The Myth of Precarity

Seattle Worker AUGUST-SEPTEMBER 2018-page008Seattle Worker AUGUST-SEPTEMBER 2018-page009

By X358109

There has recently been a lot of informal discussions in the IWW about the Organizer Training program. These discussions have touched on a number of assumptions about organizing and strategy that purport to be “at odds” with the OT. People on the left tend to rely on a number of truisms which I like to refer to as “leftist common sense.” These truisms are used to explain the operation of organizations and, in broader discussions, the world. Unfortunately, they often rely on tropes that are weirdly essentialist or simply at odds with the facts, and they often walk the line between leftist common sense and the real world.

One of the biggest myths that leftists buy into is the idea that precarity is a new phenomenon, and that it means the “old ways” of organizing simply cannot work. Precarity is the lack of stability or job security, and a lot of leftist theory explores the alienation and lack of psychological well being caused by a precarious existence. The story goes like this: “back when the labor movement was strong, we didn’t have precarity, but since the 1980s it has become the norm for more and more people.” Implicit in this is the idea that unions equal stability and the end of precarity, but in reality this is only half true.

In Kim Moody’s new book On New Terrain, he lays out some information about some old terrain: precarity. According to Moody’s research, there is essentially no difference in precarity, measured as jobs worked in a lifetime, from the height of organized labor in the early 1970s and today. With this in mind, it would be more apt to call our current time “normal” rather than “precarious.” The last time in history we had any sort of job stability, at least in the sense of a stable connection to the means of production, was during feudalism. It eroded with the rise of mercantile cities in Italy and the enclosing of communal lands throughout Europe. With the rise of capitalism, the new proletariat soon found themselves working in the mills where precarity was the norm. It has been the norm ever since.

So why do so many Wobblies buy into the myth that precarity is “the new thing?” There is a very short organizational memory in the union. This has affected everything from administrative practices to theoretical underpinnings. Furthermore, political education is generally a low priority because so much of the union is made up of committed leftists. This lack of education allows incorrect assumptions and wrong ideas to persist. We should all be concerned with this. If we have a faulty understanding of the basic makeup of society, it will lead to faulty practices and toxic discussions.

The flip side of the current precarity myth is that union jobs are never precarious. Undoubtedly, having “just cause” employment over at will employment is a good thing. However, in addition to the IWW, I work in a workplace covered under a Collective Bargaining Agreement (a contract). I’m a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21. Thanks to the union much of the grocery industry work in Seattle is carried out under “just cause” conditions. Even so, grocery industry turnover remains extremely high. The contracts are walked over by management all the time. As a shop steward at my store, I try to prevent this as much as possible. But since the UFCW is not a militant organization, and it does not put resources towards internal organization, the situation is similar to that of a nonunion workplace. UFCW is one of the largest labor unions in the country, but having a big well-funded union and a contract in place does not make a job less prone to precarity. Only militant union organization does that.

Organizing is difficult and it doesn’t come naturally to most people, but we need to be trained to organize, and we need to engage in real-world practice. We need to think strategically and put in the time and hard work necessary to proper organizing. That is the only way to build stability and power in a “precarious” society.

IWW Strategy and Organizing

I often describe the IWW in the ways I would like to see it. Typically, I say something to the effect of, “Our strategy is industrial unionism, our model is solidarity unionism.” I strongly believe the Organizer Training the IWW provides fits both of these and provides the basis to charter industrial unions under the IWW banner. However, I have heard it said recently that this is not the case, that we don’t teach how to organize industrially in the OT. This is somewhat true. We don’t specifically teach macro level strategy in the OT (perhaps this is a detriment, but we are lucky that the curriculum is revised every few years with input from our pool of trainers and the broader union!). Another criticism I’ve heard is that the OT does not deal with the fact that people are precarious, that they move from one job to another. The OT does provide the fundamentals for any organizing and the building blocks for strategy. So what does the OT teach?

Building Relationships

The basis of good organizing is building relationships with the people you want to organize with. Organizers often have to go out of their way to do this. If we just did this with the people we naturally spend time with, there would be all sorts of problems. We would be forming clubs, not an organization for all workers, and we wouldn’t overcome racial and gender divides (to name the most obvious). The OT stresses building relationships time and time again in its curriculum.

