Columns from 2007

Columns from 2007 also include:

-Goals. Then Strategy. Then Tactics.

Wherefore Art Thou Supervisor?

J.Pierce talks about the time they refused a supervisor position at a recycling center.

One Friday afternoon, the bosses called a big meeting in the recycling yard where I work. It was cool because I used it to count 40 workers and 10 boss types. I took the opportunity to see how many names I knew. It gave me a premonition of a large strike meeting--only the bosses wouldn’t be wearing those stupid grins.

At this meeting the bosses handed out memos that, among various threats and pomp, told everybody that I was the new supervisor for the warehouse. I laughed out loud when I read it. Meanwhile the whole place was silent as everybody read the Spanish version of the memo. The whole meeting was in Spanish so I barely knew what they were saying. Most of the supervisors (more properly called foremen) stood with their guys in the crowd instead of up by the bosses.

The various supervisors in the crowd appeared, to me, to be asking controversial questions. The bosses looked nervous. (I asked my fellow workers later but they said these comments were crap.) I couldn’t understand what they were saying so I took it for what it looked like. It seemed like people were challenging the bosses! So at the end of the meeting, the new head guy asked, “Any last questions.” I shot up my hand. “I have a question!” I shouted in English, as all eyes turned to me. “When are the bathrooms gonna be finished?” Pointing to the abandoned-construction-site-looking building behind us. Eyes lit up and everyone started smiling and chattering. Most of my co-workers have heard me complain about the locker room/bathroom situation so they knew what I was up to. One of the supervisors laughed really loud and said “When? When?” meaning “Don’t Ask!” The bosses squirmed saying “Um, we’re working on that. They’ll be done soon.” Everybody was talking and grinning. In between being called “Jefe,” I got some good pats on the back as we all went to clock out.

That weekend I fixed up a plan to give the bosses a letter saying that I was declining the promotion. My roommate translated this letter into Spanish so that I could show it to all my co-workers. I finally gave it to the bosses that Wednesday after telling all my co-workers (that were saluting me and calling me Jefe and Patron) that this whole supervisor nonsense was “Mentira, Huey!” I went around showing the letter to my co-workers and they, or I, read the Spanish translation. If the bosses inferred that I had it translated for the benefit of my companeros--Good. So be it. The conversations we had strengthened me because people inevitably ask, “Why don’t you want to be a supervisor?” That’s the perfect place to talk about how the bosses are racist and how they want you to work harder and longer for nothing. They want you to take responsibility for their incompetence and the list goes on. All my co-workers understood my reasoning and had the same thoughts themselves. The whole thing turned out to be a very solidifying and educational process.

But don't get too excited just yet. It took them two months to do it but they finally canned me. There was plenty of reason for them to want to get rid of me but you can bet that the supervisor stunt was a big factor. Is it all a loss? Not quite: There are lights in the locker room and plumbers in the soon-to-be-bathroom. But beyond that, for two months we were the only department with no one looking over our shoulder. Any new supervisor that comes in will face a situation where the workers know they don't need one.

What Kind Of Solidarity Forever?

A piece exploring how organizing on the shopfloor and activism outside the shopfloor are different and how they compliment each other.

There are two versions of solidarity activity: solidarity unionism and solidarity activism. Solidarity unionism means exercising our power on the job. We organize as much as possible so we don't give our power away to lawyers, outside organizers, union staff, or anyone else. If we have to give away some power--like when we file Unfair Labor Practice charges--it's for tactical reasons only. By getting more and more coworkers to take action based on our collective self-interests as workers we create big changes--changes in our lives on the job and changes in our coworkers by showing them our ideas in practice instead of just telling them. Solidarity unionism makes more power for ourselves, more members of our union, and more members with experience, commitment, and a vision of what the One Big Union is and should be.

Solidarity activism means showing up outside of our own jobs to help other people’s struggles to defend existing conditions or defend their attempt to build something. We hand out flyers and picket outside someone else’s workplace or some other place. This kind solidarity has helped the Starbucks organizing continue and grow. There is a long and proud tradition of this kind of solidarity in our class and in our union. If solidarity activism wins better conditions for any worker anywhere then it’s a good thing, morally and as a tactic. But it's not good strategy.

