In this essay, IWW organizer Coeur de Bord analyses the first year of organizing at a United Parcel Service hub in Minneapolis outside of the preexisting trade union structure. They show how even a small core of organizers can engage large numbers of workers and mobilize them around concrete demands.
There is a common notion in the United States and other powerful Western nation that the process of deindustrialization is complete and total. According to many, this process has left the workplaces of American merely small hubs of service work, totally unorganizable and not worth our time. However, along many industrial lines there remain a number of mass workplaces, especially along the supply chain. These circuits of capital flow every day and night and create huge logistical challenges – the permeation of warehouses has been one way for companies to cope with the difficulties of logistics. With the creation of these hubs, capital creates a dangerous situation for itself, because if these chokepoints are organized they can severely cripple the flow of goods. The recognition of this fact has spurred many revolutionaries to organize in these sectors. In this essay, IWW organizer Coeur de Bord analyses the first year of organizing at a United Parcel Service hub in Minneapolis outside of the preexisting trade union structure. They show how even a small core of organizers can engage large numbers of workers and mobilize them around concrete demands.
Eleven months ago, the Package Handler’s Organizing Committee (PHOC) voted to begin a campaign demanding the starting wage at the three UPS hubs in the Twin Cities be raised to $15/hour (from the current $10), and a corresponding $5/hour raise for all hub employees. We had our sights set on building power towards some form of disruptive action during 2015’s Peak Season. Now that Peak has arrived, I would like to share some of my feelings on the progression, evolution, and execution of this campaign, as well as some ways it has influenced our organizing in general at UPS in Minneapolis.
I feel this document is useful as part of a future retrospective assessment of the Boxmart campaign and the PHOC committee itself. However, I hope it can also serve as a useful reference for other IWW organizing committees thinking about taking on labor-intensive, medium- to long-term campaigns such as this. Whether or not such a campaign would have a positive impact on your organizing is a decision that only your committee can make, but I hope that by offering my perspectives other Wobblies will be able to make a more informed decision.
The motion (original language):
What: $5 hourly raise across the board, which would bring starting wage up to $15. Also, end petty wage theft and other shop floor issues where possible.
When: Major direct action during peak season 2015 aimed at entire Twin Cities operation. Smaller DAs before them, at moments to be determined. Campaign to start within two months (petitions coming out along with Screw ups at MPLS, Eagan, Maple Grove and airport).
Who: Petition to be drafted by core committee, Mass meeting to be run by ——, other tasks delegated to —, —- and — wherever possible to gather support from rest of branch. New shop floor contacts will be expected to further trenchwork on shop floor, canvass for issues to be addressed by escalating Direct Actions, and inoculation. OTC to arrange an OT soon after mass meeting for new contacts. Core committee (eg —–) to fill in gaps where people cannot attend a full OT.
Where: Meetings at TC IWW office, actions in MPLS, Eagan, Maple Grove and airport. Actions to focus on Minnesota operation unless tempting opportunities arise.
1. Use petition to gather contacts for mass meeting. Create Facebook, etc contact points.
2. Use mass meeting to identify people willing and able to be organizers (and other roles) and set broad outlines of effort, changing as necessary to reflect workers’ concerns.
3. Follow up with potential organizers, get to OT where possible and patch with one-on-
ones where not. Create a campaign committee to broaden work, bring in smaller escalatable issues (eg petty wage theft, harassment etc), grow committee itself.
4. Do direct actions on smaller issues, symbolic stuff where appropriate. Include off-shop-floor issues eg prison slave labour ala hands up don’t ship.
5. Follow up on retaliation for the above.
6. Bring smaller issues back in, build excitement and commitment and hold mass meetings in the months leading up to peak to organize peak action.
7. Mess everything up during peak.
8. Publicize concessions and workers’ eye view analysis of fight, follow up on retaliations.
9. Set further goals.
We got off-track from the original motion early on. The first round of petitioning went rather well, gathering over 200 signatures from the Minneapolis & Maple Grove hubs. Within a short period of time, we had collected that contact information into a shared document and called through the whole list. We planned the first mass-meeting for early March. We had about a dozen people who said they would attend. And then nobody showed up. We tried again, with the same results. We then shifted our focus to setting up One-on-Ones with contacts. This had more success, but we failed to reach the number of signatories we had hoped for.
