One month after the statewide walkouts ended in West Virginia, a group of fellow militant educators and I traveled to Chicago to give a talk at the 2018 Labor Notes conference about our struggle. We met hundreds of other fellow unionists who, like us, had been trying to make our business unions more active and accessible to the membership.
The strategy of Labor Notes is to help union members develop the skills to lead their locals and turn them into more than just service unions. It’s similar to the “rank-and-file” strategy that Kim Moody advocates for with the resources available to any who request them.
While in Chicago, we met with a group of other like-minded education workers who have coalesced around a group called UCORE (United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators). At the time we were there, we were fairly naive. We believed that our unions would see the energy we had inspired and take cues from the membership now. We thought that going wildcat at the beginning of March would show that it was the membership, not the bureaucrats, who held the power.
The folks at UCORE, however, told us differently. “That simply won’t happen,” they told us. “Their power comes from their positions, and the minute the strike ends, things will go back to the way they were.”
They were right.
Not a month later, WVEA leadership was patting themselves on the back for the successful #55Strong strike they had little vision in leading. Staff red-baited the organizers who had led the strike from the outset and denounced the main organizing page – WV Public Employees United – which had brought together education workers from across the state, claiming it wasn’t a good source of information.
Local meetings very quickly reverted back to their old ways with low member turnout and little cross-union updates (individuals in West Virginia can be in AFT, WVEA, or WVSSPA).
A group of us decided to take the advice of the UCORE organizers at Labor Notes and form WV United, a rank-and-file caucus of education workers, modeled very much after the success of CORE in Chicago.
In September 2018, we launched our caucus in the midst of a heated midterm year. We decided not to engage in elections that year as an organization, believing instead that a rank-and-file approach to organizing would be a better use of our time. After Republicans maintained control of the state legislature, we continued our efforts by working to put forth a social justice approach to education in the next year. Charter school legalization was up for a vote that year, despite the fact that West Virginia consistently ranks high in opioid overdoses and children raised by grandparents, two areas where we believed the legislature should focus their energy instead of privatizing education.
We succeeded in getting statewide walk-ins at schools in over twenty counties to raise awareness of these issues, and when we went on strike again in 2019 over the charter school bill, the public was on our side yet again.
Now, almost two years after forming our caucus, we have put forth five candidates for WVEA office – a president, vice president, and three executive committee members (executive committee members rotate leadership every three years).
In my three years as a dual-carding member of the IWW and my state’s Education Association, I have learned that there are plenty of pros and cons to dual-carding and its impact on the contemporary labor movement.
The benefits of being a dual-carder are manifold. As FW Andrew mentions in Unionizing Your Union, “The principles of solidarity you learn by being a wob are the only tools you and your fellow business union workers have to impact real change.” His experience working to pressure the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association to take greater steps in increasing wages for his bargaining unit through a combination of controlled press leaks and direct action. Likewise, FW Jacob in The Case for Dual Carding outlines that the resources that business unions have control over – networks, communication, grievance procedures – are all benefits that can’t be obtained without also paying dues to one’s business union. To gain control over one’s workplace where the majority of co-workers are already members of a business union is challenging without those pre-developed resources at hand.
In industries where there is already a heavy union presence, even in right-to-work states, it’s challenging to form a separate organizing committee specifically for IWW members. There is an inherent disconnect between duplicating the efforts of the business unions as Wobblies, especially when the services that can be provided by the business unions (In my case, representation in disputes with administration, intricate knowledge of district contracts, boards of education that vary across fifty-five counties). Furthermore, the energy for action that began building for us in West Virginia in late 2017 was impossible to capitalize under an official IWW capacity, given that we had only a handful of Wobblies in the state and no chartered branch. Taking the role as a dual-carder, then, allowed me to insert aspects of solidarity unionism wherever possible in the lead-up and follow-through with the 2018 strike.
In another way, too, dual-carding allowed Wobbly ideology to permeate the formation of the WV United caucus in more than one way. While we were in the process of forming our five core principles, I advocated for including the term “Solidarity Unionism” because it fit best with our conception of how unions should operate. Now, with almost one hundred members of the caucus, we have the capacity for educating others about this terminology and its relationship within union activity.
