In this installment of “From the Archives”, we bring you a story on the Sisters’ Camelot IWW campaign from the April 2013 edition of Industrial Worker. Almost ten years ago to the day, canvassers at a nonprofit in Minneapolis, MN went public and threatened to strike if their bosses did not agree to negotiate. The bosses refused, and the canvassers went on strike. This article brings with it several topics of interest that Wobblies still debate on to this day. Should solidarity unions go public? When is the right time to go public if a campaign chooses to do so? Sisters’ Camelot had a majority of workers with Red Cards, so they had the numbers to exert this pressure on the bosses. As a nonprofit, public support is crucial, and unlike private companies, nonprofits quite literally rely on public support to pay their bills in the forms of donations and grants. If a campaign at a nonprofit chooses to go public, it can exert a great deal of pressure on the levers of power. Nonprofits have to listen to their donors and when workers have the public onboard, they can uniquely tap into this power to force bosses to capitulate to their demands. Industrial Worker doesn’t talk enough about the nonprofit industry in the U.S., which accounted for 12.3 million jobs and 10.2 percent of private sector employment in 2017. The 2022 Organizing Summit featured a workshop on organizing at nonprofits. Topics of discussion included figuring out who the bosses are and creating organizational charts and power maps to understand the workplace better. At Sisters’ Camelot, the bosses claimed to be a “workplace collective” and that there were no real bosses, but clearly the workers did their homework and realized that this was untrue. It is my hope that we continue these discussions so that workers at nonprofits can continue to hone their tactics and learn from one-another.
“From the Archives” brings pieces to you from older issues of the Industrial Worker to showcase our rich organizing history and to educate newer Wobblies on our successes and failures of the past. Previously these articles were only distributed in print and are now published on the Industrial Worker website for the first time.
Note: Shuge Mississippi, the fired worker mentioned in the article, is a former member of the IWW, who was expelled from the organization after being charged for various sexual offenses against other members.
I think this piece from the 2013 Industrial Worker has a great deal of learning value about organizing in spite of one of the organizers involved, and I don’t think we should hide unsavory aspects of our history, but be honest with people.
– IW Editor
On Monday, Feb. 25, canvass workers at Sisters’ Camelot, a nonprofit food-share organization in Minneapolis, went public as card-holding IWW members. The workers demanded a negotiation meeting with the management collective (of which most of the workforce are not members, despite claiming to be a “worker collective”) on Friday, March 1, at which they presented their demands. The workers also threatened to strike if the collective refused to negotiate. After discussing the demands for an hour, the bosses told the workers that they would not negotiate, and the workers went on strike.
The union has near-unanimous support from canvassers, most of whom have signed red cards or pledged to, and a majority of whom took part in the “march on the collective” when they went public. Additionally, one of the canvass directors, Bobby Becker, openly supports the union and joined the workers on strike, although he is ineligible for IWW membership under the existing management structure.
The workers began organizing about four months prior to going public and approached the IWW on their own, after years of declining workplace conditions. Their grievances include lack of workplace democracy, below-standard pay, no medical coverage for job-related injuries, and no paid vacation/sick days.
Although Sisters’ Camelot claims to be a “collective” and that “there are no bosses here,” both directors and the collective can hire and fire canvassers who aren’t collective members. The workers’ main demands are to eliminate the canvass director position; obtain worker/union control over hiring and firing; make it an all-union shop in which new canvassers would have one month to join the union; have vacation/sick pay and medical coverage; and get a rotating union rep on the collective to protect the canvassers. They also want a small base pay raise, which if met would still be below the industry standard, and common sense items like professional van maintenance.
Escalation & Reactions
After the strike began on March 1, both sides sent press releases and made phone calls back and forth. When the union offered to meet for negotiations again via phone, the collective claimed they could not meet or make any decisions as a collective until their regular meeting on Monday, March 4, and invited the workers to meet then. The collective then proceeded to meet over the weekend without informing Becker, the pro-union canvass director and collective member, thereby violating their own consensus process. When workers and union supporters arrived at the meeting, the collective read a statement in which they complained of being “forced into a boss role,” then fired Shuge Mississippi, a striking worker and ex-collective member who they accused of “manipulating” other workers into unionizing. The bosses also offered in a carrot-and-stick manner to let one canvasser immediately join the collective, and made it easier for others to apply for membership (ignoring the larger causes and blaming the conflict on one troublemaker).
The workers walked out dazed, but galvanized to remain united in the face of management’s divide-and-conquer strategy, with FW Luke Welke declaring his “disgust that the collective could ask us to betray our friend and fellow worker who we work with every day and still believe that they are negotiating in good faith.” The bosses’ extreme response, while typical, took many by surprise since the organization prides itself as being “radical” and “anti-authoritarian.” Some workers quit other higher-paying canvassing jobs to work for Sisters’ Camelot because they believed in the organization’s mission, but have become disillusioned by disrespectful and often paranoid treatment from the collective. FW Shuge, the fired worker, said, “I love Sisters’ Camelot, but it’s clear that the collective has turned into the very thing we built it not to be.”
Public reactions have been mixed but largely favorable toward the union, with a large outpouring of verbal and material support for the strikers. However, an anti-union “community statement” was circulated and signed by a group of local activists, claiming to call for mediation, while repeating the bosses’ rationale on every single point, even supporting the anti-union firing. An angered Wobbly called the collective an “autonomous union-busting collective” in response.
The bosses argue that a union is inappropriate since, they say, “this is not U.S. Steel,” and claim, “there are no bosses here.” They also claim that canvassers could join the collective if they wanted. Canvassers who have worked before on the collective complain of demeaning and hostile treatment and the collective’s failure to meet their needs, which is why they unionized and are demanding more autonomy and workplace democracy.
The dispute has been a sobering, at times painful experience for the workers, who despite being on strike and faced with vicious smearing and divide-and-conquer tactics, have been hesitant to escalate due to strong emotional ties to the organization.
The union has shown strong support for the strike, as FW John Snortum explained: “The larger union has done everything from attending meetings and giving us advice to taking notes and facilitating. As well as an amazing fundraising effort the union has helped us in outreach to the public, media, and other IWW branches. And most importantly has kept us grounded and stable on our views and beliefs that remind us that we are doing the right thing.”
This in contrast to the collective’s response, said Snortum: “The collective has reacted in a way that clearly demonstrates that [they] are unwilling to give up any power over us that they have. They have made clear that they are not following their own rules and are willing to lie on top of that. Although I knew this was all possible, I did have more faith in the collective and didn’t actually expect us to go down this path.”
Asked about the campaign’s prospects, Snortum added: “In the short term I want to see recognition of the whole union so we can begin negotiations and end the strike. Long term, aside from Camelot continuing to prosper, I hope our campaign can inspire and empower other fellow workers in similar situations to take action and bring justice to their workplace.”
Meanwhile the strikers have been impressively united and remain hopeful for a quick victory. While being a small shop and taking many by surprise as a “hot shop,” in which there were no salts and there was no external prodding by the union, the strike is the biggest thing for the Twin Cities branch since the Jimmy John’s Workers Union campaign in 2010-2011. A win at Sisters’ Camelot could be a big boost for the whole union, while a loss could prove deeply demoralizing. Additionally, the union drive raises questions about what constitutes a “worker-run collective” and workplace democracy.
When asked what message the strikers would like to convey to the rest of the union, the public, and the bosses, FW Snortum simply said, “Solidarity all the way.”
From the April 2013 #1754 Vol 110 No. 3 Issue of the Industrial Worker.
Previously these articles were only distributed in print and are now published on the Industrial Worker website for the first time.