The following is my personal, subjective account of my experiences in Chicago for two back-to-back gatherings of working class militants and activists from April 5-8, 2018. The first was the Railroad Workers United Convention and the second was the Labor Notes Conference (I apologize in advance for my stream of consciousness digressions and clunky note-taking style).
I can’t visit Chicago without feeling that I’m making a pilgrimage. It is the cauldron out of which class struggle in the U.S. was born, in a hail of blood and fire. One morning last week, while riding the bus to work, I ran into one of my commute friends who is Argentinian. She asked what I’d been up to, since she hadn’t seen me in a while. She’d once worked as a translator/interpreter for a union, so I mentioned I’d been at Labor Notes in Chicago (she currently works as an interpreter at the federal immigrant court, in the same building where I teach EFL, in San Francisco’s Financial District). She immediately asked why Americans know so little about Haymarket, while working class militants throughout Latin America know the history well. She said that they are called “the Martyrs of Chicago” in Spanish. I showed her some photos I’d taken with comrades at the Haymarket Memorial at Forest Home Cemetery and talking with her was an inspiration to finish writing this account.
I had attended both the 6th Railroad Workers United Convention and the Labor Notes Conference. It was the 3rd time I’ve attended both events, which run consecutively Thursday through Sunday and are held biennially. Maybe I’m a studious geek, because I took 15 pages of notes. There were so many substantial discussions that I didn’t want to forget.
I’ve visited Chicago half a dozen times, the first was in 1992 when I witnessed the sports riot on June 14, sparked by the Chicago Bulls winning the NBA championship. But it was as much about the nationwide Rodney King Uprising – centered on Los Angeles – the month before that hadn’t kicked off in Chicago. The riots were intense and another deeper cause, in addition to police brutality, was the massive statewide cutback to social welfare, made in April 1992, which was the largest in Illinois history. These attacks on the working class and poor were part of the rising tide of neoliberal austerity. The riots were further fueled by people celebrating the Puerto Rico Day Parade, which takes place annually on that weekend in June, and had sparked resistance before. The first of these were the Division Street Riots from June 12 to 14, 1966, against police abuse and housing discrimination. The next uprising was the day and a half Humboldt Park Riot in 1977, which was also set off by police violence. In the 1992 riots, 347 stores were looted and over 1,000 insurgents were arrested, nearly all of them African American – despite the original rioting having started with whites spilling out of the sports bars on Division Street.
From the Haymarket Martyrs, through 30 deaths (nationwide) in the 1894 Pullman Strike, the 10 protestors murdered in the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, Puerto Rican insurgents, anti-war youth brutalized demonstrating against the 1968 Democratic Convention, the assassination of Fred Hampton, to all the other struggles for liberation and to 17-year-old Laquan McDonald shot 16 times by police in 2014 and all the black and brown youth like him, Chicago cops are the iron fist of capitalism. Chicago has always been America’s most volatile cauldron of class struggle, giving birth to the “Chicago Idea” (see below). It’s also where we can make our pilgrimages to find inspiration from what few successes the working class has had, as well as share notes, strategize, and organize with our fellow militants on how to create a classless society.
[quote=James Green, Death in the Haymarket (2007)]The “Chicago Idea”
The first sign of change came in March 1882, when a group of German tanners struck and demanded a wage equal to that of the more skilled English-speaking curriers. When employers refused the demand and the curriers struck in sympathy with the immigrant tanners . . . the curriers acted not on the basis of “any grievance of their own, but because of a sentimental and sympathetic feeling for another class of workmen.” The seventy-two-day exercise in solidarity was, according to the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics . . . an action "conducted on the principle of the Knights of Labor which proclaims that 'an injury to one is the concern of all’.”
The following random musings and transcribed notes are the highlights of my experience:
I flew into O’Hare on Wednesday night and went directly to the hotel in the bizarrely sterile convention/entertainment district of suburban Rosemont, Illinois on the fringes of the airport. Once there, I hung out with my Railroad Workers United comrades and helped them set up for their convention over the next two days. In the spirit of Eugene Debs and the American Railroad Union’s industrial organizing approach, RWU attempts to unite railroad workers industrially across all 13 unionized crafts, as well as all the other non-organized ones.
The first day of the RWU Convention (Thursday), after some opening remarks and organizational business, launched into presentations. Ones that impressed me most were a series on railroad safety. They were talks by accident investigator/author (George Swimmer, writer of Railroad Collisions: A Deadly Story of Mismanaged Risk), retired railroader (Fritz Elder on the Lac-Mégantic disaster), and seasoned and experienced labor trainer (Nancy Lessin of USW on managements ideology of “behavior-based safety”). The point was to educate railroaders and to make common cause with other communities affected by these industrial dangers.
In Swimmer’s presentation, he pointed out details of accidents in Fox River Grove, IL in 1995 (killing 7 kids in a collision with a school bus) and Chatsworth, CA in 2008 (killing 25 Metrolink commuters) and how in both:
- • the agenda of the NTSB was to “blame the worker” rather than thoroughly investigating the real causes of the accident.
