Image by FW Fitz.

There was a recent walkout at the restaurant where I work. I was off that day and got a text message from my coworker: “Holy shit! I was in the back cleaning when everyone just walked out an hour before closing time!” 

“Damn, what happened?!” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Everything seemed normal, but all of a sudden they just all clocked out and left.”

I picked up my phone and started contacting everyone who was on shift that night. We work at a small restaurant, so it didn’t take too long to make the rounds. Things at work had been really tense as they were, but on that particular night everyone got particularly pissed off at the way they were being treated by the boss, and decided enough was enough. It wasn’t a strike, they didn’t quit, but they did walk off the job for the night without notice or permission. It was more of a “collective f*ck you” as one coworker put it.

Small actions like this can seem spontaneous and unprompted to a casual observer, but I’ve been working at this place on and off for ten years now and I can tell you this was anything but that. In fact, concerted activity is a pretty regular part of everyday work life if we can train ourselves to be on the lookout for it. A small walkout like this one is a more obvious example, but working class self-activity manifests itself across pretty much every workplace out there. 

What is a Union?

Simply put, unions are groups of workers who come together to advance their interests on the job. They address workers’ grievances, practice certain forms of democracy, and seek to reshape the workplace into something better for their members.

This can take place in all sorts of formations, but the federal government has a pretty narrow model that they sanction through certified union elections, certified bargaining units and collective bargaining through contract negotiations. The state provides certain legal protections to workers for  this particular model of unionism as a carrot and they provide certain protections for employers (and prohibitions against workers) as the stick. At the heyday of this model, union density peaked around 30 percent and today that number sits below 10 percent. Many labor liberals will cite these numbers as evidence that the labor conservatism of the AFL-CIO has better captured the hearts and minds of workers than the IWW’s model of solidarity unionism. But I think that’s nonsense and I’ll go on to say why.

How do Workers Self-Organize?

Let’s contrast this with another model of organization: the informal work group. Employers don’t like this model of organization and so therefore it only follows that the federal government doesn’t either. That’s because it’s a truly autonomous model of organization which forms itself independent of sanctioning from both the employing class and the government. And because of this, the government has no way of tracking its density. But I would be willing to bet my bottom dollar that they exist at 100 percent of workplaces (or at least somewhere very close to that number).

Informal work groups have many of the same attributes as those of labor unions. Their members meet up at work and outside of work to discuss workplace issues. You might find a group of workers smoking together in the parking lot, rolling silverware together, doing prep at the same station, and going to the same bars after work. And in many cases, they are talking about work, their issues with the workplace, coworkers, managers and owners, and sometimes plotting to change the shit they don’t like. What may look like a small work clique sharing some beers after work can often serve the double role of an informal grievance meeting. 

The Myth of Spontaneity 

This walkout at my job was anything but spontaneous. The workers who walked off that night have all been working there for several years. They carpool together, make food for each other at work, chit chat when business is slow, and text about work when they are off the job. This informal work group shares many of the attributes mentioned above. One member of this group was an employee of the company when we had an active IWW committee a few years back. He spoke at a march on the boss in which we won back his stolen overtime wages. Another worker in this group would decide that she didn’t want to mop at the end of the night, so she’d go to other workers and say “I’m not mopping tonight and neither are you.” In other words, she had organized several low-key work refusals. 

Informal work groups take all sorts of small steps to reimagine and reorganize the workplace. The workplace is already organized by the boss in order to create maximum efficiency, productivity and profit by dividing us into shifts, departments and stations in which we are only supposed to communicate and coordinate with other workers for the purpose of completing the tasks relevant to our jobs. So when workers start communicating outside of these formal arrangements, either at work or outside of work, we are undermining the boss’ organization and creating our own. As we become more comfortable communicating on our own terms, we start to break more molds by setting the pace of work on our own terms and even deciding which rules we will and will not follow. 

These not-so-spontaneous actions happen at larger scales as well. A few years back, there was a walkout across three restaurants in the surrounding area. These restaurants were part of a mini-empire in which the managing partner had a reputation for sexually harassing women who bartended for the company. The workers organized a collective response, demanding that he be fired from the company. The restaurants had no choice but to shut down until the issue was resolved, which included capitulating to this demand. This again may have seemed like a spontaneous action, but the local restaurant scene is pretty tight-knit and the workers who participated in the actions had much stronger bonds than simply being coworkers. Perhaps this action wasn’t part of a longer-term strategy, but it was able to be pulled off successfully due to the muscle memory that exists from workers forming bonds with each other, discussing issues at work and sharing ideas about how to change their conditions. 

Is an Informal Work Group the Same Thing as Solidarity Unionism?

No. As IWW members, we want to build a labor movement that has the power to overthrow capitalism and abolish the wage system. Informal work groups show us that workers of all stripes are willing to organize on the job to reshape the workplace in their favor without the intervention of  government technocrats, but they are limited by a lack of long-term vision and strategy. It is our duty as solidarity unionists to build a more structured model on the job and throughout our industries which can learn from the lessons of the past and build our capacity to take on bigger demands and targets. 

How Is Solidarity Unionism Different?

Similar to an informal work group, Solidarity Unionism operates independently of the state, but it has structure and vision: the structure is composed of committees and branches and the vision is to build towards the overthrow of capitalism. A committee is made up of IWW members who have signed red cards, pay dues, and who have demonstrated their commitment to the union by taking on organizing tasks and delivering on them. Committees practice democratic decision making, they collect dues and self-manage their collective resources, and they plan collective actions to build power on the job and to win concessions from the boss. Rather than receiving recognition from the employer, they receive recognition from the IWW by certifying as a job branch. As job branches form within a particular industry, they may eventually form an industrial union branch, manage resources at a broader level, and coordinate larger actions.

When people say “unionize” in mainstream discourse, they are often referring to a process by which worker self-activity is supplanted by courts, union bureaucracy and government intervention. As syndicalists we believe that worker self-activity must be the driving force behind a revolutionary movement. So we aren’t looking to replace the autonomy and worker-driven parts of informal work groups, only to give them more form, structure and long term vision. By giving the reins to the aforementioned third-parties, workers lose the muscle memory of class struggle, collective resource management and strategic planning and thus go backwards in their revolutionary development. Through solidarity unionism, we are developing these skills and experiences amongst rank and file workers, who will then take that knowledge and experience to future workplaces and industries.

Solidarity unions also prefigure the economy after capitalism, or “build the new world in the shell of the old.” We aren’t waiting until the revolution to build a cooperative economy. We are building towards it in the process of organizing. The economy is currently organized by the employing class, but as we build our own networks on the job and across our industries, we are undermining the boss’ organization and building one that serves our interests. As we make collective decisions in our committees and in our branches, we are teaching ourselves how to practice direct democracy. As we collect dues and budget our resources, we are learning how to practice self-managed economics. And as we plan each small scale action on the job and across our industries, we are building up the muscle memory to execute larger actions with larger groups of workers with the goal of executing general strikes that will topple the capitalist system. 

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.

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