Whose strike?

An article about the Fight For 15 campaign, and how radicals should relate to it.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 19, 2014

The Strikes Themselves

November of this year will mark the one-year anniversary of the New York fast food worker walkout that initiated the cycle of one-day strikes and public demonstrations that have been kicking off across the country ever since. The first New York action was followed by a second in the spring of 2013, as similar strikes rolled through Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Washington DC, Detroit and Seattle. In early August, workers in New York staged a third walkout, matched by escalations in other cities.

Each major action has thus far been initiated and facilitated by paid organizers employed by groups like “Fast Food Forward” and “Good Jobs Seattle,” all funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). These paid organizers make an initial foothold in each shop by seeking out the active, interested minority of workers, who then attend larger meetings and themselves take on the responsibility of pulling other workers from their shop. A similar approach was evident in the UFCW-backed Black Friday walkouts at Walmart in 2012. Despite being instigated by these paid organizers, however, the strikes themselves have involved an unusual degree of worker input and participation when compared to normal union drives.

In the bigger picture, they mark a shift away from the usual sign-holding and sterile contract negotiation that are the time-tested hallmarks of the nearly extinct species of union that originated in the post-WWII anti-communist detente. In their stead, several (mostly service) unions are now moving (back) towards strike-first strategies, solidarity picketing and general “social movement unionism,” often catapulting themselves into a legal grey zone where their strategy becomes unclear at the same time that opportunities proliferate.

Despite the conservative nature of the forces behind it, this recent spate of foodworker walkouts has helped to unveil and give preliminary focus to an immense, grassroots anger among the low-paid, precariously-employed service workers who make up such a large segment of the working class in the US. But, precisely because of this overt union involvement, many radicals have shied away from the recent strikes. Aside from the usual opportunist forces, neither communists nor anarchists have intervened in these actions to the same degree as Occupy, or even recent struggles on the waterfront.

In other words, several large unions in the US are now, for their own survival, being forced to abandon tactics of general demobilization in favor of instigating some degree of direct action by workers. This is a major push for a new, “militant reformism,” hoping to piggy-back off the experience of Occupy. It’s matched, outside the workplace, with the revival of non-confrontational civil disobedience being used by the Democratic Party and NAACP in the South.

Despite all this, radicals are often not engaging with the effort, speaking of it as if these conservative forces doom it by simple association. In so doing, we may very well be missing an opportunity for intervention just as significant as the rising struggles on the waterfront—and one that more directly involves those in the bottommost tiers of race and class in the US.

Venture Syndicalism

These union-backed campaigns are easy to dismiss offhandedly, since they exhibit many of the same failings common to any single-issue campaign. More damning is the fact that these demands have been targeted as much at the state as at the companies themselves, the strikes explicitly paired with political lobbying and reformist civil disobedience—requesting, for instance, that cities with laws against wage theft have their police enforce those laws.

Nate Hawthorne, writing for the Industrial Worker, has characterized these actions as “venture syndicalism.” As Hawthorne explains, venture syndicalism is

named after venture capitalism. Venture capital firms are companies that advance money to businesses that are in their very early stages, when they have little money, lots of risk of failure yet a high potential for success. The funds spent are a great deal of money for the startup company but only a small amount of money for a large financial company. Venture syndicalism is the union version of this, where the mainstream and wealthier unions fund more confrontational efforts than they can afford to carry out on their own.

Hawthorne notes, however, that strikes and solidarity pickets for their own sake aren’t enough. The strategy itself is drawn from Joe Burns’ arguments in Reviving the Strike, where the end result of this strategy is simply greater unionization.

In a follow-up article, Hawthorne clarifies the predicament:

We should welcome rising militancy but we should be prepared for the people calling the shots in venture syndicalist projects to act as a force for the old society against the creation of a new world out of its ashes. We must remember that not all struggles help to end capitalism, and that militancy and radicalism are two different things.

