Libcom.org interviews a member of the Seattle Solidarity Network, a direct action group that is dedicated to winning small fights against bosses and landlords over issues such as unpaid wages and stolen deposits.
Who are you?
I'm Matt, currently unemployed and living in Seattle, having moved here from England six years ago. I've been a member of Seattle Solidarity Network since it started. Before that I was in the IWW in Seattle and various anarchist groups, such as the Anarchist Federation in the UK.
Briefly, what is the group?
Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol) is a small workers' and tenants' mutual aid group that focuses on winning small fights against bosses and landlords, over issues such as unpaid wages and stolen deposits, through the use of collective action in the form of pickets and demonstrations.
How big is it and what dates was it active from?
It's hard to say exactly how big SeaSol is. If we quantify it by official membership, which has only recently been introduced, around sixty. Ten to forty people turn up to the average action, and we have a contact list of around four hundred people - I'm guessing that at least half have participated in one or more actions or events. The 'organising team' - the people who have agreed to a slightly higher level of commitment, who do most of the day to day work such as manning the phone tree, answering calls and meeting with new people - is made up of around a dozen members.
SeaSol started in the last months of 2007 and is still going strong.
How did it get started?
It got started because a small group of us, mostly IWW members and anarchists in Seattle, were frustrated with our current lack of activity. The Seattle IWW general membership branch was too small and lacking in resources to attempt to organise any workplaces - the best we could do would be offer training and support to any workers who approached us interested in unionising their workplace, something that happens only occasionally and hasn't yet progressed to an organising drive. My own perspective originated from frustration with symbolic and ineffectual anti-war and anti-globalisation protests and anarchist propaganda groups that had limited relevance to most people's lives, including my own.
SeaSol started from a mixture of notions such as trying to create a flying picket squad or a direct action casework group in the vein of OCAP. Some members had a minor experience with wage reclaiming, in an individual case where a friend had been hired for one day at a restaurant and then told she was no longer needed and would not be paid as it was a "training day" - by turning up at the restaurant as a large group, they forced the owner to pay her. Another member already had a website and email list for strike support news in Seattle, so we put it to a new use as well as taking its name.
At the beginning we did not have a clear idea of exactly what we would do but decided to focus on supporting workers and tenants in struggles, in ways where we could win immediate gains rather than getting bogged down in everlasting campaigns. Also in ways that would benefit ourselves if we ever got into a conflict with our own bosses or landlords. For that purpose we designed two posters: "Problems with your boss?" and "Problems with your landlord? Contact us." We put these posters up around Seattle, got a few phone calls, and that's how it started!
Why were more other more traditional organisations (e.g. trade unions) not appropriate?
We wanted to do it ourselves, not through some other organisation. Persuading some other group to take up this relatively unknown approach would have been a waste of time. It made sense to create SeaSol as a separate organisation from the IWW for various reasons - we would not be subject to secondary picketing laws, not all the initial people involved were IWW members, and it would allow us to be more flexible. The various bureaucratic NGOs and unions were too slow moving to take or even follow initiative in the area of small housing and work-related fights, anyway.
What problems did you come up against at first? How did you overcome them?
As I've mentioned above, we didn't initially have a very clear idea of what we were going to do - that became clearer as we went on. At first I was skeptical about the idea that posters would actually generate valid campaigns we could involve ourselves in - but it worked. One of the first few calls we received was from a shipyard worker who was pissed off about the bad conditions and the complacency of his union in his workplace - so we got together with him and made some flyers that he would distribute in his workplace. Unfortunately this approach didn't work, there was little interest from his co-workers and all we received was an angry phone call from one of the union officials for that workplace. We didn't really have a coherent plan for how to approach this campaign. Over time we would develop a set of tactics and ways of doing things. As we went along and won a series of fights, we gained allies and recognition from other groups, something we were lacking at the beginning.
Which remained problems the whole time?
Retaining the involvement of people who approached us for help has often been a problem. We always state that Seattle Solidarity Network isn't a charity or social work, it's a mutual support network, which means we expect that if we help you in your fight, you will help others in other fights. Often, people will stay involved and participate in a few actions other than their own for a month or two but then not be heard from again. However, some people who initially contacted us for support in their struggle have taken a more active role and joined the organising team, and many that don't do that keep participating for months after their fight has been won. With the introduction of membership, and a greater clarity about what being a part of SeaSol is, it looks like we're starting to keep people involved more. I expect that some people will always leave after their own fight is won - that shouldn't dishearten us.
