It’s All Relative: Building The Richmond GMB, Part 1 of 3

It’s All Relative:  Building The Richmond GMB, Part 1
By Kenneth Yates

This is an article written for the ‘Building Blocks’ column found in the September 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker. You can view a .pdf of the issue [ here ].  The ‘Building Blocks’ column asked different branches to write about the trials and tribulations of building a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World.  This is my perspective.

Industrial Worker News Paper

In January 2010 several community organizers reacted to a trend of notices appearing in the more destitute areas of Richmond, Va. These notices declared that public transportation access would be reduced or eliminated, and fares would be raised to make up for a shortfall in the operating budget of about $1.5 million. In a city where the vast majority of riders are dependent on public transportation in order to survive, this seemed a logical place to begin organizing. 

 In part one of this series on building the Richmond General Membership Branch (GMB), I would like to address, from my perspective, what led to our initial development and why it may be important for struggling or prospective IWW branches to choose an issue—if not shop- or industry- based organizing—that addresses working people’s concerns on a practical level and helps develop class consciousness.

I joined the IWW in August 2009 as an at-large member, online, while visiting a friend in Minneapolis. Why I didn’t just find a Twin Cities delegate and sign up through them, I don’t know. Shortly after joining, I received my red card, a General Organization Bulletin (GOB), and something about voting in some referendum thing. Regardless of my enthusiasm, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. As an at-large member, I felt a little disconnected, but I wore my pin proud, read the Industrial Worker and dove into the history of the union.  

I feel it’s important to point out that the labor movement in Virginia is virtually non-existent. Because of Virginia being a “right-to-work” state, union density is less than 4.6 percent and people believe this means that unions are either illegal in Virginia, or that you have to be grandfathered in. You can imagine how abstract and frightening the concept of organizing in the workplace must be to people who suddenly realize they have that right. 

Naturally, knowing we had a lot to learn, we decided to go with what we knew and took to the streets. After putting in some research, we realized that no one in the city was addressing the issues of public transportation—including the impending fare increase and route reductions. If people were addressing these issues, it wasn’t from the perspective of the community who was dependent on it. Rather, it took on more of an environmentalist, or “how can we get more white people to ride,” slant. We thought the transit-dependent communities required an organization all their own that wasn’t mired with alliances to nonprofit organizations, developers or business associations. 

Over the next few months, we took it upon ourselves and conducted a lot of independent research. We became intimate with the transit system—how it’s funded and structured, where it goes and doesn’t go, etc. We familiarized ourselves with transit riders unions in other cities like Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Loredo, Texas. We decided that a transit riders union was something Richmond needed, but questions still remained: How would it be organized? Who would organize it? How should it be structured?  

Those of us doing the research happened to also be interested in building the Richmond GMB. This would bring us to about three card-carrying members. We thought that that this would be a good first campaign to take up under the banner of the One Big Union. We took our research to a May Day workshop titled “Why Richmond needs the Industrial Workers of the World” in hopes of gauging people’s interest and recruiting more organizers. In this workshop, we gave a brief history of the union, dispelled the aforementioned myths that unions are illegal in Virginia, discussed the IWW’s organizational structure, and attempted to articulate why the IWW and revolutionary unionism is important to building a principled and effective anti-capitalist working-class movement and culture.

We knew that people would want to know what we were doing right now, so we made our case for the Richmond Transit Riders Union (RTRU), discussed the role of IWW members in the initial research and what our roles as organizers would be in building the organization. We emphasized the importance of approaching the issue of transportation justice from the perspective of class, and that by doing so we would inherently create dialog around relative issues. These include issues that are currently being addressed as unrelated single concerns: Unemployment, housing, racism, sexism, accessibility and immigration, among others. At the end of the workshop we encouraged people to join and announced what would become the first of many Richmond GMB meetings.  

From there, over the course of three weeks, a motley, but growing, crew of Wobblies took to the streets armed with clipboards and fliers announcing an interest meeting for the formation of the RTRU. We introduced ourselves as members of the IWW, and many of us being choice riders, made it clear that we wanted to help organize, not be decision-makers. We talked to people as they waited for their buses, collecting over 500 contacts. We then invited every single person to a presentation where we laid out all that we learned and made the case for a transit-dependent led organization. All the hard work resulted in over 30 riders attending, and the idea was enthusiastically received. The RTRU was born and thus our first campaign deemed a success.  

For many, if not all of us, the community approach was a natural first step to building a branch that would become a driving force in how people view the local and international labor movement. It’s difficult to be completely objective; however I think it’s safe to say that Richmond has become a more dynamic city in terms of class-based organizing since the IWW was established in town.  

Our involvement as the IWW continues with the RTRU as a partner organization, and we have gained several members from RTRU to the IWW directly due to our involvement.


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