A review by Craven Rock of Wages so low you'll freak, an account of an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) campaign at a Jimmy Johns franchise in Minneapolis.
The synopsis of this book makes some pretty lofty claims. It says, “this is the story of the four years I spent trying to organize a union at Jimmy John’s. It contains sex, drugs, and violence. It also contains blood, sweat, and tears. The characters are communist, anarchists, and liberals. They are also punk rockers, hip hoppers, and bike nerds. So it’s pretty much the hottest book out there.”I’m not sure I’d buy all that if I was given the choice; one thing I can tell you is I wouldn’t buy the book. Like many, I was seriously burned by political activism in my younger days and it’s left me pretty jaded about such topics. However, since it was sent to me for review, I crossed my fingers the blurb was true and this book wasn’t as dry, boring, and defeating as literature of a political nature usually is. I was in luck—while unavoidably monotonous at times, due to it being about daily organizing—it was never dry and far from boring.
Mike Pudd’nhead is a zine writer and while Wages is a full-length and perfect-bound book, he also calls it issue six of his zine. And it’s classic zine writer pluck that makes this story interesting. It’s his tone, simultaneously self-deprecating, slightly cocky, and always humorous, that makes this tale rise above a dull, alienating, play-by-play with the powers that be. Mike doesn’t come off as an insecure career activist, he’s just a pissed-off sandwich slappy at a really crappy job. He and a few coworkers have enough of shitty working conditions, get with the Industrial Workers of the World, and attempt the first fast food worker’s union in history. And it seems like a damn hard job, though, not nearly as degrading, dehumanizing, or hazardous as working at Jimmy John’s, a company who forces employees to come in sick, make cycle deliveries in snow and ice in below zero cold, and have wages set at $6.75 with no chance of a raise.
He tells all, beginning with the IWW playbook strategy of talking to each worker “one-on-one” about their grievances to get them on board. He does this by hitting them up at bars or blacked out at parties. Eventually, strategy meetings are had. Morale-building Jimmy John’s union-sponsored bike races are run. Shows by bands made up of Jimmy John’s employees are thrown. But, seriously, he tells all.
Each chapter begins with an italicized paragraph of a journal entry where he talks about getting too wasted and getting in fights, hitting on potential union members, or saying condescending shit to people who don’t sign up as quick as he’d like. Choosing to include these journal entries, still written as if they happened the night before, shows a God-I-wanna-slap-him humanity and a sad, youthful fallibility that gets in the way of the his and the people’s vision. After heading the chapter that way, he elucidates, giving the reader the full details with the wisdom of hindsight. It’s a smart move, but I bring the entries up as an example of Mike’s honesty and thus his ability to bring the personal into the story. It becomes not a story of grandstanding or displaced Protestant work ethic, but one of the relationships that make for resistance, clues to how it can be achieved, or perhaps why it fails over and over again.
“I felt like I was retreating from the scene to do union work,” Mike says, “but in reality our JJ’s union could never exist outside of ‘the scene.’ The entire city was going to hear about it, and their support or disdain would in turn affect our ability to organize. We weren’t operating outside the scene—we were just creating a new sub-community within our larger community. A community based on the principles of solidarity and fighting the bosses.” Mike’s cognitive dissonance here lends to some of the warmest moments of his book, showing how the personal and the political become intertwined. For instance, when the bosses hire union busters, they tried to separate the workers along age, race, and class lines. They implied that the mostly white organizers are privileged students working for excess drinking money who don’t care about their jobs, but the union often succeeded in bringing people together through poker games, parties, or simply mutual aid. When the bosses handed out anti-union buttons employees smashed them on the floor in front of them.
Mike cutting his teeth writing his personal zines has granted him the ability to tell this story without couching it corpse-mouthed academia, but one full of life and humanity as it moves toward its very heartbreaking end.
Originally posted: June 13, 2014 at Razorcake