Without power on the shopfloor, a union will not be a fighting organization that can win gains, and it’s much harder to maintain union democracy. Workers are more likely to exercise our power for something we run and control than something undemocratic and unaccountable. If power is outside the shopfloor, then the workers in the shop can be replaced. If their organization breaks down, the officials don’t lose anything. This is why many of the business unions love media heavy corporate style campaigns: they put the power in the hands of staff, officers, lawyers, journalists, politicians, and the well-intentioned solidarity activists who mobilize from the outside. While solidarity activism can build the skills and experience of the individuals who take part in it, it doesn’t build power in the activists' workplaces. It also doesn’t build the power of the workers in the shop being supported. If a campaign is won by solidarity activism, that means the power to make change does not rest on the shop floor. Solidarity activism doesn't build shopfloor power because it doesn't exercise shopfloor power.

Workers’ power is like a muscle. My muscles have (pretty flabby) limits. By using my muscles within their limits, I get stronger. Solidarity unionism means exercising our power. We figure out what power we have and we increase it by exercising it. We exercise our power to build an organized shop--and eventually an organized industry and an organized working class--which increases the power we have to exercise. The point isn't just to lift this weight (improving the job in the short term, a fair day's wages for a fair day's work), the point is also how the weights get lifted and by who (improving the job by our own action, in a way that builds organization and builds the IWW to abolish the wage system). We need strategy, a plan to keep on lifting until we become able to dump the bosses off our backs.

We can only lift so much at a time, though. Every time I move I realize how there's too many boxes for me alone, so I call my friends. That’s solidarity activism. Sometimes it’s tactically necessary. But our strategy should not be based on someone else constantly lifting things for us.

Imagine if my friends who helped me move stuck around forever and I never lifted anything ever again. I would get weaker and less healthy from lack of exercise. This is what the NLRB and the business unions do. They say “don’t try to lift that, just watch me.” They don’t encourage us to exercise our own power, so they don’t encourage us to increase our power. Sometimes they actively fight us when we try to exercise our power.

There are some fellow workers who prefer to be part of solidarity activism instead of solidarity unionism. That’s their right. But solidarity unionism is the direction this union should continue to move in. Solidarity activism has a place, but a secondary one. In fact, the more we focus on exercising our power in solidarity unionism--getting more members, getting more members organizing in more shops, increasing our ability to organize successfully--the more power we'll have when we need to do solidarity activism for our fellow workers in the union and out.

Originally appeared in the June 2007 Industrial Worker

Confidence and Solidarity

A follow-up to 'What kind of solidarity forever?' which claims that activism wins out over workplace organizing due to lack of confidence.

In my last Workers Power submission in June I talked about what I called solidarity unionism and solidarity activism. Solidarity activism is when we show up to demonstrations and picket lines for others, to lend our power to support them in their struggles. That's a good thing, of course. But it doesn't build our power. Solidarity unionism is what builds our power. But it's easy to emphasize solidarity activism over solidarity unionism.

One reason it's easy to overemphasize solidarity activism is lack of confidence in our organization. Sometimes we don’t believe that the IWW can be or is a real union or a real step toward forming the cooperative commonwealth. We want to be active, we want the union to matter, so we push for the union to be part of something we think of as real: a real strike, a real rank and file democracy committee or movement, real revolutionaries somewhere else.

This motivation is good intentioned, but it’s not good for the union. Lack of confidence gets in the way of the most important work of the union: organizing to make us bigger and more experienced. Lack of confidence is also disrespectful to people who are organizing in shops right now, who know the union is real and are putting a lot on the line to improve their lives as part of the IWW.

Being realistic about the fact that we need to get our house in order is good. Our union has difficulties that we need to work through. But we're not going to resolve any of those problems by prioritizing solidarity activism over solidarity unionism. That won’t lead to our house being put in order. It will lead to our house turning into a squat with all kinds of random stuff going on.

This feeling of lack of confidence is a real feeling, an emotion. That means we’re not going to get rid of it via ideas. Changing that feeling can be done in part through conversation, just like the emotional experiences we have with people when we agitate them in our organizing. And just like in organizing, these conversations happen in the context of relationships. Any conversations that will be effective in changing our confidence will be conversations that are part of building and maintaining a relationship, rather than just debate with other members on ideas. Organizing definitely involves ideas, but it takes more than that. We also need experiences. To build the union we need experiences of what a union is, of what this union is and can be.

The best way to get that experience is for the union to keep organizing and organize more. Unfortunately, lack of confidence makes us less likely to be active in organizing. We need to deal with lack of confidence by inviting and pushing people - others and ourselves - to be more active. More specifically, we need to be more active in things that are likely to give us the experiences we need. People need to be offered concrete actions, like attending a one on one with a more experienced organizer, or a good shop committee meeting. We also need to share our experiences by swapping stories - just like when we agitate - and to discuss experiences with each other to find the elements that will motivate us further.

