Columns from 2012

Other columns from 2012 include:

-Don't be a jerk about bad ideas

Building the IWW’s program: from workplace grievances to worker control

Joel Schwartz goes over some issues the IWW could use to advance its contract-less organizing.

There are two general categories of activity for our union. One is organizational activity and the other is programmatic activity. These two exist in a closely interwoven, and one could say dialectical, relationship.

By organizational activity I mean creating organizational structures, recruiting members, holding meetings, dealing with finances and the like. I include both organizational activities as a branch and organizational activities on the job.

By programmatic activities I mean those things that we use our organization for: winning demands from the boss; supporting the strikes and struggles of other workers; and abolishing the wage system.

Each type of activity is dependent on the other. Without an organization, no programmatic activity can be carried out. The larger, stronger, more cohesive the organization, the more it can potentially accomplish. On the other hand, maintaining an organization is impossible without programmatic purpose. If an organization doesn’t accomplish anything members will eventually fall away and the organization will dissipate. Growth in each area of activity needs growth in the other.

I think that we need to “grow” our programmatic activities. I think that we need to go beyond addressing workplace issues like arbitrary firings, sexual harassment and low wages. These issues can serve to motivate initial organizing drives, but I believe we need something more in order to sustain contract-less organizing over the longer term. After all, those are the types of issues that the business unions address through contract-based organizing. If we want to sustain a more radical vision, it has to be reflected in our program as well as our organization.

We should explicitly start to analyze how to build the bridge between addressing workplace grievances and the actual abolition of the wage system. Then we need to figure out how start walking across that bridge. In general, that bridge will be built from things that increase our power and control as a collective expression of the working class.

A few examples occur to me, but it will take a collective and concerted effort to figure this out. One idea is to make your local area a scab-free zone. Approach this with the use of propaganda, such as postering, flyering and posting videos on Youtube; declaring a scab-free zone; and educating about the evils of scabbing. Then, back it up—organize a disciplined force to keep scabs out of a struck workplace, with or without the consent of the striking union.

Another idea is to try to gain control over hiring at our workplaces. This is not such a far-fetched idea when you think about the practice in some trades of hiring out of the union hall. We may want to switch that up and take control of hiring from the shop floor rather than the union hall. We could think about ways to make this happen.

A third possibility is to increase the links between the work we do and those affected by our work, and look to control our work’s outcomes and purpose. For example, in my job in the welfare system, I have sometimes connected with the Welfare Rights Committee to try to affect welfare legislation. I could try to broaden that and organize coworkers into the effort. In education, connections could be made between educators and parents to start to redesign the education we deliver. A plan already under way in the Twin Cities, Minn.—to provide support to substitute teachers—is a step in this direction.

These specific ideas may or may not have merit in themselves, but they start to give the idea. If we aim to abolish the wage system, we have to start to figure out the steps to get there. We have ideas about a general strike, but there’s a gulf between where we are and a general strike, and a gulf again between a general strike and actually abolishing the wage system.

One never knows for sure what is possible or what might be effective in the current moment. History will tell, but we can’t wait for the backward vision of history. We need to develop a plan to move forward programmatically, as well as organizationally.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2012)

Keeping your job while under fire

An account of attempts to discipline a union organizer.

I have been publicly organizing at Starbucks for nearly five years. The fact that I have managed to stay employed is no small feat. Since our 13-month trial against the company, Starbucks has been especially careful to fire outspoken unionists via policy violations, set ups, and pushing us to either quit in a fiery rage or go off and be fired for losing composure.

The best position for organizing is being employed at the shop. Keeping your job is priority number one. Here is a brief account of one such time that I protected my job and won.

I worked at the Union Square Starbucks in New York City for years. While there, I helped develop a shop committee at the Astor Place store. After the committee went public, the majority of the shop members were systematically fired and the remaining members endured daily mistreatment from the anti-union management staff. As an act of solidarity, I decided to transfer to that location to further build the committee. I approached that store with a core focus of seeing an end to the store manager’s employment at Starbucks. He inflicted economic violence on my fellow workers; they were still looking for work after being fired for joining the union. Even a week of unemployment in a city like New York can mean homelessness. This is one of the many reasons that I take the firing of our members very personally.

After my month-long battle, which included having the store transfer turned down and filing an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge, I finally won. During my fourth shift at Astor Place I called an assistant store manager “shady” for refusing to leave proof that my vacation time had been approved. I told her that refusing to leave proof just confirmed my suspicion that management was hoping to do what I feared—schedule me so they could claim I did not show and fire me. Just hours after my argument with the assistant manager, the store manager came to the store to give me a write-up for “threatening and harassing a fellow partner.” Despite only receiving two other write-ups in over four years—one for being late and the other for a fight with a coworker who was homophobic to me—I was put on “final notice.” One more violation and I could be fired.

This would be a less than climatic end to a career of fighting Starbucks from the inside. I filed a ULP about the write-up. I went into work the next day and coworkers told me that the store manager, district manager, and regional director had been meeting all day. During my shift, I was called into a meeting with the district and store managers. The district manager said, “I’ve been going over this corrective action the store manager gave you and I’m thinkingthat it was not serious enough to warrant a corrective so I will be removing this from your file.” I said, “OK, thank you,”and started to get up to go back to work.

