A reportback from Shallah Baso of the Communist League of Tampa on a 'Fight for $15' rally in Florida.
Recently, a group of us from the Communist League of Tampa gathered to participate in a march for the Tampa Fight For 15’s April 15th action (“Fight 4 15″). According to their count, 1,000 people took part in the march (this seems exaggerated by my own count). Given how big the events have gotten not just here but nationally, I want to give a little reportback and some of my thoughts to folks about the event.
I got to the park a little late, where a cookout was happening next to a speaker’s platform. People took turns (in between chatting with friends) to listen to workers talk about their experiences of living on low pay, or to religious leaders weighing in on low wages as a matter of injustice. Apparently politicians like Mayor Bob Buckhorn and a city councilor spoke as well, reminding people to vote. There were plenty of group tables, including a CLT table some comrades had set up. I didn’t recognize many of the people in attendance, which felt encouraging because of how daunting it can feel to only attend events where you see and recognize the same old folks. Many of them appeared to be workers, since they carried signs or wore shirts indicating their union or job affiliations (I can’t say how many were fast food workers, but there were a solid amount).
After the speeches finished, we began to march down the sidewalk to the main road (CLT marched as a bloc, though I stuck with some other workers I knew at first). We had a somewhat inanimate protest, unlike others I had been to with more organized chant leaders and enthusiasm, but people chanted things like “What do we want? 15! When do we want it? Now!”. As we crossed the road, I saw a group of people, I believe from the Bay Area Activist Coalition, block off the highway by locking arms in a long line and preventing all traffic from moving westward. I had heard some talk of taking the street, so I didn’t think too much of this, though it put me on guard about how the police would react. As we turned onto the street, I began to feel very uncertain about what the march organizers’ intentions were. I began to walk in the street, following others several dozen feet ahead of me, but other people (I couldn’t tell if they were event organizers or not) started waving me and others back onto the sidewalk. Many of the marchers did move onto the sidewalk, but some stayed in the street, making what we were doing further muddled. The traffic-blockers had also not prevented the eastward traffic from moving, and so a bit less than half of the march was cut off from the front section.
At some point, whether because the organizers finally made up their mind or they realized people’s uncertainty and assured them of where they should be, almost all of the front section poured into the street. We continued to march with a McDonald’s in sight as our final destination. People started chanting, in addition to “$15 and a union”, “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” This gave some of us the impression that we were going to do something along the lines of “shutting down” the McDonald’s, like blocking the driveway in from the street or the drive through or even occupying the store. Instead, we got off of the street and chanted slogans at what looked like six or so executive types (they weren’t in McDonald’s uniforms like how I would expect managers to be, they wore white shirts and black suit pants) inside the store.
We did this for a while, and then some of the staff organizers from FF15 called us over to a side street adjacent to the McDonald’s. A ‘die-in’ was held, and people laid down for 4 and a half minutes (a reference to the 4.5 hours Michael Brown’s body lay in the streets of Ferguson before coroners picked up his body). Some people from the FF15 staff and union members gave speeches, and finally we wrapped the whole event up and headed back to our respective cars and buses.
Several things stuck out to me while the event unfolded, and later when I thought them over more deeply. I want to make it clear from the start that any criticisms I make are not meant to be personal attacks against any participants as much as heartfelt issues I had with the march.
First, the police acted in an incredibly non-antagonistic way the entire time. The street-taking had been planned beforehand (at a talk I had attended, some FF15 staffers had mentioned this to those in attendance), but during our excursion into the street, the police followed behind us and held up traffic. It’s still unclear to me why this was the case. I don’t believe our permit allowed for it, and it would have been odd for some of the protestors to form a human chain to block traffic if the police were going to handle it for us the whole time. If it wasn’t permitted, it was odd for the police to be so non-antagonistic and even “helpful” in blocking traffic for us.
The theory I have been working with is that the McDonald’s management had spoken with the police earlier, telling them to allow the road blocking if it could avoid the arrests that made media waves at previous days of action. Another possibility is that the Tampa Police Department simply underestimated the march, and didn’t have enough people on. In either case I think the police and McDonald’s management had a sense of how the march would go given previous incarnations of it both in Tampa and around the country.
Second, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the march was logistically unsound and confused. The confused aspect, I would argue, comes from something that I will call a lack of “street level analysis clarity”. By ‘analysis clarity’ I mean that in a campaign we know who we are, who we’re fighting, and how we’re going to win. The last part can remain uncertain about whether it will work, but it should still be concrete and focused. By ‘street level’ analysis clarity I mean that we know these things so well that in the moment we’re ready to respond quickly to a changing situation.
