Open Letter to the Mpls Radical Community

[The letter below was written by striking canvasser Maria W. and originally appeared on the website http://lettertompls.wordpress.com.  To comment on the letter, please visit the original website.]

Hi, my name is Maria, and I’m part of the IWW Sisters’ Camelot Canvass Union. You probably don’t know me because I just moved to Minneapolis in October. As such, I am new to Sisters’ Camelot, canvassing, and the community at large. However, radical politics, community organizing, and non-profit work are not new to me. I have 10 years organizing experience under my belt, and most recently moved from a non-profit farm and education center in Northern Michigan where I worked as the Program Coordinator and volunteered on the Board of Directors. I was drawn to the mission and values of Sisters’ Camelot and decided to try my hand at canvassing. It came naturally to me and I enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow canvassers and some collective members, so I stuck around. When informed of the union drive I was simultaneously disturbed by my co-workers disappointing experiences and excited by the prospect of a Sisters’ Camelot where everyone could work together on equal ground. A lot has happened since then; now I’m on strike and many connections I had started to develop feel strained. (The exception being that I feel immeasurably closer to my fellow workers, who have pretty much been unequivocally awesome this whole time.) I am in full support of my union and I am saddened that so many Minneapolis radicals have turned their backs to us. I would like a chance to address some common assumptions– not as a union rep nor with any official capacity, just speaking from my personal experience.

On the operation of Sisters’ Camelot
Sisters’ Camelot is a mobile food shelf and kitchen bus based in the Seward neighborhood. This non-profit organization positively affects the greater Minneapolis community. A mobile organic food share such as this one is rare and rightly deserves our support. These positives make it tempting to conflate the outer role of Sisters’ Camelot with the inner workings of the organization– to meld the ends with the means. However, these are two separate frameworks and should be examined as such.

Sisters’ Camelot is collectively managed by six individuals. Although collective members must volunteer eight hours and attend two collective meetings each month, every collective member has a salaried position running one or more aspects of the organization’s operation. (The collective likes to use the word “stipend” to describe their wages, but I’ll use “salary” because they receive fair compensation for their work. It’s not like they’re getting paid $50/week, which I think is what “stipend” implies.) Furthermore, the collective hires these salaried positions only from within itself; if for some reason it cannot do so, then the new hire must become a collective member. Calling Sisters’ Camelot “volunteer-run” obscures the facts.

Further, the collective’s wages and all other organizational costs are 90-95% funded by the door-to-door efforts of the canvassing crew. There are approximately 14 regular canvassers, plus two canvass directors who receive salaried wages (on top of the regular canvassing wages) and therefore must be collective members. The canvass directors are the only individuals in the canvassing crew who serve on the collective.This means that 14 out of 20, or two-thirds, of the paid workforce at Sisters’ Camelot is not in the collective. Moreover, collective members have the exclusive authority to hire, fire, promote, demote, suspend, and pay canvassers. This is not, as some have suggested, a worker’s co-op. Rather, this is a tiered system in which a minority of the workers have managerial power over the majority.

In the past, canvass directors were not required to be collective members. Even after the two current canvass directors were hired, three additional canvassers had the power to “field manage,” or take out crews and manage their routes. These field managers were demoted in December 2012, not as a disciplinary measure but simply because the collective enacted a new policy that only collective members could hold those positions. My co-workers had already started organizing themselves, and at that point they approached the IWW with their grievances.

On canvassing, privilege, and power dynamics
At Sisters’ Camelot, canvassers have the freedom of making our own schedules– something we’re grateful for. It is also true that canvassers at Sisters’ Camelot don’t operate under a quota system, which alleviates some of the pressure to raise a certain amount of money. The canvass directors are generally friendly toward us and we enjoy a relatively relaxed workplace environment. Because of these facts, some people insist that our grievances aren’t valid. They believe that we have no right to organize because we do not suffer the grave physical or emotional consequences of oppressive structures the way that migrant workers or coal miners do. This argument boggles the mind. We have never equated our experience with that of migrant workers or coal miners; no one is making the argument that canvassing is giving us black lung. It would be totally ridiculous for us to take such a stance.

The fact that this argument is only expressed by our detractors leads me to believe it’s a straw man set up to obscure the real issue: that canvassers within Sisters’ Camelot are denied autonomy over our own workplace. Currently, the collective holds exclusive power to manage our work and affect our livelihoods, and they’ve recently demonstrated their willingness to demote and fire us without our input. To balance this power disparity, all of us canvassers came together and formed a union on the consensus model. Unfortunately, we continue to be restricted within the confines of that disparity: the decision that 14 of us made together isn’t valid at Sisters’ Camelot until all 6 collective members agree it is so.

The collective and their supporters have made all kinds of justifications as to why canvassers shouldn’t be allowed more autonomy within the organization. The first is that we should have joined the collective– that issue is discussed below. Additionally, the sentiment has been expressed that the fundraising operation is secondary to programming, so the canvassing crew should fall under the authority of the programming crew, i.e. the collective. Finally, our character has repeatedly been called into question: we’ve been told that we lack accountability; we’ve been told that we can’t be trusted with large sums of money or with professionally representing Sisters’ Camelot; we’ve been labeled as a bunch of “party people” who have no right to organize because we just spend our wages on drugs and alcohol, anyway.

