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From Green to Red: How I Became a Wobbly by shugE Mississippi

IWW pin and card

In 2001 I was beginning to understand and come to terms with being an anarchist. After most of a decade as a pretty mainstream liberal election-oriented activist, I had in spurts become radicalized. Doing support work for various radical environmental campaigns and being more directly involved in the 1997-98 campaign to blockade the reroute of Highway 55 in Minneapolis steered me away from electoral politics and organizing based on manipulating centralized forms of power. I’d seen the corruption and manipulation required to be successful in electoral politics, even in the most genuinely intentioned leftist camps. I had also seen more radical campaigns where successes were won through direct action rather than money, and manipulation of political systems. I was on the cusp of abandoning my blossoming political career and proudly coming out as an anarchist shortly after I started working at Sisters’ Camelot in 2001.

I first met many of the core people who would build Sisters’ Camelot through it’s infancy at the Minnehaha Free State, a coalition effort blockading the Highway 55 reroute in 1997 and 1998. Over the next few years, Sisters’ Camelot built quite a positive reputation amongst anarchists and other radicals in the Twin Cities, gaining much of its street cred when their office/home was raided by the federal government and police during the International Society for Animal Genetics conference in July of 2000.

Sisters’ Camelot was founded as a Minnesota-based nonprofit corporation in 1997 by self-proclaimed anarchist and ex-social worker Jeff Borowiak. Its main function was to pick up bulk surplus organic food several times a week from local distribution warehouses and give the food away freely and randomly on busy Twin Cities street corners out of a colorful painted bus. As the organization grew, its operations expanded– building two consecutive commercial-grade kitchen-buses, and developing a garden plot in South Minneapolis. Sisters’ Camelot was giving away bulk surplus produce on street corners, cooking hot meals at community events, and growing food in their garden. All of this was made possible by the work of a canvass operation consisting of door-to-door fundraisers, who raised the money that paid for all of Sisters’ Camelot’s operations (from gasoline, to insurance, to salaries). By the end of 2012, Sisters’ Camelot had a warehouse space, three buses, a fifteen passenger canvass van, and an annual budget of over $270,000, all stemming from money raised by the canvass workers.

When Sisters’ Camelot was first formed, the board of directors consisted of hand-picked friends of Jeff Borowiak. Beyond giving full power to Borowiak to run Sisters’ Camelot as he saw fit, the original board had little involvement in Sisters’ Camelot’s operations. This hierarchical power structure led to the first worker struggle at Camelot when canvassers became increasingly disgruntled over Borowiak’s decisions. He paid himself a salary, paid a friend a salary as the chef of the first kitchen bus (which was not yet completed), and decided who got salaries to direct foodshare operations and the canvass. It was later discovered that Borowiak had become negligent in responding to mail from the Minnesota Attorney General’s office regarding important annual filings.

The canvass workers first organized against abuses of power at Sisters’ Camelot in 2001 at one of the weekly meetings. The canvassers organized themselves and elected two representatives, Rob “Tumbleweed” Czernik and myself, to present their demands to Jeff Borowiak. At this meeting, the canvass threatened to strike unless Borowiak gave up his power of Executive Director and allowed all workers at Sisters’ Camelot to create a democratic collective structure by which all workers within the organization could have equal voting rights in running the organization.

After several meetings regarding the workers’ grievances, Jeff Borowiak decided to avoid a strike and gave his power of Executive Director over to a newly elected board of directors. This board was empowered to create the collective democratic structure. In 2002 the new collective was formed to run the organization, giving anyone who worked for Sisters’ Camelot the option of being founding members of the collective which would operate by a consensus process. There were two of the founding collective members, Eric Gooden and myself, who would be workers at Sisters’ Camelot in 2013 the next time the canvass workers would organize and threaten a strike.