Then my store manager took out a new corrective action and said, “Do you remember anything strange happening with your till the last shift you worked?” I laughed and said, “That was two weeks ago, I don’t remember but I can go through my notes.” He then said that I was being written up for the till being $13.11 short. I told him I would not sign it and that in almost five years I have never had my till be short until coming to this store. I also told him I did not believe it, because he wrote all the other union members up for shortages too. I said that I would be happy to go to the Starbucks headquarters and meet with Partner Asset & Protection and go over every single transaction I did that shift while watching the camera footage to see where the money went. He said that was impossible.

I laughed again and tossed the write-up on the desk. I looked at him with a half smirk and said, “Really? After all these years and countless times you all have tried to get rid of me, do you really expect the [National] Labor [Relations] Board to believe that I would throw all my work out the window in order to steal $13.11? You must be outta your mind.”

Then the store manager started to yell at me. The district manager took the write-up away and put it in a folder, saying “Well, I’ll have to look into this and get back to you.” They never gave me that write-up. Also, after a very successful call-in campaign and union pressure, the store manager quit. Now we can push forward and add this boss to the notches on our belt.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (March 2012)

The district manager took the write-up away and put it in a folder, saying “Well, I’ll have to look into this and get back to you.” They never gave me that write-up. Also, after a very successful call-in campaign and union pressure, the store manager quit. Now we can push forward.
Liberté Locke

Supporting A Multigenerational Union

Jeff Jones talks about how he sees working class revolution as happening because of a multigenerational perspective that includes input and valuing children, parents and elderly members in the IWW.

Snap! Snap! Working-class revolution in overnight fashion. A spark lights when the general strike is struck, or so it goes in a good militant myth. Organize the workplace and the revolution will come. The first attempt at organizing may not be a win. The initial loss may lead to burnout for the young militant.

But working-class revolution does not happen overnight. It is a multigenerational continuity that supplies the working class with its resiliency, its backbone. It is this backbone that creates the cultural structures that uphold a long-term, non-hierarchical, syndicalist vision and strategy.

Young militants have often had to recreate the wheel with each new generation. We have had to learn not just theory and particular tactics, but how to care for ourselves and guard against burnout. In contrast, a strong, supportive and relational community helps build our strength so that we can keep fighting against the Goliath of the capitalist class for as long as it takes.

The talk of building a resistant working- class community has always been with us, but it has not been given the proper treatment it deserves. Many young militant groups will signal that young children are not wanted at their meetings. This can come in the form of straightforward comments against having children at meetings. Sometimes it comes in the form of rolled eyes, snickers, sighs, or a belief that talking about childcare is not “their” responsibility. When childcare is addressed it is usually a parent who becomes the de facto childcare provider, rendering them mute at most meetings. If it is not the parent, then we tend to see the same people volunteering for childcare over and over again, as most people will not step up for this type of help. The volunteers also tend to be the few women in each group, thus reinforcing the patriarchal norm.

Having a multigenerational union is not limited to only bringing in parents and children but needs to include our elders. On occasion older workers who show up feel alienated or disrespected, as many young militants focus only on the newest and latest tactics and theory. Yet it is our elders who hold the living memories of our past struggles. They have seen many times what has worked and what has not. We don’t need to recreate the wheel each time a new struggle rears its ugly head. We can start from the rich history of solidarity of a multigenerational union. This solidarity and respect for our historical and collective wisdom will only stimulate new creative flowers to bloom.

Wobbly parents bring to the union knowledgeable ways of learning how to adapt. Fellow Wobbly and parent Nate Hawthorne writes,

“Being a parent and being a Wobbly touch on some of the things I care about most in my life and they both involve a fair amount of friction, and friction about important stuff can be hard stuff. I’m still a relatively new parent—my daughter is two. I feel like the first two years of her life passed mostly in a blur, and for quite a long time it felt like whenever I got my feet under me in some way then she changed again and there was a whole new set of things to learn.”

A multigenerational union must include those involved in their own families. An anti-authoritarian family knows that struggle is not about an immediate win, but about the future. We know how to take a beating and how to throw a party that night. The anti-capitalist struggle moves from a day-to-day vision of a better life of wages, respect, safety and self-management, to a deeper, relational understanding that this struggle is about our children and their children and all beings.

This is echoed in the words of other Wobbly parents. Fellow worker and Wobbly parent Madelene wrote,

“I want, very much, to be more involved in the IWW; the work we do is so very important. Making a better world for my children is obviously one of the reasons our work is important, as is making the world better for the children of my neighbors, as well as my friends and people down the block, who have to work two jobs to pay rent on their two bedroom apartments.”

