By Bruce ‘the Bruiser’ Darden
Organizing Stories is a semi-regular series collecting experiences and examining organizing efforts in the hope of providing some lessons for the future
I moved to a medium size city in the Great Lakes Region in the fall of 2008; armed, I thought, with experiences built up through years of working and organizing in a large mid-western city’s branch of the IWW. I had high hopes of building a branch in the new community I was in. Being from a General Membership Branch (GMB), I thought hard about the problems that I experienced in trying to organize in the past. The GMB is an IWW body that is structured around a geographical area rather than a specific industry: they are predominately the current form of IWW branches because they incorporate all the radical workers in a single city or region that wish to join. I thought the difficulties I faced in the past might have been located in the fact that the GMB structure does not necessarily lead to organizing on an industrial model, but is great for building up a working-class culture and a dual-card network of militants. After I got accredited as a delegate by the closest IWW branch, I went to work looking for a couple fellow workers in my department and a couple of the random interwebz radical folks I knew that attended the same institution I did to start building a workplace committee.
Our organizing took the form of trying to build up an IWW shop—or an Industrial Union Branch (IUB)—inside the university. The IUB is an IWW body that is structured around a single industry (in our case, education) but not necessarily a single workplace or trade/task. We managed to build ourselves up to a core of five people (in three different departments and across two faculties, but we would all be seen as from the arts/humanities by most people in the academia). We were all graduate students: either unionized teaching assistants or non-unionized research assistants. From there we started talking to the overtly left leaning professors and some support staff—mostly folks involved in the unions that represented them on campus. These folks would ‘say’ they were interested, but would not really talk shop or come to a meeting with us as a group.
We stopped this approach and started to educate ourselves more: we ran workshops and small trainings for ourselves—mainly on IWW concepts but also on our contract. The contract only governed graduate students that were teaching assistants and not research or administrative labour which some graduate students did. Out of the five of the original core members, four of us were dual-carders in the first year and all five of us were dual-carders in the second year. The main focus of our training workshops was on the topic of how to hold effective one-on-one conversations with our co-workers. Then we tried to use these skills on organizing other graduate students, specifically teaching assistants, since they make up the vast majority of working graduate students. Every week we would hold short lunch-time meetings to report on our activities with each other. Early on, we decided that each of us would have to approach at least two people for a one-on-one conversation—at least one of whom had to be outside our department or female, since our membership was mostly male and in the arts department. We did this for the rest of the school year (or for about eight months). I guess we were not very good at this, since we rarely got anyone to come to one of the weekly meetings and nobody showed up more than once.
Throughout this year we put on a variety of public talks and workshops: one on the York TA strike with a picketline cap’t, another on theoretical ideas from a collective called Edu-Factory, and, lastly, one on academic freedom by fellow IWW member Denis Rancourt. We never got less then 20 people out and once got over 100 people to a talk. A lot of this participation came from those one-on-ones that we religiously carried out every weekend.
Over the summer, we took the time to regroup (since it is a period of low ‘production’ for TAs) and to discuss our strategy. We also walked a picket line for a striking Kellogg’s plant, and occasionally coordinated this with the moderate/’left’ elements of our teaching assistant union (a smaller public sector union). We discussed our business union a lot, and why members did not work within the existing union. We decided to attempt to engage with the membership of our union vis-à-vis solidarity actions and engagement with the union processes themselves.
For the next year, we decided to reduce the number of talks we had, but we did help work on bringing in Michael Schmidt, author of Black Flame, to talk about the history of working-class anarchism. We started having meetings once a month while still having a minimum of two one-on-ones each month . . . we were starting to be a bit disillusioned.
In the second year, we did two decently organized solidarity actions. The first was with the librarians (part of the faculty union) and helped them hand out pamphlets at their information pickets. We not only brought out all five of our core members, but many others in the informal network that we had started to create.
Second, there was a transit strike in the city and the university started running scab buses to get students to campus. We went down to the transit workers’ picket lines a few times, and made some good contacts with the rank-and-file. Together with 5 transit workers, we set up information pickets at the pick-up scab bus stops saying if the university did not withdraw this service we would start actual picketing and attempt to slow down these scab buses. The day after the first action, the transit workers would not return our phone calls (I got a hold of one of them, and she said that the porkchoppers of the ATU told them to stop talking to us and even went so far as publishing a retraction of their statement that these buses were scabs). Overall, we had over 20 non-IWW TAs involved in planning and demonstrating against the scab buses—as well as two professors.
Also, we attempted to get the rank-and-file membership involved in our own business union. Some of us held, informal ‘office hours’ to teach people how to fill out grievances against the number of hours worked, since the official union took pride in the fact they did not file grievances and worked well with the employer. Other Wobs focused our activities around the two general membership meetings of the year.
In the first one, we brought out over 60 members to the annual report back of officers. During this meeting we managed to recall their ‘elected’ chair twice for silencing us; pass a motion condemning the university for starting scab buses; made them reschedule the reading of their reports due to a lack of quorum. It was our numbers and our knowledge of Roberts Rules of Order that allowed us to do this. The other meeting was the annual elections (I’ll discuss that below). Also, we started trying to recruit shop stewards for departments that did not have one.
