Other columns from 2013 include:
Columns from 2013
Christmas at Starbucks - Liberté Locke
An account by Liberté Locke about working at Starbucks in New York over the Christmas season.
Starbucks is a job in which the boss is so shitty that he can lose everything in Hurricane Sandy and his sympathy only lasts a couple weeks. Workers roll their eyes and those unable to bite their tongues can’t help but utter the word “karma.” Disrespectful employee reviews bring everyone swiftly back to remembering that while their aunt, cousin, lover, or babysitter is still living in the dark, 27 flights up in the projects, wondering why the Red Cross is ballin’ and they’re living on scraps—paying for Metrocards that equal crowded shuttle buses on lines yet to be restored—this guy was inconvenienced, but only briefly. It’s a victory to get to work only 20 minutes late, but of course the boss doesn’t think so. Out-of-towners are more understanding about what we’ve gone through than the boss who felt its effects. He’s stable soon enough—a quick recovery while we struggle. The boss can’t make a latte—the one who gave everyone low scores on “customer focus” when he couldn’t remember a single regular’s name when asked. His paycheck would imply he makes every drink himself.
Beverage sales go up, transactions skyrocket, retail sales climb while hours are cut, breaks are “forgotten,” reviews are late and offensive.
A female co-worker of mine had taken enough. She settled it the way things get settled in New York. She punched the boss and broke the glass door in the store. When I came into work the next day I was sure I’d somehow be blamed for the door. The day before, Corporate (Starbucks’ headquarters) finally forced me to remove all but one union pin on my uniform. This moment came after five years of court battles over wearing multiple union pins on the job (and fighting for the reinstatement of our members, including Daniel Gross). After losing four appeals, Starbucks finally won, once—and that was enough. I threw all my Starbucks-issued pins in the garbage and got a lot of sympathy from coworkers who especially respected my Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pin that I was no longer permitted to wear. I had assumed it was some middle of the night vandalism that most Starbucks workers have become accustomed to—globally they’re used to much more than broken glass. I inquired with the openers and learned of our newest folk hero. The woman who did what justified fears of firing and jail time prevented others from doing so many times before. If karma was real (and it’d been someone higher up), I’d think that punch was for FW Daniel.
Last I heard, Starbucks was still looking for her. I don’t know where she is but I know she has my respect and gratitude. How does Corporate respond to the store doing well financially and, simultaneously, the manager being reported by workers and then finally attacked by one? They send emails applauding his “leadership.” These emails are posted for everyone to see that our credit has been stolen— probably turned into a bonus that we’ll never get.
Just before Christmas, Corporate decided to “thank” us. Almost every district manager (DM) in Manhattan barged into our store during the morning rush, and loudly and badly sang a Christmas carol. Our DM came behind the counter (in the way of drinks being made) and held up a giant laminated board signed by the DMs and just said “Thanks for your…(blah, blah, blah).” She read it loudly—more to the customers as a ploy than to us as an actual “thank you.” I shouted from my register, “That doesn’t look like a giant check to me?!” My coworkers at the registers turned back to taking customers and said to each other loudly, “Yeah, where’s our Christmas bonus, huh?”
To add insult to injury, the DMs commandeered two big tables to sit for lunch— a crowd of 10 people that have spent years trying to fire me, three of which have individually attempted, in vain, to have me arrested at pickets. They jumped the line, ordered several complicated drinks and bought most of our sandwiches—of course they wanted them warmed and some without cheese. It was on the company card, they overworked us, piss off regulars and, unsurprisingly, they DID NOT TIP. It’s clear they were celebrating our hard work with a free lunch. Some workers nibbled on the shitty grocery store-bought box of star-shaped cookies they left us. I told folks that Kinkos makes those signs for 40 bucks and it’d be nice if they put $40 in the tip jar instead. We didn’t feel appreciated— we felt shit on as grown people with bills, children, and college to pay for with star-shaped cookies. Then a customer in a maintenance uniform handed me and a co-worker each a $20 bill and said, “It’s for you, Merry Christmas.” We were reminded that workers take care of workers.
|Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (March 2013)
Taking creative action
An account by a Pizza Hut worker in the UK about remembering to be creative in workplace organizing.
There is no denying that organizing, and class struggle more generally, is hard work—it can be boring and really tiring. However, we need to remember not to get stuck in a pattern that keeps it that way. There is no reason to stick to the old models of action. Let’s be creative, let’s try new things and most important of all let’s encourage new fellow workers to come up with ideas and take the lead on them.
