of most of the large, mainstream unions. This is where the union is seen as a service that workers pay for with dues. The service the union offers is representation with and protection from the boss. 
  On the Organizing Department email list a small debate arose over how services relate to our organizing. How do we not become the service unionism we criticize? Opposing service unionism is an important critique about unions and social movements in general, but whatever we may call them, services can play a useful role in building radical unionism and social movements. 
  We need to understand what service unionism is. It is usually defined as a passive relationship where workers expect union staff, outside representatives or even shop stewards to “fix things” for them. The model is prevalent throughout the US labor movement and can even occur in professed radical unions like the IWW. Unions promote this type of thinking through offering services such as credit cards, discounts or similar benefits. Slogans such as “Union membership pays!” suggest that the benefits of being a union member are like the advantages of signing up with Bank of American instead of Wells Fargo. 
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