In 2012, workers at a small moving company in New York City rose up against bad pay and dangerous work conditions. In the course of the struggle, much was revealed about how exploitation operates; how the enticements of 'self-expression' and a 'laid back' atmosphere serve to weaken consciousness and collective action. At the same time, this history reveals the opportunities and limits that workers face within self-organized struggles in a small business format. This is an updated version with a new 2013 afterward by the original author.
A moving story: with afterword - Jocelyn Cohn and James Frey
In the Summer of 2012 the exploited workers at Rabbit Movers autonomously organized our shop and began the fight for control over the conditions of our lives. This is one worker’s account of how it all went down.
“They Just Run Us Into The Ground...”
Our struggle was born in the cabs of box trucks all over the city. Stopped in traffic, cramped and stewing in diesel fumes, and working off the clock due to flat-rate travel pay based on mythic road conditions, we have spent countless hours in the privacy of our little boxes enumerating our grievances endlessly. In these scenes, the individual gripe is always the germ of systematic critique. And such grievances are in no short supply when the starting rate for workers at our dangerous job has progressively fallen over the past four years, rolling back a full five dollars and coming to rest on the precipice of minimum wage, as has the pay cap for our nearly nonexistent pay raises, which can only be negotiated individually and secretly with management, in competition with our co-workers, and are rarely granted. Medical benefits are non-existent, though the threat of severe bodily harm comes with every day’s work, more reliably so than the gratuity with which each of our customers, in morally satisfied ignorance of our pay rate, are expected to subsidize our basic social needs out of sheer generosity. “Have a few drinks tonight!” they’ll chortle along with a meager tip, as we wonder if this keeps us on track to make rent. The undesirable conditions at our shop have created a high turnover which makes for unsafe working conditions, only exacerbating the daily struggle to make ends meet and make it home one piece.
Work in our shop comes in a pattern of feast or famine. We list which days we are available, and work is assigned to us based on necessity. This “flexibility” (as it is presented in the job interview) is misleading, as it is necessary to make oneself available almost every single day in order to make enough hours for the week, and work is announced with less than 24 hours notice. Many days we are available there is no work at all, especially for the newer workers, who can go two weeks at a time without hearing from the company. Often the most competent, experienced, and professional of our ranks view the job as an unfortunate short-term situation, explicitly citing lack of pay, reliable scheduling, and above all, dignity, and these workers have one eye on the door from the start.
This situation has engendered an entire class of disposable workers hired for the extreme short term and not expected to stay beyond a month, at which time they can be replaced by another crop from the inexhaustible Craig’s List precariat. They are hired at a pay rate which most often precludes any experience, and in many cases precludes maturity and responsibility. It is not uncommon to find among new hires an apathetical approach to this labor intensive and dangerous job. Surely, nobody among us can really blame workers making close to minimum wage for behaving accordingly. A while back a worker in this pay rate was an hour late on a Saturday morning, and one of the veterans joked “He just paid $8 to sleep in for an hour.” However, the most experienced and responsible crew members on each job must train each new worker behind the customer’s back while doing the work of two, and to turn their attention away from the new hire to perform a technical task or to even use the bathroom is to risk catastrophe.
And catastrophe strikes often, in the form of avoidable damages resulting from basic errors or carelessness, for which the company regularly doles out thousands of dollars, overcompensating the customer in the name of preserving its good standing in the public eye. The same is true for drivers, who the company is unwilling to hire at a competitive rate for commercial trucking. Instead it opts to underpay inexperienced drivers who routinely cause expensive wrecks and drive up the company’s insurance costs, while posing an obvious threat to the safety of all. In a bitter irony, the myriad expenditures stemming from constant turnover in an underpaid, often inexperienced, and increasingly apathetic workforce are cited as the reason we cannot receive raises, which of course would help obviate accidents and damages, and the cycle continues as wages are driven ever downward by the imperative to minimize costs in the short-term. This lends some weight to the view that in the wage relation, domination of the labor force is the primary concern for the accumulation of capital, and the importance of low wages to immediate concerns of profit is secondary.
Those of us who work our hardest do so not because it reflects our pitiful remuneration, but out of a basic human desire to take pride in the application of one’s faculties to a day’s work, and to recognize one’s efforts in the quality of the product. This is of course a complicated relationship within the paradigm of exploitation, and it leaves especially the most adept and responsible workers feeling like suckers. “The company uses us the same way they use the [notoriously unmaintained] trucks”, one seasoned worker commented morosely. “They just run us into the ground.”
“My Mover Has Read Goethe!”
We have all worked plenty of “shit jobs” before and came to this company with no illusions about the nature of precarious work in the present day. But the real insult to injury for most of us lies in the company’s hipster “niche market” status. According to its literature, our company only hires artists and other creative people, whose creative endeavors the customer can “support” simply by hiring us. This is a major selling point with the customers of course, but also with new hires, with whom it is used to justify low wages. The company dons the “starving artist” trope for itself in dealings with the staff, to whom the trope actually applies. And the idea that “we” are a “collective” of “artists” suggests to the average customer that there is some kind of common ownership or stake in the company, or at the very least, that the workers are compensated anywhere near the mean industry rate. After all, how could a company so hip and cool and with it pay its workers minimum wage? Instead, tips are a major source of our income, though we are prohibited from discussing it with the customers, and many customers seem legitimately unaware of how much we need gratuity to survive. Worst of all, this sort of company manages to drape a layer of DIY hipster obfuscation over the basic relationship of exploitation. This fools the willfully ignorant customers, who don’t want to think ill of their precious luxury item, but can also make things difficult for organizing those among the staff with somebody else supporting them, a type often drawn to this kind of hip company, whose class privilege allows for some distance between the exploitative wage and the material necessities of their lives.
“My mover has read Goethe!” one clueless bourgeois declared amazedly, “Only in New York.” (Surely, especially in this man’s native Germany, this is not the case.) The strange affect that comes with artistic types performing ones manual labor for them is precisely why our rates can be higher than typical companies of our size and capacity, though materially there is little difference. Instead, the private artistic pursuits of the worker, conducted in their unwaged time away from work, renders their labor a luxury item, and enables a luxury price for which the worker is not compensated. It is not uncommon for a customer to ask one of us, while we’re grappling to carry their couch down a flight of stairs, what our “art” is, and on the spot we are made to tap dance to their satisfaction. This is all just clever marketing. Paradoxically, however, there is a real creative community at our workplace, though it exists not in the form of an “artist collective”. Instead, it is a collectivity of workers, acting in concert to accomplish challenging tasks, and using the full range of our creativity and intelligence to solve problems in a difficult occupation which requires constant improvisation, mental and physical strength, and emotional intelligence. It is this creative community, which exists everywhere, that is important to our struggle. In this way we are no different from any other workplace where difficult tasks are tackled in common.
We Are Not The 99%
Given these conditions, theories abound about the company’s financial practices, the preferential scheduling of certain workers, perceived acts of retribution by management for petty transgressions, etc., and though these sometimes run from fanciful to paranoid, they always point toward a systematic critique of the company’s functioning and, at root, the relationship between labor and capital. The most important task of our struggle consisted in orienting these myriad grievances toward a coherent and cohesive conception of the company, encompassing its governing logic, the mechanisms by which this was implemented, and the potential strengths and weaknesses these contained. From the onset it was of the utmost importance to distance our analysis from the intentions, beliefs, personalities, and feelings of those in management, who embody the domination of labor by capital, but who are dominated in turn by its necessity. The unfolding of our struggle confirmed this imperative. It further confirmed that had we opted for a more sentimental, emotional, or personal critique in the vein of Occupy’s unfocused analysis excused as inclusivity, which draws on such abstract notions such as “greed”, “bad bankers”, “fairness”, and “the 99%”, etc., we would have been endlessly bogged down in talk of good people vs. bad people, personal autobiographies, the form of rhetoric rather than its content, personal comfort, and hurt feelings. Tellingly, the only talk of this kind would come from the management, and would be aimed squarely at quashing workers’ solidarity and returning us to a mass of powerless individuals.
Every player in our struggle, whether the organizers, the managers forced to work against them, the avowedly neutral, the scabs hired to break our strike, the handful of scabs from our own ranks, the bourgeois friends of the boss brought in to make us feel ashamed, the rats who forwarded our communications to management, all the way up to the boss himself, can all be classified by the abstract economic category “99%”. This distinction bulldozes nuanced analysis and obscures the real mechanisms of class domination in the name of a false sense of cohesion which is destined to dissolve in urgent moments of struggle, reaffirming with a vengeance the antagonisms which a false sense of universal solidarity seeks to conveniently ignore. In this way the trajectory of Occupy seems to be no coincidence, but was contained within it from the start. The conveniences its big tent afforded in the early days foreshadowed its necessary demise. There is no such thing as “the 99%”. The self-conscious working class has many enemies within this massive demographic, both ideologically and materially, and perhaps most of all in those who seek to neutralize socially-necessary conflicts and denounce precise analysis and necessary sectarianism as unduly divisive.