In short, fellow worker and longtime Wobbly parent Patrick said,

“If we take seriously the idea that we ‘organize the worker and not the workplace,’ then we need to take a multigenerational approach to developing life-long radicals. While it is nice to have superstar organizers who make great contributions for three years, it is important that we start thinking about developing a sustainable culture of resistance and organizing—with less burnout and more changing diapers, less glory and more balanced roles. The old model of the heroic male is dying. We need to move forward with a new model. It is for these reasons that I will be attending and assisting the Junior Wobblies Camp at Mesaba.”

By supporting a multigenerational union we are actively showing solidarity for all our fellow workers. Solidarity will bring in new members while supporting active members. This support will increase the continuity of the struggle—continuity because the union will not be based on a few shining personalities but on the work of a multigenerational community. One can drop out for awhile, if need be, and know that the union will be there when they come back. A multigenerational union is the bread and butter of an industrial union.

Originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker

Towards an organizational theory?

A reflection of how far the IWW has come in the last 13 years, and what might be still needed.

I have been a member of the IWW since 1999, virtually my entire adult life. During my time as a member the union has grown in both numbers and in vibrancy. When I joined the IWW, only a handful of members had any significant organizing experience. Most people joined the union not because they learned about it from a coworker on the job but because they encountered it in a history book or through labor folk music. Often it seemed like the organization functioned more as a historical reenactment society than a revolutionary union. The first branch meetings I attended could be described as meetings of the Society of Creative Anachronism for anarchists. The discussions focused more on the 1921 Kronstadt uprising and leftist soap-boxing in 1910s San Francisco than the plight of contemporary workers.

When Wobblies did try to organize, they generally followed the pattern of the big AFL-CIO unions. Attempts were made to hold National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-sanctioned elections and negotiate contracts. The majority of these efforts did not result in contracts and failed to build the union in any substantive way. Most of the workers who participated in them quickly became disillusioned with the IWW when the union election was lost.

I did not know it at the time, but the IWW was already changing when I joined. The branches in Portland and Philadelphia started organizing campaigns that did not focus on winning union elections. Instead, they tried to use direct action to make gains on the shop floor. In the Industrial Worker, then General Secretary-Treasurer Alexis Buss ran a series of articles on “Minority Unionism” advocating this approach. Through the work of Alexis and a handful of others, members of the union became aware of Staughton Lynd’s theory of solidarity unionism. Gradually, it became the union’s dominant organizing theory.

As it did, people began to have more success organizing with the IWW. The Starbucks campaign was launched. In Chicago, a couriers union was built that inspired couriers in other cities to organize, and in several North American cities workers began to win small but substantive victories under the Wobbly banner. The evidence of this increased success can be seen in the pages of the Industrial Worker itself. The paper used to be largely about organizing by other labor unions. Today, much of its coverage is about Wobbly organizing.

The shift that has taken place within the organization can also be seen the structure of the union itself. In 1999, there was no organizer training program and no organizing department. The coordination that took place between workers organizing in the same industry but in different cities was sporadic at best, and there were few real Wobbly veterans. Sure, there were people who had been members for a long time. But only a handful of them had any experience organizing as Wobblies and trying to build a fighting organization.

That has all changed in the last decade and a half. In that time-span, the IWW has moved from largely being a labor history and solidarity club to a small vibrant union. The question now: Do we Wobblies have what it takes to move our organization from being small and vibrant to large and powerful?

If we want to answer that question in the affirmative, then there are clear things we as a union, and as individual members, need to do. The first, and most important, is to commit to the union for the long haul. The strength of the union is in its members. The more committed we are to building the union, the stronger we will build it. When members with organizing experience stay with the union over the course of years, the collective knowledge of Wobbly organizing grows and becomes something that can be passed on to new members.

Second, we need to focus on developing our infrastructure as an organization. From the 1910s to today, the IWW has been vastly under-resourced for the revolutionary hopes we have for it. We have a tiny treasury and cannot effectively support large-scale campaigns. The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams used to say that if good is going to win, it has be formed into institutions. If the IWW is going to succeed, we need to figure out how to systematically develop leaders within the union and on the shop floor. We need to figure out how to aggressively build campaigns that encompass not dozens or hundreds, but thousands of workers.

Over the past five years that I have edited the Workers Power column, I have become convinced that we have a solid, and evolving, organizing theory. What we need to develop more clearly is a theory of organization. Organizational theory has not always been a strong suit of the left. This is one reason why I am so pleased to see “Weakening the Dam,” a pamphlet put out by the Twin Cities branch. “Weakening the Dam” collects a half dozen Workers Power columns, some of which start to develop an IWW organizational theory. The columns are not enough, but they are a good starting place. It is my hope that over the next five years, Workers Power can be a place for not only writing about IWW organizing theory but also IWW organizational theory.

I don’t know what such an organizational theory will ultimately look like. I would suggest that to develop it we might want to look for help outside the usual radical and historical sources. In my work as a minister I have found that business journals and religious think tanks, including evangelical ones, have excellent resources on how to develop leaders, and create powerful volunteer-run organizations. In the next few years, I will be drawing from these sources and from my own experiences with the IWW, and work for contemporary and historical radicalism to write occasional pieces for Workers Power that offer some suggestions about organizational theory. I hope that some of you will join with me in this effort and contribute your own writings to Workers Power. Send your submissions to forworkerspower[at]

Originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Industrial Worker

A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work

A look at the old labor movement slogan and what 'fair' actually means.

