Looking at what a union is without organizing staff, and going beyond what we are not.

2010 Organizing Summit in Los Angeles - third biannual organizing summit
From the IWW Materials Preservation Project. 2010. The third biannual Organizing Summit in Los Angeles.

Those who have been following Industrial Worker over the last year will be familiar with the series that the publication has been running titled The Contradictions of Paid Staff in the Union Movement by Roger Williams. As the title suggests, the series is mostly about how paid staff face pressure from groups other than the workers they are trying to organize, which can lead them to discourage militancy or otherwise act against the interests of the workers they are supposed to be supporting. I think these articles are good as far as they go, and I don’t want to criticize the author, but I do want to expand on an idea that I think he doesn’t really develop: what are the alternatives?

In the second part of the series, Fellow Worker Roger Williams suggests that the alternative to a union hiring permanent organizing staff is committed worker organizers in the shop where they are organizing. These worker organizers will build militant, grassroots unionism from the bottom up. I don’t disagree with this basic position, but I want to expand on it from a different perspective. Williams’ perspective is  that of a militant worker who has been organizing in his own workplace who was offered a job with a mainstream business union that already has a contract in his shop. He has rejected that offer in favor of continuing to organize on the shopfloor. What I think is missing, though, is the question of what a union, as an organization beyond one shopfloor, does to foster this. After all, workers do not need to be part of a larger organization in order to agitate their co-workers or take shopfloor action; one could imagine a series of independent unions each made up of workers in a single shop.

One Big Union without Organizing Staff

The IWW, however, is intended to be One Big Union. One reason for this is actually something I think Williams glosses over in his series. In Part II he writes, 

“I relate to my coworkers and organizer friends in such a way that we build the networks of experience, skills, and knowledge we need amongst ourselves instead of externalizing those resources in paid staff.”

This, I think, is a good starting point for what One Big Union does that an independent union in a single shop cannot. Sharing experience, skills, and knowledge is something that is obviously doable and beneficial between shops. Indeed, one of the main ways in which the IWW expends our dues money is on Organizer Trainings and other events intended to do just that. Williams goes on to write,

“For those with a grassroots theory of worker power, there’s no skills or special position that organizing staff have that worker-organizers can’t develop on their own. When groups of worker-organizers come together and start building their skills, developing knowledge, and gaining experience, they directly manifest worker power instead of indirectly supporting it the way staff organizers do.”

Here, I think Williams missteps. He correctly identifies that workers manifest power directly on the shopfloor, but he contrasts this to indirect support. In reality, the sort of skill building that he identifies usually starts with indirect support. The problem with staff organizers is not so much that they are engaging in indirect support, but that they are not primarily helping workers build organizing skills. In the IWW, we have shifted in recent years to having workers external to a shop assist in building skills in workers on the shopfloor. Usually these workers are called External Organizers or Organizing Mentors, but regardless, they have the same role; to assist workers in developing skills for themselves, to teach workers the early steps of organizing, and to check in with workers and help them keep going. After all, just because workers can learn a skill does not mean they already know it. The actual work of organizing still occurs between workers in the shop, and power is still manifested on the shopfloor, but indirect support plays a crucial role in getting there.

In Defense of Bureaucracy

Williams identifies various problems with paid organizing staff in a union, but the problem isn’t that the staff are paid. It is the role that they take. While I’m not advocating for paying External Organizers, I’m also suggesting a fundamental difference in the type of work that these organizers do compared to paid staff. The IWW believes in the notion of “every worker an organizer.” It follows from this that we must help every worker to become an organizer. This means training. It also means encouraging workers to share their organizing stories, and providing spaces for them to do so (like in this publication, for example). It also means providing a place to check in for the first workers to begin organizing in their shop; once a campaign has reached a certain level of development, workers in the same shop can check in with each other, but before that point, the union serves to help workers stay on track. We can see that these activities amount to not just training, but a bidirectional flow of information between workers, facilitated by a central union bureaucracy. 

When I first began doing external organizer work, I tried to position myself as an expert, sharing organizing knowledge with the workers who reached out to us. More recently, I’ve started to place more emphasis on the fact that I too am a worker, who does the things I am describing in my own workplace (or I try to). I made this change to help emphasize the communal nature of union organizing; I may currently have more knowledge than another worker, but ultimately the union involves learning from each other. This perhaps leads us to the biggest difference between staff and EOs. Williams correctly identifies that staff have an interest in keeping themselves around. Organizers, whether on the shopfloor or external to the shop, are seeking to replace ourselves.

Towards Industrial Democracy

In the long term, the bureaucracy also would play a role in connecting workers from different shops in the same industry to share industry-specific knowledge and coordinate industrial actions beyond one single shop. To do this, we will have to develop ourselves as organizers such that we can mentor workers in other shops, and build ties beyond the other workers in our own shops. Ultimately, this is how we will build an Industrial Union that challenges the power of the capitalist class.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to represent that of the IWW or Industrial Worker as a whole.

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.

Back to Top