The correct analysis necessary to our struggle was not something alien to our daily lives, to be imported from without. No external body was needed to educate us about our position. No pre-existing model could have been neatly fitted into our situation by self-understood organizing professionals. We didn’t need the guidance of “trained facilitators”, or training on how to talk to each other, or to be “reached out” to. Instead, our analysis developed through discussion and cooperative problem solving, through the dynamics already in place, enacted each day in our labor and the social relations it created. This social activity not only built trust and nurtured a cooperative spirit, but provided us the venue for articulating our grievances and honing an understanding of our particular situation. By the time our discussions assumed the form of “organizing” there was little controversy. After all, the objective conditions of our workplace leave little room for disagreement. Our employer aims to minimizing wages and control the conditions of our work. We aim to maximize wages and control the conditions of our work. Our employer’s obsession with low wages imperiled us in our work, along with our material situations, and in an irony which was not lost on our ranks, wasn’t even efficient from a business perspective. “This is like an intervention for someone who can’t run his own business” one worker joked.
Our material conditions are facts. Nobody in our shop has the privilege of such a distance from the daily reproduction of capital necessary to be able to deny objective conditions, facts, or realities of this kind. All that was required was to understand the particular instances which comprised our grievances in the context of the totality outside which they would be disconnected, unrelated, and remediable on an individual basis by concerned individuals. Such abstractions can reduce every social phenomenon to endless particularities, every empirical reality to so many subjective perspectives, and all political positions to “opinions” equally equivalent in relation to one another. In this conception the consideration of particularity, doubtless necessary for analytic and strategic completeness and for consideration of the human element involved, becomes an end in itself and leads to obfuscation, obstruction, and ultimately, paralysis.
Against this, we developed a conception of how our particular workplace functions in the context of the capitalist totality of which it is a part, in which labor and capital are necessarily posed adversarially. The most basic form this antagonism takes is the fight over the conditions of the working day, and it is here, in the wage relation and the conditions of the day’s work, that this antagonism is displayed irrefutably. We vowed that whether or not we liked, or believed, or ever had a drink with our boss or field manager, this was the fundamental structure and that is what would dictate action. We decided quite uncontroversially that nothing would ever change if we continued to act individually. As individuals we lacked the sufficient power to demand higher wages and better conditions. Our only subversive option as individuals was to quit, which sadly some would take in response to the effrontery of the boss as the situation progressed, but this would simply lead to our individual replacement by another desperate worker to be exploited in kind under the same conditions or worse. We decided that the practice of low wages and high turnover which our company had grown far too comfortable with, untenable as it was from our individual perspectives, must be made untenable in the eyes of the boss, and this could only be accomplished by a collectivity acting in active antagonism. From there it was only a matter of determining our course of action.
Precarity: Its Obvious Weaknesses And Surprising Strengths
We were preoccupied from the start with the problems unique to organizing so-called precarious workers, e.g. those without the guarantee of work, without benefits, employed for the short-term, “off the books”, underemployed, and easily terminated (or simply withdrawn from the schedule unceremoniously). Some of us attended a “general assembly” called for precarious workers, and we found that our problems were shared the city over. The downsides of this type of work and their corollaries in organizing were obvious: minimal job security, workers materially unable to miss work or risk firing, and a general climate of alienation which seemed magnified compared even to that of the typical workplace. From the premise that precarious work was a unique form of alienated labor and posed many particular obstacles for organizing, we decided to isolate, inversely, its unique strategic benefits. It is our contention that the most potent weapon against precarious work is the very precarity it engenders. This is an ongoing effort which must be explored in every specificity of this kind of work. In our particular case we found a few strategic advantages, contained within ostensible disadvantages, which benefited us immensely. These are primarily applicable to our shop, but not necessarily.
Primarily in our case, behind the unreliable stream of work synonymous with precarity lay the scheduling flexibility necessary for maintaining workers who could not be promised a steady schedule. At our shop, we make ourselves available, and are given work accordingly. Therefore, a collective work stoppage would not even technically be a strike; it would be a collective vacation! It would be impossible to penalize us for simultaneously requesting time off. To do so would mean rewriting the entire employment policy, and most likely including such benefits as a minimum pay per week in order to require any kind of promise of availability from the workers. This is how we circumvented for a time the traditional fear mongering (and the valid fear) of firing or retribution that plagues workers solidarity in the face of a proposed work stoppage. This was fundamental to building strength at the very onset.
Further, as we began to approach more and more coworkers with a cautious tone anticipating the kind of panic we were expecting, we discovered that this job pays so little, demands so much, and is so interchangeable with any other menial Craig’s List gig that there was very little fear of termination by just about anyone. It must of course be noted that, though not negligible, the amount of workers with dependents, or without documentation, or required to work as a condition of parole, benefits, etc. at our shop by no means reflects the general population of precarious workers. Our shop is mostly (though not completely) male, a majority of whom are without dependents, or legality issues. We do not claim that a universal devil-may-care attitude toward termination can be expected in every precarious field. However, the nature of the job itself must not be underestimated when weighed against fears of termination. In our particular case we quickly discovered that the undesirability of the job, the low wages, lack of benefits, and interchangeability with numerous other jobs of its kind so common to precarious work was reflected in our coworkers’ attitudes towards termination. “Getting fired from this job would be the best thing that ever happened to any of us!” one worker joked. Our debased condition had actually created a situation in which we had nothing to lose except our chain to an easily replaceable menial job.
Finally, the flexibility, mobility, and de-centered nature of our workplace, an obstacle to traditional organizational models, provided us with the ability to work outside the purview of the boss and field manager for some time. This was the case in our trucks, of course, where the groundwork for organizing was laid. It was also true of our garage, which is open 24/7 due to the vast allocation of responsibility to petty managers, drivers, and foremen, which we were able to use as a site of meetings where theory and tactics could be discussed openly.
This is not an exhaustive list, only an indication that in the specificity of precarious work, there lies potential strategic benefits complimenting its uniqueness as a form of the organization of labor.
Building A Movement
From the perspective outlined above, it was clear that the only course of action would be to make demands for higher wages and better conditions supported by the threat of paralyzing the company should they not be met. Generating consensus for this was easy, as the majority of the workforce had become disillusioned (if ever enthusiastic) by the company’s this veneer, and the venting of grievances was a this point common to all and done openly on a daily basis. The initial stage consisted of a series of informal discussions, not scheduled or forced, but rather stemming from these gripe sessions, which germinated the idea that a remedy to the problems we faced in common was possible and could succeed. The demand of higher wages was articulated specifically, so that our meetings at the very onset were framed by specific demands and not the long-term imperative to meet for its own sake. The company policy of rotating staffing accommodated this nicely, as a few weeks of work was sufficient for a handful of organizers to speak intimately and informally with a large percentage of the field and garner their support. A handful of workers planning to quit were convinced to stay around for a while and give this a shot. The need for immediate change and the necessity of radical means for its implementation, rooted in our empirical situation, was not very controversial in our shop, and our analysis only articulated this and made it irrefutable.
Though we sought full participation, strategically speaking it was most necessary to ensure the participation of the most principle workers, a core of about twenty, without whom the company could not function (especially the drivers, who are always in short supply due to their insulting starting rate, and the foremen, one of whom is necessary to each job). It is important to note that according to certain dogmas of workplace organizing, “foremen” would be excluded due to the authority they wield on the job, as would petty “managers” responsible for hiring and training. In our particular workplace, comprised of about fifty workers with a core of about twenty, foremen are simply the most experienced and adept workers, and are promoted (too) quickly to this role as a necessity. Beside them is a class of petty “managers”, foremen who in addition to their moving work, had been entrusted in exchange for minor raises with basic functions the office couldn’t be bothered with, such as hiring, or unpaid training sessions which workers are encouraged to attend on their own time. But as workers of the field, there was never any question of where their allegiance lay. This was confirmed in the struggle. Only the “field manager” responsible for staffing, the only actual manager by definition, was excluded from the action, given the impossibility of his situation.
A core of the most active and concerned workers emerged, consisting mostly of those with the most experience and investment in the job, along with a periphery of those less active who pledged support though minimal time or energy, and were kept in the loop by repeated invitations to meetings, word of mouth, and direct contact by phone and e-mail. We did not confuse the unwillingness of the latter to engage in unwaged work-related work outside of work with their lack of desire to improve and take control of the conditions of their work at work. In the interest of maintaining the strategic element of surprise and protecting our interests, a handful individuals deemed likely to scab, rat, or otherwise act against the interests of the workers were kept in the dark until the last minute. As events unfolded, this would prove to be warranted in every case. Notably, the kind of “slacker” worker—habitually late, drugged out, always shifting the burden of their work to those around them—fetishized in certain trends of anarchist theory as a latent revolutionary through these “defiant” acts typically proved to be equally apathetic and unreliable in the struggle. Thankfully, this was a small percentage.
We had no formal organizational structure, which proved advantageous at the beginning, particularly since we didn’t have any “movement” fetishists taking meeting minutes, boring everyone with procedure, telling us all “its not the right time”, that we need to “build a movement” etc. However, as time wore on and time-sensitive decisions became necessary, scheduling for open meetings proved difficult, and an inevitable hierarchy began to emerge, the disadvantages of this kind of association were revealed, and we are currently addressing this through self-critique.
Our understanding of the company’s specific organization and functioning allowed us to isolate a particular time for action in which it would be most vulnerable and we would be the strongest. The week of August 1st is one of the busiest moving weeks of the year, and right after September 1st (which was never off our radar, nor is it at the time of writing), is when much of the surplus capital the company requires in the slow Winter months is accrued. We had caught wind that a pitiful system for gradual and far-off wage increases was about to be announced in order to stem the growing discontent in the field which had begun to bubble over in advance of our action. The idea of incremental raises itself was unprecedented though the proposal was insultingly low. We knew it was time to impose our own.
