Today’s workplaces are tremendously alienating and our lives have been designed to isolate us from genuine human contact. Think of an office worker’s average day: wake up at 6am in a single family home in the suburbs, drive alone for an hour to an office, spend all day in a cubicle, then drive an hour or more back for a lonely dinner. Every day lonelier than the next.
The only interactions many of us have with other workers is when we’re buying stuff at stores and restaurants, attempting to fill relationship gaps with capitalist exchange. We swim through the muddy waters of settler-colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and other forms of hierarchy and domination in the workplace and society at large. The employer class, along with their cronies in the state, have successfully reduced almost all socializing into transactions and hierarchical power relations, and, of course, they sit at the very top.
The outcome is that our human relationships have been crushed. It is a horrible state of affairs. The IWW is committed to changing it.
The Preamble to the IWW Constitution says it is the historic mission of the working class to abolish capitalism, and by organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old. When we organize our fellow workers and job branches into the IWW and carry on the class struggle, we aren’t just winning gains on the shop floor, we are forming the structure of that new society. The innumerable utopias of tomorrow are being born in our organizing efforts every day, win or lose on the shop floor—as long as we go about it right.
The core of socialism (or communism, choose any of those loaded terms) is this: completely changing society to focus on and facilitate deep, egalitarian, non-hierarchical relationship building. Forming a new society in the shell of the old is a strategy. It means we must prefigure that new society in our relationships with fellow workers while engaging in the class struggle. Switching between modes of production isn’t sufficient.
Building those genuine human relationships must be at the center of any anti-capitalist organizing strategy. This is precisely because our lives have been entirely reduced to hierarchical power relations by capitalism while human emotion and sociability have been completely erased. We have plenty of historical evidence that shows replacing one rigidly hierarchical social structure with another can just as easily lead to different forms of intense exploitation and violence.
So, I’d like to propose an addition to our labor organizing toolbox: focus on building healthy relationships. What does this approach mean for organizing in the One Big Union?
First off, remember that we are organizing the workers, not just the shop. A Wobbly that has positive experiences and training from a shop campaign will take that knowledge elsewhere—along with their relationships. The more Wobblies we are connected to, the more our collective knowledge and experience can help workers’ struggles succeed.
Second, it’s imperative that our union culture, from job branches up through the General Administration, helps facilitate those healthy worker bonds. Building strong internal relationships in the union is the ultimate virtuous cycle because it allows us to get more union work done and makes us more appealing to new members. If we are to grow sustainably and become a formidable force in the class struggle, we must attract and retain members from all walks of life and from all oppressed classes. People are much more likely to take out and retain their IWW membership when union spaces are liberated, anti-oppressive, and contain positive atmospheres. As a practical first step, building up solid Good & Welfare and Social Committees that engage members in more relaxed social events can go a long way.
Third, we must ensure we have effective conflict mediation and accountability processes in place. There will inevitably be interpersonal tension and disagreements in our union—which is totally normal and healthy!—but it’s probably in our best interest to stay as united as possible against our oppressors. We can even come out of disagreements with stronger relationships than before, if the conversations are done carefully. Bosses and capitalists are little more than petty bullies, after all, and we must strive to not replicate the structures and behaviors of capitalism if we seek to abolish it.
Fourth, practice, preach, and spread solidarity. This may seem tautological, but our workplaces and communities are incredibly atomized. People hardly know their neighbors or fellow workers, much less experience solidarity with them. I’d bet most don’t even know what solidarity is. Practicing solidarity in our job branches, General Membership Branches, and Industrial Union Branches is revolutionary because it interrupts the social cycles put in place by capitalists and introduces a factor that has been missing from labor for decades.
We must always remember that labor is a process of social cooperation. The twisted thing about capitalism is that the bosses threaten and manipulate people into abusive social forms, and force us to do work that is harmful to each other and the planet. They see us as disposable pieces of a machine. If we are to prefigure a new social system, we can’t fall into the same trap. We must recognize people as far more than just their labor, but as human beings with complex emotions, skills and enormous potential. Our new forms of cooperation—and the work we choose to take on—must be humane, egalitarian, and democratic. Otherwise, the brave new world is not going to be better than the old.
This focus on relationship building is not just about treating each other nicely; it is an essential strategy for growing the One Big Union and combating capitalism at all levels. Capitalism relies on the reproduction of the social dynamics it thrives in: isolation, poverty, hierarchy, despondency, and abuse, among others. It is a vicious cycle that recreates itself. If we interrupt that cycle of social reproduction and replace it with one based in community, cooperation, democracy, hope, and solidarity, we essentially stop reproducing capitalism and start reproducing a revolution.
Even more importantly, an organization where members’ relationships are based in those principles and that promotes a positive politics of hope will attract new members far more easily than one based in negativity. Like the old adage says, “know the union, hear the union, see the union.” When people know about, hear about, and see an organization building a better world, they are far more likely to join up and fight for change.
So far I’ve mostly described a proposed social form. But the content of those relationships is just as important. If we build the right core content—regardless of individual behaviors and attitudes—we can flourish. The fundamentals of that core should be solidarity, trust, and anti-oppression.
Solidarity is the most important part—which is why I mention it twice in this essay. As a concept solidarity may seem simple, but it can be tricky to implement because folks often confuse “solidarity” with “friendship,” especially in the context of active struggle. Friendship is a way to treat others who we already know; it’s built on a history of relationship (however short or long). Solidarity, however, is primarily a way of treating people we don’t know. It is reflexively empathizing and aiding others in their struggles, regardless of our history of relationship with them. Not all friendships have solidarity (some friendships can be quite abusive), and not all solidarity contains friendship (but solidarity does preclude abuse). Walking into a space where everyone will go far out of their way to help in a struggle is a powerful, infectious feeling. That’s solidarity; it’s a foundational relationship that only strengthens all others.
Trust is the tree growing out of solidarity’s fertile soil. It is built upon a history of working together and caring for each others’ needs, but can be a bit difficult. This is especially true when personality differences come into play. However, trusting relationships are critical for group accountability and getting union work done. Organizing committee members must trust each other to accomplish tasks like building the social map and doing one-on-ones. On the shop floor, workers must trust that they’ll have each others backs when confronting the boss or executing a direct action. Our branches must trust our officers to do the administrative work we have asked them to do, and trust each other to remove people from office if need be. The tree both receives and gives nutrients to the soil; trust and solidarity act the same.
Finally, anti-oppressive relationships are like the leaves on our tree and the sub-surface root networks tying the forest together. I mentioned earlier that capitalism is essentially reproduced by petty abuse and oppression. That oppression doesn’t just fall on class lines, but also on gender, race, and others. Perpetuating these patterns in our relationships keeps our fellow workers who are women, people of color, trans and/or non-binary, or other oppressed people from participating in our union. Moreover, it breeds resentment and personal issues that often go long unaddressed. But when our relationships are based in anti-oppressive principles, we have more energy and unity to take the fight to our common enemies. Without that energy, we have nothing.
We must put these kinds of activities at the forefront of our organizing if we are to reshape society. What this looks like for the IWW varies from branch to branch, but socials and training sessions are indispensable tools to grow the union and reinvigorate the labor movement. We have a long way to go to organize the working class and prefigure a new society. We must build up to the virtuous cycle of sustained growth of the union, and the only way to do that is by focusing on our relationships.
[This post was published in the April-May 2019 issue of the Seattle Worker]