Solidarity Network or Solidarity Service?: on the challenges of building a solidarity network

The following originally appears in September 2013 issue of the IWW newspaper, the Industrial Worker, with the title “Building a solidarity network is harder than it seems.” Written by WRC member R. Spourgitis, it is a review of the pamphlet Build Your Own Solidarity Network, by two Seattle Solidarity Network members, and is based on our experiences with this project in Iowa City. 

The Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol) is a “workers’ and tenants’ mutual support organization that fights for specific demands using collective direct action.” SeaSol has a dedication to direct action and emphasis on empowering workers and tenants, and they have a very high success rate. Given this, the “SeaSol Model” seems to embody an inspiring new mode of class struggle for the increasingly precarious—it is no wonder it has been exported all over the world and become a popular project for many, anarchists and other anti-capitalists in particular.

The 2011 pamphlet “Build Your Own Solidarity Network,” written by SeaSol members Cold B and T Barnicle details SeaSol’s strategy for taking on fights well (the pamphlet is online at http://libcom.org/library/you-say-you-want-build-solidarity-network).

In November 2010 a group of us in Iowa City, Iowa, began forming a solidarity network. Thinking strategically about what you can or cannot accomplish in a project, and the steps taken to get there, were not things I was used to when we started our own solidarity network. Building a solidarity network was part of an important shift in my politics. It meant going from issue-based activism and one-off campaigns or protests to direct action work on immediate economic demands at the point of exploitation. This work aligns with IWW practice. The descriptions of demand-delivery and section titled “Agitate – Educate – Organize” will be familiar to those who have been through the Organizer Training 101.

The guide has nuts-and-bolts information about group-based tasking and organization, which many of us spend years learning the hard way. Granted, only reading about it falls short of doing it, but the importance of these lessons should not be understated. Seemingly small items like encouraging group members to take on key tasks, following up with them, and running efficient, well-moderated meetings are necessary to a functioning organization of any sort, and it is refreshing to see this plainly laid out.

My experience building a solidarity network substantially differed from what was described by the SeaSol organizers in this pamphlet. There were difficulties we did not anticipate, and while we did not expect to adapt the model whole cloth to our area and be immediately successful, there were recurrent issues that hampered our ability to build fights from the network that the pamphlet does not address. I suspect that our experiences with this solidarity network model are not wholly unique and I hope that others will write more about their experiences with these types of projects so that we may refine our strategies and tactics. In Iowa City, we experienced tensions within the solidarity network model and these experiences are probably similar to others who have not had the successes with this model that Seattle has.

“People wanting to know how SeaSol got started often ask whether we had funding, whether we had an office, or whether we had extensive legal knowledge. We had none of these things, and we didn’t need them.”

It is a strength of the model that a solidarity network can begin with few existing resources. One thing the pamphlet stresses is that a key strategy to success is identifying what you can win, which is perhaps harder than it sounds and often requires a kind of resource. Specifically, it requires at least some legal knowledge of tenants’ and workers’ rights. In Iowa City, not having much familiarity with the specifics of our state and local law, particularly housing, quickly became a problem. We realized early that we needed to know if what people were contacting the solidarity network about could be built into a fight, and the law was a factor in this. Through online research we found relevant housing code and labor law to our area. We then produced a booklet that went into an on-call book of sorts, with a notepad for people’s information, and a list of area aid agencies.

The vast majority of our calls were housing related—around 90-95 percent of them. It became apparent that the tenants contacting us were usually not experiencing illegal actions on the part of their landlords, such as refusal to renew leases, hiking rents with lease renewals, giving bad referrals or threatening to call the police for minor infractions. In our area these are legal actions, even as they are terribly exploitative and oppressive for these tenants. As the SeaSol model is based on being winnable, this meant not taking on these cases. The emphasis on taking on “winnable fights” in effect translated to fighting against illegal actions and it was rare that this was blatantly the case.

