Understanding and Changing the IWW’s Structure and Culture
Note: This article is a guest post from DB.
This is a shorter version of a longer unfinished piece documenting my personal experience of becoming an ‘IWW man monster,’ focused on providing a concise yet thorough analysis of the current culture and structure of the IWW in North America, and how they reinforce each other and undermine our work. Shorthanded in the creation of “man monster” organizers throughout the IWW (see fuller description below).
With this diagnosis, I will provide concrete ways to prevent and cure this pattern of “man monster” creation, one that has greatly hindered the IWW over my last decade in the union. While the below is slightly overstated – despite our monster culture and structure we remain very much human – I do so to make clear the culture and structure we are embedded in that can and must change.
There is a tension here between showing how this whole culture and structure is gendered, raced, and classed, as it is, and showing how it’s hurting everyone’s effectiveness regardless of those positions, which it is. I hope to sufficiently show this combined reality, knowing at some level it will be inadequate and that there are many stories that importantly reveal the costs and consequences of these dynamics, most of which are not mine to tell, and which I encourage others to share.
I write this article with ten years of IWW experience in North America, all of which have been rooted in one of the union’s most functional branches during that period – the Twin Cities branch. Nevertheless, this analysis very well applies to my branch as well as to my experiences around the union in trips, conventions, and summits; giving trainings; and more. I was a core member of the Jimmy John’s Workers Union, Chair of the Organizing Department Board, Co-Chair of Work People’s College and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and am a current member of the Social Justice Education Movement, as well as participating in a number of other lesser known IWW campaigns and projects. All of the below only applies to North America, I can’t speak beyond that but am curious if there is connections or differences, there are always lessons to be learned.
From Organizing Robots to Man Monsters
We live in a messed up world full of people messed up by it, yet the IWW seems to have a special gift for creating a certain type of “man monsters”. Particularly at our national level, but elsewhere too. Even more interesting, these tend to be nice, hard working, college educated, feminist, Robert’s Rules knowing, man monsters. I know, as I was (am?) one of them.
And while none of us monsters are the same, nor even all men, I think it is a good term because it is appropriately silly, describing “old beards” and more recent generations of IWW organizers alike.
This language is also intentionally repurposing a recent IWW slang term of IWW or class struggle robots. I’d like us to start replacing this term – part compliment, part awe, part apt description of people working their lives away and treating themselves and all of us like machines, which we are not – with “man monster”. If you are an organizing robot you are likely already a man monster, or on a Frankensteinian path to becoming one! And how we do this is deeply gendered, as well as raced and classed, with women, people of color, and low wage workers vastly underrepresented in the IWW and its leadership, and this is reflected and reproduced in our culture and structure.
Or rather, I think “man monster” – understood as white, male, and often middle class – better describes what we are creating in this organization of ours, despite real if not always sufficiently understood commitments from the overwhelming majority to feminist, racial justice, and class struggle politics. Understanding why this happens is, I believe, key to diagnosing and changing the deep and persistent flaws with the IWW’s current culture and structure, and in doing so, allow for the transformation of our membership and organizational effectiveness.
I also believe that doing so can be accomplished by a series of relatively minor re-orientations and cultural revolutions, and that we hurt ourselves and our role in the movement by not doing so immediately.
Understanding the IWW’s Culture & Structure: Creating Man Monsters in Seven Easy Steps
Step 1: Revolutionary Self Starters
The IWW is a tiny organization that mostly provides little material benefit to members besides an ambitious vision of a transformed society through revolutionary industrial unionism. As such, we grow through the small bursts of energy from revolutionary self-starters attracted to the history of this vision and the real possibilities of it. Yet, we all know who the “industrial unionism” nerds are these days: white, male, often college educated, nerdy, or punky. A person whose most visceral initial sense of oppression in an insanely oppressive society is as a “worker” – a limited pool indeed, and one that prioritizes particularly male, combative, and insider forms of political expression, priorities, conversation, and practices.
