A Letter of Support for all the Workers at Sisters’ Camelot

March 5, 2013

(To add your name to this statement, please email communitystatement (a) riseup.net, including your name as you want it to appear.)

We are writing this statement as Twin Cities community members who are connected to but not formally affiliated with Sisters’ Camelot and the IWW, both politically and personally. We come from a variety of life experiences and perspectives but are united in our commitment to anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist values and practice. As anti-statists, we believe in the necessity of militancy and confrontation in struggle, but also value cooperation and community responsibility in conflict resolution. This is why it’s important for us to speak to this current issue of labor strife—as people who are neither members of the Camelot collective nor canvassers, but who have a community stake in the well-being of Sisters’ Camelot as an organization and the well-being of all Camelot workers.

Summary to Date

On February 25, members of the Sisters’ Camelot canvass came to the Sisters’ Camelot collective meeting and announced that they had formed a union with the IWW and that they would present demands at a negotiation session the following Friday. On March 1, the entire Sisters’ Camelot collective attended a facilitated conversation in which the organized canvassers presented a list of 18 demands. The collective stated that they were unable to negotiate on the demands at that time, but asked canvassers to use the existing collective process to address the demands and attend their regular collective meeting on March 4th. In response, the canvassers went on strike and walked out of the meeting.

On March 4th, both groups attended the collective meeting to resume negotiations. They were joined by a number of community supporters with a range of views on the issue (including several of the authors of this statement).

Canvassers read a statement at the beginning of the meeting reiterating their desire for the collective to negotiate with them on their demands. Next, the collective read a statement saying that they were open to negotiating, and that as a good-faith measure they had already taken a significant step to make the collective more accessible to canvassers by altering their membership policy such that canvassers could work 12 paid shifts/month rather than perform the 8 hours/month of volunteer work required of all other members; they also offered one immediate collective member position to a person of the canvassers’ choosing, as an exception to the standard 3-month waiting period. The collective then read a second statement, saying that they could not continue with negotiations as long as Shuge Mississippi (a member of the canvasser’s union) was involved in the organization, and that they had already terminated his contract. Before the conclusion of this statement, the striking workers and their supporters voiced their opposition and left the meeting. They returned shortly after to state that they would refuse to negotiate until Shuge Mississippi was reinstated. The Sisters’ Camelot collective was unwilling to bend on this issue. At this point, official negotiations ceased. The majority of the IWW supporters walked out. Some members of the canvass union, as well as an unaffiliated canvass worker and a small number of IWW members, stayed behind to continue the discussion with Sisters’ Camelot and the other community members.

As outside but invested observers and community members, we wish to share certain observations and views about this conflict: the value of collectivity as a means of worker control; the importance of approaching disagreements in the movement as comrades rather than enemies; the complex dynamics and mistakes of Sisters’ Camelot, in particular regarding the involvement of Shuge Mississippi; and the implications of this conflict for continued radical anti-authoritarian struggle in the Twin Cities into the future.

Collectivity and Worker Control

We believe in individuals having direct control over their lives, which includes workers having control over their work environment. Worker control of the means of production is both a stated goal of the IWW and the reality for many workers in collectives around the world. One of the critical issues that we would like to highlight is the role and value of collective structure in this dispute as well as the value of consensus as one legitimate decision-making process.

Given that worker collectives are an ideal of many IWW members and other radicals (in fact, IWW affiliated worker collectives exist in some cities), and that such collectives necessarily must hold hiring and firing power to survive, we urge all involved to respect the value of collectivity and the worker control that Sisters’ Camelot has long been striving for. In Sisters’ Camelot, collective membership is not mandatory for all workers. This creates a situation in which some workers–who have chosen to join the collective by attending weekly meetings and volunteering 8 hours per month–have hiring and firing power, while others do not. Any one of the workers or volunteers can enter a process to become a collective member, but the current collective members hold the right to approve or disapprove new members at the end of their trial period. In the past, canvassers for Camelot have been part of the managing collective and recent changes by the collective are designed to make that more accessible. Some workers in their collective cite worker control as the very reason for their dedication to the organization.

The contention around the current endeavor is, at the crux of it, about the legitimacy of the Camelot collective as a democratic worker organizing structure. The collective may have issues, but for years it has been the preferred tool of Camelot workers. While change and growth can be a positive force and while it would be wrong for collective members to try to hold power over fellow workers, it is equally wrong to disregard the rights of the non-canvass workers to have power over their environment free from bullying and to play an active role in determining a structure that supports all workers’ needs.