Last year in Lansing, Mich., the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union leadership fought a pitched battle with the Lansing City Council to push capitalist real estate developers to use union labor. When discussing the fight, Joe Davis, the union representative, proclaimed, “It’s important to have individuals work and get paid a fair wage. We have to make sure labor is valued.” We hear statements like this from the leaders of the business unions all the time. For instance, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” has now been the motto of the mainstream labor movement since at least the beginning of the 20th century. On the face of it, this general demand for workers sounds like a good thing. We have to work for a living, and so long as that’s the case, we should be paid a fair wage for our efforts. We don’t want to be exploited. We want our fair share of the pie.

However, what is a fair day’s wages, and what is a fair day’s work? To answer this we have to think about the specifics of how our economy—a capitalist economy— operates. We can’t simply ask what feels morally fair or what the law says is fair, whether that be the federal minimum wage or the often discussed and calculated “living wage.” What is morally fair, and what is even fair by law, may be far from being socially fair. Social fairness or unfairness is determined by the material facts of production and exchange.

First we can ask, from the perspective of a boss—a capitalist—what are a fair day’s wages? The answer from this perspective is pretty simple. The labor market defines the capitalist’s role as a buyer of workers’ ability to work, and the employee’s role as the seller. The employee sells her time to the employer who in turn pays the employee in wages. The capitalist pays his version of a “fair wage”—the amount required for a worker with average needs to survive and keep coming back to work each day. Some bosses might pay a little more, some a little less, but on average this is the base rate of “fair” pay.

From this same perspective of a capitalist, then, what is a fair day’s work? A fair day’s work to the boss is the maximum amount of work an average worker can do without exhausting herself so much that she can’t do that same amount of work the next day. You, the worker, gives as much, and the capitalist gives as little, as the nature of the bargain will allow. As is probably obvious, this is a very strange sort of “fairness,” and probably not how any rational person would define the word. Let’s look a little deeper into this issue.

People who praise the great “free market” would say that wages and working conditions are fixed by competition between the buyers, the capitalists. Supposedly, capitalists are all competing for workers, so that competition inevitably leads to fair wages and working conditions. After all, the seller—the worker—theoretically has several options of employers to choose from. If a buyer doesn’t offer a price that a worker thinks is fair for her labor, then she can look for another job that pays better. By agreeing to the prevailing wage, so goes this line of argument, workers have essentially made the statement: “We think this is fair.”

One problem with this “logic” is that workers and bosses do not start on equal terms when they are buying and selling. It’s not like you’re selling an iPod on Craigslist, in which you can wait until someone pays the price you want. For most of us, if we don’t have a job, we can’t pay our bills, feed ourselves and our families, or heat our homes. Having employment is a life or death issue. It may not be life or death in the short term, but eventually if you can’t find a job or someone with a job who will help you out financially, you will not be able to buy the things you need to live, let alone the things you need in order to be happy and fulfilled.

It’s a very different story for the owners of the companies we work for. They have money in the bank, and if they don’t get employees tomorrow or even this month, they might be severely inconvenienced. Although their companies might take a hit in profits, they won’t risk anything like the consequences workers do. Their worst case scenario is far better than ours, so the free market lover’s idea of an “even playing field” is, in reality, a sick joke.

This isn’t the worst part of it. Bosses lay off workers when they develop new technology to replace employees and they lay people off when their profits plunge, as is the case in the current recession. As a result, workers lose their jobs way faster than they can be absorbed into other jobs. Today, there is a massive pool of unemployed workers and the capitalists, as a class, use unemployed working-class people against the rest of the class. If business is bad and there are few jobs for those of us who find ourselves out of work, some of us can collect a meager amount of unemployment money, while some turn to stealing and some lose their homes and are forced to beg for money on the street. If business is good and jobs appear, then unemployed people are immediately ready to take those jobs. Until every single one of those unemployed workers has found a job, capitalists will use desperate job seekers to keep wages down. The mere existence of this pool of unemployed workers strengthens the power of the bosses in their struggle with workers. Anyone who has ever heard a boss say, “If you don’t like it here, there are 10 other people I could hire to do your job,” will know how this plays out in terms of respect on the job. In the foot race against the capitalist class, the working class has to drag an anvil chained to its ankle—but that is “fair” according to a free market economist.

Now let’s take a look at how bosses pay their workers. Where does a capitalist get the money to pay our very “fair” wages? He pays them from his capital, his stored up funds from all the business he’s done, from all the goods or services his company has sold. Where did those goods and services come from in the first place? They came from the workers. The employees are the ones who worked to create those products or services that were then sold to consumers. The boss doesn’t do any work—he might oversee some of the workings of the company, but for the most part he sits on his ass watching as the work takes place. So we can say clearly the workers created the value that built the fund that they get paid from—a worker’s wage is paid from the product of her own work. Now, according to common fairness, you should get out what you put in, your wage should be equal to the value that you have created for the company through your work—but that would not be fair according to the values of a capitalist economy. On the contrary, the wealth you have created goes to the boss, and you get out of it no more than the bare necessities of life—a wage as low as the boss can get away with paying. So the end result of this supposedly “fair” race is that the product of the working class’s labor gets accumulated in the hands of those that do not work, and in their hands it becomes the most powerful means to enslave the very people who produced it.