But this doesn’t mean that radicals should disengage from these struggles. The venture syndicalist project is inherently risky. The only reason major unions are encouraging it is because dwindling unionization rates threaten them with extinction. From above, the strikes risk major crackdowns by the state, since they may technically breach the stipulations of Taft-Hartley and other anti-labor legislation. From below, they risk igniting an actual workers’ rebellion—one that might not be so easily contained within the confines of NGOs, formal unions or pacified “social movements.”

This is why the strategies utilized have thus far sought desperately to prevent confrontational contact with the police—even though such confrontations became common in other recent labor actions, such as the Occupy port shutdowns and the ILWU resistance in Longview.

Hawthorne argues that radicals can at least have a limited role in these strikes. Since they require people willing to take initial risks well beyond short-term gains, radicals can volunteer to staff those positions. This is only in cases when “we have nothing better to do,” and with an aim “to gain skills, experience, confidence, and relationships so that we will eventually have something better to do.”

Unionization or Public Relations?

Another article, by Jarrod Shanahan, paints a far less optimistic picture.

“The problem is, a successful union drive comes from the workers themselves,” argues Shanahan, implying that this movement does not come from the workers and will not amount to “a successful union drive.” Instead, Fast Food Forward and similar groups in other cities are portrayed as “corralling” workers into “a public relations campaign.”

Shanahan, in observing the recent NYC strike, systematically identifies the many problems with the campaign, and focuses in on the most important:

The entire Union Square demonstration was carefully planned by FFF [Fast Food Forward], stage-crafted by [SEIU Local] 32BJ marshals in orange vests who lead [sic] the chants, directed the marches (following traffic laws and staying on the sidewalks), and worked with the police to keep everyone calm […]

When the march reached a McDonalds and the police attempted to push the crowd away, some in the crowd pushed back, chanting “Shame on you!” The crowd came alive. Franklin was right up front pointing his finger and yelling at the cops, and others pushed the metal barricade back at the officers. Suddenly a 32BJ marshal, a burly, bearded-white man in near constant contact with the police, gets between the crowd and the cops, physically pushing the crowd back, and announcing “We know the real reason we’re here... you can’t survive on $7.25!” Another burly man with an orange vest guarded the McDonalds door, fists clenched, to make sure nobody went in.

Though the problems here are obvious, the picture itself is not at all indicative of the movement in every city. In Seattle, for example, the first foodworker walkout, though organized with a general program and loose guidelines, allowed for plenty of spontaneous action. During the initial portion of the day, a team of workers broke off from the main crowd on Capitol Hill, headed downtown (without permission or suggestion from the leading organizers), and shut down three additional Subway stores, the workers on opening shift all walking out to join the strike. None of the organizers even knew where the workers had gone until they showed up hours later, their numbers almost doubled.

Similarly, rather than keeping people outside the stores, in Seattle the day ended with more than a hundred people charging into a McDonalds—so many that the police had to use the drive-thru to talk to the managers, who forced all the workers in the store to hide in a back closet. It was clearly not the same kind of restrained attitude Shanahan reads in the most recent New York action. Instead, the restraint came in the form of eventually ceding the territory to the managers and police. Even if a sustained occupation may not have been possible at that time and place, it would have been completely feasible to hold a flash assembly in the middle of the store to see if anyone was down. Yet the idea was never posed and the union was never forced to choose between its own legalistic nitpicking and the more militant demands of the workers themselves.

But, in the end, it doesn’t matter how much militancy these actions exhibit. Militant reformism is still reformism, and the most important conflicts—direct confrontation with the state and sustained occupation of the space in which labor occurs—are still being actively avoided.

Shanahan is correct in pointing out that these movements risk amounting to little more than public relations campaigns, but his proposed alternative is no better. Instead of public relations, he offers unionization, and faults the movement for not going shop-by-shop, getting majorities in each and then calling for a strike. In short, he claims that the main problem with the movement is that it’s not following the “traditional” model of unionization—even though such “venture syndicalism” is a response to the abject failure of that very model.