We formulated a plan to withhold our availability for the first week of August, which would amount to a work stoppage during one of the busiest weeks of the year. In advance of this we would demand immediate raises for everyone, the equalling of pay for drivers and foremen (the former being pitifully underpaid), and a system of progressive raises to follow. We would also demand an incentive program promising bonuses for workers not culpable for damages (though this was more rhetorical than practical, aimed at highlighting the absurd practice of paying off clients to cover the bungling of untrained helpers), and the option of a health care policy for those ineligible for Medicaid and soon to be forced by the tragic Affordable Care Act to purchase policies of their own.
Our delegates were workers held in the highest esteem throughout the whole company, three individuals who had racked up a combined 200 hours of work in one week in the previous cycle, and one of whom just happened to be moonlighting as a NY bar certified contract lawyer. (This detail in particular almost gave the boss a heart attack.) As the deadline for submitting August availability approached, these representatives met with the boss, outlining the situation as we saw it. In one of the myriad contradictions of workplace organizing, it was our firm conviction that the proposed changes of company policy would in fact serve the interest of capital accumulation while simultaneously improving the quality of life for the workers. This does not by any means diminish the value of our struggle for the class. Instead, it is now no mystery to any of us how worker’s struggles can be co-opted by the interests of capital, and this contradiction must be kept in mind in the ongoing process of self-critique, as well as in posing questions of whether and how this struggle can extend beyond our particular workplace. Nonetheless, the boss reacted more as one immediately concerned with the discipline and control of his workforce than one seeking the maximum profit. Though of course, in the end, these cannot be separated.
The Boss Gets His Feelings Hurt
Due to the discipline of our ranks, the delivery of demands caught the boss completely by surprise. This was strategically necessary to ensure that a sufficient amount of scabs could not be hired in anticipation of the planned stoppage. Based on our knowledge of the success rate of hiring at such a low starting rate, we knew it to be impossible to hire enough replacements unless, we joked, our demands were met and applied to new hires. (This joke would be borne out by reality in a least one case, when a worker was hired at two dollars above the starting rate—completely unheard of—due to his previous experience as foremen and willingness to scab.) We had calculated that the boss would likely spend the first of the two weeks we had afforded him trying frantically to find scabs from within the shop and hire them from without, and the second scrambling to meet our demands once he found the former to be impossible. But things moved faster than we had anticipated. He immediately began placing calls to individuals he knew to be involved with the action, accosting them on a personal level, complaining that he had been “ganged up on”, that we hurt his feelings, that we were trying to ruin his company, etc. It was his intent to force workers to speak to him as individuals, thus breaking our ranks, and opening inroads for his strikebreaking efforts.
The boss attempted to shift the discussion in our ranks from the content of the message that we delivered him to the form it assumed: the harsh way the representatives had spoken to him, that we had not sought a cooperative resolution (a bald faced lie obvious to anyone who had brought our myriad concerns to management, who he in turn threw under the bus when confronted with this fact), and the confrontational nature of our tactics. In our confrontational and resolute presentation of the facts we had attempted to sew division, he claimed, when we were simply revealing the confrontation and division rooted firmly in place by material reality. This is the same critique brought against those with precise articulated politics by “movement” bureaucrats (especially, in our experience, “The Student Movement”) and other liberals in radicals clothing seeking “consensus” completely devoid of political content. Having heard this language so many times from self-proclaimed radicals, it was perversely thrilling to at last hear it right from the boss’s mouth in the explicit language of strikebreaking and undermining class consciousness. And equally so when he spoke of this not being “the right time”, which we had heard before from those whose faith in the working class is limited to its ability to be trained, organized, and lead by professional intellectuals. These obfuscations did not work. As if a workplace struggle would not hurt the boss’s feelings!
“Tell Them To Fuck Off”
In a turn of events that should not have surprised us, e-mail technology added a dimension to our struggle that took on a life of its own. Our company had never before had an e-mail chain comprised of the entire staff, who opted instead to gripe in private, in the trucks, as discontented individuals. Some of the core organizers had of course been e-mailing to discuss tactical points and plan meetings, but responses were scant and the consensus was that nobody wanted to be deluged by work-related e-mails in their time away from work, any more than they wanted to attend meetings without specific actionable content. When the boss began the phone calls, however, we decided it was time to get ahead of his message with point by point rebuttals. The company’s online staff directory was nice enough to furnish the e-mails of all active employees. Our initial communique, “A Plea For Solidarity”, is included in the appendix for those interested.
Shortly thereafter, having been forwarded this message by a goddamned no good rat, the boss addressed a mass e-mail to the entirety of the field, omitting only the representatives who had delivered the demands, in a deliberate disregard for our ability to engage with him as equals. This message announced a new policy for wages which he had suddenly decided to institute, which were in themselves breathtaking concessions to our demands, and he melodramatically wondered in parentheses if the company could even survive. (“We’ll find out!”) By way of a conclusion he accused the organizers of being a “gang” intent on “ruining his company”, thumbing his nose at the negotiation process by declaring the issue to be resolved, and inviting everyone to a work party we had agreed to boycott, in order to celebrate. In the same breath as he conceded much of what we wanted, he had attempted to reinstitute a power structure at the company which was simply no longer possible. And it would not succeed.
Our response, “An Agreement Has Not Been Reached...”, is included in the appendix for those interested. Most important here, beyond the particular rhetoric, is that these exchanges opened up a venue for discussion which our company had never experienced. Many workers who had been silent and removed from the struggle spoke up and voiced their concerns, and overwhelming support. Messages of solidarity from workers currently away from the field began to trickle in. Workers spoke freely and in colorful language, voicing their thoughts with impunity on the company, the boss, and the situation in general, in terms that would have got them fired a week prior (as it was now obvious that as soon as we began to address the workplace as a whole, a rat in our midst was forwarding our every public communication to the boss). In direct response to our communique, which had not been addressed to him, the boss followed up the next night with an even more despicable attempt to turn the ranks against the organizers, which he incorrectly imagined to be two distinct entities. This document, entitled “Don’t Believe The Hype” (which offends us as Public Enemy fans perhaps more than as proletarians), is included in the appendix for those interested in a thoroughly entertaining piece of stream-of-consciousness strikebreaking literature.
“Let’s Just Have A Drink And Forget All This...”
Despite its trappings of cavalier bohemianism and a healthy dose of insanity, this message is at its core Management 101. The main tenets of strikebreaking ideology are present beneath its bipolar veneer, especially the fear-mongering trope that a handful of outsiders were attempting to bring in a union which would ruin the culture of the workplace. To some degree the seemingly childish language of this message was in fact calculated, aimed in particular at a small group of workers deemed likely to scab, as the dumbed down language and everyman emphasis on alcohol abuse and political apathy indicated to us all too clearly. In fact, “Let’s just have a drink!” now seems to be a universal call for diffusing workplace struggle, as it relies on the weakening effect drugs and alcohol have on emotional strength and resolve, the position of dependence that substance abuse places the individual with regards to their employer, and the general effect sharing a few drinks can have of glossing over irreconcilable differences where they should be addressed in a confrontational manner.
Following this correspondence, the “scab party” became a litmus test for our struggle, especially since it had been initially conceived, we learned, as an effort to “boost morale in the field” with an investment of $500 worth of beer. And the party was a bust. We scheduled a meeting to coincide, and our meeting drew the numbers. We discussed tactics and theory, and evaluated our strengths. As in our previous meetings, nearly nobody was drunk, in a group for whom the sun rarely sets on a sober worker in ten. Drunkenness, however, bit hard across town, and we returned home to find a correspondence from a past manager and friend of the boss who had quit the company due to low wages several years prior, and now attempted to stick his snub nose in our business and shame us for taking control of our situation.
This correspondence is an outstandingly putrid example of fear-mongering strikebreaking ideology, particularly relevant to workers in the “creative” sphere, as well as the “non profit” sector, as it argues for the exceptional nature of our company, exempting it from the paradigm of exploitation. This unreadable dreck typical to its author is included below. Its content is so transparent, with his various scattered points conveniently numbered in the manner in which small intellects are required to think, and was so ineffective in its desired aim, that no further criticism is required here. His message was met with an outpouring of hostility and mockery from our ranks, not the least of which due to the outsider status of its author with regards to our daily work, which for many transcended its content.
By this point, the e-mail form of communication had begun to reveal its downsides, and quite publicly manifested our own growing problems. One worker in particular, a young bourgeois writer quite popular in the shop, though in the painful throes of substance abuse which had shifted his burden of work to his coworkers, experienced a quite public “break down”, conducting open schizophrenic debates between his sober and intoxicated selves. These consisted of meditations on his own class privilege and his ambivalence about political radicalism, and relied heavily on the misinformation the boss had attempted to spread about “unionizing” and the personal nature of the struggle. It was the usual pacifist nonsense about how everyone should just get along, as if it were possible for all of us to abstract from the reality of class domination as this particular individual’s own privilege allowed him to do. But he could not even convince himself of this. The hopeless contradiction of the petty bourgeois intellectual, materially invested in a social arrangement to which an above-average intellect is unable to resign unproblematically, were given a painfully conflicted voice through this sad young man.