Another issue that was pointed out by a former organiser is that there is a 'demographic disparity' between the organising team and the people who often approach us for help in their fights. That is to say, the core activists are mostly white, and the people with the issues are more often from ethnic minorities. This may be an obstacle for some people to get more involved in the group. There isn't much we can do, except keep fighting and as we grow, our organisation will attract people from a wider range of backgrounds. This seems to be happening as we gradually pick up people from the fights we've been involved in.
One problem we've noticed in workplace-related fights is that some employees, if for example they are faced with a picket outside the restaurant they work in, buy into the management's side of the story and resent our presence which results in reduced business and therefore lost tips for them. We've successfully started countering this by making a collection amongst the demonstrators to make up for the lost tips, and clearly explaining to workers that we are not against them, we are against their boss. We need to keep doing this, and start communicating more with workers before beginning a campaign.
When did things start to gain momentum/take off?
It took over four months since we first started putting posters up. Our first real fight was when we were contacted by some people living in the Greenlake Motel. This "motel" was really a pay by the week long term residence for people who couldn't pass the checks necessary to get higher quality, lower cost housing - because they had a criminal record or bad credit or housing history, or couldn't afford the usual first and last month's plus a damage deposit of rented housing. They had seen our poster and complained of terrible living conditions - mould, leaks, broken heating, etc. After some door knocking to gauge the situation some SeaSol members and tenants drew up a demand letter listing the repairs that needed to be made. We gathered a couple of dozen people and with one of the tenants (unfortunately the other tenants were too nervous about being evicted) we went to the landlords' more respectable hotel and delivered the demand letter to the perplexed receptionist.
A few days later the landlords went round each flat and made the necessary repairs, while warning the tenants not to talk to "those communists". This was our first significant success. This wasn't the end of the Greenlake Motel story though - a few months later, we were contacted again - the motel had been condemned by the Health Department. The tenants, since they were technically short term motel residents and therefore not entitled to the same legal protections as regular tenants, were facing immediate eviction. They were more willing to fight as a group this time, and won relocation assistance (three months' worth of rent each) to move to better places.
What struggles were you involved in?
Since the beginning of 2008, we've started at least 21 fights and won 17 of them. The issues being fought range from unpaid wages to unfair evictions. For a comprehensive list, our website lists almost every fight we've been involved in - apart from a handful that never got off the ground or were resolved before we had to take action.
This very short video gives a good overview of the past year's fights.
What types of action did you take?
Every fight starts with a 'demand delivery' like the one linked here. We turn up as a large group at the boss or landlord's office or business. The person with the issue hands a demand letter stating what needs to be done to the boss by a certain deadline of one or two weeks. This is basically a show of strength - the worker or tenant is supported by a large group of people - and a warning. The boss or landlord can give in now, or there will be trouble later.
If we're lucky, the boss or landlord will give in before the deadline. If not, we start an escalating campaign. We start fairly small, then increase the pressure by adding more types of actions, more often, of increasing size. Our mainstay is a picket of a dozen or so people outside the enemy's place of business. If it's a restaurant or shop, this often proves economically devastating, reducing sales by half or more during the times we are there. Other techniques we use are poster campaigns to turn away prospective tenants, public embarrassment by leafleting the boss's church or neighbourhood, interfering with suppliers or business partners, phone and internet actions, and anything else we can think of. We try to be pretty imaginative.
What links do you have with other groups of workers? (Other sectors, other countries, political groups, etc.)
We occasionally cooperate with the comite de defensa trabajadora of Casa Latina, the more direct action oriented section of a local NGO. We support each others campaigns and sometimes do joint actions. We've also done strike support, such as turning up to the picket lines at the recent Coca Cola strike. We were planning to support a campaign around reducing mortgage rates by a militant section of the plumbers' union, but that never materialised. We work closely with the IWW where applicable, most recently by doing a solidarity action for the newly formed Jimmy Johns Workers Union.
The newest joint project is with IWSJ, a student and worker group at the University of Washington centered around a rank and file group of janitors. They are interested in doing SeaSol-type actions within the low-paid immigrant communities they have good links with, and we are interested in learning about workplace groups from them. We'll see how that develops.