The 66%

In order to understand the insufficiency of Shanahan’s “alternative,” we have to look at the actual composition of the workforce and its material context.

It’s a common refrain in the conservative press that fast food work is dominated by teenagers just entering the labor market—who are presumably in the process of scaling up to “creative class” work in science, engineering, design, management, etc. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, this simply is not true. Three quarters of low wage workers are adults aged 20 or over. The average age for a minimum wage worker is 32, they have been in the labor force for an average of 14 years, and, all in all, only 9.3% of minimum wage workers are teenagers.

This means that, though the teenage-worker myth is clearly not true, there is still a clear generational aspect to low-wage work. Much of it is performed by millenials (and the tail end of Generation X)—the poorest generation since the great depression, facing the highest levels of debt, the most expensive markets in housing, healthcare and education, global environmental collapse, the massive increase in state surveillance and police violence in everyday life, all accompanied by the near-complete plundering of any remnants of the old welfare state that might help to cushion the fall.

Altogether, these workers are near the bottom of the US labor pyramid. While the ranks of the traditional working class, employed in manufacturing or resource extraction, dropped after increases in production and the outsourcing of factories overseas, the majority of workers in the country not thrown into prisons, homelessness or chronic unemployment were dumped into lower-paying service work instead. This class-fraction of service workers, numbering above 60 million, is about a third of the total labor population. When you add to it all those imprisoned, unemployed and displaced, the number rises to nearly two-thirds of the population, or about 66%.

Though fast food jobs are at the bottom of the service sector (which includes some high-paying positions as well), they are also the fastest-growing segment of the job market, expanding 11% since 2010, which totals out to 5% of all new jobs in the country for the same period. This job growth is happening concurrent with the relocation of “traditional” working class jobs in construction, maintenance, transport and manufacturing to cheap labor pools in the South and Southwest.

All of this signals that organizing in service work, and the food industry specifically, is not a matter of single-issue campaigns, even if the union portrays it as such. Instead, it is organizing done along a major structural faultline in US capitalism—with food service a particularly visible fissure rooted in major tectonic crisis brewing underneath.

Maybe more importantly, food service intersects with several other massive faultlines—particularly the economy’s reliance on cheap immigrant labor performed by refugees from capital’s overseas zones of imperialism and primitive accumulation, the amplification of anti-black racism through police, prisons, austerity and the accommodation of vigilantes like George Zimmerman, the downward mobility of younger, whiter, college-educated workers (the “dumpies”) who can no longer be bought into the “middle class” in sufficient numbers, and, finally, the massive disruptions to food systems that accompany environmental collapse.

Despite all this, the ideology of “the middle class,” still persists. Occupy was often dominated by such just logic, opposing “bad” finance to the wholesome, Golden Era economy built on a unionized post-war manufacturing base. City by city, the Occupations gradually split into opposed camps of radicals seeking systemic change, and populist “99ers,” who seized on the symbol of the 99% as representative of a politics seeking the excision of the morally corrupt “bad apples” poisoning an otherwise-good system.

Neither were able to effectively cohere or defend the movement, which was first crushed by the police and then dissolved by its own tensions. Having observed that failure, organizations like the SEIU are attempting to co-opt remnant energies through emulation, ensuring throughout that liberal, “middle class” ideology remains the dominant narrative. In many cities, the SEIU campaigns are led or at least heavily aided by the same liberals from Occupy, and they bring the same bad practices with them—negotiating with the police, religious non-violence, focus on appealing to the “middle” rather than lower class, electoral lobbying, and public condemnation of anyone (including workers) who oppose these practices.

Even though the recent fast food strikes are more materially a movement of the bottom 66%, rather than the mythical “99,” this populist perspective is still common inside as well as outside the SEIU—many hoping that these strikes might initiate an overturning of the cycle set in motion (in their minds) by “bad leaders” like Reagan and Bush. These hopes are normally articulated as half-hallucinatory fever dreams of a neo-Keynesian stimulus project set in motion by the messianic triumvirate of Krugman, Baker and Stiglitz (simply the tripartite image underlain by the singular spirit of FDR), who once and for all set capitalism on its parabolic journey toward an economy composed of painless, frictionless, entirely virtuous circles.

