By Lindsay Mimir
The Seattle IWW is organizing in no less than seven workplaces in five different industries across the city education, food service, retail, tech, and office workers. Our organizers are working diligently to build up their organizing committees, train and recruit their fellow workers, and win gains on the shopfloor. We just held another Organizer Training 101 to help empower our fellow workers to take control of their workplaces. Every day, our fellow workers are creating better lives for themselves and their coworkers. I wish I could share the details of some of the victories we’ve had recently, but none of our current campaigns are in a position to go public.
Going public means openly declaring the union to the boss. Business unions typically “go public” by filing for a National Labor Relations Board election. Other ways IWW unions have gone public include picketing or going on strike, demanding recognition, delivering a set of demands, or all the workers showing up in an IWW shirt, hat, or wearing buttons.
Our current campaigns are still underground and our organizers are still operating without alerting their bosses to the union’s presence. Of course, once a boss knows there is a union forming, they will often take action to stamp it out, so we will normally put off going public as long as possible. This doesn’t mean we can’t win gains, however. The solidarity unionism model the IWW follows allows us to achieve victories without the need to invite unwanted attention from the bosses.
Solidarity unionism is distinct from business unionism because members in the IWW take action for themselves rather than relying on bureaucrats and negotiators to take action for them. That keeps the power in the hands of the workers themselves in the hands of the people directly affected by the conditions in their workplaces. In order to build up our organizing campaigns, the workers have to build power by convincing their coworkers to join in the effort. Through solidarity, they can then take the actions necessary to improve their lives.
We teach these strategies in our Organizer Training. Our entire model is built on forming real, personal relationships between coworkers. We have to unite as the working class against oppression, but we have to meet our coworkers where they are and go from there. We’re building bonds of solidarity and friendship, which take time. People are rightfully afraid to join unions, to engage in the fight against bosses, to put their jobs on the line. So to organize people, we start with small tasks and build outward, all the while building solidarity and personal connections, and growing the organizing capabilities and skills of each worker in the shop. We take our time at this stage because not only is it vitally important to reach out to every worker in the workplace and build up the organizing abilities of as many as possible, but because personal relationships and solidarity take time to grow.
And there are too many tangible benefits to staying underground for us to risk exposing our campaigns too early. As Marianne Garneau and MK Lees argue convincingly on organizing.work in their essay “Do Solidarity Unions Need to ‘Go Public’?”, going public can be disastrous for a campaign, even one that might have a good organizing culture and strong shopfloor presence. The one thing going public is absolutely guaranteed to do is start the boss’ anti-union efforts–retaliation and firings, hiring a union-busting lawyer or consultant, lobbying workers to sabotage the union, etc. It’s also clear that we can win significant gains without ever telling the bosses that there is a bona fide union in their shop, as Garneau and Lees also argue. Most bosses tend to think that unions are one thing–an outside presence that shows up and files for an election, and the workers accept or reject it, and then there’s a contract. In the IWW, we know that unions are (or should be) far more than the limited vision of bureaucratic contractualism. Solidarity unionism means the workers fight for themselves inside the shop, taking direct action against policies that make work hard or intolerable.
Groups of workers routinely take collective action without telling the boss that it’s a union action. Gathering together and taking a demand to a boss is a common tactic and often succeeds in changing specific conditions. We know it’s the union bringing people together to change the power dynamics of the workplace, but the bosses don’t see it that way. As long as the union can keep winning gains without exposing itself to the inevitable anti-union campaign, then it should keep doing that. The risks associated with going public–especially going public too early when those critical relationships and bonds of solidarity haven’t formed yet are simply too great when the union can continue to win and organize under the radar.
For us, we are encouraging our campaigns to stay hidden for as long as possible. There is no easy way to build solidarity or fend off a union-busting campaign. It can take years for unions to build enough support to go public. But we take this approach because we care about our fellow workers, and we care about winning both in the short and long terms. We care about confronting the bosses strategically and patiently to protect our fellow workers from retaliation.
And if our campaigns continue to progress as they are, then we will have news soon about their successes.
[This post was published in the January 2019 issue of the Seattle Worker]