We agree with critiques leveled by some IWW members regarding “alternative businesses” and “democratic workplaces” that “red-wash” their structure to hide power disparities. But we see in these instances a misuse of the tool rather than a fatal flaw in the tool itself, and we take them as a reminder that we must always be wary of co-optation and appropriation. In the same way, the IWW as an organization levels similar critiques at trade unions and business unions, while not abandoning the concept of unionism. There are many ways to engage in anti-capitalist struggle that deserve respect and support, and no one group has a monopoly on the identities and sites of struggle that comprise our movements.

We also greatly value consensus, but are not dogmatically opposed to anti-authoritarian organizing models that utilize other decision-making structures. Consensus and majority vote are two of many valid decision-making tools worth utilizing to make organizations more egalitarian, and those most affected should be the ones choosing the methods to use. Decision-making processes should be developed not by defaulting to sloppy consensus-by-habit, which has become the practice for many groups in our movement, nor by the anti-consensus campaign pursued by some members of the IWW. Instead, the workers at Sisters’ Camelot should think long and hard about what model will best serve what they are trying to achieve, taking into account the needs and desires of all affected parties.

Comrades, Not Adversaries

We see potential through both confrontational and cooperative organizing to achieve worker control. But while canvassers themselves consistently praise many aspects of Sisters’ Camelot, the strategy of the IWW in this situation has inaccurately framed the collective of volunteers and workers as “bosses” and as enemies of the canvassers. We do not hold collectives beyond reproach and believe that conflict can be necessary and productive, but the adversarial style appropriate in a campaign against a big business or a top-heavy NGO runs counter to the values of collectivity and consensus crucial to organizing amongst peers in an anti-authoritarian setting. The need for a “boss” or “manager” in the rigid workplace organizing equation employed by the IWW has led to a flattening of the complex power dynamics and worker relations within the Camelot workplace, unfairly negating the position of collective members as affected workers, and pitting worker against fellow worker while providing no practical avenue for a just resolution.

When the issue moves away from heated, impersonal debate and into the actual lives of both collective members and workers, we see the extent to which all put their heart and soul into their organization. They all deserve better than the amped up arguments being thrown around to intimidate and harass, or the mudslinging currently raging on the internet. They deserve the space to resolve the issues at hand without poorly applied rhetoric and false characterizations muddying the waters; honesty, a recognition of common interest, and a genuine valuing of mutual aid are essential to this process.

What’s more, we’ve seen in this adversarial approach that political positions are oversimplified and loudly debated in a manner that hides nuance and silences thoughtful and respectful engagement, at the expense of mutual aid, strong relationships, and political growth. This environment bolsters existing privileges and power dynamics, reproducing many of the very oppressions we fight against: namely, such behavior tends to reproduce the oppression of women, people of color, queer and trans folks, and other marginalized groups. This behavior has often rendered anti-authoritarian projects unwelcoming for community members who are essential to our struggles for a better world, which holds back all movement towards collective liberation.

A Shaky Foundation

Also behind the accusations and heated debates sits a long history of difficult interpersonal and collective dynamics within Sisters Camelot, and particularly concerning Shuge Mississipi. We believe the Camelot collective’s termination of his contract on March 4 was a difficult but necessary move in the right direction, knowing that real cause for his firing has long existed. Shuge has perpetrated many acts of abuse and manipulation over the years, and has consistently refused to show any genuine interest in being accountable for or correcting these behaviors. Many of us know people who in all legitimacy feel that they cannot afford to have him around, or have ourselves had experiences with him that lead us to that conclusion; while it is not within the purview of this statement to detail each and every one of these transgressions, these community issues inform our position that Shuge’s presence is a barrier to healthy and constructive radical work. Of direct relevance to the Camelot labor conflict is the fact that Shuge’s contract with Sisters’ Camelot was ended in 2009, due to a major breach of trust and confidence. The action was taken both because it was discovered that while acting as Canvass Director he had stolen pay from fellow canvassers at least twice, and because the canvassers themselves asked the collective to remove him due to the hostile, unhealthy and unworkable environment he created. He ended up back at the canvass a couple years later through an unfortunate combination of poor communication and dysfunctional collective practice. The collective has acknowledged their major mistake in allowing this to transpire. While we see how terrible the timing looks outwardly, we respect their need to correct their error now, when it is apparent that it will not be possible to work out the issues brought by canvassers to anyone’s satisfaction as long as Shuge retains power in the organization.