RWU member and retired Amtrak railroader Fritz Edler gave a comprehensive overview of the July 6, 2013 disaster at Lac-Mégantic, Canada that killed 47. He pointed out that the Lac- Mégantic residents, in response to the trails of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway workers Tom Harding and Richard Labrie, often said “They got the wrong guys.” Meaning that the railroad’s management, which had policies and practices that were flagrantly illegal and extremely unsafe, got off unscathed. Another example of “blame the worker.”
Next labor safety trainer Nancy Lessin gave an excellent presentation on “behavioral-based safety” and management’s constant attacks to “blame the workers” for the bosses’ own malfeasance and ineptitude. It was comprehensive and thorough, and I was left with a couple thoughts from what she demonstrated:
- • For industrial products/processes: “if it cannot be made safely, it must not be made”
- • “Workers are not the problem, they are the solution.”
This was followed by an inspiring presentation by two railroad machinists from Kansas City, Aaron and Will, who talked about the group they helped found, the All Rail Craft Coalition (ARCC). Like RWU’s embodiment of the Chicago Idea continentally, they are organizing for an industrial network across crafts in the crucial logistics cluster in and around Kansas City, which rivals Chicago in importance as an intermodal hub for the movement of goods across North America.
From their talk (and from articles in RWU’s The Highball), I learned that they are both machinists in IAM, but one of them was invited to classes organized by the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters (BMWED), the first worker invited who was not from BMWED, which was part of broadening the cross-craft coalition. ARCC organized “informational” pickets during UP management’s “Family Day” event at the Neff Yard in Kansas City in September 2017, where they handed out 700 fact sheets about the union contract in plain language, had 50-60 protestors holding signs and banners, and they faced cops from three law enforcement jurisdictions overseeing their mild protest. It worked, because 90 railroaders came to their next meeting. Their concerns are:
- • management has 32 railroads in one coalition (the NCCC); workers have 13 unions in 3 coalitions; a classic divide-and-conquer tactic to the bosses’ advantage
- • the fight is for parity over health care, especially for the lower paid crafts
- • during discussion, an RWU member said that on the national level the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET), who are part of the Teamsters, are “split” over health care with BMWED, who are also organized with the Teamsters
- • a retired RWU member from Chicago pointed out that high-level union bureaucrats warned railroad workers to “stay away” from cross-craft meetings, attempting to divide shop crafts (a.k.a. non-operating crafts) from operating crafts
The next presentation was by van drivers employed by subcontractors (Rezneberger/Hallcon/ PTI) organized into United Electrical (UE; which along with the ILWU was expelled from the CIO in 1949-1950 over refusal of the Taft-Hartley anti-communist loyalty oath), who are also RWU members, and who pick up and drop off railroad engineers and conductors in and around rail yards. UE locals of van drivers exist around Chicagoland, and in California, Ohio and New Jersey. What was interesting were their attempts to thwart management’s company “yellow” union, National Production Workers Union Local 707, which they seem to have done.
Ahearn Owen talked of the organizing of an IWW campaign in Chicago at Mobile Rail Solutions, a subcontractor that operates trucks providing mechanical maintenance to locomotives. He called his strategy towards management as a “target of misery,” where he filed 190 Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaints against a single company, completely stymying their anti-union efforts for 5 years, but management filed an ULP against him – causing him to realize how truly disruptive they can be when done strategically. The contract 5 years later had a strike clause, which is an anomaly in labor relations today. Another sign of the victory of their efforts was that UP stopped subcontracting and returned mobile maintenance to better paid and benefitted railroad workers employed by UP. An inspiring story!
The second day of the RWU Convention (Friday) began with two guests from Ghana, representing public sector unions in the aviation sector, who gave a few comments about their situation:
- • Ghana has an expanding infrastructure, mostly foreign owned
- • struggles there are over minimum wage
- • union leaders only look after their own self interest
Next, I gave an 80-minute presentation, called “Struggles Along Supply Chains: Rail & Cross-Sectoral Solidarity,” (see previous post: RWU Convention solidarity workshop report-back) and I opened with the above quote about the Chicago Idea. I referred to Brian Ashton’s phrase describing global production today as a “factory without walls” and pointed out how, in the post-Fordist world, class struggle crosses regions, borders and even oceans, requiring new ways of organizing internationally, building class-wide solidarity across crafts and sectors as well. I used a quote by Sergio Bologna about the approach of the IWW, perhaps the best organizational expression of the Chicago Idea:
[quote=Sergio Bologna, “Class Composition and the Theory of the Party at the Origins of the Workers’ Council Movement,” Telos (1972)]The Industrial Workers of the World
The IWW succeeded in creating an absolutely original type of agitator . . . who swims within the stream of proletarian struggles, who moves from one end to the other of the enormous American continent and who rides the seismic wave of the struggle, overcoming national boundaries and sailing the oceans before organizing conventions to found sister organizations. The Wobblies' concern with transportation workers and longshoremen, their constant determination to strike at capital as an international market, their intuitive understanding of the mobile proletariat - employed today, unemployed tomorrow - as a virus of social insubordination, as the agent of the "social wildcat": all these things make the IWW a class organization which anticipated present-day forms of struggle . . .
