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A summit for radical worker-organizers in Toronto

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with Mia Sopapilla and Jordan House. They are education workers, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, and organizers of the Working For Each Other, Working For Ourselves summit, a gathering for radical worker-organizers in Toronto.

Conventional trade unions mostly have a commitment to making gains for workers in the context of the legal and political framework that first took shape during and after the Second World War -- which includes features like provisions for state and employer recognition of unions, automatic dues check-offs, paid staff, formalized grievance procedures, highly state-regulated access to the strike weapon and other kinds of job action, and at times active engagement with electoral politics as the principal path to make political gains for workers. On the margins of the labour movement, however, both within conventional unions and beyond them, are other organizational forms with other approaches to unionism.

One such organization is the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies. The IWW's roots trace back to the early 20th century, when for a time it was a truly mass-based radical organization, with a particularly strong presence out west and in certain resource extraction industries. Though much fewer in number now than in their heyday, the Wobblies persist, and continue to apply the same spirit of militance and autonomy, which in its contemporary form they describe as "solidarity unionism." While exactly what that means in practice varies a great deal with context, the basic idea is that it is a way of understanding unionism that focuses less on formal organizations and more on groups of people taking action collectively, democratically and directly, to defend and advance their interests. There is much less investment in official union recognition, formal procedures, and so on -- and while that means fewer legal supports of a certain sort, it also means fewer constraints on the kinds of tactics that can be used to exert power on (and off) the shop floor.

Perhaps the most visible current project of the Toronto chapter of the Wobblies is the Toronto Harm Reduction Workers Union, which was the focus of an episode of Talking Radical Radio back in January. However, they have members and supporters in a wide range of sectors, and are currently preparing for a summit that will bring together worker-organizers who work in what the Wobblies call "public service" jobs -- that is, all of the many different contexts, both private sector and public sector, in which working-class people do things for other working-class people, from baristas to teachers, nurses to janitors, grocery store clerks to sex workers, call centre employees to child care providers, and so on. The summit -- called Working For Each Other, Working For Ourselves -- will happen in early October, and will have one day of workshops and panels open to interested members of the public, and one day specifically for IWW members. It will focus on giving worker-organizers in public services a chance to share experiences, skills, tactics, lessons, successes, and failures, with the idea of strengthening organizing and mobilization by workers in the future. Sopapilla and House talk with me about the past and present of the IWW, the solidarity unionism approach, and the Working For Each Other, Working For Ourselves summit.

To learn more about Working For Each Other, Working For Ourselves, click here.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Please support our coverage of democratic movements and become a supporter of rabble.ca.

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