For comparison, marches I’ve done with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers make it clear that we are allies following the leadership of the CIW, fighting companies like Wendy’s and Publix in order to get a direct agreement between them and the CIW, and we’re going to march and use picket lines to win. We know it won’t escalate to civil disobedience, occupation, etc., and to me this is not a problem because the purpose of that march is to win certain demands according to a certain set of tactics that work. It is also clear where we are marching to, and basic things like side personnel having marchers go two by two or three by three to avoid clustering or spilling off into lanes of traffic are always present.
Unfortunately, the march/the organizers failed to establish a clear sense of who was leading, where we were going, what kind of tactics were acceptable to use, and even who we were really marching against. The chant-leaders seemed too inexperienced to really keep the beat and rhythm going, and the side personnel weren’t sure what we were doing and what was an arrest risk. Even if we marched to the McDonald’s, the campaign’s demands have shifted so greatly from “we want McDonald’s and other fast food companies to agree to $15/hr wages and a union” to a more vague demand that seems to be directed against congress or the local state legislature or the Tampa city council. It seems more like “telling the world” this is what we want, than a concrete demand which will get measurable results over time.
Third, and somewhat paradoxically given the above point, the march felt like a carefully crafted media spectacle. I am borrowing from Adam Weaver’s analysis here, where he calls the FF15 a ‘March on the Media’ in contrast to a ‘March on the Boss’, and a form of ‘militant lobbying’. There was a real energy happening with many of the workers and supporters there, and it seemed like people were ready for some more intense tactics, but instead we kept things at a mostly symbolic level. I think this is because of the organizers, who used that militancy and energy to make an appearance to the media of real power.
In anarcho-syndicalist circles (such as conversations in the IWW), folks often discuss the differences between ‘business unionism’ (a top-down, ‘service-provider’ approach to worker organizing where union bureaucrats control contract negotiations with bosses and curtail militancy and worker upsurges during the length of the contract) and ‘solidarity unionism’ (a bottom-up, ‘you are the union’ approach to unionism that relies on direct action and workers’ direct control of struggle). Fight For 15, a project of the Service Employees International Union, seems squarely in line with the former tendency. After the day’s events I had no sense that the workers themselves were leading what was happening, at best given roles that they could not deviate from the union’s line on. The FF15 staff were playing cop for the union bosses and making sure we didn’t deviate from the media image SEIU wanted.
Fourth, I saw a lot of what I’ll call “symbolic appropriation of militant movement tactics and rhetoric”. For example, the phrase “shut it down” came up a lot, even though the most we did was hold up traffic for a few minutes before the police helped us do it anyway. We also held a ‘die in’ on a side street and not a busy intersection, where the police were unlikely to arrest us. The die in also felt confused, because it is a tactic clearly coming from the Black Lives Matter movement, so I assumed it would be us giving a statement of solidarity and converging struggles. Instead, organizers asked us to use the 4.5 minutes to reflect on all the struggles that workers go through. It made some sense, but it felt somehow disingenuous to what the symbolism was meant to get across.
Earlier in the campaign, FF15 (and sister campaign OUR Walmart, backed by the UFCW) had used the language of ‘strike’ a lot to describe one day work stoppages by workers. This would be jarring because you might have only several workers out with dozens of community members in support. In one OUR Walmart action I went to, no workers from that store had joined the picket, and the workers present were all fired Walmart workers on tour with the staff/intern organizers. This kind of labor organizing always felt cynical and unsustainable to me, using workers to get a message across and describing something that was hardly a ‘strike’ in the sense that workers from that shop were putting real pressure on the boss in that shop. Instead, as Weaver writes, it’s “lobbying the same entrenched political system, appealing to change from above”, while using the language of radical workers movements which have ‘shut it down’ by the refusal of work, sabotage of production machinery, etc. More than anything, it seems a hindrance to use these phrases away from actually using the tactics the phrases represent, because it clouds our thinking about what will actually challenge the conditions that destroy people’s lives.
I am glad that the CLT participated in this event, but it affirmed suspicions I have had about the organizing going on in FF15. I believe that we need a workers movement where workers themselves lead, and I don’t think the SEIU can or will provide that. As a fast food worker of sorts myself, perhaps we need an organization of our own in Tampa Bay, one that will represent our interests because it will be led by us as workers in Tampa. We can only get there through careful planning, organization, and follow through. For now, we of the CLT will keep watching what’s happening and reflecting on our own experiences as workers and as communists dedicated to the overthrow of the existing order.
Originally posted: April 17, 2015 at Communist League of Tampa