Step 2: Organizers as Overworked, Overcommitted, and Socializing Others to Do The Same
The IWW has a culture of over-commitment (taking on too many projects) and overwork (spending too much time on our projects). People are socialized into doing too many things and spending too much time doing them creates a steady stream of infinite tasks to give to anyone not already over-committed and overworked. This is wrongly seen as ‘leadership development’ rather than collective self-mutilation, emphasizing a model of organizer that most people don’t want to be, or be around, and increasing the chances of using others to meet unmet needs, organizing or otherwise. This has particularly strong consequences for women and femmes in the movement as they are in a collective relationship with many more men with unmet needs, and as such often end up doing unacknowledged emotional or care labor, can be treated as sexual objects rather than full organizers, or bear the brunt of people’s shit sliding downhill.
Given the the time constraints of capitalist life.and the existing center of the IWW in college educated, middle class, white men, the culture, pace of work, and informal spaces of conversation are also centered on them or creating whole organizing approaches that don’t consider actual materials, emotional, and spiritual needs. When this happens it greatly reduces the quality and stability of our work by resulting in ignoring or de-prioritizing crucial parts of organizing. Like addressing conflicts, deep relationship building, medium term goals, training in new members, mutual aid, quality administration, true love for one another, etc. Cleaning up the resulting messes further overburdens those who do such work, as does facing the consequences of others’ stress or internalized superiority or trauma. Or rather, if we want to be a viable project we cannot be an organization of the converted with stable enough incomes and thick skin, but a revolutionary organizing church of the working class.
Step 3: A “Worker Only” Approach to Organizing – Creating ‘Excess People’
This culture of overwork is co-created by a “worker only” approach to organizing, where only those working at a job can be on the organizing committee there. While workers in control is crucial, “worker only” campaigns creates a culture of lonely silos mostly without critical mass, a sad sense of limited resources including salts, empowers unaccountable controlling behavior that is overwhelmingly male, and increases skepticism/combative typically egotistic male view of others’ work as few people truly know what’s going on. If you want to join the club, organize your workplace by yourself! This also fails to see the ways in which workers are not just workers, facing sites of struggle across the social order.
Further, despite being an “industrial union” we almost exclusively take on company-specific campaigns, preventing the creation of greater industrial concentrations to find more people involved and well suited to support “worker only” campaigns. (We have found doing industrial style organizing very helpful with the Social Justice Education Movement in the Twin Cities, our K12 organizing committee, and hope more people build on our experiences). This usually results in insufficient amount of meaningful feedback and support for organizers, that, combined with the culture of overwork and over-commitment often results in burnout, increases chance of campaign failure, and can make critical feedback seem like an ‘attack’ because they are ‘talking not helping’.
Step 4: Branch ‘Excess People’ and the Creation of Branch Subculture
The “worker only” approach also means that anyone who isn’t organizing at their workplace as part of an IWW campaign is by definition not useful, unless they can serve as an organizing mentor, which means non-experienced members aren’t getting trained in these skills through practice – only in OT 101s or just going for it. This increases the number of people who make mistakes in campaigns, reducing the pool of branch organizers, and lowering branch quality. Also, because middle class white men are the ‘organizing center’ of the IWW this models leadership in a way that makes more such people see themselves as ‘ready to go’ creating both foolish mistakes that come from their position in society and make others less likely to ‘go it alone’ by taking up organizing. It can also make mentoring tricky by combining consistent organizational power and gender/race dynamics. We would all be better served by a more supportive and collaborative structure of organizing.