But outside of liberal pipe-dreams, even Shanahan’s much more focused criticism seems stuck in the same 99er rut, explicitly applying models of worker organization that were effective in mid-century, Fordist mass-production lines to an exploded, service-heavy economy in which most of the bottom 66%, if not imprisoned or unemployed, are forced to work precarious, temporary jobs in small shops broken up and dispersed over large metropolitan centers. Union models that are based in shop-by-shop majority elections were most effective in the era of concentrated industrial centers (such as those that birthed the UAW) with a relatively stable workforce. They are simply not relevant to most workers in the US today, and certainly not in the service sector.

Yet it is precisely this traditional, UAW-style model that acts as the fetish of the 99er—a history-specific symbol of worker organization torn from its context and held up to obscure the often blinding light cast by the living present, replacing reality with the silhouette of the fetish itself. Shanahan follows the 99er perfectly (even minus the Keynesian illusions), tracing the shadow of that fetish in a strained attempt to ignore what is happening right in front of his eyes. It is, as the saying goes, pure ideology.

Far more relevant organizational structures can be found in earlier models of “card-carrying” membership unionism, which sought both majorities and minorities in shops and maintained union membership workplace to workplace. The old IWW is the traditional example of such unionism—a model designed for a migratory, temporarily-employed, largely undocumented and highly precarious workforce often sprinkled across many small-to-medium-sized operations in cities, fields and forests. Elements of this model make more sense today not because it is universally “correct,” but simply because today’s service-oriented labor structure shares more of these key features with the agricultural/resource-extraction economy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries than it does with the full employment, manufacturing-centered economy of the post-war boom.

The Conquest of Bread

But simply proposing a “better” form of unionization is insufficient, because the territory here is by no means neutral. Any attempt to publicly propose such an organization would immediately be co-opted by the SEIU, which certainly has the time and resources to outmaneuver a small minority of radical workers. At worst, making such a proposal could result in a fully reform-oriented, SEIU-controlled syndicalist union, with enough staying power to actually deter workers from forming their own institutions.

All of this exists within a larger framework of race, gender, reproductive labor and surplus population that is impossible to lay out here in such short space. A follow-up article focusing on these larger dynamics will give a more concentrated analysis. For now, it will be more useful to suggest practical methods and goals of engagement with the existing food strikes.

Hawthorne suggests that radicals have an absolutely minimal engagement aimed at gaining skills, contacts and experience in order to later initiate our own campaigns on a radical basis. This would mean volunteering to staff certain riskier positions, putting ourselves at the forefront of the more militant aspects of the actions and, hopefully, building independent networks among the workers themselves.

This is a pessimistic approach, which presumes that there is little to no potential for anything to actually pop off under the oversight of the SEIU—even though similarly uncontrollable worker resistance has been ignited under the oversight of similar unions (such as the struggles on the waterfront). With this presumption, radicals are advised to direct their energies away from the immediate potential of the strikes and street actions in order to focus on future campaigns that we could potentially initiate.

In one sense, everything Hawthorne says is correct, and his suggestions ought to be component parts in a radical approach to the food strikes. But they are ultimately insufficient, abandoning the potential of igniting anything more out of the immediate presence of hundreds of workers in the streets—often facing off against police (and union cops) protecting the storefronts of the companies they work for.

So what are some practical things that we can do immediately and push for in the future? Here is an incomplete list, based on experience within the food strikes thus far:

1 — Agitate, Inquire and Network among workers directly

This first point is pretty self-evident, but the practice is surprisingly absent from many radicals’ engagement with the movement (if any). More often, there is simply a practice of going to observe the actions, offering basic solidarity, but engaging in little discussion, inquiry or agitation among the workers themselves. But agitation also has to be much more than “consciousness raising,” and shouldn’t be treated as a form of radical-to-prole pedagogy so much as a mutual exchange in which radicals inquire among food workers as well as offering their own take on what’s happening. This can teach us lessons about where people are actually at while also giving them an opportunity to engage with more radical questions and analyses than those posed by the SEIU.

