Getting your second five-year card: Six tips for life-long wobblies

So, you’ve just paid your thirteenth month of dues, and your delegate filled out a crisp new five-year red card to add to your flimsy one-year card? First of all, congratulations, and don’t try to keep it in your wallet – that’ll tear it up right away.

Second, let’s talk about what you can do to make sure that this five year card is just the first among many. I have a ten year goal of 10,000 members in North America. If we are going to do that, and maintain ourselves as a member-run, -led, and -financed organization, we need to address our turnover. Not only for the obvious reason that it affects our membership numbers, but because the kind of organization we want to be can only work if there are significant numbers of members who are experienced and able to engage critically with the organization, promoting new ideas & developing strategies through constructive discussion.

One of Ralph Chaplin's many red cards.
One of Ralph Chaplin’s many red cards.

The fact that we even have the concept of “One Month Wonder” is a tragedy, and I think we should be urgently discussing why people join up for just a month and how we can completely eliminate that problem. However, at least as big of a problem is the attrition of “medium-term” members, which we can hastily define as members who’ve completed their initial one-year dues card but have not yet completed their first five-year card. These are people who have already made a significant financial, emotional, and time investment into the union, and yet somehow they end up dropping out. This can take the form of dropping out of any labor activism, or becoming a union staffer; it can be silent, or it can be contentious. No matter what, when it continues to happen, it cripples our ability to have a pluralistic and democratic organization, and it is something we need to address. Below I have some tips for ‘medium-term’ members to help them find a long-term home.

1) Get a hobby, or two, or three (Be friendly with people in the union, but have friends outside as well)

I’m always skeptical of anyone whose entire mental life is devoted to leftist politics and theory. Some will cynically claim that these are the kind of people who end up becoming mini Stalins – I don’t know if that’s true or not, and anyways it isn’t my complaint. The issue we have is that since there is no radical labor movement to speak of, any one who tries to engage 100% with radical politics is slaying giants in their mind. This mentality and lifestyle actually contributes towards the proliferation of unapproachable sects, rather than a multi-faceted movement that can appeal to all sorts of working people.

To draw a crude analogy – I occasionally enjoy nerdy things like tabletop RPGs and board games. Some of the people you meet in that scene seem to have nothing else happening in their life, and they have devoted all of their intellectual and social energy to becoming masters of the games that they play. (If you haven’t met them, just think of the Comic Book Store guy from the Simpson’s.) I believe at a certain point it reaches a vicious spiral, where they compensate for underdeveloped social skills through their game mastery, and their social skills deteriorate even further, so that gaming becomes the only social outlet left to them. If I’m going to bring a friend to a board gaming event, these are the absolute last people I’d want them to play with – chances are my friend would never want to come back. No doubt the same kind of people are found hanging around dance clubs and bike shops, who know (or seem to know) loads about their specialty but consciously or not act in a way that creates a huge barrier to “normal” people getting involved.

We’ve all seen, or heard about, the same type of people becoming activists. Unfortunately, unlike gaming conventions or bike forums, we are in a democratic organization which has to make decisions about important things. These people know exactly what the organization should do (or think they do), and when it doesn’t, they get very loud. When there is more than one of them they tend to get very loud and aggressive towards each other, as well as anyone else who has an opinion. In the long run, this leads to them burning out, because they can’t deal with the frustration of the organization always doing the wrong thing; or else they become so poisonous to a functioning, democratic and supportive internal culture that the rest of the membership has little choice but to have them leave. This would be tragic even if it was just destructive to them, but generally by the time they leave they have already contributed towards multiple other people leaving or never joining in the first place.

You’ll know the warning signs – the worst is when your closest comrades have to start saying “True, they are acting like a jerk, but they’ve contributed a lot to the union in the past,” or any variation on this. Don’t let this happen to you – by this point it might be too late. Find things to do outside of the union, which stimulate you mentally and put you in contact with people outside of your branch. When someone at work asks you what your hobbies are, and you’re not ready to tell them about your union membership, you should have something better to say then “Ummm…. well…”

2) Get a job that doesn’t drive you crazy, and that you could imagine having medium-to-long term

I’m convinced that part of the reason for our high turnover is that there is an informal, but real, encouragement to live like Che Guevara. New members, especially in their early 20s and in school or just graduated, are encouraged to “salt” into retail chains making around minimum wage, in horrible conditions. They are expected to “put their lives on hold” while working these jobs, in order to organize at them.