We are trying to support and encourage the formation of solidarity networks around the world, such as the Olympia, Tacoma, and Glasgow Solidarity Networks. We are offering support and training to new groups whenever we can. We have also been in contact with workers' centres, which have some similarities to SeaSol, such as the Lansing Workers Center, and are interested in learning more about the advantages and differences with this kind of organising.
Personally, I've been trying to convince anarchist groups and individuals of the usefulness of setting up solidarity networks...
How would you respond to criticisms that these small victories are all well and good, but they are not a model for creating social change faced as we are with an onslaught on jobs, housing, public services, etc across the world?
As you have pointed out the struggles are rather small scale, involving an issue that only affects a single individual or family, or a small group of workers or tenants, who have often left their old job or rental situation. This is the main limitation of our current organising method. However we don't see this as a huge obstacle because we aren't intending to limit ourselves to just these small fights forever. Instead we view them as first steps to more ambitious projects. As we build up experience, confidence, membership, a support base, contacts, reputation and so on, we intend to branch out into other forms of organisation, such as helping set up and assisting tenants' and workplace groups - the first steps to do so are already underway. We are committed to a flexible, experimental approach. I view these small fights as a training ground for class struggle organising, from which we can progress to bigger, more collective, more prolonged projects. They aren't a model for social change as such but they contain a key ingredient required for large scale social change - direct action by the people facing a problem themselves.
SeaSol is in some sense an adaptation to modern conditions of high turnover and small workplaces - as one member has said we "organise the worker, not the workplace". Any worker who joins SeaSol after a problem at their old job is much better prepared to fight back if they encounter problems at their new job. It's an organisation of militants spread across different work and housing situations. Obviously, working towards organisation in specific workplaces and neighbourhoods is still vital.
You might also note that most of the fights only involved correcting a violation of the law by a landlord or boss. This is because it's an easy starting point, and often the person with the issue only wants this violation resolved. However, we've already won several fights where the demand went beyond merely enforcing the law, and instead was about what the tenant or worker, and the group as a whole, thought was a reasonable and achievable resolution of the issue. We need to be - and are - going further in this direction, of imposing our will on the bosses and landlords, until "what is reasonable" changes completely, and a totally different society becomes imaginable, even obvious.
Do you think that there is a danger that the group could be seen as or become some sort of radical charity, which is reliant on volunteers who basically help other people, like yourself?
As I said earlier, we try to make it clear that SeaSol is not some charity or social service. We offer solidarity, not charity. The person or people with the issue must take be willing to take a lead in the fight - they are the ones handing the demand to the boss, they will participate in and help plan all the actions in the campaign, and they have agreed to support other peoples' fights too. If they expect us to do all the work for them, and stop showing up to meetings or actions (without good reason), we'll eventually drop the fight. This is in contrast to a charity or social service that merely does things on behalf of the passive recipient.
How open is SeaSol with their politics? Are you openly anarchist?
As an individual member I'm openly anarchist within SeaSol (as are many others). SeaSol isn't an anarchist organisation, but it is based on principles of mutual aid, direct action and direct democracy. While all the founding members were anarchist or close to it, the majority of the membership aren't necessarily. SeaSol is however an environment where almost everyone is open to anarchist ideas, because they are a logical extension of what we are doing - fighting together against bosses and landlords, planning things collectively, pooling our resources, realising that we have power together.
Do you have a favourite anecdote or memory related to the organisation?
It's been amusing to see bosses' anguish when things don't go their way. They are often quite disappointed when a quick call to the police doesn't result in our disappearance, since we are doing nothing illegal. I like seeing the look of confusion and panic when a large group of people suddenly invades their private space. One particularly funny memory is being threatened with a baseball bat by a hotel owner's minion, who then decided to call the police on us. He ended up admitting intent to assault with a deadly weapon to the police...
What have you learned from your experiences in the group?
Many things. I know that in any future job I would be far more confident in fighting back against management. I feel more able to organise at work, when I wouldn't really have known where to start before. It has been very satisfying to apply anarchist ideas of direct action and solidarity and see them work effectively. I've learnt how to view things tactically and strategically. I've learnt how to investigate and research targets, how to communicate better and build links with people. I've tasted collective power. I think it's been quite an empowering experience for many of us in SeaSol, and I hope it continues...
What lessons do you think other workers can take from your group?
That even in these times of defeat and economic depression it's still quite feasible to fight back and win. That anarchist ideas work in real life. That collective direct action around small issues is an effective starting point for further struggle...
If anyone has further questions please feel free to ask below.