Class, Democracy, and the General Executive Board
by Travis Elise – Twin Cities
When I was in college, I was active in student government. Looking back at it now a decade later, it’s somewhat surreal to realize that in many ways the Student Government Association at my small, affordable liberal arts college in rural Wisconsin functioned more democratically than the IWW, supposedly the most democratic union in North America. In this piece, I will examine why that is the case, briefly go over some of the negative impacts of it, and offer a solution on how to make the IWW more democratic.
In the University of Wisconsin, the student body, according to the WI State Statute 36.095, has the right to govern themselves. This has implications that are uncommon for most Universities. If the administration wants to expand a program, build a new building or make any other significant change to student life on campus, the Student Senate has to approve it. This had an impact on how students viewed Student Government at my school. Simply put, it was taken seriously. There was more participation from the student body than one would expect. Elections were usually, though not always, contested. Sometimes races were very competitive.
Within the IWW, officer races are almost never contested, or if so, just barely. Why is this the case? There are a number of factors to be sure. However, when I look back at my time in student government, I can see how some of these problems are inherent in the IWW structure.
In our student government, there were two main bodies, the Cabinet and the Senate. The Cabinet consisted of the President and Vice-President and various Cabinet posts which were appointed by the President. These offices came with a huge workload and required a lot of technical expertise, such as understanding budgets and bylaws, reading and writing lots and lots of emails, and attending lots of meetings (sound familiar?). Most of the members of the Cabinet were white guys from middle class backgrounds. Political science majors, who intended to go into politics, often dominated these Cabinet seats. They dedicated an impressive amount of time to their unpaid jobs. However, at the end of the day, they had no power. They were the grunts, not the decision makers. The decision making power lay in the Student Senate. The Senate was very different from the cabinet. It was much more representative of the student body and often included many working class students, students of color, and international students (who were usually lower middle class, since upper class international students went to expensive schools). Why such a significant difference? The primary reason was that the Senate’s job is far less work. It’s much more manageable than that of the cabinet; only a few meetings a month and virtually no work outside those meetings other than reading meeting agendas.
There is a noteworthy similarity between my school’s Student Government Association and the IWW. As I said before, cabinet positions were often occupied by middle class students with a lot of extra time on their hands. Officer positions in the IWW, most notably the General Executive Board (GEB), has a perennial cast of characters often with similar backgrounds.
Of all those who have served on the Board in 2017, there is only one, Shuge Mississippi, who I would categorize as having a blue collar job (door to door canvasser). The rest of this year’s board has consisted of a self employed business owner, a long-time business union staffer (and also a self employed business owner), a lawyer, an IT analyst, a non-profit staffer, and 2 grad students. It should also be noted that a former 7 time GEB member and multiple time Chair who now makes his living as a day trader, declined a GEB nomination in the Fall of 2016 because he was planning to travel abroad for part of this year.
The 2016 board consisted of a retired boat captain, another business union staffer, and a warehouse worker, in addition to others already mentioned above. The warehouse worker struggled with the job and resigned early in the term.
The 2015 board had, in addition to some already mentioned above, another grad student, yet another business union staffer, a fast food worker, and a bike messenger. The fast food worker and the bike messenger were the first ones to resign that year.
The pattern continues if you trace the board’s class composition back further. You’ll find more business union and non profit staffers, more grad students, more lawyers, college professors, and other white collar professionals, and a surprising lack of baristas, fast food workers, servers, cashiers, transit workers, teachers, grocery store workers, warehouse workers, liquor store workers, call center workers, truck drivers, or any other workers who have made up the majority of our organizing efforts of the past decade.
There is another noticeable pattern. Not only do blue collar members rarely get on the Board, but of those who do, few of them are successful and survive a full term or multiple terms.
White collar or “middle class” people tend to carry with them a certain politics, often referred to in other contexts as “respectability politics.” Therefore it should be of no surprise to anyone that the political stance of those GEB members who fit that description is invariably to the right of the rank and file membership. There are numerous examples of this. One of the most infamous was in 2009 when the GEB issued a public statement which more or less threw Fellow Worker Marius Mason under the bus after they were convicted of an act of political conscience and sentenced to 22 years in prison. In 2014, when the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) was being formed, a GEB member expressed concern about having “a bunch of hardened criminals in the IWW.” On J20, dozens of IWW and GDC members in Baltimore and Washington DC were arrested. Their red and grey cards were confiscated and are currently being held as evidence of a conspiracy. These Fellow Workers and Fellow Defenders are facing down possible 70 year prison sentences. When a member of the GEB member suggested that the board discuss ways of helping the arrestees, another GEB member rejected the idea and stated, “This has nothing to do with the IWW.” The recent actions (or rather inactions) of the GEB in regards to the events of DC, Seattle, and Portland are a reflection of their politics, which are undoubtedly influenced by which layer of the class they come from.
Last month, myself and other Twin Cities branch members and a few others around the union drafted a North American Restructuring Proposal that was sent by our branch to Convention. The proposal sketches an alternative structure that would effectively abolish the GEB. If the proposal is accepted, it would be implemented in three years, giving the union time to plan and tweak or make significant changes to the proposal at the next three General Conventions.
This proposal seeks to take away power from the those able to dedicate a significant amount to their positions. Under the new structure, there would be regional councils consisting of elected (and recallable) delegates from all the branches who would vote on proposals and make the policy and political decisions. Meanwhile, regions would have Secretaries which compromise the new General Executive Council which would do much of the same administrative work as the GEB does but would not have the political and policy making power of the current GEB. The General Executive Council is expected to be a very involved and time consuming job, while the delegates to the Regional Councils is meant to have light workload, thus making it accessible to much of the membership.
Levelling the playing field between blue collar and white collar members of the IWW isn’t new either. In 2008, the union adopted our current Convention model as our annual decision making meeting. Prior to that, we were using an Assembly model. Instead of delegates from each branch voting on how their branches instructed them to vote, any member of the union in good standing could attend and vote at an Assembly. In addition to the host branch have significantly more representation and non-North American Wobblies have virtually no representation, there was another undemocratic dynamic it created. Only members with enough privilege and income could afford to travel to Assembly. A barista or fast food worker had far more difficulty finding a way to get to Assembly to have their voice be counted than would a business union staffer or a college professor.
The structural reform proposal isn’t perfect by any means, but it is a step in the right direction. I encourage branches and members to support its spirit and work to come up with additions or changes to it. If the IWW is going to be collectively carrying out revolutionary, working class politics, the portions of our membership with the most revolutionary working class politics should be in the driver’s seat.