It Takes More Than Direct Action
by Colin Bossen
Over the last seven years I have been involved in three major IWW organizing campaigns. The first of these was with the Chicago Couriers Union. This campaign succeeded in building a union of bike messengers that over the last seven years has maintained a small but dedicated membership. The couriers union has, throughout its existence, managed to make a difference in the lives of the workers in the industry. Since its inception the union has: won a wage increase at the third largest courier company in Chicago; advocated for numerous workers who have been unjustly fired, denied back pay, illegally docked at work, harassed or otherwise victimized; taught novice bike messengers about safety; and improved access to buildings. The union has also organized numerous social events and bike races for members of the Chicago, national and international courier industry. These events combined with the union's victories have made the couriers union a significant presence in Chicago and in the wider industry.
The other two campaigns I have been involved with have not been as successful. The first was an effort to organize the troqueros, or port truck drivers, in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. This effort got off to a solid start. The IWW was contacted by a group of troqueros interested in organizing. As many as fifty workers attended the groups initial meeting. More importantly the group was able to organize a strike that shut down the both of the ports. Despite this spectacular job action--involving thousands of workers and disrupting a large segment of economy--the troqueros were unable to successfully build a lasting union presence in the industry.
The second failed campaign I was involved with shared similar characteristics to the troquero campaign. It involved a group of taxi workers in Cleveland. Again, there was initially great enthusiasm. Before ever meeting with the IWW the group had managed to organize meetings with as many as 80 workers in attendance. Over the course of a year, the taxi workers held a series of direct actions and protests that built some respect for them in the industry. The director of the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport met with them to listen to their concerns and they vocally presented their demands to the owners of a couple of taxi companies. After a year of this kind of activity, and despite their promising start, the taxi workers organizing efforts also petered out.
The two failed organizing campaigns had a lot in common. In both instances they took place in cities where the IWW lacked a well-organize local branch. In both instances I was trying to organize the campaign with little additional support. And in both instances the workers involved had little interest in doing institutional work of union building--people did not want to step-up to be delegates or use any sort of structure for running their meetings. This meant that the workers meetings were often dominated by personalities and there were no formal mechanisms for accountability.
The campaign that resulted from the Chicago Couriers Union provides a sharp contrast with the other two. It took place in a city with a well-organized and vibrant local branch. Between the branch and the international union, money was put together in two separate instances to fund a stipended organizer for three months. And throughout the initial phases of the campaign there were always a handful of people from outside the industry involved in organizing efforts. These differences meant that there were people to work on the campaign when the workers in the industry's interest slackened and that there was a model of organization that the couriers could refer to when building their own.
The differences between these three campaigns have led me to believe that, in order for organizing efforts to succeed in the long-term, organizers and workers must focus on institution building. I am positive that if strong IWW branches existed in either Los Angeles or Cleveland when I was working with the troqueros and taxi workers, then the outcome of both of those campaigns would have been different. Likewise, I believe that if the IWW had been able to devote a full-time stipended organizer to either campaign the results would have been different.
If the IWW is to grow into a powerful force for the working class then we must focus on making our institutions stronger. This means, at the least, better organized local branches and more resources for funding organizers. If we devote our energies to these things, we will be a force to be reckoned with. If we do not, our organizing efforts will continue to have a mixed track record and, more often than not, end in failure.