“This Has Gone On Long Enough”
This uncomfortable experience gave a quite public expression to the increasing tension which was being felt within each worker, and within the larger social dynamics which comprised the shop. The exaggerated emphasis afforded by all to the case of this young bourgeois demonstrated that this was no individual occurrence and that the struggle was beginning to take its toll on our ranks as the confrontation became more serious. “This has gone on long enough” proclaimed a veteran whose support was central to our action from the onset. We had premised our action on the assumption that the boss would never run fewer than the maximum amount of trucks for August, but the company had proven more resolute than we had expected, and now planned to run half that number, five instead of ten, which could conceivably be covered by scab labor. This was also contrived to turn the office workers, who relied on sales commissions for their pay, against our efforts, which the boss vocalized to them in no uncertain terms. We had decided early on that the dissimilarities of our working conditions necessitated the exclusion of office workers from our particular struggle, but we had pledged them solidarity should they attempt their own.
And as days wore on, it became increasingly clear that it would be possible for the company to proceed without us. This necessitated a serious analysis of our forces, and our capacities to conduct a long-term work stoppage. We had to consider tactically whether to whether to publicize our struggle as a tactical act, and whether seek solidarity from outside our shop. Thankfully none of us had any illusions about the “neutrality” of the press (whatever that even means), especially those of us who had witnessed the behavior of liberal journalists over the past year of struggle in the United States, and the few requests we received from friends for coverage were politely rebuffed. It was decided that the specific nature of our shop, being so small, so reliant on public opinion so as to furnish work that would in turn keep us employed, necessitated discretion. This was not a situation of total war; we wanted to go back to work, and we wanted the workplace to be standing. The involvement of the press was deemed a nuclear option.
The issue of picket lines and solidarity networks was broached. It was hard for most of us to conceive of an effective picket line at the current stage of our struggle and in our particular shop. This was due in no short order to the fact that many of our ranks were not prepared for an actual work stoppage, and needed the work. What’s more, the importing of bodies from the outside in the form of a solidarity network would have further alienated many of our coworkers who had begun to lose momentum, and would have supported the narrative that the core organizers constituted an outside force seeking to corrupt the company’s dynamic. Picket lines were taken off the table for the short-term (in no small part to preserve their viability in the long-term), and the numerous hardworking and dedicated radicals from outside the company who pledged support were heartily thanked and assured that for the time being, this was up to us.
At a subsequent meeting with the boss, our reiterated demands were almost completely rebuffed, except, importantly, for a promise to institute a health care policy, which was a major victory. The wage increases beyond the astounding concessions already made were deemed unaffordable. One of our own negotiators began to believe that to be the case and to sympathize with the company’s position. The deadlock of this meeting left us feeling demoralized, as scheduling problems inherent in our daily work schedules made it difficult for us to meet en masse, and the e-mail medium proved increasingly antithetical to the immediacy of the situation. August 1st was approaching and the company was not only planning on proceeding without us, but we had it on good authority (and through deductive reasoning) that the boss really hoped we’d all just “fuck off” as he put it so eloquently in his letter. He was ready to take a short term financial loss in the name of replacing us with a workforce that would accept the conditions he imposed without putting up a fight.
We had staked our claim on a purely rational understanding of our company’s functioning, as completely subservient to the demands of capital accumulation, and underestimated the importance of control to the wage relation. From this perspective it was more desirable for the company to lose its core of experienced workers, lose tens out thousands of dollars from missed jobs, and pay the untold thousands more in damages associated with training new workers in our places, than to concede to some minor monetary demands and confirm our power within the workplace. The reality of the struggle, which had gone on long before we even began to organize, presented itself in its naked form. We had already gained so much, in monetary terms, in terms of solidarity and the creation of a new power within our workplace, and in terms of affirming our humanity from a debased and demoralized position. We wanted to keep this momentum alive, and not squander it on a Waterloo which would pick off our ranks one by one and disempower subsequent actions and associations. From this perspective, we decided to take what we could get for the moment and keep the struggle simmering, rather than force it to boil over and extinguish the flame. A final communique summarizing this decision is provided in the appendix.
At the present, our struggle continues, but we are different. Materially we are more comfortable. More importantly, we have gained the conviction that we are capable of taking the conditions of our lives into our own hands, without external forces educating us, organizing us, or training us how to organize ourselves. The power that we had long brought to bear on accomplishing tasks in our daily work was just as viable when wielded toward asserting our interests as a class. This is not to say that everyone in our shop now gets along harmoniously, even compared to before. Necessary antagonisms emerged in the course of struggle, which had been glossed over in more tranquil times, and this was unavoidable. Anyone who seeks to gloss over antagonisms and shame those who point to them is an enemy of the working class, which knows antagonism as its fundamental condition of life.
Due to our prudence, we emerge from this action in a position of power, and now, on a practical level, we are faced with moving our association forward through self-critique. This is particularly important in questions of organization, which we largely avoided at the onset, and though this provided us with the advantage of not being mired in bureaucracy and endless “movement building” for its own sake, it became obvious to us in times of crisis that a more effective structure for decision-making was necessary in order to ensure that the power dynamics which inevitably emerge in social situations are not ossified under the false auspice of “no leaders”. We face the challenge moving forward of establishing a loosely organized structure within which we can work effectively. Conveniently, one strategic wager in particular necessitates this imperative. In our final negotiations with the boss, we decided to accept an open-ended promise for incremental wage increases which he promised would “not be worse” than what was on the table previously. Though this of course raised some suspicions, it was accepted in the strategic interest of keeping the necessity for collective pressure urgent and active. So in a very immediate sense, the struggle is ongoing.
Recently, a new hire remarked that reading our correspondences and talking to his coworkers about this whole experience was a crash course introduction to the social dynamic of our company. It can only be replied that this entire experience was the crash course introduction of the social dynamic of our company to itself. And moving forward, there will be no more illusions.
Our workplace is touted as a “boutique company” in which creatively inclined workers can enjoy scheduling flexibility and lax codes for personal comportment and dress. Most importantly to our ranks, this means the camaraderie of kindred minds engaged in the daily problem-solving and improvisation required in our physically and mentally strenuous occupation. In appearance, management makes minor concessions to petty individual freedoms in exchange for our acceptance of low wages, no benefits, and minimal job security. However, behind the “freedom” of scheduling flexibility one finds the unwillingness of the company to provide a reliable work schedule with a minimum pay, benefits of any kind, or a living wage, and behind the encouragement of “self-expression” one finds a brand identity based on the quirky individualities and shabby, poverty-driven bohemianism of its exploited workers. There is however one undeniable truth in our workplace, and it is the social character of our labor, which was the root of our struggle, comprising it in advance, and continuing to provide the only hope for realizing real freedom and true self-expression beyond their meager parody within the parameters of exploitation.
Despite our undeniable particularities, this basic model for exploitation and its accompanying ideology is common, especially among employers of the young urban precariat in advanced capitalist societies. It is especially successful where a strong “brand” affords the exploited employee a social status rooted in their production, offered as a poor substitute for dismal material compensation, along with the bittersweet opportunity to identify with the product of their alienated labor and the social nature of their production—inauthentically, through the mediation of this brand identity. (Management will wield this ruthlessly against organizers, as demonstrated in items #3 and #4 in the appendix below.) This strategy is ever strengthened by the general social tendency of increasing synchronicity of consumptive identities and personal identities, or “lifestyles”. This can be seen especially in the creative, “non-profit”, and lifestylist (health and fitness, “DIY”, consumer activist, spiritual, etc.). These are sectors of commerce which attract and mislead so many workers disgusted by the pure manifestations of a brutish and inhuman market which one finds in the sectors of capitalist accumulation unadorned with pleasant and comforting liberal-humanist trappings. However, this general tendency can be presently observed trickling into every aspect of commerce under the mantle of an “ethical” response to economic and environmental crisis. Its American exemplar may be Apple’s notoriously underpaid though patronizingly celebrated “geniuses”, though this ideology is even more effectively disseminated in the hallowed “small business” of our reactionary folklore, and certainly throughout the Guilty Industrial Complex which is the “non-profit” sector.
When contrasted with the material reality of the worker’s daily existence, however, the longwinded mission statements, half-assed acts of hipness, benevolence, and charity, and “alternative” marketing strategies of these enterprises are revealed to be so much ink and recycled paper. The true community of the workers is rooted in the relation of production which places them at odds with the owner of the means of production, and not in the fanciful ideology imposed from above, which obscures this relationship. Even before our most preliminary attempts to organize our shop, this obfuscation was threatened by its own sagging weight, and it was not difficult to decimate altogether. What was needful in our case was to isolate our particular situation and locate it within the universal, in a movement toward action. The farce of the company’s exceptionalism could only persist in those who could materially afford to ignore this obvious duplicity. Without illusions as to our place in the capitalist totality, and with a tactical eye to our particularity, we wielded our precarity as a weapon against itself. Once this can be accomplished, one may be amazed at how quickly the whole situation can be turned on its head.
—James Frey, August 2012
We can now reveal the company described in A Moving Story is Rabbit Movers, its owner is Shawn Lyons, and the poet-laureate of union busting is Terence Degnan. Despite heavy losses in Hurricane Sandy, Rabbit Movers is still an active company, but scarcely anybody with a shred of class consciousness, never mind self-esteem, still works there. Six month after Lyons’s mass firing of organizers, it’s tempting to rewrite A Moving Story in its entirety. It would surely be a different (and more thorough) text absent the need to withhold the company’s identity and history (though the final section of the original text was an attempt in this direction), never mind the obvious benefits of hindsight. But this would be to rob it of its particular flavor, as someone one said. It stands now as a testament to the short ecstatic period which created it, and I only add bits of subsequent events and analysis as an afterword.
