An account of an informal work group at UPS taking on a grievance with management.
This is a story about a situation that happened at my workplace. Ideally, this will add to a conception of what Direct Unionism is, how it exists in everyday situations, and where we can go with it as an organization. This event happened around a year ago. While some of its impacts were immediate, it took me some time to develop an analysis, and to see clearly how this tied in with the development of class-consciousness. At this point I feel that I can look back, analyze the situation and draw out some lessons.
I worked on the sunrise shift at a parcel moving company represented by the Teamsters. At this company, and in this industry in general, every package is timed out to the last minute. Every day lost in not delivering a package costs this company money. The precision of the timing and the workers' role in maintaining the schedule furthers the opportunity for strategic opposition. This was especially true on my shift where the large majority of the packages being unloaded were on the last leg of their journey. These packages are going directly from us to the trucks that deliver things to your home.
Thus workers in the unload department were in a strategic position in effecting production. This was not immediately apparent to everyone working that section, but the realization eventually took hold. Over the course of roughly four months the unload crew, which consisted of about ten people, developed some pretty tight bonds. Everyone respected and trusted one another.
Day in and day out, the boss' goal is to get workers out after three and a half hours. The Teamsters negotiated into the contract that the company has to guarantee three and a half hours of work. At $8.50 or $9.50 an hour, this amount of time is not enough to live on. Moreover, the amount of work they expect people to get done in three and a half hours is easily four or five hours worth of work. In order to crank it out there are numerous methods. Making work into some kind of sport is one way, or just riding the hell out of people. I have even heard supervisors offering twenty bucks to certain stooges in order to make them work even faster.
In response to this constant speed-up at these low wages, our crew began to drag out the day and slow down as much as we could. All of us understood that being there for four or four and a half hours was important, and just as important was not letting the boss set the pace at which our bodies worked.
For obvious reasons, management did not like this so they began a series of restructuring efforts. They brought in different supervisors, trying to get the most hard-nosed bastard down there, or the friendliest your-older-brother-on-the-line type. None of this worked. Next management began to bring in new hires. It was around the time of the year when new hires are usually brought in, so it may not have been a method to destabilize us as a group. Whether deliberate or not, bringing on an extra set of hands could have undermined our informal production rate.
This particular cat that was brought in, young, straight out of high school, looked every bit to management like someone who would not fit in with our group. The most important aspect was that cat still lived with his folks, and was only working there for the education assistance UPS offers (the establishment of this is a side story of using student labor to pre-empt and undermine workers' power but I won't get into that here). The rest of us, although young, lived on our own and were supporting ourselves. So it seemed at first like he would not be down with the dynamics that existed. Quickly this proved not to be the case. Rather than hang out with supervisor training you at break during the first few weeks, which is customary as this is the only person you know and basically you're cornered into it, he would come chill with us in the break room. He was loud, talked good shit, and openly defied the boss.
It is hard to say what bothered the bosses more - Willy hanging out with us, or his refusal to go the pace they demanded. This pace varies between 23 and 30 boxes a minute, pretty staggering in general. He kept his pace right around ours, which varied from person to person but was much lower than the boss's numbers. It got to a point where management began threatening to fire him. He came to us. Our advice, which was probably a mistake but stuck within the confines of the union contract, was pick it up until you hit the end of your probation period. It takes a new hire 70 working days until he is a "member" of the union, and under its protection from discipline. This is 70 days of speed-up, manipulation and harassment, during which time the union can only look the other way. As a shop steward once explained to me, "If he's under 90 days I can't touch the situation.
He took our advice, but it proved to not be enough. Even though he was exceeding their production numbers at a pace unbelievable to the rest of us, they were still on his ass.
It got to a point where management decided to restart his training at the beginning. Even though it had been well over a month, it was obvious that this was meant to break him away from our group. This led us to respond with some kind of collective action.
This group had been the driving force throughout the escalating conflict but never had we decided to define ourselves as a group, the line had never come down.
Everyone was at the boiling point in the break room that day. The discussion quickly moved beyond statements like "how could they do that?" It quickly became how were we going to respond and help this cat out.
Driven both by our feelings for Willy and by the realization that this attack on him was an attack on us as well, we resolved to take action. It was known from previous experience that the shop stewards would not help as they were confined by the contract. We resolved in the break room to confront out supervisor after break during the PCM (a communication session usually reserved for safety things, or general company cheerleading). Our demands were pretty simple: We wanted an end to the harassment of Willy, and specifically we wanted this supervisor named Chris who had been training Willy kicked off the belt. It was never openly discussed how we would ensure that these demands were met although the term "strike" was mentioned. No one seemed ready to go that far until after we presented our demands.
So we sat down on a belt that still wasn't moving as we did every day, everyone nervously glancing at one another to figure out who would speak up first. No one had been designated to speak. As the supervisor, Drew, began to talk his bullshit he was quickly silenced, I don't remember by whom, with the announcement that we were going to talk and he was going to listen. This was the first time we had defined ourselves as a group, an act within itself with certain implications for management. A shift in floor power definitely occurred and people felt it immediately.
Drew's jaw dropped to the floor as we poured forth out demands. Each person who wanted to speak did so. Our demands were presented. His reiteration, spoke in a shaky voice was that it wasn't our business to say what supervisors did and that we should get back to work. Someone threatened some kind of strike action. Ears perked up, and Drew really went to shit. Demanding that we all go back to work that instant. None of us jumped up, but rather looked around for some kind of understanding where the others were. We went back to work a few seconds later.