After giving introductory comments, I invited Roberto Luzzi to read a prepared statement of solidarity for RWU from Wobbly CUB Rail, a group of railroad workers from Italy who also find inspiration in the IWW. Roberto then gave an overview of his group, SI Cobas, which is a “base” or rank-and-file union that organizes with predominately immigrant warehouse workers in northern Italy. Next, KD from Angry Workers of the World talked about organizing in warehouses and readymade food plants in the logistics cluster around Heathrow Airport in West London. After that, Aga and Magda from Workers Initiative in Poland described their organizing efforts at Amazon warehouses in Poland and the links they’ve made with German warehouse workers. A more thorough account of these comrades’ longer presentations on a panel at Labor Notes is below. Also, a pdf of the PowerPoint presentation I gave (“Supply Chain Solidarity”) will be sent as another attachment with this document.
After the brief presentations by the European guests, I gave an overview of concepts of workers’ power, drawn from Beverly Silver’s book Forces of Labor:
Then I detailed examples of all three, showing how workers can gain leverage through understanding their existing – or potential – forms of power. After that, I proceeded to go through the various work sectors along supply chains once goods, hypothetically originating in China, arrive at the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex and make their way to other hubs in the U.S. – like the “super node” of Chicago. I showed this class composition list and schematic graphic of work sectors on this supply chain (this is for land-based goods, not air cargo):
As I mentioned each sector (i.e. maritime; longshore; trucking; rail; warehousing; logistics planning), I solicited from workshop attendees their experiences with cross-sectoral solidarity.
Here are some highlights from the sector-by-sector discussion:
- • when talking about maritime, I mentioned “flags of convenience” for ship registration to avoid regulation and labor laws; someone called work on ships “indentured servitude”
- • during the ILWU struggle at grain ports 6 years ago, they went out on boats to try to encourage workers on grain ships to support their struggle in solidarity, and ended up encountering Japanese and Chinese maritime workers; they didn’t mention any success, but merely trying was admirable
- • two RWU “solidarity” members are ILWU dockers who work grain ports on the Columbia River, but had previously hired out on the railroad (UP & BNSF), and gave an account of the attempts to break up their master contract for grain handling ports in the Pacific Northwest; they talked about the new high tech terminals, like in Longview, which have more cameras and more surveillance; they later mentioned that transportation workers, like Teamster UPS drivers, “proudly” honored their picket lines and refused to cross at the grains ports of Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR when they were locked out
- • railroaders had covert “discussions” with longshore workers to support their actions at the EGT Terminal in Longview in 2011; a 110-car train had all the grain dumped to the ground, sparking wildcat walkout at most Pacific Northwest ports
- • someone asked why, with their the record of strikes, port truckers (at LA/Long Beach) haven’t leveraged their associational power to challenge their legal status; I answered by saying Teamsters appeal to state labor bureaucracies about “misclassification,” often winning, and Wobbly-esque troqueros file formal complaints with the IRS about their employers having not paid into Social Security and also often win; I emphasized that their true strength lies in direct action, not legalistic advocacy
- • in Louisville, KY, RWU and other union workers helped Teamster car loaders who were on strike; in solidarity, railroaders created a “chaos” strategy stopping all movement for 36 hours, helping car loaders win their strike
- • I mentioned that during the 2004-2005 grocery strike among 77,000 workers in southern California, the UFCW set up pickets at regional distribution centers, completely paralyzing the resupply of the stores on strike right before Thanksgiving; for no apparent reason, UFCW pulled off the pickets and the stores were back in business, betraying a supply strategy that could have helped win the strike
The workshop finished with a thought-experiment, a hypothetical strike at a Chicagoland Amazon warehouse and everyone was asked to brainstorm how other sectors along supply chains could act in solidarity. The floor was open to discussion and it was a lively interchange about how the strike could be supported. Here are the comments:
- • an RWU member said, “in terms of rail we know where those chokepoints are, where those supply chain vulnerabilities are . . . places like Chicago or Kansas City or other vital interchange terminals largely in the Midwest . . . and that’s why place like Kansas City or Chicago are so important in terms of getting organized”
- • a comment from floor said that compared to Walmart, Amazon isn’t retail and has a different dynamic and more of a focus on fulfilling orders, with more surveillance and automation but not so much of a need to curtail organizing – yet
- • an Amazon warehouse worker in the Chicago area said managers seem to be very “green” and “there’s opportunity right now” and “because they’re expanding so much they don’t have firm control over every single” warehouse
- • one of the RWU machinists working for Union Pacific in Kansas City said their biggest competition for “non-agreement” (mid-level, uncontracted?) managers is Amazon, with all the new warehouses being built near Kansas City, the biggest turnover is with managers leaving and going to Amazon . . . sometimes for even less pay, because unlike management at UP, they are not as much of “dickheads”
- • an RWU engineer talked about the high priority “hotshot” trains in yards like Chicago
with “extremely time sensitive cargos” [James Wallace’s comment inaudible: check with him to complete this] making them vulnerable to disruption
- • comparison with West Virginia school workers strike, saying organizing that set off the strike was by rank-and-file militants in a single location who called for “joint meetings” with all school workers, from the kitchen hands to bus drivers to teachers, and everyone had a vote whether they were in a union or not, doing coordination “industrially”
- • JP said it would be an opportunity for Teamster package handlers to connect with Amazon warehouse workers because they’re doing the same job and using the same technology, as well as connecting with postal workers who are part of the chain too
- • many locomotive engineers are Teamsters, who heard of union-organized truck caravans taking supplies for hurricane relief to Texas, showing that infrastructure for strike support exists but militants need to make use of it for radical ends
- • railroad workers are under the Railway Labor Act, not NLRA, so they can honor secondary boycotts; the Chicago Amazon warehouse worker wants to connect with railroaders to further build on this possibility
My presentation was followed by a talk by a UAW autoworker from the Ford assembly plant in South Chicago, who is a local official, and discussed efforts for solidarity in and around Chicago.
