There’s an old saying in the IWW that “Wob is a verb.” Being a Wobbly is not something that you are but also something that you do, organizing our workplaces and ultimately the working class, and creating a future where the hegemony of the owning class no longer has leverage over the workers. The workers are organized in such a manner that they have democratic control over the means of production via industrial unionism. This is no small feat. Even in the years where we had hundreds of members in our ranks and we were organizing all across the country in numerous different industries, we faced significant backlash from businessmen, landlords, and government agents who conspired against us and ultimately succeeded in reducing the strength and membership of our union. Despite this, our organization continued to provide ways for workers to get involved and provided a number of resources to carry on our mission of unionism. Our democratic model of unionism allowed members to get involved on the shop floor and get to the work we see as necessary for the future health and prosperity of the working class.
The IWW has seen a swell in its membership numbers over the past several years, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, a resurgence of the labor movement, and a growing inequality between socioeconomic classes in America. This growth has led to an expected increase in unionization campaigns, at least in the eyes of the public. Even though there are probably plenty more that have yet to go public, and considering that we are known as a union where the workers are the organizers themselves and that we train our members with the skills and support that they need to start their own union campaigns, the current rate of organizing activity could be higher.
With even a union of our size, if every fellow worker was committed to the task or organizing our workplaces by either acting as an organizer or assisting with the administration of the union branch, we could see significant growth of not just the union but a radical shift in the labor movement itself. While there are a plethora of IWW union branches (and committees within those branches) across the US, the overall number of people actively participating in union meetings, committees, outreach, or even assisting in campaigns still remains a fraction of the membership of any branch. While it is understandable that many fellow workers cannot contribute as much as they would like to, due to other immediate needs in their lives, it is still worthwhile to note that a branch with only fractional participation isn’t super effective if its members do not remain engaged further than signing on to the union or attending the Organizer Training 101. Branch development should be like how we in the IWW view a union in the shop: not just a step-by-step process of accomplishing tasks, meeting deadlines or card-check quotas, but a constant and organic process that not just expands membership numbers but the deepening of our personal and collective commitment, strategic and historical knowledge, and overall our resolve for industrial unionism.
Interest in an organization or even taking out a membership does not mean that that individuals will be as gung-ho to start agitating as other members, and while some are drawn to the IWW or other like-minded organizations on an ideological basis – the liberation of the working class, or at the very least the lessening of its suffering – that drive may not be as strong when they are asked to actually work on projects or campaigns. This is not just a problem with the IWW, but with any organization: motivating its members to take up some of the workload that comes with it. Short term interest or occasional participation may carry the work along in some capacity, but with increasing wage stagnation, the climate crisis, a significant increase in fascist rhetoric and organizing, and the everyday crises of capitalism, there is no better time like the present to invest our collective interests for the long term to combat these rising tides against the working class.
While becoming a member of a committee can provide workers with an opportunity to provide their input and help the work along, it can become stale or ineffective if workers are not taking on or given specific tasks to complete, leaving some with a feeling of aimlessness or being left out of the picture. Other times, some members become involved to the point of taking on multiple responsibilities at a time, driving most of the work while unaware that others may want to participate, but don’t know if they can. A potential way to alleviate this could be to divvy up responsibilities and tasks to members in such a way that every member of a committee has a clear expectation of what they can do and when a task is due by, thus allowing members to be involved on a regular basis as well as creating space for other members who want to contribute something. Collectively holding each other accountable to the tasks distributed to fellow workers can allow for a much more effective and democratic model of not just administration of union tasks or outreach but also in assistance with organizing campaigns and education of new members. It should also be held in greater importance that not every fellow worker can take on all of the work that they hope to, as taking on more tasks and responsibilities can result in burnout or even a fellow worker leaving the union out of exhaustion or a feeling of not being included. If it is the goal of our union to have labor and its fruits collectively organized and distributed across a broad working class, then we should reflect that desire in the day-to-day functions of our union as well.
While education through OT101 on organizing workplaces may help fellow workers yield success in learning how to organize ourselves and seize power in the workplace, OT101 is often the limit of many fellow workers’ “formal” education regarding the organizing strategies of the IWW. Instead of having members educate themselves on our history out of their own interest, or even letting the public merely stumble upon us as an interesting historical footnote – which we aren’t – members of a union branch could also find education and outreach a form of enriching the life and character of a union branch. The IWW has historically been famous for posters, stickerettes, soapbox speeches and book clubs as methods for spreading our ideas and gaining solidarity and support from our local working class communities. Now in the form of radio and podcasts such as Wob Radio and One Big Podcast, educating fellow workers in the general public about who we are and our mission, as well as the importance of a union in the workplace, could potentially reach thousands of working people who want to see change in the shop, and can involve the efforts and research of dozens of union members in any given branch. If fellow workers in a branch do not find interest in becoming a union officer or becoming an organizer themselves, then encouraging the preservation of the collective memory of our union and its history can be a pursuit that would not only benefit the continued legacy of the IWW, but could potentially bring in more participation from current members and new members who find interest in our history and our vision.
Another issue affecting the long-term efficiency and success of a union is officers and their responsibilities when they are either unable to or require assistance as a result of the workload. While each branch may have a number of delegates responsible for educating and onboarding new members, as well as assisting with fellow workers interested in organizing their workplace, not all of the tasks of a delegate need fall on their shoulders alone. Sometimes, it could be of great assistance to a delegate or another officer if one or two other fellow workers who either have education via OT101 or familiarity with the history and function of the IWW to assist with onboarding new members or other tasks assigned to officers. This could not only increase collaboration between elected officers and the rest of the union branch, but can present to new members a model of unionism where everyone is capable and willing to take on the tasks of making the union a well oiled machine fighting for the interests of the working class. It helps ingrain the democratic model that we hope to achieve at work and across society at large, as well as provides an immediate and welcoming community to those looking to organize their workplace. It could also encourage new members by providing the possibility of becoming involved with the functions of the union as well, and could encourage more eager members to take on tasks as soon as they understand how the union works, why it works the way that it does, and the many roles that a fellow worker can take on within the union.
Just like “Wob is a verb,” another common phrase in the IWW’s history is “help the work along.” This does not just have a perspective of practicality or utility, but highlights the idea that the work we do as unionists step by step towards the long term goal of working class emancipation and the end of wage slavery. The IWW, or any branch thereof, can only be successful in its mission and purpose if the function of the union remains in the hands of the rank-and-file, focuses on short term goals in service of the long term mission, and allows its fellow workers to take up responsibilities in such a way that every member is not only an organizer, but also a contributor to the good of the union. While it is an idealistic goal to set that 100 percent of a branch’s members be involved in any particular department, project or organizing campaign, it should still be the aim of any union branch that as many of its members as possible are involved in the work of organizing, educating, and reaching out to potential members. It is through this method that our ideals of a democratic and working class-conscious union can continue to survive and grow in the face of the challenges that we as workers are attempting to fight against.
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.