By John O'Reilly
In my last column I discussed how to respond to bad ideas. Sometimes organizers behave like jerks towards members with bad ideas, which as we discussed last time, is counterproductive. Just as often or more so people hesitate and look the other way in response to bad ideas. This response is a mistake because it misses the importance of what I call Average Wobbly Time.
Every Wobbly decides somewhere along the line to commit to the IWW. Often members make that decision on many different occasions at different levels of commitment. For many of us it started with an organizer inviting us to a one-on-one, before we even knew anything about the IWW. Making a commitment to follow through and sit down with the organizer is the beginning of a long process of making more commitments to the organization: taking out a union card, attending meetings, taking on responsibilities in our campaign and branch, spending hours and hours completing the tasks that those responsibilities entail, talking with other workers and encouraging them to get more committed, etc. These tasks come from our commitment and build our commitment to the IWW. It’s this intense attachment to the union, its members, and its ideas that makes IWW members so remarkable and so exciting to be around.
At some point, we become committed to such a degree that we regularly put big amounts of time into the IWW on a regular basis. Early on, that may be one hour every two weeks, meaning the time that we have a one-on-one with an organizer or go to an organizing committee meeting. Over time, that amount of time fluctuates, hopefully upwards. But as long as we are being pushed by our fellow members and are pushing ourselves to move the work of the union forward, we tend to have an average number of hours that we spend on the union every week. At some point, and its hard to tell exactly when, many members absorb the union into their lives and it becomes a given that they will allocate a certain amount of time each month or week or day to thinking about and doing work for the union. We may not realize it explicitly, but if we stop and really think about it, each of us has a certain average that we tend towards. That average may go up when we get really excited about a struggle or project and may go down when we’re feeling burned out, but as long as we’re committed to the union, there is some kind of average. That’s Average Wobbly Time.
Sometimes there are members who committed to the union and want to put time in but are unable to find projects to fill that time. To put it another way, what happens when a passionate, committed Wobbly wants to do work for the union but has no good ideas about what to do? In some cases, it means that the member in question seeks out their fellow workers and asks them for suggestions on how to participate more. Sometimes it means that the member gets less excited about the union and allocates less time to it. Sometimes the result is that the member in question starts spending a chunk of the hours of their Average Wobbly Time pursuing bad ideas.
So how do we deal with this dilemma? Committed members are going to spend a certain amount of time on the union every week and if no one gives them good ideas, they may go off and pursue bad ones. Our task is to provide leadership. It may be as simple as suggesting good ideas to someone who is hungry for more. “Fellow Worker, I notice that you have a lot of energy and have been coming to all these meetings recently. Some of us have been talking about starting a new organizing campaign, would you like to sit down and talk about that?” By directing someone’s attention towards a task that’s clearly focused on organizing, we can simultaneously fulfill that member’s desire to spend more hours on the union and build up the forces dedicated to an organizing goal. By building a culture of good, organizing-directed tasks, we provide leadership and make it easy for excited members to plug into them.
As I said above, other Wobblies often look the other way when some of our fellow workers pursue bad ideas. Often, experienced wobbly organizers do not want to crowd newer, inexperienced but excited members by telling them how to spend their time. Part of why people look the other way is because it’s intimidating to be honest with people. As a result, Wobblies often stand by and watch other people go off in a direction that does not make any sense and is from the outset doomed to fail. Telling someone that their energy is being misspent is difficult, but ignoring the conversation disrespects our fellow workers, because true respect means being honest with them about their ideas and not just standing by while they pursue what we think is an obvious failure. Hesitation to step in means that sometimes individuals or groups spend hours and hours working on a project when they clearly had other options that were much more useful, a result that we should seek to avoid.
At the heart of this question is a call for organizers to be aware that if they are not active in providing perspectives and building relationships with members then they will allow conditions to pop up where time and resources are wasted on bad projects that could easily be avoided and redirected towards useful ones. If we push for what we think are good ideas and are honest about bad ideas, we treat our fellow workers with respect, we get people to work on better projects, and we prevent wasting time and other resources. It’s intimidating to be honest, but it’s the right thing to do. We need to do what’s right, not simply what’s easy or comfortable. Understanding how Average Wobbly Time works is one small part of this larger struggle towards an organizing-based culture that fosters truly democratic and revolutionary unionism, one that respects each member by being truthful and supportive.