While at Pizza Hut we got creative about taking action, over health and safety and over management belligerence.
My first example is how we dealt with poor safety standards, particularly oven gloves. In the 10 years that I have worked at Pizza Hut, safety has always been issue— the burns on my arms can attest. Oven gloves with holes were a constant issue. Despite it being raised by multiple workers, multiple times, nothing was ever done. So we essentially created a game: binning gloves! As we got in on each shift I checked gloves, and if they were “sub-par,” they would end up in the bin.
The trick to making it fun in this case though was through involving other Pizza Hut workers, active fellow workers or not. That meant taking a risk that they could have dobbed us in, but the reality was we knew it was an issue that annoyed everyone. We also made a game of getting away with it. At the core however, this action was real and meaningful. It represents two classic tactics: dual power and workplace sabotage. Although both were on a small scale, it meant a lot to workers in a historically unorganized workplace.
The second example I would put forward was a matter of accidentally discovering a weak spot. For some months, we had been trying to push through a grievance. A grievance forms a part of a labor dispute in British employment law and in practice; it is a pretty decent way of putting your bosses on notice.
Despite our best efforts to talk, we had been completely ignored. So we began to plan our next move. Our dispute was over Bank Holiday pay, which is usually time-and-a-half, but at Pizza Hut this is standard pay, as well as delivery drivers’ commission, which they receive on a per delivery basis.
The plan was to organize a walk-out on the next Bank Holiday, which would have been on the day of the illustrious royal wedding (a nice note of celebration if you ask me). However, the plan fell apart when an unpopular loud mouth thought it would be funny to catch us out. In front of a manager and several other staff we didn’t yet trust, he shouted out, “What’s this about, this strike next week then?”
We had been caught, we hadn’t planned for this. What would happen? I would be fired for sure. Would others be too, had we just lost the lot? No, it was quite the opposite. Management was desperate to talk to us. Suddenly we found ourselves very popular and looked after. Before we knew it our area manager came down to meet with us and tried to settle the dispute, in his “I am just one of you guys” manner. Obviously we didn’t get what we wanted but we managed to sort some other issues around the moped drivers’ safety gear.
Tactics may sometimes come from where you least expect them. Keeping an open mind about ways to deal with issues and not letting yourself be held back by preconceptions of what falls under proper methods allows for some interesting results. Central to this is remaining open at all times to the input of your fellow workers, using the skills around you and encouraging involvement.
Neither of these examples came about spontaneously; they grew naturally out of the culture of cooperation that we managed to build in our shop, or “Wobblying the job.” This is something that we can do as organizers before we even “out” ourselves as such. The boss might want a car driver to take a long delivery to keep the times down and win themselves a cash bonus; the car driver doesn’t want to be out of pocket on fuel. A moped rider can turn directly to the car driver, ignoring the boss, and offer to swap for their shorter delivery. Depending on the workers and bosses involved this may not work but it will always create a bond outside of the boss-worker hierarchy, it is this bond which will see us through any action, large or small.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2013)
Expanding your congregation of Fellow Workers - Colin Bossen
An article by Colin Bossen about membership growth and how the IWW might deal with it.
If you have been active in the IWW for a while, you have probably come across a pamphlet called “Rusty’s Rules of Order”— the pamphlet that serves as a guide to running effective union meetings. It attributes the following pearl of wisdom to Rusty, “an old Wobbly,” who served as a mentor to many younger Wobblies in the 1970s and 1980s: “Always conduct your meeting as if there were 100 people there, to be ready when the time comes when there are 100 people there.”
The IWW’s growth over the last decade has caused me to think a bit more about these words. The union now has more than twice the membership it had 10 years ago. More importantly, the union’s level of labor organizing has increased dramatically. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen pickets and a strike in the Twin Cities, a successful union election in Grand Rapids, Mich., a victory in a struggle for back wages in Portland, Ore., and a wage increase for cleaners in London. What’s more, all of this growth has been matched, or maybe fueled, by the creation of new IWW infrastructure. Since 2000, we have created the Organizer Training Committee and the Organizing Department and revamped the Work People’s College. In addition, the Industrial Worker has become an important place to reflect on organizing theory and methodology.