In November, 2009 I resigned my position as Canvass Director at a Sisters’ Camelot collective and left the organization until spring of 2011. I quit because I felt the collective was micromanaging the canvass operation in ways in which would require me to enforce bad policies that I could not in good conscience enforce. While I was working elsewhere I resumed regular meetings with the later Canvass Directors (Will Dixon & Hardy Coleman) to help them with targeting of their monthly turf grid cycle and maps. Those canvass directors tried many times to openly and publicly recruit me to return to working as a canvasser at Sisters’ Camelot, which I finally did in the spring of 2011.

By 2012, the collective process at Sisters’ Camelot had changed significantly from when it was first created in 2002. Not long after the collective was created, guaranteed voting rights were closed to workers within the organization and a process was created where any member of the collective had the right to deny any new workers who wanted to join the collective. This created a dynamic where each year there was a collective of bosses at Sisters’ Camelot that was less representative and included fewer of the rest of the organization’s workers than each previous year. By the end of 2012, several workers at Sisters’ Camelot had been denied their requests to join the collective and it had become common practice for the collective to hire, discipline, and even fire workers without democratic input from a majority of the workers within the organization.

By the time the union organizing began in 2012, all members of the managing collective had given themselves program positions with salaries, and had created a policy that only collective members were allowed to hold these salaried positions. During the years where these salaried jobs were created, the fundraising canvassers had their bonus structure slashed and vacation pay taken away from them. The canvassers were given a 2% raise to attempt to appease complaints, but the raise came nowhere near to making up for the loss of pay that reducing performance bonuses and removing vacation pay caused. Before this pay cut, the canvass workers at Sisters’ Camelot (who raised over 95% percent of Camelot’s budget) were already the lowest paid canvass workers in a local industry of about a dozen professional canvass operations. It was common for Sisters’ Camelot canvassers to openly talk about accepting such low pay so that they could work for the only canvass organization whose mission didn’t compromise their anarchist or similar radical leftist political convictions.

There was no base wage, only commission on money raised. This meant that people who were attracted to working for Sisters’ Camelot because of its radical counterculture image were convinced to sacrifice basic workers’ rights for what was considered a politically radical and righteous job. It was a job where a bad day of fundraising would often mean making well below minimum wage and sometimes even zero pay for a day of work. The canvass workers at Sisters’ Camelot were horribly exploited, but the politically radical work environment (lacking class analysis) created a mentality where many people convinced themselves that they were political martyrs rather than exploited workers.

This environment allowed the bosses to feel like they were radical political leaders working to build a better world in a way that justified years of stripping more and more dignity away from the workers who made the organization’s growth and the bosses’ salaries possible. This became a slippery slope where the bosses protected their own power at the expense of the workers more and more each year until it was inevitable that the workers would eventually reach a breaking point and fight back.

The bosses’ greed for power and bullshit radical political status got to the point where by the time we organized our union of workers, they were blind to how wrong their exploitation of the workers was. They actually thought that they were justified in treating workers like shit in order to be respected and admired in a small and local radical political cult. I also believe that they actually thought they were morally justified in the union-busting campaign they were soon to wage against a union of workers standing up for basic rights.

In the latter half of 2012, several collective members recruited their house-mate Aaron “Muskrat” Baark to join the collective and almost immediately promoted him to the salaried position of Canvass Director. This was done without democratic input from the canvassers, many of whom had years of experience. Aaron, on the other hand, had only a few months canvassing experience and was one of the worst performing and laziest canvassers at Camelot. This was a blatant example of the bosses putting a puppet friend in charge of the canvass instead of allowing the workers with knowledge and experience to have any control over their own working conditions. This hurt morale, as Muskrat was an incompetent Director who collected a salary while the experienced crew struggled to maintain a functional canvass operation despite their boss. This sucked. At this point the workers were close to revolt. There was much talk amongst workers about how unfair the situation was, but it still wasn’t quite bad enough for people to risk their jobs to fight for changes.