Right now however this ‘excess’ pool of people then goes about finding work for themselves in branches – not as an extension of campaigns but something separate to them. This creates a branch subculture, typically even more separate, awkward, and male then the core organizers themselves. This quickly makes branches something for organizers to defend their co-workers from, or at least inoculate them about, as opposed to a magnet to attract militant workers, particular women and people of color. It also means that most IWW members organized off the shop floor have no real tie to the branch until their campaign goes public, and often disappear in the ups and downs of organizing before that happens. Worse, it means that the small group of core organizers in a growing campaign are overburdened with all the technical and mobilizing tasks required to fight a campaign rather than having their branch take on those tasks allowing them to focus on the organizing only they can do. Best case, some of this is offloaded on an ad hoc “solidarity committee” one often not well versed in the campaign, carrying real skills, or ready to truly integrate branch support into the overall work. Again, this contributes to a culture of overwork, worse results, more likely (white male) bad behavior, and burnout.
Step 5: Branches as “Business Only” and “Center of the Union”
Branch meetings could be the place to address this culture of overwork/commitment, power dynamics, etc, by being an extension of organizing campaigns and support for them, a place to allow for delegation, reflection, and realistic prioritizing. Instead branchs have an explicitly “business only” approach. As well as business decision-making being gendered as male, this prevents the natural solution to the culture of overwork and overcommitment by preventing meaningful collective prioritizing and reflection. It also deeply hinders collective goal setting, accountability, and strategy – pushing all of these tasks into informal networks, which end up tending towards cliquey decision-making and fights over informal status, power, and control. This also pushes out of formal discussion and time the crucial and therefore invisibilized and feminized labor of relationship building, administration, and mutual aid, creating a sense of scarcity of time and words for non-central mostly white male members, rather than the true substance of much of our work, which is mutual aid, love, and the fierce desire, self-education, and fight for a better world. Our current cultural practices are well critiqued as white supremacy culture.
This “business only” approach to meetings also means that parliamentary business is often seen as “the center of the union” and how to “be a union member,” not the central skills necessary for organizing. Membership should mean relationship building, organizing practice, political education, collective prioritizing and strategy, personal development, accountability, and goal setting. This again reproduces gender dynamics with the white male “Rusty’s Rules” or “bylaws” nerd, or the strong “meeting chair” given power they do not earn through organizing but rather by attending, but not necessarily advancing, lots of meetings. This center proceeds to create a social club for itself and its subculture, or a platform for politicians who want to play parliamentary dungeons and dragons, instead of being a support structure for industrial organizing or community syndicalism and a means to train militants into these tasks by doing that work. This bad modeling also results in people flailing in and out of activism or often ill conceived solidarity projects to at least “do something,” another common and unnecessary IWW local problem, also more likely done by people who don’t have significant material problems of their own.
Step 6: “Business Only” at the National Level and the Creation of Drama
The problems with branches are amplified at the national level. Instead of focusing, prioritizing, and modeling organizing we model an “overseeing” parliamentarism, a separate administrative apparatus disconnected from the actual organizing work. This creates a realm of 19th century busy work, formalism, or destructive fantasy on top of it all. It is also a world with too few women, people of color and working class people for reasons previously mentioned and this reproduces many of our already toxic cultural problems.
Worse, due to an absence of useful mass mechanisms and limits on time and relationships across geography, a tiny core of ~50 people, overwhelmingly white men who are national officers or regularly attend Conventions determine the course of the entire national union. This is a self-reproducing clique which forces people to either adapt or be pushed out, maybe even more so than in at the branch level. Despite this, they (or we) almost always do so poorly, due to the “business only” framework for doing so, a framework that cannot be sufficiently addressed by changing who is in that clique.
Moreover, the absence of clear mandates for national officers at Convention nor coordinated election blocks leads to a hodgepodge set of national officers pushing their own pet projects, rather than carrying out prioritized core needs of the union as a whole. On top of that the “business only” model of Convention prevents this from even being discussed, much less the even more important process of learning from each other, prioritizing work, and doing reflection and strategy at a national level. Combined with (male/etc) individualism and egos, true union wide coordination and updating seems like an unattainable task. Overwhelming officer mandates (job descriptions) and a feeling that if “we don’t do it no one will” make reporting, paperwork, and ’emergencies’ a treadmill rather than meaningful work that advances the union, while a general inability to solely prioritize national work due to local needs makes it all more messy and ineffective.