“…the activists who started the project did not have to see ourselves as something separate from the group we wanted to organize. We were part of that group.”

The solidarity network model seeks to embody the principle of “solidarity not charity.” The fact that we work together as fellow tenants and workers to put pressure on those bosses and landlords screwing us over, instead of mediating through official channels, is a powerful thing. In practice, I found this is somewhat misleading about the realities of this work. Contrary to the principle underlying the model, we often fell into a distinctively service-led approach. None of the organizers’ workplaces or housing situations were built into fights, and so instead of fighting where we live and work, we ended up trying to assist others to fight where they live and work. We encouraged those who contacted us to become involved in the network, but this was never sustained beyond a meeting or two. One lesson here may be that when an individual meets with a network devoted to resolving their grievance—even if this network has a combative class-struggle approach—he or she is not unfairly expecting specialists of some kind. If the network explains that it does not specialize in this particular grievance, that does not change what the individual is expecting from that network.

This service role was exactly what most people who contacted us expected from us. It was notable that when we told contacts we want to follow their lead and described the demand delivery and escalating tactics approach, there was a sudden drop-off in interest. Although the authors of the SeaSol pamphlet say “people who have taken the initiative to contact us are more likely to be people who are prepared to play an active role in a campaign,” our experience was almost anything but this.

There were a handful of people we met with who had very clear, winnable-sounding fights. In these instances, the individual either handled it themselves or went through another channel to resolve their grievance. There were also those who contacted us and we waited too long to respond. Sometimes, we followed up with them immediately and never heard back. Given the immediacy of their need and seriousness of the living situation, it was understandable that we were not always equipped to help, even in a charitable, service-led capacity.

It should be pointed out that we were aware of these problems at the time. We worked on improving our response time. We did some of the things suggested in the guide, such as changing the wording on our flyers and flyering more consistently. Since we seemed to get many people in tough situations but which we couldn’t help, we changed them from saying “Problems with your landlord?” to “Stolen deposits or unmade repairs?” This did not have an appreciable difference in the type or volume of calls we would receive.

Being that so many of the contacts were renting units in apartment complexes, something we discussed was the need to build collective action with committees of tenants from the apartments—much like described in the “Inside Organizing” section at the end of the guide. Unfortunately, we never connected with a single tenant willing or able to build such a committee, let alone a group of them. This is not to say those tenants are not out there, but they did not contact us.

Our area is like many places in the United States, there are no tenants’ unions or associations. There is a Housing Authority directly complicit with the police and the major property management companies, and a handful of neighborhood associations devoted to immediate need programming and state social workers. As a result, there is little to no recourse for the injustices dealt to tenants. I have to wonder if such a lack of social services and mediation, as disempowering and meager as they are, differs from other places and led us to be expected as another service.

Additionally, our immediate region is undergoing big changes in its racial composition. As gentrifying efforts have stepped up in major metro areas, recent years have seen an increase in Black and Latino residents in Iowa City (67 percent and 97 percent increases respectively between 2000-2010). There is a more complicated picture behind these demographic shifts and their causes and effects than I can do justice to in this brief review. Still, it is clear that for many new residents to the area that the structural racism of local power is felt from the police, schools, city services, and, of course, in housing.

I illustrate this local context because nearly all of the few contacts we met with were Black women. Conversely, our solidarity network was made up of a majority male, entirely white grouping. This is not intended to lament our group’s dynamics or to advocate retreating into inaction based on white guilt, but it would be dishonest to omit such marked differences of race and gender between solidarity network members and our contacts. This fact comes to mind when the authors suggest door-knocking and more heavily flyering apartment complexes with known problem landlords. At times we did flyer specific areas, but taking that recommendation to its fullest extent in my opinion would have amounted to some of the worst kind of white radical paternalism. While efforts were made to include the women we met with in our organizing, these could have been stronger. However, an individual or two does not represent a community, and the divide of white radical activists and a majority people of color service community remain as a fact of this organizing experience.

