Columns from 2010

Other columns from 2010 include:

-Charting Is Pertinent For Organizing
-Talking to Bosses: Stick to the Script!
-On contracts
-Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union: Still Good Advice

Responses to 'Sowing the Seeds"

Two letters to the Industrial Worker about a piece called 'Sowing the Seeds of Workers Power'

“Workers’ Power” Column Should Be About Workers’ Power

Dear Industrial Worker,

This letter is in response the article “Sowing the Seeds of Workers Power” that appeared in the “Workers’ Power” column on page 5 of the November 2009 Industrial Worker. Let me start by saying that I’m a devout gardener. (I even help teach horticulture at the school where I work!). Despite this, there are some issues that need to be addressed in “Sowing the Seeds.” Most importantly, the article seems to be aimed more at building consumer power rather than workplace power. As I’m sure most Wobblies will agree, workers’ most effectively exert class power not as consumers (or ‘citizens’) but through our control of the means of production; or, in other words, through workplace-based organization. Accordingly, stories and analysis of how to this ought to be the main focus of a column entitled “Workers’ Power”.

The article states, “Workers can organize a factory and kick out the bosses. A very practical, relatively simple, and often overlooked opportunity for taking possession of the means of production is in the agriculture.” The author is correct that if agricultural workers take over the means of production from the bosses, then these are analogous situations. However, this does not apply to home (or even community) gardens. The first example challenges class relationships; the second, while healthy and fun, does not directly challenge the validity of the capitalist system. We shouldn’t pretend it does and the Industrial Worker should not promote it as such.

Statements such as “the potential for a union to support a bountiful community harvest through urban gardens,” speak to the consumption-based premises of the article. Community gardens are great and could be a tool for building contacts and solidarity, but they’re no substitute for workplace organization and action. Along the same lines, statements such as “I do not need to rely on an agribusiness for that part of my sustenance” are problematic. The goal of the IWW is not for our members to somehow avoid or “drop out” of capitalism (an impossible goal in any event—even co-ops exist in a capitalist market) but for workers to take over industry from the capitalist class.

There is a very valid class interest in boycotts at the point of production in the name of sustainability. For example, taking inspiration from the Australian green bans, workers in meatpacking factories could refuse to process animals that were not raised in a 300-mile radius of the plant. Actions such as this would be much more effective at both building class power and increasing the sustainability of the food supply.

X364060 concludes the article by proclaiming their support for “small farmers.” I’m curious if s/he has ever worked on a small farm. Small farms are still capitalist and, indeed, a small farmer is just as ‘petit bourgeois’ as a small shop owner. In fact, when the IWW created the Agricultural Workers Organization in the nineteen-teens it was precisely small farmers whom we were organizing against. Then, just like now, small farmers employed immigrant laborers seasonally.

Finally, the IW and the IWW in general needs to be very careful in making statements regarding individuals’ food choices. Personally, I’m a vegetarian. But, when I was involved in the Motor Transport Workers Industrial Union 530 campaign in North Carolina, we had meat at every single meeting. North Carolina is a ‘hog’ state and meat (and hunting) played a very real cultural role in the lives of those truckers. I’d be very wary of handing them a newspaper that took a prescriptive and/or judgmental stance on their eating habits.

For Workers’ Power,
X361737 London, UK

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January 2010)

“Workers’ Power” Column Defended

Dear Industrial Worker:

I am writing in response to the letter titled “’Workers’ Power’ Column Should Be About Workers’ Power,” which ap­peared on page 2 of the January 2010 Industrial Worker and which critiqued the November 2009 “Workers’ Power” column. I have been editing the “Work­ers’ Power” column for over three and a half years and the November column generated the strongest response of any of the submissions that I have published. The response to the column has been uniformly negative. I received about half a dozen personal emails as a result of the column, all expressing similar senti­ments to x361737. Pretty much everyone seems to agree that the column was not about organizing for economic power at the point of production and, therefore, had no place in the “Workers’ Power” series.

I cannot quite agree. In my mind the purpose of the “Workers’ Power” column is to spark debate and discussion, to give Wobblies tools to improve the quality of our organizing and organization, and to push us to think about the ways that working-class people can build power. In that the column clearly sparked debate and discussion, I think that it fit these criteria. I hope that future columns will be as provocative and challenge people to think about what types of activities IWW members should be advocating.