It was over lunch that I experienced the high point of my trip to Chicago. We grabbed our food and gathered informally in RWU’s conference room. Some young tech workers from Seattle, one of whom is a software engineer at Amazon, came over and sat down with the Polish Amazon warehouse workers and our British friend. Others from San Francisco joined us too, all of them members of the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC, which sent 10 workers to Labor Notes), most of whom attended my “Struggles along Supply Chain” workshop (later I met others in TWC from New York and elsewhere). In turn, these TWC comrades had invited the Chicago area Amazon warehouse worker (mentioned above) and these workers began discussing how they could coordinate their efforts and create a grouping of all Amazon workers. This would be amazing, organizing industrially across sectors and borders, to build a global network of Amazon workers. An internationalist expression of the Chicago Idea!
After lunch there was another safety presentation, by former OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor Jordan Barab, who also once worked for AFSCME. Important points he made were:
- • there are 14-15 workplace deaths in the U.S. every day
- • he talked about “normalization of deviance” by management
- • he also said behavior-based safety was simply the bosses way to “blame the worker”
The RWU convention’s workshops finished with talks about passenger rail advocacy. One presenter made the astute point that “high speed is not important; instead, more consistent service should be the priority.”
The first Labor Notes workshop I attended (Friday evening) was called “Organizing Industrially in the Tech Sector” with some of my new friends from the Tech Workers Coalition in the Bay Area. The panel included several tech workers who had also attended the session I facilitated at the RWU Convention that morning. AG gave an overview of the Bay Area TWC, which has the largest rank-and-file tech worker presence and has conceived itself as a “workers’ center.” He explained the motivation to create it was the lack of class awareness in the start-up world, often expressed as “class guilt” where tech workers ask themselves “what do we have to complain about?” and how this argument of privilege only helps the bosses. He pointed out that, conversely, tech workers have the power to “shut stuff down.” He said in 2016 cafeteria workers at Dell were organizing, because they were hired by a subcontractor, and he contacted UNITE-HERE who connected him with TWC. He said that later TWC showed up to a Facebook cafeteria organizing meeting with 40 tech workers, who were all rank-and-filers but were acting “autonomously.” He pointed out that TWC operates with a steering committee, but also organizes workplace committees and affinity groups. He told how TWU had twice held IWW Organizer Training 101 sessions, and also organized their own internal educational project called Learning Clubs (which I personally have both attended and facilitated sessions for).
Another TWC member from Seattle works for Amazon, where she’s been for one and a half years – although she’s worked in tech for 10 years. She talked about the much-acclaimed attempts at diversity. She said that today 18% of computer science graduates are women, while in 1984 that number was 37%. Also, 76% of software engineers are men, while in her department only 2 women are. She said Amazon claims woman earn 99% of what men do, while management creates “affinity groups” based on diversity and inclusion, as well as company-wide “lean-in” circles. She pointed out that most tech workers have never worked in another sector and that 40% are immigrants. She said her own trajectory was going from “individualism” to “collective awareness” of all workers across all worksites.
JC has worked at Amazon for one year, is a software engineer, and connected with TWC through DSA. He called the rise of the gig economy as a “new form of unfreedom,” pointing out that Amazon hires “flex drivers” as independent contractors. Next EM, who works as a security guard at Facebook in Menlo Park, talked about his radicalization in his home state during the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising, and called for “wall-to-wall” industrial organizing. A panelist mentioned “smashing workplace segregation” between sectors and attempts to get rid of subcontractors so that all workers are directly hired by the same employer. EM talked about how low-paid workers for tech companies commute from distant suburbs (e.g. Stockton, Manteca, or San Jose in Northern California) and how unions are afraid to take on organizing subcontracted workers because they are “risk adverse” and prefer neutrality agreements. He said tech workers, in all sectors, need to be fearless.
SC talked about his work at an Amazon warehouse in Kent, WA and how the mayor or Kent has “drunk the Kool-Aide” about the benefit of jobs, pointing out that Amazon is the #1 most popular company in the U.S. He said a warehouse worker must make daily “rate” for a year to qualify for benefits but can get written up for not doing so – and three strikes, or write-ups, means you’re out. He pointed out that Muslims must clock out each time they pray, putting themselves at risk. He said that the remote locations of these warehouses lead to “suburbanization of poverty,” leading to spatial changes in the landscape of production, in addition to changes in the work process due to new technologies.
During the question section, AG explained the attempt by 15 Lanetix workers in San Francisco and Washington DC to organize with NewsGuild-CWA, but as a result they were all laid off and all the work relocated to Eastern Europe. EM once worked in the cafeteria at Intel and was fired for organizing, with the new subcontractor instructed to not rehire any of the former workers. Someone from the audience said that “on class-based terrain, we have to strike” and another called this impossible, but others mentioned tech workers refusing to do work for the military and police. It was a lively discussion with many valid points made about the need for industrial organizing by tech workers, another example of the Chicago Idea!