After the events described in A Moving Story, further organizing became problematic. Several key workers who had enthusiastically supported a strike action for an increased pay rate had no interest in creating an ongoing shop association. Our political rhetoric, which was fairly mild, had alienated some of the apolitical workers, rather than radicalizing them, as we had hoped. A few veteran workers who stood to gain nothing from the struggle now grumbled that they had been put on the books, which the owner had calculated would turn many workers against the core organizers. To some extent this succeeded. More generally, everyone was just sick of it all.
Despite receiving raises slightly less than our demand ($2/hr for drivers, $1/hr for everybody else), we had agreed not to strike on the condition of several promises by Lyons, including health care, and gradual, rather than immediate, pay raises. No formal promise was ever issued by Lyons, which was a major mistake on our part. As soon as the busiest moving day of the year had passed, September 1st, this was all forgotten. Lyons put us off with a series of vague explanations, and eventually stopped pretending he was planning raises of any kind. Instead, surveillance cameras popped up at the lot and GPS monitoring devices appeared in the trucks. The supposedly broke company was able to hire a lawyer to navigate labor law. Organizers received less and less work. Scabs received more and more work.
Our attempts to agitate around these issues were not nearly as successful as before. Management had successfully cultivated a narrative that the labor dispute was in fact a personal dispute between a handful of organizers and the owner. We had taken pains in our literature to explain that this was not a matter of individual personalities but of structural positions and conflicting class interests. However, Lyons importuned his personality into the discussion so effectively, with his abusive e-mail threats, violations of labor law, violent outbursts, and general faux pas after faux pas, that it was hard to resist incorporating this into our line. Our initial communiques had ceased to mention him by name, so much that the strikebreaking poesy of Terence Degnan chided us for not naming him at all. Soon enough the bosses stooges were saying the opposite.
Lyons did all in his power to center the discussion around the personalities of a few organizers: We weren’t like everyone else. We read books. We were entitled. We were “hipsters”. A trip to the office to pick up ones paycheck meant listening to a lengthy sermon from the boss about the bastards who were conspiring to ruin his company. Lyons took over hiring and orientation, which had been done by an organizer, and made sure to serenade each fresh hire with his sad song of ruling class blues. And as before, Lyons’s relied on a clique of substance dependent workers whose job mobility was less than the organizers’, bringing them into his inner circle, and he successfully reinforced the division which existed between class conscious workers and the apathetic, alcoholic, drug addicted elements.
This was especially easy for Lyons because the figures of some of the main organizers, some of whom are communists, others goodhearted left-liberals (generally far more class conscious than the “anarchists”), were puzzling to a majority of the workers. These organizers got nearly everything they had wanted for themselves, as the pay demand for the veteran workers was met in a quite deliberate attempt to buy them off. However, they continued to agitate and to push for a lasting organization. The only explanation, then, was personal motives, beefs with the boss, etc. Political motives, never mind class solidarity, were never taken seriously. This sad canard was even mouthed by an “Occupy Wall Street” “organizer” (one of several “#OccupyScabs”!) who continues to work at Rabbit, enjoying the pay raise for which we fought, and all the best shifts which are now available in the absence of his fired seniors. It’s as if the only pure workplace struggle that could exist for this “anarchist” would be one in which there is no antipathy between the boss and the workers. In other words, no workplace struggle at all.
Our subsequent meetings drew a small but committed crowd. We planned a newsletter, plotted to reach out to our co-workers who were on the fence, and discussed possible forms of organization. We desperately discussed the need to refocus our efforts on the basic issues of our strike rather than the personalities of a few egotistical men. Organizational structure was our weakest suit, as noted in A Moving Story. We did not want to work with non profits or unions, who had no interest in us anyway. But we had no outside resources beyond a few friends and comrades, and our association had no structure of which to speak. When crucial moments arrived, we all looked around at one another instead of acting decisively. We lacked discipline. Our own quagmire mirrored in many ways the fundamental structurelessness of the NYC left at the present moment, or more precisely, was a symptom of it. Weakened by growing apathy and an offensive by Lyons and his goons which we were unable to organize against effectively, we began to batten down for a long winter, in which we predicted most of us would get picked off by the light work schedule which could mask retaliation.
On October 29th 2012, Hurricane Sandy overflowed Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal, flooding the lot where Rabbit’s trucks and supplies were stored--a mere fifteen feet from the canal. All four trucks belonging to the company were destroyed, as they were not moved to higher ground mere blocks away, despite a well-publicized flood warning and the concerns voiced by several Rabbit employees to management. In the following week, there was little work for anyone, and silence reigned. There was no word from the owner, who had so readily communicated with us all via mass e-mail when he feared a union drive. Rumors began to spread that the company was going under. The managers were mum. Whispers emanated from the office, to “get your checks while there’s still money in the account”. The core of organizers, who by seniority were entitled to full-time work, heard nothing from the office, as rumors swirled of moving jobs being conducted on the sly.
After over a week of silence, a text (included in the appendix below) was e-mailed to the entire workforce from an employee under an anonymous e-mail address. Acting on apparent inside information, the source “Heckuva Job Bunny” revealed that Rabbit’s trucks were all ruined due to the negligence of the owner and field manager, that the company was unable to receive any credit from the bank, and that it was therefore incapable of sustaining the majority of its workforce. What’s worse, the owner had been running jobs comprised solely of workers who had agreed to scab during the summer. In a case of poetic justice, these scab workers who so dutifully heeded their master’s call were sent to jobs with dollies and other supplies which had been soaked in the fetid water of the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site so toxic that anyone who touches it is advised to seek medical attention. Meanwhile, disaster relief funds were being made available to those left unemployed by Sandy, and the Rabbit managers allowed us to keep thinking we had jobs. The letter contained a link to these benefits.
This disclosure by an anonymous whistleblower was immediately followed by a maudlin letter from Lyons, who had at last decided to address his (soon to be former) employees. He didn’t dispute any of the anonymous worker’s account. He only begged for sympathy on the grounds he had been unfairly targeted for negligence for leaving the trucks next to a river predicted to flood. The same man who had asserted that he would close down his company rather than cede any control of it to his staff was now weeping that he was not responsible for this glaring fuck-up, which now presented him with immense strategic benefit in breaking the worker organizing for good. Lyons informed his staff that most of us were no longer needed. He posted a link to the disaster relief funds which had already been sent out in the message to which he was responding. The next week, all of the organizers received personal calls from Lyons, to which none of us replied, pending a group discussion. The day after that, we all received legalistic form letters, clearly drafted by the lawyer Lyons had retained to handle us, informing us that our lack of response to his call within 24 hours constituted resignation from our jobs.
Lyons was hiding behind the loss of the trucks to restructure the company around the class traitors who had pledged allegiance to him. He admitted as much to a perceived loyalist who he met with: “I’m going to use this as an opportunity to get rid of some people I’ve been wanting to get rid of for a long time. You know who I mean.” As the Fall turned to Winter, a traditionally slow season for moving, the company puttered on with a small staff of scabs.
To be fair, we didn’t put up much of a fight. The company was in tatters, and it had become a part-time job at best. The loyal field manager, responsible for scheduling and day-to-day coordination, was demoted, and Lyons assumed his position. None of us wanted to have to deal directly with him, as he had become increasingly erratic. He had recently threatened to punch an organizer at a staff meeting he had called to compete with one of our meetings, and when asked to apologize for his e-mails he reiterated that we all could “fuck off”. There was no question who’d be getting the work from here on out, and we could hardly expect the scabs to organize against getting more work. We lacked the effective base to rally around these issues, never mind that Lyons, no stranger to the victim card, was busily maxing it out. A fundraiser was called by Terence Degnan and other Brooklyn liberals (all of whose social media pages had been awash with pixelated tears for the woes of the 99% during OWS!) for the bourgeois artist space abutting the Rabbit office, which had been such a central figure in Degnan’s shameful strikebreaking literature. We discussed a demonstration at this event but when we learned only about a dozen people planned to attend it just seemed pointless. We reached out to a few liberal newspapers and blogs but nobody cared.
Six months later we’re all at different jobs but the fundamental problems remain the same. Each day the news celebrates the end of the economic crisis and we only wish it were true. Our labor is continually devalued and made insecure as the costs of living rise. Once secure jobs, including trucking, are all becoming freelance and part-time, with minimal benefits and no security. The state is stepping away from its “welfare” function and foisting the entire cost of social reproduction onto a working class who could scarcely support itself under the old arrangement. The prospects of a singular career, of health care, of job security, never mind retirement, increasingly seem like fairy tales from another time, and to our generation, they are. Resistances and rebellions pop up here and there, but either in a bubble, like our action at Rabbit, or in the clouds of apolitical abstraction, like Occupy Wall Street. As the trade union form suffocates and dies, black and brown youths are gunned down in the streets by capital’s private police force, and Obama pushes austerity at home while continuing Bush’s murderous policies abroad, the revolutionary left is faced with more questions than answers.
The primary lesson the author took away from the Rabbit Movers experience is the need for effective revolutionary organizations in the United States. We need to build networks of support for the kind of action we had at Rabbit, that aren’t dominated by unions, by non-profits, by tentacles of the Democratic Party, or anyone else who will aim to reign in our militant potential and get us back to work as quickly as possible. Most importantly we need theoretical clarity, and that starts by winning the argument that theoretical clarity is a good thing; a liberatory thing. Political perspectives are not like coins, which possess equal value and differ only in quantity. There are viewpoints which correspond to reality and those which represent its obfuscation. The US working class needs to learn the difference. We need sophisticated theoretical debates among the working class, attained through lively debates which don’t condescend, but elevate. If you can drive a truck through Manhattan during rush hour you are ready for the labor theory of value, and are in a better position to understand it than a room full of David Harveys. It’s time to stop condescending to working peoples’ intelligence by stifling theoretical disagreements in the name of a “unity” which is doomed by its very contradictions.