Existing lack of confidence in the union is partially due to people not having had these experiences, and not having heard about experiences they can imagine having. That means that lack of confidence indicates a failure of mentoring in the union. Doing solidarity unionism is hard. One part of it is encouraging more people to get involved, so they get the experience and gain confidence. This is a lot of work, but it's do-able and we have to do it.

Originally appeared in the July 2007 Industrial Worker

Potentials for Solidarity Unionism

Todd Hamilton elaborates on the IWW's usual mode of organizing, 'solidarity unionism'.

Simply put solidarity unionism is organizing collectively (or as a group of workers) to directly implement our desires whether that’s in the workplace, industry, or economy. It is simple, but the practice has never really been fleshed out systematically either in practice or in theory. We have a body of experiences, thoughts, and discussions and as our practice matures it leads us to look deeper into solidarity unionism. Solidarity unionism leads us to change our understanding of what the 'union’ means for us, as well as where we intervene and put our emphasis in struggle.

There is no blue print for how to organize in general, but that doesn't mean we can't develop strategic ways of pursuing our goals. Previous authors (Alexis Buss, Staughton Lynd, etc) have focused on how we can organize in the without falling back on some of the familiar features of union organizing as we’ve known it. Some of the things they take on are comprehensive contracts, election based campaigns requiring a majority of workers, and the mediating bureaucracies and institutions (the courts, union bureaucracies, lawyers, politicians and parties) that alienate workers' power. They have argued for organizing even if there is only a minority of workers who are members of the union, organizing whether or not the boss and/or state recognize the union, organizing where workers’ power is the greatest (in the workplace and community), and remaining strategic about how to avoid and selectively utilize (the generally alienating and debilitating environments of) the courts, the state and parties, and hierarchical union bureaucracy that acts for and instead of workers (often against).

These are some of the walls we have hit. Contracts have helped kill job actions through forcing workplace gripes into a mediating bureaucracy that is hostile to workers. The hierarchical institutions put struggle into realms where worker power is weakest, and where workers play a secondary role. Beyond the power of the boss, the union bureaucracy has all the power and knowledge creating a hierarchy between the workers and the means of struggle. Elections and membership-based drives have sunk huge amounts of efforts into organizing where there is often little benefit for workers privileges bureaucracies with huge resources, and reproduces hierarchical relationships between workers and the union.

Solidarity unionism is about organizing whether we're recognized or not, whether there's a contract or not, and most of all settling direct worker issues by the workers. That doesn’t mean we don’t use things like contracts, lawsuits, arbitration, but they are tactics we use not our strategy. Likewise we understand them and hold them to their strategic value, and don’t mistake them for what they aren’t.

Once we begin to think in these terms though, and begin to organize with these issues in mind, we gain a deeper perspective on strategy. For instance it is no longer necessary to fly the union flag as a hallmark in every campaign. It might be more tactical to keep the boss in the dark about union activity at a shop, or in an industry until we have already won enough gains and a wide enough base of support that announcing our presence would be strategic. Thus going another route than majority-based elections allows us to be strategic about when and how we give knowledge about the union's presence in organizing.

We can also be strategic about who and when we sign members up. Rather than having the goal of organizing being to just get people to take out cards whether they want to participate or not, membership can be an actions itself and a positive step a worker can take in further the struggle and consciousness building. We can keep dues and membership for workers who want to be a part of the organization, who are ready to join, and who have experienced class struggle and organization together with the union (this of course is a positive feature, rather than a restrictive). This can draw a line in the sand between unions that are paper tigers, and unions (like us) that exist in our actions, education, and struggle.

Solidarity Unionism presents its own challenges, and poses new questions to us. The rough model I am working off is one in which experienced workers assist in workplace struggles where demands are won through direct action. Workers are brought into the organization and developed through these struggles and move towards revolutionary understanding and practice. At a certain level of strength and roots through these worker organizers can apply deeper pressure in their industry. That is, we seek to build a foundation to respond and deepen struggle that otherwise might emerge but deflate through familiar mechanisms.

Originally appeared in the August 2007 Industrial Worker

Informal Workgroups

A brief look at informal work groups, which the author sees "as the seeds, and the tiny cells within a larger muscle of organization."