The Iowa City Solidarity Network operated for a little more than a year. In that time, we learned about our area and the reality of engaging local struggles to a depth unappreciated before. Occupy Iowa City emerged in late 2011 and our efforts shifted to that project. Given the frustrating and lackluster experience of the solidarity network, it was something we decided to close in December of that year.

Reflecting on this model, I think there are aspects indicating more individualized service work than is appreciated, as the single individual with a legally legitimate grievance calls in for support and the solidarity network organizers act as specialists in struggle. There is more at work here than the SeaSol model, though. There are bigger issues with the project which span the anti-capitalist left: organizers lacking real connections to working-class communities—not forced or imaginary ones—the lack of a recent shared history of collectively fighting back, and the lack of a material support system for those willing to take risks in their jobs or living situations, to name a few.

The SeaSol model may be useful in other places. IWW people considering a solidarity network may want to find out what services already exist for tenants and workers in their area to determine if they are prepared to handle people in crisis mode looking to them for service and if they are equipped to mobilize a number of people for a public showing of solidarity. Additional questions or criteria are probably needed for an IWW branch to consider it, such as if fights will come from their own membership or outside and if the latter how to handle people new to the IWW coming in for their workplace or housing grievance.

At this stage of class struggle, different approaches in different places are worth trying and a solidarity network might be a useful one indeed.

Fighting fascism and austerity in Greece

On Wednesday, April 10, Wild Rose Collective co-hosted an event in Iowa City, Iowa with Pavlos speaking as part of a continental speaking tour about resistance in Greece to both fascism and austerity measures. This event was well attended by about 30 people, and raised over $300 to send to Greek social movement activity.

Pavlos spoke on many important issues and movement work in Greece. This also included a very relevant accounting of the 20th century history of occupation, dictatorship and repression in that country. We heard how these experiences have informed the Greek people’s attitudes toward the police and government, and what resistance looks like and is thought of there. He talked about how the police are remembered as collaborators with occupiers, and on the side of the dictatorship and against the people. Continue reading

May Day – Remembering the past, fighting for tomorrow

Mayday Joint Statement Web Banner

A short history of May Day

The first of May is a moment for us to remember the Chicago Haymarket Martyrs of 127 years ago. These Chicago anarchists helped to lead the major battle of the day, not only for the 8 Hour Day, but also for social liberation.

The origins of May Day go back to May 4, 1886, marking the Haymarket Massacre. This memorable day began as a rally of striking workers who were demanding an eight-hour work day, climaxing with a bomb produced by an unknown individual while the police dispersed the peaceful rally. The blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; scores of others were wounded.

Eight anarchists were convicted of conspiracy during the legal proceedings that followed. Although the evidence was scarce, and it could not be proven that any of the eight defendants had thrown the explosive projectile, seven were sentenced to death and one to 15 years in prison. The death sentences of two of the defendants were commuted to life in prison, and another committed suicide before his hanging. The other four were hanged on November 11, 1887. In 1893, Illinois’ new governor pardoned the remaining defendants and criticized the evidence that was used during trial.

Since this day, we honor those who have fought, sacrificed and died for the defense and advancement of the working class.

Present conditions

Since the events of Haymarket, we have wrestled much from the capitalist class and the state through struggle. During the past 30 years, these forces have attacked our small, yet hard-fought-for gains. Continued attacks on working conditions, increasingly precarious and low wage work, deindustrialization, and marginalization have become the new normal. Governments have imposed round after round of social austerity measures, where workers and families have been expected to swallow cuts to public funding of services so that the richest can continue to profit from the fruits of our labor.

