On Being Eaten By the Young
Today people talk about generation gaps maybe to a fault. John O’Reilly’s piece on becoming more senior in the IWW speaks to how we integrate workers into our movement, and how we become an asset as we gain experience rather than a liability. These are real issues as we have to navigate how we harness the insights of new people, educate each other, and productively mentor without becoming judgmental, gatekeeping, or being conservative.
By John O’Reilly
Like all organizations, the IWW has its problems to contend with. One of the ones that I’ve been observing recently that I think we continually cycle back towards is the problem of “being eaten by the young.” Despite its name, its a problem that has nothing to do with age (I’ve seen people in their 20s be eaten by the young and I’ve seen retired people eat the old).
I can think of probably a dozen examples of members being getting eaten by the young, but they all follow the same general pattern. A member has been around for at least four years (sometimes many more), has done some organizing, and has been active in some way in the international union, either through Convention, an international committee or an officer position. During this time they’ve weighed in on various controversies as part of their position or just as an active member with a sharp mind. They’ve taken controversial stands, or pushed new and challenging ideas. Their name is known around the organization because of their activities, people may even use their name as a shorthand for a specific idea or tendency. In short, they are popular.
But suddenly, and its impossible to tell exactly when, they cross a threshold and start finding that people, especially new members, talk behind their backs. Their actions become imbued with bad motives (of any sort: reactionary, reformist, careerist, out of touch, academic, impossibilist, etc). The positions that they have taken in the past come back to haunt them in the present. The amount of knowledge they have, whether it be the number of people they know, the workings of the internal union rules, or their capacity to advance ideas in the organization, becomes suspect. And so newer members, who don’t have personal relationships with them, see them as a gate-keeper and an old guard. Someone who is holding the organization back. The member’s reputation is slowly stained and so in response they find themselves tightening up, becoming suspicious, finding enemies, real or imagined, and further confirming new member’s beliefs about their stodgy nature, their “old beard”-yness. Before long, the member quits in frustration, provokes open conflict, or disappears into the wider world, retaining their membership just out of longtime loyalty. They’ve been eaten by the young.
I’ve been the young, eating the old. I’ve rolled my eyes, felt not taken seriously, condescended to, and have whispered, caucused, schemed. Now, about to celebrate my 6th year in the organization and coming off a two year officer term where I’ve taken controversial positions, I wonder if I’m next. I worry about when my experience will become a liability. When will I be eaten?
How do we stop having the young eat the old? Not I think with the usual prescription, which is encapsulated by the statement “Yeah he’s a problem but he’s done so much stuff, just ignore it.” Yeah-he’s-a-probleming things just means we ignore disruptive behavior because of someone’s experience, which is foolish and just encourages other young people to eat him. Yeah-he’s-a-probleming is the primary response to this problem today and it’s use exists in perfect harmony with being eaten by the young, each supporting the other’s use.
I don’t have any firm thoughts about how to deal with this but want to sketch out a couple of possible directions to think through.
1. Talking more openly and clearly about mentorship and what it means. It should be an expectation that more experienced members mentor newer members, but it should also be clear to new members that everyone in the organization has learned from someone before them. There will always be more experienced people to learn from and there will always be people who are new and need to learn. We should be clear with up-and-coming organizers that they have a lot to learn, even if what they’re doing is new and interesting. I feel like nobody ever really told me “Stop, listen to this person, it’s important.” For Wobs who came up in my “cohort” as it were, I feel like the message was, “You’re great, go forth!” I don’t really know how to do this, but I do think that talking more about how we learn organizing and political skills would be a good idea.
2. Save history from the historians. None of us was the first person in this organization, we’re all indebted to those before us. Yet many people like myself start nodding off when someone starts talking about 1915 like it was yesterday. The fact that so many of us have come up in the organization fighting against the “Joe Hill Memorial Society” culture means that we often think of history as a kind of opponent, something against we are constantly measuring ourselves to see if we’re worthy of its mantle. We fear and avoid history.
We need to talk more and louder about our recent history. An experienced member just seems like a boring person with lots of opinions to a new member who doesn’t know where those opinions came from and what forged them. We need to produce more written accounts of our struggles, contemporary and historic, and have them available and accessible as part of a Wobbly’s first year in the organization. If I would have known more about some members who I have taken part in eating at the time, I would have eased back.
3. Smash the gates. This ties in with both previous points, but experienced members need to do a way better job of avoiding both the appearance and the reality of gatekeeping. This is way harder than it sounds. The more time and energy you’ve spent on the union, the more you start using shorthands and jargon. You have more relationships with individuals who you’ve deemed worth your time and you sometimes ignore people you don’t know, especially in an organization where turnover amongst new members is astronomical. You don’t want to waste time arguing with someone with stupid ideas who you know won’t be around 5 months from now.
There’s a million reasons why gatekeeping is easier for experienced members, and that means we need a million ways to fight it. I don’t know what they all are, but I’d be open to suggestions.