For Day Two of Labor Notes, I attended a workshop called “Tackling Amazon and the Logistics Bosses: Reports from Around the Globe,” with the same warehouse workers and organizers from the RWU session I moderated (Aga and Magda from Workers’ Initiative in Poland, KD from Angry Workers of the World in the U.K., Roberto Luzzi and Aldo Milani of SI Cobas in Italy).
Magda spoke first and said the following about Amazon warehouses in Poland:
- • the first 2 were built in 2014, near the German border
- • in Poland there are 24,000 Amazon workers: of which 10,000 are permanent and 19,000 are temps (discrepancy might be due to seasonal fluctuations?)
- • workers are recruited from as far as 100 km away, making meetings very difficult
- • employment is seasonal: 2/3 of the temps are hired by agencies
- • veterans with 2-3 years of experience, like herself, are “exhausted”
- • unlike Walmart, there’s no union busting, but management is not receptive although
outside unions are tolerated
- • they earn 3 times less than German Amazon workers
- • hardly anything sold by Amazon in Poland, so most of what they process goes to
Germany – or elsewhere in Europe; so, in Poland, Amazon doesn’t pay taxes
- • machines in the warehouse detect as much as 3 minutes of “inactivity,” which is considered a break and results in penalties
- • if a worker calls in sick, an Amazon representative visits their home
- • organizing goal is to remove “targets” and to struggle over exposing how the targets are stressful and unhealthy
Aga was next and said:
- • she has worked at the Poznan Amazon warehouse for 3 ½ years
- • Workers Initiative has 500 members, with 15 representatives working on the shopfloor
- • they collected 800 signatures for workplace reforms
- • they have distributed 10,000 union newspapers
- • they have held pickets at temp agencies
- • during a strike by German Amazon workers, the Polish workers were forced to work overtime, so they:
■ slowed down by 30%, some workers were fired, and they blocked trucks
- • for German national holidays, Polish workers are expected to make up for this lost labor
- •in 2016 had mediation with management over demands
■ striking requires 50% approval, which is 14,000 workers; they only represent 14%
- • their targets as “pickers” is 300 items per hour and they must look at 6 side of each piece
- • on April 24, Jeff Bezos will get some bullshit award in Berlin and they are planning a cross-border protest
- • she finished by saying their rather than multi-tiered wages across Europe, they should fight for parity so that no workers are “scabbing” on other workers
Roberto Luzzi gave a history of SI Cobas, saying:
- CGL/CSIL/UIL are pro-government trade unions that represent 90% of unionized workers; 1 in 3 Italians are in unions
- the 3 unions have millions of members, providing services with money from the state
- in 1993 rank-and-file unions were created by left-leaning workers, which are minority unions in workplaces and which sometimes have called for general strikes
- SI Cobas was created out of one of these general strike calls 8 years ago by Alfa Romeo workers in Naples and Milan, the latter plant recently closed
- the majority of worker in logistics are immigrants, whose low pay makes them work in “slave-like” conditions
- they organize by striking and holding illegal pickets
■ creating a pole of attraction, where workers come to them to help get organized
- SI Cobas is the main union of logistics workers, with a record of hundreds of strikes
■ 90% of which they have won!
- their approach wouldn’t apply to sectors with native-born Italians • SI Cobas is a cross-sectoral rank-and-file union with a “class perspective,” which means organizing industrially like the Italian version of the Chicago Idea!
Aldo, through Roberto translating, talked about his experience as an auto worker militant at Fiat in the 1970s. He described:
- how the auto workforce went from 370,000 in the 1970s to 37,000 today
- SI Cobas was founded in the logistics sector, but broke with metal worker sector because of changes to the industry
- today in Italy there are 190,000 warehouse workers; 700,000 truckers
- 40% of logistics is controlled by the mafia
- multinational corporations, like DHL and TNT, manipulate through worker co-ops and mafia-run co-ops
- when SI Cobas struggles, they must fight both the mafia and the police
- in the beginning there was fear (hence the documentary about them is called Ditching the Fear) wrought by divisions based on nationalities
- Italy has recently received 6 million immigrant
- their success in overcoming fear is like “popping a Champagne cork”
- in 2 national strikes, SI Cobas reversed mainstream unions agreements to concessions and givebacks
- SI Cobas raised wages and reduced work hours, making them the highest paid industrial workers
- IKEA fight won due to internationalism; continue to build contacts around the world
- Aldo was arrested, but demos of workers led to his release; he still has 58 charges
KD, of Angry Workers of the World (AWW), made a plug for people to watch Ditching the Fear about SI Cobas and to support labournet.tv and their documentaries about class struggle. She talked about her experiences:
- • she moved to West London about 4 years ago, where she and her comrades began doing “workers enquiries” to understand the class composition of that area
- ■ this led to forms of organization to fight the boss
- • she mentioned ignorance of this region west of London because the left has long been centered in East London
- • an IWW campaign was launched to organize a sandwich making facility, they came to AWW for help; they had already petitioned the boss with 100 signatures
- • she mentioned the rise of syndicalism among young workers and how they created a “solidarity network” for non-workplace issues, as well as putting out a newspaper
- • she described the western logistics corridor near Heathrow Airport with 80,000 workers, half of whom work for minimum wage
- • the workforce is mostly immigrants, who face issues of visa problems, immigration raids, and sexual harassment
- ■ individually they are in very weak positions but collectively they have great potential strength - they could disrupt the food chain into London. because of the hostile environment towards immigrants, any signal of struggle by these groups would have to power to change the social atmosphere very quickly, especially as they are usually blamed for worsening wages
- • in that area, there are no social spaces; pubs are closed and there’s no cultural life, no place for “mingling”
- • members of her group will join existing unions, but have no expectations
- • she mentioned that in Italy, North African immigrant workers were inspired by the Arab Spring that started in 2011
- o South American workers in the U.K. have more references to struggle from their home countries
- • low wage sector in U.K. has been growing since the economic crisis in 2008
- • the food supply chain reaches from places like Kenya and Spain, with foodstuffs most often delivered by plane
- • she mentioned the “great hummus crisis,” when production stopped and there was no hummus because only one factory supplied it to all of London; the media's response: having given no thought previously to where their supermarket hummus comes from, the shortage drew them to this part of town where they had never ventured before. It shone a light on this type of work and the conditions but ultimately, it was stated that the solution to this crisis should be to diversify hummus production!