A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work! There’s a lot to be said about the fair day’s work too, the fairness of which is about as fair as these “fair” wages. It is also worth examining the role that unions play in affecting the rate of wages, but rarely the fairness of the wage process. We’ll be talking about these issues in future articles. From what has been stated so far though, it’s pretty clear that the old slogan has outlived any usefulness, and no one should take it seriously. The “fairness” of the market is all on one side—the side of the capitalist class. So let‘s bury that old motto forever and replace it with a better one: “Abolish the wage system!”

Originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker

The wages system

Nate Hawthorne and Matt Kelly on the wage system in capitalism.

We talked in our last column about the slogan “A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.” In capitalism, we can’t get many things we need unless we have money. There are really only two basic ways to get money: Hire someone to produce something which you try to sell for a profit, or get hired by someone to produce something, which they will try to sell for a profit. This is why no wages under capitalism can be truly fair. This is because the basic arrangement is already unfair. Under capitalism we are required to spend our time working for other people. Furthermore, the stuff that capitalists sell…workers made it. The capitalists’ profits generally come from the difference between the price they charge for the stuff we produce and what they paid us to produce the stuff. That difference is inherently unfair.

But it’s important to note that capitalists are constrained by the capitalist system, too. These constraints are often more powerful than the actual laws on the books. Whatever the laws on paper, the real law of the land in capitalist society is the law of profits. When the official laws line up with that law, then the official laws tend to be followed. When the official laws no longer line up with the law of profits, then the law of profits tends to win out. This is because the capitalist system rewards employers who reduce costs while keeping prices up. For workers this means that companies that pay employees less (and that spend less on having a safe, sanitary work environment) than their competitors will be more profitable. The system punishes employers who pay employees more than competitors. This will always happen under capitalism. That’s another reason why “a fair day’s wage” is always going to be limited.

Sometimes liberal or progressive capitalists, and more generally people who are in favor of capitalism, will become concerned that wages are too low and conditions are too bad. This is because capitalists need workers. The capitalist class needs there to be workers tomorrow, and in 10 and 20 years. Smarter capitalists and people who support capitalism sometimes realize that if wages get too low then workers may have a hard time coming back to work. You may know this from your own life if you have ever dug through the couch cushions to find bus fare to get to work, or if you’ve had to work long enough hours or in bad enough conditions that your immune system crashes and you get sick and have to miss work. And if wages get too low then in the long term workers might not have enough kids and provide their kids with the sorts of education and training that will make them be what employers will want in 10 or 20 years. Sometimes capitalists behave in ways that maximize profits in the short term but which have the potential to undermine the stability of the company or of capitalism as a whole in the long term. The recent global economic meltdown triggered by financial markets is another version of individual capitalists putting the short term goal of maximum profit ahead of the long term interests of the capitalist class as a whole.

Liberal or progressive capitalists and their supporters recognize that capitalists overall will be better off if there is a balance between the short term profits of individual capitalists and the long term interests of the capitalist class. This leads these progressives to call for fair wages. Capitalist “fair wages” means that individuals get paid enough that they can support themselves in order to keep on working. In the long term, “a fair day’s wage” means that the working class gets paid enough to keep having kids and raising them up so that there continues to be a working class. From our perspective, the perspective of workers, we want more money for our work. But we also need to recognize that wages and improving working conditions for some workers is often in the long-term interests of the capitalist class. This is why there are minimum wage laws and health and safety laws. This also accounts for the motivation of some capitalists to support initiatives like universal health care. They want to ensure that healthy and productive workers are available for the production of profit.

The labor movement has a long history of fighting against the constraints that capitalism imposes on humanity. There have been important changes in the specifics of the constraints imposed by capitalism. At the same time, obviously capitalism still exists and it still constrains humanity—working-class people especially. The AFL-CIO, Change To Win and other unions have always based their struggles on the goal of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” They have never once lifted any section of the working class out of wage slavery, nor have they ever tried. Similar to what we’ve seen with the liberal wing of the capitalist class, the improvements the labor movement has won have often helped to stabilize capitalism. Individual capitalists are often willing to work against the interests of their class if it means they can individually profit, which can make individual capitalists or small groups of capitalists into a threat to the system. Unions can sometimes function as a sort of immune system within capitalism. When unions organize to check particularly greedy capitalists who put their short term needs above the needs of their class, they reduce the extreme behavior of some capitalists who threaten to destabilize capitalism.

That doesn’t mean these unions are worthless or that we should not support their struggles. The labor movement has fought for and won very important changes in working-class people’s lives. To put it another way, the labor movement is a name for working-class people struggling to improve their lives, against the constraints imposed by capitalism, and there are very important successes that have been achieved. Many people would have a much lower standard of living without those successes. These improvements in standards of living apply mainly to union members, but to some extent there are improvements that have been shared with non-unionized workers as well. The eighthour day, regulations on child labor, the right to organize, workers’ compensation laws—for these things and more we owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men and women of the labor movement.

