by: J. Pierce
This article sketches some accomplishments of Cole Dorsey, an organizer, revolutionary, and inspiration to many who died suddenly on May 22, 2022. Please send additions and corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cole was an organizer for the IWW from the mid – 2000s until early 2020. He was a union journeyman electrician and a prison abolitionist. He dedicated his life to the struggle for the emancipation of the working class – the entire working class – regardless of whether “free” to roam the streets or locked up in a cage.
One of Cole’s many lives was his work life as a union electrician. Cole had been a member of Local 876 of the IBEW in Michigan and then joined IBEW Local 1245 in the Bay Area in 2015. Cole had been a Local 1245 Advisory Council member representing Outside Construction since 2019. Additionally, Cole represented Local 1245 as a delegate at the IBEW’s 2022 Convention in Chicago when only weeks later he passed away. In all, Cole was an involved member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for fifteen years and was very proud of his work, posting pictures and videos of his many work adventures as an electrician. His work life as a rank-and-file electrician grounded (and often lifted high above the ground) his perspective on revolutionary change on a daily basis. (Here is IBEW Local 1245’s In Memoriam for Cole, posted the very next day after his death was announced.)
But Cole’s activism didn’t start when he became an electrician. It didn’t even start when he was an adult! Cole grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan and was, in fact, a fighter for justice from an early age. Influenced by his Aunt at the age of 13, Cole took the initiative to contact PETA and then got involved in West Michigan for Animals (WMFA) and Kalamazoo Animal Liberation League (KALL). (Here is a fascinating 2015 interview with Cole about Animal Liberation.)
In the 2015 interview, Cole explained his thought process and interest in direct action tactics as a then middle schooler:
“Although I respected that that work [researching alternatives to animal dissection in schools] was being done I wasn’t interested in that strategy. I wanted direct action. I wanted to shut down fur stores, rodeos, circuses, animal factories, and vivisection laboratories by any means. The majority of the rest of the members felt the same way which became more evident, and divisive, as I started organizing protests at the fur stores as a WMFA member.“
In response to a question about Cole’s developing consciousness from animal liberation to radical social justice, Cole said:
“I was involved actively with WMFA until I began going to meetings put on by The Socialist, Frank Girard and then shortly thereafter organized into the IWW. It was then that I learned about and began to study capitalism and its affects on the world. I then understood that there will be no animal liberation until the working class overthrows the ruling class and capitalism. I fully support all those in the animal liberation movement today even though I think we should organize on our jobs, and in our industries, into One Big Union to ‘live in harmony with the Earth’ as the IWW Preamble states. I believe animal liberation can only come after we overthrow capitalism and the ruling class. After being organized into the IWW I also become involved in organizing actions against police brutality/murder. This work was done as a member of Revolutionary Anarchist Youth (Grand Rapids). I learned at an early age not to cross a picket line. That includes animal rights pickets.”
Since Cole became a revolutionary anarchist and IWW member, first, it can be inferred that he “salted in” at Starbucks with the purpose in mind of organizing an IWW union from inside the coffee shop. Cole did just that, evidently, and as a barista organized his co-workers, announcing their Solidarity Union publicly in 2008 and helping them become a prominent expansion of the IWW’s Starbuck Workers Union. Started by Wobbly baristas in New York City around 2004, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union used Solidarity Unionism to gain city wide pay raises in New York and Chicago, countless local improvements across the country, and most notably holiday pay for Martin Luther King Jr. Day for Starbucks employees nation-wide. The Starbucks Workers Union went on to play a major role in the development of the modern IWW, and is the major forerunner to the Starbucks Workers United (SEIU) of 2022. Cole, himself, was a forerunner of the 2020s, in that even in his role as a young Starbucks worker-organizer, Cole, from the very beginning, insisted that fighting alongside workers of color and against the racial hierarchy of capitalism must be a focus of his efforts. (And as he mentions in the interview, fighting against police murder as well.) He insisted that the IWW as a whole must confront white supremacy. Through everything, Cole maintained this anti-racist orientation.
Sometime in the early 2010’s, Cole was arrested (in connection to his ongoing struggle with addiction) and convicted and spent time behind bars. After getting out, Cole heard about the newly founded Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). Founded at a meeting in the Twin Cities in 2015 with its headquarters established in Kansas City, IWOC-IWW was meant to be a national network that would build toward a labor union of prisoners. In the recent past, the IWW had had some experience helping prisoners fight against their conditions and this new effort was a culmination of much thought and discussion on how to bring together disparate efforts to assist prisoner-workers in their fights.
Pulling up stakes in Michigan, Cole moved to the Bay Area (after a stint working in Hawaii) and helped to found the Oakland local of IWOC in 2016. Soon Cole became a skilled, impassioned, and prominent leader in the movement of both prisoners organizing for better conditions as well as the abolition of prisons altogether. Cole was directly involved in melding these two tendencies together during the 2016 wave of prison strikes called surrounding the Attica anniversary on September 9th. Alongside the Free Alabama Movement, Cole and the IWOC supported this wave of actions in various facilities which became a trial run for the much larger strike effort of 2018.
