From February to April 2011, everyone had their eyes on Wisconsin, praying for or dreading the widespread, self-organized strikes against the state’s austerity measures that seemed like a real possibility. So much has happened since then that it almost seems like ancient history, but this movement was seen by many of us at the time as a turning point in American politics, and I think that judgment will stand. Whatever faults Occupy may have had or developed, the best elements had the ambition to call for a general strike, such as in Oakland three years ago – this couldn’t have happened if the “Sconnie Spring” (as I’m now dubbing it) hadn’t raised the possibility of a general strike in the US for the first time in decades.
In hindsight it seems clear that a general strike was not on the cards in Wisconsin, but at the time the Democratic Party and the union leadership went into full assault mode to prevent any kind of industrial action, on any level, by any group of workers – they knew as well as we did that the mood had got to the point where any strike might have spread very quickly.
Wisconsin had little to do with fighting racism or police brutality. Some of the protesters thought the police were on “our side”, and many people were concerned about protecting the unionized prison guards from privatization. Almost no one said anything about the fact that Wisconsin incarcerates Black and Native men at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country, or asked what public sector union rights mean for the 50% of Black men in Milwaukee who have been deemed felons by the state and made nearly unemployable.
What does Wisconsin have to do with Ferguson?
The Wisconsin movement was and is the best example in recent history of our union intervening in a major class struggle, and influencing it in a positive direction and to a notable degree. It brought us a lot of notoriety, a large spike in new members, and spurred on new IWW organizing in Madison and elsewhere. We certainly could have done better on some details, but in our ambitious attempt to push as far as we could from within the movement, we were overwhelmingly right.
Our biggest missed opportunity was not any one particular thing in Madison. It is our ongoing failure to draw lessons from the experience and adapt our organization so that we’ll be better suited to take part in future class struggles. We know a lot about the dynamics of small workplace organizing because we’ve tried it hundreds of times, ran into walls, discussed what happened and how to improve, and tried it again. This is why we have things like the Organizer Training Program. However we’ve only had one recent experience of engaging in a large social movement where we were able to promote wildcat industrial action, and seemingly pose a credible threat to the hegemony of the Democratic Party and the union leadership. Our Convention, as our highest spot for debate and decision making, should be used to draw out the lessons both of our workplace organizing and our possibilities for large scale agitation, so that our organization can grow through continual reflection.
Juan Conatz and I co-wrote an analysis of our union’s activity in Wisconsin, which also contained proposals for how the union could grow from the experience. The essay was distributed at the 2011 Convention but not officially discussed. So far our union has still never had any official discussion about that movement, to decide what we did well or poorly, and how we would do it differently next time. This means that if another large social movement erupts, and we want to participate in it, we will be starting from the drawing board.
What will happen when Darren Wilson is acquitted?
I don’t think any of us can guess. But the very real anger over the increasingly brazen murder of Black and Brown men by White police officers could very easily turn into street rebellions, in St Louis, LA, Chicago, New York… If it does, we can and obviously should support it morally. The question becomes, what do we have to contribute materially?
It’s our focus on the workplace and the economy that distinguishes us. During the initial Ferguson movement this summer, some IWW members organized a work action at a UPS facility against shipping police material to Missouri. At our 2014 Convention, the union recognized that action as the kind of activity we intend to support and organize in the future. (I can’t find the text of this resolution online – if anyone can post a link in the comments, I’ll be grateful.)
I’m normally against “revolutionary Dungeons and Dragons” as we see so often on the American left with microsects that spend more time fantasizing about storming the winter palace than focusing on the reality of people’s work and everyday lives. One of the things I love about the IWW is that we avoid that tendency, for the most part, by basing ourselves in workplace organizing and interacting with living workers, rather than just reading and writing about dead theorists. The best theorists, after all, grew out of organizations based on regular working people fighting their exploiters, not tiny clubs of other intellectuals.
That said, I also think we do need to teach ourselves how to raise our sights higher, and so I’ll break my own rule, and go into fantasy land. I’ll sketch out a few scenarios without asking how likely they are at the present moment. Let’s suppose that Darren Wilson’s upcoming acquittal provokes large scale street rebellions, and that they somehow spread into workplaces. I can imagine two possibilities.
The first would be for state, county, and municipal employees in St Louis to begin protesting against the militarization of their state and the murder and arrest of their family members and neighbors. It might start with joining protests and vigils after work, but could lead to some of the workers beginning to support a political strike in solidarity with the protests and against the police.
The other scenario is if there are rebellions across the country, some of the people involved also work at UPS and hear about our action there, and begin to organize with coworkers to do something similar.
If either of those gained any traction, we would see the full force of the Democratic Party as well as AFSCME or the Teamsters respectively come down against any kind of workplace action, just as we saw in Wisconsin, or during any time when those of us who enrich our exploiters through our work, threaten to stop working. The momentum would be channeled into protests outside of working hours, “get out the vote” campaigns, and the usual baloney.
We know what they would do, because they do it every time. The question is, what would we do? How would our organization reach out to those workers, and support their organizing, both to spread it as much as possible and to minimize any retribution afterwards?
While we’re still putting together our wish list, let’s take another step. The scenarios I’ve laid out imagine a movement that develops independently of us, which we try to intervene in. Since we should be ambitious with our organization, let’s imagine what it might look like if we were able to consciously develop pro-strike movements among Missouri government employees or UPS sorters around the country. If we can imagine a concerted effort to reach out to tens of thousands of UPS workers to organize industrial action against shipping police equipment, and everything that this implies including at some level a very real conflict with the Teamsters bureaucracy, then we have to ask ourselves, what are the steps between our current organization, and the IWW that would be capable of pulling that off? How can we get from here to there?
I’ll wrap up this post by restating three questions. I invite responses in the comments.
1) If the anger over Mike Brown’s murder spreads into any kind of workplace action, anywhere, what are the concrete steps we can take to publicize it, help it spread, provide some kind of support against the recuperation of the Democratic party/union leadership, and defend the participants against retribution?
2) What concrete actions can we do in the current moment to promote industrial action against police murder and the militarization of Missouri, as we recognized we want to do during Convention?
3) The song “Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks” refers to a coordinated strike across the entire pacific northwest, with the so-called “thousand mile picket line”. If we can imagine fifty thousand package handlers holding a thousand mile picket line on police goods going into Missouri, that is organized and coordinated by the IWW, what can we do to bring ourselves to that level?