Being off-track early on meant that the committee did not grow to the level we needed to continue escalating as planned. A small committee decreased our ability to hold actions around smaller grievances. Our influence didn’t spread to other areas of the buildings. Looking back, these should have been early signs that our strategy needed to be revised..
But we did gather a lot of contacts.
We did an OK job of generating conversation and some level of “hype” around the demand through several symbolic actions. We had petitions out with every Screw Ups, which added new contacts to our document. We called each one to set up 1-on-1s or invite to committee meetings. In September, we handed out stickers along with Screw Ups that read “I Support a $15/hour Starting Wage and a $5 raise for current employees. It’s Time!!” Lots of people wore them around work that day, and many stickers ended up on walls, equipment, and other surfaces around the hub. In November, we stood outside the hub at the end of Twilight and Midnight shifts one night with posters containing the same text as the stickers. We took pictures of people holding the signs, which were then posted to the facebook page.
But hype is not organization. Many people who have been “touched” by this campaign don’t get anywhere beyond signing the petition. Unsurprisingly, it has been the people with whom organizers have a longer, more in-depth relationship with who come to meetings, and participate in the campaign in a larger way. Those relationships have been built through several pathways, but the common thread is the one-on-one (or other style of targeted AEIOU conversation).
Agitation has not often been an issue when organizing our coworkers. Where I think we have had the greatest difficulty has been Educating and Inoculating. Because agitation is so high, those are generally the first areas that we cover when meeting with coworkers. They are also very difficult topics to cover in passing while at work. If you can’t get past the Education and the Inoculation, how are you ever going to build long-term Organization? One-on-ones become even more crucial in this equation. Repeated one-on-ones. The most consistent participation we have had has been the result of a series of out-of-work interactions and a persistent effort to work through issues that may be holding someone back from organizing.
One thing I think we failed to do is allow the campaign to evolve as the size and capacity of the organizing committee changed. Early on in the year, we were riding a high of momentum and had a relatively large committee that peaked at 6 members in good standing organizing at two local hubs. At that point, we were optimistic about our capability to organize a broad swath of hub workers and pull off a large-scale action during peak season. At the same time, we were falling behind on doing one-on-ones, which have always been high on our list of effective organizing tools. I think we relied too heavily on workplace contact and conversation, as well as agitational tools such as Screw Ups. Later in the summer and fall, our committee lost half of our in-shop organizers, and didn’t keep them on as outside organizers. The reduced committee stayed the course without taking time to analyze our capacity. We realized too late that we hadn’t conducted enough one-on-ones, or otherwise developed our coworkers to the point where we could ask them to step up to keep us on track.
There have been several moments over the course of the campaign when we have had an influx of momentum. These have been moments when our coworkers with whom we have strong relationships (both at and outside of work) have attended our meetings and contributed their ideas on the campaign and other grievances. The lesson here is simple: We need to be consistent about agitating, educating, and organizing our coworkers. It is really hard to generate momentum when weekly meetings consist of the same people, talking about the same things, coming up with the same tasks. Also, it is easier to get less-organized coworkers to meetings if their friends and/or trusted coworkers are attending.
I began writing this document at a moment that felt particularly “low” energy. In that same moment, we as a committee had a serious talk and have since generated significantly more energy. We just welcomed a coworker into the IWW. There is serious talk of having a sick-in. I am even more hopeful now that this document can serve as a tool to improve the overall quality of our organizing, in terms of both building worker power at UPS in Minneapolis and building a revolutionary, militant working class movement composed of sharp, hardened, and committed individuals.
Impacts to Organizing:
When this motion was first presented at the January 16th 2015 PHOC meeting, I had reservations about a few aspects of it. My major sticking point centered on my concern about taking on a campaign of this scale with a committee that was both relatively small (>1% of the part-timers at the Minneapolis hub alone), and relatively young (half the committee had worked at UPS for 3 months or less). Could we manage the pressure of building for such a monumental demand in a relatively short time-frame without losing sight of the smaller issues that have been galvanizing moments in our previous organizing? Would anybody take us seriously? Could we decide to change course in 6 months without losing all our support, or feeling like our time had been completely wasted?
I ended up voting in favor of this motion. I am glad I did. That being said, I have wavered back and forth over the course of this campaign on whether it was having a positive or negative effect on organizing in general at UPS. Some of that is due to the aforementioned peaks and valleys of momentum. Below is some analysis of my initial reservations that I think accounted for the rest of my mixed feelings.