In every workplace throughout all of history, workers have come together and worked together for their common interests. This takes many forms. Sometimes its at the level of two workers next to each other in cubicles who support each other and make work less miserable by being able to laugh with one another; other times it forms into a group that encompasses enough people that they can informally control the speed of production and the work conditions that surround them; and sometimes it grows into a union a group of workers within a shop, ideally across and industry who can directly exercise power in relation to the boss. In whichever form it takes it is significant. In each form it challenges the isolation that exists in other aspects of our lives as workers. In these relationships we begin to see the possibilities of what it means to take collective action and what it means to control the means of production. We are empowered by these relationships, and where we can build on them we can have success and begin to make changes.

These bonds we form with our fellow workers are the basis of our organization, the basis of Industrial Unionism and the basis of a working class movement. Where these bonds originate and where they are most intense is in our workplaces, where they come out of our day-to-day interactions and struggles.

The first two forms mentioned are incomplete. Little can be done if our work group remains isolated in a group of two or three; and if we begin to informally control production we still may be isolated within a larger company or industry. These have to be expanded through organization. But look at these small groups as the seeds, and the tiny cells within a larger muscle of organization (a muscle that must be constantly exercised).

Through organization these small work groups branch out, around an issue or as part of a campaign. They encompass other workers, get further defined through this organization, and identify workplace or industrial issues to struggle against. Again this often happens informally and we should not overlook it or believe that workers are not capable of acting outside of formal organization. Small informal actions are happening all over the place, and even in this context workers begin to see their power, but in small ways. It has to grow and it has to become formal in order to grow to a position of strength and push forward demands.

As the struggle grows it becomes more formal, the definition it gets is one of class. It moves from a group of friends or acquaintances that want to make things better on the job, to a group of workers making a demand on the boss and having an action to follow this demand up. In this action we must come together and confront things directly ourselves. This means not relying on a third party, on the government, a lawyer, or the press to enforce our demands, but doing it ourselves, with other workers inside our workplace and outside of it. This is direct action and is present in informal struggle and in formal struggle.

In this struggle we as a group are defined by our relationship to the boss and to production, in a way that is not possible when we act as individuals. This is when we become the working class, a group acting in its own interests.

We all identify ourselves as part of this group, the issue we have been organizing around now becomes one of the working class verse the employing class. And though these actions we begin to see what is possible, not just for ourselves and our families but also for our fellow workers, for our organization and for our union. Out of these small seeds, informal work groups, organization, direct action, our class is defined. We cease to be individuals, left to the whims of the bosses and become a force that can push our own issues and agenda.

Originally appeared in the December 2007 Industrial Worker

Who Can Say?

Recently I received a call from Seth, someone I have been advising on how to organize a union for his workplace. Seth has been diligently slogging away for months, reaching out to his co-workers and organizing them to improve their working conditions. Over the course of the past few months he and his co-workers have had some small victories-they forced management to replace unsafe equipment after someone was injured, to staff shifts appropriately and to give them an unpaid holiday for Christmas. However, when I received a call from Seth he was depressed. His efforts to bring his co-workers together were not going well. The company had brought in a new manager to break the union by bribing the workers. The tactic seemed to be working and previously staunch supporters were telling Seth that they weren't interested in the union anymore.

We spent a few moments talking about Seth’s feeling of hopelessness. I shared with him how hard and depressing I found my own organizing at times. I also told him that in organizing it is always difficult to know what people are thinking or what they will do next. The most important thing, I suggested, was to be persistent. When workers try to form a union employers almost always try to break their spirits. If you don’t let them break your spirit you’ll probably win in the end, I said. And then, I offered him a story from the Taoist tradition to illustrate my point about not knowing what will happen next.

I said: “Long ago in China there was a peasant whose horse had run away. His neighbor commiserated with him. He replied “Who can know if it’s good or bad?’ The very next day the horse returned bringing with him a herd of wild horses. The peasant was suddenly very rich. When his neighbor commented on his good fortune he replied “Who can know if it’s good or bad?’ The next day the peasant’s son tried mounting one of the wild horses. He fell off and broke both his legs. Again the neighbor offered the peasant his sympathy and again the peasant replied “˜Who can know if it’s good or bad?’ The very next day the army came to the village to draft soldiers into service for a far away war. The peasant’s son was exempted from military service because of his injuries. So you see you can’t always know in the midst of things what is helpful and what isn’t.”

Seth told me that he found the story helpful and that it improved his spirits. A few days later he called me to tell me that he’d gotten five of his co-workers to join the union. A few of his co-workers had been talking things over without Seth and realized that all of the bribes--the better shifts and safer working conditions--management was giving them were because of the union, not despite it. He felt that things were going well and thanked me for the story I had shared with him.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2007)