There is a problem here: anything, when it is encouraged as an individual lifestyle choice separate from strategy, is just another form of activism (ie, activity for the sake of activity). The summit hopper lifestyle and the retail salt lifestyle have a lot in common, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that both seem to appeal mainly to people in their early twenties. When this is the focus of the union, older workers in other industries see less relevance for the problems they are facing, and silently drift away. This cements us as an organization oriented towards people in their twenties, with less relevance for older workers. Meanwhile, nearly everyone in retail (at least in my experience) is looking for better jobs – at a certain point, especially without organizing campaigns, and with life and social pressure working on them, our retail salts will also inevitably start to look for something that can pay the bills, earn respect, give something approaching a work/life balance, etc. At this point a significant number drop out of the union, especially those who take staff organizing positions at business unions. At Starbucks, for example, although there is no hard data, I believe a fair estimate would say that for every five red card holders who decided to get jobs there to organize, at least three are no longer in the union, with at least one taking a staff position at a business union.

Now, I want to be clear about two things. First, I absolutely think that workers in retail and other low-wage sections can and should form militant class unions. I don’t think I could’ve ever understood the phrase “Break their haughty power” on as raw a level I do without working my own share of crappy retail jobs and experiencing the petty psychological domineering and manipulation which adds insult to the injury of being underpaid and overworked. I understand that structurally an ever-increasing number of workers are stuck in these jobs, including older workers, workers with kids, etc., and I think that we should orient towards organizing within them. However I would like to see us put more effort into finding already existing organizers within the industry, especially who are established with industry history, rather than focusing almost solely on sending in organizers to generate an organizing campaign, cadre-style. One or two years is a long time in an individual person’s life but a very short time in many workplaces/industries.

Second I’m not against trying to get a particular job for political or organizing reasons, just as I’m not against going to, or organizing, protests, when they make sense. What I’m opposed to is an elevation of strategy into ideology. The question of whether to organize or attend a protest, or whether to get a job in a specific company or industry, should be made based on the expected and potential outcomes, weighed against what you’re giving up to do it, all of which should be informed by our previous attempts and experiences. If there is already an established shop or industrial committee with momentum behind it, it might encourage unemployed members to seek work in its shop or industry in order to have more reach – but this is a far cry from saying “Get a job you don’t like or plan to stay at, where you’ll be the only organizer, and let us know how it goes.”

However this tactical use of salting is a far cry from the the “Salt everywhere” attitude that I believe we’ve inherited from the anti-globalization movements “protest everywhere” ideology. Our turnover is the price we pay for it. Imagine if everyone we’d encouraged to go into retail until they burned out had instead been encouraged to become a teacher, or nurse, or work in rail transport (just to take a few examples) according to what they were interested in? These are the sorts of careers that can provide at least a modicum of financial stability, which in turn leads to people staying in them long enough to build roots and become organic leaders. I wouldn’t say that we should all get these specific jobs – but if we encouraged younger, new members to think along these lines, we’d be a much healthier organization, with less attrition and with more industrial organizing potential, as well as more serious and better funded. We’d certainly have more members in their thirties and with children, both because people who joined in their twenties would continue to see us as relevant, and because they could organize and attract their peers.

So for my part I don’t encourage new members to salt into whichever multinational retail chain is currently the most attractive. In fact I’d actively discourage it, unless they’ve been asked to do so by an active organizing committee, and it is being considered as a strategic choice.To the young new member, having an existential crisis and thinking that maybe they can solve it by working retail for a few years, i’d say: think about an industry that you could be in for five or ten years without going crazy, that matches up with what you like, and come up with a plan to get into it. Then, once you’re in it, spend a year learning and taking direction from your fellow workers, while doing what you can to build and spread solidarity, before you start actively organizing (unless there’s already organizing going on or the situation is particularly ripe). This, I think, would put us on a path of long-term stability and influence in various industries.