1. Could we manage the pressure of building for such a monumental demand in a relatively short time-frame without losing sight of the smaller issues that have been galvanizing moments in our previous organizing? For the most part, I think we maintained the ability to take on smaller fights. We even got better at addressing small grievances in a way, as our social network got larger and we got “in” with lots of people. I believe we learned about more workers’ grievances, and that more people came to know us as people to approach when they had an issue with conditions at work.
On the other hand, conducting this campaign has been incredibly labor-intensive. Even when we have fallen behind on tasks, Burnout has always been lurking in the shadows. Screw Ups was published less frequently this year than it was last year. And though I hope this is not true, I wonder if the chronic stress associated with a few organizers (most of whom were working 2-3 jobs throughout the year) working on a massive campaign in a large workplace stopped us from taking on smaller fights. This could have come in the form of blatant rejection, or in the failure to recognize an issue/opportunity when it presented itself. I can at least say that we never, to my knowledge, turned away a coworker who came to us with an issue they wanted to organize around. But did I fail to pick up on someone who was obviously having a bad day? Did I do a bad job listening to a coworker who was trying to organize me? These are important questions to revisit on a regular basis.
2. Would anybody take us seriously? Yes. Not everybody, but I don’t think we were ever that naive. Working a unionized manual labor job that pays less than comparable non-union work across the city means that people listen when the topic of a raise comes up. For newer workers (let’s say within the last 5 years/since the last contract), our part time wages are almost never enough to live on. For those who have been around the company longer, they have seen their wages remain stagnant since Reagan was president. Stagnant wages are one of the rank-and-files biggest issues with the Teamsters. So in that sense, wages were a great issue to take on for a dual/solidarity union campaign.
But of course there were those who dismissed us. Many of these reactions were based on people’s (begrudging) allegiance to the Teamsters. “That’s not in the contract,” and “not unless the Teamsters support it,” were typical responses we heard from people who did not support our petitioning and other efforts. A successful antidote to these sentiments was a good old-fashioned one-on-one meeting. Being able to sit down with someone, explain the role of the Teamsters in our shop, and why we were raising this demand as rank-and-file workers, was often enough to at least garner support. One of our most successful lines, corny though it may sound, was something to the effect of “well if the Teamsters won’t get it for us, we’re gonna have to get it for ourselves.” The biggest lesson I learned here is the power of the one-on-one. If someone just knows you as an agitator, they are less likely to take you seriously than if they know you as an organizer.
3. Could we decide to change course in 6 months without losing all our support, or feeling like our time had been completely wasted? This is a tough question to answer, as it is completely hypothetical. However, I still think it has some value as a way to evaluate a large campaign. Things don’t always go as planned, and it is useful to have a backup plan that can help salvage the gains you have made and begin to move forward in another direction.
This question forces you to think critically about the steps you take in building and running a campaign. For instance, our first step of gathering names and contacts en mass through a petition ensured that we would have gained a valuable resource even if we had to abandon the $15 starting wage campaign. That list also generated one-on-ones with a variety of workers whom we would otherwise maybe not have contacted. Even if the campaign folds, we have built relationships with more of our coworkers, and hopefully developed some of them into organizers.
Undertaking this campaign has taught me many important and lasting lessons as a union organizer. Many of these lessons I would not have learned had we continued along our existing path. I learned the importance of a democratically functioning committee with a diversity of opinions and perspectives. Accountability among committee members must be established early on, and maintained throughout even the most difficult moments of a campaign. I quickly realized that I could not be an effective organizer by only talking with people I knew already. Organizing is not a comfortable, social affair; at times, it feels like what my co-committee member describes as “a fucking war zone.” And as long as you understand and are prepared for that, you can make impressive gains in the struggle against the wage system.
But this campaign has been more than just a learning experience. Despite some lingering moments of disappointment and nagging doubts, I am convinced that this campaign has had an incredibly positive impact on our organizing at UPS. We have identified and developed a crew of shop-floor militants, and brought a few of them into the IWW. We are tapped into social networks across our shop. These networks cross the boundaries of age, race, and gender. We have learned to back off and play defense when conditions require it. Through all of the stress, joy, disappointment, and abundant humor, we have stayed together and even grown as a committee. While the $15/hour starting wage campaign itself may not be successful, I believe that we have shown that the idea of taking on a major, public campaign contributes to greater overall success in organizing our Fellow Workers.
Originally posted: January 15, 2015 at Recomposition