Resulting silos and using email as a primary medium of communication worsen this situation as it is so easy to project one’s’ misassumptions on others, while overwork and anonymity lead to regular and public toxic exchanges. Democratic instructions from groups of members is what takes the ego out of decision-making at Convention – this is something we can do more generally. Lack of accountability to any actual body (say a region or Industrial Union) results in officers acting like politicians and often being from non-functional IWW locations or being at large members, while keeping conversation out of real mass participation and debate. Worse, widely dispersed geography and lack of regular mass in-person situations mean bad behavior elsewhere from high status people is almost always relegated to the rumor mill or kept unknown. Those victimized by such situations are typically unheard or subject to political maneuvering, not the creation of a cohesive, positive, accountable IWW culture – again disproportionately impacting marginalized groups within the union, if they remain in it.
These together lead to a personalization of internal union change and related personal level drama of a masculinist sort. A proposal cannot but stink of un-democracy if something is seen as “David’s proposal” (and it is rarely just David’s) even when such a proposal is responding to a need seen by a vast majority of the membership. Moreover, even if “David’s proposal” was a good idea (often it’s not), the lack of good mechanisms and venues for discussing and developing proposals at a mass level means the vast majority of union members are separated or alienated from these discussions and we miss out on their collective wisdom, participation, and energy to advance, even when it was crafted by a ‘national committee’. Moreover, given the small pool of true decision makers – the 50 or so people who run the national union – It also means everything is by definition undemocratic, a favorite email swear word and real, pressing union problem. It also ensures our work will not be scalable as per the old adage – “your meeting will never get bigger than the room it’s held in”. We need to have structures that facilitate mass participation and growth, not those that stifle it.
Step 7: Frustration, Overreach, Accountability – the Cycle Continues
The lack of effectiveness, venue for discussion that’s not business, little support for organizing, and cliquey center of the union create deserved frustration among national level organizers. High status people attempt to push things through undemocratically, amplifying a culture of toxic communication, manipulation, masculine posturing, and eventual targeting and pushing out of previously positive high profile people who are now officially IWW-wide man monsters.
That said, very rarely is “accountability” anything but kicking people out, though before this happens many people tend to quit or withdraw before solutions are enforced and many people, seeing the lack of functionality simply quit in frustration without having done anything wrong. As such, we don’t create a real culture of accountability for our comrades nor ourselves – rather we attack and push out enemies. Nor do we learn from nor retain many of our most experienced organizers. And so the cycle of creating man monsters continues.
From Diagnosis to Prevention and Cure
While the above ‘diagnosis’ is necessarily limited I hope it is comprehensive enough to well name the most crucial problems we face, how they interrelate, and hence provide real means for critique of this analysis and the possibility of suggesting effective cures to these problems. Cures proposed here are necessarily provisional and an offering for greater conversation. I hope though that the analysis above and solutions suggested will help us better shift our personal and collective approaches to create the type of revolutionary industrial/community organizing and organization we want to be a part of.
From Revolutionary Self-Starters To Rooted Revolutionaries
We want to continue to find self-starters but through projecting organizing work that shows people that the IWW is a union for prisoners, educators, transport or service workers, for those who want to fight police terror, enforce accountability for survivors of rape, and defend the earth from human caused destruction. That is the IWW if ro people directly impacted by actual capitalism, not people whose most visible oppression is being a (white, male) worker. Doing so requires individual and collective focusing on the areas where we can have the biggest impact to organize proto and eventually actual, industrial unions, while creating frameworks, experience, and roles that better support all organizing. This is necessarily experiment but modeling successful strategies people can join or re-apply elsewhere is how we will grow.
We also want to extend our pool of leaders from self-starters by providing more meaningful ways to train and develop new or interested organizers, through supporting campaigns, building support infrastructure, or being part of winning material victories on the job.