If any readers of the Industrial Worker have ideas for future “Workers’ Power” columns please send them my way. I can be reached at cbossen[at]gmail.com. Submissions must be less than 800 words in length and will be edited for clarity but not content.

In the spirit of love and solidarity,
Colin Bossen

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (February/March 2010)

We are all “amigos"

J. Pierce talks about expectations of white workers to accept racism and division in the workplace.

In most of my experiences in the working world, I have felt as if the bosses expected me, a college-educated white guy, to relate only to them. I’m supposed to want what they want and believe what they believe. Many of my previous employers, often despite their own backgrounds as people of color, were willing to express some pretty racist and anti-worker sentiments. They expected me to agree.

When they find that I have befriended co-workers of color on the job, they are usually dismayed. At the cafeteria, befriending Abraham, an older African- American, made Jean (the “hatchet lady” brought in to do the firing) quite angry. Soon enough, both of us were fired in the bosses’ quest to break up our informal control of the pace of work.

Before I got hired at the recycling yard, the bosses asked me, “Are you sure you can take orders from a Spanish speaker? These guys aren’t even from Mexico. They’re from, like, Guatemala!...[ insert more racist blather].” But befriending all the Latinos (95 percent Mexicanos, by the way) made Ted, Andy, and Chaz pretty red in the face. After refusing a “promotion” to a supervisor position and building trust among my co-workers, management canned me after three months. Before that, because of our friendship, however, we enjoyed the only supervisor-free department and had some fun to boot!

“When we get bigger, and start to hire some amigos,” joked the widget boss, “I’m going to need you here managing them.” Eventually new people were hired and I treated them as compañeros and ignored the boss’s intended hierarchy. We enjoyed relatively stressfree working conditions, won expensive jackets, and orchestrated raises and equal pay—all out of our collaboration.

The thing I have learned from my time in the IWW is that I, myself, am an “amigo.” I am the cheap and vulnerable laborer who the bosses chase after. As a white guy, I have better access to jobs and I enjoy better treatment, relatively speaking. But if I don’t play their racist game, I quickly become the “lazy American” who wants more leisure time, safer and more meaningful work, and thinks everything ought to be free. (Wait ‘til they hear how the IWW intends to get it!) When the grocery bosses ask me to help save on “labor,” it is code for cutting back my hours so I can barely pay the rent. When the widget boss goes on an impromptu rant about how “the unions” screwed up the country, he’s scolding the people who comprise his “labor,” entreating us to expect a grim future for our children.

Every night before bed, the capitalists pray that we continue to identify with the rich instead of uniting with our fellow workers. They want us to continue on the path of racial segregation, exclusion (ostensibly) based on “citizenship” status, and delusions of joining the upper crust. But despite the bosses’ best efforts, IWW members in half a dozen countries insist on identifying with the oppressed ranks of labor. We insist on building links across color lines as we fight to bring the new society into existence. But that’s just what friends do.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2010)

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Every night before bed, the capitalists pray that we continue to identify with the rich instead of uniting with our fellow workers. They want us to continue on the path of racial segregation, exclusion (ostensibly) based on “citizenship” status, and delusions of joining the upper crust.
J Pierce, Wobbly

The battle of the sandwiches: what does the bosses' offensive look like?

Alex Erikson talks about a new manager who came into his workplace with the intent of breaking worker solidarity through small, winnable issues.

If you read stuff about the labor movement of the 1970s and 80s, there is a lot of talkabout the “bosses’ offensive,” an aggressive attack on workers movements by capital.

A friend of mine from Italy told me that in 1977, the bosses and pro-boss workers (we call these people ’scissorbills,’ because their words cut you) staged a march of several thousand people in opposition to the continued wildcat strikes, sabotage, and occasional kneecapping, kidnapping, or assassination of bosses in the plants of northern Italy. This action was sufficient to change the climate and turn the cultural tide against the workers’ insurgency.

In my own workplace, we have seen an ebb and flow of class struggle on a micro-level. Initially, when the union went public, the boss was so afraid of us that he would sneak in and out the back door of the store without us knowing. We actually had a hard time planning actions because we could never find the boss to make demands.

The company replaced our boss with a new, more authoritarian manager. She set about breaking the union. Many of our fellow workers quit of their own volition before the union-busting really started, so we were already weak when the boss went on the offensive against us.