In the first week of December, 2012 the collective decided to take away the field manager positions held by canvassers Will Dixon, Jimmy Jansen, and John Snortum. This decision took the management of day-to-day canvass operations out of the hands of three workers who collectively had over a decade of experience, and gave most of this responsibility over the canvassers’ working conditions to Muskrat. The night after this decision was made, collective member Bobby Becker (who also acted as Aaron’s assistant Canvass Director) approached myself and Will Dixon outside of work and asked us to be a part of a union campaign in the hopes of regaining more democratic control for the canvassers over their working conditions.

Later that week, I attended a meeting with six other canvassers where we unanimously decided finally organize as exploited workers. We agreed to a strategy of methodically talking and inviting other canvassers to weekly meetings with the intent of unionizing the canvass workers at Sisters’ Camelot. This meeting and many more would include Bobby Becker, even though he knew he would not be able to join the union as long as he was one of the bosses. Myself, Will Dixon, Jimmy Jansen, Bridget Laurenson, John Snortum, and Bobby Becker were in attendance that day at the first meeting of the newly formed Sisters’ Camelot Canvassers Union.

The canvass workers were mostly self-proclaimed radicals, some of them anarchists with many years of involvement in radical movements for change. We decided that the radical anti-capitalist one big union (the IWW) was the only union that made sense for us to join. We knew the IWW already represented our beliefs regarding capitalism, opposing hierarchy, and embracing class struggle. We had already unionized without contacting an official union, but felt that we needed to choose to become Wobblies (a term commonly used to identify members of the IWW) before going public because there is no other union that so naturally made sense for our radical anti-capitalist leanings.

Many of the canvassers were already known anarchists and were friends with local Wobblies and supporters of past IWW organizing. In February 2013, the Sisters’ Camelot canvassers joined the IWW so that we could proudly go public to our bosses as unionized members of the Industrial Workers of the World.

During those few months of our union organizing drive, we kept everything a secret from even our closest friends. We had intentional one-on-one meetings with our coworkers, quickly getting almost all of the canvass workers attending meetings and supporting our union campaign. We met at least once every week, more often as we came closer to going public in February. A handful of volunteer outside organizers rotated in attending our meetings. They helped us with our organizing plan, and tried to warn and prepare us for worst case scenarios. In hindsight, we’ve all agreed since then that we didn’t take their warnings seriously enough.

We thought it was highly unlikely that our bosses, most of whom were respected self-proclaimed anarchists and radicals, wouldn’t embrace our newly formed worker’s union. Despite the Wobbly organizers repeatedly stressing to us that we should prepare for our bosses to actively union bust just like most bosses would, we didn’t take their advice seriously enough to be prepared for what would happen. We were all agreed that we would go on strike if they forced us to by not negotiating in good faith, but none of us believed that if we did strike that the bosses wouldn’t quickly change their minds when faced with losing almost all of their funding.

Before we all officially joined the Industrial Workers of the World, we had unionized all of the canvass workers except for a select few. We strategically chose to keep three current canvassers in the dark. These were our boss Aaron’s best friend who had only worked a few shifts, another new worker who had also only worked a few shifts, and one coworker who we all agreed couldn’t be trusted not to snitch the rest of us out to our bosses in hopes of a promotion for himself.

I spent the entire night before we went public to our bosses worrying. I knew that once we went public in the morning there was no turning back. I laid in my bed all night thinking about it without sleep. I knew that I would be accused of orchestrating everything by people who hated me and considered me to be a traitor to green anarchy. I knew that it was very likely that somehow they would try to make this about me rather than all of the canvass workers, but I also knew that my coworkers would never let that divide them. I knew how amazing and solid they were, and that helped keep my worries from getting out of control that night, instead replacing some of the anxiety with the type of excited anticipation that I can only compare to the feeling I would get on the night before Christmas when I was a little kid.

On Monday, February 25, 2013 most of the unionized canvassers and a few outside Wobbly organizers met at 8 AM at a coffee shop a few blocks from the Sisters’ Camelot office. We drank coffee and went over our plan in anticipation of announcing our union to our bosses at their weekly meeting at 10 AM. We’d roleplayed our march on the bosses many times with the other Wobblies, assigning specific roles to specific coworkers. Jimmy Jansen was the closest friend to most of the bosses, so his role was to basically shush any of the bosses who tried to interrupt or otherwise disrupt our statement. John Snortum was to read the prepared statement announcing our union and the terms for moving ahead with negotiations. We were excited and full of anxiety at that early-morning coffee meet-up, and as we walked as a group down the middle of a neighborhood street towards our place of work, we were laughing and telling jokes.

