The Industrial Workers of the World is much larger and more prominent than the General Defense Committee, which is a committee of the IWW, but maintains separate membership. People can be members of both groups; officers in both organizations must be members of the IWW, but one may join the GDC without joining in the IWW. The spike of interest in both organizations after the 2016 Presidential election caught a lot of us by surprise. The Twin Cities GDC has roughly quadrupled in membership in the last twelve months; one quarter of them joined after the election.
People join the IWW when they have confidence that unions can improve the condition of the working class, or if they are ideologically anti-capitalist and in favor of direct democracy. People join the GDC, on the other hand, for a host of reasons relating to the various oppressions they experience in daily life, both in and out of the workplace. While some Americans may have been turned into anti-capitalists or unionists – perhaps by the supposed ‘socialism’ of New Deal Democrat Bernie Sanders – for instance, they might be expected to join the IWW. If on the other hand, people responded to the election campaign and outcome focused primarily on non-workplace forms of oppression, they might be more likely to join the GDC. Many people, of course, joined both simultaneously.
Americans are not widely pro-union, even if they oppose other forms of oppression. Union membership itself is at 11.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and has experienced a severe long-term decline. Additionally, even many current union members themselves oppose unions, for good and bad reasons. Here’s a good reason: the mainstream union movement in America has consistently sold out sections of the working class. This exclusionary behavior was a large reason for the founding of the IWW itself. Many histories show how unions have reproduced white supremacy in the workplace, for example.
Many women, People of Color, immigrants, non-English speakers, and trans workers, for instance, have good reasons to suspect that unions won’t fight for them. Many others are not ‘workers,’ despite being members of the working class. The classes’ employment status is not level across divisions of race, sex, gender, immigration, nationality, religion, or ability. This is where we feel the GDC is useful. By opposing the forms of social oppression that divide the working class, we alert members of the working class that the GDC and the IWW are fighting unions that consider the injuries done to them, injuries done to ourselves.
Our engagement in these struggles has resulted in the type of recruitment for which we had hoped. We have been strengthened by the new members who have joined us, and our increased and increasing diversity has become one of the core strengths of the GDC. This recruitment into the GDC, in turn, has resulted in people joining the IWW. One member writes,
I am a Black woman who joined the GDC after seeing their involvement and APC’s (African People’s Caucus) involvement in the Fourth Precinct [November-December 2015]. I then later joined the IWW after a 101 training. I most definitely would not have joined the IWW if not for the GDC and their involvement in the Fourth Precinct struggle.
Another member, who joined after the 2016 Presidential election, writes
I joined both the IWW and the GDC because I am a historical materialist and thus believe that it makes the most sense to organize around the inescapable fact that if we don’t work, we don’t eat. If we are not exploiting somebody else’s labor, then that’s our reality. That structuring reality unites us across our many differences. Collectively, we have to produce the world we want to live in. To that end, both effective organizing and militant direct action drove my decision to join the IWW and GDC.
Others deepened their commitment to the IWW model of workplace organizing through their exposure and engagement with the GDC:
Although I technically joined the IWW before the GDC, my first introduction to the IWW was through the GDC. Had I not been introduced via the [anti-]Confederate flag march, it’s highly likely that I would have taken the job that was offered to me at SEIU (despite hesitation) and tried to organize game developers through them.
Recruiting a more diverse membership than those currently at our workplaces has helped refine our analysis. It is true, for instance, that many of those whom the IWW considers part of the working class have limited access to workplaces: the places where the IWW thinks we can most effectively exercise our power against capitalism. One member who is currently organizing his workplace writes,
I’m a Black man who joined the GDC before joining the IWW. My experience with police brutality and incarceration influenced my political development. I was chronically unemployed/underemployed until recently. I wasn’t able to successfully organize a workplace in this situation.
Workerist and syndicalist tendencies don’t recognize that class struggle exists outside of the workplace. The most generalized class struggle recently has been the fight against police brutality. Urban Black rebels led this fight, not workers on picket lines. Workers can wield power because of their relationship to the means of production. Frequently unemployed and incarcerated members of the working class don’t have the same power in the workplace. This calls for different methods, and this battlefield is in the streets, not the shop floor. Many times this means a much more direct type of conflict with the repressive state apparatus.
GDC has grown because of our consistent militant presence in the struggle against police brutality. Right now we are larger than the local IWW. This is because we have built relationships with people who weren’t coming to the union, by meeting them on fronts other than the workplace. Many people who enter the GDC later join the IWW. Some are organizing at work, or with the IWOC committee. The GDC is complementary to the IWW and strengthens it. It is not opposed to it, or a distraction or a move away from workplace organizing.
These quotes from GDC members indicate some of the dynamics for which we have aimed, and the amount of success that we have thus far had. Every member who has joined us has made us much stronger than the mere addition of a name to a roll or a number to a headcount would indicate. This success does not inevitably predict anything: constant adjustment, self-education, and training will be required of any revolutionary program.