Today’s struggles/Tomorrow’s struggles

Despite this grim situation, today we have much to celebrate and look forward to. Over the last year, we have seen in Québec the biggest social movements in Canadian history spearheaded by combative unions to fight against neoliberal cuts to education and for quality free education. The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike and joined with parents and community members to protect their bargaining rights and working conditions and fight school closures. Workers from various fast food chains, warehouses, car washes and superstores, which have historically been near impossible to organize into business unions, have been participating in strike actions and various direct action in the demand for better working conditions. Unionized longshore workers have been fighting to hold the line on additional concessions to the bosses in one of the last bastions of union density and shopfloor power. While we celebrate these efforts and whatever small victories gained thus far, working class victory can only come from struggles owned and controlled by the workers themselves, not from above but from below and built with their own self-activities.

These developments within the broader labor movement are a welcome sight in comparison to what is seen by some as a decade of relative inactivity. We see it as important that the workers and community partners involved in these campaigns recognize that they are confronting head-on the relationship between the ruling and working classes, and that successfully challenging this relationship will require more than one-day strikes and solidarity rallies. It will require nothing less than workers forcefully overcoming barriers of race, migration status, gender, sexuality, and gender identity to unite as one class, bound by continuous solidarity, and always pushing forward through escalations of action.

The need for a new workers’ movement

We hope this new, combative spirit by some workers invigorates a new and militant workers’ movement in North America—a workers’ movement that will no longer wait for politicians and bureaucrats to resolve the growing inequalities and oppressions. This spirit might bring a new wave of workers to replace the stale unionism with more democratic, combative and autonomous labor organizations which realize that laws and political institutions are put in place for the defense of the ruling class, and that only our own labor organizations, autonomous from the political institutions, can bring about the effective fighting force needed to replace the current, and build a new world.

This new workers’ movement should be allied with supportive movements, such as those against cuts to social services and education, and those movements against all forms of oppression and inequality. We see the interconnectedness of various forms of oppression as we wage these struggles, along with the fights against the expansion of and brutality of police forces and prisons, the criminalization of the poor and undocumented, and the continued attacks on reproductive freedoms. As these and many other forms of oppression work in conjunction with class exploitation, we must build movements which see common interest in these struggles and which actively and mutually oppose the assaults on one another.

A new world to build

By engaging in these struggles, we gain necessary experience, initiate needed debates, and confront the current austerity agenda of the elite outside of current labor laws. Through struggle, we lay the possible foundations of a future world. Through struggle, we can as a class start to imagine and organize for a classless society and one completely emancipated from all forms of oppression. This May Day, just like every other, is a call for workers to organize against the everyday exploitation of capitalism. In the spirit of those who fought for the eight hour day, let us continue the fight for the advancement of our class.

We need to look toward building a society without power, profit, and privilege, in which working people in workplaces and communities make the decisions about how our work is done and what we want from it. We need a movement that fights for real gains within the context of this society while using its own organizations as the basis for a new one.

In Struggle & Solidarity,

Prairie Struggle Organization
Wild Rose Collective
Four Star Anarchist Organization
Common Struggle/Lucha Común
Workers Solidarity Alliance
Free Association of Anarchists
Miami Autonomy & Solidarity

Solidarity with the striking workers of Sisters’ Camelot

SCCUIWW

Wild Rose Collective of eastern Iowa joins others in declaring our solidarity with the striking canvass workers of Sisters’ Camelot in Minneapolis. As many of us have been workers in non-profit organizations, we know well that wage labor under some other name than profit enterprise is wage labor nonetheless. Further, the socially positive mission and work of an organization does not exempt it from its need to also treat its workers with respect and provide decent wages and working conditions.

We reject the attempts by Sisters’ Camelot managing collective, and others, to attack these workers’ efforts by firing a workplace organizer, reducing grievances and demands to petty personal grudges, declaring that said workers have “independent contractor” status, and citing the non-profit status of the organization and collective nature of the management to discredit the demands of the canvass workers who have chosen to organize with the IWW. These are well known tactics used to break workplace organizing efforts, and we reject them as fully and completely as if they came from the largest multi-national corporation, or their union-busting lawyers.