All of this is great, but it still has me thinking about Rusty’s advice. Why? Because in my time with the union, only rarely have I attended any sort of meeting that was designed for 100 people. Most meetings I have attended are exactly the opposite. They are run like discussion groups between friends. The rules of debate are frequently opaque and difficult for newcomers to follow. New members are seldom instructed on how to participate. Long-time members often dominate the debate.
If the IWW is going to continue to grow, our meetings will not only have to be designed to accommodate 100 people but hopefully 1,000 someday. Maybe that is optimistic thinking. Or maybe it is good planning. The Occupy movement attracted thousands to democratically-run encampments in New York, Oakland and other major cities. I meet more politicized and militant workers in their teens and 20s now than I ever did when I was that age or even in my early 30s. Recent upsurges of organizing by fast food workers and others who have long been considered unorganizable by business unions suggests that the possibility of a revitalized labor movement is on the horizon.
I hope that the IWW will take a major role in this revitalization. In order for that to happen, we will need to think seriously about how we behave organizationally. We will need to ask questions like: What does an IWW branch with 500 members look like? What does one with 2,000 members look like? How are branches of this size different from branches of 10, 20 or even 50 members? How can a branch with 10 members grow from 10 to 50 to 500 members? It might seem strange, but one place I suggest we look to for answers to these questions is the religious community. Organizations like the Alban Institute focus much of their energy on helping congregations address the organizational challenges they face at different sizes and figuring out how to transition between sizes.
There are two things that the institute has observed that might be particularly useful for members of the IWW when thinking about the culture and growth trajectory of branches. First, folks at Alban have noted that different size congregations have different kinds of cultures. Broadly speaking, they have identified five types of size-based congregational cultures: family, pastoral, program, corporate and mega. Each of these cultures has their own characteristics. The description of the family sized one might sound familiar to some Wobs because it “functions like a family, with appropriate family figures... matriarchs and patriarchs [who] control the church’s leadership needs.” While the fit isn’t exact, this might describe many smaller branches where long-time or founding members set much of the agenda and make it difficult for new members to integrate or develop in leadership roles.
The second thing that the people at Alban have observed is that organizational culture is generally stable. Religious communities face developmental tasks if they are going to grow from family to pastoral size for example. Most of these tasks are centered on creating new leaders, increasing programming and developing infrastructure for integrating new members. They are also usually accompanied by conflict. People who had power in the smaller congregation are asked to share it with the new members of the now larger congregation. The details are probably irrelevant for the IWW’s purposes, but the point is crucial: for a branch to grow, intentional changes in culture and infrastructure are almost certainly necessary. And those changes are usually accompanied by conflict. If those intentional changes are not made, or if conflict is avoided, then growth will almost always be temporary, and the organization will revert to its stable, smaller norm.
If we were to apply these observations to the IWW, we could study the different size branches that exist in the union and look at how their cultures differ. We could try to figure out if there were particular patterns of conflict, cultural or organizational change that occurred when branches moved from 10 to 50 or 100 members. And we could begin the process of imagining the kinds of conflict and culture change necessary to grow a branch from 100 to 500 members.
So maybe Rusty’s advice shouldn’t be taken quite so literally. Instead of thinking about how a meeting with 10 people should be run as if it were a meeting with 100 people, maybe we should be thinking about how to grow a branch with 10 people to a branch with 100 people. That might mean we are intentional about how we function within branches of both sizes.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2013)
What is working class culture?
An article by a Wobbly who went to Spain about political subcultures and how the IWW should avoid marginalizing themselves within them. We do not necessarily agree that the CGT, with their model of representative unionism, are the best example of accomplishing this, but agree with the overall with the thrust of the piece.
If you’ve ever met me, you probably don’t think I look like a radical. I frequently wear button-up shirts. I own penny loafers, several good suits and a dozen or so neckties. My hair is neat and short and I don’t own any clothing advertising the name of a band. In sum, I am not punk at all. Nonetheless, I identify as a militant. I have been a member of the IWW for almost 15 years. I have been involved in several organizing campaigns, committed civil disobedience and spent long periods of time doing solidarity work in Chiapas, Mexico.