If our comrades don’t have a complex understanding of the state and of capitalism they need to develop one. Otherwise, beneath a radical veneer will lurk the default politics of our time: liberalism, mediation, moderation, “the boss is a cool guy”, Rabbit Movers, Obama. We need to be able to foster the political development of workplace militants, as well as working class militants in general, including the unemployed, students, the unwaged, and so forth. And this can only be a success if these struggles are linked together by effective organization. Some suggested the endgame at Rabbit should be employee ownership of the company. But we don’t need to be our own collective boss, equally subservient to the value form. We need to organize or working class to smash capitalism. To accomplish this we need the strength of numbers, political cohesion, and the resources necessary to support each other in every possible way.
Rabbit was not a missed opportunity, nor a failure. It was a particular eruption of the class struggle which constitutes daily life under capitalism. This struggle doesn’t go away when its explicit manifestations cease; it is intrinsic to the wage relation and will not cease until we subsume capitalism. In itself, what happened at Rabbit is unimportant. But in the context of the current crisis facing the working class, it is infinitely important. The sporadic eruptions such as this, which constitute the class becoming aware of itself and claiming its power to remake the world, always erupt in isolation. It is the task of the revolutionary to stoke these eruptions, integrate them with one another, provide resources and connections between dispersed struggles, and direct them toward more general class conflict. This is the framework that was missing in our workplace struggle, and this is precisely what’s needed at the present moment.
As of writing, Flatbush Brooklyn is on lockdown after a street rebellion stemming from the NYPD shooting a young black man. These shootings happen every week in New York, but this time it set off the entire neighborhood. The complex dynamics which overlay the most oppressed layers of the class in this city have emerged in sharp antagonism. The professional class of politicians and non-profits responsible for disempowering the black working class in Flatbush are coming up against a new power which does not recognize their authority. Who knows what will come of it, but last week nobody could have guessed it would happen at all. While we make history, we don’t do it under the circumstances of our own choosing. What we are able to choose is our level of preparation for both agitating new eruptions of struggle, and perhaps more often, responding to heightened moments of struggle when they spring up and catch us by surprise. The author is now convinced that these tasks can only be accomplished effectively by coherent, theoretically sophisticated revolutionary organizations, which successfully integrate the myriad dispersed sectors of the working class, waged and unwaged.
When we fall short, when our victories are fleeting, when our efforts seem to be in vain, as they will seem almost every time, we must remember: the only successful class struggle is the final one.
—James Frey, March 2013
The following documents, edited slightly out of privacy concerns, have been included due to their theoretical value to our struggle, a component which must not be discounted at any level. Theoretical clarity should never be sacrificed to a fetishized conception of “consensus” or pure “tactics” which entails the evacuation of politics from struggle. The voice of reaction has also been allowed to sound its flatulent notes, as this is a cacophony for which we must all prepare our ears. A final piece on transparency, co-written by the author and a comrade from a separate workplace struggle contemporaneous with A Moving Story, has been included as additional commentary.
1. A Plea For Solidarity At Rabbit Movers
Most of you know that, this week, three of your colleagues met with Shawn Lyons, boss of Rabbit Movers - to discuss demands made on behalf of all movers, demands made under the understanding that each of us would not work for the first week of August were these demands not met. This action - the act of collective bargaining - is not wrong, not illegal, not immoral, but well within our rights as free workers in a democracy.
As of tonight, our demands are still unmet. This is where the real work begins. After some discussions with both Shawn and [Field Manager], I am more than optimistic that Rabbit will meet our demands. Until then, however, management will be putting a lot of pressure on individual employees to soften their stance and break ranks so as to weaken the conditions they must meet. As their tactics begin to take shape, it is extremely important that we understand where our power lies.
I. Shawn has complained that we are creating a divide between management and the field. Most of you will not have to be reminded that this divide already existed. Every time you were pressured to work extra days, every time you asked about raises and were dismissively rebuffed, every time you made a complaint about improper staffing, you experienced this divide. We all love and respect [Field Manager], many of us like Shawn. They are trying to make this personal, but we must remember that this divide exists because of the material conditions in the company.
The way I see it, there are two divides: the first is the unbridgeable divide between those who sell their labor by the hour and those who purchase it; the second is the divide that exists between two parties unable to negotiate under fair and equal conditions. It is this second divide which our actions will close. I am confident that we will still be employees at Rabbit this fall.
II. Shawn complains that we could have done this less adversarially. Three consecutive field managers and dozens of movers have called these conditions to his attention over the past four years, acting as individuals and not "adversarially". And yet, during that same time we have seen wages consistently fall while the cost of living has risen. Shawn is delusional if he believe we opened this discussion in conflict. The conflict has opened because of his persistent inability to provide his workers with what is fair. More importantly, any agreement reached between management and employees acting as individuals is inherently unfair because individuals are negotiating from a position of weakness. There is always a hundred reasons why one worker can't get a raise. Together we can give him around thirty reasons why we should get a raise - one for every one of us. This is not a war, this is collective bargaining. It happens in workplaces across the country and it is the only way that a wage-worker has a chance to get a fair deal.
III. We have been told this is the wrong time. We hear this every season. It's the wrong time in the winter. It's the wrong time in the fall. Always for different reasons. We think this is the perfect time. Shawn wants to make this a boutique company, he should start by paying boutique wages. He has said that he wants to build the company up first, but - apart from the absurdity that this company has been around for 10 years - let's think about what that means. He means that we the workers should work harder, work longer, work more skillfully for an indefinite period of time before we see any returns in wages. Meanwhile, the company collects higher profits. Yet, it is clear to us that dignified and respectable labor can only be realized by dignity and respect from our employer.
IV. Shawn will try to scare everyone into thinking that they will lose their job, that Rabbit will go out of business, that we can't afford to raise wages. We know that Rabbit has paid higher wages. Rabbit currently pays the lowest wages in its history. It survived many years with better pay than we are even asking for. Rabbit can afford to give customers free moves at the slightest complaint. And Shawn will never cancel jobs or shut down Rabbit, its too profitable. He will, on the other hand, say and do anything to avoid giving us the raises. We all know that now is the right time for us to claim what is ours.
Furthermore, we know that Rabbit cannot survive as it is. It will continue to lose good employees, incentivize the tiniest efforts, pay out large numbers of claims until it is buried beneath is meaningless and empty brand. We believe that the only way to save Rabbit is to institute our changes. Respect for workers means a higher quality of work.
V. Management will appeal to us with personal pleas. “How can you do this to me?” But we are not acting as individuals and there is nothing personal about this. We are acting in concert to gain what is rightfully ours. To personalize this situation is to obscure the cold hard economic relationship, which we have no illusions about. Anyway, if we wanted to make this personal, we could say "How could you have done this to US, and for so long!"
I want to close by saying that I have never worked at a company with better co-workers than I do at Rabbit. Going out everyday to bust our asses together, especially this time of year, we learn to trust, encourage and support each other. We do that for our wages, for our tips, for our customers and for our company. Now, I hope that we can depend on that trust, encouragement and support for the sake of ourselves. I have incredible respect for all of you who have stuck your necks out for us and I hope that you feel the same about each other. Please try your best to make it to our meeting this Sunday - 315 Bowery, in Manhattan at 8 pm. I promise that it will be fun as hell and all of your concerns will be met.
2. Urgent: No Agreement Has Been Reached In The Ongoing Labor Dispute At Rabbit Movers
Surely you've received an absurd and condescending e-mail that gives the impression that an agreement has been reached in the ongoing struggle for higher wages at Rabbit Movers. This is not true. In addition, this message takes personal shots at some of our most dedicated workers and committed organizers, namely those who put themselves at risk by delivering our message to Shawn. This message further insults us by refusing to engage with us in negotiations. Finally, it patronizingly suggests we should all just get drunk at some office party and forget this ever happened.
This could all be expected. Management will seek to divide the workforce by pitting us against each other and thus dividing our strength. If we accept this proclamation as the resolution to our ongoing negotiations, we are conceding the power that we have taken into our own hands, and will return things to business as usual at Rabbit Movers. This will also reinforce a climate of discrimination against the workers who were brave enough to deliver our message. This retaliation has already begun in various forms, and we need to make it clear that this is unacceptable.
Notice that this letter mocks us for not taking our concerns to him or a manager (?) before organizing ourselves. This is simply not true and the author of the letter knows it. The past three field managers have brought up this issue many times, as have office workers, and other managers and movers, but always individually. They were always ignored. It was never "the right time." Well, it must be the right time now! Because now that have formed a working persons association that holds the power at Rabbit Movers, we have been taken more seriously in one week than all of these well-meaning people put together for the past 4 years. And this is why they are fearfully conceding to us. And we must admit, these concessions are tempting, but we all must decide when this has been resolved, not management.
If we accept these terms we will be accepting the lie that we are nothing but a "gang" seeking to "ruin the company". We will agree to a plan that panders to "managers", setting a higher wage cap, and one that's lower than what we asked for. We will be agreeing with the demonization of our coworkers, which seeks to divide us. We will be taking health care off the table completely, at a time when an increasing number of us have children to provide for. We will return the power to the hands of management, so that it may resume ignoring our pleas, only at a slightly lower rate of exploitation.
