In Part III of this series, Industrial Worker spoke with Louisa Clay, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Clay stresses that in the IWW, they are not “represented” by a union because the workers are the union. She is a server and bartender in the hospitality industry, and is a part of a modest workplace committee representing about 25 percent of the shop.
The committee of co-workers plans and debriefs at meetings outside of work, and they practice the IWW’s democratic ideals and democracy. The meetings generally start with an agitational check-in, which consists of workers giving updates about work and what has been bothering them. They move on to planning direct actions intended to address the problems cited by workers. After the initial success the committee had of demanding that they receive paychecks at the same time, the workers built momentum and they marched on the boss, successfully demanding that their boss stop stealing their tips.
Some common complaints now are unpaid labor and overtime, which Louisa hopes the committee can address in the future as they continue to grow and add members. Louisa firmly believes that organizers need to organize at their jobs, whatever industry they work in, and putting the Organizer Training Program to practice is the only way workers will improve their material conditions.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Industrial Worker: Thank you for joining us today, Louisa. What union are you a member of?
Louisa Clay: The IWW. It’s the only one.
IW: How long have you been a member of the IWW?
Clay: Five-and-a-half years.
IW: That’s a long time. How much are your dues and has that changed at all since you first joined?
Clay: I still pay $11 a month. I have made less money than I make now and paid the $6 and then also for a few months during the pandemic I used the waiver.
IW: It’s on a sliding scale, so that workers of all incomes can afford the dues. $6 is the sub-minimum dues rate if you have extenuating circumstances, $11 is the minimum dues rate for if you make less than $2000 per month, $22 is the regular dues rate for if you make $2000-3000 per month, and $33 is the maximum dues rate, for those making more than $3500 per month.
How did you end up joining the IWW?
Clay: I liked the idea of [having] a union. I had been retaliated against at a job because I had voiced my opinion that it was wrong to have us as servers getting [just] our server wage. It was five dollars an hour back then. They were making us come in to do work when the bar and the restaurant were closed, so there were not even customer tips while we were doing this labor. I said that wasn’t right and then I got in a lot of trouble and they demoted me to hostess. Then I just quit and I was like, “This doesn’t happen if you have a union and I want health insurance.”
I thought that if I joined the union, I would get health insurance. And yeah, I had seen these stickers for the IWW, but I thought that they were either fake or vintage throwback stickers because they said one union for all the workers of the world. I was like, “That doesn’t make sense.” But then I ended up googling it for some reason and I was like, “Oh this is cool. I like this.” And I joined.
IW: That seems to be a common misconception that people think the IWW is just historical and doesn’t currently exist.
Clay: Yeah, I mean, I think the stickers are reproductions of old-timey stickers, and they just look old too. So that was why.
IW: It wasn’t that it sounded too good to be true, that there was a union for every worker?
Clay: Well, both. It just didn’t even make sense to me because I didn’t really know a whole lot about unions. So I was like, “that’s made up.” And yeah, with industrial unions I think before then, I thought you had to work in a factory to be an industrial worker.
IW: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean back when the IWW was started, there were a lot of people in factories and very subhuman conditions.
Clay: Yeah, and I’ve read literature on the idea of industrial as a term that doesn’t mean just factories. It’s not that old. I was reading this book by George Jackson, and he talks about industrial work. And that was in the 70s. So, it’s maybe for my generation, an unused term.
IW: That’s interesting. I’ll cite it here if people are interested. Was it about the IWW?
Clay: No, no, he was a Black Panther. It’s a really cool book. Blood in My Eye by George Jackson.
IW: Wow. Yeah, and like a lot of these groups all formed a lot of coalitions back then, which brings me to my next question. I was wondering, do you feel like you’re a part of the union?
Clay: Oh yeah. Deep in it.
IW: Do you feel represented by the union at your position?
Clay: No, because I don’t really think that that’s how it works exactly. The union is what you make of it and you are the union. Am I a good representation of the union? I hope so.
IW: And can you tell me more about what you mean by, “You are the union and the union is what you make of it?”
Clay: It’s your organizing. How organized are you on the job, with your co-workers, and against the boss? What actions are you taking? What are your meetings like with your co-workers to plan and debrief? We are trying to practice our democratic ideals and democracy on the shop floor.