I was reminded of the dissonance of my politics and my appearance recently when my wife and I were in Spain for a sort of second honeymoon. While in Barcelona, we stopped by an anarchist squat and visited with workers from the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT), Spain’s largest anarcho-syndicalist labor union. At the squat, we were received with suspicion. Punk music was blaring, people were drinking and there were four dogs that seemed to be constantly on the edge of a dramatic fight. It took a few minutes for us to find someone to talk to and even after we did the young woman who decided to show us around had to repeatedly explain to her comrades that we were anarchists from the United States. In truth, it was a somewhat awkward experience. All of the squatters were in their late teens, 20s and, maybe, early 30s and dressed in a similar fashion. A visit with them felt more like a visit to a subcultural bar than a visit with a political movement. I got the sense that if you didn’t look the part you weren’t quite welcome.
Our experience with the CGT was quite different. The CGT has more than 50,000 members and through Spanish labor law, represents significantly more than that. The union’s office in Barcelona was a hive of activity. It takes up two floors of a large office building and includes a library and cafeteria. There were easily 50 people there when we visited.
The union members were more age diverse than the squatters. But more importantly, they were united not by their adherence to common subculture but by their commitment to the union. Their style of dress was diverse and so was their taste in music. What clearly mattered most was people’s commitment to the union, and that commitment was significant. The Barcelona CGT has around 12,000 members. But with that large membership it has only four paid staff, none of whom are elected officers. Everyone else whom we met, including the gracious Àngel Bosqued, the Secretary General of the CGT in Catalonia, was an unpaid volunteer.
The contrast between the squatters and the CGT has had me thinking about my own organizing work. Currently I am involved in an organizing campaign at my workplace. We have been at it for less than six months and have managed to build a solid organizing committee of 20 members. I have more experience organizing than most of the other workers and I am also a bit older. I was not one of the initiators of the campaign. One of the things that I have noticed about it is that, initially, those who helped start the campaign were most successful at bringing in people like them—in their case young, hip, and formerly involved with Occupy.
We can’t build the union we want to build if we only stick to one demographic. It has been a major task of mine to get people involved in the campaign to think about recruiting people outside of their social circles. We have started to have some success. In the last few months we have added a number of workers to the committee who don’t fit the profile of the initiators. Some of them even profess conservative politics. We have managed to get them involved not by assuming that we all share the same cultural references but that instead we share common grievances and that those grievances have a common solution: a democratic and powerful union.
Ultimately, I think that this is the key to building the IWW into large radical union like the CGT. Rather than assuming that Wobblies share a common culture, we should think of every worker as a potential Wobbly. The task of each Wob is to teach our fellow workers that we all have common problems and that those problems have a common solution.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (July/August 2013)
An article by a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) about 'job conditioning', which is when when workers slowly and subtly change the practices or the culture in their workplace, to their advantage.
An important Wobbly concept is job conditioning. This is when workers slowly and subtly change the practices or the culture in their workplace, to their advantage. Job conditioning doesn’t involve an explicit agreement with the boss to change workplace conditions. It’s more like creating “facts on the ground” that make our job better.
Because job conditioning doesn’t involve an outright confrontation with the boss, usually even more timid coworkers will join in. It can build solidarity on the shop floor, change how everyone feels about going in to work and build up our confidence in relation to the boss.
Here are some of my favorite memories of job conditioning:
I worked part time in a mom-and-pop retail store, getting paid in cash. We had no water cooler, or fountain, or kitchen. Our only source of water was the tap in the bathroom, which was gross. However, we sold cases of bottled water. The owners helped themselves to these but never offered them to us. In the mornings on the way to my shift, I didn’t have money for both a coffee and a water, so I just bought a coffee. Some days my thirst would overtake me, though, and I would cave and buy a bottle of water from the boss, noting it in my book where I recorded my hours, so that he could deduct it from my pay. One day my co-worker said that this was ridiculous; we shouldn’t have to pay for water. So we started telling him when we were taking water, but “forgetting” to write it in our books. And then we just stopped telling him altogether. This let us stop agonizing over whether to drink some water when we were thirsty.
I worked in one of those first class airline lounges—the private ones where the first class travelers get to chill before getting on their planes. Catering and janitorial services were contracted to Sodexo, which was the company that my coworkers and I worked for. We kept the bar stocked, put out cheese platters, cleaned the bathrooms, and so on. We didn’t have a break room of our own. One day we heard we were getting a new manager. Before he came on the job, my co-workers and I installed a full-length mirror in his office and put a bunch of boxes of tampons in there. When he arrived we told him that his office doubled as our break room. To reinforce the point, my co-worker and I ate our lunch in there every day, while playing cards on his desk. He got the point and started leaving when it was our break time. It was fun to pull one over on the boss and it was nice to have a break room. We also now had access to the company’s labor manuals, which showed us all kinds of benefits we were supposed to be getting but weren’t.
