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Wobbly, Whitman, Whatever

An interesting article and conversation on Organizing on Wobbly Ground: Learning from ‘Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks’, which is in turn based on an essay by Daniel Gross called Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks. The point of all this stuff is that the IWW is attempting to help Starbucks employees without forming bargaining units.

While nobody thinks that bargaining units are the final point of success, in a general way they are viewed by Big Labor as a necessary early step, to the point where resources devoted to workplaces that do not have bargaining units are narrowly devoted to gaining recognition as a bargaining unit. This is a gross overstatement, of course, but certainly the emphasis is on organizing workplaces that are not so, and then on negotiating for the workplaces that are. And there is good reason for that—a legal bargaining unit is a powerful force for helping workers. But it isn’t the only powerful force for helping workers.

There have been attempts over the last couple of decades to create non-bargaining-unit organizations of workers of various kinds, often claimed to be on the guild model, to (f’r’ex) provide health insurance groups for temporary workers and so on. This is in the line from Cesar Chavez and the funeral insurance that he offered when he could not offer much else material, and it’s a very good line to be in. Alas, I don’t think there have been very many successes, certainly not on a large scale. I like the idea that the IWW is trying some things in their m├ętier, at the very least to accompany what the AFL-CIO and SEIU are doing in theirs.

But this all brought something else to mind for me. Mr. Loomis writes that One of the real weaknesses of the modern labor movement is a lack of emphasis on educating workers about their own workplace, how unions fit into a larger economic and social justice world, and building workplace democracy. I think that this is very true, and a very serious problem. Y’all know about the labor death spiral: declining political power has led to anti-worker policies and appointments, which has led to declining membership (and declining resources), which has led to declining political power, etc, etc. In order to counter that, what we need (it seems to me) is political power that is union friendly that is not union derived, that is, we need allies. Like-minded people who see that helping Labor is helping the economy and the society, that worker-friendly policies are people-friendly policies, and that if you want people-friendly policies, you need worker-friendly policies.

Or, even more: we need Walt Whitman Democrats. We need people who see that the point of democracy is democracy, that the goal of this nation is still to create a self-governing people. If (as the saying goes) people get the government they deserve, we must aim at raising people who deserve to govern themselves, who see themselves in each other and sing themselves in each other—who participate in politics the way they participate in society: joyously, passionately and lovingly. And fiercely. And widely.

Americans should be a people who are outraged if they are excluded from participating in the governance of the workplace, or of their town, or of their cable network. Our stereotype was of meddlers and muddlers, our brashness and immaturity part of a cultural unwillingness to accept limitations of any kind. We can regain that.

I was thinking, the other day, as I was reading some unfunny British satire, that really if you took the pessimistic crap from 70s specfic that extrapolated from the Establishment to a dystopian future—I guess I mean that if you took the articles currently in the news about working conditions in this country, about political participation, about the jobs and the economy, about the destruction of public services and public goods and public places… well, if you took those back to 1974 and claimed them as specfic, they wouldn’t make sense. It wouldn’t make sense that we would have such a massive, passive class of people all doing fairly well as far as creature comforts go, living in some comfort but with little or no chance of improving their status, all on the ragged edge of bankruptcy or disaster, and without great interest in improving their lot. It’s such a middling thing—hunger and need certainly exist but are not widespread, considering, and there is a kind of mild and distant dissatisfaction that leaks out through the culture. If it were much worse, one can’t help thinking, there would at least be the passionate engagement of desperation. If it were much better, there would be—well, what there was in the specfic, loneliness and conformism in consumerist splendor, humanity getting soft (like the travelers in WALL-E, you know, a mid-seventies film if there ever was one). Instead it is… what it is.

One of the commenters at LGM said that Interest in the Wobblies is strictly romantic. Your Humble Blogger does have a sentimental interest in the Wobblies—surely the great thing would be if everybody did? The thing the IWW did in many ways better than the more successful unions was evoke that sentimental interest, to sway people’s hearts, to make people feel that working for the future was a calling of humanity. If the engagement is romantic, it is at least engagement. It is taking on the mantle of participation, and maybe that is the first necessary condition, even before the bargaining unit, in improving the lives of workers, and of all of us.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I wonder, if you dig down enough, what kind of serious interest isn't strictly romantic? Self-interest, I suppose, but then self-interest isn't very interesting, is it?

Also, I'd say that romantic interest and sentimental interest are not quite the same thing.

Re "the passionate engagement of desperation": what about "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation"? Desperation isn't necessarily passionate.

It's tricky when, in your gut, you know that your culture's whole way of life is wrong, but it keeps you quite comfortable, by historic standards, and it's hard to imagine how making changes wouldn't feel like changes for the worse, anyway, and the really bad stuff that you sort of know is going on you don't actually have to see with your own eyes, or know too much about it.

The thing is, every time I started to type that I had a romantic interest in Wobblies, I went back and changed it, because, you know, I'm not looking to take them to a dinner dance.

I do think that the commenter was contrasting a romantic with a practical attitude, and saying that people who wanted to be of practical help are not keen on the IWW. I think that sentimental is a better contrast, probably, and covers the idea that you describe so well, that a lot of us have, that although at the moment we are living lives of reasonable comfort, we have an impractical and hopeful, if largely inactive, attachment to those who reject comfort in favor of Something Better.


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