Creating Accountability – Ending a Culture of Overcommitment and Overwork
Instead of modeling the organizer that is constantly giving other people work outside their focus areas, we need to push ourselves, our committees, and branches to create a culture where everyone focuses their energy and to support each other in doing so.
I’d propose we all have no more than two lanes of work – a primary one to master and a secondary one to develop another skill set. Less truly is more, as effective organizing builds relationships and plans three steps ahead of the current work. Scrambling to do too much at once necessarily makes that impossible and sabotages our work. Moreover, doing less means we provide more places for people to step up as militants and we can mentor people into high level skillsets and systems rather than a game of hot potato for whatever we have ‘assigned’ ourselves. This will create a higher quality of work as standard, and a clearer sense of what we expect of each other.
In addition, Campaign/Committee expectations should be created to model these behaviors, prevent high fliers from being on 5 Committees at once, and create a framework for responding to tension, conflict, and running interventions. Combining more focused work and clearer expectations will prevent a whole set of problems that undermine our work with unequal impacts by giving us all time and headspace for the most important organizing tasks: real relationships, reflection, mutual aid, conflict resolution, and strategy. It will also result in less damaged relationships, power dynamics missed or ignored, and more experience for creating the types of setups and accountability we want to be modeling personally and politically.
Accountability should become a consistent, preventative thing, built into daily conversations and practices, something we ask for and expect, and a continual challenge to all of us. I have had to be directly pushed to be accountable and do the same to others – with potential and real consequences for not doing so. This needs to happen and not as a one-way street but as a mutual process of collective improvement. We also need some people to specialize in training and developing better practices locally and across the union. If we can’t learn from conflict, and our mistakes, we can’t get anywhere. Continuing to evolve our conflict resolution and charges process at a national level is important as well.
Finally, we need to remind ourselves that outside of true emergencies we should all be operating at 50% capacity time-wise, spending half of our free time on our life not organizing, working smarter not harder. Otherwise we will be useless when an emergency happens, as it always does. This is what we can do and love life insofar as that is possible under capitalism, not collectively transforming ourselves into man monsters trying to offload work on others, instrumentalizing others, ignoring conflicts or bad behavior, and meeting our human needs in compressed and often fucked up ways.
From “Worker Only” to Industrial Organizing
Instead of a “worker only” and company specific campaigns we should build industrial organizing, creating a broad network of workers in an industry we can commit to for the long term, and to do targeted campaigns within that industry – a campaign minimum being anything started by 2 or more long term committed IWW militants at a single target.
Non-campaign workers should create branch infrastructure (like administration, legal, media, research, graphic design, new member development, cooking, childcare, etc) to directly support the growth of industrial committee(s). Better if they are willing to commit to a sufficiently long involvement, have their lane be to join Industrial Committees, sit in on meetings and one one ones with potential organizers, take on tasks or roles as they come up, and grow to extending the organizing base of the campaign. This will also lead to more salts and more social networks bringing in or finding more organizers in the campaign or industry, and lead to a sense of support and connection to the broader union from the beginning, not a strange new entity that only shows up to pickets. Instead of only workers in a specific campaign doing organizing, have the entire IWW be involved in growing long term industrial organizing, training in a far greater pool of skilled militants and seed the possibility of big upsurges in struggle or membership. This will also sensitize all IWWs to becoming better organizers and people persons. We all need to welcome in new people, not choose conversations that exclude people, and generally work on our shit such that we can clearly provide self-accountability and meaningfully contributions to the movement.
From “Business Only” Subculture to Infrastructure for, and Extension of, Industrial Organizing
Instead of only doing “business”,branch meetings will be infrastructure to support campaigns and model and practice core organizing skills, depending on the status of existing organizing. These include: relationship building, reflection, mutual aid and campaign support, political and organizing education, accountability and conflict resolution, times to limit overwork and overcommitment by redistributing work and narrowing focus to collective priorities, and when possible, concrete work. Doing so is well within our reach but will require experimentation. We need to model valuing rather than making invisible such work, as well as including everyone, not just the core organizers at the bar in crucial directional discussions. Electing co-facilitators to run meetings and get feedback from members until a good format is found seems wisest to me – then sharing various lessons/formats around the union, including practices to equalize power dynamics and make people feel comfortable and empowered at meetings.