I worked a full-time, 9-to- 5 job for a government department. I was one of seven interns or entry-level young people there. We did things like answer letters from constituents using boilerplate formulas. We had plenty of work to do, and even more during politically heated times. We had a one-hour paid lunch break, but the more ambitious or more guilt-prone among us would work through it, eating at our desks. One particular co-worker was a friend of mine. I started insisting she come for lunch with me, using it as a chance for us to socialize and catch up. Then we started inviting more people to join us. Eventually, all seven of us would go for lunch for the full hour, every single day. We’d try out the restaurants nearby or chill in the park. Our workplace culture had changed so that everyone took the breaks we were entitled to, and our bosses couldn’t pressure us to work through lunch because we simply weren’t there. Plus, we got a chance to build camaraderie and to talk about our bosses.
Job conditioning can involve a lot of things, whether it’s appropriating more free stuff for yourself, getting some flexibility in your schedule, ensuring everyone gets their breaks, or pushing back on the constant supervision we often face on the job. You can start it on your own, or just involving one co-worker, and then radiate out from there. You can talk about your reasons for doing it with your co-workers, or just start doing it. But it can really make a difference in terms of how you relate to each other, and to your job. It’s a way of making work a little more human, and it’s a subtle way of pushing back against the boss’s power to dictate everything in the workplace. Once those “facts on the ground” are established workers will instinctively defend them.
We’re trained at work to think that the boss has all the power. Ultimately, job conditioning is a way of reminding both ourselves and the boss that we don’t need them, they need us.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2013)
Shotgun organizing - John O'Reilly & Juan Conatz
John O'Reilly and Juan Conatz talk about 'shotgun organizing' which they define as an individualized way of thinking every problem needs to be solved in the most intense and forceful fashion possible, regardless of whether or not it can be handled differently or of the effects on a workplace organizing committee.
About a year or so ago, one of us was having a one-on-one conversation with a member of the union involved in a campaign that was not public at the time. When the discussion switched to one of the more active committee members, the fellow worker said, “You know, I love and respect him, but every problem we encounter he wants to shoot down with a 12 gauge.” This gets to an issue we sometimes have that we will call “shotgun organizing.”
The “shotgun organizer” thinks that every problem needs to be solved in the most intense and forceful way possible, regardless of whether or not it can be handled differently or of the effects on the committee. If things are bad, they need to be blasted away. For the shotgun organizer, the union is amazing and the boss is evil and anyone who disagrees is a reactionary. The shotgun organizer takes a blunt, noholds- barred approach to union activity, and has no room for nuance or collective decision-making. Getting in fights about the union, badgering co-workers who are on the fence, being the first person to stand up to management over grievances, the shotgun organizer knows what they think and makes sure that everyone else does too. It can be good to have folks like this on your side. The willingness to “go to war,” to stand up for people, and be a voice for no compromise is an excellent quality. However, it often can be destructive and alienating.
One of the most difficult parts of organizing is dealing with the problems we encounter with the right response for the right problem. Sometimes we make honest mistakes, misjudging the size or importance of a problem or minimizing something that should be taken more seriously. Part of becoming better organizers is recognizing that we simply will make mistakes no matter how prepared we are, and anticipating how to come back from them. Shotgun organizing is a common style of dealing with problems that come up because, rather than dealing with the complexity of the organizing situation and learning from mistakes, it turns all problems into the most important problem and, predictably, uses a 12 gauge to blow them away.
