Transition and De-affiliation from the IWW

Oakland IWOC is announcing its independence from the IWW. Because we are no longer affiliated with IWW, we are no longer formally a part of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and will be organizing under another name. Our points of unity and group structure will remain unchanged. Our long term goals and strategic direction will also maintain course. This move is the result of a reassessment of our initial mandate to unionize inside, and a recognition of various disparities between our group’s work and that of the IWW. Below is a more in-depth statement of our thinking around this, but there are a few things to make clear up front.

  1. Our goals and principles are unchanged. We are committed as always to building and maintaining bridges of solidarity between the inside and out, and to amplifying prisoners’ collective voices and actions.
  2. We have made this transition relatively slowly and with concern for our IWOC comrades in mind. We value all of our abolitionist comrades and hope to remain in collaboration with IWOC as part of a larger and expanding abolitionist network.
  3. We remain in frequent and expanding conversation with many people on the inside in California and beyond as well as their families, and come to this decision with deference to the needs of those relationships.
  4. Finally, this decision is not a blanket indictment of IWOC, or of individual organizers. We hope that the critiques we have brought will strengthen the collective capacity of the abolitionist movement and bring us closer to a world without prisons.

What follows is a more in-depth statement of how our group in Oakland sees our ongoing work as not only benefiting from, but as dictating this difficult decision. None of this is meant to be taken as an indictment of the network. It is rather a recognition of Oakland’s differing needs and trajectory:

The founding goals of IWOC were to unionize prisoners and to change the culture of the IWW, and in doing so undermine long-standing racial divisions within the working class. However, unionizing prisoners has proven unfeasible due to built-in communication lags, cultural barriers, security concerns, and the overall repressive infrastructure that prisons maintain and enforce. As a result of these difficulties, prisoners’ involvement in the IWW has been more symbolic than substantial. In our experience and analysis, prisoner organizing is manifest in structures that are outside of and often illegible to the radical left and/or is happening in collective, informal, and adhoc ways. In other words, the hard work of the last several years is pointing us forward in a direction that centers prisoner leadership by understanding the landscape on their terms, terms that don’t often translate to unionizing.

The IWW operates on a much more open and mass organizing basis. It often serves as the reintroduction of actual mass organizing to people seeking more than what nonprofits or mainstream labor offer, or more than the subculture of largely performative and gestural radical politics. Though the IWW has its place in the fight for collective liberation, prisoner movement work and solidarity cannot be organized on these terms. Our needs are different. Our work is much more sensitive and long term. We tackle a different piece of the landscape with different conditions. Our most productive relationships with people inside developed through shared affinity, mutual political education, and resource sharing, rather than from our offering up membership in the IWW.

Moreover, IWOC is not shifting the culture of the IWW to the extent that we hoped it would, and that has real consequences for our organizing. This is the case despite much of the capacity of our national organizers being dedicated for years to championing IWOC within the union. Due to distance and repression our integration of prisoners into the union has not been able to provide the kind of visceral, face-to-face feedback that would be necessary to shift the group culture of a national organization. Therefore, we are forced to recognize that prisoner membership in the IWW is at best a paper membership, and at worst allows for a greater sense of diversity within the IWW than is perhaps deserved.

Our group prioritizes the combating of whiteness, settler colonialism, and white supremacy in everything we do, whether it be what we study, how we behave doing jail support, how we come into any collaborative relationship, how we relate to prisoners, their families, or the heavily non-white advocacy nonprofits. In so doing we have pressed ourselves to organize far outside of the radical and labor left where the IWW name has caché. As a result IWW affiliation leaves us hampered by histories and affiliations that we must explain as we build. This complicates early organizing relationships with family networks, inside organizers, and other aligned groups to whom we must explain the IWW. These explanations get ever more complicated as our work develops farther from the IWW and as our relationship with it becomes more fractious. This adds a significant layer of difficulty to conversations that already have to overcome cultural and geographic barriers, and many of which have to be had over the wall with all of the extra weight of security and time lag.

More to the point, we cannot vouch for the IWW to people organizing inside or to their families, for whom the stakes are often years of time, their ability to see their loved ones, or life itself. Our security needs are high, and we see to it that the vetting of outside members is intensive. The IWW has been unwilling or unable to live up to that standard of security for prisoners. Moreover, we cannot assure prisoners that membership in the union will offer them much despite those risks. Our most productive relationships with people inside developed through shared affinity, mutual political education, and resource sharing, rather than from our offering up membership in a union or a predetermined formula for organizing.

The autonomy that our group has maintained has allowed us to achieve a lot, and given the demands of our ongoing work both in California and nationally, we advocate regional autonomy of abolitionist groups. We see IWOC best serving the work by functioning as a network of aligned groups, each pursuing a course toward abolition that is appropriate to its regional context. Locals provide for each other a web of essential support, training, mentorship, tactic and contact sharing. The most effective work that we’ve seen IWOC produce in our four years has been conceived of and executed at the local level with support and guidance from other locals.

The benefits of emerging as a group within the IWOC network have been huge: connection to the national picture, the inheritance of a large number of inside contacts, connection to all sorts of other people and networks that taught us a lot and keep teaching, a crash course in the state of the prisoner movement, and introduction to real media work. It is with all respect and recognition that we come to this transition.

We are guided by a value, “Let the work teach.” The work is teaching us and we need to transition away from the IWW to follow new directions in which the work is pointing. 

For A World Without Prisons


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