The union itself took a very odd relation to us. At first, they were very happy that we would put on public events about TA activities and went even so far as to buy pizza and pop for our event on the York TA strike (without strings attached . . . we thanked them, but never had them speak). As time went by the conservative elements started to undermine us by not sending out mass emails to the membership about our activities and telling people that we were either a joke, not real, or a secret organization. But they still would talk to us, and fake interest in our opinions: since we were building up their base (active members and shop stewards).
Slowly we started to build bonds between the left or moderate active union members. After the first general membership meeting of the second year (and our collective actions along with the independent disenfranchised members & those in the loosely defined left caucus) we started working more closely with these groups: for example, we worked on mobilization against a repeal campaign of one of the student politicians—since the repeal was very homophobic in undertone—with this left caucus of the union, the queer graduate student organization, and individual activists.
Again, for the general elections of our local—in the spring—we tried to get membership out and engaged with the union. This took the form of us schilling for the ‘left’ politicians or careerists in the union bureaucracy. This was something we had avoided in the past (the year before, we refused to help folks with union elections), but we thought this would be a way to get membership engaged . . . the re-negotiation of our contract was scheduled for the summer and our contracted expired in the fall. We used a lot of our contacts and managed to help multiple ‘lefties’ win positions on the executive and bargaining committee. This was a mistake, in my personal opinion.
During the summer, there was no information forthcoming about our contract negotiations. We started an email campaign getting people to both fill in the surveys about what we wanted to see them bargain on (pushing that workplace conditions were important) and then another one asking for updates on the negotiations. When the executive eventually gave the membership updates (on the working conditions only, not pay), we put together a study group—of over 15 TAs from two departments—to examine these proposed new conditions. We wrote up a pamphlet and started handing them out to graduate students across the entire campus and at every department. Many of the people we worked with on this had never really engaged in any workplace agitation before. In distributing these pamphlets, we received overwhelming positive reactions and requests for more information (even from the science departments, which are often hostile to arts students and/or the union). This must have been somewhat effective, since the executive—including the ‘lefties’ that we thought we had good relations with—took the time to send out mass emails saying, and I am paraphrasing, of course: “These folks are a joke. They don’t understand the language of the contract. Most workers don’t, and that is why we have special groups doing this work. Here are there mistakes . . . these other points are irrelevant since we do not plan to agree with them. Ignore these people.” And still our union refused to call information meetings with the TAs so we did. We made corrections on our information and continued to hand it out (without the positive reactions that we originally received a week before). Also the ‘left’ caucus stopped talking to us or returning emails, since we became trouble-makers to them too.
Throughout the two years, we attempted to reach out to the non-unionized workers on campus as well, especially the food service and custodial workers. In a lot of cases this was limited to chatting or socializing with the workers and trying (unsuccessfully) to get them to come to a one-on-one outside of work. There was one Wob that worked diligently on attempting to talk to the non-unionized kitchen staff at one of the campus bars. They had multiple one-on-ones with members of the kitchen staff, and talked about a bunch of topics, including: the benefits of unionization, sexual harassment at work, and how to enforce workplace safety. There, still, is ongoing agitation at this workplace, but since that Wob left, the workers of that workplace have become somewhat distant.
It was at this point, that my contract was not renewed and I was out of the union—but the other IWW members, who had stopped paying dues, kept working on this project. Overall, we were not successful in getting the union to remove the most vile workplace conditions that the bosses demand in the contract. But our agitation around workplace issues lead to 40% of the union voting against the business union endorsed contract—which is quite significant, since they only allowed TAs to see the contract a few hours before the vote. The TA union accepted the egregious conditions that severely limit our actions outside of work; at the same time, the Faculty Union was stating they would strike over these conditions (and got them out of their contract, which they signed a couple weeks latter).
And through this period, members of the IWW either moved away or started to burn out again. We did not establish a proper IWW branch and its lack of growth meant it disappeared once I (the delegate) left town. There are still a few militants working in their departments, which either we developed or found in our two years of organizing with them.
Both during and after this experience, we have examined the IWW organizing strategy we used as a group. Focusing on industrial organizing was easy for the group since we all spent a lot of time at work and it focused our energies at the point of production and our daily lives. The Industrial Union Branch model allowed us to attempt to pursue both a dual-card organizing strategy as well as reaching out to unorganized workers around us—even if the latter did not go as well. A member of this organizing drive also did some research on the IUB model on the Toronto Bike Mechanics Organizing efforts, and presented this at regional wobbly meeting. Both our experiences with organizing at the university and the research done with the bike mechanics pointed to the IUB’s advantages of engaging the organizing at your workplace and its effects on your everyday life.
The disadvantage that is born out in this comparison between the two IUB experiences is the presence of a GMB. The bike mechanics had the advantage of having a GMB with experienced organizers, a working class culture, and those in the broader left of their community. The university IUB was quite isolated in comparison. We had trouble following up on local contacts; misconception about the IWW being a union for everyone and us presenting ourselves as university workers; some red-baiting since we are ‘students’. Mostly, we lacked a structure or body to lean on for advice or help when we started to become a little disillusioned. It is those elements of the GMB, which I thought distracted from industrial organizing, that would have made a long-term beneficial impact on our organizing efforts at the university.