The text below is transcribed from a hand-written document by Susan Fabrich that I came across while digging through some IWW boxes at the Walter Reuther Archives in Detroit. I wanted to make sure that it was published so that it could be better circulated, but also because I think it’s a great example of what honest reflection on organizing can look like. Too often we mimic capitalist journalism in our writing and in doing so we feel the need to leave out our mistakes while sensationalizing our wins. Focusing on only publishing “historic” and “first ever” victories erases hard-won lessons that also come through struggle and failures. Insights from these less glamorous stories can provide us with wisdom that can strengthen our organizing and cultivate important institutional learning.
I like this piece because it articulates barriers that the organizers faced and the author makes an attempt to prescribe why things didn’t play out as they had hoped. Many of the challenges they came across are still challenges for organizers today. I think that if we try to incorporate more of this sort of introspection in our strategies, it might help us address and overcome some of those obstacles. There have been some slight formatting edits for readability, but otherwise the text below appears as it was written by the original author. I have also included some of my own insights at the end.
FLORIDA–The Pizza Hut organizing attempt suffered from one essential flaw that prevented it from ever really getting started. This was a lack of contact with any solid social groups at the workplace. Since this was not present, we never got the chance to make any tactical mistakes, simply because there wasn’t a basis for organizing in the first place.
Why did this happen? It was a consequence, I think, of student-radical ways of relating to people which both Paul Green and I fell into. Specifically, I think that Paul began with a fairly clear understanding of how his dissatisfaction with his job fit in with larger social patterns, resulting in turning to the IWW in an attempt to find a collective solution to a collective problem which would be directly related to his work.
But Paul came to this conclusion due to personal background (grew up in a union family) and an intellectual interest and training which are by no means common among the types of people who work at Pizza Hut. Armed with the conviction that unionism is the right answer to worker problems, he pressured and cajoled two of his workmates to somewhat reluctantly support organizing. He also contacted the IWW for help.
I don’t know what he expected, but he got me, another student radical with no organizing experience. Perhaps because our backgrounds and inclinations are similar, I didn’t pick up on the lack of enthusiasm of Paul’s “recruits” as a crucial issue. I am used to the pushing and prodding technique myself.
With the assumption that we had enuf [sic] of a core group to start with I asked Dan Pless to come down and help us figure out preliminary tactics. If the core group had been solid, his advice, research and support would have been invaluable. As it was, we never really got a chance to put any of it into practice.
Several things happened that slowed us down to a crawl over the summer. I was working at another Pizza Hut and developing a relationship with people there – altho the turnover was so great that it was next to impossible to get to know everyone. This was tied up with our tactics – at first Paul and I, naively, were hoping to organize all four Gainesville Pizza Huts. Dan convinced me that, in terms of the definition of the bargaining unit, concentrating on Paul’s Pizza Hut would be better. So after about a month and a half at one Pizza Hut I started trying to get transferred to the other Pizza Hut.
Paul, due to cancellation of his student loan, had to move for the summer to a more lucrative job in New Hampshire. At this point I had met only one other person from his Pizza Hut, and had no regular contact with that workplace.
Two things happened over the next few months, until the end of August. I was in the middle of a complicated process of getting transferred, as I felt I could get nothing done as an outsider to that working situation. This involved finding a new apartment, cross training as a cook, and making up complicated stories to justify my move.
The other thing was the disintegration of my relationship (tenuous at best) with the union supporters Paul had lined up. We had met with Dan Pless in June, and they seemed willing (tho not eager) to put some effort out to begin an organizing campaign. They were to try to convince people to sign auth [sic] cards.
I met with one of them, Jay, at the beginning of July, and gave him some blank auth [sic] cards. The other person, Pam, began to back out at this point for reasons that she never made entirely clear. Without Paul around to nag them, they seemed to be taking the union less and less seriously.
When I finally got a job at the right Pizza Hut, Pam was totally detached from the issue and Jay was very reluctant to talk about it. I was busy getting to know the other employees, but I was also reluctant to talk union to anyone. By the time my sense of outrage exceeded my shyness, after about three weeks on the job, it was September and time to go to IWW Convention. I was beginning to talk union to some people. Pam moved up into management. I got mad at Jay for various reasons, including his reluctance to discuss unionizing with me or to give me an honest decision or whether to stick with it or not.
