Columns from 2009

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 9, 2012

Building a Ship

Nate Hawthorne briefly goes over the topic of burnout, looking at it from a perspective of long-term and short-term.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on April 9, 2012

I recently stepped down from an international officer position in the IWW. In thinking about this, I remembered something I wanted to share.

I feel lucky to have had the privilege to meet Fellow Worker Utah Phillips before he died. FW Phillips sang a song with the refrain, “building a ship/ may never sail on it/ gonna build it anyway.” That’s an important idea.

“Building a ship.”

The IWW is a sort of ecosystem where several elements depend on each other, and move at different paces. Trainings and administrative work are the main things I do in the IWW now. This is important, but it’s hard because the payoffs don’t come quickly and often happen elsewhere, out of my direct sight/experience. This is different from helping organize a picket or a job action or moving a coworker in a one-on-one.

On a personal note, I’m happy to report that my wife is pregnant and that our daughter is due to be born at the end of August. I am very excited to meet my daughter and to raise her. At the same time, I know parenting will involve being stressed, missing sleep, being afraid, and a lot of hard work. Along the same lines, I used to think that revolutionary activity should always be joyful or make us feel good. I no longer feel that way. Obviously, this stuff should have enjoyable and/or joyful elements, at least sometimes, but that’s a different matter. The work we need to do is often hard, trying, tiring and involves sacrifices. Many things worth doing are hard and are not immediately rewarding. But it is unjustifiable not to do them because they are a challenge—and this applies to parenting too. It’s both rewarding and really hard at the same time.

“May never sail on it.”

I told FW Phillips that his music and stories were a big part of my introduction to the IWW, and that I had really enjoyed talking with him and hearing his stories. He said thank you. He said something like, “I was your age when I met the people who got me into all this, and they were about the age I am now. Someday you’ll be my age and will be getting new people into all this.” It was a sobering thing to say, and definitely felt like shoes I can’t fill. It’s also an important reminder to think long term: Utah was, I think, 73 when I met him. I had just turned 30.

All this ties in to the reasons I decided to step down. In short, I was—and am—feeling burnt out. On the one hand, I need to make sure I do not burn out entirely, so that I can continue to play a somewhat positive role for the long term. On the other hand, what the song says is important. This stuff is not about immediate returns—or, at least, not about being able to see our really big goals accomplished. I find that to be a useful reminder. This work matters. We have to keep doing it. Right now, hanging in for the long term means stepping back for the short term, taking on less in order to be able to accomplish the things I am doing in the IWW.

“Gonna build it anyway.”

Originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of the Industrial Worker


The Employee Free Choice Act, Class Conditions, and Class Power

Tom Levy shares his thoughts on the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposed bill (since killed)that would have made it easier for U.S. workers to unionize under labor law.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on April 9, 2012

Not since Ronald Reagan and the Air Traffic Controllers strike has America seen such debate on the future of organized labor. Although the worsening recession, stagnant (and often decreasing) wages, and the victory at Republic Windows have all contributed to this growing dialogue, the main impetus for such discussion has been the election of Barrack Obama and his support for the bill known as the Employee Free Choice Act.

If it passes, the EFCA will do a number of things. First it will give legal backing to card-check union elections. Second, it will increase the penalties when bosses fire union supporters. Finally, in the event workers choose to go union, the EFCA will allow either party—the company or the union—to call in government arbitrators to impose a contract.

At first glance, the EFCA may appear to be labor’s savior. After all, the big business unions have been trying to secure legislation such as this for years and are widely singing the EFCA’s praises. The bosses, on the other hand, are poised to spend millions on a PR campaign opposing the bill. Just recently a high-profile anti-union lobbyist was quoted warning industry executives that the surge in unionization the EFCA could bring would lead to the “demise of a civilization.” In light of such sentiments, let us, as committed unionists, examine the implications of the EFCA.

Surely, a card check election is a much fairer way for workers to secure a collective bargaining agreement. Instead of elections being held on company property where the boss can coerce, intimidate, and fire union supporters, in a card-check election workers simply sign a card authorizing a union to act as their bargaining agent. If 50%+1 of workers sign, the company is legally obligated to recognize the union. Likewise, increased penalties against union-busting will make the bosses a bit more law-abiding and offer increased protection to union supporters. Finally, a collective bargaining contract—even one imposed by the government—will improve the wages and conditions of workers. By removing these barriers to organizing, the EFCA could potentially usher in an era of widespread unionization. This state of affairs will put upward pressure on wages and improve the lot of even non-union workers. In the process, the unacceptable and wholly immoral gulf between the rich and the poor will be diminished. In these ways, the EFCA will not only increase the numbers of organized labor, but will improve the class conditions of America’s workers.

However, beyond class conditions, there is another angle we must consider. That, my brothers and sisters, is class power. Of the many lessons history has taught the working class, few are as important as this one simple truth: anytime the government offers what appears to be a concession to unions, it comes at the expense of the ability of workers to act in a militant, independent manner. Keeping this in mind, let us re-examine the EFCA.

