by Lexi Owens
Editor’s note: This is part 1 of a two-part series on what officers can do for branch building, member engagement, mentorship, and fostering a positive union culture.
“It’s my responsibility as a Wobbly to take this on,” said Ned K., the new Branch Secretary of the Seattle Education IU620 Job Branch. “I need to learn how to do it.” After layoffs devastated Ned’s campaign, he decided to become a branch officer, even though he had never served in an officer role before, because “Admin work is crucial. It keeps the branch rolling.” Now as Secretary, Ned and a small group are holding the Job Branch together, keeping the campaign going, and preparing for the union’s return to their workplace.
In the IWW, officers like Ned take on a range of administrative tasks, all while remaining workers in the shops they are unionizing or as regular dues-paying members in their local branch. This system reflects the democratic principles of the union: rank-and-file members control policy in their locals through meetings and votes, and officers carry out those decisions and provide administrative support. All this administrative work is done by volunteer branch officers, unlike other unions which rely on paid staff.
Most branches struggle to carry out these basic duties in one way or another. However, several branches have developed successful, time-tested methods for staffing their officer positions with competent and reliable officers as well as mentoring the next cohort who will take office in the future. Using these methods, shops and branches can create a system of volunteer mentorship to develop skills in our fellow workers, build trust and solidarity, and share the burden of the tasks needed to keep the union working.
Widen the Pool: Recruiting
The Stardust Family United Industrial Union Branch 630/640 (SFU) organizes food service and entertainment industry workers in New York. According to Emé B.—a former treasurer and current delegate—SFU has had four Branch Secretaries and four Branch Treasurers since 2016. Stardusters understand that rotating these positions builds members’ skills, helps avoid burnout, and encourages commitment to the organization. And while turnover has challenges for continuity and institutional memory—increasing the time it takes to learn how to do a job well—the key has been the support offered by the workers in the shop. “There is a core group of Stardusters who are always there to help, but we insist on not taking those official titles, mostly because we are delegating,” Emé said, “It gets people involved and keeps the union strong and gives people a deeper appreciation for what a union is.”
Spreading work around is also an important aspect of the IWW’s rank-and-file emphasis and avoidance of paid staff. Not only is staff prohibitively costly for a small union like ours, but hiring staff can undermine worker organization. Having volunteer administrators who come from the shop or the branch reinforces that the union’s admin is supposed to reflect its membership. “It’s the soul of the organization,” said Ned in Seattle, “it’s not about farming out duties to ‘professionals.’ We have the understanding that everybody takes care of responsibilities. It’s empowering.”
Kelsey T.W. has encouraged turnover in the Chicago General Membership Branch, where a combination of intentional recruitment and term limits has helped eight members take on the Branch Secretary and Branch Treasurer duties since 2016. Kelsey has served as Branch Secretary, Branch Treasurer, and is currently on the IWW’s General Executive Board. After moving to Chicago, Kelsey helped develop an onboarding process for new members where delegates—members elected to collect dues and initiate new members—became responsible for helping create a 1-year plan for every new member. “The role of the delegate changed, and the model is now a mentorship role,” she said, which facilitated communication between the branch and its members. Because of this program, Kelsey identified a member who showed an interest in getting involved, mentored that member, and encouraged them to pursue branch office, which gave them the confidence to run. That member is now the Branch Secretary for 2021.
Turnover helps break down barriers between groups of workers and prevents a permanent administerial class from forming. Officer turnover is both pragmatic and a reflection of our democratic ethos.
Deepen the Pool: Mentorship
Mentorship of the next wave of officers must be an intentional process that builds members’ confidence and skills so they feel supported when they take on a new role. According to Emé, “The only way that it has ever worked is emphasizing that we have a very strong group of people who are here to help you, and you never have to do it alone.” Mentorship then facilitates a transfer of institutional knowledge while a member learns the position. “I had many meetings with the previous Branch Secretary,” said Ned in Seattle. He described their relationship as reciprocal: a give and take of information that helped form a strong bond between them and provided him with some much-needed tools.
If officers don’t build the relationships necessary for a good hand-off of officer duties, they endanger the functioning of the branch. Kelsey described the lack of support she received when she first became an officer and when the branch was struggling to get back on its feet. Having experienced the difficulties of learning on the job without a mentor, Kelsey decided that future officers would not have to suffer that again. She said, “My immediate goal: no one should be shoved into a role without support again, it’s unacceptable.” Branch officers have a responsibility to train and mentor their replacements so as to protect the branch’s operations and finances.
Current officers should identify the barriers that keep members from volunteering, and turn those challenges into opportunities. Emé observed that the best way to engage workers in the union is to turn their agitation into action: “Take that momentum and put it towards the organizational side of things.” Give that member the opportunity to fix a problem they see, and show them you respect them enough to help them pursue a solution. Emé also spoke to the process that got him to take on an officer role. After being hired as a scab, Emé was recruited into the union when other members noticed his agitation and found ways to get him involved. This culminated in Emé becoming a key member of the campaign and serving as Branch Treasurer.
A Union Identity
Creating a welcoming and supportive union culture is also fundamental to success in recruitment. Members will only take on roles in the union if they see themselves in the union. Emé believes that “when you accept an elected position, you’re basically saying, ‘my identity is now tied to this organization.’ So you have to make it an organization that someone would want to identify with.” Build a representative culture that people can find a home in, and build relationships with your fellow workers. No one will volunteer to work on behalf of the union without feeling that sense of connection.
Ned has been a Wobbly since 2013, and he’s still finding ways to get more involved. “I felt like my number was up as far as taking on the secretary duties for the year.” he said, “Everybody should get a little bit of a hand in as many places as they can to help the whole project move along.” Ned’s feelings towards his fellow workers reinforce his reasons for remaining in the union and keeping the job branch alive, even after three quarters of the union’s members were laid off. That sense of solidarity binds us together, and it manifests in volunteers who are willing to take on the work of the union.
Kelsey believes that experienced branch administrators need to seek out the next group of members who will be mentored until they’re ready to take on officer duties. “You can’t be a good steward of the union unless you form a relationship.” she said. “You can only do that by talking to people on a regular basis and getting them involved.” These sorts of regular connections can inform you about a member’s potential and where they can be most helpful to the organization. And when that member asks the right questions—like how to get involved, what work they can take on, where to find something—it demonstrates that they want to “be of service to their fellow workers,” in Kelsey’s words. Those members will be invested in doing a good job as an officer because they care about the union.
“Where our last secretary was helpful,” said Ned, “—and where she will always be helpful—was in her enthusiasm and commitment to the project.” He concluded with, “I’m doing this out of a sense of obligation to my coworkers.”
“We all want to keep this going.”