The improvements in working-class life won by the labor movement show that the constraints imposed by capitalism are not inevitable; demonstrating that the artificial limits that capitalism imposes on humanity can be pushed back and challenged. Obviously, organized workers will generally have better wages and benefits under capitalism. But the degradation of the entire working class is not about having better or worse wages, better or worse benefits. The degradation of workers stems from the fact that the working class doesn’t receive the full value that we produce by our labors and we have to be satisfied with a fraction of that value called “wages.” The AFL-CIO and the rest of the traditional labor movement is blind to this reality, and so can only ever help to make an inherently exploitative system a little easier to live in.

In the IWW, a union where our eyes are open to recognize this stark reality, we should recognize that some improvements, even hard-fought ones, can result in more stable versions of capitalism. Being aware of this can help us plan for what comes after a short-term victory. We especially need to make connections between our fights for improvements now and the fight to end capitalism. This means we must never really settle for any improvements. We don’t simply want a better life under capitalism, because “a fair day’s wages” is still unfair. We must always point this out and educate ourselves and each other about the ways capitalism limits working class people’s lives. We must also recognize that there is a ceiling on how much things can improve in a capitalist society.

The IWW organizer Big Bill Haywood once said, “Nothing is too good for the working class.” This echoes other radical slogans: “We demand everything!” and “everything for everyone!” Whatever we win, we’ll take it. We won’t feel grateful to anyone on high who “gave” it to us. As soon as we can we’ll fight for more, and we’ll join with our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the working class who are fighting, until we take it all.

Originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker

Self-employment, or the illusion of freedom

An account of 'freelancing' and the attitude this has promoted within the author's co-workers.

I met him at a dinner party last autumn. He said, “There are a thousand girls like her,” when my friend told the owner of the small film company that I was looking for work. He was right. Six months later, he called needing urgent help. Now, I work at least 20 hours a week for him. He’d like me to do more, full-time work if possible—for minimum wage, because he can’t give me a contract.

Our initial agreement was that I would give him an invoice and “independently take care of my work.” To do that, I have to be in the office four hours a day, answering calls, running daily orders and doing stock work. This is not self-employment. I am not even sure it is legal. Still, I have gotten the boss to pay me enough to theoretically do my own taxes, buy insurance and end up with minimum wage. The union people I talk to tell me not to do it. They say that it is not technically self-employment. If I listen to them I won’t have a job.

“So, what do you do for money?” asked the company’s new intern. When I answered, “I work here,” she looked like I’d just said I didn’t like chocolate. Everyone around here is an artist, or “creative” in some way. The boss is one of us; he’s a lovely guy. We all only care about great art. Beyond the specialism of this niche, the issues are that small businesses don’t require union representation and that bosses, in terms of what they do, can appear to be “one of us.” We all have two to three other jobs, just like we did ten years ago. I make less net income now than I did then. I am not alone in this, but it is hard to get to know your colleagues between so many jobs. The film company is my best bet, because there is an office, I go there to work and other people work there too.

Even my colleague at my second job, at a delicatessen, is a budding filmmaker. When we meet to talk about work, he tells me he doesn’t “care about the other folk.” He just wants to make movies and move to California. I want to tell him that he’s not going to make a living from the films he makes and that working in a California grocery won’t be much sexier than what he’s doing now (unless you consider his potential visa troubles). I want to ask him why he insists in believing that there is some ladder that he is climbing. But I don’t say that. If you want to build solidarity you shouldn’t mock the dreams of colleagues. Those dreams are going to help us. Even if his dream is to make a film, or to move to California, he doesn’t want to be stuck here. He believes he can get a better deal. I try to believe the same.

There is a long-term trend toward being your own creative director. It pushes workers into conning themselves that they can get a better deal if they are self-employed. The whole “start-your-own-company, be-your-own-boss” racket is heavily pushed by government agencies and all kinds of employers. It was first put forth as a solution to high unemployment and then, less openly, as a route to cut costs and erode worker solidarity and class consciousness. It relies on people’s underlying hatred of work, personified by the boss, and sells the dream of autonomy by telling people that they can become their own, fake, boss. The reality is different. Companies don’t hire people full time or long term anymore. They realize that freelancers are, in reversal of the marketing image, more at the mercy of employers than regular employees. We have to compete with all the other one-person businesses and supply our own laptops, software and unpaid time to learn skills.

This scenario seems like an upgraded version of the employment structures from 100 years ago. Workers would go to a hiring hall in the morning, bringing with them their own tools and work clothes, and hope to be picked for a job. They competed with all the other workers in the hall.

