One of the biggest things holding back potential new EOs (external organizers) is impostor syndrome.
I see a lot of impostor syndrome reinforced amongst ourselves as organizers, believing we must dress up our writing in fancy language and use words like “praxis” and “dialectics.” I actually joked when I started writing this article that I had better use the word “praxis” so leftists would read it.
The Futurama meme re-captioned with “Why does the working class, the larger class, not simply eat the employing class?” gets right to what took the IWW Preamble three hundred and nineteen words.
But fine, let’s talk praxis.
Praxis is, above all other things, ongoing. There’s no one easy, correct way to organize (even the mainstream union organizers know this, as evidenced by the very title of Jane McAlevey’s book No Shortcuts).
Capitalism is designed to keep us feeling powerless, and it has been so ingrained in us workers that we often believe it – “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,” as anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko wrote in 1971.
The first lesson of the IWW’s Organizer Training 101 (OT101) is that a union is two or more workers engaging in concerted action to improve their workplace conditions. This is also the first thing I tell new organizing leads. You don’t need to be “legitimized” by holding a union election or by signing a contract. If you and one other coworker are organizing, you’re a union.
Or, as the Disney musical Newsies put it, “Even though we ain’t got hats or badges, we’re a union just by sayin’ so.”
Seeking “legitimacy” is appealing to a third party, whether that third party be a contract, or the government, or whatever cosmic entity grants upon one the status of “Qualified.”
Of course, it’s important to know the IWW organizing methods. One of the main “selling points” I pitch whenever I’m recommending the OT101 is that the skills you learn there can be applied to any job, so even if you’re currently unemployed, or not currently looking to organize your own workplace, you should still take the training. But furthermore, those skills don’t have to apply to your own workplace at all –- by taking the OT101 you now have the skill set to be an EO too.
If you’ve already taken OT101, I do recommend taking it again. Each training will be different, with different trainers and participants, and you’ll learn something new every time. But no amount of OT101s will magically suddenly make you qualified. You can read the External Organizer Manual front–to-back and back-to-front again as many times as you like (it’s a great resource!) but it’s just another organizing pamphlet in the reading pile if you don’t step up and become an external organizer.
One thing that you may find comforting to remember is that EOs are there to guide the workers, not run the campaign for them. As you impart the basic knowledge (contact list, social chart, having one-on-ones), the workers in the shop will be the ones doing the actual organizing. You’re not in control at all. And that’s how it should be. Empowering others to organize themselves means EOs avoid the worst tendencies of paternalism and savior complexes that can appear when organizing. (I also recommend Daniel Bovard-Katz’s excellent Losing the Beer Belly for a closer look at how productive union organizing leads to a more diverse overall membership.)
I had been involved with my branch for about a year when I took on my first organizing campaign. Someone I already knew from outside the IWW reached out about organizing their workplace around Covid safety protocol issues in mid-2020. I worked as a secondary EO along with another Fellow Worker, and mostly listened.
It was a textbook case of a “hot shop” – everyone was already agitated and ready to take action without having thought through the organizing work. We met with workers almost every day for months. It was not successful, but I learned a lot in a short time. It was a good first EO experience for me – the failure was humbling and also inspired me to do better next time.
The next big campaign I took on did go much better. Two workers in the same shop happened to both take out red cards at the same time without knowing about each other. I connected the two of them, and we began to work. Instead of a hot shop, we had two red card holders who understood that organizing is a slow and sometimes frankly boring process. That campaign grew into my branch’s largest campaign, with one big win that they reported in the GOB. It’s a campaign I’ve been almost entirely hands-off on. The workers were empowered to organize themselves after I made the initial connection between the first two red carders.
I’ve advised around a dozen organizing leads now. The External Organizer Manual warns, “Most campaigns will die in the early stages … the reality is that the vast majority of workplace inquiries will not evolve into a long term, developed organizing campaign.” I have found this to be true.
But the way I handle all new organizing leads is not to assume they’re not going to last. I go in to every intake call with the idea that this could become a big campaign, and my approach is informed in large and small ways by every organizing lead I’ve taken on before. It’s easy to point to big wins when you have them, but every aspect of a campaign can be turned into a lesson you can refer back to later. My first campaign devoted a lot of time to a hot shop where no one ever even took out a red card, so signing up for the IWW is now an expectation laid out from the beginning. Inviting a big group of workers without the shopfloor organizers having done one-on-ones with any of them first was a disaster, so now I am sure to emphasize the importance of one-on-ones, and have the direct experience of the disastrous group meeting to refer to.
Employers infamously ask for job experience that applicants couldn’t possibly have, which just holds back workers from opportunities to get this supposedly needed experience. Organizers should recognize that there are countless opportunities to gain organizing experience, and the bosses aren’t the ones holding us back from that – our own fears are.
Every Passover, Jews sing “Dayenu.” The song celebrates the gifts G-d has given to the Jewish people, and each verse notes that if G-d had only done one of these things but not the others, it still “would have been enough” (dayenu). I have struggled with this way of thinking – surely we should not accept less than abolition of the wage system, and not celebrate a small win at a small shop as “enough.”
But what I have come to believe “dayenu” really means is that every step along the way is as important as the final step. The first step is just as important.
Next time your branch Organizing Committee gets a lead? Volunteer to take it on. That’s the first step.
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.