How did our new boss attack us? The same way we attacked our boss. She picked a winnable issue- something that we cared about but that we would be unable to defend. An issue that would isolate us from our coworkers, where we would not have “common sense” or the moral high ground behind us. In this case, it was the day-old sandwiches. We used to keep the sandwiches we didn’t sell at the end of the night for the workers who would come in the next day to have for lunch. Since we’re all so damn poor, this small gesture of solidarity meant a lot- it saved us money, and sometimes meant we got to eat when we would otherwise miss a meal.

The boss took away our sandwiches and put a note in the back room instructing us that we were no longer allowed to keep the sandwiches.

We were outraged. She was taking food out of our mouths. Immediately, two workers confronted the boss and demanded we be able to keep the sandwiches, explaining how important it was to us, how we didn’t make enough money to buy lunch every day, and how upset all the other workers would be.

The boss had prepared an answer in advance. She said it was against health code to keep the sandwiches, and that her boss would not allow it. We went back and forth a bunch of times to no avail.

The next day, I packaged up the sandwiches and put them in a stapled-shut bag, labeling it for a coworker who worked the next morning. He got the sandwiches and shared them with others on his shift. This was a direct action, directly contradicting the boss’ wishes.

I got called in the back room the next day. I was informed that if I did this again, I would be written up. Two writeups and I would be fired.

What could we do? We could do another march on the boss. A strike? A picket? A phone-in? We couldn’t figure out how to escalate. Our coworkers were not comfortable openly disobeying the boss, especially with the supposed legitimacy of “health code” behind her.

Our boss won. We lost the sandwiches. We did not have the organization we needed to defend ourselves.

This was the first defensive battle of a long retreat. Once you lose once, the effect can be devastating. People lose confidence in their ability to win and your organization crumbles. The boss gets increasingly brazen in their attacks.

But their brazenness generates agitation. You might have to bide your time, but eventually, the time will be ripe for a counterattack. It’s important to understand this dynamic in order to be able to beat back the bosses’ offensive, but also to be able to take the occasional loss in stride, pick our battles, and stay on the offensive more effectively.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2010)

It takes more than direct action

Colin Bossen talks about 3 different organizing campaigns he's been a part of and why the succeeded or failed.

Over the last seven years I have been involved in three major IWW organizing campaigns. The first of these was with the Chicago Couriers Union. This campaign succeeded in building a union of bike messengers that over the last seven years has maintained a small but dedicated membership. The couriers union has, throughout its existence, managed to make a difference in the lives of the workers in the industry. Since its inception the union has: won a wage increase at the third largest courier company in Chicago; advocated for numerous workers who have been unjustly fired, denied back pay, illegally docked at work, harassed or otherwise victimized; taught novice bike messengers about safety; and improved access to buildings. The union has also organized numerous social events and bike races for members of the Chicago, national and international courier industry. These events combined with the union's victories have made the couriers union a significant presence in Chicago and in the wider industry.

The other two campaigns I have been involved with have not been as successful. The first was an effort to organize the troqueros, or port truck drivers, in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. This effort got off to a solid start. The IWW was contacted by a group of troqueros interested in organizing. As many as fifty workers attended the groups initial meeting. More importantly the group was able to organize a strike that shut down the both of the ports. Despite this spectacular job action--involving thousands of workers and disrupting a large segment of economy--the troqueros were unable to successfully build a lasting union presence in the industry.

The second failed campaign I was involved with shared similar characteristics to the troquero campaign. It involved a group of taxi workers in Cleveland. Again, there was initially great enthusiasm. Before ever meeting with the IWW the group had managed to organize meetings with as many as 80 workers in attendance. Over the course of a year, the taxi workers held a series of direct actions and protests that built some respect for them in the industry. The director of the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport met with them to listen to their concerns and they vocally presented their demands to the owners of a couple of taxi companies. After a year of this kind of activity, and despite their promising start, the taxi workers organizing efforts also petered out.

The two failed organizing campaigns had a lot in common. In both instances they took place in cities where the IWW lacked a well-organize local branch. In both instances I was trying to organize the campaign with little additional support. And in both instances the workers involved had little interest in doing institutional work of union building--people did not want to step-up to be delegates or use any sort of structure for running their meetings. This meant that the workers meetings were often dominated by personalities and there were no formal mechanisms for accountability.