IW: That ties into my next question about how decisions are made at work. Does a lot of it involve your co-workers?
Clay: We’re not super organized yet, like we don’t have complete control on the shop floor, but it is just starting. There’s obviously not industry-wide control right [now] within my industry in my city. But a lot of decisions are made by us. Our job is in the service industry in hospitality, waitressing, or bartending. On the one hand, your job is to feed and give the customer a drink, right? So in that realm you do what you are supposed to do, but on the other side, you have a whole lot of free rein. For example, your own decision-making in how to deal with customers. So we’re not completely the same as being at a factory where you’re maybe limited in the work that you’re doing or on an assembly line or whatnot.
IW: It sounds like you have previously met with your co-workers to talk about problems at work or other decisions that you’d like to make. Have you attended a meeting like that and how did it go?
Clay: Usually our meetings start out with us talking about what’s gone on that week because we’re spread over multiple shops. So we’re not always working at the same exact shop. As I said, the committee is fairly small at the moment, but a lot of our discussion is around what should be going on. So we’ll have problems and then we kind of discuss what should be happening instead. Then I think a lot of the time we’re gonna have to make demands to actually get that to happen. At the same time, we spend time fixing problems ourselves. I feel like I’m just doing a whole lot of unpaid labor, you know, and just adding more to my job description. When what we really need is less work.
IW: Can you give me an example of one of the problems that you wanted to make a demand on?
Clay: There’s been only one at the moment. Right in the very beginning. My coworkers and I were only getting paychecks when we asked for them. Which is really annoying. You just want them to come every two weeks or every week or whatever. So that would lead to people getting paid all at different times and there weren’t pay stubs either. So the very first idea that we talked about was, what if people just all asked on the same day? And then hopefully the boss would just start doing it. We didn’t have to ask all the time which on the one hand, I think was good for us, starting out to dip our toes into direct action in the sense. And we were also just so brand new.
IW: Did he start paying you all on the same day?
Clay: It definitely worked a little bit. Not every single staff person remembered to do it, but enough people did and then the checks came, but it wasn’t kept up with.
IW: Has anyone there ever missed a paycheck?
Clay: Oh yeah, people were months behind. The boss is so mean and awful and everybody has anxiety attacks when he texts you. You’re also hoping to not talk to him in general.
IW: What percentage of everyone who works there is on your committee right now?
Clay: It’s 25 percent. I mean, because there’s like three to four of us, it’s small–It’s 25 percent. I think they’re hiring more staff. So then we might be like three out of fifteen, so 18 percent.
IW: And how have you been growing the Committee of Workers? Are you gonna work on possibly bringing new fellow workers into the committee?
Clay: Well, I mean the committee’s been about the same for a while, so that’s something that needs to happen. You know. The goal is everybody, right?
IW: Can you tell us more about what the organizing process is for bringing new workers into the workplace committee?
Clay: In general, I think you want to have a really good relationship developed with somebody and a lot of trust built into that relationship. So you want to really start out getting to know that person at work. Because then, the next step is talking to people about work outside of work, where it’s safe to talk. Obviously, it’s too weird to have that conversation before you’ve developed some sort of relationship with them.
So then, once you’re meeting outside of work, having one-on-one conversations, eventually it turns into, “Well, I’d like for us to talk about this together with more than one person,” and so you want a lot of trust with those folks. They’re going to keep things on the down-low [sic] and definitely not let things slip up to the boss. Also, people can just accidentally say something to another co-worker that could get back to the boss. I don’t think that most organizing mistakes are nefarious. They’re just accidental and borne out of naivety.
IW: So you’ve talked about how relationships matter a lot with organizing your coworkers, and a lot of that possibly has to do with the stakes being different. You’re not trying to get them to just sign a union card. You want them to be directly involved in the process of deciding which workplace issues you want to address.
Clay: For sure. What’s the point of just having a union card for nothing?
IW: Going back to when we were talking about the IWW being an industrial union for all workers, I know there’s a difference between the committee on the shop floor and the actual structure of the union. Do you know what the leadership structure of the actual IWW is like?