This also may involve facilitating the creation of worker-to-worker meetings and other infrastructure (like e-mail listserves, call lists) outside the space dominated by the SEIU. Hopefully, these can be projects in which more radicals can come into direct contact with workers themselves, without the policing effect of union oversight.

2 — Agitate among the organizers

This is a dimension that Hawthorne does not discuss, but which seems to be a natural extension of his reasoning. If we are to incorporate ourselves into the movement as is suggested (whether as workers, volunteers or organizers), it ought to also be a goal to agitate among the paid SEIU organizers themselves. Not only are they often screwed over by the union (working lengthy hours, unpaid overtime, held to strict numbers requirements, etc.), but many may have been attracted to the position precisely because they were already on board with the idea of more radical change—and can be highly critical of the union’s conservative approach to it. Often recruited out of universities and community groups, these organizers have frequently already come to at least latent radical conclusions, and many are overtly interested in helping to organize more revolutionary-minded projects. They are also likely going to be fired en masse if the campaign exhausts its funding.

3 — Be Prepared for union abandonment

The SEIU will inevitably abandon the workers. This abandonment will happen on many levels and in different stages, not necessarily all at once in a single, large “betrayal.” Instead, the union will first exhibit an incapacity to deal with small problems brought up by the workers over the course of time—rather than organizing direct and regular pickets to get back unpaid overtime, stolen wages, etc., the union will try to build PR campaigns around these things in an attempt to get the government to crack down on particular franchise-owners. In most places, this attempt will have little or no effect, and the workers will be left hanging.

It is at this point that radicals can step in, offering to help through local Solidarity Networks, or building new ones where none exist. This can win small gains for the workers without abandoning the trajectory of the larger demands while also attracting workers to these more radical institutions of direct action and mutual aid.

Union abandonment also often opens new opportunities for militant tactics with less of a chance of the union sending its own cops out to softly suppress them (with the police waiting in the wings to forcibly suppress them, if this fails). For example: In Seattle, one of the restaurants involved in the original strike was closed a month or two after the first walkout. The closing was only marginally related to the strike itself (part of a region-wide string of closures in the works before the walkout), but was nonetheless an attack on the workers at that store—all of whom were laid off with only 48 to 24 hours’ notice, given cobbled-together severance pay based on their last paycheck (even if it was not their regular hours). Given this opening, a brief attempt was made (by radical forces, without the foreknowledge or permission of SEIU) to organize a workplace occupation the day the store was set to close, either demanding higher severance pay or making no demands at all. Unfortunately, given the short notice (one night) and lack of participation by other radicals, there were not enough workers who felt they would have adequate support through the process, and the occupation was called off.

4 — Solidarity for the undocumented

Similarly, the union will likely not have incentive or ability to protect undocumented workers if they’re faced with ICE raids and deportation for organizing (as was the case after the 2006 May Day informal general strike). Calls to enforce laws against wage theft have often run ashore on the fact that the most egregious wage theft is committed against the undocumented, who cannot file formal complaints with city labor bureaus. In the union’s petitioning of city governments, this is the main fact that goes unmentioned. At best, they may begin to couple it with language in support of the abysmal “immigration reform” being pushed for by Obama—a “reform” that ultimately helps to discourage immigrant workers from taking action for fear that they will be labeled “criminal” and forfeit any hope at citizenship.

Radical solidarity for the undocumented can take many forms. First and foremost, there is simply the fact that undocumented people face greater risks in street actions than others do—here the dearresting tactic can be key, as well as the defensive black bloc, etc. The union provides no real protection from the police, if the police decide to attack—and they frequently do attack even non-violent, semi-negotiated marches. Similarly, for the legal side, solidarity-network structures can be applied to deportation as well, as was seen in Seattle’s Who You Callin’ Illegal? deportation-defense network, and sometimes more moderate NGOs such as Casa Latina and the Workers Defense Project have grown to fill this same gap.