We cannot express too strongly our belief that all people have the right of free association, and the right to work and live free of abuse, manipulation, and coercion. The circumstances of Shuge’s termination are not a matter of petty personal disagreements nor of union-busting, but one of collective and community well-being. His absence from the negotiations will be beneficial for everyone involved (Sisters’ Camelot workers, the organization as a whole, and the community at large), and we urge canvassers to negotiate with their fellow Camelot workers and the collective, without Shuge Mississippi present.

Additionally and aside from this one individual, we recognize that Sisters’ Camelot is not beyond reproach. As the canvassers don’t feel their needs are being met within the current structure, we support them working to reshape their workplace to better fit their needs and to bring in other community members to mediate as needed. There are clearly issues with Sisters’ that have gone unaddressed too long, and we celebrate the initiative and will to build a better workplace that canvassers are demonstrating right now. It should have been recognized long ago that the collective structure (as it stood before recent changes) didn’t adequately make space for involvement of the canvassers. This is a symptom of a movement-wide problem of ignoring the need for collective care and space to cultivate shared values, in exchange for expediency. While the collective meetings have been officially open, many canvassers have legitimately found the collective difficult and unwelcoming to approach.  Further, the failure to deal with serious conflict adequately and effectively has eroded the foundation of trust that collectives need to thrive – and now, we see the messy and disappointing results. We offer these constructive criticisms in the spirit of growth, knowing from our own experiences that healthy radical processes, if never perfect, are only refined through constant and intentional maintenance.

Moving Forward

We want to clearly emphasize the validity of many issues raised by the canvassers, and to express our wholehearted support of their right to organize for better conditions and more power in their workplace. Likewise, we value the right of Camelot’s non-canvass workers to self-organize, and stand with them in this process as well. The work of Sisters’ Camelot is important to us, as is the well-being of everyone who makes it possible.

The authors of this statement also feel the need to relay that we have spoken with multiple community members who don’t feel comfortable expressing their actual opinions on this situation publicly, due to the behavior not only of Shuge Mississippi, but of some IWW organizers who do not work at Sisters’ Camelot. These IWW members’ hostility towards collective process and willingness to engage in individual harassment and aggression has created a fear-based environment and a fundamental lack of trust, and we feel that their framing of the Sisters’ Camelot collective as an adversary does not further radical struggle outside of their own interests. We urge them to approach this conflict as respectful comrades, not as adversaries, and to recognize that any short-term “win” that by design hurts workers amongst us who are committed to anti-authoritarian struggle, and that deeply damages the community capacity for mutual confidence and trust through exploiting existing tensions and vulnerabilities, is a long-term loss.

Given this, lastly, we look to the future in the hope of repairing these relationships. Long after this disagreement is resolved – or not – we will still be a part of intertwined networks in the same city, struggling for many of the same shared values. The outcome we wish to see moving forward includes more workers being included in the Camelot collective, and not in an adversarial relationship but in one of mutual solidarity. It also includes community members with different tendencies and affinities continuing the tradition of setting aside our political differences to cultivate shared struggle and affinity. To this end, we encourage all Camelot workers to work towards resolution of the issues at hand, and encourage everyone to nurture and care for each other as a means of fomenting rebellion against Capitalism, the State, and injustice everywhere, and in the interest of building the world we want to live in.

We’ll see you on the streets! (And at the dinner tables!)

(For the most updated signature list, see https://communitystatement.wordpress.com.
To add your name to this statement, please email communitystatement (a) riseup.net, including your name as you want it to appear.)

Carrie Feldman (co-author)
Garrett Fitzgerald (co-author)
Jaime Hokanson (co-author)
Luce Guillén-Givins (co-author)
Rob Czernik (co-author)
Ryan Nelson (co-author)
Andrew Fahlstrom Crow
Claire Sigford
Cody Oesterreich
Eryn Trimmer
Isaac Martín
Laura Goetsch
liška halvlys
Monica Bicking
Thaddeus Hinnenkamp
Tim Phillips
Ian Mayes
Andrew Gramm
Zach Tauer
Gus Ganley
Kit Newton
Hannah Hazel
Alicia Dvorak
Emily May Taylor
Anna Lohse
Sen Holiday
Evan Izaksonas-Smith
Ryan Billig
Aaron Zellhoefer
Micah Thompson
Linda Wells
Jay Silas
Holly Taylor
Leslie Davis
Jason Tanzman
Rita Hardie
Sarah Lazarewicz
Brad Stiffler
Andrew Sapp
Amy Van Blaricum
Irene Greene
Nils C Collins
Bruce J. Wuollet
Willow Cordes-Eklund
Karen Eisert
Ed Engelmann (former Board member)
Nate Stevens
magical marty (volunteer)