3) Remember that we are the union

In other words, there is nothing sacred about this union. It’s all been thought up by members before us, human beings every single one. In particular there seems to be some kind of sanctity about the constitution,which is important for making sure people don’t break it, but which hurts us when it reduces our ability to imagine changing it.There are a lot of other things we do just because they’ve always been done that way. Why do we tier our dues, or have a complicated delegate-branch-ghq reporting process? Why do we talk about phantom Industrial Unions which don’t actually exist? I don’t think we need to change everything just for the sake of change, but I do think we need to be able to think about changing anything. (The other problem is how to change it meaningfully – ‘we are the union’ means that change must come from the membership, not just the officers – more on that later).

4) Learn to say No – Democracy means being emowered to vote against things you disagree with (and learning to be voted against)

Many of us are friends with each other, or at least friendly. This is good when it helps keep cordial relations and prevent strain. However most of us have little experience being in a democratic organization where some decisions are tough to make, or where most members already have an opinion.It’s important to be able to say no,and to feel comfortable doing it. Maybe another FW’s proposal is bad – if you don’t say so, who will? Maybe there are others who agree but don’t know how to articulate it or don’t feel empowered. By voicing disagreement, you help make sure that the organization keeps its feet planted and that its decisions actually reflect its membership. Sadly, i’ve seen many occasions when a small number vote in favor, while an even smaller number vote opposed, and the large majority abstain. Call it a “Minnesota No” if you like, but this culture allows bad ideas to win and represent the union even though they don’t represent the will of the membership.

5) Start thinking ten years ahead

I’m not one of those people who say “the revolution will never come in our lifetime.” Who knows, global ecological collapse could come in our lifetime, with everything that that would entail. The IWW of the 20’s talked more about organizing to take over production after capitalism collapsed, more than about taking up arms against it – and maybe there’s something to learn there.

That being said we’ll also get nowhere (at least not anywhere good) if we permanently imagine ourselves on the edge of the cataclysm, and make all of our personal and political decisions on that basis.

Maybe it’s part of the definition of our generation that people worry about home property values at the same time as every third movie predicts the end of the world, but if so, it’s a contradiction we have to live in.

To actively take part in an organization which promotes global worker unity and takeover of industry already sets you apart from the vast majority of people’s experience in North America (though after Occupy I wonder if this gulf has lessened). Especially if you join in your youth, it can seem like the natural attitude to adopt is that everything has to be accomplished right now. Waiting sucks. And so we get crappy jobs that we don’t plan to keep (see above), we expect the organization to immediately change to match what we think it should be, or to sink major resources into whatever the project of the month is, and we fight with anyone who disagrees (because obviously they’re wrong). When things don’t turn out like we want, and we have no long term plans for the organization, then of course we can just leave and move on to something else – whether another activist outfit, a paid union staff position, or just a “normal” life. This makes it hard for us to keep experienced members.

A lot of good things can come from impatience and impulse. I might be arguing myself into a contradiction since I also encourage newer members to expect and promote change in the organization. Obviously a balance is needed here.

Many organizations, not to mention a lot of people, try to make plans for several years down the road, to strategize possible, expected, and desired outcomes. For example a company might have a strategy for a certain level of vertical integration and market share, or a person might plan to start a family, purchase a house, advance their career … all of these require making realistic goals and thinking backwards. If we all imagined the IWW we’d like to see in 10 years, and based our everyday activity on this, that would be a big step for our organization.

For example, my ten year plan for the IWW, in brief, is that we should be a known, substantial force in the North American political/industrial climate, with a developed, diverse, and active membership, some industrial strength, and a presence outside of major cities. We should also be able to react relatively quickly as an organization when necessary, whether because of a pressure being brought on us or because the working class is moving in response to police brutality or austerity measures.

Put in concrete terms, I think an achievable membership figure for 2024 would be 10,000 in North America. (Though I worry if this is too modest, considering how much has changed in the last ten years?) This is ten times our current membership, but the organization would look far different. Right now in North America we have 51 branches with a median size of around 11 members. Only five branches have around 50 or more, and are constantly involved in actual workplace struggles, becoming a pole of attraction in their city, such as the Twin Cities, Bay Area, or Portland. (I used the information from GOB #7 2014, and assumed ten members for each of the ten branches whose information was not reported.)