Part of how shotgun organizing manifests as a problem is that the campaign can become about the shotgun-toting worker rather than the issue at hand. For instance, if a certain anti-union co-worker keeps trash-talking the union on the job, a shotgun organizer’s first response might be to confront that worker and start yelling at them about how they’re wrong and stupid. Instead of considering the issue as a committee and coming up with a solution that might work, like having a pro-union friend approach the anti-union person privately, the shotgun organizer turns the dynamic from being about one problem worker to two people yelling at each other. Most co-workers are going to back away from that. Nobody wants to choose between two people yelling. Our co-workers who back away from the conflict are, by default, choosing against the union and doing exactly what the anti-union worker would have wanted. Sometimes the right way to deal with the problem might be just confronting the anti-union worker. By doing it as one individual instead of as a group, the focus of the controversy is on the shotgun organizer and their yelling, not on the content of the union message. The change we seek doesn’t happen because of individuals. That’s a common, yet mistaken, vision of history and one that shotgun organizers often see as justifying their behavior. For every “Big Bill” Haywood or Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, there are numerous Henry E. McGuckin’s. For every Durruti, there are hundreds of lesser-known Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) militants. Struggle is a collective process that doesn’t solely depend on the initiative of individuals willing and able to approach every situation as if it was a full-scale battle. We may remember the names of the “famous” revolutionaries, but we do so because of the quiet, day-to-day work of many around them who are lost to history. Organizing at work is no different. Rather than be One Big Organizer who does everything by themselves, we strive to build up others as organizers. We do this by sharing work and responsibility and encouraging other people to express their opinions. When we do this we see that all organizing work need not be done by one person and that the intensity need not be “turned all the way up” all the time. Change at work and in society has high and low points of intensity, but it operates most effectively when that intensity is brought on by a group, not a lone wolf wielding a big shotgun.
Like anything else humans do, there can be underlying reasons for shotgun organizing. The person may want to rush things because they are feeling burnt out and want to “get it over with.” Maybe they are very excited about the IWW or unionism in general and are letting this high amount of energy drive them completely. Maybe this person could feel like they are the only one “getting things done,” and therefore have to overcompensate for what they feel is less effort from other committee members. These are just a few of the numerous possibilities that might explain this conduct. We should be careful not to assume, though. Instead, we should talk to the fellow worker to get to the heart of the problem. Discovering the underlying reasons why people behave like this can be the first huge step to a solution.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2013)
You might just be a Wobbly: a speech from the 2013 IWW convention
The words of welcome which a member from the Edmonton General Membership Branch delivered at this year’s IWW delegate convention.
My name is Phinneas Gage and I, like all of you, am a Wobbly. But what does it mean to be a Wobbly?
Well, if you think a wildcat by the members is better than a deal cut by the leaders, you might just be a Wobbly.
If you think it’s better to have 10 members who are in the union because they believe in it, than 100 who are in it because they legally have to be in it, you might just be a Wobbly.
If you think there is more radical potential in seeing a co-worker stand up for herself than a $1 raise, you might just be a Wobbly.
If you think the phrase, “We are the union” isn’t just a way of deferring criticism but needs to be the driving force behind every action we take as workers on the job, you might just be a Wobbly.
A very experienced trade unionist once told me, “A union is only as good as the people in it.” Now without falling short of flattering the audience I would have to say this room full of Wobblies is proof we have the best union going.
If you took chemistry in high school, at some point your teacher probably explained that a lump of coal is more or less the same as a diamond as far as the actual parts that make it up. However, coal and diamonds don’t look the same. Why is that?
It’s because of the way the pieces are arranged, the way they fit together, not just on a small level but pretty much on the smallest level possible, on the level of the molecules that make up the object itself. This is why a piece of coal crumbles in your hands and diamond is pretty much the hardest thing there is.
You see diamonds come from coal; they are just lumps of carbon. But if you apply pressure, heat, and time to a piece of carbon it packs down. Slowly the bonds between the component parts become stronger and stronger until what comes out is something very different than what went in.
Well, I think it goes without saying that as one of the oldest, un-reconstituted revolutionary organizations in North America, we understand time.
If there is one thing we know as Wobblies it is heat, heat from the state, heat from our bosses and heat from a culture that rewards kissing ass over standing up for others.
If there is one other thing we know as Wobblies it is pressure. The pressure of loved ones getting injured at work, the pressure of making ends meet, and the pressure of making a union that conforms and bargains within the constraints that the bosses and mainstream unions say legitimate unions accept willingly.
Now I just want to start wrapping up this introduction to this weekend by saying one last thing. A revolutionary union is not different just because it preaches a revolutionary message. As a revolutionary union we need to represent something different. This means we don’t just talk differently, it means we must act differently. We won’t always get this right but it needs to be our goal.
As many of you know these conventions are a lot of work, but the face-to-face contact and the experiences we will gain over the weekend by sharing victories and trading arguments are the foundation of a working-class democracy. This democracy is what will form the structure of the new society within the shell of the old, as the old saying goes.