The campaign that resulted from the Chicago Couriers Union provides a sharp contrast with the other two. It took place in a city with a well-organized and vibrant local branch. Between the branch and the international union, money was put together in two separate instances to fund a stipended organizer for three months. And throughout the initial phases of the campaign there were always a handful of people from outside the industry involved in organizing efforts. These differences meant that there were people to work on the campaign when the workers in the industry's interest slackened and that there was a model of organization that the couriers could refer to when building their own.

The differences between these three campaigns have led me to believe that, in order for organizing efforts to succeed in the long-term, organizers and workers must focus on institution building. I am positive that if strong IWW branches existed in either Los Angeles or Cleveland when I was working with the troqueros and taxi workers, then the outcome of both of those campaigns would have been different. Likewise, I believe that if the IWW had been able to devote a full-time stipended organizer to either campaign the results would have been different.

If the IWW is to grow into a powerful force for the working class then we must focus on making our institutions stronger. This means, at the least, better organized local branches and more resources for funding organizers. If we devote our energies to these things, we will be a force to be reckoned with. If we do not, our organizing efforts will continue to have a mixed track record and, more often than not, end in failure.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (July 2010)

In November, we remember: Vicky Starr

Staughton Lynd remembers a working class organizer, Vicky Starr.

When my wife Alice and I interviewed Vicky Starr in 1969 and 1971 for a collection of oral histories called Rank and File, Vicky called herself "Stella Nowicki" because she didn't want her employer at the time (the University of Chicago) to know about her radical activities in the 1930s. When we interviewed her again for a second collection more than a quarter century later, she had retired and had no problem in using her real name.

Vicky Starr was the child of Eastern European immigrants. She grew up on a farm in Michigan. "We had no electricity. We had outdoor privies." Vicky ran away from home at age seventeen because "there was not enough money to feed the family during the Depression."

Vicky's father had been a coal miner and had "bought a few books about Lenin and Gorky." She recalled that when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed "the foreign-born people were in mourning for a week." The family practiced what Vicky's father described as a socialist idea, "No work, no eat."

Agnes, a woman from Chicago, had come to the farm for her health. Agnes invited Vicky to go back to Chicago with her. Vicky at first lived with Agnes' family and through them met a member of the Young Communist League named Herb March.

Vicky did housework for $4 a week and hated it. Herb March suggested she get a job in the stockyards.

Vicky began in the "cook room" where women cut big chunks of meat into smaller pieces to make hash. She worked six-hour shifts at 37 1/2 cents an hour.

On the floor below women made hotdogs and one day a woman got her fingers caught in putting meat into the chopper. The fingers were cut off. All six floors stopped work and sat down. The company put in safety devices. But Vicky was identified as a leader and fired.

A friend was recalled to the stockyards but had another job and didn't want to go. Using the friend's name, Vicky got back in.

Communist leader William Z. Foster and other full-time organizers passed through Chicago and held meetings. Leaflets were written. Students from the University of Chicago, who couldn't be fired, passed them out at the gate before work. The International Workers Order, which helped people with sickness benefits and insurance, gave union organizers access to large numbers of potential sympathizers. Vicky joined the Catholic Sodality and the Young Womens' Christian Association.

At work, the women with whom Vicky worked practiced solidarity by restricting output within agreed-on limits. But they didn't want to pay union dues. Again it was health and safety that opened a door. One of the women became paralyzed because of the intermittent freezing air to which the line was exposed, and died. "Within a week we organized that whole department."

Women often did harder work than the men and were paid less. Within the union, staff jobs went only to men. "I would be approached by men for dates and they would ask me why I was in the union, so I would tell them that I was for socialism." Vicky learned to play pool and bowl, and got men into the union that way.

In 1938, 1939, 1940 the Packinghouse Workers didn't yet have bargaining rights. There was "tremendous ferment." Vicky recalled:

"You had this sense that people were ready to get together, to protect each other... It did happen that people were fired but when people were fired the whole department just closed down."

By the 1940s the union would bring a sound truck and thousands of people would show up for meetings in the middle of the stockyards at noontime. "The union leadership would be negotiating within a particular plant on a grievance [and if] the matter wasn't settled by a certain time, the whole department would walk out."

