Interview with Fellow Worker Constance
For this issue, Fellow Worker Noah interviewed Seattle organizer Constance about the joys and challenges of organizing workplaces.
Fellow Worker Noah: So Constance, how did you get to be involved in the IWW in the first place?
Fellow Worker Constance: In 2019, a few of my co-workers had been talking about organizing at my shop. One of our coworkers, an IWW member, got a few of us together and we started chatting about day to day issues in the workplace. We tried to get an organizing committee together, but it ended up falling apart for a number of reasons, not the least of which I don’t think any of us knew what we were doing. Our hearts were in the right places, but it was just really tough. That campaign fell apart, and a bunch of us ended up getting laid off.
But one of my coworkers continued on his journey with the IWW and periodically touched base with me. My former co-worker kept encouraging me to take Organizer Training 101 (OT101), and while I initially dropped out on the second day the first time I took the course, thanks to my coworker a year later I retook the course and finished it. Keeping in touch with the Seattle branch as well as other members encouraged me to be a more active member–take meeting notes, pitch ideas, and so on.
I was asked to become an organizing mentor, and started helping out with other campaigns, and then was asked to become a branch delegate to help with onboarding new IWW members. Since then, I’ve taken OT101 several more times, helped start a campaign at one of my former workplaces, and recently become an OT101 trainer myself!
Managing multiple campaigns and switching jobs in 2021 gave me a lot of insight. There was great coaching from my fellow workers. It was a lot to handle for one person, but I realized the more of us stepped up, the less work there would be on everybody’s shoulders. One of the biggest roles you can set for yourself as an organizer is to replace yourself.
Noah: So you became an organizer? What does that entail?
Constance: The IWW considers anyone who is organizing their workplace to be an organizer. We first recommend folks attend OT101, which is free and open to all workers, regardless of union membership, which helps teach folks how to organize their own workplaces. Someone who is actively following the steps to organize, which is connecting with fellow workers, finding common cause on how to improve working conditions, taking steps to build solidarity towards collective action—anyone who takes these steps is an organizer.
Noah: You mentioned previously that you were taking care of multiple campaigns in the past, which can be a lot to handle. What are some other challenges about working in organizing?
Constance: Definitely the emotional labor. Organizing can sometimes make you resentful, angry, bitter, that your free time and energy are being given to this particular thing. That was really difficult for me personally, but I generally have problems saying no to begin with. But we organize because we care. How can you put bounds on passion? It’s hard to put balance in principle, but your spiritual and mental energy and your health absolutely can put a hard stop to your ability to organize for the long term. And so if I didn’t want to burn out as an organizer, I needed to be very real about what I can and can’t take on. That is an ongoing lesson that I am still trying to learn.
Noah: I’ve certainly found myself close to that edge of burnout, in my work for the Seattle Worker and the Wob Radio Hour. I’m on two or three different committees at the moment, and there’s this very definite line of “If I accept anything more, I’m gonna start getting a little bitter and resentful at my fellow workers.” What helps you get through those periods of emotional or mental exhaustion?
Constance: I think it’s good to remember: don’t rush. I think that we should harness existing dynamics about life, about relationships. You know, you’re not always hanging out with your friends at full blast right? There are also times where you just have to remind yourself, it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. It’s important to take time off, and we’re all the better for it. We’re human.
Noah: What’s one way workers can still stay motivated to work collectively together at a particular shop, even if a campaign falls apart?
Constance: One thing that we often encourage people to do is–especially if you’re already a member of the IWW and you’ve gone through OT101–take advantage of Seattle’s Organizing Mentor Program.
Noah: What is Seattle’s organizing mentor program?
Constance: The organizing mentor program, which is coordinated by the Campaigns Committee, connects workers who want to be doing organizing work, but can’t do so for various reasons, with campaigns who could benefit from an experienced organizer. In general, folks who are organizing mentors are “red card holders” (union members) who have had experience organizing their own workplaces or have helped out on other campaigns. They’ve typically taken OT101 more than once. Workers who have taken OT101 but are unable to organize their workplaces can still become organizing mentors, and will usually be paired with a more experienced organizing mentor.
The mentor program actually has an advantage that can be easy to overlook: a lot of industries like white collar companies turn people into pseudo managers. They’re not actually managers, they don’t have hiring or firing power or direct influence over compensation or benefits or anything like that, but they make you a “creative lead” or something like that. And it just creates this mindfuck for people where they think they’re management when they aren’t. “But I’m still screwed over like a worker, but my interest should be with management” they say, and so people are confused. And I can’t tell you how many people that we’ve sort of recruited into our organizing mentor ranks that occupy that exact space where they have solidarity, a strong class consciousness that they’re a worker. And yet, because they’re pseudo managers, it’s probably not a good idea for them to be heading up or pushing the organizing at their particular shop. And so whether your campaign falls apart or you find yourself in this weird position, you can’t be the one that’s driving the organizing efforts.
Definitely becoming an organizing mentor is the path that we want for you to get great experience. Seeing all sorts of different types of shops and how they might organize you begin to understand better what it might be like to organize outside of your industry. Organizing is just all about experience. You just have to have those experiences whether someone shares them with you, or you’ve personally gone through them. And so yeah, I would, I would definitely recommend and not to mention, the campaigns committee would love to have more organizing mentors.
Noah: You said there was an organizing mentorship program, right? Yes. How would fellow workers find out more about that?
Constance: There is an email for the campaigns committee that people can reach out to: firstname.lastname@example.org. There are more people reaching out asking us for help, and so we need more organizing and campaign mentors so we can reduce the overall workload. Once you reach out, we just take it from there. We have conversations with folks, there’s some training, a lot of it is just on the job. We almost always pair a new member with a senior organizing mentor, someone who is very experienced in the practice of organizing and campaigns work. You just get to like slowly become comfortable with it until you can take on more.
Noah: Within the past year and a half there’s this huge interest in unions again, as people begin to realize that the infrastructure and their bosses really don’t give a damn about them. How has COVID changed the nature of campaigns?
Constance: That’s a really interesting question. I think COVID has made folks reprioritize what’s important for them. The disparity for people who can work from home and people who can’t, and the myriad ways in which the different ways that different companies handle it, have exposed how corporations and bosses lie. At one of my previous shops, the boss swore up and down that working from home was the thing that we could never do. But when COVID hit it was just fine. It was more than fine. In some cases it was better, especially for that stage of the work that we were in.
I also think it affected folks from marginalized backgrounds (women, people of color, and so on) in a tangible way as well. Women in my industry have told me they will never accept a job that requires them to go back into the office because they are so relieved at not having to deal with all this stuff that they should not be subjected to, that they should be able to get a redress for in the workplace, but they don’t because the bosses don’t care. People are also changing jobs and seeing the difference in benefits. To see what bosses and businesses are willing to offer really made people go, “Oh, I’m way more valued,” and “There are people beating down my door who want to hire me, so why should I work for you?”
However, it’s really heartening to see as an organizer that a lot of people are choosing to stay at their workplaces and go, “I would rather fix the place that I’m at.”