So, one more time, I would like to thank all of you for making this long trip out to Edmonton. It means a lot to us because we know you being here means a lot to you and we are honored to host you in our homes and in our city this weekend.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2013)
Strategy And Tactics
We need a good framework for judging the usefulness of tactics and more discussion about strategy. Discussions about strategy are probably some of the hardest to have. Strategy is difficult to teach. It is almost always abstract. Instead of involving fixed objects taking on particular actions, it involves trajectories, power imbalances and timing.
The German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz gives a good definition of strategy:
“The conduct of War is, therefore, the formation and conduct of the fighting. If this fighting was a single act, there would be no necessity for any further subdivision, but the fight is composed of a greater or less number of single acts, complete in themselves, which we call combats... From this arises the totality of different activities, that of the formation and conduct of these single combats in themselves, and the combination of them with one another, with a view to the ultimate object of the War. The first is called tactics, the other strategy.”
So tactics are static; strategy is dynamic. Some tactics fit well with a certain strategy. Some tactics do not fit well with a certain strategy. In the movie “Braveheart,” the English king orders his longbowmen to fire into a melee between English and Scottish infantry. At first his generals are disturbed by how bad of a move this is, until it becomes clear the tactic of sacrificing some lower-class infantry fit with his strategic interests in decimating the Scottish infantry. This also generally fits with a theme in the movie of principles versus pragmatism and how those with principles are actually at a disadvantage in war.
A phrase that is used a lot in activist circles is a “diversity of tactics.” Any clear strategy is going to have a diversity of tactics. However it will also have to rule out some tactics as counterproductive. So we often see a debate about tactics reduced down to the usefulness of a particular tactic in a particular instance. This debate leads to both sides confusing, to return to Clausewitz, a “single act” with the “combination of [many acts] with a view to the ultimate object of the war.”
It is not about the justifiability of the individual action. Rather, the question is, how does the action fit with a chain of actions and build towards a general plan?
Politics by Other Means
Revolutionary industrial unionism was a strategy in 1905. For the sake of simplicity we’ll reduce this down to a monolithic idea of the IWW; this is bad history but a good thought experiment. Within the IWW there was a diversity of tactics within certain parameters: sabotage, the general strike, the sympathy strike, job conditioning, free speech fights, and revolutionary education and agitation.
There were also tactics that were ruled out: electoralism, contractualism and arbitration. A diversity of tactics did not mean “anything goes.” Tactics should be examined based on their usefulness to the broader struggle.
One tactic may fit an overall strategy better than another one. In the old IWW you could see this clearly. Free speech fights, while bringing prestige and attention to the organization, also put a lot of good organizers in jail. It’s hard to organize the job from jail. Tactically, it may have made sense, and it was part of a bigger plan to create more public space for organizing, but it also meant other tactics suffered as a result. There are stories of effective sabotage and stories where sabotage turned out to be a liability. Being in favor of a tactic in one context does not mean you have to be in favor of a tactic in another context. Why is this so? Because, as Clausewitz puts it, strategy is about advancing “with a view to the ultimate object of the War.”
This brings up a bigger question: what is the ultimate object of our war? No doubt as revolutionary unionists this means some kind of socialism. As folks who sit outside the traditional left this means a socialism that is based on free initiative and not state planning. As our struggles become more intense we will need more discussion on what this actually means.
Winning the Wobbly Way
If we evaluate our tactics based on our strategy and our strategy is a reflection of our politics, every step of the struggle needs to be seen politically. Do these actions promote the politics we claim to hold based on our views? I don’t think this is an absolute value. Some tactics may contradict some of our values but reinforce others—this may make them useful as secondary tactics. A good example is the phone zap: it is participatory but mostly by people outside the struggle on the job. It isn’t based on an appeal to the good nature of authority so it empowers those involved.
Here’s criteria for a good tactic that fits with our political vision:
1) The action is participatory. The action needs to have group participation and a division of roles that allows for a broad degree of genuine participation.
2) The action is autonomous. It does not appeal to the better nature of those who typically hold power but rather holds the threat of further disruption.
3) The action builds the confidence of those involved. When done right, even if you don’t get what you want, you should walk away feeling stronger. We want to avoid substitutionism, in which we substitute the power of an activist subculture in the community for the power of the direct participation of those affected.
The question is not whether we are in favor of a diversity of tactics. No doubt any clear strategy will have a diversity of tactics within it. The question is: what is our strategy and do these tactics fit with our aims?
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2013)