The GDC maintains our anti-capitalist IWW principles at the center of our work: our officers must be IWW members in good standing, to avoid liberal capture of an IWW institution. We support labor actions in every way we can, often joining other unions’ pickets as well, promoting the IWW and helping shape more effective picket tactics. The GDC has the potential to educate people who care about non-workplace issues, into the importance of union organizing. People interested in the IWW and the GDC seem to be joining both, in my personal experience.
The IWW is not yet the diverse union representing all sectors of the working class that we need to be. The Twin Cities GDC has a strategy to address this challenge. Our strategy may yet prove incorrect, but we think we’re doing okay so far. We try to build the IWW by engaging in non-workplace struggles, to overcome divisions within the working class. We do this to create trust and solidarity with workers focused on other forms of social oppression than capitalism. In this way, we introduce IWW perspectives and orientations to people who might otherwise be suspicious of unions. There are many ways to do such explicit outreach.
The GDC is not the only group in the union concerned with these important challenges. We would like to learn of other current effective IWW strategies to address them. The IWW does have some efforts to note, such as the Gender Equity Committee, or the African Peoples Caucus.
The GDC has a particular focus in our outreach: to engage people by prioritizing direct action. We meet people not only through our ideas, but through actions that empower us, both collectively and individually. We have seen this effort help diversify the Twin Cities GMB.
Why shouldn’t we grow and diversify the IWW throughthe IWW?
We already addressed the fact that many workers are unaware or, or even hostile to, unions. These often include people who are otherwise not only concerned with social justice, but actively involved in such work. In these cases, the GDC may be a more initially appealing place in which to become acquainted with IWW values and practices.
But a person might still ask if it wouldn’t be better to accomplish the goals of growing the IWW in both numbers and diversity by organizing diverse workplaces. The implication is that such organization will result in the transformation of the IWW. We think the IWW should continue to pursue this strategy, but note that it has not been effective yet.
One might still wonder how the GDC would provide such new familiarity with IWW values and practices. The most simple way is through the sharing of space and a very large common membership. Additionally, all GDC officers are members of the IWW. IWW members in the Twin Cities GDC, at least, tend to be active workplace organizers as well. A significant percentage of our most active members are involved in active workplace organizing at their worksites.
Beyond mere contact with IWW members, the GDC prioritizes defense of the self-conscious and organized working class, and therefore can be found wherever labor struggles exist. Calling our membership to support these struggles has been an effective means of educating people into what it means to be a wobbly, and the most effective in building a long-term commitment.
Concrete examples of GDC support for IWW organizing can be found in our picket trainings, support, and strike activity. The Picket Training was the first project we undertook, and we believe those who have taken the training see it as a useful tool throughout the union. We trust our fellow workers that our support in planning and executing picket lines for local campaigns has helped.
The North Country Food Alliance (NCFA) is an IWW shop organized as a result of the Sisters Camelot Canvas Union (SCCU) campaign. The SCCU is still on strike. This year, that strike resulted in the Sisters Camelot NLRB decision. That decision potentially changes the classification of many ‘independent contractors’ to employees with union rights. SCCU members who were active at the time can speak to the role that the brand-new GDC played during the first, brutally cold Winter of that strike. ShugE Mississippi, who was centrally involved in the strike from the beginning, and has remained involved in the IWW NCFA shop since, writes that
I think the GDC – although much smaller at the time than it is now – was crucial in the struggle of the Sisters’ Camelot Canvass Union strike. Early in the strike GDC members ran a “strike patrol” where members visibly did bicycle patrols in specific neighborhoods at specific times. This made it visible that we would know if they tried to replace the striking canvassers with scabs and surely helped deter them from trying it early in the strike.
Members of the striking union also participated in a GDC picket training which was helpful in planning of marches on the boss where we had to confront our bosses about stolen wages inside a fenced courtyard on private property under the threat of them calling police. We also planned a workplace occupation which never took place because they caught wind of it, but the planning was based on things learned in the GDC picket training.
There are genuine questions which are not yet answered for any of us. Will the current model of GDC engagement with the IWW help or hurt the union in the long run? Will it diversify and strengthen our union? Will it increase mass militancy and help spread the skills necessary to win strikes? We don’t currently have the basis for serious judgments of these questions. There are tantalizing examples that support the GDC’s position. Of course, given the small numbers of the IWW and the GDC, any numerical study will be hobbled by low numbers of participants.
At any rate, we continue to hope for critical and comradely discussion of the issues we raise here, and how best to address them. We have some experience, and some opinions, but no monopoly on answers or wisdom.
For the liberation that ends all oppression, and the establishment of the cooperative commonwealth for all people.
EDITORS' NOTE: The following is an essay written by Fellow Worker Erik D. of the IWW's Twin Cities GDB Local 14. While the Mid-Atlantic GDC Local 21 has not officially endorsed this statement, the Mid-Atlantic GDC members who help administer this site feel that FW Erik D.'s overall argument is in line with the beliefs and aspirations of most of the members of the Mid-Atlantic GDC.