Even if we end up settling for what we have been offered, we need to make that decision ourselves, and not have it made for us. We need to demonstrate the difference between a "gang" seeking to "ruin the company" and a disciplined and determined association of skilled workers who have taken the conditions of their lives into their own hands in an act of collective bargaining.
The concessions we have been offered demonstrate that our power is stronger than many of us imagined. There is no more doubting that we are in a position to get what we want. We just need to decide, as a collectivity, what that is. This will not be decided for us. We propose an emergency meeting tomorrow night to decide how we are going to proceed. If this motion is accepted we can find a venue.
Do not forget: We have the power.
3. Don’t Believe The Hype
Ok this time I'm a little drunk - but my aim was to start a company that would like a message from it's owner when he's a little drunk.
This is the Preface:
There are three kinds of people in this world when it comes to being forced to do things they don't want to do:
1. There's the kind that does it because they're too afraid to do different from the status quo..
2. There's the kind that does it because they think they're clever enough to fuck over the status quo later.
3. There's the kind that just says "Fuck off" - and for the most part - this one gets killed or just plain loses.
But that's the one I've always loved - for better or worse. The "Fuck Off's" of the world. And I'm going to be dead soon. So "Fuck Off".
End of Preface.
Rabbit Movers is in a live or die transition right now. Why? Because a few people are trying to unionize the company. Why? Because they like that kind of shit. They'll use words like "solidarity" and "demand" and "proceed" and "fuck knows what else". Why? Because they're trying to convince you that I don't give a shit. Because if you believe that I don't give a shit then you'll be more willing to fuck me when I'm not looking. But why? I've been trying to answer that all week. You tell me. You know who they are. Some of these people I considered friends - or at least supporters. I supported them anyway - but maybe they didn't see it that way. Maybe they thought it was some kind of cheap pr - me showing up to their shit - fuck knows what they thought - but my heart was in the right place - I was there because I believed in them.
So here's the scoop. They lied to you. If they told you that I refused to increase wages - they misled you. I've been racking my brain all week "why didn't they just talk to me?" And now I know. They didn't talk to me because if I gave them what they wanted - it wouldn't have been conducive to forming a union - and that was their goal. The last time anyone asked to sit down and talk about wages with me was more than a year ago. But we were going bankrupt a year ago. We were. We really fucking were. (I emphasize that because I know that some of you don't believe me - but what I am supposed to do if you don't trust me? I mean - you don't all know me - but ask someone who does - I wouldn't fuck you over. They'll tell you that. They'll put their life on it.) And what sense does it make to give raises when you're staring at bankruptcy. It didn't make sense.
But that was more than a year ago. And yeah we've survived. We're not coasting, but we're still here. And I wish you could feel how amazing that is. So now you've got these guys telling you that Shawn won't give an inch unless you come together and force him. It's bullshit. They never asked. The wage increase has been in the works for a while and they'd have known had they talked to me. It's my fault though. I've got some shitty ass field managers - except for [Field Manager]. You all should fucking love [Field Manager]. If you don't, you don't belong here. [Field Manager] is one of the purest people I've ever met, and he even still loves the dumb asses who betrayed him for their own interests. [Field Manager] has blown me away. Good people. Good Good People.
Rabbit Movers (I) will not be under the tyranny of a union. I do this because I love it. Because I believe in it. As soon as the architecture of this company is dictated by a union - I will stop loving it.
And I will not do something I don't love.
Save Rabbit Movers. Tell Them to Fuck Off.
I do hope to see you at the party tomorrow.
I'll be there.
Wasted and talking shit.
Come talk shit with me.
A note from the 1st Field Manager of Rabbit Movers
1. The person you are referring to in this correspondence has a name. His name is Shawn, and he employs not only a number of movers, but also a cleaning lady at Rabbit Hole Studios, an office staff, a sales staff, and those that help out at the gallery.
Shawn lives in Williamsburg, BK with a roommate. He is the only person of solitary leadership at Rabbit Movers, with a handful of managers. He doesn't have a CEO, a CFO, a Director, a Sales Manager, or anything like that. He, I promise you, is not a fat cat either. Rabbit Movers has almost "gone under" many times, and will almost surely if there is a mover sit-out for the first week of August. When and if Rabbit Movers fails, the coolest moving company I have ever worked for will fail as well.
2. Many art gatherings and programs and studios will close if Rabbit Movers ends in the month of August. It shouldn't be made a secret or trivialized that the owner of this company has decided that some of the profits of a moving company have gone towards these programs and this space in a supportive role. [Some Photography Thing], studio space for a handful of artists, Rabbit Tales Reading Series (put together from another former Rabbit Employee) will all disappear. This money hasn't lined the pockets of a greedy owner, it has gone to support the arts and artists of Brooklyn, NY. I have been involved in many of these projects and am thankful that they have been provided for by an owner who has decided to support the arts. The owner of the moving company I work for now is a jetsetter, who I never see, who has an opulent lifestyle. I started off as a 1st tier mover at Rabbit Movers, and was happy that I was supporting something bigger than a wealthy owner's bank account.
3. Other people are going to lose their jobs. A willingness to put one's own job on the line for the sake of other's (pay) may be altruistic, but the entire office, the office cleaner, the sales force, Shawn himself, are all going to lose their jobs. A union -as stated by Shawn- is not going to happen. People who moved here to work as an artist are going to have to move back to their home towns. Rabbit Movers is going to close its doors to those that would come see what we've been up to. There are no other moving companies like this. I know them all, well. Some people who work for Rabbit Movers, because Rabbit Movers has taught them a mover's skillset will go work for another moving company. That job will suck. You will be at the bottom of a totem pole, working for real conglomerates who truly don't give a shit about you (or your art).
4. Healthcare it a moot point. Everyone in the US is about to have Healthcare. It's passed. It's a dumb thing to barter for something that's coming down the pipeline. I've sat in many conversations with Shawn as he's stated multiple times how badly he'd like to afford to give it to guys that put their bodies on the line. This is no lie, he's wanted to give it, and once tried to, and the money wasn't there.
5. Camaraderie at Rabbit Movers is unmatched. You next job will not have this caliberof dopeness. It won't. Sucks that that's going away.
6. I have sat with Shawn, the owner of this company as he has tried to get back to pre-recession wages. It's something he's lost sleep over. He wants to pay his movers more.
7. I just went to a party with a group of movers at the lot who aren't on board. Many. They were upset. Some of them have been with Rabbit Movers for more than 5 years. You're about to end their jobs too, and for that, you are to be held responsible. It's shameful that movers that don't want to leave will lose their jobs over some Union Kool-aide. I don't know many of the new blood at Rabbit Movers, but I know the old blood, and I'm sad their jobs are coming to a close because of some "Organize!" Mumbo-jumbo. Rabbit Movers is actually easy to close down, because it's been held together by slim profits, love, spit and hard work for many years. There is no collective bargaining, there is no greater good to be gained, just shutting down one of the coolest fucking companies I've ever worked for. That job was never about the wages I did or did not make (which I've heard are going up, and were to go up regardless of any Union, or Collective Bargaining talk); it was always about the people. I made my closest friendships in NYC through Rabbit Movers, shame that company may have to hang up its hat.
8. Nobody is forced to work at Rabbit Movers. Everyone who is upset about their wages could have worked for any moving company in the city. Most of Rabbit Movers is made up of articulate men, who have citizenship. That's all it takes to be a foreman at Shlepper's, OZ, FlatRate, etc. You could have not tried to end a company, and instead worked for a shittier one.
A good sized group met yesterday and decided to accept Rabbit's offer as outlined below. This does NOT mean we are done working in concert to improve the working conditions at Rabbit Movers. On the contrary, this represents our first victory. This also means that everyone should plan to work the first week of August, which we know was a big concern for some of you. It was incredibly selfless and admirable for everyone to risk not working when you were depending on the money from that week, which most of us were. Now that risk is off the table.
With a few exceptions unworthy of mention, everybody really stepped up in these past few weeks and provided a tangible example of how our workplace could function with the power in the worker's hands. Together we risked our job security and sacrificed our spare time. We endured taunts, false accusations, and the shameful attempt to make us ashamed. But we stuck together and stayed on message. This was never personal, and those who tried to make it personal demonstrated a misunderstanding of the situation. This was about utility bills, Metro Cards, 10% rent hikes, and skyrocketing food prices. We never had any illusions about that, and its how we were able to hang together even when shit got weird.
Moving forward, it was the overwhelming consensus yesterday that we should have some kind of meeting body (on a monthly basis seems most reasonable) capable of addressing grievances, respond to potential retaliation (which, to be clear, we do NOT expect, but you never know...), managing the ongoing negotiations for raises and pay increases, and generally to give form to the power we have assumed here at Rabbit Movers. To be clear, everyone has the utmost respect for [Field Manager] and his position. However, these past few weeks have demonstrated that the system currently in place for addressing discontent in the field is broken. [Field Manager] is overworked and it seems that his concerns can go unheeded when voiced singularly. Now we have a multiplicity capable of acting as one, but with more power. We have a lot to talk about in this department. Anyone interested should contact [us]. We're not going to automatically add people to anymore e-mail chains, so if this isn't your thing. thanks for being patient and you're finally off the hook.