IWOC was heavily involved in the National Prison Strike of 2018, carried out across the country from August 21st to September 9th. (Here is a very cool strike promotional video featuring Cole.) IWOC worked intimately with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and several other groups on strike preparations. Publicity and word-spreading succeeded as strikers took actions inside hundreds of correctional facilities in at least 19 states and garnered widespread media attention. Worker-prisoners refused to eat, refused to purchase at the commissary, refused to show up for their prison jobs, and boycotted as much as they could before being swiftly repressed by authorities. Still, many of their stories reached the outside where IWOC and numerous other prison abolitionist groups spread the news far and wide. Cole rose up as a spokesperson for the IWOC and the 2018 Prison Strike, appearing on Democracy Now! alongside Amani Sawari, representing Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, and Attica historian Heather Ann Thompson. The interview was re-published on the Jacobin website. Cole’s confident leadership was an invaluable asset to the IWOC and the IWW.
Prisoner solidarity wasn’t Cole’s only contribution to the radical labor movement however. Cole was picked to be a delegate representing the Industrial Workers of the World’s North American Region at the historic meetings to discuss a new Labor International, lead by the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union la Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). After attending the Barakaldo International Conference in Spain and another meeting in Germany, Cole and other delegates were sent to the founding Inaugural Congress in Parma, Italy, in May of 2018 which formalized the new International Confederation of Labor – Confederación Internacional del Trabajo (ICL-CIT). Joining the CNT and the North American IWW were the German FAU, the Polish IP, the Italian USI, the Argentine FORA, and the Greek ESE, (later joined by the WISERA IWW and the Brazilian FOB). Cole worked to convince Wobblies that the IWW’s participation in this new international of anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary unions would benefit the organizing efforts of the working class in the United States and around the world. He and his Fellow Workers were successful and the North American IWW voted to join the new ICL-CIT.
On his trips to Europe, Cole built bonds among the anarchist unions. But here in the States, Cole dedicated much of his effort to building bonds across racial boundaries. One effort he was proud of was his work developing connections among Black militants in the Bay Area and weaving the IWW and IWOC into a network that included the Bay Area Black Worker Center and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists among many others. Cole was passionate about crafting the IWW into a revolutionary organization that spoke to the Black working class and much of his personal energy was devoted to achieving that cross-racial solidarity.
Not everyone shared Cole’s vision of the IWW, however. Starting around 2017, much of the IWW’s membership gravitated into factions, each lead by Wobblies with strong personalities. One of those factions put out a statement calling themselves Wobblies for a Revolutionary Union Movement (WRUM). They associated themselves with the newly formed IWOC and the revived General Defense Committee and stated that they intended to center themselves in struggles around race and gender. Cole signed his name to that statement and became associated with the WRUM faction. Cole, in line with WRUM, was a proponent of expanding the IWW past limited workplace organizing and advocated that the IWW engage in community struggles, anti-fascism work, more developed ‘dual card’ work in the business unions, and especially prisoner organizing. The opposing faction, which WRUM termed the “conservatives”, advocated strict adherence to the OT101 model of union organizing and saw themselves as trying to limit the IWW’s over-extension into other areas of activism. Given that most Wobblies can assimilate these two perspectives, it was, rather, the bitter and uncomradely way in which both sides carried out their hostilities that drew unnumbered Wobblies into what some were calling “the IWW Civil War.” This enmity consumed the energy of many in the organization and led ultimately to Cole’s disaffection with the IWW.
In February of 2020, the Oakland local was to host the IWOC’s national conference which would (and did) bring together prison abolitionist organizers and Wobblies from across the country. Six weeks prior to the conference, however, Cole and IWOC Oakland members announced that they would be dis-affiliating from the IWOC and the IWW. The National Conference was a success by all accounts but Oakland’s decision to go independent left many in the broader IWOC and IWW disheartened or upset. Changing their name to Oakland Abolition & Solidarity, the newly independent prisoner solidarity crew published this statement: “Transition and De-affiliation from the IWW”. Cole’s major work, loyalty, and love in these last years was with his Oakland crew.
Because he was outspoken on what he believed, Cole made plenty of enemies. This IWW-hosted obituary is controversial in itself since Cole came to hate what he believed the IWW had become. Secondly, because Cole and his Oakland crew came into conflict with others in IWOC and the IWW, and most WRUM leaders have quit or been driven out of the IWW, this obituary shouldn’t try to paper-over the bad blood that had built up. Lastly, the “conservative” faction has become nearly hegemonic in the IWW, and as victors, might prefer to delete Cole Dorsey from the history books. But many Wobblies will, nevertheless, be appreciative of an IWW effort to recognize Cole’s contributions – especially those of us who remain inspired by Cole’s brilliant melding of the best of different revolutionary tendencies.
Cole was taken from us so unexpectedly. Therefore, it is all the more crucial that we pay tribute in a moment of such loss. For personal stories and memories of Cole, Oakland Abolition & Solidarity is hosting remembrances of him on their In Memoriam. Cole Dorsey’s presence, and absence, will be felt in the revolutionary working class movement for years to come and his passing is truly a setback for the movement toward Emancipation.