- • she said that they think it is important to get rooted in a place and start small, but their political work has to have its roots in working class experiences which might mean moving your ass!
- • she mentioned AWW distributes bulletins with news of struggle across various worksites
During Q & A section:
- • in response to a question about right-wing danger in Poland, the answer was that there has always been one; since 1989 Poland has implemented neoliberalism; 40% of population supports current government
- • another question was about Amazon recruiting from “poor” communities; in response it was pointed out that Poland has 7% unemployment
- ■ Amazon targets youth with no work experience, and the precarious like single moms and retired people; Magda worked with a 72-year-old woman
- • someone from Canada asked about how to deal with temps, to which Magda answered that it is hard to do everywhere; they hope to fight for permanent contracts by holding pickets in front of temp agencies
- ■ they got management to promise to make 80% of workforce permanent, but this is unstable because of fixed-term contracts and labor law allows unions to represent both permanent and temp workers
- ■ after 1 year, Amazon must make workers permanent, or fire them before then
- • KD pointed out that after working 12 weeks as a temp in the U.K., you “should” get permanent wages and conditions
- ■ in a struggle at Sainsbury’s permanents got £2.50 an hour more, but Unite union did nothing for temp workers, who had a built-in wage increase, because they didn’t want to upset the “deal” they had negotiated with management
- • KD asked Aldo about Amazon and he replied that they only hire native Italians because they know they won’t strike
- ■ SI Cobas blocked Amazon’s facilities to inspire workers to “lose fear” (which wasn’t explained clearly, but implies their “inside-outside” strategy of disrupting the movement of goods in and out of the warehouse to support the organizing of workers on the inside)
- o Amazon tried to buy Italian postal services logistics firm, but due to 21-day strike they gave up; one condition of sale was new management had to ditch SI Cobas
- • during the Q & A, a Chicago area Amazon worker made appeals for all the international warehouse workers to exchange contact info and caucus informally during Labor Notes, which they later did – and hopefully can build a global network to coordinate struggles
The session with the warehouse workers was incredibly inspiring, so I lingered a little with some comrades talking about the various sessions over lunch in the hotel’s dining area. Unfortunately, after eating we were a little late and wandered into a completely packed workshop called “Amazon, UPS, USPS: Workers Fighting Back in the Age of E-Commerce.” We got there for the last speaker, who made the astute comment that if Amazon workers got better wages, it would help the struggles of postal workers and Teamster delivery drivers. I wish we had caught the entire workshop – with a panel comprised of 2 postal workers, SC who is an Amazon warehouse worker, and a Teamster – because a very lively Q & A session ensued.
- • a postal worker spoke from the floor and mentioned working 30 days in a row and an unreasonable number of hours per day, and how this was because of an agreement between Amazon and the US Postal Service (USPS)
- • another postal worker mentioned that as a result of the 1970 Postal Strike, neoliberalism with partial privatization was implemented
- ■ now all carriers (e.g. FedEx, UPS, etc.) “cooperate” around the USPS, as the post office is a “point of contact” for logistics
- • Alessandro from SI Cobas mentioned how SDA, a logistics company owned by the Italian postal service, was almost sold to Amazon but a 21-day strike canceled the deal (mentioned above by Aldo)
- • a Chicagoland Amazon worker mentioned that any kind of strike by logistics workers needs to grapple with the USPS – which is a very important point!