The boss is away now, so there is a window of opportunity to get to know everyone a bit. I want to figure out if they can help me get a permanent contract. But even the desire for a permanent contract and the benefits that come with it—something precarious workers are organizing around at bigger companies in less “glamorous” fields—is not really part of our conversation. Still, as I talk with my colleagues I realize that most of us don’t believe in the illusions of freedom and opportunity that are supposed to come with self-employment. The more conversations we have, the more openly they talk about how our multiple insecure jobs seem to direct our lives. It feels like there is something shameful about these conversations. Shameful because the ordinariness of our jobs is something we should be above as we pursue our creative ventures.

It’s hard to see how to connect and make common cause with freelancers beyond my own small immediate job radius. While there are a myriad of associations, initiatives and networks, it is unclear how freelancers can take common actions beyond their self-imposed limits of industry, employment status and geographical area. These limits are irrelevant to the realities of the diverse range of jobs we engage in as workers.

I think that if I get the backing of my de facto colleagues, I’ll be able to ask my boss for a contract in September. It won’t be by finding some initiative to join, but by making it clear to him, IWW-style, that all of the workers on the job have my back. I am not sure I can change anything else. People will move on and come back. New ones will show up to do some work. The unending flow of unpaid interns, reminding us that we’re all replaceable, will continue.

Yes, there are “a thousand girls like me” here. It might be slow and it might be small, but we need to find ways to meet, talk and realize again that what I was told made me expendable is also what makes us stronger.

- Editor’s note: Monika works in France.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2012)

Wobblies and unfair labor practices

An article by Kevin S about the problems of using Unfair Labor Practice charges in IWW organizing.

We stand up against the boss, demanding change and stopping work. The boss fires us. We immediately mobilize, rushing to...the office of some government lawyer. What’s wrong with this picture?

When private sector employers in the United States break the law, workers can file what is known as an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Violations include threatening or retaliating against workers for lawful union activity or for acting as a group without a union, also known as “protected concerted activity.” When found guilty of a ULP, an employer may face various penalties, like an order to reinstate a fired worker with back pay.

There are many examples of the Wobblies using ULPs. The charges filed against Starbucks eventually led to a fired worker’s reinstatement. In Minneapolis, charges were filed against Jimmy John’s after a failed union election in 2010, and again last year when the company fired six union members. The NLRB nullified the election due to management’s illegal behavior. The illegal firing charges were won in court, but the employer appealed and the appeals process could take years.

ULPs are used for pragmatic reasons: we need protection against employer retaliation, and it makes good press when we charge employers with breaking the law. Protection is hard to ensure through direct action alone, especially in the IWW, since we are small, with few friends in high places and little interest in having such friends. Yet filing ULPs is precisely calling on friends in high places to solve problems for us—except the NLRB is not really our friend.

ULPs are a crucial component of the state’s most perfected instrument for enforcing labor peace: arbitration. While many Wobblies criticize union contracts’ management rights clauses, no-strike clauses, and bureaucratic grievance processes as being obstructions to direct action, all these practices predated and are far less effective at preserving class peace than government arbitration. Workers have hostile interests to employers and may force their unions to adopt a militant posture. As a result, even the craft unions of the old AFL often used violent disruption against stubborn employers and broke their own no-strike agreements, due to threats from angry workers who frequently split and formed more radical competing unions. The capitalist state’s answer to this was state-sponsored arbitration.

Labor law as we know it was a response to mass “industrial warfare” during the last century. Courts, local and state governments, and wartime federal agencies all experimented with various practices to ensure “industrial peace” in order to protect the flow of commerce and meet the production needs of the state. Federal legislation codified these practices in the 1930s, with the explicit intention of restoring economic tranquility. ULPs are a product of this period and are part of the state’s mechanism for controlling labor conflict.

Wobblies often rightly view labor law with skepticism. A while back, the Industrial Worker published some critical responses “Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper,” which criticized the “pitfalls of contractualism” and called for “organizing without contracts,” describing some historic examples and specific tactics for non-contractual organizing. The paper expresses doubt that “labor law can ever be a liberating force for workers.” It asks, “Can even defensive use of labor law, ULPs for example, disempower workers?”

While “not universally opposed to ULPs,” the discussion paper turns “a very skeptical eye,” concluding:

“ULPs and other forms of government- recognized grievance procedures... removes power from the worker’s hands. Knowing basic labor law and being able to ‘represent oneself’ are worthwhile skills, but labor law always attempts to individualize grievances, and thus lessen collective power and put up walls to effective solidarity.”

This skepticism could go farther. Wobblies ostensibly use ULPs as a last resort when other forms of escalation fail. In practice, folks often treat them as a form of escalation. In truth, they are a form of de-escalation. A phrase some Wobblies use is: “Direct action is our sword, while labor law is our shield.” A better phrase might be: “Direct action is our sword, while labor law is capitalism’s shield.” The whole point of labor law is to restrain workers’ power, encourage class collaboration, and prevent economic disruption.

It’s problematic that ULPs are treated as standard union practice. ULPs often act as a relief valve when struggles reach a point where further escalation poses hazards for the union, especially potential legal consequences. This happened when Jimmy John’s fired six Wobblies. A plan to escalate through a series of direct actions fell apart when an action was canceled due to the lawyer’s concerns about potential legal issues. The lawyer was afraid direct action would have negative repercussions for the fired workers’ court case. The decision not to use direct action transformed the workers’ struggle into a legal battle.