For the next little bit people felt great and no one was thinking about the repercussions. Until we saw a swarm of supervisors coming around the trailer. People began to get fingered out by Drew and one by one called out of trailers. A shop steward was down on the floor along with upper management. The main supervisor stood with his arms crossed while the other one did the berating. The supervisor, whose usual demeanor was all about being buddies, threatened to immediately fire the whole belt if he had to if ever anyone said anything about a strike again. During my berating session, as I tried to clear up the situation by reiterating our demands (which only seemed to make them more pissed) I continuously looked at the shop steward for some support. Nothing coming. Afterwards he pulled me aside, shook my hand, and tacitly gave approval to what we had done.
That's what a union is he said, us workers sticking together.
Well, the next few weeks were great. Chris got transferred off the belt and people began to leave Willy alone. We all felt great about coming to a place most of us had hated only six months earlier. The bosses did not try any retaliation - not even a write-up, they seemed to not want to bring it up. Which of course did not stop us from bringing it up.
This story does not end however on a happy note. I think having seen our group as a force the bosses began to move against it, with increased vigor. Most of the tactics we didn't really see coming. Isolation was a big one. Individuals were sent to different parts of the building or began getting some overt special treatment. The union and the contract were used as a way to isolate one person from the rest of us, based on seniority and disciplinary matters. One cat in particular, due to threats from management and a refusal from the union to have his back anymore, went from being outspoken to silent due to a real fear of losing his job.
Personal problems between workers were also used with management openly trying to incite waives of shit talking between people. It went from a situation of friends who had each other's backs, to acquaintances that didn't trust one and another. Management set this up with the goal of breaking us apart. However, we could have countered each tactic used by management with some foresight and some training. But due to inexperience this did not happen. Lastly, we were isolated from a movement or from other shops with similar situations. We were away from other people who were struggling in a similar way against their bosses and the union. Being connected to such a group could have given us the foresight and resources to counter management's attack.
This incident and the months leading up to and preceding it had a major impact on my thinking. Certainly, although not at the time, it taught me a lot about autonomous worker organizing. Workers on their job site form bonds and create an informal work group, that naturally go against the isolation that work aims to impose. Groups form naturally among diverse people who may not have ever conceived of laughing and bullshitting with other workers. These groups then quite easily become the grounds for struggle against the bosses. This is based on the ability of workers to simply come together and air their beefs, realize the commonality, and trust one and another enough to engage in struggle. This was evident in my experience. I do not mean to make it seem like we were all best friends.
Some people got along better than others, occasionally people might have a falling out, but at the end of the day it was clear there was a group and it was composed of us workers. Stan Wier and Martin Glaberman, two working-class writers and revolutionaries of the late twentieth century, wrote about similar topics. It is to them and fellow workers around me, as well as my experience that I owe my current understanding of informal work groups. This experience also shaped my idea of formation of class-consciousness.
By this term I mean workers identifying themselves as such, and recognizing that they have different interests with the bosses. How is this shaped? What I realized it that class-consciousness is shaped by two threads in my story. First and initially being involved in labor and recognizing that this labor is being also taken up and affected by those around you form it. The basis of informal work groups is the initial basis of class-consciousness.
A second component, and in some ways is created by the first, but goes beyond it is struggle. This is the recognition that not only are you part of a group, but a group that relies on each other. Class-consciousness manifests itself on the shop floor, sometimes in subtle ways, a quick fuck you to the boss for example. Other times it is the willingness to take on the problem of the cat next to you as if it were your own, and taking action based on this. That it is important to stand up for the cat next to you, not just out of your personal relationship (what if you think the guy is an ass) but because in the process you are standing up for yourself. Moreover, when workers define themselves as a group and confront the boss in any manner, it furthers their understanding of what that group is and what power it has. Collective action reinforces that group understanding and forms class-consciousness. While this has been my experience, the writings of Martin Glaberman have definitely helped this understanding along.
It is important to realize that the potential for and the actual occurrence of these actions are widespread. It covers every shift everyday in every shop. How can we see these actions and offer assistance when it is needed? A good place to start if by simply being there. The models of Direct Unionism I see discussed are the way to begin moving towards this.
We could have organizers in these groupings, observing and mapping what is going on, in contact with others in the same shop or industry, this would form the basic shop committee. This grouping would be part of a larger industrial organizing committee. The Industrial Organizing Committee could connect what would otherwise be isolated struggles. Out of the IOC made up of members of the shop committees would be a grievance committee, whose aim would be collecting grievances, doing research and strategizing how to deal with them. The ability would then exist to move with actions and offer assistance, sometimes maybe even to coordinate. I see this model being applicable in a situation where no union is present (as is the majority of situations in the US) or even as in my situation where a union is present.
At the present it seems like these models only exist in people's head or floating around in conversations. But as I hope my story illustrates the core of these models, the shop committees, to some extent already exist in informal work groups. Thus this organizing model develops not out of some purely theoretical framework, but out of how work and workers are organized by capital. And more importantly how workers resist capital where it means the most, on the job.
From the Stumptown Wobbly, reprinted in the Industrial Worker, December 2005