I lost my job when I stayed at convention longer than I was supposed to, and Paul got his job back at the same time. When I came back to Gainesville, Paul and I got together and discussed the situation. We decided that the problem all summer had been the lack of contact of the ideas of the union with the social group formed at the workplace, and with the absence of conviction on Pam and Jay’s part that the union actually filled some need for them. The work to be done went back to the basics – for Paul, as ‘organizer’, to develop relationships with other employees of trust and a feeling that the union fulfilled their collective needs.
This ‘subjective’ need was not the only obstacle to our organizing attempt, but it was the basic one. Other problems which may have wrecked it if we had gotten any farther were also legion [sic] – such as:
- Pam, who became assistant manager, had full knowledge of our plans.
- The turnover, though low in comparison with other Pizza Hut’s in town, was still great enough to make it hard to reach each employee.
- The NLRB would have had fairly good grounds for rejecting a single Pizza Hut as a bargaining unit.
- Many employees were part-timers studying at U of F, with a lack of commitment to their work and the improvement thereof
– Susan Fabrich, 1970s.
As an IWW member and lifelong restaurant worker, I found this piece to be particularly fascinating. I joined the union in 2012, which was right on the heels of IWW campaigns in the food and beverage industry at companies like Starbucks, Jimmy John’s, and even Pizza Hut. Through the creation of our Organizing Department and the Organizer Training Program, we have been able to take wisdom from campaigns like these and build them into our institutional memory, so that we don’t make the same mistakes and can repeat our wins. In 2013, I became an Organizer Trainer for the IWW and then in 2017 I was part of an organizing campaign at a local sushi restaurant. As a trainer and organizer, I’ve come across many of the mistakes and challenges listed above, both from personal experience and from other IWW members. I’ve tried to learn from those mistakes (and occasional successes!) and to become a better organizer as a result. And of course the IWW as a union has made some pretty significant changes in the 40-50 years since this piece was first written. Here are some of my observations on the above piece, based on those experiences:
Theoretical Organizing vs Workplace Realities
I think to really understand these failures, we need to start by taking a closer look at Susan (the author) and Paul. Susan mentions early on that the “student-radical ways of relating to people which both Paul Green and I fell into” were “by no means common among the types of people who work at Pizza Hut.” I think this disconnect is a common experience for many wobs and can often lead us to think that our coworkers are either apathetic or conservative. Business unions and universities both seek to shape the way we think about labor by pointing us towards the “proper,” i.e. state-sanctioned channels. In the US, that takes form through the National Labor Relations Act, contractualism, formalized grievance processes, and using disruptive action only as a last-ditch resort. What results is that we only legitimize the former methods of organizing while overlooking the everyday ways in which workers struggle against the boss’ control over the workplace.
If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant (or probably anywhere really), you are going to know what I’m talking about. Our bosses try to control every aspect of the working day, but you really don’t have to look very far to find all sorts of ways in which workers undermine that control. We refuse to abide by their scripted interactions with customers, we don’t upsell if it’s not worth it to us, we sneak food to our friends and regulars without charging them, we have people watch our stations while we sneak extra food or cigarette breaks. There are all sorts of ways that workers subvert the status quo and exercise their own power on the job. Oftentimes these actions can become concerted through what some labor writers have named “the informal work group.” Unfortunately, we don’t think of these actions as being part of the struggle for job control because they happen outside of the state-sanctioned labor relations framework and we end up completely writing off the ways in which an overwhelming majority of the working class struggles against the boss’ control over the workplace. But organizers have turned these smaller and more atomized actions into more concerted disruptions by organizing walkouts, work to rule, good work strikes, service refusals, and all sorts of other creative actions.