It can be a smart move for individual workers to file ULPs but it depends upon the situation. Workers have little power right now and sometimes the odds of winning grievances are better in court than on the shop floor or in the street. Because of this we get in the habit of filing ULPs when we want better results. Yet when the union pursues pure legalistic practices, even when individual cases are won, it does nothing to build power for the union or the working class.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2012)

In November we remember

An article by Colin Bossen about the IWW's decline and if there are lessons to learn from that period today.

For more than 100 years it has been a Wobbly tradition to remember all of those who gave their lives to struggle for a better world during the month of November. The historian Franklin Rosemont argued that this tradition predates the founding of the IWW itself, and harkens back to remembering the Haymarket martyrs. In his essay, “In November We Remember: The IWW & the Commemoration of Haymarket,” he quotes an unnamed Wobbly writer that this tradition, “gives a sense of continuity to the struggle of workers, not only from year to year but from generation to generation.”

As a young Wobbly in the late 1990s, I felt a palpable connection to that tradition when I joined the San Francisco General Membership Branch. One of the elder members, Franklin Devore, had been the long-time lover of the legendary soap-boxer San Francisco Phil Mellman. Mellman was credited with mastering the art of “windmilling.” That was the practice of speaking rapidly and dramatically in public to attract attention for the IWW cause. A windmiller like Mellman would stand at a street corner and broadcast as much Wobbly wisdom as possible before the cops came. In the 1910s and 1920s, windmilling was an effective way to spread the Wobbly gospel.

I learned a lot about Wobbly culture, history and philosophy from elders like Devore. I was privileged to know Utah Philips and Carlos Cortez, and Wobblies who joined the union in the 1960s and early 1970s like Mike Hargis, Jon Bekken, Penny Pixler, F. N. Brill and Neil McLean all passed on to me the lessons that they learned from Wobbly elders.

Recently though, I have been wondering if I learned the wrong lessons from those elders. The lessons that they taught me were primarily about the IWW’s dramatic successes: our successes organizing migrant workers in the forests and in the agricultural fields; our victories in the free speech fights in San Diego and Spokane; and our dramatic strikes in Lawrence and Lowell.

The narratives of those successes were frequently matched by the narratives around the IWW’s decline. I learned three. One was that the union was essentially destroyed around 1919 when the U.S. government jailed the majority of IWW leaders. A second was that the union’s demise came about in 1924 when it split into two factions around a debate over centralization vs. decentralization, to generalize. The third was that the union survived these two catastrophes, saw its membership recover in the 1930s with organizing amongst metal workers in Cleveland, only to finally collapse in the wake of a refusal to sign McCarthy-era loyalty oaths.

A couple of weeks ago I received some pages from the August 1950 edition of the IWW’s internal publication, the General Organizing Bulletin (GOB), that has me rethinking these narratives. A graph from that GOB depicts the union’s membership in a free fall from 1943 to 1949. Over the course of six years the union lost more than 60 percent of its membership. This means that by the time the loyalty oath controversy caused the Cleveland branch to leave the union it was already in an institutional death spiral.

Accompanying the graph is a list of 20 questions drafted by William Henkleman and Kenneth Ives, entitled “Groups of Questions on IWW Problems and Policies.” One group of questions runs:

“Can the IWW make progress best by:
a) Trying to educate and organize individuals, isolated workers as it mostly has done in recent decades..? (sic)

b) Trying to organize individual shops, as we have some times done in the last fifteen years..? (sic)

c) Trying to educate within some inde pendent unions, such as the Confedeated Unions Group..? (sic)

d) Trying to set up an affiliated but self-supporting organization for edu cation as distinct from propaganda... for former members, sympathizers and other workers want to study the extension of workers control and operation, union democracy, etc., who may feel that the IWW as a union can’t help them on their present job..? (sic)

e) Or some combination of those pro grams..? (sic)

For each of the above methods, what amount of activity by members, what skills, what trained organizers, what funds, what programs are needed, and what types of situations will these be likely to succeed in..? (sic)”

When I read these questions I thought that they were quite contemporary. That observation, coupled with the 1940s membership statistics, has prompted me to ask: How can we learn from the IWW’s failures? The IWW’s membership now is close to what it was in the early 1940s. Our organizing over the last decade-and-a-half has been quite similar to the organizing that Henkleman and Ives complained about in 1950. It has been targeted at individuals and individual shops, and it is rarely industrial.

This observation leads me to want to know how we can break these patterns. They have haunted our union for most of its existence. They are as much a part of our legacy as the wonderful stories we tell about free speech fights and textile strikes. Studying our failures is the way we learn not to repeat them. This November, instead of just celebrating the rich legacy of the IWW, take time in your branch or at your workplace to think about the ways in which you have been stuck in your organizing. Look to our organization’s failures and ask the question: What could have been done differently to avoid the mistakes that were made? It is not an easy question to ask but in its answer may lie what we need to move the IWW up from 2,000 to 100,000 members. And that would be the best way to remember all of our Fellow Workers.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)

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