- • a sorter who works for UPS in Chicago said he was replaced by a machine and pondered how with automation we can prepare for strikes
- • a Teamster official pointed out that UPS is becoming more like USPS for “last mile” deliveries; Amazon has proposed buying FedEx, but UPS is smaller and more “clueless”; in New England, Uber Logistics is doing last mile deliveries; in some areas, a fourth to a third of people in supermarkets pushing shopping carts are working for logistics companies preparing orders for home delivery
- o later, a Canadian postal worker said “Amazon is 100% worse than Walmart” because all the carriers – UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc. – are working for Amazon’s “monopoly”
- • a discussion continued, occasionally interspersed with other topics, about HQ2 – the new headquarters for Amazon
- ■ SC mentioned how labor groups in Seattle are working with mayor to push for a corporate tax, specifically an “Amazon tax”
- ■ there are 40,000 Amazon workers in Seattle
- ■ UPS has lots of tech workers too, as do most logistics companies
- ■ finished by saying it is “not an Amazon problem, but a Jeff Bezos problem”
- • others mentioned that 20 cities are “divided and fighting each other” for HQ2, one calling for “inter-city solidarity” against Amazon’s coercive demands for kickbacks
- • another postal worker had a great anecdote: sometimes they’re required to make Sunday deliveries and recipients often say, “I don’t need it today,” questioning the absurdity of the just-in-time delivery of everything, even on Sunday; this postal worker also pointed out that thousands are now working in single facilities, especially with the hub-and-spoke distribution system, dispelling myths of deindustrialization meaning the end of mass-based workplaces; implying they are ripe to organize
- • the panel moderator ended by saying “we can’t stop the march of automation,” then mentioned Kim Moody’s new book On New Terrain and how the “gig economy always existed” and “moonlighting ain’t new”; she again paraphrased Moody and said “we’re not losing jobs to China, but to automation – Foxconn is now in Wisconsin”; which are all excellent points!
I truly wish I had attended the entire workshop, since there were so many insightful comments and discussion of concrete workplace organizing experience. The most important new understanding I gained was how much Amazon has superseded Walmart (passing it in market capitalization in 2015) to become the cutting edge of retail, not only in the U.S. but as a model for the rest of the world. This can be summarized as Amazon functioning like a three-way hybrid of its competitors:
■ Google, yet Amazon is the world’s largest provider of cloud infrastructure services (IaaS and PaaS); it also produces consumer electronics (Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets, Fire TV, and Echo); the cloud computing service is the first of three of Jeff Bezos’ core pillars; the other two are Amazon Prime, which offers membership e-commerce bundled with elite digital media products, and Marketplace, Amazon’s third-party seller business
■ United Parcel Service; being both logistics provider and a carrier, Amazon has 342 facilities (including fulfillment centers, Prime hubs, and sortation centers) worldwide, including Amazon’s fleet of 32 Boeing 767 cargo jets; Amazon has more than 45,000 robots in its warehouses
■ Walmart; Amazon is the largest internet retailer in the world (measured by revenue and market capitalization; it is second to Alibaba in total sales); with its $13.4 billion purchase of Whole Foods Market and its 479 stores in the U.S. and U.K., it is directly challenging Walmart for supremacy in brick-and-mortar retail – although using its tech prowess and logistics infrastructure, it is trying to monopolize home delivery; yet it is still dwarfed by Walmart, which has 2,300,000 employees worldwide, while Amazon has only 541,900
- ■ Amazon accounts for about 4% of all retail and about 44% of all e-commerce spending in the U.S.
- ■ 60% of the products sold by Amazon are electronics
Like Walmart, the employment practices for Amazon are cutthroat (as evidenced by the accounts above). According to the Wall Street Journal (23 April 2018), the median salary of an Amazon worker is $28,446, showing the blue-collar nature of its workforce, and making clear that it pays well below tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook (the latter’s median annual compensation is $240,430). Amazon pays about the same as confectionary manufacturer Hershey, and slightly above home improvement retailer Home Depot.
Retail is one of the biggest employers in the U.S., but for jobs working in general merchandise, specialty merchandise, or e-commerce, “software developer” jumped from 8th most popular job in 2013 to 3rd most popular today. The first and second jobs were “logistics specialist” and “salesperson,” while sales dropped from 33% of the total workforce to 29% today (U.S. Department of Labor’s jobs report). IT and engineering jobs are increasing while jobs are shifting away from showroom floor sales, increasingly to warehouse and call center positions.
Next, I attended a screening of the documentary film Union Time: Fighting for Workers’ Rights about the decades-long struggle of workers at the Smithfield Pork Processing plant (the world’s largest) in Tar Heel, North Carolina. The discussion afterward was led by the core organizer of the successful campaign, Gene Bruskin. In a study group I read the chapter called “Smithfield Foods: A Huge Success You’ve Hardly Heard About,” from Jane McAlevey’s book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. We were so inspired by this account that we reviewed the chapter twice, since we found the story so powerful. I was excited about the topic of the film that earlier, sight unseen, I bought a DVD copy. I can’t do justice to a story with so many twists and turns, which in the end leaves us with fantastic lessons about how to organize and build bridges across the divides of race, as well as overcoming the divisions of native born vs. immigrant. When class unity was achieved, their victory was assured. I can only urge others to read the chapter and watch the film.
During the Q & A, I asked why the film didn’t have an account of the 2,500 Latina/o workers at Smithfield who joined the nationwide general strike against the draconian anti-immigrant bill, the Sensenbrenner Act (H.R. 4437), on May Day 2006. Gene Bruskin, seeming to relish the cue, told of how the union was caught “off guard.” They never expected such a groundswell, and he detailed how the Latina/o immigrant workers “self-organized” their participation in the strike, which grew beyond the workers in the plant and included over 5,000 in Tar Heel – perhaps the largest demonstration there ever. The workers’ organizing was aided by the local Spanish-language radio DJ and their local soccer club, in addition they were assisted by the local Catholic clergy to draw up their plan for the day’s action. This inspiring example of class struggle unfortunately didn’t make it into the film (but is expressed in detail in McAlevey’s chapter).