This is especially important to develop, given the next suggestion.

5 — Push for more militant tactics

At its most basic level, this means simply unveiling the conflict with the police—pointing out that the police are not “workers too” and that they are not our friends, they are here on behalf of the wealthy in order to protect the property of those same companies that steal our calories every damn day. Unveiling this fact includes disrupting the ability of the union cops to stand between the people and the police—forcibly if necessary, and ideally with worker support.

Remember that most of these workers come from racial and class backgrounds that ensure they know full well the real role of the police, having seen that sheer coercive force applied to their families, homes and neighborhoods on a day to day basis. Here, it is simply a matter of getting that soft union buffer out from between the workers and the cops.

Similarly, radicals can help (alongside workers) to push for more militant tactics of blockade and occupation. Where the union advocates not picketing in front of stores (not even walking in a picket-formation), we ought to push for a picket, and a hard one at that. Where the union calls for people to occupy the intersection in front of the McDonalds, we ought to push for occupations inside the store. When the union tries to organize forums with mayors and city council people, we ought to use our connections to try to put together a worker boycott from these forums—or an angry worker intervention.

This also means radicalizing (through our very intervention) the nature and basis of the demands being made—pushing the campaign beyond $15 to a more systematic critique of what our stolen time means and how we can steal it back. This doesn’t necessarily mean entirely decoupling the movement from the concrete demand of $15 an hour and the right to organize, but simply ensuring that it never gets reduced to these things.

6 — Start our own campaigns

Now that the campaign has gained a certain national resonance, it should be entirely possible for radicals to organize workers independently of the union’s initiative. This is especially possible in cities that do not yet have strong SEIU-backed organizing committees—though the number of participating cities is set to increase within the next month.

All in all, the resource commitment can be heavy and the process can be slow, but it’s perfectly possible for smaller crews to pull off smaller strikes of similar style, possibly limited to just a neighborhood or two. For the entire city of Seattle, SEIU has fluctuated between eight and ten on-the-ground organizers working in excess of forty hours a week, with lots of coordinating, legal and research staff backing them up. Even minus the back-up staff, radicals are looking at an intensive commitment. Hopefully workers begin to take more of the organizing upon themselves, but even this is a slow process, and the ultimate time and life constraints on the poorest workers give absolute limits to how much they are able to engage, no matter how interested they may be.

In simple and immediate terms: what we ought to seek in this campaign is a double separation, in which the interests of the SEIU begin to more visibly conflict with the interests of its own overtaxed organizers in the middle and with the uncontrollable energy of the workers at the bottom. Such a dual decoupling would force the union’s own formal narrative of itself to break down—when faced with choosing between itself and the workers, it will ultimately choose itself. The organizers will be forced into a similar choice, though they are in a less impossible position and can certainly choose to side with the workers (especially if they fear being fired anyways).

At every point, then, we should be weighing the opportunities for forcing this moment of decision on the union. This means pushing things “too far” whenever possible, always inciting the union to go outside of its comfort zone, disrupting its attempts to reroute worker rage into electoral lobbying—and at the same time building an independent worker-to-worker network beneath it, so that we have some basis for future action once the real power relations are laid bare.

A sober analysis of the prospects here acknowledges the deep disproportions in power and the massive limits we face in attempting to building a coherent force able of opposing the companies, the police, politicians and unions all at once. At best, we can likely hope to emerge from this series of one-day strikes with new contacts, a decent worker-to-worker network in place and with several new, skilled radical organizers poached from the SEIU’s overtaxed employees.

At the same time, there is always the chance that something bigger can be ignited out of these currently limited struggles. The worst mistake would be to let base pragmatism blind us to grace.

Originally posted: April 13, 2013 at Kasama Project