“There’s no better time to be a Wobbly,” says fellow worker Gee as he reflects on his 20+ years with the Seattle IWW. “Probably the best time since the ’30s or the ’40s.”
In the last two years, Gee has seen the Seattle branch grow from a membership of about 20 people in early 2016, to over 70 members in good standing as of June 2018. Coming off 40 years of declining wages, rising inequality, and the election of Donald Trump, workers around the country have flocked to the IWW, and the Seattle branch is no exception. It is an almost unprecedented rise of membership and bodes extremely well for a legitimate workers’ movement in 21st century America. To learn more about the recent upsurge of the Seattle IWW, I sat down with long time Wobblies, Red and Gee, to learn more about the growth they’ve seen over the last two years and listen to their reflections on their more than two decades of experience with the IWW.
I started the discussion by asking what it means to them to be a Wobbly. “Instead of having a dang country, we could just have the IWW,” said Fellow Worker Red. “I believe in democracy, but I don’t believe in American democracy. With the IWW there is true democracy–direct democracy. You can vote, recall, and hold people accountable. The IWW provides a vision for the future. It’s something to look forward toto hope for.”
Gee believes our strength comes from our longevity. “The IWW has a history that goes way back, and we’re a part of it. We have the privilege of being able to learn lessons from people who died before we were even born.” But despite that history, we’re not bogged down in it. “We are able to pull from the past while looking towards the future.”
The Seattle IWW has a solid history. Originally chartering as the Puget Sound GMB in 1995 with only 15 members from Olympia to Bellingham, the Seattle branch broke off in 1999 creating the Seattle IWW GMB. The late 90s was the era of the anti-globalization movement, and in Seattle Wobblies played a crucial role in the street actions against the World Trade Organization (WTO). In addition to helping make on-the-ground actions a success, after a number of people in Capitol Hill were arrested, they mobilized a snap march of over 500 people from Capitol Hill to the King County Jail, successfully winning the release of the jailed protesters.
Throughout the 2000s, the Seattle Wobblies settled in with some workplace organizing, successfully gaining recognition at the Central Coop and the Washington Tenants’ Union, as well as fighting for recognition at the “progressive” community organizing non-profit, ACORN, where, despite successfully chasing off scabs, they ultimately lost their fight as management decided to shut down business in favor of allowing the workers to unionize.
Despite solid accomplishments throughout the 90s and 2000s, both Red and Gee agreed that the future bodes particularly well for the IWW both nationally, and in Seattle.
“Watching campaigns like Burgerville, Stardust, and others, show a path for success,” said Gee. “10 years ago, campaigns like that seemed impossible, but by collectively improving and growing across regions, we are getting better, smarter, stronger, and more successful. The months [and years] of work behind the scenes help to build something that was big, strong, and public.”
Gee likened the ability for the IWW to grow, build power, and create a revolutionary movement to the old folktale “Stone Soup.” “We have the resources and ideas, but we don’t yet know how to put them together to be successful. Nobody really knows how to do it, else it would have been done. So let’s ‘pretend’ we know how. [If we] assume we can, what would we have to do? What would we need to add to the mix to make it work?” Like the hungry travelers cleverly combining little bits of resources from all members of the community, the Wobblies can combine the resources of our communities. “[Once we’ve brought together the resources,] next thing you know, we have the power and people are like ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’”
Gee says the point of this analogy isn’t to be dishonest or act as snake oil sellers, but to emphasize the importance of having a strong vision. “The vision is something you believe… The people being a part of it makes the vision better and more complete.”
With an active and militant organizing campaign at another “progressive” organization, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., Wobblies are getting themselves back on the labor scene in Seattle. Starting in early 2017 with acts of shop floor solidarity and irregular meetings, by December the GCI workers felt it was time to launch a formal NLRB bid for recognition. After getting nearly every worker to sign authorization cards in February 2018, they handily won state certification in March and began a campaign consisting of daily shop floor action, regular marches on the boss, and an open-hearted willingness to appeal to legal authorities in defense of their rights. These approaches were effective enough that soon workers in New Orleans had joined the call. Putting the stone soup method in effect, in early June, IU 650 Seattle sent representatives to provide a crash course in their model, and a few days later, there were two legally recognized union shops at Grassroots Campaigns.
In early June, GCI workers in Seattle were locked out of their office in an illegal retaliation for a legal concerted action against management for flagrantly violating their own field manual. As a sign of our growing power, IU 650 was able to mobilize over 50 people for a two-day picket at Seattle’s GCI office and successfully force GCI to end the lockout and re open its doors for all the workers.
As the Seattle IWW continues to grow in size and notch up victories, Gee considered what will happen when we have 200 members, and then 2000. “Every time you double in size, the organization has to be structured differently. You have to organize differently with 5 people as you have to with 20 as you have to with 50 as you have to with 200, etc. At some point we might have to figure out how different IU branches can organize and coordinate together and how we can work together as one big union.” He went on to ponder, “What would it look like to be a major player in this city? One day we could have 10,000 Wobblies in Seattle. That could give us real power and control in this city. We had a general strike once in Seattle. We can do it again.”
I asked FW Red what he thinks we should do when we get to 2,000 or 10,000: “You just keep going. Just keep getting stronger. You don’t stop ‘til we win. And even then, you just keep on going.”
If the growth we’ve seen since 2016 is any indication, we are well on our way. While there is clearly much work to do and we have long way to go, there is no doubt that the IWW is back and better than ever. With experience and wisdom from veterans like Red and Gee, we will continue to grow and continue to build power. And we won’t stop until we win. And then we’ll just keep on going.
[This article was originally published in the June-July 2018 Seattle Worker. You can read the full issue here.]