We admire the resolve of the workers who have chosen to go on strike rather than negotiate with the managing collective who has fired their fellow worker. We call on Sisters’ Camelot to reinstate this worker and respect the collective demands of their canvass workers through mutual negotiations.

Solidarity with the canvass workers of Sisters’ Camelot!
Solidarity with all workers striving for a better life!

Wild Rose Collective

A View from the Plains: on organizing in smaller areas of the Midwest

What would it look like to develop strategies in apolitical areas and smaller areas far from more active and developed places of leftist activity? This is obviously an open-ended question with many implications and courses of action. Since our experiences in Occupy here in Iowa, this question has increasingly become, for me, an important one for revolutionary left organizing in areas like ours. Exploring these questions may help others in similar areas, in the Midwest or elsewhere, or even in big cities of the coasts.

People go where their needs can be satisfied, or they hope to anyway, where there are jobs and culture. Many of the most committed organizers find their needs and interests taking them to the major metropolitan areas. This is understandable because the ability to find politically like-minded people, and to act in accordance with those politics, seems much easier in a place with hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. A recent piece here talks about the ongoing tendency of radicals to move out of places like the Midwest for hotbeds like the Bay Area, a sentiment which I sympathize with if the projects described less so.

Still a number of people either remain in the places they are from or close to them, or in places similar to them, or perhaps move from larger areas or other regions. This may be because of family situations, fear or anxiety of new places, economic prospects, personal preference or any number of factors. There is also a tendency for people from even smaller, rural areas to move to more middle-sized places near to them, in a somewhat similar desire for jobs and culture lacking in the areas from which they come.[1]

Continue reading

Against Fascism, Against Racism

Wild Rose Collective endorses the July 31 Day of Action against Fascism and Racism. The recent membership leak of the neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Movement and other similar leaks demonstrate that across the country fascists are living in our neighborhoods.

Here in Iowa City, like many other places across the world, we too have seen murmurings of white supremacist activity. First was a Ku Klux Klan flyer in a nearby town and more recently the infamous Holocaust denier, neo-Nazi sympathizer and revisionist historian David Irving visited the Iowa City area to give a lecture and meet with local white supremacists. With others, we helped to organize a protest to disrupt his lecture and to make it known that Nazis were not welcome in our town. We had a strong anti-fascist turn out, and made it clear to Irvring’s camp, the hotel (Baymont Inn, both locally and nationally), and to local passersby that we would not tolerate this despicable message in our community. We must actively oppose fascists and racists at every turn, and halt their efforts to spread their ideology of white supremacy and hateful violence in our communities.

We also stand in support of the Tinley Park 5 and are donating $50 to their legal defense fund. We hope Cody, Dylan and Jason Sutherlin, Alex Stuck and John Tucker are soon freed from Cook County Jail and reunited with their families and friends. For more information on their status, see http://tinleyparkfive.wordpress.org.  We encourage others to also donate money or literature to the Tinley Park 5 if able to do so.

Solidarity to the students of Quebec!

WRC operates in the moderately sized Iowa City, home to the state’s largest university — the University of Iowa. Like many university towns the student population, perhaps the most present in Iowa City, remain relatively silent as political actors. Either unaware of or apathetic to their power to resist the privatization of the University and the laundry list of issues that comes along with that neoliberalization: the perpetually escalating tuition and fees, the bankruptcy of education as a training ground for workers in the capitalist system, and as a little salt in the wound we get to pay for the privilege with an initiation into finance capitalism acquiring a pile of debt to go with our shared not-so-hopeful future. Of course with this slew of problems UI is in company with universities across the country and world, making increasingly obvious the reality that the ‘university in ruins’ is only a symptom of a larger trend of neoliberalization that seeps into every aspect of our contemporary social and political realities. It is from this view that we must recognize the University as a site of struggle. Continue reading