Because Paul doesn’t see the workplace this way and because he’s the one seemingly calling the shots, he recruits two workers based on vocal support for unions but without much substance behind that. In fact, Susan points out that there was a visible “lack of enthusiasm” but ignored it. In the IWW, we organize through committees that build their strength and capacity through practicing direct democracy and direct action. In other words, it requires participation. And you can’t build a participatory committee with people who don’t participate. Many unions follow the AEIOU and assessment models of member recruitment, in which they ask workers what issues are important to them and then use that as an opportunity to ask them to sign an authorization card for the union. The current IWW version of this is unique because instead of asking them to sign an authorization card, we ask them to participate in planning and executing collective job actions that will win demands. And whether or not they deliver on those tasks determines how we assess them. If there’s a lack of follow through, then you might need to agitate them more or try to find an issue that they are more passionate about, but we don’t want to recruit workers to the committee until they are enthusiastic and demonstrate it concretely through participation.
Understanding the Workplace
Something else the author mentions right off the bat is a “lack of contact with any solid social groups at the workplace.” In the IWW Organizer Training 101, we have a whole module on Social Charting in which we discuss the existing social dynamics in the workplace, both in terms of the boss’ forms of organization (shifts, departments, positions) and in terms of how workers begin to organize themselves (cliques, people who take breaks together, people who hang out outside of work). It’s important to understand how these formal and informal organizations on the job contribute to the status quo before we start having 1 on 1s with coworkers because we should know ahead of time *why* we want to have 1 on 1s with coworkers. It doesn’t seem like the two workers that Peter recruited were brought on board because they could help provide inroads to social groups in order to build better connections with workers. It sounds like they were recruited because he was able to pressure them. And if workers don’t feel that they have a personal stake in organizing then they are likely to flake or worse yet, betray the organizing committee down the line.
Who Decides When We Get To Be A Union?
Two other issues the author brings up are employee turnover and NLRB bargaining units. I think these can be addressed simultaneously because they often feed into each other. Turnover is something the industry has been dealing with for a long time. Even prior to COVID, parts of the food service industry were reporting turnover rates of 100% or more. This has caused many unions to take a hands-off approach to the industry because of how this dynamic affects their ability to win elections. But part of what constitutes shifting the balance of power away from bosses is taking back our ability to define what a union is, who is in it and what it does. Former IWW General Secretary Treasurer Alexis Buss had a great column in the Industrial Worker which centered on what was then called “minority unionism.” Our methods have changed since that time, but what remains the same is that we believe that small groups of workers can tackle grievances at work and win on them on their own terms. Obviously the goal is to expand the union beyond that small group, but especially when turnover is high you can still have a committee of a few dedicated members who can hold their ground until they can build a stronger density. Three IWW members at one workplace can become chartered within the union as a Job Branch. As such, they can collect and manage their own dues, elect their own officers, and share the same functions as other branches in the union. The important thing is not to get bogged down because you don’t think you can get everyone on board, but to instead focus on what is possible with the people who do get on board and to use that as your foundation. As Laborwave Radio recently said: “Who has the power to bring a union into existence: the state or the workers? Your perspective on this question will shape your strategies for organizing.”
On a larger scale, the IWW charters Industrial Union Branches. In industries like food service, workers may change workplaces several times throughout their career but stay within the same industry. Many business unions in the industry will have high turnover because membership is tied to employment. Once the worker leaves the workplace either through quitting or being fired, they are no longer part of the bargaining unit. In the IWW, membership stays with the worker for as long as they continue to pay dues and are working class. In other words, the IWW focuses on its relationship with workers and not with bosses. Contractualism prioritizes the latter. This is why we say “organize the worker, not the workplace”: if members are active in workplace committees, take trainings, and participate in direct actions then they can take that experience to other workplaces and recruit more IWW members. The goal is to build more and better organizers and more committees and branches will follow.
What has gotten the IWW to where it is now versus where it was at the time this paper was written is that we have been learning how to learn. Having a strong popular education program has been crucial to that end. Training is a huge component of that, but trainings are also shaped by who trains and the first-hand experiences they bring. Experiences bring stories and stories bring lessons and lessons bring progress. It might seem like Susan didn’t get very far at Pizza Hut, but I think the lessons she learned and the example she set by sharing them will inspire more IWW members to share and reflect on our own experiences to keep learning from them so that we can keep moving the work along.