In 1945, with the union recognized and the war over, Vicky left packing. She married a linotypist for the Chicago Tribune and had three children. About 1950 she went back to work as a secretary at the University of Chicago.

The NLRB decided that the "appropriate bargaining unit" was clerical workers throughout the whole university. There were 1800 of them. More than eighteen buildings had to be organized.

After other unions tried and failed, the Teamsters launched a campaign. Vicky had no use for the local union president who made $200,000 a year. But twenty-one stewards were elected by secret ballot before the NLRB election and Vicky, by that time working for the Department of Education, was one of them. Eighteen of the new stewards were women.

As in the stockyards, grievances were pursued and won before union recognition. And after union recognition "the stewards became the bargaining committee."

Vicky worked for another ten years after the union was recognized. She remembered going to the university hospital for medical reasons after she retired. Gregarious as always, she got into conversation with the secretaries. She said, "We helped to organize the union," And they said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Vicky introduced us to two friends and fellow spirits, Katherine Hyndman and Sylvia Woods, and the three became the protagonists of the documentary movie, "Union Maids." Sylvia, an African American, helped to organize a UAW local at Bendix during World War II. Memorably, she stated in her interview in Rank and File:

"We never had [dues] check-off. We didn't want it. We said if you have a closed shop and check-off, everybody sits on their butts and they don't have to worry about organizing and they don't care what happens. We never wanted it."

In these later years Vicky Starr also separated from her husband and became an ardent proponent of womens' liberation.

Vicky says at the end of "Union Maids":

"There's some tremendous potential in people, in labor people, in working people, and in union people... They are very democratic... There's a tremendous militancy that's below the surface and that will rise and come up."

Vicky Starr died in November 2009. Vicky Starr, presente.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2010)

The pamphlet as passport

A piece about a disruption of traffic action at a Barcelona university.

Spain in June was hot. Not in the temperature sense, but in the “labor struggle is heating up” sense. The rhetoric in Europe isn’t about “recovery” the way it is here in North America: everything is “crisis,” “austerity,” and “we must all sacrifice.” “We,” of course, means “workers.” The first target was the militant public sector workers. This sector includes staff in hospitals, schools, and government offices. My first question upon arriving in Barcelona to my host was, “What’s going on, and how do I help?” His response was, “Come to our action.”

The action was an information picket at a university outside of Barcelona. We had a two-sided pamphlet in wordy and less wordy form. There were multiple access points to the campus, but it was possible to occupy them all with about three groups. I was initially confused about the objectives, and clearly others were as well. Before arriving I thought we were doing a full blockade. Then I later thought we were just handing out pamphlets; later still I was informed that our objective was to ruin traffic around the university. We were to functionally block the university without announcing it. That didn’t require actually stopping every driver. This was an important distinction.

During the initial phase, when we were just handing out pamphlets, the drivers began treating the pamphlets as their passport to the campus. After a while we started getting cars that already had a pamphlet. It was almost cute the way the drivers would desperately wave it in order to get past us. What I realized was that this was an assent to our power. Whether or not they acknowledged the legitimacy of our makeshift passport, they acknowledged our power. Legitimate or not, we controlled access to the campus. Not only that, we had a lasting effect with the “pamphlet as passport.” If these people planned on leaving campus and returning, they had to carry that pamphlet with them the entire day. All of a sudden a disposable piece of propaganda had acquired the status of one of those critical things you carry around with you every day, like your driver’s license.

Realizing the power we had and seeing how we could use it shocked me. We speak a lot about class consciousness, but we rarely talk about power. Raising class consciousness needs to have a component that acknowledges the fact that we are using and wielding power. We don’t really have the ability to be surgical with that power. Mostly it takes the form of “we can do a lot of economic damage if we don’t get what we want.” This is the core of the strike action. Recognizing this truth is critical. The “what we want” part can be fair and equitable, but it is utterly irrelevant without a foundation of “we can do a lot of economic damage.”

Class consciousness is not just “my buddy and I at work have the same grievances.” It is the acknowledgement of our collective power and our willingness to use it for our benefit. Exercising that power, even in small ways like pamphlet-as- passport, demonstrate the kind of class consciousness that is the bread-and-butter underpinning day-to-day class struggle. Without this experience and understanding of collective power we risk crippling our own class consciousness.

Originally appered in the Industrial Worker (December 2010)