For new IWW members preparing to dip their toe into union organizing, dual-carding is also a good first step in what that looks like. You start to see the stagnant form of service unionism that sees members as a thing to be moulded, as potential dues money to be captured. You see what draws someone to a union in the first place, how their fears in the workplace translates into concerted action. You see how the protections, however modest, afforded by having a pre-established union give space for others to make bolder demands.
When I attended the Labor Notes conference, one fellow Wobbly educator even commented to me that, “You all should have an OT 101, but given that you all just had a massive strike, maybe you could teach us something instead.” The skills from an OT 101, I learned, are vastly different from the ones I developed during our statewide walkouts, yet both made me a better organizer. Without the history and theory behind the IWW, combined with my membership in my education association, it seems unlikely that I would’ve been the organizer that I am today. Being a member of both provided me with different skill sets that I’m equally grateful for.
The downsides of dual-carding can be summed up into a simple word: time. There is a significant lack of time that can be devoted to IWW-specific organizing when you also have to do the legwork of ‘unionizing your union.’ As a teacher, I work anywhere from 40-50 hours a week, plus weekends, to stay on top of things. Volunteering for afterschool events and making myself accessible to students and parents at all hours of the day (and night) make it hard enough to devote time to my primary union. Building the organizational capacity for my GMB while also juggling the demands of daily life are sometimes insurmountable.
This is what leads to many good-hearted organizers succumbing to the inevitability of burning out. Taking on so many tasks simultaneously is a recipe for disaster. Often, our fellow caucus members have to check in with one another to see where they’re at emotionally. Teaching in and of itself can be a draining profession. Add on those weekly meetings, on-going campaigns, and multiple moving parts, and you’re looking at even the best of people leaving the work before it’s done. Not all of the original caucus members are still active because of this problem, and it’s something we as a group have yet to reckon with fully.
Time that can be better spent building relationships with workers outside of your primary field have to be cut short or simply never occur because so much time is already devoted to making your business union a more militant one. As this happens, you may create a more democratic structure in your local, but you’re not necessarily building the IWW as an independent union. The focus of your energy reverts back to making the business union stronger, you spend time signing up members for that union instead of discussing the benefits of the IWW.
This has happened to me on a number of occasions. I’m a building representative at my school, and my job is to keep a record of members and work to sign up new ones. Conversations and relationships have to be expedited because I’m never able to find time working to build up a sense of solidarity with co-workers, while at the same time replicating that work with IWW campaigns for our GMB. When branch meetings conflict with caucus work or even my local’s needs, I have to decide which one needs my energy most.
Compounding this problem is that, as time is spent building up a stronger business union, working to sign up new IWW members as dual-carders becomes more challenging. What is the benefit, then, of being a member of the IWW, a caucus, and a business union simultaneously? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just be part of one and call it a day? I’ve had to reckon with that question more than once, and at the moment, I’ve only had two other K-12 Wobblies sign up because of this work. The cost of making the business union more militant is that people see the benefits of continuing to devote their own energy in that direction, rather than seeing the limitations of having only a slightly more active service union.
Lastly, wherever you can make gains in your business union can be negated by the slips along the way. Although our caucus worked for months to put forth a strong group of rank-and-file educators for union leadership – including our candidate for president who was named Time’s Top 100 People in 2019 – we still lost our union election. No amount of additional time or energy could have improved our chances of winning; the cards were firmly stacked against us. Devoting precious resources to dual-carding, with the goal of capturing the leadership of business unions, can suck valuable energy that could be channeled elsewhere.
Dual-carding, in most situations, is something we don’t choose but is something that is pressed upon us by outside circumstances. Even in right-to-work states and in states where certain segments of the workforce are ineligible for collective bargaining, but can still be members of associations, dual-carding is less a choice than something we simply have to contend with. I joined the IWW months after joining my business union for precisely the reason that I wanted the latter to be more like the former. Being in the IWW has only made me better understand the terrain of organizing, how to develop relationships with my fellow workers, how to build towards collective actions, and how to bring in others into this work. It has given me a sense of where I can press business unions to adopt more radical stances, and also recognize where those limitations exist.
There is no perfect balance for a dual-carder. At times, you’ll need to retreat from IWW work because your business union needs more help. At other times, you’ll use the skills you learned from your business union to help improve your relationships with those in your branch or in Wobbly campaigns. But all of this is to say that, if you’re a dual-carding Wobbly, you should always go forward in your work with a clear goal in mind: is your role to build up the IWW as a separate union, or is it to make your business union more militant? Sometimes, we can’t do both.