The 2019 Southern Regional Organizing Assembly

It takes thirteen hours to drive from Tampa to Richmond. It’s not until we were approaching Gainesville that I remembered I get claustrophobic and panicky during car rides. We still had eleven hours to go.

Between the occasional break for restrooms, gas, and snacks, we listened to music and podcasts and sometimes put the audio on pause to talk about whatever four Wobblies in the South decide is interesting — the disgusting symbols of slavery or the high quality of the Revolutions podcast, for example. And I learned something important on that drive: if you want to put a carload of people to sleep, just play a podcast about Marxist political economy.

We arrived in Richmond at about 10:30pm and slid out of the car like four Vienna sausages: tired and soft and gross. Luckily, there was a large crew of people waiting to greet us in the lobby so our weekend started the moment we walked through the front door.

The first thing you should know about the Southern Regional Organizing Assembly is that we did the entire thing in a large hostel. It was a compound, really. All of our sleeping, eating, socializing, and meeting needs were met in one confined but well-furnished space. We probably should’ve been given matching jumpsuits but the Southern Coordinating Committee — the voluntary IWW organization that put this event on —  just doesn’t have that kind of budget.

From what we saw of it, Richmond is a gorgeous city, and the Richmond General Membership Branch was equally beautiful — a super-positive, outgoing bunch of Wobblies who were highly coordinated and on top of every detail. Jumpsuits aside, there wasn’t anything we wanted that the GMB didn’t provide. Someone was always staffing the registration/lit table, the food was awesome, and the space was great. The Richmond Wobblies can’t get enough praise for being fantastic hosts.

Much of the weekend was spent talking about how to organize ourselves. The presentations were largely interrelated and about how we can make our spaces safer, more accountable, and open to diverse opinions. Just like in real life, we had to get those pieces in place first before we could talk about organizing the working class.

Press Officer Liss Waters Hyde and I gave the first presentation Saturday morning, though it became less of a presentation and more of an informal chat about union communication strategies. Our goal was to establish the three most important things to know about the IWW and how we get that message out there. The discussion naturally featured a lot of general media tips like how to best utilize the various social media platforms, the strengths and weaknesses of each platform, when and how to write a press release, and how to encourage media coverage of our events.

This led into the next presentation where a journalist/organizer talked to us about the new Freelance Journalists Union. We watched an excellent video about the FJU and talked about the nature of forming a union across a wide geographical range among workers who don’t share a physical workspace. If you’re interested in learning more about the FJU, check out the interview with FJU organizers, published by IW.

Lunchtime, and the four Vienna sausages (one of whom insists on noting that he is soy-based) found ourselves walking up to our room at the same moment, with the same intention: sleep.

After this wonderful bit of respite, we ventured out, finished the remnants from lunch, and sat for Accountability and Survivor Support, our next discussion. The presenter told us this is typically done over a much longer time period than the two hours allotted, which makes a lot of sense considering the amount of information to unpack and digest. Support and accountability are vital issues to discuss and every branch should hold a training on the subject because the reality of the world we live in is that many men commit gendered harm or sexual violence.

After a break, the last presentation of the day was on the Sex Workers Solidarity Network of Hamilton, Ontario, which included general information about sex work, its legal struggles, and its revolutionary potential. It’s a tough subject as it’s upsetting to hear stories of violence against sex workers, but a necessary one to address and it definitely galvanized the audience into thinking about how we can help sex workers and build our own solidarity networks.

With the day officially over, the mood following these last few presentations was pretty down, so it was a great relief when someone suggested we take the fifteen-minute walk down to the James River. This trip was by far the highlight of my weekend, an all-around beautiful experience. I know most IWW events result in everyone retiring to the nearest bar but I think from now on we should hold all post-event parties in the nearest swimmable location. For team building, of course. Though after that some of us still went to a bar.

This lovely pig overlooked our dining hall. Credit: @DabdullahOcalan

The next morning I successfully convinced myself I wasn’t hungover and we proceeded to try to cram all of the official SCC business into an hour. We ended up going forty minutes over but passed extensive bylaws revisions and I was elected Secretary-Treasurer (yay!). The bylaws revisions are a bit complicated, of course — not to mention boring — but we basically streamlined the decision-making body, creating a steering committee of delegates from GMBs and GDC/IWOC Locals and eliminated most officer positions, replacing them with chairs of committees who are allowed voice but not vote in official business. This will improve our ability to achieve quorum, makes the decision-making more representative, and frees committees to spend more time on their specific tasks rather than deliberating motions that might not apply to them. We also established a mechanism to declare vacancy of office and the election of new delegates or the appointment of a new Secretary-Treasurer. Lastly, we opened up the opportunity to make bylaws amendments outside our biennial gatherings, eliminating the two-year wait to make changes under the previous bylaws.

The last two presentations were on toxic masculinity and navigating conflict, subjects that seemed to complement each other naturally. These were detailed presentations, making them difficult to summarize, but the toxic masculinity talk first detailed what toxic masculinity is — how manhood is understood and communicated between men, and is typically defined by violence, sex, status, aggression, and socially-enforced stereotypes inflicted from birth. This was followed up with how to recognize toxic behavior among cis-men and how to prevent and confront it. These tactics include active inclusion, using progressive stack, the WAIT method (Why Am I Talking?), and the need to respect and center survivors. If your branch or local has the chance to take this training, do it now. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sam from the Richmond branch, a doctoral candidate in social psychology, followed this talk with a presentation on navigating conflict in the union. Like most of the presentations, this one is best experienced in-person, since it details complex subjects that aren’t easy to summarize. Sam explained that conflicts aren’t something innate to the IWW and that we can mitigate these conflicts by outlining short-term goals we all share, understanding our own cognitive biases, avoiding text-based platforms (where possible), not using absolutes like “always” or “never”, and knowing when to take a step back and not respond to someone right away.

Finally, we broke out into our Industrial Union groups and spent the rest of the day plotting against the bosses. I can’t speak for the other groups, but the education workers did some very thorough and detailed plotting. We developed a solid plan for how to begin organizing ourselves and our workplaces. I left feeling confident about organizing where I work and how to get specific demands from my bosses.

And that was the weekend. The observing delegation from the NYC GMB invited us to another swimming after-event — this time at a pool — but my fellow weiners out-voted me and so the Tampa Bay group began our thirteen-hour overnight hell-ride back to swampsville.

(Note to my Fellow Workers: I will always be mad about missing a pool party and I plan to hold on to this aquatic grudge forever. Some conflicts just can’t be navigated. )

— Alec Shurtz