There should also be occasional special meetings solely dedicated to things like annual reflection, goal setting, budgeting, strategizing, convention proposals, audits of power dynamics, and so on. There will also be business items on the agenda but they will be subordinate to industrial organizing and an extension of it, not an extra workload of tending an alienating and alienated subculture of parliamentary dungeons and dragons, though Rusty’s Rules will still be used for such decisions.
Point being branch meetings and Conventions should be an extension and support of organizing work, not tending an extra and irrelevant bureaucratic or subcultural world done because ‘this is how we do things’. We can and should highlight and center those who are members or hold real connections to oppressed communities and who employ the often feminized skills of relationship building, mutual aid, and care.
Creating Mutually Supportive Regional and Industrial Infrastructure
Like branches, the North American structure will be a direct support structure of organizing, not a separate parliamentary stage “overseeing it”.
Regional and Industrial infrastructure and gatherings will be created to allow for mass participation in reflection, lessons, prioritizing, and joining Industrial Union work. Conflict will not disappear but frustration will shrink – as conflict will be grounded in the work itself and as such be seen as revealing a need for some improvement or change. Better, people won’t be able to be ‘big names’ getting things done by being rude on email and polite in person, as in person conversations and non-anonymous interactions will increasingly be the sites of actual development of work and decision-making. Similarly, Regional and Industrial officers will replace “reporting” with relationships of support and accountability, and reduce overwhelming national mandates to coordinating support and advancing high level tasks, while regional assemblies will create a mass increase in horizontal relationships, greater familiarity and connection to existing union resources, stronger communications and better ideas.
Like our redefined branch meetings, twice a year Regional Summits that prioritize industrial breakouts and involving at large members in proto-Industrial Unions will include relationship building, learning, prioritizing, and strategizing, as well as reflecting on, developing, and advancing proposals for the coming Convention – to be passed on to other regional meetings prior to final proposals being created. Caucuses by race and gender, etc, should be encouraged, creating regular and regionally or industrially specific ways to increase representation from across the class.
Such Summits are also the basis from which to elect recallable Regional GEB Delegates and other Regional Officers until they can be replaced or overlapped with Industrial Unions (which could happen fast if we collectively decide that to be so), though maintaining a regional network is crucial for growth in countries as big as those in North America and for getting people to see themselves as lifelong wobblies.
Officer mandates will be set by Conventions and be much narrower to be accomplishable and tied to long term union goals. Officers will be elected based on these goals and mandates – not to achieve each elected person’s pet projects. Everyone will know that going in, reducing typically male ego and image to a more collaborative and collective process.
Perhaps, union-wide political tendencies would facilitate communication and debate and election slates, doing the real work of organizing to understand and reflect the opinions of their members doing organizing, while ideas good and bad from small groupings will be considered and critiqued but not seen as existential threats. That said, I hope bottom-up democracy and relationship building reduces the need for this to bigger strategic questions, not the core improvements of the union.
Administration – restructured locally, regionally, industrially, and nationally – will be an extension and boon for organizing work and not a separate oversight body on top of, distracting and competing with it, centering (white, male) grandstanding. This will lead to growth and new problems, but not the unaccountable mistreatment of FWs, personalization of collective problems and the collectivization of person problems. New problems but not undemocratic explosions of frustration and manipulation due to lack of internal communication, and the regular burnout and occasional expulsions of formerly leading members.
Despite updating our organizing model, and creating a transformed culture and structure we will still have a world to win and capitalism, the state, borders, patriarchy, white supremacy, each other, and ourselves – and more – in our way… but not “man monsters”. There is no time like the present.
Thoughts? Want to work towards a complementary vision for remaking the culture and/or structure in the IWW? Contact me at – dboehnke at gmail.