Losing the Beer Belly
A General Membership Branch’s journey from old boys’ club to productive union organizing
About 5 years ago, not long after I joined the IWW, someone posted a question in one of the plethoras of unofficial IWW Facebook groups – something to the effect of “what problems does your GMB have?” A member of our branch replied, saying that we were all male. While this was not completely true, it was close enough to true that an active member of our branch had made the mistake in good faith. Discussion ensued, but few surefire solutions were suggested. One member from another branch chimed in to say, “It’s hard to lose the beer belly once you’ve gotten it.” Give or take four years later, I was sitting in a branch meeting and I was the only white man, and one of only two men total, present. The meeting hadn’t needed me for quorum either. A few months later, our branch held elections, electing five different women to officer roles out of eleven people total, including both our Branch Secretary-Treasurer and assistant BST. Having made this progress, it’s worth reflecting on what worked and what didn’t.
What we Tried
For the unfamiliar, the IWW coordinates much of its activity through General Membership Branches – branches that gather together various workers in a geographic area to meet and plan workplace organizing. At the time, our branch was nearly all male, with several women leaving and citing sexism as a reason. Understanding that the working class is not 95 percent male, and that sexism is bad on principle, we decided to take action to stop this from continuing. Our branch in short order created an Equity Caucus, which then transformed to an Equity Committee, and decided to adopt a progressive stack, by which people from further marginalized backgrounds would be prioritized in speaking order.
Unfortunately, it’s easier to decide to take action than to actually take it. The trajectory of the Equity Caucus is illuminating in this regard. The caucus was created at a branch meeting in late 2017 as a committee of workers who were marginalized in some way besides being working-class – women workers, non-binary workers, non-white workers, queer workers, disabled workers, and so on. The worker who pushed for its creation left the branch soon after, and the remainder of the branch lacked sufficient interested workers who actually felt qualified for membership in the caucus. It continued to exist only as an agenda item, during which we dutifully noted that the caucus had no chair at every meeting. Eventually, we voted to dissolve the caucus and create the Equity Committee instead, dropping the requirement that members be further marginalized, and allowing the committee to actually meet. The committee came up with some suggestions, including a “complaints line” where members could submit an anonymous complaint if they felt that they had experienced sexism. This marked the accomplishments of the Equity Committee’s first and only meeting.
The complaint line was never used, so far as I know. The progressive stack, while it remains branch policy, rarely comes up, and the most praise I have ever heard for it is that, by explicitly acknowledging the existence of transgender people, workers who are trans know that the branch has affirmed their existence. When I reached out to some women in our branch for this article, one told me that she didn’t feel like we followed it, it felt demeaning, and that we should abolish it.
What Actually Worked
So if all our attempts to address sexism failed, how did our branch end up where it is today, with women constituting roughly half our officer roles, including the most prominent ones? The first thing to understand is that sexism was far from our only problem.
Around the time that the creator of our branch Equity Caucus left the branch, our membership was collapsing, our branch regularly failed to have quorum for our monthly meetings, and most committees met rarely, if ever. Sexism might have been the most charged problem our branch was facing, but it was probably not the most fundamental. In early 2018, six workers in a workplace reached out to us about organizing their workplace. All six had signed Red Cards and paid dues, but we had no local support structure to plug them into or even people whose job it was to meet with them. As it happens, all six of these workers were women, and, if they had remained members, they would have constituted 25 percent of our branch. If our branch had been able to provide support to these eager workers, our demographic problems would have suddenly looked a lot smaller.
Although that shop got away from us, we did ultimately build a structure that allowed us to support incoming organizing leads, building off the experience of one member in our branch’s own workplace organizing, the IWW’s Organizer Training Program, and connections to other branches. Now, when workers reach out to our branch about building a union in their workplace, we have a team of organizers who have seen real campaigns, real shop-floor actions, and are able to help them begin. When workers join the union without the intention of shop-floor organizing, we can connect them to real organizing or supporting activities that our union is doing. We can mentor members to become external organizers and take on officer roles. This is how women became officers in our branch – by doing the work that they presumably signed a union card to do. One woman told me that after losing her job, the fact that there was a position she could run for on the branch’s organizing committee was what kept her in the union. It is perhaps not surprising that “join the union, and make us less sexist” is perhaps a less inspiring sales pitch than “join the union, organize your co-workers, and take power on the shop floor.”
This is not to say that we should completely ignore issues of sexism. While a lack of sexism will not readily lead to women and non-binary people joining an organization, sexism can still be a reason that workers leave. Rather, we should understand that sexism connects to other problems. Women and non-binary people will not become organizers if they do not develop their ability to organize, and women and non-binary people will not develop their ability to organize if no one is developing their ability to organize. They will not develop their ability to organize if the existing organizers are all men who identify people to mentor based on a feeling of who they’d most like to hang out and have a beer with. Creating broad opportunities for members who are interested, recognizing when members are showing up but need a little push to take the next step of getting involved, and having defined ways to mentor people all produce more equitable results. In general, the more defined the path from new member to active union organizer, the easier it is for the path to be traveled equitably, and the more we help new members to overcome obstacles, the more obstacles, including sexism, will be overcome.
If I had one takeaway for people interested in fighting sexism it would be, “Mentor women and non-binary people to do the union work they signed up for. Don’t ask them to fight sexism.”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to represent that of the IWW or Industrial Worker as a whole.
Click here to read more about the IWW’s External Organizer Shadowing Program and how to build up your branch’s organizing capacity.