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North American Wobblies Hold 2022 Organizing Summit

Reflections on a recent conference on workplace organizing, put on by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Chicago, Illinois – On the first weekend of October, Wobblies from across North America converged on the grounds of a Marriott hotel in suburban Chicago. The plan for the two-day summit came in the form of several workshops solicited by North America IWW’s Organizing Department Board and suggested by attendees. A total of fourteen Wobblies presented on topics ranging from nonprofits, to tipping, to interviewing IWW members about their organizing.

The first workshop I attended was a “Grievance Sort and March on the Boss,” facilitated by Jenni and Louisa of the Organizer Training Committee. We were assigned to small groups of four or five and given a range of grievances, from the mundane (“I don’t like the music that plays at work”) to the potentially life-altering (“my boss makes us work faster and faster regardless of safety”). The discussion was productive. It involved sorting grievances based on winnability and importance, and it was eye-opening to see what sorts of workplace issues people prioritized. This activity led to the next, where we formed slightly larger groups to stage a “march on the boss” around our chosen issue.

I have never participated in a march on the boss before. The Organizer Training 101s I attended went over them but I haven’t had the chance to do one at my own workplace. I was the “Interrupter,” which means that it was my job to interrupt the boss if they start arguing, or our other workers if they got too off-script. It felt empowering being able to talk over my boss and remind them to please listen to what we have to say. I had never heard of “mad boss, sad boss, rad boss, glad boss” before. Seeing the different ways in which bosses react to workers seizing power in the workplace was extremely educational for me as an organizer. Sometimes they yell, cry, brush workers off, or even feign concern, and we need to know how to address each type of boss.

Sometimes it is hard to know who the boss even is. The next workshop I attended was one on the nonprofit industrial complex, and how to navigate finding the pressure levers in that world. I have worked several jobs that were classified as nonprofits, and I had never heard of a power map. Creating an organizational chart is crucial to understanding who the bosses are. These are often high-stakes jobs where impulsive direct action could result in harm to the clients. Listening to the community you serve is of the utmost importance, and you need to get them on board. If you are going to try and push funders on issues, you need a really good plan because it could backfire. This workshop left me feeling better equipped for future leads I might take on as an organizer.

“I have been in the IWW a long time now and it is outstanding to be in a room full of Fellow Workers absolutely knee-deep in the work. I am inspired by these organizers,” one Wobbly said a day after the summit concluded. “To be able to go to an event and it be mostly Wobs I haven’t met or even interacted with much but to see that there is a strong, mutual understanding of Solidarity Unionism – a form [of] unionism dedicated to worker power, democracy, and with a true class struggle analysis of the capitalist state and their labor regime – is amazing. Staughton Lynd may have coined the term, but the IWW has taken it to the next level in terms of how hard we go.”

Another Fellow Worker who I spoke with after the weekend mentioned how the summit has encouraged them to pursue starting a regional organizing body. “Often the work in Phoenix feels very slow, insular, and disconnected from the activity of the rest of the union. I always knew that there were other Wobblies out there if I had checked the internet, but that doesn’t feel real. Meeting more experienced organizers from across the continent really gave me a renewed sense of purpose and community, a value I cannot put into words. The summit makes it clear that a regional body of the Southwest is needed for us desert Wobs to meet and see each other.”

Aaron Conway-Fuches of the Organizing Department Board emailed me after the summit with his thoughts. “The ODB received very positive feedback about the organizing summit. I was honestly surprised by how overwhelmingly positive, actually. There were some newer members there who had only organized on their shopfloor and I made a point to ask them how they felt about some of the workshops, like the External Organizer workshop which focused on how to support organizing from the outside, and the feedback there was positive too. I was also glad we were able to talk about some of the topics that people had requested, especially organizing in remote workplaces, which has been a big topic and organizing industrial networks of gig workers or nonprofits.”

The session on remote work was held on day two and facilitated by a shopfloor organizer and an ODB member. Organizing remote workspaces was the number one requested workshop for the summit, and after attending, I see why. More and more workplaces are virtual after the pandemic, and a virtual workplace presents unique organizing challenges not familiar to those of us who go into a physical workplace every day. Some of the helpful advice these organizers presented were about gathering contact info from whatever app the boss was using — it is not weird to ask your coworkers to contact you offline! Many coworkers like to have someone to talk with during the meeting. The phrase “boss-free water cooler” was mentioned for this workplace committee in which the members gathered on a private Discord to talk shop. Another tip was in the charting. Understanding the many layers in which workers are organized, and being able to sort the chart and understand these connections, was an eye-opener for many. The tool that the Fellow Worker used was called Kumu, but these can also be drawn on paper and color-coded.

“That was a real eye-opener. Capitalism’s little modern workforce tricks won’t work on us,” said Randall, a Fellow Worker from the southern U.S. “I thought the way they did mapping was really awesome. They had multiple social maps layered on top of each other — workers organized by ‘work teams,’ by social groups, and other ways of dividing up the staff into manageable bits. That was real cool. Then they talked about assessing the workplace according to how the product flows through different teams, as there isn’t the ‘all of us sit in this area’ type way to do it.”

Adapting our organizing to the modern workplace is something that our Organizer Training 101 does really well. Our organizers are constantly updating it with what they’ve seen works and what doesn’t. Many Fellow Workers of the IWW are in agreement that we should hold more organizing summits. It was truly a transformative experience and I learned a lot that weekend. I can’t wait to carry it forward in my organizing efforts.

Contact the IWW today if you want to start organizing at your job.

If you are a member in good standing and wish to take the Organizer Training 101, please email the OTC. If you would like to request a group OT101 with your GMB, job branch, or coworkers, fill out this form.

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