Clay: There’s different committees and boards on the international and North American levels. I think that leadership is kind of the wrong word, although I guess it does make sense. There are people who have tasks to fill for the union. The point of being on a board like that is that you’re trying to serve the union. Decisions need to be made and stuff comes up, and with direct democracy, it would be impossible to function. You need some sort of centralization, but we do have checks and balances more so than any other union does. Then we have headquarters which does a lot of the processing for the membership and such.
IW: What’s the relationship between the broader IWW infrastructure and the shop committee?
Clay: It depends on the committee. I only recently introduced my coworkers that are on the committee to that stuff because it’s a lot to take on all at once.
IW: You’re saying with your shop committee, in particular, the broader IWW is more hands-off, so you have the sole agency to decide what you’re going to work on in terms of improvements at your workplace?
Clay: Oh yeah, we definitely do. I know of other shop committees that have needed funds from Headquarters. For the organizing, we don’t need any of that stuff. I have reached out to the Organizing Department Board because having an external organizer can be nice. Self-support is good. Support from the rest of the union can be really good.
IW: Can you talk more about what your experience has been with having an external organizer on your campaign?
Clay: What has been helpful having an EO is that outside support and that person just telling me, “Do it Louisa.” I tell them my ideas. Most of the time what my EO is doing is just replying, “Yeah, that’s exactly what you need to be doing.”
I am the type of person with self-esteem issues and I like to talk to people and get second opinions before acting. It’s also just hard on your own when you’re just beginning.
IW: With the external organizer backing you up and offering you support, have you been involved in any workplace organizing actions such as a strike, a petition, or a march on the boss?
Clay: Yes, just one march on the boss so far.
IW: Do you mind talking a little bit more about that and providing some context for what led to the march on the boss?
Clay: Yeah, so for years, the boss had been stealing people’s tips. If he came behind the bar, he would steal. He was serving drinks and we all tip pooled. So he would tip himself out as equally as any other. I actually worked two shifts with him one time where he got more in tips than me. G-d, that sucked.
He had been getting away with it for years. It was a major grievance in the very beginning, but at the same time, everybody said, “He’s so mean. He is so manipulative.” People wanted to keep working there for many other reasons. Everybody already knew it was illegal and immoral, but I think everybody hated it before anybody even considered it was illegal.
IW: Yes, this is something we talk about in OT101. Labor laws are written to continue the flow of capital. Some of it does protect workers but bosses often violate that anyway and they see the fines as a cost of doing business.
Clay: That was why I joined [the IWW] because the boss was having us do the labor at tipped wages, which is less than minimum wage. When we couldn’t even get tips. You can’t make people do that. There’s a limit to how much workers can take.
He was running the one bar for years, then they opened up the second bar. He hadn’t been dipping in the tip pool that we know of but you know, none of us had pay stubs. Then he tells us that he’s going to start taking some of our tips because he thinks some of us don’t know that he was already doing it at the other bar.
We had to do our first march on the boss. The good thing was we had been planning because we had been meeting with the committee for so long and it was really time for us to do something more than just complain to each other. We had that day gotten to meet up with somebody from Stardust to ask them what they do because none of us had ever taken any sort of direct action. I hadn’t taken the OT101 in a long time, and I didn’t really remember how to do a march on the boss.
IW: Stardust Family United is one of our more long-standing union campaigns. They have able to secure raises, protect tips, and win health and safety improvements in their restaurant after direct actions such as marches on the boss and strikes. Their wins come from direct action, rather than formal contract negotiations.
Clay: I’ve watched videos of their actions before so I knew about them, and the OT101 I took was facilitated by a Starduster. So I knew they were legit.
IW: You had someone from Stardust Family United advising you on a planned march on the boss?
Clay: Mm-hmm. We didn’t have a lot of time to talk but they told us about the different roles and then gave me some reading materials about those roles. I shared these with my coworkers and we practiced at my house. The roleplay was not as well rehearsed as it could have been. We talked about it after we did the march on the boss–How practicing more next time would be better.
IW: What role did you play in the march?
Clay: I was supposed to be an interrupter. The interrupter is supposed to interrupt the boss if they start arguing with you and then you can sometimes interrupt a co-worker if they’re like getting too off-script or whatever. I was interrupting the boss a lot.