I think we were all full of excitement from the powerful feelings associated with taking collective action with co-workers to stand up for ourselves. We were also terrified of the unknown future we were about to bring into our lives. We all had a job. It was a hard and shitty job, but we all felt a certain amount of freedom and pride because of our ability to feel morally good about our jobs at the end of the day. We had jobs that didn’t contribute to the world being shitty. Rather, we were fortunate enough to have jobs that we felt helped make the world better. With every step we walked through that south Minneapolis neighborhood we knew we were getting closer to doing something that could cost us our jobs. The exploitation of our labor had finally become bad enough that we were willing to throw aside our politically-motivated justifications for tolerating it.

As we walked towards the warehouse, the bosses at Sisters’ Camelot were beginning their weekly management meeting. Sitting around a large wooden table in a dirty warehouse which housed their two buses and canvass operation, the seven bosses of Sisters’ Camelot were about to be surprised (all of them except one) by a newly-unionized canvass workforce. At the time, the bosses at Sisters’ Camelot consisted of Clay Hansen, Bobby Becker, Aaron “Muskrat” Baark, Lisabeth Foster-Bayless, Eric Gooden, Dave Senn, and Clive North.

The door at the far end of the warehouse opened and the canvass workers walked into the building, past the side of the colorful foodshare bus, towards their bosses. About a dozen canvass workers walked across the warehouse to the back office area where the meeting was taking place. The workers stopped a few feet from the table, and amidst an eerie silence, one worker stepped in front of the rest, and began reading from a piece of paper. As John Snortum read the prepared statement, each worker standing behind him held up their red I.W.W. membership cards.

“On behalf of the Sisters’ Camelot canvass, we are issuing a statement to the collective:

The Sisters’ Camelot canvass is now an organized union. We are now card-carrying members of the I.W.W., the Industrial Workers of the World. We are acting in response to recent trends and changes in the canvass workplace.

 We care deeply about the mission of Sisters’ Camelot and act not out of anger or spite, but in order to ensure that the values of autonomy, sustainability, and equality are applied to all within the organization. It is not our intent to disrupt or change other Camelot programs. We respect the hard work that collective members provide for the food share bus, kitchen bus, and garden. We realize that it is not our place to demand control over these programs. We are demanding the same level of respect and control when it comes to running the fundraising operation.

 We wish to deal with these issues in a timely manner, but do not want to disrupt the regular Camelot work week. Therefore, we demand that negotiations begin here this Friday, March 1st at 10 a.m. If this is not met, then we are fully prepared to commence a strike, go to the press, and take other actions effective Friday March 1st. We have the full support of our union, the Industrial Workers of the World.”

While this statement was being read, two of the bosses spoke. Eric Gooden said, “It’s about time” and Clay Hansen said, “Congratulations.” After the statement was read, the unionized canvassers all turned around and walked out of the building.

This was how it happened when the I.W.W. Sisters’ Camelot Canvass Union went public to their bosses, setting into motion a workplace struggle that would change the lives of many people involved.

This campaign was how I came to join the IWW and become a Wobbly. I’ve said many times that I’m surprised I didn’t join earlier, as I’ve been friends with many active Wobblies over the years and supported their organizing, but it took organizing in my own workplace to finally push me to take out my red card.

As some of you know, that campaign got pretty crazy. We ended up going on strike and we survived a brutal union-busting campaign coordinated by my old green anarchist friends. The NLRB ended up taking the bosses to court over illegally firing me during the strike for union activity, and we even started a new democratically IWW worker-run organization. Today, we are technically still on strike from Sisters’ Camelot.

I’ve been Wobbling pretty hard ever since.

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