Since the Arab Spring and movements like Occupy, the press often points out the ways social media has been used to help mass movements. Indeed, social media plays a part. But these movements that toppled regimes did not exist in the cyberworld exclusively. Tahrir Square in Cairo was a place a physical place–where people met and built relationships, trust, and, in short, organization. Our training in the IWW departs from the way the Left has organized for decades. The IWW does not call for action without a base and does not tail the actions of others (like the AFL-CIO or the Democratic Party). We are trained as militant organizers to always build a base through a democratic organization and lead with actionable demands.

Research

How do we know where we have divides to overcome, leaders to bring on board, or issues to target? We do research. The OT states that all campaigns need to start with gathering information: about the workers, including their issues, their stories, and who they are. Information must also be gathered about the company–its policies, its bosses, etc. Information is key. When a suggested campaign comes up at organizing meetings in my local, the first question usually asked is, “Do we have a list?”–meaning a list of employees and contact information.

Understanding these fundamentals allows us to understand the bigger issues in play. If one firm–say a restaurant–has issues of low wages, non-existent healthcare, and sexual harassment, what does this say about the whole restaurant industry and our organizing in “640,” as we call it? If we do the research, we will find one of two things. Either these are collective issues and shared experiences that many workers in the industry are familiar with and agitated by, or they aren’t. That understanding is the basis of research for an industrial organizing committee.

One-on-Ones

One-on-ones are intentional conversations we have with the people we’ve built relationships with. They attack the issue of class society directly by bringing people over to the idea of collective action and organization. They are hard conversations, and they put organizers out of their comfort zone. They bring up stories of traumas, disrespect, and class hatred, but they are our fundamental tool as organizers in building an organization through relationships. And they are necessary.

Since these conversations are hard, most leftists I have met eschew them. Instead, many people on the Left are socialized to think that the proper way to talk to people outside their circles is to talk at people. However, we cannot convince someone to be class conscious through a series of Public Service Announcements. We can only do it through building relationships, exploring collective experiences, and struggling to change our conditions. You don’t convince people to become revolutionaries. You make a revolution with them, and that makes them revolutionaries.

Strategic Thinking and Collective Action

The OT teaches how to strategically plan an action, taking into account who to target, where, how, when, and with whom. This fundamental way of thinking is what allows us to think strategically in our organizing on every level. If we are able to pull off effective and strategic collective action in order to make gains, we can bring that to the next level, taking on bigger targets and eventually our true class enemies.

Training in the OT covers the smallest scale possible–typically a single worksite. But all of the skills that are taught are scalable. In other words, we can scale our organizing up to a more macro level–an industrial campaign for instance, or even a workplace with two or more worksites–and the fundamentals all remain the same. The strategic thinking and planning, collective actions, and relationship building are going to have to be done in any organizing campaign. There is some other information that might be needed. For instance, how to build profiles on firms using corporate research, but this is not what the OT is meant to teach and the IWW provides this from another committee, the Survey and Research Committee. Both the OTC and the SRC make up part of the union’s Organizing Department.

Bringing It All Together

All of these component parts come together giving us the tools to take militant action–to plan, understand the difference between tactics (such as a march on the boss or a picket), and a goal (higher wages, shorter hours). On the left, I see a lot of people who confuse goals and tactics. They celebrate having a rally as if that was the goal the whole time rather than winning the actual demands presented at that rally. This is what happens when we organize purely around slogans and not basic necessities that impact broad layers of working class people.

Many organizations have you learn the phraseology or the correct lines and motions. For instance, we often hear some variant of the phrase “Theory and Practice” from Lenin or other revolutionaries. One of the reasons I’m such a proponent of the IWW and its training is because it teaches a practical way to be a revolutionary organizer, which includes the tools for action, and the theory that informs the action. Worker intellectuals like Martin Glaberman or Stan Weir often embody this idea of a Wobbly theorist: they understand that action precedes consciousness and creating a theory of revolution that goes beyond “we convince everyone our ideas are Correct and then we can have a revolution.” Glaberman made the following observation about his time moving to Detroit to work in the auto plants: “We believed in the revolutionary capacity of the working class even though nothing was visible.” Nothing so succinctly represents the IWW’s outlook and organizing model more than that sentence.

[Originally published in issue 3 of the Seattle Worker]

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