In closing, I want to reiterate on behalf of everyone close to this what an overwhelmingly positive experience this has been. We have shown that the trust, solidarity, and friendship which we find on the job every day can just as easily be drawn upon in defense of our interests as a class. This struggle is of course bigger than Rabbit Movers, but here at Rabbit Movers we have found a concrete victory which gives us a taste of the victories which lay ahead if we stick together and refuse to be afraid or ashamed to take what is ours.
What’s Going On With My Job At Rabbit Movers?
It has been over a week since Hurricane Sandy and there is still no word from Shawn or [Field Manager] about what’s going on at Rabbit. The situation is very bad, and you are being kept in the dark about the fact that you probably no longer have a job. And the reason is pure negligence.
As Hurricane Sandy approached New York City, residents and business owners in the Gowanus area were warned that the canal could rise over 10 feet. Here is a link to that warning, which was brought to Shawn and [Field Manager]’s attention:
Despite these warnings from multiple concerned staff members, Shawn and [Field Manager] did not move our trucks or supplies, even though they were stored a mere 20 feet from this canal. Transporting these trucks and supplies to higher ground a mere mile away would have taken less than an hour. and everything would have been fine. Calls to Shawn went unanswered and [Field Manager] assured everyone it was no big deal. But as predicted, the canal overflowed, destroying all our trucks beyond repair, and covering our supplies with toxic waste and human feces. The main office was also flooded, and none of the electric wires were even lifted off the floor, although DUMBO was also predicted to flood.
Since the storm, there has been virtually no work for anyone, and there have been no communications to the staff to update them on what’s going on. Instead, Shawn is busily eliminating office positions and cutting back the staff. He has been recruiting individuals to work for a smaller, downsized Rabbit, with a vast portion of the workforce eliminated. Nobody has been made aware of this except those Shawn wants to continue working for him. Everyone else can “fuck off”, as he would say.
Meanwhile, Rabbit is unable to meet its payroll. Shawn sent out a message to the entire staff claiming they should not cash their checks because they were drawn from the wrong fund. This is a lie. There is no money.
Rabbit Movers now operates on a 1 truck per day cap. All the supplies sent into the field were soaked in toxic waste and human feces from the Gowanus, a superfund site that is not safe for human beings to touch. So if you’re lucky enough to be getting work (and the chances are this means you weren’t one of the workers involved in the strike, because this gives enthusiastic union busters Shawn and [Field Manager] a chance to retaliate against organizers), you have to contend with work materials that are poisoning you. Meanwhile, workers who could have filed for unemployment a week ago still think they have a job. This could be expected from Shawn. But [Field Manager] is going along with all of this too, who knows why.
There is special relief available to workers made unemployed by Hurricane Sandy, which is all of us. Shawn and [Field Manager] did not tell you about this because they think unemployment costs the company money. Here is the link, which everyone should follow and file a claim:
When the field workers threatened to go on strike, Shawn called us a gang and said we were trying to ruin his company. If we wanted to ruin Rabbit, we would have left that to Shawn and [Field Manager], who have done a great job of it. Instead, we warned of the danger of Hurricane Sandy, and were ignored, as we are now being kept in the dark.
Tonight there is a benefit at Rabbit’s office for the Rabbit Hole Studio, set up by two friends of Shawn and ex-Rabbit employees who were instrumental in fighting against our strike, and provided Shawn with information about what we had planned and who was involved. Most Rabbit workers were not invited to this. How much of the money raised is going to our paychecks? Here is [a link to] this event, which is about as tasteful as the New York Marathon.
We do not have to take this sitting down. You can call Shawn, [Field Manager], and the office, and ask them why you have been kept in the dark about your job and your pay. Ask them why they did not notify you that you are eligible for disaster relief funds. Ask them why the trucks were not moved. Ask them why we’re raising money for an art gallery when Rabbits workers can’t even pay their rent.
[Field Manager - redacted]
Shawn Lyons: (347) 244-2438
Rabbit Office: (718) 852-2352.
-The Gang That Tried To Prevent Shawn From Ruining His Company
The demand for transparency will inevitably arise in the course of workplace struggle, especially when liberal organizations, trade unions, and non-profits are involved. “Open the books!” some will demand, “and let us see where the money is coming from, where its going, and just what can be afforded!” The imperative to open the books can be inspired by noble intentions, notably, the desire for radical democracy in the workplace, and it comes as a response to the mystery created by management about the source of the company’s wealth. However, demanding to see our bosses’ budgets suggests that workers are an expense for whom money is to be found, when in fact, we are the most necessary component of production, and the very source of whatever is to be found in the “budget”.
So what is the origin of the demand for an open budget? Demanding transparency seems to promise irrefutable proof of inequality: if we “follow the money”, we can show that the bosses get more of it than the workers, and armed with this knowledge, we as workers can show that so much money is “wasted” in management salaries. This argument is especially prominent when cuts to wages come under the guise of “cost cutting” or “austerity.” “It is management’s wages costing so much, not ours! Cut from the top!” are the cries for the open budget. But for workers demanding equality of this kind, the source of the company’s wealth remains, as management would have it, a mystery. It appears that this wealth comes from activity external to the work itself, such as purchases made and profits gained on the market, from interest accrued in the banks, or from the benevolence of generous endowments. The source of the worker’s misery is, therefore, the subsequent mismanagement of these funds at the hands of greedy bosses. In this view, the poverty of the worker can be easily rectified—move the money around! But workers in struggle against their conditions find something different. The inequality between boss and worker is not incidental, caused only by incompetence or greed; it is fundamental to work in the society we live in. Inequality is inherent in the social relationships between the class of bosses, landlords, and politicians and the class of workers, tenants, and everyday people.
At best demanding transparency seeks to work within the paradigm established by the bosses, and accordingly it reeks of reformism, whether naive or pernicious. At worst, the demand for transparency is the demand for a managerial role for the working class, or, to use a vogue term, its “self-management”. This means that the self-destructive logic of capital is internalized within the working class. Armed with open books, the militant who should be posed adversarily against the bosses and administrators, and their governing logic, becomes instead the self-regulating agent of austerity, pointing to waste and redundancy, and demanding a larger share of money for the workers like a greedy industrialist, by pointing to its misuse elsewhere. The boss’s salary is too high! Too much is spent on some irrelevant item! These are of course true: bosses and high-level administrators are overpaid, money is wasted, and the working class eats shit on a good day. But its equally true that when workers demand higher wages, benefits, lower tuition, etc., it is not our problem where it comes from. The militant worker makes demands, not suggestions contingent on the available facts. Further, the militant worker should not be afraid of making demands that cannot be allowed for in the present budget in its current state; such a demand is instead the essence of radicalism. Of course the current arrangement of capital cannot afford us better wages, benefits, and conditions. That is why we fight! And on a very basic level, don’t we as workers do enough free labor without having to figure out how we’re going to get our own demands?
Once we accede to opening the books, we have entered enemy terrain. We begin to speak the language of the capitalist, to think his misanthropic thoughts, to stroll through his monochrome dreams. And in this foreign terrain we will always be outgunned. It can be demonstrated through the magic of spread sheets that our demands are simply unaffordable. There will be information that cannot be revealed to us, or is beyond our comprehension, which demonstrates this irrefutably. The money just isn’t there! And of course, in the current composition of capital, it’s probably not. But that’s not our problem. The inability of our bosses to meet our demands is why we’re fighting, and we would be fools to shrink away from this fact as if it were fixed for all of time. However, some will be convinced. We can be made to empathize with the ruling class, to feel the heavy burden of spreading around dwindling funds in the age of austerity. We can adopt the forward thinking attitude that thinks in upcoming fiscal periods and not the childish immediacy of the present. We can be made to see the world as it really is, for grownups who have to make tough decisions. The mystification of the budget has returned and chiseled off our fangs.
Most fundamentally, the demand for transparency changes the entire tenor of the struggle. In struggle we demand what is ours: what we have made, and what has been taken from us. Through the demand for transparency, the “budget” once more assumes the fetish character it is given by the bosses to obscure that the source of value lies in the workers. Our demands are something that must be fit alongside the suicidal infrastructures of advanced capital, which of course, is impossible. No longer are we demanding what we have created ourselves. No longer do we pose the promise of a future society against the rotting vestiges of the old. No longer do we speak in a language that bureaucracies cannot understand, and make demands they could not possibly meet without altering themselves fundamentally. Through transparency we become functionaries of a system we have posed ourselves again. And like the countless others before us who attempt to “change the system from within”, we will be swallowed alive, and with us, the radical potential of our struggle.
When workers are engaged in struggle, when we organize, defy the bosses, resist discipline, and go on strike, we reveal the truth of the budget; when workers win higher wages, or stop production, we reveal the truth about the budget. This truth is that the contents of the budget don't exist without us. Workers win not because we raised awareness from the outside, or because we made the bosses feel bad or scared. We win because our struggle reveals materially what the bosses knew the whole time but tried to keep a secret: they have nothing without us. We need not a transparent budget to elucidate the fundamental condition of our lives as workers who produce value, which is in turn collected by our non-productive bosses. This is the origin of the workplace struggle, already in progress by the time we get around the demanding “transparency” of a relationship already laid bare by our self-activity. And in struggle, the classes confront each other as enemies. The workers meet in secret, circulate documents, plan actions based on the element of surprise, and so forth. The ruling class does the same. Cooperation has no place in this schema.
Faced with the inevitable demand for transparency, we should not be afraid to reply: keep the books closed. It is through our struggle as workers that material reality is made transparent, not through the disclosure of numbers on a page.
—Jocelyn Cohn and James Frey