As I was leaving the screening room, a young woman approached me and asked if I was the one who asked the question about May Day 2006. When I said that I had, we began a long in-depth conversation about that event, decrying how poorly it’s been covered. She was a grad student who is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on the strike and we exchanged contact info to further share our research. I encouraged her to finish her dissertation and turn it into an accessible book documenting the self-organized nature of the 2006 May Day General Strike. She said she was planning to do so by documenting the earliest immigrant mobilizations in Philadelphia in February, then in Chicago in March, and after that nearly 2 million protesters filling Los Angeles’ Civic Center on March 25, leading up to 5.1 million (possibly more) who went on strike on May 1st. This was another euphoric moment, making a connection with an academic writing about May Day and class struggle, in the tradition of what I call the Chicago Idea. It was clear that many of the immigrant strikers on May Day 2006 knew more about the Haymarket Martyrs (and how in their memory the holiday was created in 1889) from their home country than most native- born Americans.
On Sunday the 8th we rented a car and with the European warehouse worker comrades, an RWU rank-and-file railroad engineer from Nebraska and I took them to Forest Home Cemetery to pay homage to the Haymarket martyrs. Seeing the monument – to Engel, Fischer, Parsons, and Spies, who were hung, and Lingg who committed suicide in prison, as well as Schwab and Neebe, who were later pardoned – makes clear that the birth of the “Chicago Idea,” the dream of a classless society, grew out of soil that was fertilized with their blood, as well as the sacrifices of other working class militants who came before us.
Then we drove to the logistics cluster southwest of Chicago, heading towards the Joliet/Elwood CenterPoint Intermodal Center. The railroader pointed out the configuration of the UP and BNSF rail yards, telling us how BNSF "Z" trains get loaded on-dock in LA/Long Beach and make it all the way to the Logistics Park Chicago yard, where the containers are first opened (often having been loaded in Asia), in around 96 hours. He also pointed out, as he had done before, that Amazon Prime piggy back trailers are often on his trains through Nebraska. The European comrades pointed out how the warehouses/DCs were identical to the ones in Europe, which was until we got to the ones Schneider runs as a 3PL for Walmart. That 2-warehouse complex, where UE had a successful 21-day strike in 2012, is an enormous 2.2 million square feet (among the largest in the U.S.). The Europeans took lots of photos, and for me it was important to see all this logistics infrastructure in order to contrast CenterPoint's master planned development to the chaotic sprawl of the even larger cluster in Southern California's Inland Empire, which I have been able to explore during trips to visit relatives in Riverside County (as I did while checking out Sketchers’ 1.82 million square foot distribution center in Moreno Valley in the summer of 2016). There is so much more so say about our exploration of the logistics cluster around Joliet and Elwood, Illinois, but it’s beyond the scope of this account. Perhaps the European comrades or myself will write a thorough analysis of it in the future
As we headed back to the highway to return to Chicago, we passed through the town of Elwood and saw many lawn signs saying, “Just Say No to Northpoint.” That area, around Jackson and Manhattan Township, is still rural and heavily agricultural and residents are protesting against Northpoint Development’s Compass Business Park Proposal, which plans to acquire 2,000 acres of farmland to build a warehouse complex connected with all the intermodal transportation infrastructure in the area. It would put an endless flow of trucks through these tiny hamlets, transforming them from quiet farming communities into throughways for the transnational flow commodities and the global circuits of capital.
During the Labor Notes session on Amazon, UPS and the Postal Service the moderator said, “We can’t stop the march of automation.” And this automation involves capital increasingly throwing labor out of the production process, immiserating our lives through a widening chasm of disparity between the working class and the ruling class, while externalizing capitalism’s inefficiencies onto the natural world and despoiling the earth. For us, the international proletariat, this offers nothing more than the bosses expanding their technocratic exploitation. Amazon is at the cutting edge of these innovations that transform the production process worldwide and recompose the global working class. And since we can’t stop the march of automation, we must negate the system of social relations that rely on this commodification of every aspect of social life and these technological transformations in order to accumulate capital. So, it’s to the Chicago Idea we must return to find inspiration for ways to reignite the class struggle to further the fight for a classless society.
Final disclaimer: these are my own subjective observations and opinions. I don’t mean to misrepresent anyone and will correct any inaccuracies. Additionally, the just concluded victory in the West Virginia school workers’ strike was on the lips of literally every person at these events in Chicago. I was able to have a few one-on-one discussions, albeit brief, with some WV teachers and it was inspiring beyond words. Unfortunately, each of their workshops at Labor Notes coincided with another one with Amazon workers. For obvious reasons, I chose the latter. But I want to be clear that the most inspiring story at the conference came from West Virginia – and the more details I learned, the more I think those school workers – striking with unity amongst the bus drivers, kitchen workers, custodians and teachers – were the perfect embodiment of the Chicago Idea.
San Francisco, California
25 April 2018