IW: So, you have these different roles that each member of the committee plays. You are the interrupter and you go in with this plan and script. What ended up going down?
Clay: We didn’t really have a game plan for how to end the march on the boss because there were a lot of factors. We had to do it when the bar was closed. Our bosses don’t have any set time of being in the building.
There’s the person who makes the demand. She just did a fantastic job. She is also a teacher, so she’s done a lot of lecturing and she gave him the lecture. We did not plan what to do when he responded. I think we were kind of shocked that he wanted to argue with us.
But in hindsight, we should have known. He always argues with us. But we had talked about a possible role for someone as the testimonial giver. They’re the person who is supposed to back up the demand deliverer and give additional reasons why we’re making the demands. And I think that naturally came from some of my co-workers.
Overall, it went on too long. You’re supposed to go make the demand and make it quick, and we didn’t do that. We didn’t realize that it only takes like three minutes and we had planned for fifteen minutes. So then there was twelve minutes of “what do we do?” and it was awkward. I don’t think we planned for somebody to end it. I think we just said that we would end at a certain time. So we knew to keep checking our phones to check the time.
IW: Did you get your demand met? Did he stop stealing your tips?
Clay: Yeah. He had stopped at the other bar where he had been doing it for a really long time because one co-worker had a screaming match with him. We were trying to avoid that happening at the second bar. We wanted to be together on it.
IW: For sure, and I think that analysis is really valuable, especially for other organizers. Even if an action doesn’t go smoothly and there are things you could have done better, ultimately, it was still successful.
Clay: For sure. We did kind of get the pay stubs, too, like half of us have received them and half of them haven’t. That’s still something we’re trying to work on going forward. I think. It’s not gonna be perfect. There’s no way to predict human behavior and what will happen, but next time, I know for a fact, that we will be so much better.
IW: Did you meet with the committee after the march on the boss to share these thoughts, and what you think you could work on better next time?
Clay: We talked about how awkward it got and we recognized that we could have planned it a bit better. But we were all really proud of ourselves. I’m really hyped. It was definitely a win. Now that it’s been four months, we should fully debrief. The repercussions aren’t immediate and we need more time to really reflect.
I trust the people on my committee completely. A lot has been happening and it’s been hard to get together. We have our separate lives and folks are just trying to enjoy their lives. You don’t want to spend your whole off-day talking about work. Sometimes you try to have fun.
We’ve done a decent job keeping up with the meetings, but we haven’t had downtime and I think structured meetings can become uncomfortable. What we need are more one-on-one conversations.
IW: It makes sense. Burnout is really real, and organizing takes a lot of energy. And if you’re not taking care of yourselves, you’re not going to be able to put more energy into organizing. So it makes sense not to rush into something else. Take some time to debrief from this march and take care of yourselves first.
Clay: At the same time, you can’t get too relaxed. Things have just gotten worse. I think that with any sort of action you’re gonna have, there’s gonna be a reaction from the boss. Not always in the immediate sense, but s*** never gets better, especially when you’re first organizing. You have to be realistic like you’re only just now getting started right? Definitely do your best to give people space and celebrate your wins and not be too harsh. But you will do yourself a disservice if you just chalk it up to one win and stop organizing.
IW: It sounds like what we talked about in the OT101 where we talk about building momentum from each win. And the fact that there are still grievances sounds like those are good points of agitation for future one-on-one conversations, to see what other grievances are on people’s minds. I know you’re saying this is a campaign in the early stages, but it seems like there’s a lot of potential to keep building this campaign and getting more wins.
Clay: For sure, and I hope everybody feels this way. There is always a lot of potential to organize. Our situation was an emergency direct action, and typically I hope that others are better planned than ours, but I also hope that people feel like they can do it. Even when things aren’t perfect, you can still win.
My final thought is that you gotta give it a try. You have to try and organize. Anybody can take that OT101 one thousand times. We have to put it to use. I don’t think it’s proper for folks to just take the two OTs and say, “Oh, I know how to organize. This is how you should do it.” You gotta organize at your job, no matter what job you have. You learn quickly when you are putting it to use.
Contact the IWW to start building a union at your job or inquire about the next Organizer Training. Read more about the history of the Organizer Training program here.