These arguments are incredibly disappointing and disheartening for me, and illustrate the lack of respect that the collective and their supporters hold for us. First of all, the programs at Sisters’ Camelot are dependent on the fundraising that canvassers do, so I don’t understand the practicality of setting one above the other. In the past five years, the income of Sisters’ Camelot has more than doubled thanks to efforts of canvassers, which has allowed the collective to expand programming with the acquisition and operation of the kitchen bus. Moreover, the charges against our personal characters are unfair and insulting. We are an experienced and dedicated crew with a strong investment in the organization; of the 14 union members, we have 90 years canvassing experience– 58 of those for Sisters’ Camelot. Handling massive amounts of money and interacting with large quantities of people is fundamental to canvassing; the fact that increasing volumes of financial and volunteer support continue to pour in illustrates that we are adept at our work. As long as we continue to demonstrate our expertise in the canvassing field we deserve respect for our vital role within the organization and the autonomy to manage the canvass, regardless of how certain people judge our characters.

On unionizing and the IWW’s role
But why organize at Sisters’ Camelot, when canvassers could approach the collective management with their grievances, or go through the three-month process to join the collective themselves? This is a complicated question, and several points must be addressed in order to answer it fully:

  1. There is a history at Sisters’ Camelot of canvassers feeling disregarded by the collective, so a culture of distrust already exists, reducing the incentive for canvassers to approach the collective.
  2. Contemporarily, several canvassers have tried to approach or join the collective with poor results. Two served on the collective and later resigned. Two others attempted to join; one was told explicitly by the collective that he would not be accepted, one was told implicitly. One sat in on many meetings and felt that his input was ignored.
  3. For some, the required commitment of the collective is an inaccessible option due to schedule and income constraints. Some of us have second jobs or kids or school and can’t manage an extra eight volunteer hours and two collective meetings a month. Further, the collective meets Monday mornings– a time that is inaccessible for most people with additional work or school responsibilities.
  4. Others feel intimidated by the collective and have no desire to make themselves vulnerable to people they feel are hostile towards them. We have the right to free association, and some of us choose not to associate with certain collective members.

Moreover, we believe that all workers should have the liberty to unionize. The collective and their supporters have branded unionizing as a show of aggression and antithetical to the spirit of community. Of course it is not. It’s simply a way to ensure the rights of a group of people through the protection of collective bargaining. We feel that we need the protection of a union because we are confronting those who have power over us in this organization. The canvassers seek structural change; structural change requires confrontation. This is not inherently hostile or violent; when we sat down with the collective to negotiate, we did so respectfully and with a desire to open channels of communication between the two groups.

As a union, we have repeatedly stated that we respect the collective and their decision-making process; it simply doesn’t represent us or address our needs as canvassers. I want to make this very clear: we are not anti-collective, nor anti-consensus. We want the collective to continue managing the programming aspects of the organization, but as the fundraising experts we seek the authority to manage the canvass. Individual canvassers shouldn’t be forced into a sub-par position within the organization simply because they cannot or choose not to join the collective.

I would also like to address some allegations that have been levied against the IWW during this union drive. Some people believe that the IWW is “going after” Sisters’ Camelot as a publicity stunt. This is absolutely false. The canvassers self-organized and approached the IWW on their own initiative. Others argue that the IWW should have turned us away, which would have been a hypocritical move for a union that prides itself on including all working people. Canvassers are hired as independent contractors; we don’t have the federally protected status of employees. The IWW is one of the very few unions that works with independent contractors, and if they had turned us away, we would have been extremely hard-pressed to find support elsewhere. Still others accuse IWW members of behaving with hostility and even threatening physical violence. While allegations of this nature should always be taken seriously, unfortunately they are often politically motivated with the aim of discrediting the union. I personally believe in the integrity of the Wobblies I work with and do not believe they would threaten anyone in our community. That said, it is impossible to police everyone’s behavior, especially in the internet age, and inflammatory statements have been made by both sides online.

The Bottom Line
All the regular canvassers at Sisters’ Camelot have joined the union, and past Sisters’ Camelot canvassers are coming out of the woodwork to express their support. When there are so many disgruntled canvassers, it seems clear to me that the collective’s management is not serving the majority of workers, and therefore not serving the organization. Further, our campaign illustrates how dedicated we are to Sisters’ Camelot: we’ve attended endless meetings, foregone pay, and endured enormous stress just because we strongly feel our vision is for the betterment of the organization. It’s callous to disregard all our voices, and it’s unwise to assume that those in power are truthful about those challenging their power. Please at least hear what we have to say without making assumptions, speculations, and accusations. My co-workers and I need your support in this struggle; our livelihoods and the health of Sisters’ Camelot depend upon it.

Thank You,

Maria W.