By Daniel Gross
The IWW has made dramatic strides in the last decade, returning to its roots as an effective and transformative labor union. Unique campaigns in diverse industries have won important gains for workers and significantly influenced the broader labor movement. Still, the building of enduring worker-led and operated industrial unions, a founding mandate of our union, has not yet been fully realized.
With the IWW’s strong recent track record, unparalleled experience in rank-and-file organizing, and rich learnings from our work, we are positioned to get to the next level of building durable industrial unions to scale.
Here are three ways we can get to the next level:
1. Take a Step Back
Too many Wobbly campaigns start with a group of workers deciding they are going to talk to their co-workers and organize their shop. The idea is after the shop or chain is organized, they will then figure out how to organize the industry. This approach is not working because a shop is not a significant unit in our economy; industries are.
Instead of jumping right in to organize your shop, take a step back and look at your industry. Your job as an IWW organizer is to organize your shop, but more so, it is to co-found a successful industrial union of workers in your industry. Understand the industry, its workers, employers, customers, investors, supply chain, distribution, and so forth. Build a model to win in the industry, including at your job.
Once you have taken a step back you might decide that your industrial union building effort actually should start with organizing your shop or chain, and that is totally fine. You will have the roadmap to do it right and the mission’s clarity in that your ultimate project is to build an effective industrial union. On the other hand, you might decide on a totally different path into an industry that at the moment does not directly involve your employer. That is fine, too, as then you have just avoided years of misdirected effort.
It is completely understandable to want to get the ball rolling, fight injustice at your shop or company, and then figure out the bigger picture as you go. But, by taking a step back you will avoid the fate that has felled many Wobbly campaigns and instead, you will be investing in big, durable victories to come.
2. Get Clarity on Your Strategy
Many IWW campaigns have faltered for lack of a viable strategy or even a lack of any articulated strategy. We need to learn strategy-making in the IWW. Without finding a strategy that works for your industrial union building effort, the most courageous and hard-fought efforts will be beaten.
The two essential questions to formulate strategy are: where will we struggle and how will we win? “Where to struggle” means things like which industry, sector, geographic location, employers, or other stakeholders that will be our focus. “How to win” means the unique choices we make to achieve our winning objective in the field of struggle we have picked. These two strategy questions are adapted from the work of business school professor Roger Martin, which we modified in New York for use in worker organizations. A good way to start practicing with the “where to struggle” and “how to win” questions is to apply them to various worker organizing campaigns that you are familiar with, successful and unsuccessful, inside and outside the IWW.
More than anything, your strategy must assert the power you will need to win your demands. Asserting sufficient power is extremely difficult and will not come from generic formulations. Each industrial union effort will have to do its own thinking about this question. Differ-ent industries, sectors, workers, employers and geographies pose varied challenges and opportunities for power assertion. Always include secondary targets or influencers in your analysis. A common success factor for many worker organizing campaigns has been the ability to move those stakeholders.
Several IWW campaigns today have only an employer-level strategy, which is related to the need to step back, which I have discussed. Do not fall into that trap. The mission is to build an industrial union and that requires a cascade of strategies beyond your shop or employer.
Many industrial union building efforts will need an overall organizational strategy, an industry-level strategy, a sector-level strategy, and an employer-level strategy. You will answer the where to struggle and how to win question for each level. And each level is interrelated.
You should be able to write down the core of each strategy level in the ballpark of 25 words or less. This short statement will not replace a strategic plan; but, the best engines of power assertion are amenable to simple and brief articulation. It is much easier to remember and align a team of founding fellow workers around 25 words than it is 25 pages.
Scared you will assess and test several strategies but still choose the wrong path? You probably will. However, with a system for regular strategy reviews and the will to keep the struggle alive, you will adjust until you find the strategy that works. And adjust again if it stops working. With effective strategy-making, you and other workers will see big and game-changing results in IWW organizing.
3. Build a Model
A strategy to win is necessary but not sufficient to create an industrial union. In casual conversation, we often interchange strategy and model. We cannot afford to make that mistake in the high-stakes and incredibly difficult project of founding an industrial union. Strategy is a component of an organizational model. A model includes all of your organization’s fundamental building blocks and how they interlace.
Which set of workers in the industry will you and your fellow workers seek out first? What channels will you prioritize to reach those workers? How will leaders develop?
If you are able to successfully assert power, what mechanism will use to define and hold the gains you win? A collective bargaining agreement? A code of conduct with large brands? A non-contractual standard, which was for example IWW Local 8’s approach on the Philadelphia waterfront?
How will you tie the value created by the industrial union to being a member of the organization? How will you retain members? What will you measure to see if your vision is making progress in the messy world of reality?
These are some key questions that a model must seek to answer and test. Though interrelated with strategy, hopefully, it is clear they require their own thinking and formulation. It takes a complete model for an industrial union to win, scale and endure.
Like strategy, the model almost never works right off the bat and that is fine. The key is to dialogue, debate, and document your model as founding co-workers and to stay alive. You will refine the model as you go and even transform it dramatically if needed. When it does click you will change your industry and your workplace, and maybe even the labor movement and the world.
A member of the New York City IWW, Daniel Gross founded the worker center Brandworkers and helped launch the IWW Starbucks Workers Union while he was a barista at the company.