For a union of 10,000 members, let’s assume 100 branches with a median size of 100. Some larger, some smaller, some cities with multiple branches. That means we’d be present in a lot more cities; it also means that in a lot of the cities we’re present in, we’d be well established, rooted in local labor struggles, and attracting workers who are interested in building a radical labor movement. If you start to imagine what this would look like, it becomes clear that our current structure cannot scale, and would collapse under all the weight. We’d have to move to something where responsibilities are both more collective and devolved. This deserves a long-ish post of it’s own; the main point I’m trying to make here is that I’m personally never satisfied with where we’re at, but I also don’t expect the organization to immediately follow every suggestion that I make. For me, the guiding question for everything I do in the union is this: “Does it help set the path for us to be the kind of organization that is capable of becoming what we need to be?” (Or, putting it in the gamer terms of my youth, “Will this bring us closer to levelling up?”)

6) Know how to step back

 

This might be one of the most important things for anyone who wants to be a long-term member. No one can or should be all-on, all the time. Nor should someone feel like becoming less active means they might as well give up membership. Stepping back can take many forms. I’ve done it a few times in different ways. Sometimes, especially when I’m somewhere without a branch, I’ll disconnect from all of the email lists, facebook, etc., but still maintain dues payment and occasionally converse with friends in the organization. Other times, I’ll put a fair amount of activity into a branch, but still stay disconnected from the email lists and the international as a whole. Probably one of the biggest causes of burnout comes when someone is totally disconnected from any tangible activity and only plugs in to the “Second Life IWW”, as a friend calls it, IE the IWW of mailing lists and facebook posts. This kind of disconnect from tangible activity causes arguments about ideas to become much more heated and blown out of proportion, and it becomes harder to remember why any of us are involved in this.

I’d love to reactions to these suggestions. Other long-term members, what’s been your strategy for sucess? What do you wish someone had told you seven years ago? Newer members, what are your goals for the organization, and what will help you achieve them?

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9 thoughts on “Getting your second five-year card: Six tips for life-long wobblies

  1. I’m a medium term member who never made it to a five year card. I helped re-found the branch in my City and get it going, spending a few years of life intensely building the IWW. I’ve watched it grow, get involved in labour struggles, become known. I can’t admit yet that I’m not a member, but I haven’t paid my dues in a while or been to a meeting, so I’m not. We are the only members who have a kid, and our branch seems largely based on drinking parties that I can’t go to as our kid isn’t allowed in bars and I have no babysitting. Sure, I can go to meetings and the baby is welcome there, but the meat of the branch is in the bar, and I can’t go. Nor do I live downtown anymore due to reasons of poverty. I just can’t be the only person in the branch with a baby, and I can’t demand that the whole branch change its culture around me (even if people offer, I know that its just because of me and that everyone would rather be at the bar. I can’t have that on my head). I hope one day the branch can grow enough to be inclusive of people in their 30s who might not live downtown/might have kids/ can’t drink their faces off, but that’s just not the case right now. Anyway, that’s this medium term member signing off with some reasons. I haven’t left organizing, I’m just more on the community organizing side of things with different people.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your story. I know that when I’ve been at less active periods it’s also been difficult to admit it.

      I’m sad, but not surprised, to read about your situation, and sadder still that this could describe quite a few branches. I don’t think it’s your responsibility to change things but I hope you’ll try anyways. Have you thought about other branch members who might be allies for changing the situation? If “the meat of the branch is in the bar”, that’s a problem for reasons beyond the fact that it excludes current and potential future members. Is the bar just socializing or is there some kind of branch activity happening there? Do you think some members would be into doing a monthly social event outside of the bar (a reading group at a coffee shop for example)?

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  2. Thank you for a very well written and thoughtful article. I’m sort of a different case. I was politically active in my youth. I was and probably still would describe myself as an independent socialist. I hung mostly with Trotskyists in my youth although I never was comfortable with that designation. I always wished the left in the US was more labor centered and plain spoken like the old Wobblies. If you had suggested at the time that I join the IWW I probably would have responded with, “Yeah right, those guys are still around?”