First, the EFCA assumes contracts and elections (of any sort) are the only means of establishing a union in a given shop. Gone is the time when workers announced the formation of a union with a recognition strike. Government injunctions and feeble union leadership put a stop to that long ago. Along much the same lines, workers have been systematically prevented from enforcing union work rules and remedying grievances through “quickie strikes.” Nearly all union contracts now contain a “no strike clause” that prohibits strikes during the life of the contract. Instead of the union being the vehicle of workers’ collective action, the union becomes responsible for policing worker militancy. It is a sad fact, but many much needed strikes have been stopped by union officials more concerned with protecting their own status as guardians of the contract than with improving the conditions of their membership.

Finally, we must consider the implications of government arbitration. To begin, arbitration is inherently anti-democratic. Workers will not have the ability to vote on an arbitrated contract. Worse yet, arbitrators will almost inevitably include no-strike clauses and “management rights clauses” in contracts. Management rights clauses prohibit workers from taking part in decisions of who to hire and fire, how and where a company invests profits, and other such crucial business activities. Government arbitration, combined with no-strike and management rights clauses, severely limits the ability of unions to function as democratic, worker-run social institutions. Instead, under the provisions of the EFCA, service unionism will become the legally enforced norm.

No doubt, under the EFCA union workers will make higher wages, receive better benefits, more vacation time, and work under better conditions. However, this will come at the expense of class power. Put another way, the EFCA will remove from workers their autonomy vis-à-vis the capitalist state. Workers will be legally prevented from controlling their own unions. Union bureaucrats, government arbitrators, contract lawyers, and politicians will stand between workers and their ability to use direct action and solidarity to secure better wages and conditions.

Instead of politicians and union bureaucrats, workers can and should take matters into their own hands. We should use direct action techniques such as refusing to cross picket lines, engaging in “go slows,” boycotting non-union and scab goods, occupying our workplaces, holding mass pickets, and above all, going on strike. In such ways we act as a class and rely only on class solidarity to make such actions successful. Of course, it goes without saying that increased class power will inevitably lead to improved class conditions. By using direct action and solidarity we make sure we achieve better class conditions and that we do so on our own terms.

The IWW should not oppose the EFCA, but we should certainly not campaign for it either. Instead, we should use the opportunity opened by the EFCA to educate our fellow workers on the need for class power. Our ability to act independently, democratically, and autonomously as a class will see America’s workers achieve far more than we ever could through the EFCA. Even more than material gains, however, only by exercising class power can workers begin creating a society that always puts human need first.

Originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of the Industrial Worker


What We're Changing

M.Jones shows how organizing on the job changes the job.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on April 9, 2012

In our organizing we are trying to establish power on the job. This power can be seen and felt in different ways depending on the job. But what we want from our organizing is control over our day to day lives on the job, this control will come from the power we can establish through collective action.

The collective actions we take on the job change the conditions on that job; they change how we daily interact with our bosses and with each other. This results in a bettering of conditions. I believe old time Wobblies called this job conditioning. It comes out of workers collectively and directly confronting the boss on an issue, and sticking up for one another. It is done with or without a contract; often the contract is an impediment to actions that can condition the job.

One of my first experiences with this came on my first job out of high school, throwing boxes at UPS. The workers here, although only informally organized exerted strong control over the job, and had no fear in voicing their opinions to the boss. The workers rallied around one or two strong leaders on the job. These leaders were the first workers to extend a hand to me and the other fellow I got hired on with, these were the workers when there was an issue would between two other workers would get it worked out, and these were the workers who were the first (but not the only ones) to bring up an issue to the boss. These confrontations often happened on the post break discussion session, they were often loud and confrontational. In this I saw the first application of our power as workers, and what it meant to be organized. The result was we worked the pace we wanted, worked with who we wanted, and stuck up for on another. Eventually, this experience would culminate in a threatened strike sticking up for a fellow worker who was in danger of being fired.

When I moved on to another job, this one at a truck manufacturing plant, I found a much different situation. Workers did not condition the job in the same way. They did not stick up for each other. Moreover, the leadership that had existed on the job at UPS did not exist here. The leadership that did exist was found in the “team lead” who often was a good leader and a company man. This of course led to workers following this person, falling in line, and not sticking together. In this situation our job conditions were much different. We were more at the mercy of the company. They had us out organized, and because of this we had no control over our daily lives on the job.

On my current job we are early on in a long process of organizing. One of the first tasks has been to get my fellow workers to take action together and to stick up for one another. Most of them are decent folks, willing to help each other out but with no experience of being organized. Most want to confront problems as individuals, thinking they may get a fair hearing from the boss. In small ways though, I can already see some changes, from a willingness to be critical of how things are handled to having each other's backs and helping each other out. These are some of the small changes that can lead to larger ones.

Job conditioning, I have learned is based on the small confrontations that happen everyday. When the boss comes out ready to tell us a decision he or she has made and is not confronted by workers as a group, they set the conditions for that day. If we workers confront them, stick up for one another, and lay out our demands for what we want, we set the conditions for that day. We are making a point with our action. The boss is learning their role. Workers are learning our power.

Originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of the Industrial Worker