By Deborah Rosenstein
In 1905, William Bradley and Fred Henion, two railroad workers from Northeast Minneapolis, attended a conference in Chicago that led to the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. Now, more than a century later, the IWW has opened an office steps away from where Bradley and Henion used to work.
The new space, located at 79 13th Ave. NE, Suite 103A, is housed in the bottling house of the old Grain Belt Brewery. Organizers have 24-hour access to the office and hope to host a variety of meetings, classes and cultural events.
Local historian and United Transportation Union officer David Riehle notes that the IWW had numerous offices in Minneapolis from 1905-1919. Plagued by government repression (the 1917 federal Espionage Act, Minnesota's 1917 Criminal Syndicalism Law and the 1920 Palmer Raids), "the union hasn't had an office in the Twin Cities for many generations," Riehle explained.
Hundreds of labor and community activists turned out on Nov. 7 to celebrate the historic opening. Many, like 11-year old Sage Doring, who was attending with his mother, expressed appreciation for the IWW's commitment to fighting racism and other forms of oppression. Greeting people at the front door, Doring explained that he often listens to IWW-inspired music while raking leaves and doing other household chores. "And I come to IWW events because they give you ideas about how to solve stuff."
Sophia, another young person, busied herself with decorating the walls of the new IWW office with social justice-themed slogans. She also participated in an all-ages scavenger hunt and labor song sing-along. D.B., a member of the Twin Cities branch, observed that the scavenger hunt mirrored the IWW's organizing model. "The twelve year olds were mobilizing the eight-year-olds and the eight-year-olds were focused on the five-year-olds."
The notion that everyone is an organizer was a theme of the IWW's national train-the-trainer workshop held in Minneapolis to dovetail with the office opening. Thirty-five IWW members from Texas, New York, Illinois, British Columbia and elsewhere attended the workshop, eager to lead IWW organizing trainings in their home locations. Like their predecessors, the train-the-trainer participants articulated their vision of "one big union" that unites all workers.
At the turn of the 20th century, the IWW opposed the American Federation of Labor's practice of organizing only specific "skilled" workers and welcomed members of all backgrounds. Today, this means reaching out to coffee baristas and other service economy workers.
With more than 300 members, the IWW Starbucks Union fights for respect on the job, improved scheduling, affordable health care, wages and a safe working environment for Starbucks baristas.
This summer, the IWW organized support for Azmera, a worker fired from a Starbucks in St. Paul. An immigrant mother from Ethiopia, she had two years of positive reviews and no write-ups. Still, Azmera was accused of stealing from the store (the company cannot provide any proof of this) and dismissed. The local branch of the IWW brought attention to Azmera's case, highlighting the discrimination that immigrant workers face throughout the service sector.
Jason Evans, a Twin Cities IWW member attending the office opening, said that the Azmera support campaign exemplifies how the union views its work: "An injury to one really is an injury to all."
Deborah Rosenstein is on the staff of the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service.
This Viewpoint on Workday Minnesota.