    So life moves on, now I’m living in there very distant suburbs of Southern California. I’ve been politically dormant for decades. But my values never really changed. I never started voting Republican and complaining about immigrants and taxes. I’m really kind of out of place out here. I have a “good union job”. In the last couple of years I have become very active in my union and I am known as an outspoken voice for union democracy and worker militancy. It has awoken something in me that has long been missing. I came across the IWW online and signed up because that is where my heart is. It is more of a statement of values I guess at this point of my life. I mostly live in that “second life IWW”. Distance and life’s commitments make it very difficult to attend branch meetings.

    The opportunity recently presented itself to attend the convention. When I showed up people were nice enough but I really felt like I landed on another planet. I live in a different world from all of the twenty-somethings who seem completely wrapped up in the union. Once again, I felt completely out of place. There were a couple of grey heads in the room but wobbly life seemed to be dominated by workers my daughter’s age. When I try to converse online with some of the young workers I met at the convention I am told that I come across as abrasive and preachy, which I suppose is true.

    So what is really my role in the IWW? I’m not really sure. Paying dues is not a big financial burden for me. And I don’t mind contributing to the cause. But I really feel that I accomplish more in my AFL union. I’m not sure that I’ll find enough reason to keep my red card current in the future. I’ll be happy to receive any feedback or advice that anyone has to offer. Thanks again.

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    1. Hi Brad, thanks for the comment. I apologize that I don’t recognize you from the Convention, I’m not sure if I had the chance to meet you.

      I have family in the SoCal suburbs so I know what you mean about it being spread out, and I can imagine how you’d feel isolated from the LA or San Diego branches. I also know there’s a ton of workers there trying to get by. It’s exactly the kind of place that the union ought to have a plan for establishing a presence in. I know there was a group in Orange County trying to start a branch but I’m not sure what happened to them (or if that’s at all closer to you).

      I’d suggest a few things:
      1) Find out if there are any other Fellow Workers in your neck of the woods, or have been recently. Check with your delegate or Branch Secretary if you’re not sure. If there are, reach out to them about doing something more locally, even a monthly informal coffee meeting to talk about organizing or discuss articles.
      2) Find out about other dual card members in the Branch, even if they aren’t in your specific business union. It may be useful for you all to meet occasionally to talk about common issues you face as militants in your other union, as well as to be a resource for organizing in your other union (and eventually recruiting co-workers to the IWW).
      3) Find an activity that your branch is doing that you are interested in, and make that your priority for whatever time you’re able to spend on the IWW. If you’re not sure, try to meet with a longer-term branch member one-on-one to discuss ideas – they might be able to help you think of a new project to start, and the people to plug in with to make it happen.

      I know that the first Convention can feel like another world, since a lot of the people there already know each other and it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. I’m sure that the generation gap accentuated this, but I’d encourage you not to feel too discouraged. I know there are other parents active in the LA branch, who might be a good resource to reach out to about some of your doubts. I encourage you to stay – we’ll be a more diverse, and therefore stronger union for it.

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  3. Good work here. Thank you. I’ll be sharing this with my fellow workers down here in Arkansas. I’ve been a member since January 2003. I’ve had my share of ups and downs that come from trying to organize in a southern college town. And Morgan is spot on. Way too much barfly organizing. Been there, done that, and have a one month wonder or two to prove it. Oh the joys of being a delegate!

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  4. Very good read! I am rather perplexed at the notion of once initiated, not retaining membership, which is really for life. That is my masonic and fraternal experience coming out though, but still, once initiated….it is for life. We all have things that prevent us from being fully active, such a job or family, but we can each participate in our own way, to add to the greater collective. We all fall on hard times, which may prevent us from keeping dues current in extreme circumstances, but once initiated, it is For Life!

    Solidarity Forever!!!

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  5. Enjoyed This Analysis. My Favorite-
    To the young new member, having an existential crisis and thinking that maybe they can solve it by working retail for a few years, i’d say: think about an industry that you could be in for five or ten years without going crazy, that matches up with what you like, and come up with a plan to get into it. Then, once you’re in it, spend a year learning and taking direction from your fellow workers, while doing what you can to build and spread solidarity, before you start actively organizing (unless there’s already organizing going on or the situation is particularly ripe).

    Did You Miss Something At The End Of #4, Though?

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    1. Hi, you’re right, there must have been something cut off at the end of a paragraph. I’ve done my best to repair it (and improve the layout in general.

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